Northern Mexico – Maps, History and Culture

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Northern Mexico, also referred to as El Norte, is the region of Mexico that makes up the northern half of Mexico. It is called El Norte, which means “The North”. Northern Mexico is made up of the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango, Nuevo Leon, Sinaloa, Sonora, and Tamaulipas. The total area that Northern Mexico takes up between all of the states is approximately 349,209 square miles, not including the Baja California region.

Northern Mexico borders the United States to the north, the Baja Peninsula and the Gulf of California to the west, the Gulf of Mexico to the east, and the Pacific Coast, Bajio, and Veracruz territories to the south.

List of Cities

  • Chihuahua
  • Ciudad Juarez
  • Saltillo
  • Torreon
  • Durango
  • Gomez Palacio
  • Monterrey
  • Guadalupe
  • Mazatlan
  • Nogales
  • Matamoros

Quick Facts

  • Population: ~ 22.9 million
  • Languages: Spanish with English influences
  • Ethnicities: Mestizo, White Americans
  • Capitals:
    • Chihuahua, Chihuahua
    • Saltillo, Coahuila
    • Victoria de Durango, Durango
    • Monterrey, Nuevo Leon
    • Culiacan, Sinaloa
    • Hermosillo, Sonora
    • Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas

Brief History

Northern Mexico was not one of the first regions of Mexico settled by the indigenous people. Instead of settling in Northern Mexico, the indigenous tribes moved to the Baja Californa region or further south, where agricultural opportunities were more abundant. Those indigenous tribes that stayed in Northern Mexico had to rely on hunting and gathering rather than cultivating food from agricultural methods.

When Spain arrived in Northern Mexico, the first area they settled was Nueva Vizcaya, located in modern-day Chihuahua. Francisco de Ibarra was a Spanish explorer from the Basque Country in Spain. He arrived in Northern Mexico and immediately had success. Evidence suggests that he was the first European to witness the ruins of the Mogollon culture that existed prehistorically in the region of Chihuahua.

Francisco was encouraged by the Spanish government to turn Northern Mexico into a successful mining location, and that is exactly what happened. In 1564, a lieutenant under Francisco de Ibarra discovered gold at the foot of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains. His name was Rodrigo de Rio de Loza, and he founded the first Spanish city in what is now modern-day Chihuahua. This city was known as Santa Barbara, and Rio de Loza would eventually bring approximately 400 Spanish families to settle in the region.

In addition to military leaders, Francisco de Ibarra also had many missionaries that left Spain to explore New Spain in Mexico. These missionaries would eventually settle new territories throughout Northern Mexico, including Durango and Sinaloa.

Spain would rule Northern Territory for around 300 years until Mexico decided that it was tired of Spanish rule and wanted to be independent with their own rights and provisions. In 1808, Mexico entered the War of Mexican Independence, led by Miguel Hidalgo y Castilla. By 1821, Hidalgo, who had been captured and beheaded, had achieved what he set out to do: gain Mexican independence from Spain.

Shortly after Mexico became an independent country free from Spanish rule, it entered into a war with the United States. This was known as the Mexican-American War, and it resulted from the annexation of Texas by the United States. It was short lived and only lasted from 1846 to 1848 when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. This treaty officially gave Texas to the United States and established a border on the Rio Grande to separate the United States from Mexico.

By the 1860s, France had entered the area as a direct result of the Reform War, which was a three-year civil war that occurred in Mexico between 1857 and 1860. The aftermath of the war damaged Northern Mexico economically and caused them to be unable to pay debts to the European countries of France, Spain, and England. Northern Mexico offered to make payments on the debts over a two-year span, but France, Spain, and England declined. Thus, France intervened in the area and gained control of various cities throughout the entire region of Mexico.

Eventually, France began to move troops out of Mexico, as the Mexican army had begun to defeat the French in various combat locations. By 1866, France had been defeated more than it had been successful, so they began to take on a legitimate threat that faced them back home: the Prussians. France officially withdrew from Northern Mexico in 1866, and by 1867, the last of the French forces were officially defeated.

