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The Elusive Spanish League: A Problem of Measurement in Sixteenth-Century New Spain

Author(s): Roland Chardon

Source: The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 60, No. 2 (May, 1980), pp. 294-302
Published by: Duke University Press
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Copyright ? 1980 by Duke University Press
60(2), 1980, 294-302
Hispanic American Historical Review


The Elusive Spanish League:

A Problem of Measurement in
Sixteenth-CenturyNew Spain


Almost everyone who has tried to evaluate distances in Spanish

colonial North America from sixteenth-century documents has experi-
enced the many frustrations of transferring Spanish colonial leagues to
specific geographic distances on the ground (or, for that matter, at
sea). The length of the leagues mentioned varies widely, especially
where travel distances are concerned. One reason lies in the varying
distance estimates attributed by explorers and chroniclers when they
roughly transformed subjective travel times into ground distances cov-
ered. In New Spain, these estimates were affected by the great diver-
sity of terrain the chroniclers encountered, particularly in parts of
Mexico and Guatemala. But a second reason is that, in the sixteenth
century, they used one of two specific and different land leagues: the
legua legal, or statute league, and the legua comt'Un,or common league.
Unfortunately, a given reporter does not usually specify which league
is meant, and since most official documents refer to the legua legal,
many scholars, including such eminent ones as Woodbury Lowery,
have tended to assume that the statute league was the only one em-
ployed in New Spain.' If the use of the legua comuvn can be demon-
strated in New Spain in the sixteenth century, however, then measure-
ment by the legua legal to calculate distances mentioned in documents
and old maps may be shown to be clearly inappropriate.

* The authoris Associate Professorof Geographyat the Louisiana State Univer-

sity in Baton Rouge.
1. Woodbury Lowery, The Spanish Settlements within the Present Limits of
the United States: Florida, 1562-1574 (New York, 1911), p. viii; Manuel Carrera
Stampa, "The Evolution of Weights and Measuresin New Spain,"HAHR, 29 (Feb.
1949), 2-24 passim; CharlesW. Polzer, T. C. Barnes, and Thomas H. Naylor, eds.,
The DocumentaryRelations of the Southwest: Project Manual (Tucson, 1977).
In sixteenth-century Castile, both leagues were used to measure
distances. The legua legal was primarily employed in juridical matters
such as the granting of large tracts of land. The legua comu'n, an older
and more general measure, was used to indicate distances over which
one traveled. The simultaneous use of both leagues proved trouble-
some, however, and in 1587 the legua legal, so important in Spanish
North America as an official land measure, was declared illegal in Cas-
tile itself in favor of the more traditional and popular legua comun.2
Therefore, it is safe to assume that, since both leagues were used in
Spain throughout most of the sixteenth century, both leagues were
employed in New Spain as well.
The metric equivalents of the two leagues differed considerably, as
did their definitions. The legua legal was 3 Castilian miles long, but its
principal legal definition in the sixteenth century was that it contained
5,000 varas of 3 Castilian feet apiece.3 The metric value of the legua
legal depended on the length of the vara, but can be considered as 4.19
+ 0.05 kilometers.4 On the other hand, the legua comvin was 4 Castilian
miles long; its metric equivalent is usually 5.572 + 0.02 kilometers.5
The linear difference of over 1 kilometer between the leagues could
explain many of the discrepancies between sixteenth-century reports
and maps, and their geographic manifestations today.
To test the hypothesis that a legua comv'n of about 5.5 kilometers
was employed in New Spain, an itinerary, included in a relation de-
scribing a Spanish priest's official inspection tour of Franciscan estab-
lishments throughout New Spain in the late 1580s,6 was selected as

