Prosperity is the measure or touchstone of virtue, for it is less difficult to bear misfortune than to remain uncorrupted by pleasure. — Tacitus

Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober

Geographical Description


South of the United States, stretching away towards Central America, lies the country of Mexico. It has a large extent of territory, being fifteen hundred miles in length, and quite eight hundred miles in width in its broadest part. It has a coast line of nearly five thousand five hundred miles, and lies between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. Being so much farther to the south than the United States, its climate would naturally be much hotter, yet such is not the case all over Mexico. Though it extends into the tropics more than six degrees, yet the greater portion of its territory enjoys a temperate climate. This is due to the fact that it is a mountainous country. We know that in going up a high mountain the temperature gets lower, or colder, the higher we ascend. So it is that Mexico, though extending far down into the torrid zone, has the cool climate of the temperate zone, except along its coasts and in the far south.

We might say that the backbone of Mexico is a long mountain-ridge, with ribs of hills spreading away on either side to the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific, or that the mountain system of the Andes stretches along its entire length. In speaking of the Andes we naturally think of South America and its ranges of volcanoes; but if we take a map and trace this vast system up through Central America, we shall see that it rises into great prominence in Mexico, and even in the United States, where it is known as the Rocky Mountains.

We shall see that it spreads itself into two great chains; one approaching the eastern and the other the western coast, and running northward parallel to them.

These are the Cordilleras—or chains—of the Andes. They enclose between them a vast plain, or plateau, not always level, but broken by hills and dotted with other mountains or volcanoes. This plateau, the Mexican table-land, is several hundred miles in length, and from one to three hundred miles in breadth. It is this table-land that possesses the temperate climate and produces the plants of our own zone, while the plains that lie between the bases of the mountains and the coast are hot, and have a tropical vegetation. To complete this broad sketch of Mexico, take your map again, and note the shape of the country. Does it not resemble a cornucopia, a horn of plenty? That is what it is, a veritable horn of plenty, with its hills and mountains containing great stores of silver, and its lowlands filled with forests of valuable woods. You will see that the throat of this horn of plenty is the most mountainous, and that great plains spread out in the north towards the United States, and a low, flat peninsula terminates its eastern portion—the peninsula of Yucatan. This much for a broad, general view of the physical features of the country whose history we purpose to read.

You will see that it is no small portion of this North American continent that we shall examine. It is a very important portion, lying, as it does,—as the great Humboldt has expressed it—in the highway of commerce between the two hemispheres.

Mexican cactus

It has other considerations, also, than those of a commercial character, to entitle it to our closest attention. The wisest of our learned men have looked upon this region as

the seat of American civilization,—that is, that here the wild Indian first forsook his habits of savagery and settled down to a peaceful life. Here he became civilized, in fact, built cities and cultivated land, instead of always fighting and wandering about from country to country.

We shall come to those wonderful cities they built by and by, for their ruins fill the forests of the southern portion of Mexico and Yucatan.

It is difficult to choose whether to follow first the history of these most ancient of people, or to commence with those that have filled a more prominent place in more recent times.

Let us go up into that vast table-land and seek out the abiding-place of the nation that ruled Mexico when first this country was discovered by Europeans, by white men. We shall find ourselves in the valley of Mexico, enclosed on all sides by spurs of mountains from that mighty chain that strides the whole length of the continent. We shall find a valley sixty miles in length and thirty in breadth, surrounded by a mountain wall two hundred miles in circumference. We shall find it a delightful region of lakes and valleys and wooded hills, bathed in tropic sunshine, yet with the pure atmosphere of the temperate zone. For it is the centre of that region lying in the tropics, yet at an altitude so high as to remove it from tropic heat. In the distance you may see the glittering domes of two great snow-crowned volcanoes. The valley itself is over seven thousand feet above the sea, while the volcanoes are more than seventeen thousand!

If we could occupy some commanding position, we should not fail to note the numerous lakes that stretch along this beautiful valley and form a glistening chain its entire length. It is they that have given it its Indian name, Anahuac, or by the water side, since the earlier towns and cities were built near their margins, or upon the islands in them.

And when were these first cities built?

Rather, let us ask, when was this valley first populated? We are not the first who have asked this question; we are not the last who will ask it. Constantly, to the inquiring mind that searches into the history of our country, this question arises: "Whence came these people, and when?"

Even yet, with all the light shed by science, we go groping about in the dark, asking of ourselves and of one another: "When and whence?" The origin of the American people is enveloped in mystery; but our knowledge of that portion that resided in Mexico extends farther into the past than of any other, for they were more civilized when discovered than any others They had records extending back hundreds of years.

They had cities and white-walled temples and palaces, even so long ago as when Columbus sailed into this New World; yes, even when the Northmen coasted our northern shores, eight hundred years ago.

You may add yet another thousand years to those eight hundred, and yet not reach the period in which those cities were built and to which their records carry us.

Nobody knows whence came the first populators of Mexico. Some historians think that they came from a region in the north; others believe that they originated in the south; others say they came from the west, and yet others that they came from the east.

