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February 26, 2001


DALLAS (SMU) -- If they had anything at all, the Spanish-colonial women living on the frontier of New Spain had a little land and perhaps some meager furnishings. Most had outlived their husbands and many, their children. In a harsh and remote landscape, some even managed a few luxuries, such as Gertrudis Estebana who left five pounds of chocolate to her heirs.

These rare and often sentimental insights into the lives of ordinary Spanish-colonial women living between 1770 and 1820 were unearthed by Amy Meschke, a Clements Scholar and Ph.D. candidate in American history at Southern Methodist University, who studied the wills of 20 women from San Esteban de Nueva Tlaxcala, a frontier settlement in northern Mexico that no longer exists. She discovered these buried testaments in the archives of Saltillo, Mexico.

Overlooked by historians of the Spanish-colonial era, the wills offer a window into the way people lived in the Texas and Mexico borderlands more than 200 years ago. Meschke decided to compare the wills of the San Esteban women to the wills of more affluent women in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a larger and more settled Spanish-colonial community. She will present her study, "The Women of San Esteban de Nueva Tlaxcala and Their Wills in the Late Spanish Colonial Period," at the annual meeting of the Texas State Historical Association March 1 in Houston.

"Social history has taken off in the field of Spanish-colonial history," Meschke says. "For so long the emphasis was on studying the building of missions and on conquests and explorations, but now historians are beginning to study ordinary people."

These wills are valuable to historians, Meschke says, because most people who lived in the Spanish colonies could neither read nor write. Historians, therefore, have few letters, diaries and other first-hand accounts of people's lives. The wills discovered by Meschke tell her about possible mortality and fertility rates; wealth and class differences; the role of religion; the types of property owned and agricultural practices; and the importance of Spanish law and custom in protecting the inheritance and property rights of Spanish-colonial women.

"The women of San Esteban in the late colonial period lived in a different time. They had to contend with Indian raids, diseases and being remote from the center of New Spain," Meschke says. "Most women could count on being widowed and losing children during their lives. Nonetheless, widowhood and protection under Spanish law provided the women of San Esteban with some independence. They used their wills to pass on their property, no matter how little they might have had."

Meschke says the comparisons show that many women who wrote wills in Santa Fe were elites who needed to protect their estates, while the women of San Esteban were not wealthy, but used testaments for a similar purpose, which was to protect their privileges. She plans to conduct further research, looking at wills over a longer period and comparing men and women's wills in order to understand the different and similar experiences of men and women in these frontier settlements.

Note to Editor: A copy of Meschke's paper "The Women of San Esteban de Nueva Tlaxcala and Their Wills in the Late Spanish Colonial Period" is available by calling the SMU Office of News and Information at 214-768-7650.