2. Recopilacionde las eyes de Castilla (Madrid, 1775), Lei 8, Libro 5, Titulo

3. CarreraStampa, "Evolution,"p. 10; Polzer et al., Documentary Relations,
p. 39; Horace Doursther,Dictionnaire Universel des Poids et Mesures ( 1840; reprint
ed., Amsterdam,1965), p. 210.
4. Unfortunately, variations in the length of the vara (which ranged from
about 832 to 848 mm., depending on time and place) were reflected in comparable
variationsin the length of the legua legal. As a result, this league could officially
represent any distance between 4.160 and 4.242 km. In practice, however, the
sixteenth-centurylegua legal has generally been accepted as about equal to 4.18 or
4.19 km.-the former based on a vara of 836 mm., the latter on one of 838 mm.
(Doursther, Dictionnaire, pp. 567-568).
5. Obtained by taking the Castilian foot of 278.6 mm. and multiplying it by
20,000 feet (or 4,000 pasos @ 5 feet), this league also equaled 6,666.67 varas. A
discussionof the origins and variations in the Castilian legua comulnis beyond the
scope of this paper, but it should be mentioned that later, for a time, the legua
comun was generally considered equal to 6,600 varas, 19,800 Castilian feet, or
5.517 km. (Doursther, Dictionnaire, p. 210). For our purposes here the distinction
between the two evaluations is not important.
6. Anonymous,Relacion breve y verdadera de algunas cosas de las provincias
de la Nueva Espafa . . . escrita por dos religiosos, sus compaferos . . ., 2 vols.
(Madrid, 1873). The Relacionwas written in the 1590s.

representative of the travel measures used by educated Spaniards at

that time. The leagues identified in the lengthy relation are simply
called "leguas," with only an occasional qualification that they were
either "leguas largas" or "pequen-as"(long leagues or short). There is
no mention as to whether the leagues were common or statute leagues.
Fray Alonso Ponce was the Padre Comisario or priest officially
charged with the inspection of his order's establishments. Traveling
with a small group in the years 1585-1589, he personally visited most
of central and southern Mexico, as well as northern Central America
as far as Nicaragua. The relation, written by two of his companions,7
mentions at least once all the league distances between all the places
Fray Ponce and his group visited. Obviously a particular league was
the basal itinerary measure familiar to the travelers, and they scrupu-
lously noted the distances (probably estimated) they had covered in
terms of this league. Much of the country traversed by Ponce's party
is hilly or mountainous and sometimes very rugged indeed, so that the
leagues indicated between many of the towns visited can only be veri-
fied by specifically following Ponce's track over the same terrain-a
prohibitive task.
Therefore, in order to eliminate as much as possible the variable of
terrain, I chose a very flat and topographically homogeneous part of
New Spain for testing purposes. This region is northern Yucatan, over
which Ponce traveled extensively (and which I happen to know fairly
well) .8 Ponce's route, the towns he visited, and the league distances
between them given in the relation are shown in Figure 1.
To arrive at an estimate of the average number of kilometers in the
league used by Ponce, it is simply necessary to measure in kilometers
the straightline distances between the same settlements on a modern
map. To be sure, the result is an underevaluation for the ground travel
distance is almost always longer than the straightline distance between
the same two points. But northern Yucatan is not only very flat, it also
contains no rivers or other natural obstructions with two exceptions.
First, there are many sinkholes in the flat limestone surface of northern
Yucatan; along Ponce's route, however, these are few and rarely more
than seventy-five meters in diameter. Second, there is a linear range of

7. Apparentlythe New Spain portion of the Relacion, which comprises by far

the bulk of the work, was written by Fray Antonio de Ciudad Real, who also com-
piled a Maya-Spanish dictionary (Robert Wauchope, ed., Handbook of Middle
AmericanIndians, 16 vols. [Austin, 1976], XVI, 51 and 181).
8. Roland Chardon,GeographicalAspects of Plantation Agriculturein Yucatan
(Washington, 1961). The descriptionof Ponce's Yucatantravels is found in Anony-
mous, Relacion, II, 383-479.
900 89930 89 88303 0'

of Mex i c o

4 C, LI ? AU

2k /
1 '- '

