Where the Chamelecón River begins to flow in the Sula Valley, at the foot of the Merendón mountain range, lies the city of San Pedro Sula. After defeating several chieftaincies that inhabited the Sula Valley in a “brutal war,” Pedro de Alvarado founded the town of San Pedro de Puerto Caballos on June 27, 1536.
See also more details in San Pedro Sula Municipality
According to Gerónimo de San Martín, the royal scribe of King Charles V, “the very magnificent lord Don Pedro de Alvarado, governor of the provinces of Guatemala, general captain,” and “chief justice” of the government of Honduras, “founded” and “settled the town of San Pedro de Puerto de Caballos,” and “made a general distribution of towns and native Indians of the land to the neighbors… settlers and conquerors” of the town.
In the Sula Valley, several ethnic groups coexisted, with a linguistic origin that is Nahua-Mayan and Circum-Caribbean. The technological development of these groups is a subject of discussion due to the quality of their household utensils and the use of bas-relief on marble vessels from the current archaeological site of “Playa de los Muertos” in San Manuel Cortés. It is believed that the Tolupan people of La Flor Mountain were the largest ethnic group. (Stone 1944)
Where the Chamelecón River begins to flow in the Sula Valley, at the foot of the Merendón mountain range, lies the city of San Pedro Sula. At the time of the conquest, San Pedro Sula and its surroundings were densely populated. The indigenous people were taken by the thousands, marked like cattle, and divided among the Spaniards, who treated them with utmost cruelty. Believing that the supply of indigenous people would be inexhaustible, they forced them to work beyond their limits on plantations and mines, where death was the only relief from their suffering.
The historian José Milla, in his book “History of Central America,” states that the workload imposed on the indigenous people was so excessive that in 1539, upon his return from Spain to reassume the government of Guatemala, which he had conquered a few years earlier, Alvarado had a road built from Puerto Caballos to San Pedro.
This road was wide enough for two trains of loaded mules to pass. It was completed in a short period of ten days by the indigenous people so that Alvarado, his wife Doña Beatriz, their maids, and followers could comfortably cross with their heavy luggage and weapons.”
The indigenous people inhabiting the Sula Valley, approximately fifty thousand at the time when Spanish terror was imposed,” were reduced by half. By 1582, the indigenous population of San Pedro Sula numbered 415 individuals, and by 1735, it was 135.
Originally, the town was established in the indigenous village called “Tholoma,” north of the current city and very close to Puerto Cortes. Due to its proximity to the port, the town of San Pedro was subjected to attacks and looting by European pirates who disembarked at that port.
In 1592, French pirates landed in Puerto Caballos. They took over the port, “burned the population, and, inflamed by victory, attempted to continue towards San Pedro Sula” with the purpose of destroying the town. However, they were stopped by “Commander Jerónimo Sánchez de Carranza (Governor of the province of Honduras), who marched to meet them with some Spaniards, cowboys, muleteers, and arrow-shooting indigenous people.”
In the late 1660s, Jean-David Nau, better known as François l’Olonnais or “El Olonés,” after capturing Puerto Caballos (Puerto Cortés), headed towards the town of San Pedro. Upon his arrival, El Olonés observed “how well fortified the town was.” “It was surrounded by trenches and muddy fields sown with thorns.” “This increased the pirate’s courage.”
El Olonés consolidated his men and initiated the attack. According to the writer Pedro Pérez Valenzuela, “The people of San Pedro fiercely defended themselves. The fight lasted for four hours, fierce and stubborn. The Olonés lost thirty men and had twenty wounded. In the midst of all this, the people of San Pedro asked him for a truce and promised to surrender the town on the condition that the inhabitants be given two hours to vacate it.”
“El Olonés accepted, convinced that otherwise, the fight would continue for who knows how long and with what result, as the Spaniards defended themselves bravely. When the deadline expired, he entered the town and found that the residents had taken their wealth with them, the merchants had hidden their goods, and only a small amount of indigo remained.”19 After the failure, El Olonés burned down the town.
Because of actions like these and others, the Spanish authorities of San Pedro Sula were compelled to relocate the town more than once until finally settling it south of the indigenous settlement of Azula, near the “Río de las Piedras” (River of Stones).
Fortaleza de San Fernando de Omoa
In 1775, the Fortaleza de San Fernando de Omoa was completed. This place became an important port for the country and led to the rise of San Pedro as an intermediate route for the transportation of goods between the interior of Honduras and Omoa. During this period (1714-1789), the population of San Pedro Sula increased from 70 inhabitants to 375.
