vara in Mexico

In 1536 the Viceroy Don Antonio Mendoza promulgated an ordinance which established the vara as the fundamental unit of length in New Spain (which eventually included Venezuela, the West Indies, all Spanish territory north of Panama, and the Philippines). Only fragments of the ordinance survive, but those indicate: “The Mexican vara is the unit of all measures of length, the pattern and size is taken from the Castillian vara of the model of Burgos,” that is, 3 pie of the standard of Burgos.

But sources differ on the definition of the vara in Mendoza's ordinance. Some (Canales Santos) say an ordinance of 4 July 1536 made the vara equivalent to the paso salomónico (= 5 pies of the vara castellana). If so, the vara would have been 1.377 meters, and the units of land area defined in the ordinance correspondingly larger. Others (e.g., Stampa) speak of an ordinance of 9 March 1536 with “a vara of three feet and a paso of five feet”. 

The Mexican Imperial Colonization Act of January 4, 1823, Art. 5 and 7,² defined a series of land measures: the vara as 3 “piés geométricos,” the legua as a straight line of 5000 varas, the sitio as an area one legua on a side, the hacienda as five sitios, and the labór as one million square varas. Subsequent laws authorized the states to establish further regulations, providing they did not conflict with existing law. The Mexican states of which present-day Texas formed a part confirmed the units given above, and in 1834 the Land Law3 of the State of Coahuila and Texas added the millionada = a million square varas, thus equivalent to a labór, and (Art. 34) the ayuntamiento (a township) = 4 square legua.

The Mexican Ordinance for Land and Sea (September 15, 1837) adopted a value of 837 millimeters for the vara, subsequently altered by a decree of 1839 to 838.1 millimeters, and then by a decree of 1844 to 838 millimeters. A regulation of February 20, 1896, implementing metric land measures under the law of 19 June 1895, gave the vara the value 0.838000 meter.

1. Mariano Galván Rivera.
Ordenanzas de tierras y aguas, ó sea formulario geométrico-judicial para la designació, establecimento, mensura, amojonameiento y deslinde de las poblaciones...
Mexico, 1844.

2. John Sayles and Henry Sayles, compilers.
Early laws of Texas. General laws from 1836 to 1879, relating to public lands, colonial contracts, headrights, pre-emptions, grants of land to railroads and other corporations, conveyances, descent, distribution, marital rights, registration of wills, laws relating to jurisdiction, powers and procedure of courts, and all other laws of general interest. Also laws of 1731 to 1835, as found in the laws and decrees of Spain relating to land in Mexico, and of Mexico relating to colonization; laws of Coahuila and Texas; laws of Tamaulipas; colonial contracts; Spanish civil law; orders and decrees of the provisional government of Texas... Second Edition.
St. Louis: The Gilbert Book Co., 1891.

Volume 1, page 43.

3. March 26, 1834, Section 1, Article 2. Reprinted in
John Sayles and Henry Sayles, compilers.
Early laws of Texas...Second Edition.
St. Louis: The Gilbert Book Co., 1891

Volume 1, page 97.

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