Merida History Facts and Timeline

(Merida, The Andes, Venezuela)

Located hundreds of miles to the west of the first colonised area of present-day Venezuela, Merida remained an untouched, remote corner of the Andes as the Spanish began to develop the eastern coast at the dawn of the 16th century.

With its average elevation of more than 1,600 metres / 5,250 feet above sea level and numerous tribes to combat in the surrounding area, the European settlers did not reach the region until more than three decades later.

In the late 1550s, Juan Rodriguez Suarez headed a mining excursion to Xamu, located some 32 km / 20 miles to the south of the current city, and established the earliest settlement in the area currently known as Lagunillas. Continuing confrontations with local tribes prompted Juan de Maldonado to relocate the new community a little more than a year later to nearby El Punto, known as Zumba today. However, it wasn't until 1560 that Merida's history began on the current site.

History of Settlement and Relocation

The town was essentially an illegal settlement, since it had not actually been authorised by officials of New Granadia - the Spanish colony that makes up present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama. These same authorities called upon Captain Juan de Maldonado to arrest Juan Rodriguez. In so doing, the settlement's new leader moved the city to its present-day location and on June 24th, 1560, Merida was born. Today a statue of Juan Maldonado stands in the centre of the city to commemorate Merida's founding father.

The 'City of Gentlemen'

As with its location, the town's name continued to change. Originally it was called Merida after the Spanish town of the same name in Extremadura, the hometown of Juan Rodriguez Suarez. Juan de Maldonado changed it, however, to San Juan de las Nieves (meaning St. John of the Snows), before adopting another name, Santiago de los Caballeros (meaning City of Gentleman). Eventually the name morphed into Santiago de los Caballeros de Merida, or Merida for short.

Expansion and Consolidation

During the early years of its history, the new Andean outpost of Merida was governed by the administrative division of Tunja, which lies in present-day Colombia. As it expanded, becoming a junction linking the northern coastal areas to colonised settlements further inland, Merida became its very own administrative division in 1607, within the wider area of Santa Fe, which today lies in the Colombian capital Bogota.

Just 15 years later, the town became the centre of its own administrative division, prompting the regional official to build his home here. This effectively consolidated the town's position within the self-contained Spanish colony known as the Captaincy of Venezuela from 1777. The history of Merida, as Venezuela's Andean heartland, was secured.

A Centre of Learning and Culture

The ensuing 40 years of history saw the city develop into a hub of education and religion, a status it has enjoyed until this day. In 1785, the city was made an official bishopric seat. Also in that same year, Merida established its first further education centre - the University of the Andes, which serves as the second-oldest in Venezuela. Of note, the university's campus moved to the old seminary building in 1810.

Just two years later, Merida witnessed the construction of its earliest cathedral, which was finally completed in 1866 and is still standing today as the Iglesia de Nostra Signora del Carmen. By now, the city was truly flourishing.

In 1842, the first sculpture in honour of Venezuela's independence hero, Simon Bolivar, was erected here to commemorate the relocation of his remains from Colombia to Caracas. Just over six decades later, in 1907, an earthquake threatened a number of old buildings in the city, although largely, this cultural centre of the Andes remained intact.