i~ ~
~~~~~C~9 2?X0\0ta. 1 9)iValla9olidl /
31i M{X~9 tl t281i ST~i /. --'3p

ti3rS 2 & /t 20230

X it

-203 '. 2 Y b 203-

03\h1'9' ? 30


903 89?3039 88' 0 o

FIGURE 1: Towns and League Distances in the Ponce Relacidn.

hills south of a line from Maxcanuito Tekax (see Figure 1) Neverthe-

less, this terrain feature affected league differences in only two seg-
ments of Ponce's route, and these are noted by his companions in their
The principal assumptions made to test the hypothesis in the man-
ner described were:
(1) Ponce's route was over absolutely flat and unobstructed land.
(2) The towns identified in the relacion were at that time (in
1588) located at their present sites. This seems quite certain for virtu-
ally all the major towns since the Spaniards had completed their con-
centration of Maya Indians into towns several decades prior to Ponce's
(3) The routes traveled by Ponce and his party between the towns
mentioned were in fact very nearly straight lines; this was almost cer-
tainly true for most of northern Yucatin, with one or two exceptions

9. Anonymous, Relaci6n, II, 444, 462.


(for example, the Merida-Hunucmar road is definitely convex toward

the north).
(4) Distances given in the Ponce report are from town center to
town center. Unfortunately, there is no documentary evidence that
Ponce or his party calculated this way; they may well have measured
from the edge of one town to the edge of the next. Thus there may be
slight bias toward exaggerating the length of Ponce's league. This
exaggeration would very likely be of significance only in the cases of
two or three large towns and should not materially affect the results of
the test.
In order to transform Ponce's leagues into their kilometric equiva-
lents, I measured the distances between the pairs of towns provided in
Ponce's itinerary on three modern maps.10 The straightline distance
between each pair of towns, or segment of Ponce's trip across Yucataln,
was measured three times on each map. Those measurements were
converted into kilometers and averaged together to avoid the possibility
of error in a single modern map. The three maps used are probably the
most detailed and accurate available for Yucata'n. In addition, other
governmental and private maps, as well as aerial photos, were used to
check the results obtained.
The distances given in leagues by Ponce's companions (see Figure
1), and in average kilometers by my calculations, were then tabulated
for each segment of road traveled by Ponce. Although sixty-seven sep-
arate segment distances are given in Ponce's itinerary, only sixty-two
were used in this study (the six segments from Calkini to Campeche are
excluded because of lack of comparability in modern maps). I was
unable to locate one town in southeastern Yucata'n,and three segments
had to be combined for accurate comparison with the others. For each
of the sixty-two segments, the number of kilometers per league was
then calculated to one decimal point, following which the kilometers
per league for all the segments were totaled and averaged.
The mean of sixty-two segments was 5.255 kilometers per league,
based on the straightline distance estimates as described, with a stan-
dard deviation of 0.762 kilometer (4.493 - 6.017 kilometers). The data
could have been manipulated further, but the results, given the original
data base of personal distance estimates and my own cartographically

10. The maps used were the American Geographical Society's 1: 1,000,000
sheet "Yucatain,"printed in 1927; an unpublished but very detailed map drawn in
1956, at scale 1: 500,000, by the Secretaria de Salubridad y Asistencia (Mexico)
for malaria control; and a 1970 highway map of Yucatan, also unpublished, drawn
by the Direcci6n Nacional de Caminos (Mexico) at scale 1: 1,000,000. The towns
Ponce visited, and which were used for my calculations, are shown in Figure 1.
derived estimates, would not have added anything to the testing of the
hypothesis. The range in kilometers per league was considerable,
ranging from 3.5 to 7.0, with a mode of 5.0 kilometers per league. How-
ever, these figures reflect the way the segment data were averaged, and
the range would have been slightly greater had I used a larger number
of estimates. Among the higher figures were two "leguas largas" while
most of the shorter distances were indicated in the report as either
"leguas pequenias"or as leagues in the range of hills.11
Since the above mean of 5.255 kilometers per league represents the
shortest possible routes between the towns visited by Ponce, the league
actually traveled on the road contains a somewhat larger number of
