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Mazatlán History

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Brief Synopsis

It was the ever-present fear of pirates, and the response of the Spanish, that led to the establishment of Mazatlán. The pirates of the 17th century prowled the Pacific coast of Mexico, seeking to attack Spain's merchant galleons on their trips from Alta California, Peru and the Far East. After the Spanish installed a small presidio in the harbor, Mazatlán's port began to grow and become prosperous.

The city was attacked by the Americans (during the Mexican American War), the French (just before the creation of the Mexican Empire under Maxmillian) and the English (over a dispute with the local Customs Authorities). During the twenty years from 1880 to 1900, Mazatlán was linked to the world by railroad, the port was modernized and the Mazatlecos even built an opera house. Mazatlán enjoyed increasing prosperity from its fishing industry right up to the depression era, which hit the city hard.

But prosperity returned to the city after WWII due to its mixed economy based on tourism, fishing and manufacturing. The new "Golden Zone" began construction in the 1960s, attracting both foreign and domestic tourists to the town.

Historic Mazatlán
© Simon Koldyk, under cc-by-sa license

Pre-Columbian Mazatlán

The Totorames tribe of indians lived in the Sinaloa area, and left behind polychrome pottery with elaborate red and black designs. The Totorames civilization died out 200 years prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Some of their relics can be seen in Mazatlán's archaeology museum.

Other indigenous tribes inhabited the area at the time of the Spanish conquest. One of the oldest prehispanic populations in Sinaloa is located in Chametla, 50 miles south of Mazatlán in the municipality of Rosario.

Spanish Discovery

After Cortez defeated the Aztecs in 1521, he dispatched is lieutenants to explore and subjugate the country. In 1531, the private army of genocidal conquistador Nuno Beltran de Guzman burned its way through Sinaloa. The army, consisting of 300 discontented conquistadors and 6,000 Indigenous allies, laid waste to vast swaths of Jalisco, Zacatecas, Nayarit and Sinaloa. But Beltran founded several prominent cities, including Guadalajara, Tepic and Culiacan.

The next conquistador who was said to have visited the area was Francisco Ibarra, who founded the mining town of Copala in 1565. His forces battled the fierce natives, and upon achieving victory divided the land among the Spaniards.

The first mention of Mazatlán was in 1602, as the name of the small village of San Juan Bautista de Mazatlán, 30 miles south of the present city of Mazatlán.

English and French pirates plied the sea lanes used by the Spanish, and they were known to use Mazatlán's harbor to screen themselves from view by the Spanish galleons. In response, the Spanish authorities established a small presidio in the harbor, and watchtowers atop the nearby cerros, or hills, to warn the citizens of any approaching vessel. Modern day Mazatlán can trace its existence to the building of these facilities.


Republican Mazatlán

From the founding of the Mexican republic in 1823, Mazatlán prospered as a port city. By 1836, the population of the town surpassed 5,000 residents. During the Gold Rush, fortune hunters from the East coast of the United States sailed from New York harbor and other Atlantic ports to Mexican ports in the Gulf of Mexico. Disembarking, the aspiring miners traveled overland for weeks to Mazatlán, where they would embark from the port to arrive in San Francisco in another four to five weeks.

But during the middle of the 19th century, Mazatlán was attacked three times, and was twice occupied by foreign forces.

During the Mexican-American War (1846-48) the U.S. Army took the city and, in order to avoid the shelling of the city, the Mexican army abandoned it. Almost twenty years later, on the morning of November 13, 1864, a French man-of-war fired on the city twelve times, but there were no casualties; Mazatlán then became part of the Mexican Empire under Maximilian. On November 13, 1866, the Mexican general Ramon Corona expelled the imperialists from Mazatlán.

On June 18, 1868, William H. Bridge, captain of HMS Chanticleer, blockaded the port and threatened to shell the city on June 22. The captain had taken umbrage after local Customs Authorities seized 23 ounces of gold from the paymaster of the ship.

From 1859 to 1873, the town served as the capital of Sinaloa.

During the presidency of Porfirio Diaz, Mazatlán was linked to the world by railroad, the port and the El Faro lighthouse were modernized, the cathedral was completed and the arts blossomed. The Mazatlecos even built an opera house.

The yellow fever epidemic of 1883 claimed the lives of 2,500 residents, including the visiting opera star Angela Peralta, who was known as the "Mexican Nightingale."


Porfirio Diaz

Mazatlán in the 20th Century

Mazatlán has the dubious distinction of being only the second city to have come under attack from an airplane. In 1914, during the fight for Mexican independence, a plane carrying a dynamite charge dropped the bomb not on Cerro de la Neveria (Ice Box Hill), where it was targeting an ammunition depot, but instead onto the streets of the city itself. Two people were killed in the blast.

During the 1920s, the city enjoyed increasing prosperity due primarily to its fishing industry, but the 1930s brought the worldwide depression to the city.

After World War II, the city once again enjoyed prosperity, and funds were spent improving the port and building new highways in the area. Mazatlán was "discovered" by foreign tourists, including an A-list of Hollywood stars of the 1950s and 1960s. During the 1960s, the city expanded north, as high-rise hotels began dotting the "Golden Zone."

In the early 1990s, the population of Mazatlán's municipality grew, rising past 500,000 residents. During the decade of the 1990s, tourism continued to boom, with over 1 million tourists coming to the city each year.

Today's Mazatlán

The people of today's Mazatlán are enjoying increasing affluence as the city's fishing, manufacturing and tourism industries perform well. With tracts of prime real estate remaining empty, Mazatlán seems to keep an imperfect air. And despite the popularity of the Golden Zone, Mazatlán seems to strike a balance between the old and the new.

Mazatlán's "Old Mexico" charms will grow on you as you explore the town and surrounding areas. The locals are friendly and helpful, the seafood is fresh and delicious, and the weather is warm and inviting, making Mazatlán an enjoyable place to visit with a truly Mexican flavor.

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