Mazatlan, Mexico History

Because every writer focuses on the part of history that interest them the most, we have collected information from several sources to give you a broader view of Mazatlan History.

Lonely Planet says

In pre-Hispanic times Mazatlán (which means 'place of deer' in Náhuatl) was populated by Totorames, who lived by hunting, gathering, fishing and agriculture. A group of 25 Spaniards led by Nuño de Guzmán officially founded a settlement here on Easter Sunday in 1531, but almost three centuries elapsed before a permanent colony was established in the early 1820s.

The port was blockaded by US forces in 1847, and by the French in 1864, but Mazatlán was little more than a fishing village for the next 80 years. 'Old' Mazatlán, the traditional town center, dates from the 19th century.

Tourists started coming in the 1930s, mainly for fishing and hunting, and some hotels appeared along Playa Olas Altas, Mazatlán's first tourist beach, in the 1950s. From the 1970s onward, a long strip of modern hotels and tourist facilities has spread north along the coast. Back to the top












Access Mazatlan says

Mazatlan may be considered newer than other places in Mexico, but they do not consider the ancient origins of the city by the natives who were there before the Spanish conquerers came into Mexico. Even one of the Catholic churches is built on the foundations of an ancient Indian church structure that predated the Catholic church by thousands of years.

Scientists have found petroglyphs on the off shore islands that they believe date back as far as 10,000 years. Though human settlement dates back before the Spanish, many historical records were destroyed by the zealots who considered any other civilization inferior to theirs. Slavery, slaughter, and disease took it's toll on the local Indians which occupied this and other regions of Mexico. So, as history is written by the victors, I am confined to the record which begins with the Spaniards.

First of all the name Mazatlan is based upon the Nahutal Indian word Mazatl meaning the place of the deer. This is in the Aztec language which was not used in this area, so it appears that one of the interpreters of the conqueror of this area (Nuno de Guzman) was probably the originator of the name. Of course today, with over 600,000 inhabitants, few if any deer are seen. The reason that Mazatlan is a fairly young city is that the city itself did not become anything permanent until the 1820's

Itinerant Sailors called the place the Islands of Mazatlan because of the many hills, lagoons and estuaries in the vicinity of the natural harbor there. The place where Mazatlan exists was officially founded by Nuno de Guzman and 25 Spaniards who more of less burned their way to this region in 1531. This temporary settlement was founded on Easter Sunday in 1531. Spanish galleons departed the harbor laden with gold taken from the inland mines in the region. And there are the legends of pirate treasure buried up and down the coast in coves during much of this earlier period of time.

The name Mazatlan was first mentioned about 1602, but it did not refer to the Mazatlan of today. It refered to a small village of San Juan Bautista de Mazatlan which is actually 30 miles South of the current city of Mazatlan. That village today carries the name of Villa Union.

It appears that French and English Pirates were the first to take advantage of the benefits of Mazatlan's hill screened harbor to hide in. They would pounce on those rich gold laden Spanish Galleons that were going up and down the Pacific coast. The colonial government finally took action and established a small presidio on the harbor with watchtowers atop the cerros. The pirates were gone by 1800, but the legends of buried gold persists until today.

Mazatlan itself was not developed by the Spanish nor the Indians but by a group of very enterprising German immigrants who developed the port facilities in order to import agricultural equipment. Once they got started, heavy international trade followed quickly.

Over the years, Mazatlan has suffered the plagues of cholera and yellow fever along with the repeated occupations by foreigners. The Port of Mazatlan was occupied by American troops in 1847 during the Mexican American war, in 1864 by the French, during the American Civil War when a group of Confederate soldiers took the city over trying to Perpetuate the ideas of the Confederacy South of the border, and by the British Navy in 1871. These incursions by outsiders gave rise to the tradition of bars on the windows and iron fences with menacing spikes which have come to be quite ornimental (as well as a standard security system) in many of Mazatlan's nicer neighborhoods.