From 1876 to 1910, Northern Mexico underwent a major economic recovery. Even though there was unrest between the political parties throughout Mexico, the region flourished with opportunities, education, and infrastructure.


Because there were not many indigenous people who lived in Northern Mexico, there was never any native language recorded in Northern Mexico until the Spanish arrived during the colonial era of the 1500s. Once the Spanish arrived, they quickly settled the areas in Northern Mexico and made it an extension of Spain.

Northern Mexico was constantly influenced by the United States to the north, at one time even occupying the Mexican state of Tejas, which is now modern-day Texas. Because of this, English quickly began to influence the Spanish language that was spoken in Northern Mexico.

Today, the Northern Mexican Spanish dialect has many English influences and combines both the English and the Spanish language.


Roman Catholicism is the primary religion of Northern Mexico because of the Spanish settlers who relocated to the area between the 1500s and 1800s. The primary religion in Spain is Roman Catholicism, which is how Roman Catholicism came to be the primary religion of Northern Mexico. The Spaniards who relocated to Northern Mexico continued their traditional belief system by practicing and spreading Roman Catholicism throughout the centuries.


Northern Mexico is known for the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains that run throughout the region. This mountain range gives way to lush valleys with rich soil. Access to these valleys in the Northern Mexico region has given the area the agricultural opportunities it has today. In prehistoric times, the indigenous tribes in the area focused solely on hunting and gathering. Once the Spanish arrived in the area, they could maximize the region for different uses, including agriculture and infrastructure.

Not all of Northern Mexico can be cultivated. There are many high-elevation deserts with steep peaks that prevent various parts of the region from being usable. Northern Mexico also has a cooler climate than Mexico’s central and southern regions, which makes the winters cooler and wetter.


Northern Mexico is almost an extension of the Southwestern United States. In fact, it is where much of the Tex-Mex cuisine comes from. Because the United States largely influences northern Mexico, there are many American customs seen in Northern Mexico, just as there are many Northern Mexican influences seen in the southern United States.

One of the biggest differences in the culture of Northern Mexico compared to the rest of the country is that Northern Mexico is closely connected to its Spanish heritage, whereas the remainder of Mexico is closer to its Mexican ancestry. Because of this, Northern Mexico has more liberal stances and viewpoints, whereas other regions in Mexico are more conservative.

Immigration and Migration Patterns

Northern Mexico had the most Spanish men relocate to its region because of the following that Spanish leader Francisco de Ibarra had on the Spanish. Under his leadership, hundreds of Spanish men relocated to Mexico to start a new life. They would eventually marry local Mixtecs in the area, which ultimately created a new mixed-race called Mestizo. A mestizo was a combination of Spanish and indigenous descent, which is commonly seen today.

Because Mexico and the United States both held territories between one another, it was common for Americans in Texas and southern California to move to Mexico. Mexico presented new opportunities that some Americans wanted to be a part of, so it was not uncommon for them to leave America and settle in Northern Mexico, especially with how closely-tied Northern Mexico was to the southwestern United States.


Northern Mexico has arguably the strongest heritage to Spain because of how many Spaniards relocated to the area and permanently settled. Other than the brief time period when the French entered Northern Mexico, Northern Mexico did not see as much immigration as other regions.

African slavery and Chinese immigration were not as prominent in these areas. Instead, Spanish and French presence was the most prevalent, which is why those who are tracing their genealogy from Northern Mexico will be extremely likely to see Spanish or French heritage in their genealogy.

At the same time, because of the change in ownership of some areas of the southwestern United States, Northern Mexico genealogy would likely show connections to additional European countries that migrated to North America, including Italian and English. This is how White Mexicans came into existence, and the genealogy of Northern Mexico would likely show these links.

Caleb Pike
About the author

Caleb Pike is an avid hiker and nature lover, with a passion for exploring the great outdoors. He's a writer, photographer, and adventurer, always seeking new trails to blaze and peaks to conquer.