Spanish Era Measurements


The main problem with measurements from many years ago is that while today we like to be precise, back then precision was much less a goal. In many cases, measurements were based on the length of some part of human anatomy but since every person is different, the measurements varied accordingly. Also, definitions often varied for the same term depending on the type of measurement being made. For example, the measure fanega might mean a volume of some grain or it might mean the area of land necessary to grow that quantity of grain. So, context matters.

A full discussion of Spanish measurements is well beyond the scope of MissionTour so this section will necessarily be a summary of the important ones for discussions of the missions.

In summary then…

Length Measurements

Vara. Probably the most common linear measurement you might come across when studying the missions is the vara. It’s largely considered to be the Spanish equivalent to the yard. An old measurement, the vara was established in Spain’s northern central province of Burgos in the early 16th century (the Burgos varas = 32.909 inches). Despite that, because of the wide and varied expanse of the Spanish occupation the vara was often given many different definitions (up to 22 by the end of the mission era). In the early 1900’s in Texas the vara was given a specific definition and that’s the one that MissionTour will use but keep in mind that if you go to the original Spanish documents context and timing will matter when interpreting that document. The Texas definition is…

  • 1 vara = 33-1/3 inches = 2.777778 feet
    • To convert varas to feet multiply by 0.36 — To convert feet to varas divide by 0.36

Other length measures you might come across are…

  • Punto. Literally, a point or dot. This was the smallest Spanish measurement.
  • Legua. This is the largest Spanish measurement and may be seen as league. It was 5,000 veras in length.
  • Pulgada. The pulgada is probably the third most used measure behind the vara and legua. The pulgada would be the Spanish inch. Based on the width of a thumb, one pulgada = 0.914 inches.

There are many more but these are fairly common.

Area Measurements

As you might imagine, the length of the vara was critical to area measurements as well since area is simply length times width. The measurement of the sides of a given area made then were made in a manner similar to how football advances are measured today. Two riders (cordeleros) would go out with poles connected with a length of rope (cordel) 50 varas (about 137 feet) long. One would stop at the corner of land to be measured and the other would ride out 50 varas in as straight a line as possible until the line was taut. The other rider would then ride past another 50 varas and the process would continue until the required length was reached. At least two sides of any given area would have to be measured to define the area. As you can see, this process was approximate at best and resulted in many land disputes.

Typical area measurements included…

  • Sitio de ganado mayor, or simply sitio. A square league or 5,000 square varas.
  • Hacienda. An area five times larger than a sitio. Roughly 33.72 sq. mi. by today’s measure.

Fanega. The fanega holds a special place as it can be both and area and a volume measure. In the case of area, it is the area of land that a fanega (volume) of grain can be sown on. As you might imagine, the weather and soil conditions vary over different locations so the fanega takes on a variable nature. Also, the type of grain defines the fanega. Corn versus wheat give large differences in the size of the acreage in a fanega.

Just to show the differences, in the period when Neve was in charge (1777-82) a fanega for corn was about 6.94 acres (200×200 varas) and a fanega for wheat was about 1.8 acres. After secularization, in 1841, in the area that General Vallejo controlled, the fanega for wheat dropped to 0.4 acres and corn was undefined. The law of 1857 defined the fanega for corn to be 8.81226 acres while the fanega for wheat was undefined.

Volume Measurements

As with measurements today, volume measurements in the mission era were based on dry or wet measure. A third, arid, was added for specific grains. For convenience, the dry measures were generally just linear measures cubed. Some were given specific names and others just mentioned as the linear measure cubed. Only the smallest of the linear measures were used for volume; larger ones became much too large to be of practical value. As with length, the vara was the standard other measures were derived from. The Pauley paper linked to above contains multiple tables relating Spanish volume measures to modern measures. Of course, they are all approximate as the Spanish measurements were not standardized throughout the colonies even after the official Spanish measurement, a scribed metal yardstick, arrived in the New World in 1721 and in Alta California in 1803.

Wet measures (11 units of measure) were likewise approximate as some of the measures (e.g., pipa and barril) had several different values assigned. Plus, due largely to inaccuracies in the containers, the larger the measure the more inaccurate it became.

Arid volumes had some seven units of measure. Again, the reference above has tables showing the names and current equivalents. The most common, as seen above, was the fanega. At most missions they had a wooden measure of the fanega that was filled with the grain in question and leveled. An example of this can be seen in the Sonoma museum.