Mazatlan served as the Capitol of the state of Sinaloa from 1859 to 1873 when it had a population of only a few thousand people.

When Porfirio Diaz (1876-1910) took over as president (or dictator as you may wish to define his rule), things changed for the better in Mazatlan. There was a great time of prosperity during his rule as the railroad arrived, the port and lighthouse were modernized, and the cathedral was finished. There was a new age of education, arts and journalism flourished. The Teatro Rubio was completed in the early 1890's which became the premier opera house for the Pacific coastal area around Mazatlan. The famous star Angela Peralta gave several recitals there in August 1883 before she and her company died there of Yellow Fever which claimed over 2,500 lives in Mazatlan.

The city of Mazatlan then got the dubious distinction of being the 2nd city in the world after Tripoli, Libya of being one of the first to suffer aerial bombardment. During the revolution of 1910-17 General Venustiano Carranza (later president) intent on taking the city of Mazatlan, ordered a bi-plane to drop a crude bomb of nails and dynamite wrapped in leather to the target of Neveria Hill adjacent to the down town area of Mazatlan. Well the bomb was crude and the art of bombing was cruder. The bomb landed not on target but on the city streets of Mazatlan and in the process killed two citizens and wounded several others.

After all the uproar of revolution and all that accompanied it, order was restored in the 1920's and then followed 10 years of prosperity, then as in the United States the 1930's depression. After World War Two, there were further port improvements and new highways.

Modern Mazatlan as we now know it came into existance in the 1960's on as the tourists discovered the beautiful white sand and beaches. The city limits expanded to cover this area and the rich resort hotels and tourist attractions that followed up the beach line. The tourist industry and the great fishing industry that was established have provided increasing jobs and the population is expanding rapidly towards 3/4 ths of a million inhabitants. This has become Northwest Mexico's major tourist population that brings in nearly as many tourists (approximately 500,000 yearly) as the population of the city.
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Area Travel says

For thousands of years prior to the first Spanish arrival in 1531, Native Americans migrated through the region following game herds. (Its name translates to "land of deer" in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs). By the 1700's gold and silver shipments from the nearby mines at Rosario and Copala poured through Mazatlan's harbor making it one of Mexico's most important ports. Frequent pirate attacks stifled early development. By the 1840's hoards of American settlers were flowing through Mazatlan on their way to the gold fields of California.

The port began to slowly grow. It was besieged by the U.S. Navy in 1847 and attacked again by the French in 1864, the small pueblo of Mazatlan was able to thwart the attack. Following the American civil war, a group of southerners tried unsuccessfully to convert the area into a slave state.

Mazatlan served as the capital of Sinaloa (Culiacan is today's capital) from 1859 to 1873. Late in the 19th century, railroads reached Mazatlan, increasing the shipping importance of the town. This led to a steady growth until the Mexican Revolution.

The 1900's saw Mazatlan as a working port and agricultural shipment point by both ship and train. The fishing industry began to boom and only the war years of 1910-1920 saw the industry take a drop off.

Mazatlan was "discovered" by foreigners in the 1940's as a great place for fishing and it's climate, and became one of Mexico's first large resorts in the 1950's. Back to the top

Mazatlán, a European City
Historical Snippets

I was recently invited to write the prologue for a book on Mazatlán history, with the condition that I relate Mazatlán to Europe. As a Mazatleco who has been living in Switzerland since 1982, I felt half-fit for the job. My suggestion was that the prologue should relate Mazatlán to both Europe and the United States. The author agreed. Here's an extract, focusing more on the U.S. since that is the origin of most of this paper's readers).

Associating Mazatlán to Europe is not new. Some years ago, Mexico's advertising campaign in U.S. magazines read " Mexico, it's a lot like Europe, only a lot closer" and showed a picture of Olas Altas -- the ocean-front street of Old Mazatlán!

