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Early Hacienda Tokens of Mexico

by Sydney P. Noe

 The group of Mexico's coins, generally known as "Hacienda Tokens," provides an admirable illustration of the importance of a minor coinage in reflecting the life of a people. Inasmuch as definition is the best corrective for complexity, it will be well  to digress long enough to obtain a comprehension of what the word "hacienda" involves. An excursus into the geography and agrarian economy of Mexico may be found not without value for other phases of that country's monetary history.

In 1923, The American Geographical Society published in its Research Series (No. 12) a volume entitled The Land Systems of Mexico, by George McCutchen McBride, in which the important part played by these units of the agricultural life of the country is given the prominence it deserves. We are under obligation to Dr. McBride for illuminating quotations which will afford the reader a better understanding of the situation than may be had by other than direct recourse to his book, which is now out of print. We make grateful acknowledgment for permission to quote.

One important statement must be made as a preliminary. The hacienda system which Dr. McBride has described so helpfully is gone. It has passed—just as the cowboy and the life of the range which figured so controllingly in the development of the West in our own country no longer exist. In reading what Dr. McBride has written, we must keep in mind that where he uses the present we must supply the past tense.

The haciendas of Mexico are the most conspicuous feature of the land system of the country. They give to agricultural Mexico its distinctive cast, and, by their great size, create the impression that the entire land is divided into vast rural estates. These properties, indeed, are the only type of agricultural holding immediately visible to the traveler in many parts of Mexico, just as the haciendado is the only type of agriculturist whose interests reach beyond the immediate neighborhood of his home.

Many of the haciendas are of very great extent; it is estimated that 300 of them contain at least 25,000 acres each; 116 have not less than 62,500 acres; 51 have approximately 75,000 acres; while 11 are believed to have 250,000 acres apiece. The Mexican hacienda seldom contains less than 25,000 acres—whether situated in the arid plans of the north, where land is worth little or nothing, or in the densely settled areas of the Mesa Central, where the price of land is high even in comparison with that of agricultural lands in other countries.

The great size of these holdings is due, in part, to the fact that the typical hacienda aspires to be self-sustaining, and the variety of a countryside is taxed to render it independent. Hence, for the many different products required, different kinds of land must be included within its limits. In the first place, a large acreage of valley land is needed for the production of grain. These hundreds of thousands of acres of arable land form the nucleus of the estate. An haciendado would not, however, be satisfied to hold valley lands alone; for, in his economy, the products of the hills are only less important than those of the lowlands. Thus, the farm requires a supply of water, for irrigation as well as for the live stock; the hacienda must, therefore, include some stream, which should be controlled up to its headwaters in order to insure the undisputed use of the supply. Again, grazing land is needed for the herds of cattle, horses, sheep, and goats; this is found upon the parklike mountain sides and the alpine meadows. Timber, also, is a prime necessity and is derived either from the deciduous trees that grow along the lower mountain slopes or from the pine forests that clothe the tops of the higher ridges. The products even of the waste land are likewise essential, since from this are obtained stone and lime for building purposes, clay for adobe huts, coarse grass for thatched roofs, salt, and the wild fruits and herbs which are gathered for household use. The administration of such extensive properties necessarily presents great difficulties.

The haciendas are settlements complete in themselves. Indeed, few of these estates have less than a hundred, while many of them have as many as a thousand, inhabitants. In Michoacán there are two haciendas, Huaracha and Buenavista, each of which maintains over two thousand persons; while in Morelos, Mexico, Puebla, Durango, Veracruz, Queretaro, and Chihuahua there are others in which the number is not much smaller. Furthermore, the haciendas are all named; they appear on the maps, and they are important units of public administration, often being incorporated as municipios. They include all the customary accessories of an independent community, such as a church, a store, a post office, a burying ground and sometimes a school or a hospital. Workshops are maintained, not only for the repair but even for the manufacture of machinery and of the numerous implements required upon the estate. Over this aggregation the owner presides in a more or less patriarchal manner, the degree of paternal care or of tyranny varying with the character of the individual and with that of his superior employees."

