Our Hispanic Agricultural Heritage (09/17/2021)

Many of the books about the history of agriculture in North America start with a focus on the northeastern part of the United States. For example, Cochrane’s The Development of American Agriculture (1984) starts out describing settlements in Virginia, Massachusetts, Maryland, the Carolinas, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Delaware. Cochrane completely ignores the impact of the Hispanic people on the development of agriculture in America.

The FIRST permanent settlement in what is now the United States was at St. Augustine, Florida in 1565. It predates Jamestown by 42 years, and it was 55 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Santa Fe, New Mexico was settled in 1607, the same year Jamestown was established. Both St. Augustine and Santa Fe were founded by Hispanics.

Each year, Americans observe National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15, by celebrating the histories, cultures, and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. This observance started in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon Johnson and was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to cover a 30-day period starting on September 15 and ending on October 15. It was enacted into law on August 17, 1988, on the approval of Public Law 100-402. (https://www.hispanicheritagemonth.gov/about/).

In Whitaker’s Agricultural History article titled “The Spanish Contributions to American Agriculture” he writes (1929, p. 2), “The transplanting of Spanish agriculture to America deserves more attention than it has received…If more attention were given to this subject, it is to be hoped that the majority of people would form a juster idea of the nature and value of the Spanish regime in America.”

In this Footnote (and over the next several weeks) we will give more attention to our Hispanic heritage, especially as it relates to agriculture and education. Today we look at the contributions of Hispanics to the early development of agriculture in America.

An Invitation – At various times we have guest columnists write the Friday Footnote. So, this is an open invitation to contribute a column to the Friday Footnote. I welcome contributions on any topic related to agricultural and extension education but for the next couple of weeks would especially welcome those that address our Hispanic Heritage

Early Spanish Agricultural Developments in the New World

Just about everybody knows that Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492. He was an Italian explorer but was sailing under the sponsorship of Spain. On October 12, 1492, he landed on an island off the coast of America, probably San Salvador. He spent the next several months exploring the islands in the Caribbean. In January of 1493 he left several dozen men in a makeshift settlement in Hispaniola (present-day Haiti) and returned to Spain.

On his second trip in 1493, Columbus brought farmers, carpenters, shipbuilders, miners, and soldiers to Hispaniola. They brought livestock and seeds of common crops grown in Spain. Carrier reports (1923, p. 108):

The agricultural operations in the West Indies were unusually successful. There were few predatory wild animals on these islands to destroy the livestock…Cattle and swine turned loose increased at a rapid rate.

The Royal Spanish Government established a very liberal policy to encourage agriculture in the New World. Farmers in the second expedition of Columbus were loaned wheat for seeding, as well as given land and breeding herds of livestock. These loans were to be paid back at harvest time with one-tenth of the crop.

Columbus made a total of four voyages (1492, 1493, 1498, 1502) to the New World. In addition to the Caribbean islands he discovered, he also reached South America and Panama. These locations would eventually serve as the launching pad for introducing Spanish agriculture into the Americas.

Figure 1. Routes of Christopher Columbus

Whitaker (1929) reports that fifty braces [pairs] of hens and six roosters were sent to the Indies in 1495. A year later jacks, jennets, mares, cattle, pigs, sheep, millet, farm laborers, gardeners, a millwright, and a blacksmith were sent to the Indies.

In 1524 Hernan Cortes begged the King of Spain to require all ships sailing from the Seville region of Spain to the West Indies to include seed, plants, and domesticated animals as part of the cargo. Such an order was issued in 1532 (Whitaker, 1929).

In 1588 Acosta enumerated the plants coming into Mexico from Spain via the West Indies. His list included wheat, barley, herbs, pulses (beans), lettuce, colewort, radishes, onions, garlic, parsley, turnips parsnips, becengenes (eggplant), chicory, beets, spinach, and peas. These plants eventually made their way into America.

Agriculture was always a substantial industry in the Spanish colonies but was overshadowed by the mining and military exploits. The well-known military principle that an army marches on its stomach was exemplified by the Spanish expeditions in Mexico and South America. They had plenty of food. The Spanish colonies never suffered the “starving times” like the settlements at Jamestown and Plymouth (Carrier, 1923).

The Spanish and Agriculture in the Americas

Two motivators were involved in bringing Spanish agriculture to America. One was exploration and the other was religion.

The Spaniards took herds of animals with them on exploring expeditions along the Gulf and the Southwest. These animals became the foundation stock of large herds of wild cattle and horses on the western plains and along the Gulf of Mexico. Ferdinand de Soto started his exploration of America in 1539 with 13 sows. A year later there were over 300 swine. He also had 223 horses on his expedition. Some escaped, some were stolen by Indians, or some were left behind when the explorers took to boats to explore the Mississippi River.

The Spaniards desired to spread their religion to the New World. Therefore, a string of missions stretching from Texas to California was established. These missions were established at strategic but remote locations. Because of the difficulty of transporting foodstuffs and lack of funds, it was necessary that agriculture be a part of the missions.

Figure 2. Notice the agriculture at a typical Spanish mission. Image from Alvin Independent School District, Texas.

Of the introduced crops brought by the Spaniards alfalfa and sugar cane were the most important and profitable. Figs, dates, European grapes, olives, and pomegranates in New Mexico and California date from the time of the Spanish missions. Spaniards also introduced lemons, oranges, and ginger into the New World.

Grazing livestock was a good fit for the environment in Mexico and the southern border of the United States. While the meat was important the real money came from shipping hides and tallow back to Spain. The famous Texas Longhorn cattle came out of Mexico. The cattle industry of the western states can be traced directly back to Spain (as can the sheep industry).

 As a matter of fact, the cowboy’s utensils including his saddle, language, and methods were derived from the Spanish-Mexican. Even Cattle Raisers Associations can be traced back to the Spanish cattle barons (Bernstein, 1938).

The best of the mules, donkeys, and Arabian horses in early America were of Spanish origin and were imported from Spain. Mules were especially important because they were used to carry supplies. Spanish blood in cattle is still in evidence in places along the southern border. Fine-wooled sheep were raised by the Spaniards in America long before these breeds were introduced into the English settlements.

The long sea voyage and small ship sizes made the transportation of horses and cattle from Europe to America a difficult undertaking. It was much more convenient for the English and French colonists to buy the Spanish animals on this side of the ocean.

Concluding Remarks

I have barely skimmed the surface of the Hispanic contributions to agriculture in the United States. American agriculture owes a huge debt to the Spaniards and their descendants. What is tragic is that most people, including those schooled in agriculture, know very little about the Hispanic connection.

During Hispanic Heritage Month we should look for ways to educate our students about the contributions of Hispanics to agriculture, education, and culture. What are you going to do?


Acosta, José de (1588). The Natural and Moral History of The Indies (Cambridge Library Collection Hakluyt First Series) (Volume 1)

Bernstein, Harry (1938). Spanish Influence in the United States: Economic Aspects. The Hispanic American Historical Review. Volume 18, Number 1, pp. 43-65.

Carrier, Lyman (1923). The Beginning of Agriculture in America. McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York.

Cochrane, Willard (1984). The Development of American Agriculture. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Haklutt, Richard (1609). Discovery of Florida by Ferdinanda de Soto, London.

Whitaker, Arthur (1929). The Spanish Contributions to American Agriculture. Agricultural History. Volume III, Number 1, pp. 1-14.