The History of Haciendas

The Southwest has a rich and storied past that has influenced its population, food, culture, and even housing construction. One type of popular home style is the hacienda. While current use of the word Hacienda generally refers to the type of property or building, its history and meaning is much more robust than architecture alone.


Haciendas originated in Spain, many centuries ago. As Spain began to colonize and develop a form of government, the hacienda and encomienda systems were established. These systems closely resembled feudalism in which serfs worked the land of a vassal for their living. In Spain’s case the vassal was a powerful conquistador, called the “Encomendero,” ruling over lands worked by indebted natives for food, shelter, and Catholic education. Though this system began with good intentions and high expectations at inception, the greed and corruption that spread through those filling the Encomendero positions caused it to eventually devolve into a form of slavery rather than servitude.

Introduction to the Americas

In the early 1500’s, wanderer and explorer Hernán Cortés sailed to Cuba, where he established himself as a political administrator, growing his career in authority from that post. Several years later, Cortés was assigned a mission of traveling to Mexico for an expedition. The quest was actually revoked, but Cortés proceeded anyway with a small army and several horses. Between persuasion and force, Cortés was able to conquer the resident Aztec population and began developing and expanding the land. The influences of his time under the Spanish encomienda system were re-imagined into the hacienda system.

Owned by “Hacendados,” Haciendas were staffed by Mexico’s regional natives, who worked for bare necessities and a monetary pittance. Haciendas grew and expanded, becoming similar to plantations and small towns that were self sufficient. Infrastructure and services such as post offices, hospitals and churches were a common part of a hacienda. The hacienda system continued in this vein for centuries.

Destruction of Haciendas

In 1911, a revolution began in Mexico, led by Emiliano Zapata. Zapata’s goal was to break the hacienda system and distribute the land among the country’s farmers. What followed were many rapid changes in the Mexico’s leadership, some resulting from significant bloodshed. During this decade, the majority of the haciendas were burned down or otherwise destroyed. In the 1990’s a movement began to rebuild and restore those remaining, turning many into resorts.

Modern Haciendas

In addition to the haciendas that were able to be saved, new homes can be constructed in a style similar to the old hacienda compounds. Modern haciendas typically have covered patios and one or more courtyards surrounded by multiple buildings. In the past these buildings may have been a chapel or other type of facility, but in current construction they are more likely to be a smaller home equipped for guests or extended family living. The construction of the buildings are rectangular and open, using plaster, stone, and exposed wood. Earth tones and “southwest” colors complete the look.

The self-sufficiency and strength of a hacienda’s components are still assets even in present-day construction. The story of haciendas is a tale with many facets likely to inspire modern lifestyles and culture for centuries to come.