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Totonac Indians

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One of the smaller cultured nations of ancient Mexico, occupying at the time of the Spanish conquest the coast province of Totonicapan, comprehending all except the northern border of the present State of Vera Cruz, together with the Zacatlan district in Puebla. Within this territory they had some fifty towns, with a total population of perhaps a quarter of a million. Their capital, Cempoala, about five miles inland from the present city of Vera Cruz, had a population of about 25,000. In spite of wars, epidemics, and oppressions they still number about 100,000.

The Totonac were the first natives whom Cortés met on landing in Mexico in 1519. According to their own traditions, they had come from the northwest nearly eight centuries earlier, and had maintained an independent kingdom—of which the names of the successive kings are on record--until subjugated by the Aztec only about twenty-five years before the arrival of the Spaniards. Being compelled by their conquerors to the payment of a heavy tribute and to other exactions, including the frequent seizure of their people for slaves or for sacrifice in the bloody Aztec rites, they were ripe for revolt, and their king, Chicomacatt, eagerly welcomed Crtés and promised the support of his fifty thousand warriors against Montezuma.

Encouraged by Cortés, King Chicomacatt asserted his independence by seizing the Mexican tax-gatherers then in his country, but was restrained by the Spanish commander from sacrificing them to the idols. They gave willing help in laying the foundations of the city of (Villa Rica de la) Vera Cruz, which Cortés made his starting point for the advance upon the Mexican capital. As a final test of their friendship and obedience, Cortés commanded the destruction of the wooden images of the gods in the great pyramid temple of Cempoala, where every day human victims were sacrificed, their hearts being torn out and placed upon the altars of the gods, the blood sprinkled upon the idols and the walls of the temple, and the dismembered limbs borne away to be served up in a cannibal feast. Notwithstanding the protest of the king and the fierce opposition of the priests and their retainers, the order was carried out by a detachment of Spanish soldiers. The idols were thrown down to the foot of the temple and burned. According to Bancroft (see bibl.), when their pagan temple was cleansed Olmedo preached the Christian Faith and celebrated Mass before the assembled natives. The contrast between the simple beauty of this impressive ceremony and their own bloody worship made a deep impression on the minds of the natives, and at the conclusion those who desired were baptized. So Christianity achieved its first victory in Mexico.

In the subsequent events, culminating in the taking of the city of Mexico and the downfall of the Aztec empire, the Totonac took active part with the Tlascalans as allies of the Spaniards, giving ready allegiance alike to the new rulers and the new religion. In 1526 their territory of Vera Cruz was combined with Tlascala, Tabasco, and Yucatán into a bishopric with seat at Tlascala under Bishop Juliano Garcés, Dominican (d. 1542). The work of Christianizing was given over chiefly to the Dominicans, who had convents at Vera Cruz, Puebla, and Goazacoalco, and who led the fight against Indian slavery (see BARTOLOMÉ DE LAS CASAS). Franciscans, Augustinians, and other orders were also represented in the Indian work. The Jesuits in the diocese confined their attention to whites and negroes. In 1575-77 the Totonac, in common with all the other tribes of Southern Mexico, were ravaged by the mysterious matlalzahuatl epidemic, estimated to have destroyed two millions of the native race. About the year 1600, in accordance with a viceregal scheme of concentration, the entire population of Cempoala was removed to a new site, and the ancient capital thenceforth sank to the level of a village.

The modern Totonac of Puebla and Vera Cruz are industrious farmers, their chief crop being sugar cane, from which they manufacture sugar in their own mills. They are also expert fishermen. Their houses are of pole framework plastered with clay on the outside and thatched with grass. They wear cotton garments of native pattern and weaving. They are much given to dances and festivals, both church festivals and their own, particularly the Costumbre, an interesting survival of an old sacrifical rite in which seeds and portions of earth sprinkled with the blood of fowls killed for the occasion are distributed to the various fields. Aside from this and some other folklore customs, they are all Catholics, and strongly attached to their religious teachers.

The Totonac language, although considered by Sahagún and Orozco y Berra to be connected with that of their next neighbours, the Huastec, of Mayan stock, is held by Brinton to be of independent stock, but with considerable borrowings from Huastec and Aztec. It is spoken in four principal dialects and lacks the sound of r. Of the published works in the language the most important are the "Arte y Vocabulario de la lengua totonaca" and the "Gramatica et Lexicon Linguæ, Mexicanæ, Totonaquæ et Huastecæ" (the latter printed in Mexico, 1560) by the Franciscan missionary, Fr. Andres de Olmos (d. 1571), noted for his mastery of several of the native languages. An "Arte" or manual by Fr. Francisco Dominguez was published in Puebla, 1752, and a catechism and extended vocabularies in two dialects by the same author shortly afterward, with a reprint in Puebla, 1837. Pimentel gives a sketch of the language in his "Cuadro Descriptivo", I (Mexico, 1862-65; 1874-75). Much manuscript material, linguistic and religious, remains unpublished.


BANCROFT, Native Races of the Pacific States (San Francisco, 1882); IDEM, Hist. of Mexico (San Francisco, 1886-88); BRINTON, American Race (New York, 1891); PILLING, Proofsheets of a Bibl. of the Langs. of the North. Am. Inds. (Bur. Am. Ethnology, Washington, 1885); PRESCOTT, Hist. Conquest of Mexico (New York and London, 1843); SAHAGUN, Historia General de Nueva España (Mexico, 1829); STARR, Ethnography of Southern Mexico in Proceedings of the Davenport Academy of Sciences, VIII (Davenport, 1901).

About this page

APA citation. Mooney, J. (1912). Totonac Indians. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Mooney, James. "Totonac Indians." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Calvin H. Marousch. Dedicated to my cousin Richard Henry Marble.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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