kilometers. Thus, one would expect the land league used by the trav-
elers to have been slightly longer than 5.255 kilometers. The only land
league longer than this, and employed by the Castilians at this time,
was the legua comun of 5.572 kilometers. The legua legal was about
4.2 kilometers long-far short of the mean length for the league used by
Ponce and analyzed in this study. Indeed, the legua legal is even short
of the first standard deviation, or 4.493 kilometers, below the mean.
There appears to be no way that members of Ponce's party could have
measured their distances by using the legua legal, no matter how crude
their estimates or mine were. The evidence clearly points to the use of
two distinct linear leagues in New Spain at that time.
So far as I am aware, the legua comuin was never used as the basis
for areal measurements in New Spain. The league referred to in legal
documents relating to land or grazing rights, for example, seems always
to have been the legua legal. Where a grant was sufficiently large, the
legua legal was supposed to form the basis not only of its dimensions,
but also its shape. However, patterns of land tenure in New Spain, as
elsewhere, are often extremely complex when viewed in legal or his-
torical perspective, and particularly so if wide variations in terrain,
native population density, and prior tenurial conditions are taken into
account. As a result of these and other factors, mercedes identified in
leagues ended up assuming an almost infinite variety of geometric
The ideal shape of the large Spanish land grant in New Spain was
that of a square whose straight sides were one legua legal long and
oriented toward the four cardinal directions. This, in fact, was the
legal definition of the widely granted sitio de ganado mayor, which
was a tract of 5,000 by 5,000 varas, measured north-south and east-

11. Anonymous,Relacio'n,II, 399, 405, 416, 444, 462.


west. Only if circumstances required it could the sitio be oriented dif-

ferently, and even then it was to remain a square.12
It appears, however, that land grant regulations were applied rather
differentially throughout New Spain. In Yucatan they seem to have
been fairly consistently followed where possible. In a study of fourteen
haciendas in that region, I found that at least six, and probably eight,
initially consisted of a square league of 5,000 by 5,000 varas; the six
were generally, if not precisely, oriented as prescribed by law.13 These
grants were usually described, also in accordance with the law, as ex-
tending 2,500 varas in each cardinal direction, measured from a given
central point (in Yucataln,the noria or well). Errors in surveying and
the lack of precise knowledge of the extent of surrounding properties
often modified the ideal orientation, shape, and even size of the grant,
as did of course subsequent land acquisition, sales, trades, and litiga-
tion.14 On the other hand, in the Parral district of northern New Spain,
and probably in many other areas as well, the regulations were usually
not observed, and the system of metes and bounds was commonly em-
ployed to designate property boundaries. The shapes of sitios in those
areas were thus very irregular, with many being roughly polygonic,
while others were more or less quadrilateral.15
Land grants considerably larger than one square league were by no
means rare in the least populated sections of New Spain. Often the
larger properties consisted of several sitios, sometimes combined to
form one property. The idealized square was frequently retained, as in
the properties described as consisting of "four leagues," by which was
meant that the concession measured one league from a central point in
each of the cardinal directions, and indicating further that this was a
grant of 4 square leagues, or 100,000,000 square varas.
Grants of this size and larger were generally located in semiarid or
arid zones of sparse population. In areas where surface water was at a
premium and if conditions warranted it, the shape of some grants was
a rectangle, as indeed the official designation of an hacienda (compris-
ing 1 by 5 leagues, or 5,000 by 25,000 varas) suggests.16 Usually, the

12. Charles Wilson Hackett, Historical Documents Relating to New Mexico,

Nueva Vizcaya, and ApproachesThereto, to 1773, Collected by Adolph F. A. Ban-
delier and Fanny R. Bandelier,3 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1923-1937), I, 177-178.
13. Chardon,GeographicAspects, pp. 65, 169-193 passim.
14. Ibid.; for a readily accessible summary of the tenurial changes affecting
one such hacienda, see Chardon, "Hacienda and Ejido in Yucatan: The Example
of Santa Ana Cuca',"Annals of the Association of American Geographers,53 (June
