Where San Miguel de Allende stands today has hosted humans for thousands of years.
Most archeological sites around San Miguel are from the years 950 to 1100 AD including the pyramid, Canada de la Virgin. Part of the Toltec Empire that declined in 1100 AD and a century later was abandoned due to either climate or political changes (archeologists aren’t quite sure which yet).
With the Toltecs gone various nomadic groups arrived that combed the area for 300 years until the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, the area was largely forested and inhabited by farming tribe called Otomis and hunter-gathers the Spanish called Chichimecas. Chichimeca was a derogatory term meaning “dog collar” as the Spanish weren’t interested in learning the ethnically distinct tribes of Cazcanes, Guamares, Copuces and Gauchichiles. The Chichimecas confused the Spanish looking more like natives of Africa with their own sense of style and culture. Chichimecas wore animal pelts and body paint. They were small with short legs. Their notion of beauty includes jutted out jaws, pulled down ear lobes and raised up nostrils courtesy of implanted beans.
The Spanish would meet to determine if the Chichimecas were animals or humans bearing souls. Naturally, this type of thinking made it all the easier to try to enslave them which proved to be difficult. The land-tied Otomis were conquered and converted with greater ease than the Chichimecas that fought the Spanish for decades.
The first settlement was outside the current San Miguel now called San Miguel Viejo (or old San Miguel) about 1542. Very vulnerable to attack the town moved to its present location when the priest lost his dog one day. Finding the pet where the outdoor laundry currently is, the priest realized this was a much better location for a town offering better security and the town, San Miguel de Chichimecas, was formed in, or around, 1550.
The process of colonization accelerated with the discovery of silver in Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi and Guanajuato placing San Miguel squarely on the Silver Route. The Silver Route was the North/South trail moving silver from the mines down to Mexico City and, eventually, back to Spain. Until the railroad came to town in the late 1800s, the Silver Route was the main North/South communications and transportation route in the Americas. San Miguel was a necessary stop for the covered wagons bringing silver, chocolate, religious art, cast iron beds, and letters needing protection from the attacking Chichimecas.
By 1600 the Chichimecas were subdued and the town’s name changed to San Miguel de Grande. With the introduction of livestock – sheep, goats, horses and cows – leather became an industry producing saddles desired throughout Mexico.
By the mid 1700s the area was an economic powerhouse with dozens of haciendas raising cattle, corn and wheat. Textiles (serapes, blankets and hats) and candles (from tallow wax of slaughtered cattle) become the main industries.
Then came September 15,1810 when the plans of local military men led by Ignacio Allende and a priest, Miguel Hidalgo, became know to the Spanish causing an early start to the War of Independence . The war, lasting a decade, broke Mexico (formerly New Spain) free from Spain and made San Miguel the cradle of the independence movement eventually changing our name to San Miguel de Allende.
The post-war years were not easy for San Miguel sinking the town into an economic depression surviving the revolution from France’s brief occupation of Mexico and the Church vs. State war (Cristero War) in the 1920s. Many of today’s residents had grandparents active in the Cristero War, a bloody piece of San Miguel’s history.
By the 1930s many homes were in ruins and virtually the only employer was the factory that now houses high end art galleries. Speaking of art, it was the arrival of art schools that US veterans of World War 2 could attend under the GI bill that introduced foreign residents to town. These art schools exposed town to travel literature (including a 1948 cover on Life magazine) and foreign tourism began trickling in.
By 1960 film crews also arrived showcasing the town’s architectural beauty pulling in more tourism. By the early 2000s San Miguel experienced its greatest real estate expansion for both Mexican and expatriate communities. Centro, from the time of the Spanish’s arrival, is still the most desirable location but many outlying areas hosted the construction of new, and often, gated communities. Traffic multiplied and parking became difficult.
In 2008 San Miguel de Allende was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site providing much needed funding for various restoration projects.
Today San Miguel continues to receive foreign tourism but it dwarves in size compared to Mexican tourism. The town is hot spot for any holiday or three day weekend with Mexicans enjoying time away from the beaches. It is easy to see that our fiestas, based on a mix of long held religious beliefs between the indigenous and Spanish, have become the primary attraction of our tourism based economy.
Joseph Toone is the Historical Society’s short-story award winning author of the SMA Secrets book series. All books in the series are Amazon bestsellers in Mexican Travel and Holidays. Toone is SMA’s expert and TripAdvisor’s top ranked historical tour guide telling the stories behind what we do in today’s SMA. Visit HistoryAndCultureWalkin