In an earlier chapter of his book, Dr. McBride explains that the tillable soil is chiefly to be found in the tableland section of Mexico, known as the Mesa Centrale, and that, with relatively unimportant exceptions, the exigencies of rainfall and soil impose conditions which make haciendas impossible elsewhere. In more modern times irrigation has somewhat affected these conditions. The Mesa Centrale is the most thickly populated section of Mexico. It surrounds the capital city, and we are told that its climatic conditions are admirable, since "altitude counteracts latitude with such nicety that the mean temperature over the entire plateau is nearly uniform." Most of the haciendas are to be found in this section, and they provide the agricultural supplies not only for themselves but for the remainder of the country, where climatic conditions are less favorable. From the quotations already cited, something of the independent nature of these huge land holdings will have been shown, and it will be apparent that conditions favorable to the untroubled operation of such large units encouraged conservatism on the part of the owners. The employment of native laborers and the faults of the peonage system led to occasional insurrections and explain some of the happenings in Mexico's history.

It is not surprising to find, under such conditions, that the owners of the haciendas found it necessary to have a circulating medium of low denomination, and that this medium should vary widely in form and reflect some of the independence that marks the life of the hacienda. It is this very diversity which has attracted the attention of numismatists to these tokens.

There are, and always have been, wide differences in the haciendas—a condition inevitable because of their varying adaptability to the raising of agricultural products of a wide range, as well as to problems of labor and water supply. The employment of Indians and the growth of the peonage system played a considerable part in their development. Some of the haciendas found their land suitable for cattle-raising, and those for which this became the principal objective are called rancheros. We shall see that there is much plausibility for the identification claimed for some of the monograms which appear on the tokens as marks used for branding cattle. Another modification, due to the employment of native workers, finds its cause dating back before the Spanish conquest, when tribal holdings of property were vested in the chief. Some of the Indian pueblos resisted encroachment, and survived in the form of collective holdings. Some of the tokens, as we shall see, are issues of such municipalidades, although not all such are to be considered of Indian origin.

In view of all these conditions, and of others not considered, we shall look in vain for uniformity in the tokens. In fact, part of their attractiveness is their resistance to classification. In 1935, a privately printed "Ensayo Numismatico" by Manuel Romero de Terreros, entitled Los Tlacos Coloniales, appeared — the first indication, so far as we know, that the importance of these tokens had been appreciated by Mexican scholars. This is limited to pieces believed to have been struck before 1821. The author gives a valuable summary of the legislation regarding coinage in copper and a description of over two hundred varieties of these tokens, as well as illustrations of fifty-eight. Unfortunately, some of his selections for illustration do not lend themselves to half-tone reproduction. This study, however, is the first serious effort to treat the hacienda tokens. The information it supplies concerning them is truly impressive and of great value, and certainly deserves a wider distribution and appreciation than it has received. A second publication by the same author is entitled Las Monedas de Necesidad del Estado de MichoacánManuel Romero de Terreros, Las Monedas de Necesidad del Estado de Michoacán, Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas; Vol. II, Núm. 5, 1940, available in the USMexNA online library. The concern here is not with hacienda tokens as such, but with the issues of a single state of Mexico, most of which are octavos and quartos put out by municipalities and haciendas between 1825 — that is, shortly after the close of the War of Independence — and 1871, just before the death of Juárez. The effort seems to have been to provide for the need of small change which was being insufficiently supplied by the governmental strikings. This study gives helpful information regarding the issuing authorities, a careful description of more than one hundred and fifty varieties, and four plates illustrating forty pieces. In addition, there is an illuminating map showing the location of many of the places named.