It is true. Mazatlán doesn't follow the traditional Spanish city layout, dominated by a central Plaza Mayor with a church and city hall. Mazatlán had its first church built as late as 1842. Before that, Adolph Riensch in 1839 writes; "on Saturdays we used to party until dawn at local houses with inner patios and early on Sunday celebrate Mass at the same place."

Mazatlán's architecture is a portrait of the substantial German, Spanish and French merchant influx after Mexico's independence from Spain in 1821.

But it is not only in our architecture where our history is written, but on the travel diaries of our visitors.

Among the American travelers, Herman Melville, who visited us in March of 1844, is one of the most illustrious. He had just joined the U.S. Navy and wrote about his experiences, mentioning Mazatlán in his classic " White Jacket."

Other members of the U.S. Pacific Squadron also painted watercolors and wrote invaluable notes which now serve as important building blocks for our early history . They include William Meyers, Henry Wise, Bull Watson and Lt. Tunis A. Craven. The latter describes Mazatlán, in 1848, as "the first civilized place we have visited since leaving Lima . . . Mazatlán is a prettily situated and well built town, with its well filled shops, its inviting restaurants, its good market and its beautiful gardens . . . "

Many U.S. soldiers fell in love with Mazatlán, but none more than Henry Wise, USN, who upon departing after spending half a year in Mazatlán, wrote: "I regard the half-year passed as among the most contented in my existence, and shall ever refer with many a yearning to those pleasant days in Mazatlán. Farewell Mazatlán! Adieu, ye black-eyed girls, who so detested the Yankees, and shed such pearly tears at their departure! Adieu to fandangos, bailes and tiny feet . . . in one sad sigh! Farewell."

Let's not forget that the war with Mexico was the first U.S. military action abroad and as such, the U.S. occupation of Mazatlán was eclectic in nature. To cite an example, the commodore would order the flagship's band ashore and hold dances to which the local society was invited. No wonder Lt. Wise loved Mazatlán!

Later, in 1862, the French invaded Mexico. Once the U.S. Civil War ended, Lincoln's government assisted Mexico's strong resistence with weapons shipments. Most of the guns that reached Mazatlán came from San Francisco. An American called Frederick Fitsch and a German, Theodor Lemmen Meyer ( both of whom founded families in Mazatlán) were instrumental in introducing them.

Without the Monroe doctrine, Europeans would have intervened in Latin America as they did in Africa and Asia. Despite that, Lord Palmerston, the British foreign minister, couldn't help giving arms to the Mayas in an attempt to procure their independence from Mexico and annexation to Britain (as with the mosquito coast, in Nicaragua).

During the Gold Rush, in 1849, many Argonauts eager to reach San Francisco's gateway to the gold fields, were too impatient to sail all the way to Panama or Nicaragua, and took the overland route, mainly from Corpus Christi to Mazatlán, where they hoped to catch a ship heading to California.

In 1848, the ship "California" made American maritime history, since it was the first steamer to enter San Francisco, after a 144-day cruise from New York. At Mazatlán, a port of call for the "California" during that historic voyage, there was a mutiny which was put down only with help of the local authorities, since the ship refused passage to several hundred gold seekers who had trecked across Mexico. Upon arriving in San Francisco, within 24 hours the ship was deserted by her crew, so strong was the pull of the yellow metal.

The "California" belonged to Aspinwall and Howland, founders of The Pacific Mail Steamship Company. Joseph Conrad, in his novel "Nostromo, the House of Holroyd" was inspired byAspinwall, according to Conrad's biographer Jerry Allen.

It is unknown if Joseph Conrad ever visited Mazatlán, but in his memorable piece "To-morrow" he mentions Mazatlán.

The one who got away is Longfellow who wrote his last piece dedicated to San Blas, Nayarit. It was called "The Bells of San Blas" and was inspired in an article published in Gleasons by a traveler who also visited Mazatlán.

