The first known inhabitants of the area now known as Guanajuato were the Otomi. Later the Otomi people were displaced by the Chichimeca. The oldest known name for the area is “Mo-o-ti,” which means “place of metals.” Later, it was called "Paxtitlán" by the Aztecs, which means “place of straw.” The current name of Guanajuato comes from P'urhépecha “Quanax huato," which means “hilly place of frogs.”
Mining had been done in this area long before the Spanish arrived. Late in the pre-Hispanic period the Aztecs also had a presence here, specifically to look for metals to make ornamental objects for their political and religious elite. Some stories from this time state that the area was so rich in minerals that nuggets of gold could be picked up from the ground.
Spanish conquistadors made some of their first territories here in the decade beginning in 1520.The Spanish found deposits of gold here in the 1540s and in 1548 the outpost was formally established under the name Real de Minas de Guanajuato by Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza.
Despite Chichimeca attacks, the population of the area grew rapidly with the arrival of Spanish and Creole adventurers and indigenous and Mestizo laborers. Between 1540 and 1546 the Spanish allocated this region for cattle ranching and grants of property here served as a reward for services rendered during the conquest.
With these discoveries of abundant supplies of precious metals, the cattle ranches were pushed northward to allow for the development of the city of Guanajuato to proceed along the banks of the river that passes through the city. The location near the river was essential for the processing of the ore and for the drinking water requirements of the population.
The successful mines of St. Barnabas and Rays, led to the birth of Guanajuato as a town. The city attained high levels of prosperity during this period of the eighteenth century, due to this great mining boom.
By the end of the 18th century, the lower classes were poor and oppressed despite the great wealth coming out of the mines. One event foreshadowing the Mexican War of Independence was a revolt carried out in the city attacking the Caja Real (building to hold the Crown’s share of mining production) to protest the high taxes.
One year later there were large protests against the expulsion of the Jesuit priests in 1767 who had left a deep imprint on the city, primarily in education. During this time, most of the existing churches in the city were built.
In 1786, the territory of New Spain was divided into twelve municipalities, one of them being Guanajuato. One of the most important mayors of the city at that time was Don Juan Antonio de Riaño.
Riaño is remembered for being a benefactor of the city and that during his administration magnificent buildings in the capital and throughout the province were erected. Riaño promoted the building of the Corn Exchange (The Granary or Granaditas), in order to guarantee the supply of grains and seeds for the population.
The building construction was begun in 1798 and was completed in 1809. The granary was an imposing building with few windows and thick walls.
The War of Independence broke out in the state of Guanajuato in the town of Dolores, when Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla shouted the “Grito de Dolores” and raised an insurgent army on September 15th and 16th of 1810. This army marched to San Miguel, today San Miguel de Allende, and then onto the city of Guanajuato.
Just on the outskirts of the city on September 28, 1810, Hidalgo sent a warning letter to city authorities, but it was ignored. Instead, royalist troops and many of the city’s elite made their stand at the Granary (Alhondigas de Granaditas).
After entering the city unopposed, Hidalgo decided to attack the granary. This was the first battle against Spanish troops in the war, and is popularly called the Siege of the Alhondiga.
The insurgents were unable to take the building as royalist gunfire kept them from approaching the only entrance into the building. Then a poor miner by the name of Juan José de los Reyes Martínez, better known as El Pípila, strapped a large flat stone onto his back for protection.
Crawling, he carried a flask of tar and a torch. When he reached the wooden doors of the main entrance, he smeared it with the tar and set it on fire. This allowed the insurgents to enter and take the building. This action is commemorated by a colossal statue of El Pipila on a hill overlooking the city.
In 1826, the first Constitution was adopted which made the State of Guanajuato a free and sovereign part of the Mexican Republic.
The first governor Carlos Montes de Oca was a strong advocate for education in the state. He was responsible for the early reopening of the College of the Holy Trinity, founded by the Jesuits, and the former College of the Immaculate Conception. The new name for that university was to be State College.
On January 17, 1858, President Juarez established Guanajuato as a temporary capital of the Republic. Later, French Emperor Habsurgo Maximilian visited the city during the month of September, 1864 and was determined to turn the Granaditas (The Granary) into a prison.
In 1867, the empire of Maximilian was overthrown, and this event marked the beginning of a massive project of restoration of the Republic.
In 1872, Governor Florencio Antillon began construction of the majestic Teatro Juarez. He remained in power until January, 1877 when he was defeated by the followers of General Porfirio Diaz.
During the historical period known as the Porfiriato, ranging from 1877 to 1911, construction of major projects such as the still standing Legislative Palace, Hidalgo Market, the Peace Monument, and the monument to Hidalgo took place, as well as the inauguration of the Teatro Juarez, and the construction of the railroad.
The promotion of foreign investment (American, British and German) to revive the mining industry was also a hallmark of that era. The governor of Guanajuato at this time, Joaquín González Obregón, promoted The Cuajín Tunnel construction and the Dam of Hope, both directed by the outstanding engineer Ponciano Aguilar.
In the twentieth century, during the time of the revolution, the city suffered the effects of a severe economic and social crisis, and was occupied in July, 1914 by the troops led by General Alberto Carrera Torres.
In February, 1916, President Venustiano Carranza visited the city and arranged for the purchase of grain to alleviate the terrible famine that existed then.
In the year 1946, the State College experienced a transformation to become the current University of Guanajuato. During the decade of the 50s the city went through an almost complete restoration. During this time period, construction was completed on Central University on Belauzarán street along the river bed, and the Granary was transformed into a museum. A new dam was constructed and tourism promotion was started.
Shortly thereafter, the scenic panoramic highway leading to the monument to El Pipila was built along with the beginning of the celebration of the International Cervantes Festival in 1972.
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