Cattle ranching in the Huasteca dates from the Conquest—specifically from the arrival of Nuño de Guzmán, a rival of Ferdinand Cortes. The first Spanish newcomers, who encountered a large native population along the coast and river valleys, captured numerous natives for slave labor in the West Indies and elsewhere. The rest of the indigenous population succumbed to new diseases or fled into the hills. In order to facilitate the collection of tribute, taxes, and corvée labor, the Spanish Crown later forced this dispersed native population to congregate into the remaining native towns and villages. At the same time that it recognized the boundaries of native corporate communities as delimitations of "Indian republics," the Spanish Crown granted large tracts of land left vacant to people of Spanish descent. The resulting privately owned estates specialized in extensive cattle production, and the incursion of wandering cows and horses onto the agricultural domain of native peasant communities became a source of bitter disputes. The introduction of sugarcane, locally processed in small-scale animal-powered mills called trapiches, stimulated the development of smaller rural enterprises known as ranchos. Such ranchos were located both within the boundaries of colonial cattle estates and on sections of communally owned land rented from native communities.
The fragile coexistence of cattle estates, ranchos, and native communities continued throughout the colonial era. During the early part of the nineteenth century (when Mexico became independent), the Huasteca attracted immigrants from the central-plateau region of Mexico and abroad. This influx brought about additional encroachment on Indian land as well as the subdivision of huge estates into the smaller, privately run ranchos. The newcomers introduced commercial crops (e.g., coffee and tobacco) and engaged in commerce and the production of sugar loaf ( pilón or piloncillo). Almost all these entrepreneurs also established cattle ranches, resulting in the development of a ranchero culture. These rancheros gradually obtained more political control, which was consolidated during and after the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917). Mestizo cattle ranchers, who already controlled many smaller counties on the fringes of the Huasteca, ousted the remaining owners of larger cattle estates (haciendas), many of whom did not even live in the region.