Published On: Sat, Jun 14th, 2014

The Heroine of Valladolid

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[“Surprising History in Yucatán” — Introduction to the Series]

From a time when history rarely allows women on its stage, Juana de Azamar makes a remarkable appearance.  One of the first Spanish women to settle in Yucatán, Juana is certainly the first explicitly mentioned as aiding conquistadors in battle.

In 1546, when young Juana arrived from Spain to begin a new life in Yucatán, this was the land that she found.  It was still the wild frontier, but the long struggles to bring it under Spanish control seemed at last to be ending.  The conquistadors were making progress with establishing permanent settlements and beginning to feel safe enough to bring their families across the Atlantic to join them in America.

Up until then — an entire generation after the conquest of central Mexico — Yucatán had still been in the hands of Maya chiefdoms.  The long, painful project by the Montejo family to make the peninsula their private fiefdom had begun back in 1526, when King Carlos granted Francisco de Montejo y Álvarez the right to colonize “the islands of Yucatán and Cozumel.”  Montejo received the military title Adelantado, “the one in advance.”  El Adelantado led an invasion of Yucatán from the east coast in 1527 but failed to make much progress toward conquest or colonization.

Unlike more successful conquistadors such as Cortés, Montejo was less the focused, ruthless invader, more the negotiator, flexible in pursuing alternatives.  After his initial failure in Yucatán, he became distracted for a time with better opportunities in Tabasco.  El Adelantado was back in the peninsula in 1531, this time attacking from the west coast.  He brought along his illegitimate son, Francisco de Montejo y León, who seems to have been the better soldier.  To avoid confusing the two Franciscos, history knows the son as El Mozo (“the lad”).  Setting up headquarters at the Maya town of Kin Pech — which they mispronounced as Campeche — the Montejos plundered around the western and northern parts of the peninsula for four years before again withdrawing in defeat.  And again El Adelantado got sidetracked, this time to pursue opportunities in Honduras and Chiapas.

In 1540, El Mozo returned and finally established a permanent Spanish settlement, San Francisco de Campeche.  Aided by his younger cousin — yet another Francisco de Montejo, this one known as El Sobrino (“the nephew”) — and by a combination of military force, religious conversion, divide-and-conquer, and smallpox, El Mozo at last made himself master of much of Yucatán.  A shaky peace seemed to take hold.

By the mid-1540s, the Spanish had established four settlements for governing the conquered — or at least pacified — peninsula.  El Mozo founded Mérida in 1542 as the capital, overseeing the three regional administrative centers.  In the southwest, San Francisco de Campeche, the colony’s seaport, predated Mérida by two years.  In the east, El Sobrino founded Valladolid beside a mosquito-infested lagoon in 1543.  And in the far southeast, conquistador Melchor Pacheco, after particularly vicious fighting, was able to establish isolated Salamanca de Bacalar in 1545.  There were no other Spanish towns worthy of the name.  Nearly all of the few hundred Spaniards in the peninsula lived in the four towns, surrounded by many thousands of Maya.  A few encomenderos — essentially feudal lords, awarded the right to exploit regions and their inhabitants at will — were beginning to move out into the countryside to exact tributes and build up their estates.

Into this strange and foreign land, Juana de Azamar came to make her home.  The young woman arrived to join her conquistador brother, Juan de Azamar, who was living with his wife and children in their encomienda estate near Valladolid.  She soon married decades-older Blas González, a conquistador of some importance, who had been with the Montejos since the first invasion in 1527.

The Azamar and González families were among first residents of Valladolid.  El Sobrino and his followers moved the town from the original, unhealthy site to its present location in 1545, taking over the Maya city of Zací (sah-KEE), on high ground with good water from cenotes.  Zací had been the historic capital of the powerful Cupul chiefdom.  The Mayan name means “white hawk,” an emblem that appears on the city’s coat of arms today.  The shield also bears the words “Ciudad Heroica,” and Valladolid has adopted the slogan “Four Times Heroic” (perhaps influenced by use of the same sobriquet by Veracruz).

Valladolid’s first occasion for heroism came quickly — the Great Maya Revolt of 1546.

The Maya chiefdoms of Cupul, Sotuta, Chikinchel, Cochuah, Uamil, and Chactemal, which occupied much of the eastern Yucatán peninsula, had proudly and repeatedly defeated Spanish invaders, finally yielding only after years of bitter and devastating warfare.  In addition to the resulting forced servitude under the encomienda system, the takeover of their capital at Zací was particularly galling to the numerous and warlike Cupules.  The Cupul leaders began to organize an alliance of the eastern chiefdoms, whose objective was nothing less than to erase all traces of the Europeans from their land.

The conspirators maintained their secrecy well, and in the fall of 1546 the timing seemed right.  The resident ruling Montejos, Mozo and Sobrino, accompanied by many of their cohort, were far away in Campeche.  El Adelantado himself, now nearly seventy years old and secure in the belief that Yucatán was now his by right of conquest, was to make a triumphant arrival to assume his duties as Governor and Captain General.  His wife, Doña Beatriz de Herrera, a wealthy woman whose fortune had bankrolled his adventures, was coming with him.  The welcoming ceremonies occupied the attention of the younger Montejos and other top officials.