1963), 174-193.
15. Robert C. West, The Mining Community in Northern New Spain: The
ParralMining District (Berkeley, 1949), pp. 59-60, 120.
16. CarreraStampa, "Evolution,"p. 9.
smaller side of a grant of this shape was located along a river and its
waters could thereby be made available to more properties. However,
an hacienda of 5 square leagues did not necessarily have to be laid out
in a one-by-five-league format; an equal area could be provided by a
grant measuring half a league by ten. Further, in many cases the extent
of land from a given reference point or line was adjusted for variations
in the quality of land if very poor or total wasteland covered much of
the area of the proposed grant. Also, the backhandsof a grant might not
be surveyed for years after initial settlement since these areas were
relatively unimportant and there was little competition for them.
Grants defined in terms of leagues in New Spain were designed for
private cattle grazing and commonly allotted on an individual basis,
but grants of a square league of common land (ejido) were also pro-
vided to many Indian villages for grazing purposes. Many of these
ejidos were granted later in the colonial period, or in areas of relatively
high population density, in order to correct earlier injustices resulting
from encroachment of Spanish lands on Indian towns.17 Under such
circumstances, grants could take any shape although they too were
supposed to be square. Again, an ejido might consist of a square league
in area, but this did not necessarily mean that the grant was a square
piece of land, or even a rectangle; it could simply refer to an area of
25,000,000 square varas, or 1,747.24 hectares (about 4,318.2 acres). The
legua cuadrada was a square league, but not always a league square.
Although I know of no such concessions on the mainland of New
Spain, in western Cuba grazing rights and land grants (called corrales)
were sometimes defined as a radius of one league from a central point.18
Where this occurred, the area of a one-league grant covered some
78,539,816 square varas, or 5,489.1 hectares (about 13,564 acres). Relic
boundaries of these grants could still be discerned on cadastral maps
of the 1920s.19
In none of the land grant examples cited here is there any hint that
the legua comu'nwas ever used. The legua legal was the statute league
employed, and it was strictly defined.20 However, it should be noted
again that the metric equivalents I have provided above with regard to

17. CharlesGibson, The Aztecs under Spanish Rule (Stanford, 1964), p. 285.
18. Robert S. Platt, Latin America: Countrysides and United Regions (New
York, 1942), pp. 124-128.
19. Platt, "Geographyof a Sugar District: Mariel, Cuba," Geographical Re-
view, 19 (Dec. 1929), 603-612.
20. Hackett, Historical Documents, pp. 181-182. A cautionary note, however,
needs to be inserted: the term "tercia"is erroneouslytranslated as "span," where
the vara is defined on p. 177; the correct meaning of "tercia"is "third,"referring
to one-thirdof the vara, which is how the foot was defined in Castile. Thus, where
the English text says "span,"one should read "Castilianfoot."

land grants refer to a legua legal of 5,000 varas of 836 millimeters ex-
actly; the variations commensurate with those of the vara itself, dis-
cussed earlier in this paper, also occurred in the areal applications of
the legua legal. These variations were proportionately magnified at the
league scale, and resulted in considerable differences in the areas of
even those grants which ostensibly were described in identical terms.
Nor have we taken into account deliberate infractions of the law or sur-
veying errors, which were numerous and which also increased as the
scale of surveying expanded. Unquestionably, there are significant
problems involved in the present-day application of specific metric
equivalents to land grants in New Spain, even under ideal conditions,
and even though the only legal measure used for the larger grants was
the legua legal of Castile.
In any case, it seems clear that, in the sixteenth (and early seven-
teenth) century, two Spanish land leagues were employed in New
Spain: the legua legal of 4.19 + 0.05 kilometers, and the legua comu'n
equal to 5.572 + 0.02 kilometers. The legua legal was employed where
juridical matters were concerned, and formed an extremely important
-if not always entirely consistent-legal linear and areal basis for large
land subdivision in Spanish colonial North America. At the same time,
however, the more popular and traditional legua comun was used, at
least as an itinerary measure, by travelers in New Spain.