Any glance will show that hacienda tokens have great variety as to form; that they provide an impressive mass of material for study of their historical bearing should also be obvious. Wear, probably due to circulation, imperfect striking, countermarking and other vicissitudes reduce their attractiveness to a minimum, but the strong individuality which marks many of these pieces is ample compensation for their lack of aesthetic appeal.

Circulation of the tokens was forbidden in 1917, and a provision that all salary payments must be made in legal tender was written into the Constitution of 1924. The many and great changes in Mexico during the period in which they circulated are reflected in these substitutes for coin. After 1871, the growth in commercial prosperity brought about the introduction of modern business tokens, which it is difficult to separate from the pieces issued by the haciendas. While their legends are more explicit, the later issues have none of the attractiveness of the pre-revolutionary pieces. 

One circumstance of prime importance emphasized by Romero de Terreros will bear repetition here. The Spanish colonial government did not begin the coinage of low denominations in copper until 1814. There seems to have been an aversion to the use of copper on the part of the natives, and earlier efforts to introduce a minor coinage in this metal had resulted in failure. These issues are found sometimes during the reign of Ferdinand VII, used a second time through the application of a counterstamped monogram or incised initials, and serve to date the second use as later than we might otherwise have thought.

The foregoing will enable the reader to realize that the most interesting period for these hacienda tokens is the colonial, that is, up to 1821. Any classification based on the names that appear on the tokens meets complications because of the large number of pieces bearing monograms, some of which are so involved that unanimity in reading them, and therefore ease in their identification, is out of the question. Furthermore, the monogram of the same hacienda will change in form on successive issues to an extent which makes a conclusion that they represent the same holding an assumption rather than a conviction. Then, too, some family names are fairly common in Mexico, as elsewhere, and the given names of the haciendas are likely to be repeated (e.g., Buena Vista). Distinguishing between what is "municipalidad" and what is "hacienda" is all but impossible for one who does not have a thorough knowledge of Mexican geography and history. Fortunately for our purposes, a number of the tokens are dated or are datable, and this permits a grouping which lessens or seems to lessen the confusion and enables a break-down into sub-groups, and makes further study easier.

Because of the variations in the practices of the haciendados and other issuers of these tokens, it is almost impossible to be consistent in making an arrangement of them. Since some of the tokens show an earlier design which has not been entirely obliterated, indicating a second using of the piece, and because countermarking occurs, so that a name may be superimposed on a monogram or a monogram over the name, the wide variance in the unregulated procedure must be taken into consideration.

It is comparatively easy to identify and separate the store cards and business tokens made after 1870 on the basis of workmanship or material. Hard rubber, celluloid, wood and thin brass with a consistent style of lettering are used for pieces which are usually distinguishable from pre-revolutionary issues by anyone who has even a nodding acquaintance with hacienda tokens. The great number of these pieces is sufficient reason for our not including them here, even though there are some which bear the name "hacienda." Some of the wooden pieces may be older than we consider them here. The likelihood of their having been preserved is even slighter than that of their metal counterparts, but those that are dated indicate the general period of their circulation as between 1870-1880.

In 1814, Calleja, the Spanish Viceroy, ordered the coining of two, one and one-half quartos of copper (i.e., one-half, one-quarter and one-eighth reales), and in the following December their acceptance was assured by the passage of a law regulating their circulation and limiting the amount acceptable as legal tender. Quartillos of silver had been struck from 1794 to 1816; these for some reason seem not to have met the needs supplied by the copper pieces. With the outbreak of the War of Independence, we find that the difficulty of moving bullion from the mines to the mint of Mexico City became too great a risk, and branch mints were established in six localities—Chihuahua, Durango, Guadalajara, Guanajunto, Sombrerete and Zacatecas. Provisional coinages were also struck at Nueva Viscaya, Oaxaca, Real del Catorce and Valladolid. For the insurgent forces, almost the entire coinage of Morelos in Oaxaca was in copper, although it involved a promise of Morelos of redemption in gold and silver upon the resumption of the mines. Although there are octavos dating within the period of the War of Independence, they appear to have been destined to meet local needs, and their scarcity seems a dependable indication that their quantity was small. The inability of Morelos to redeem his promises may have contributed to the disfavor in which copper seems to have been held.