On the night of November 8, a propitious date in their traditional calendar, and under a full moon, the eastern Maya rose up with overwhelming fury.

As they converged toward their main target, the new town of Valladolid, the rebels captured residents of the outlying haciendas and killed them in ways too horrifying to mention.  Women and children were not spared, nor were any traitorous Maya who had served the Spaniards or accepted religious conversion.  Runners carried severed body parts through the provinces to demonstrate success and raise recruits.  All domestic animals introduced from Europe were slaughtered, and imported crops and trees were uprooted and burned.  Some of the first and most horrific outrages took place twenty miles East of Valladolid at the village of Chemax, a name sometimes applied to the rebellion.

Coat of arms, City of Valladolid, Yucatán (Designed by Juan Francisco Peón Ancona, 1973)

Coat of arms, City of Valladolid, Yucatán
(Designed by Juan Francisco Peón Ancona, 1973)

The residents of Valladolid, with only about two dozen men, quickly rallied to throw up defensive works, and messengers sped toward Mérida to seek help.  Valladolid was soon surrounded by an estimated 20,000 Maya warriors.  The desperate defenders managed to repulse the first attack.  The rebels settled in for a siege, which the Spaniards realized they could not withstand for long.

Reinforcements from Mérida, including a large body of loyal Indian auxiliaries, fought their way eastward through heavy resistance.  They broke through the siege lines and entered Valladolid on November 22.  Against the augmented forces, now about sixty soldiers, the Maya tenaciously continued their siege and withstood repeated attacks.

Within the besieged town, Juana de Azamar performed with spirit beside her soldier husband.  She turned her house into a hospital, caring for the sick and wounded and encouraging the defenders.  She must have been devastated by the knowledge that her brother, his wife, and their children had been captured at their encomienda village in the first wave of attacks and cruelly sacrificed.

Juana later wrote up an account of the siege in a probanza de méritos y servicios (“evidence of merit and service”), a brief autobiography prepared in hope of obtaining rewards from the Crown, a practice followed by many of the Spanish pioneers.  Her probanza, now in the General Archives of the Indies in Seville, contains these steadfast words:

When this province rose in revolt, I, being then of but slight age, was with my husband, for we were living in our home and would not abandon it.  I gathered into our house many wounded and ill soldiers, and with great care I healed them and cared for them until they were cured, for there were no doctors in this town.  I put forth great efforts in this work.  I likewise encouraged them not to leave this land, but to remain for the service of His Majesty.

Meanwhile in Campeche, El Adelantado gathered all available forces and dispatched both younger Montejos to conquer Yucatán once again.  In Valladolid, the tide gradually turned, and the rebels began withdrawing in small groups to defend their homes against the retaliatory attacks they knew would be coming.  Bitter fighting continued, but by March 1547 the rebellion was over in all but the most remote areas.  The victors executed or enslaved principal leaders of the defeated Maya, and savage acts of vengeance took place.  The elder Montejo urged mercy and restraint whenever possible and later ordered that Indian slaves be set free.  Many rebels fled toward the south into the dense forests beyond Spanish control.

The area of rebellion — roughly the eastern third of present Yucatán state and most of Quintana Roo — was ruined and depopulated.  The Maya who survived and remained did not forget.  They rose again three hundred years later in the catastrophic Caste War, when Valladolid experienced another of its “Four Times Heroic” events.

Juana and Blas became leading citizens of Valladolid, noted for their charity and hospitality.  They had six children, four boys and two girls, and established a large and respected household.  Blas became a member of the town council, held many other municipal offices, and wrote a probanza of his own in 1567.  Records show that he had several encomiendas, including one near Chichén Itzá, but had fallen heavily into debt by the time of his death at the advanced age of eighty-five.  The date of Juana’s probanza is 1585, suggesting she also enjoyed a long life.

We are fortunate that history tells us something of Juana de Azamar, a genuine and honorable pioneer woman of Yucatán.


Valladolid today is an attractive and peaceful city mid-way between Mérida and Cancún.  The San Roque Museum interprets the city’s history, and the arcaded government palace on the main square displays imaginative murals depicting historical events.  The white hawk of Zací appears on the park benches in the peaceful plaza.

Yucatán — especially Mérida — endlessly celebrates Francisco de Montejo, from the statues of father and son at the beginning of the elegant Paseo de Montejo, to the names of neighborhoods, schools, businesses, and a favorite local brand of beer.  The mansion where father and son lived still stands on the south side of Mérida’s main plaza.

A major street in Mérida bears the name of the rebellious Cupules.  With unintended irony, it intersects with the Paseo de Montejo.


The author thanks Jorge Rosado Baeza for his helpful contributions to this article.

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  1. Sara Bateman says:

    Thank you for this article. i love to learn more about the history of my newly adopted home.

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