Bayard Taylor, author of "Eldorado," a classic in Western Americana, written in the 1850s, describes Mazatlán as "decidedly the gayest and liveliest little city on the continent." Taylor includes a lovely painting of our city.

Among notable scientists who visited Mazatlán were Josiah Gregg in 1849, and in 1894, David Starr Jordan, founding member of the Sierra Club and the first president of Stanford University. Starr Jordan was on a shell collecting trip with his students, a trip that resulted in sending Mazatlán's shells to European universities and museums. In the 1850s two collections of Mazatlán shells were taken to Europe. The first was taken to Germany in 1851 by one H. Melchers, and another went to London in 1857, when the British Library published a "Catalogue of Mazatlán Shells." Other visiting scientists included Father Kino, Buschmann and Lowestern.

A special mention goes to the great ornithologist Andrew Greyson, who lived a decade in Mazatlán, working on his "Birds of the Pacific Slope." Lately he has been given proper recognition in the U.S., and rightfully called "the Audubon of the West". Greyson not only studied birds but was also a careful observer of social, artistic and military life. He lost his only son in 1867 during one of his observation trips.

During his lifetime Greyson was unsuccessful in trying to obtain support from the Smithsonian Institute, then in its infancy. He was also unable to obtain support from Maximilian, Kaiser from Mexico. When he passed away, on August 17, 1869, and was buried in Mazatlán (in the Protestant cemetery, of course), his wife remarried and carried his work to the U.S., where it now is situated in the Bancroft Library in Berkeley (like so much of the material mentioned in this article). The Arion press has published a bibliophiles' edition dedicated to Greyson. The price: $5000 dollars a copy.

Harry Edwards, one of the founders of the Californian Theater (1869), visited Mazatlán in 1875, in his book "A Mingled Yarn," he describes Mazatlán , especially the arts scene.

The famous American photographer Edward Muybridge took some classic photos here in 1875, as did the German Hugo Brehme. But it was the American Edward Weston, who visited Mazatlán together with Tina Modotti in 1923, who was impressed with what was his first visit abroad. He wrote: "We found life both gay and sad, but always life -- vital, intense, black and white but never gray." Weston made a historic photo in Mazatlán, a classic called " The great white cloud in Mazatlán", labeling it one of his finest and most significant photographs, as it meant an artistic departure from figurative into abstract art, or negatives with intention as opposed to matter-of-fact records.

Weston and Modotti enjoyed the Hotel Belmar where they cooled off in the August heat with ice cold beer . Finally they write about Mazatlán's architecture with the row of identical pastel-colored houses.

Another celebrity visiting us in 1951 was Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller's lover. She loved Mexico and also was a regular at the Hotel Belmar.

Actors John Barrymore, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Yul Bryner and Tyrone Power were among the artists visiting Mazatlán. Locals loved seeing the screen heroes in our city, and applauded them -- well, with some exceptions. Tyrone Power was once invited by a theater impresario to appear in person before a screening of his film, an invitation which Power gladly accepted. Once in the Teatro Rubio, which at that time was a movie house but now has reverted to its original identity as an opera house called the Angela Peralta Theater, the crowd applauded their hero. But when the Mazatlecos found out that the film hadn't arrived, since the airline's cargo had no space for the reels, the crowd exploded and booed both the impresario and Power.

Lately writers like Vicky Baum, Richard Willis, Emma Lindsay, E. Howard Hunt, and Lee Parker, among others have chosen Mazatlán as either the title of their novels or the setting

This list would be incomplete if we fail to mention American soldiers of fortune who joined Mexico's Revolution, American miners, businessman, filibusters, outright pirates, prostitutes, clergymen, spies, and others who have colored our life and made Mazatlán the international city it is.

As we can see in this introduction to local history, Mazatlán has long been linked to American history, especially on the west coast. In another article we will spend more time with the early Spaniards, the Jesuits and Franciscans who were instrumental in colonizing California. No wonder so many Americans and Canadians feel at home in Mazatlán.
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