It is not easy to gauge the extent to which the coinage of hacienda tokens was affected by the changed condition. Certainly there are few pieces dated between 1814 and 1821, whereas the municipal issues seem to have been widely struck.

As an outcome of the War of Independence, municipal tokens developed a considerable degree of uniformity. Many bear numerals indicating their value as one-eighth real, and occasionally we find the word tlaco appearing on them. Their workmanship or die-cutting will not serve as a dependable dating criterion, for some of the earlier ones are much better than those dating years later. It is instructive to study groups such as that for Colima, called a Villa on one issue or that of Ameca, a pueblo. For each of these groups, the progression of dates and the attendant changes give a clear indication of the troubled state of the country, even after peace had returned. It is because of this that Romero de Terreros has justly called certain pieces struck in the state of Michoacán "coins of necessity," although he is careful to explain that this does not imply anything in the nature of a siege piece such as frequently was the case with this classification in Europe.

The first piece of the group bearing the name of Colima is dated 1813, is uniface, and otherwise differs but slightly from the hacienda tokens which preceded it. It was during this year that Morelos was active; on 22 December, he suffered a serious reverse at Valladolid. Haste may therefore explain the form of the square piece dated 1814. By 1816, there was a return to the earlier form, except that it is no longer uniface, but bears on the reverse a monogram to be read as "Colima," and this form seems to have persisted until 1824, for which year we have three differing issues.

The other series consists of uniface coins of Ameca, a pueblo, that is, an Indian controlled holding, situated in the district of Jalisco, with a population given as 1,500. Here, there is a sharp contrast between the workmanship of the earliest piece, dated 1814,  and those which follow. The inscription is noteworthy — P.D. Ameca QUITILLA D 1814. In the field, there is a façade of a building surmounted by a cross and flanked by two conventionalized trees (?), with "3" on the left and "8" on the right. The piece is uniface. The coin dated 1833 has coarse lettering, while one dated 1853 is even cruder and the inscription reads from the rim. There are two issues dated 1855 with lettering that is still crude. An undated issue, whose workmanship would seem to place it as later, bears the designation "TLACO DE AMECA." Two of the Ameca pieces bear initials which are read as for personal names. The implication is that these are in the nature of store cards.

The historical value of some of these tokens is illustrated by  a coin of Hermosillo in the Province of Sonora. A concession to coin silver quartillos in this town was obtained in 1828. The earliest dated specimens of this silver coinage are from 1832, and pieces are known for the following six years. The "L. S." on the obverse is read as an abbreviation for "Leonardo Santoyo," the concessionaire, who was connected with the mining interests of the district. It is noteworthy that the coinage in copper did not start until 1851. It is not improbable that equally important historical data may be recorded by others of these tlacos, but without detailed knowledge of their local significance, we must await their consideration by Mexican numismatists.

Breaking up the tokens which come before 1821 into smaller groups would be extremely difficult without the help which we get from the dated pieces, although groupings according to characteristics of flan or of execution of their lettering become fairly obvious and, within limits, reasonably dependable once we have the dated pieces for a key. It would greatly simplify our study if we could say that the pieces having naturalistic or irregular shapes, such as leaves, flowers, hearts, and other simple but distinctive forms, many of which are undated, are preceded by those bearing monograms only, and that, in general, the monograms precede those bearing the names in full, but there are too many exceptions to make such a generalization. Fortunately, we have a few dated pieces which tend to confirm this, but there seems to have been too much overlapping to make any such classification certain. Many of these exceptions are probably due to scanty mechanical facilities for making the tokens in the widely separated centers in which they originated.