According to historian Darío Euraque, after the independence of Honduras in 1821, “San Pedro Sula remained a poor village or town surviving simply as a result of its functions as a commercial backyard for several commercial networks between Omoa and the interior of the country” heading towards the more prosperous regions of western Honduras.
On June 28, 1825, the state of Honduras, under the leadership of Head of State Dionisio de Herrera, administratively divided the country into 7 departments, with San Pedro Sula located in the department of Santa Bárbara.
Boom of San Pedro Sula through Agriculture
At the end of the 19th century, San Pedro Sula went from being a simple resting village and commercial transit point to becoming a generator and exporter of agricultural products. By 1890, 37 miles of railway had been built between Puerto Cortés and San Pedro Sula.
The population of San Pedro Sula in the mid-20th century was mestizo, with a culture that incorporated elements from Europe, Mesoamerica, and the Caribbean. By 1888, three centuries after its foundation, the city had only 1,714 inhabitants. Its development was very slow, mainly due to poverty. This factor hindered the establishment of a school because there was no money to pay a teacher.
At that time, San Pedro Sula was nothing more than a rural town, and children worked with their parents in cornfields. The growth of the city began at the beginning of the 20th century with the arrival of banana cultivation by foreign companies. This led to an influx of settlers from various parts of the country, to the extent that by 1900, the population reached a total of 5,000 inhabitants, and by 1920, it exceeded 10,000.
Furthermore, San Pedro already had 5,000 inhabitants (1891), mostly engaged in agriculture. Just three years earlier (1888), 54,000 pounds of coffee were exported to the United States. In the same year, San Pedro exported 39,000 pounds of sarsaparilla, 1,311 pounds of indigo, 30,000 pounds of rubber, and 100,000 bunches of bananas to the United States.
Designation as Departmental Capital
Two years later (1890), San Pedro’s production of coffee and bananas increased. During this time, 180,000 pounds of coffee were produced for export, and 400,000 bunches of bananas were sent to the United States, as reported by the U.S. consul in Honduras, James Peterson, on June 6, 1891. During this period, General Domingo Vásquez, the president of the Republic, created the Department of Cortés (July 4, 1893) and designated San Pedro Sula as the departmental capital.
The boom of banana cultivation and the arrival of transnational companies led by William F. Streich and Samuel Zemurray marked the economic and demographic takeoff of San Pedro Sula. Strong migration flows from the interior of the country, as well as from Palestinian, American, and European settlers, arrived to contribute to the city’s development. However, the arrival of these foreign companies meant that independent Honduran banana producers lost control of the banana plantations.
Between 1920 and 1930, banana production accounted for between 75 and 85 percent of Honduras’ exports. San Pedro Sula benefited greatly from the taxes collected from banana companies, more so than any other municipality in the department of Cortés.
Growth and Modernization
By 1949, the city had a population of 21,139 inhabitants and was the country’s largest manufacturing and industrial center. It had a series of financial institutions, and at that time, almost all commerce was in the hands of foreigners, with minimal involvement of national merchants. It had collective consumption services such as drinking water and sewage systems, electricity, paved streets and avenues, public transportation, etc.
The existing commercial establishments were classified into first, second, and third categories based on the number of employees they had. These establishments paid their taxes according to the government’s classification, thus constituting a source of income for the municipality.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a need to organize the physical space of the city to improve its appearance and the layout of its streets, avenues, and future buildings. This has allowed San Pedro Sula to be well-organized both in the commercial area and in the location of housing for the existing population. This has earned it the status of the second most important city in Honduras, surpassing other non-capital cities in Central America in terms of population and economic power.
Currently, the population of the city of San Pedro Sula is over 500,000 inhabitants. It has educational institutions at the primary, secondary, and higher levels, healthcare centers, industries that employ approximately 28.5% of the economically active population of San Pedro Sula, shopping centers that have improved the city’s physical appearance, and numerous other elements that contribute to its economic and social development.
Although the industry in Honduras is still in its early stages of development, it has been heavily concentrated in San Pedro Sula to the extent that it has been called the “INDUSTRIAL CAPITAL OF HONDURAS”. In recent years, there has been a noticeable increase in industrial activities in the surrounding municipalities of San Pedro Sula, which has reduced the relative predominance of industry in the municipality of San Pedro Sula. However, although industrial concentration at the national level may decrease, its concentration in the metropolitan area remains strong.