Lake Chapala and Environs
A Short History
There is much local history for this area yet to be translated into English,
and far more left unrecorded. Here is a brief outline of the history of Lake
Chapala and the various communities along its shoreline.
There is no consensus on the origins of the name Chapala, but the most
popular theory is that it is derived from Chapatla or Chapatlan,
a contracted form of Chachapatlan, which is derived from the root word
Chachapatli, which means 'clay pot', with the suffix tlan which
denotes abundance. Hence Chapala may mean the place with an abundance of clay
pots. This could be a reference to the aboriginal practice of throwing small
clay pots and figurines into the lake as an offering to the god Ixtlazalteotl,
or it could be due to the location of the village of Chapala, on an alluvial
fan that would provide clays for making pottery.
The Coca tribe of Indians are said to have arrived in the Chapala basin
about 1400 A.D., after conflict with the Purépecha (or Tarascans) -- the
dominant group in Michoacán. They settled at Cutzatlán (modern San Juan
Cosala) and founded settlements at Axixic (Ajijic) and Xilotepec (Jocotepec).
The first conquistador to reach the Chapala valley was Don Alonso de
Avalos who arrived in 1531 with friar Martín de Jesús (or de la Coruña),
though there may have been visits by this and other clerics in the preceding
few years. They met with no resistance from the native population. In what
is now the town of Chapala they found chief Chapalac ruling a small band of
Nahuatl speakers (the same language group as the Aztecs). Chapalac was
christened Martín, and was to be the last traditional chieftain of this
band. On his death he was succeeded by Francisco Ixquixúchil and Nicolás
Xuili, who were civil administrators under Spanish authority. That the
Spanish named the town (and in turn the lake) Chapala after this chief
Chapalac is one of the more believable origins suggested for the name.