From the north might have come the Jews, the lost tribes of Israel, by the way of Behring's Straits to the northwest coast of America, and thence, gradually moving southward, have reached finally Mexico.

They might have come this way, and at that remote time the islands between Asia and America may have been nearer together, or the sea may have been frozen over and have given them a safe passage. They may have brought with them their flocks and herds, and also all those strange birds and beasts that we find to-day peculiar to Mexico and South America. Those historians who believe this have found many things in support of their theory; they have found Jewish manners and customs among the Indian tribes in the north, and have even found some tribes speaking the dialect.

Mexican pueblo

From the west may have appeared the Japanese, the Malays, or the Chinese. It would, indeed, seem easier for these people, any or all of them, to cross to the western shore of our continent by sea than by land. There is a great "river in the sea" called the Kuro Siwo, or Black Stream, similar to our Gulf Stream, that crosses the Pacific Ocean from Japan to our northwest coast, and sweeps southward along the western shores. By means of this ocean river, with its steady current, Japanese junks have been drifted across the Pacific to the coast of California. One writer, who has given the subject great attention, says that a drifting wreck would be carried eastward by the Kuro Siwo  at the rate of ten miles a day. Cast upon our coast, the Japanese sailors may have exerted some influence upon the civilization of the Indians already there, but they could not have come in this way in sufficient numbers to people the country.

The Malays were bold navigators, and may have visited the west coast, but it is a question if any of them stayed.

Looking east, how would it be possible for any people to cross the wide expanse of ocean that Columbus first crossed in modern times? It would seem difficult, yet it does not seem so to those who believe that from this direction America first received her people.

Did you ever hear the story of Atlantis?

Phoenician vessel

Atlantis was a great island that is said to have existed in the Atlantic ocean ages and ages ago. According to some ancient historians it was fertile and beautiful, with extensive forests and rivers, hills, mountains, valleys—in short, a good-sized continent. It was peopled by an intelligent and warlike race, who even invaded the neighboring coast of Africa and perhaps passed into Spain. Some Phoenecian navigators claimed to have sailed beyond the Pillars of Hercules—the Strait of Gibraltar—and to have discovered it. It was claimed that this was more than an island—that it was a continent—and was an extension of Central America away out into the Atlantic and over towards Africa. The peninsula of Yucatan is considered, by the people who hold this theory, as part of that continent which sank at some remote age of the world, and left the West India islands as mountains, sticking up above the sea to remind us of its former existence.

This continent, or great island, Atlantis, is said to have had just such temples and palaces of stone as we find in Yucatan to-day lying in ruins in the wilderness. Did the Phoenecians visit this country by coasting the shores of Atlantis, or did part of the Atlantides themselves escape to Central America and there build the cities buried in the vast forest there now? It has not been proven that they did, any more than that the Jews came from the north, or the Malays and the Japanese from the west.

And what has been proven by all our study of the ruins and the records of this people?

Phoenician ruins

Only this, that there has long existed in Central America—in which we would embrace Southern Mexico and Yucatan—an American civilization superior to any other on this continent at the time of its discovery.

There remains still one more theory to consider: Was it possible for this civilization to have been developed by the people placed here by the Creator?

Was it possible for the Creator to place men and women here originally, without making them pass over from the other continent?

It was possible, was it probable?

Some there are who think that this was done; who claim that our continent is oldest, according to its geological formation, and that it was as likely that people passed to the eastern hemisphere from the western as that they should have passed to the western from the eastern.

It is difficult for those who hold this theory to account in any other way for the many peculiarities in American architecture, for the totally different aspect of the natives of this country from every other. They hold that it would have been impossible for all the animals of this so-called New World to have originated from the Old World: the tapirs, boa-constrictors, pumas, etc., that seem to belong to the warmer parts of America alone,—that they would have frozen in coming down from the north by way of Behring's Straits, with the Jews, even if they had originally been created in Europe or Asia.

Many wise men have at last concluded that our great continent was originally settled by two different peoples. One was an indigenous  race,—created here, belonging exclusively to this country; and the other came to North America from Asia by way of Behring's Straits, or the Aleutian islands. In support of this they call our attention to the great difference between the northern and the southern Indians. The Indians of Mexico and Central America are totally different from those of the United States, Canada and Labrador, with the exception of the Mound Builders, the Cliff Dwellers and the Pueblo Indians, who belong to the south and have strayed away. They are so unlike, that only this difference of origin seems to explain the reason why it is so. While those Indians now living mainly south of the Mexican border have great similarity amongst themselves, and have no representatives in the Old World, those of the north seem to have a resemblance to some Indians in Eastern Asia. But these are all speculations, with more or less of proof in favor of the last theory.

We will go on to describe the Indians found in Mexico at the coming of the white men, and then the reader may judge whether these people had a foreign origin; or whether they commenced existence in southern Mexico and founded there a great empire, which will be mentioned in its proper place.