The Castilian League

[Note: To avoid confusion with modern units of measure of like name all equivalents are given either in millimeter (mm) or U.S. Survey Foot (USF). To convert to other American units use: 1 inch = 25.4 mm,
1 mile = 5,280 USF. Since my sources do not always agree on modern equivalents these conversions are by necessity somewhat flexible.]

Few nations have been as successful in transplanting their culture onto foreign soil, as has Spain. Along with her language, Spain exported her weights and measure, which took firm root in the economies of Spanish America until they were replaced officially, if not always in local custom, by the metric system. Not least among the phantom stowaways that accompanied the conquistadors was the elusive Spanish league. Perpetuated in title documents a precise definition of the league continues to be a headache to historians, lawyers, and surveyors, to name but a few.

The league is an ancient concept of distance that was born in the Celtic civilization of Western Europe in an area which invading Romans later had given the name of Gallia. The exact form and meaning of the Gaulish word, which in modern English became "league" is lost in time. The Gauls considered it to be the distance, which a man could traverse in one hour of ordinary walking, a definition that perfectly satisfied travelers for untold generations. Many centuries after its inception the invading Romans called it leuca or leuga and, already playing the numbers game, began to define it in multiples of smaller units, so that by the fifth century the league was reckoned as equal to 1,500 Roman paces (passos) of 5 Roman feet (pedes) each, or in metric terms 7,500 x 295.5 mm. If historians are correct in their definition of the Roman foot this would amount to 7,271.147 USF. As a measure of an hours travel this is a snails pace for anybody with two healthy legs, so that by the eighth century the definition of the leuca had doubled to a more acceptable 3 Roman miles of 5,000 Roman feet each (14,542.294 USF).

The concept of the league, if not its precise length, traveled with the Romans throughout their sphere of influence. In England the league (in old documents it is variously spelled: leghe, lege, leuge, lewge, leeke) was never in regular use and appeared mostly in poetical or rhetorical statements of distance, where it was generally considered to be the equivalent of three English miles. Leuca is mentioned with some frequency in Anglo-Latin law-books but it is not clear whether it was intended to mean two miles, or three. One of the rare practical applications occurred in the 18th century when the league was used to define the 3 mile offshore territorial limit, probably owing to the fact that at that time this distance represented the maximum range of a cannon shot.

The league gained wider acceptance in the area of its origin, France. During the late Middle Ages the league (French: lieue) was variously defined by local ordinances between 2,000 and 3,000 toises, the toise, which had supposedly derived from half the width of the main gate of the Louvre, being the French equivalent of the English fathom and counted as 6 Royal Feet (pied de roy). It represented a distance of: 1 toise = 1,988.8 mm. In the late 1700s six different lengths of the lieue were legalized as national standards, the "lieue de Paris" for obvious reasons being the most prevalent. There it was defined to contain 12,000-pied de roy (or about 12,787 USF).

Yet it was in Spain where the league (Span.: legua) found its widest acceptance. Except for the foot, Roman measures of length largely disappeared on the Iberian Peninsula when the Visigoths introduced their own measure in the 5th century. However, these barbarian invaders thought of travel distances in terms of time, a condition that was satisfied by the league but not by the Roman mile. When the Moors overran Spain beginning in 713 A.D. the league was already deeply rooted in Spanish culture.

It had taken seven years for the Moors to occupy all but a small enclave in Spain’s far north, it took the Spaniards seven centuries to push them out. In the interval the Moors had introduced their own measure but failed to make it stick. Because of the jigsaw puzzle like growth of royal authority and strong local resentment of outside meddling, by the completion of the long and torturous re-conquest (1492) every province and often every town had adopted its own system and definition of weight and measure. Short lengths were measured by the vara (from Lat. virga, meaning a slender branch or pole) the Spanish yard, and leagues were defined in multiples thereof. Since there was no national standard for the vara there could be none for the legua.

Beginning with Jaime I of Aragon (1213-1276) Spanish monarchs tried to impose a standardized vara of three Roman feet (886.5 mm), but despite legislation under Alfonso XI (1312-1350) and Henry II (1369-1379) which created the vara of Burgos (later known throughout the Hispanic world as the Castilian vara) the confusion of local definitions continued almost until the adoption of the metric system in the 19th century. Only by royal decree of January 26, 1801 was the Castilian vara finally and officially the measure of the realm, to which all varas had to be adjusted. Until that date the local standard varas varied (no pun intended) in length between 832 mm to 848 mm, the vara of Burgos being 835.8 mm long. These standards consisted sometimes of a wooden rod with brass studs, others were metal bars with marks cut into it, and were most often kept in the city hall or by a local silversmith.

To return to the discussion of the league, until the end of the 16th century two very specific and different leagues were in use even in Castile. One was the legal league (legua legal), also referred to as the short league, containing 5,000 varas of 3 Castilian feet each (13,710.6 USF). It was used in legal documents such as the granting of land.

The older and most often used travel league was the common league (legua comun) of 4 Castilian miles of 1,000 paces (pasos) each, each pace reckoned at 5 Castilian feet (pies). This resulted in a common league equal to 20,000 pies or 6666.67 varas. Counting the Castilian foot as 278.6 mm we obtain by multiplication a common league of 20,000 x .2786 x 3.280833 = 18,280.8 USF. Because of a desire for a more practical number (and to add to the confusion) there was a time when in Castile the legua comun was generally considered to be equal to 6,600 varas. But the long league won and in 1587 the legua legal was declared illegal in Castile (but not, as we shall see, in Mexico).

The conversions calculated above could be repeated with different values for many other areas in Spain, Burgos only having the advantage of being the seat of the Cortes, the Spanish legislature, during times of ordinances involving measurements. The problem presenting itself to the modern researcher is that it was a rare individual who specified which league defined by which vara was used in a given travel-log or document. There is only some consolation in the fact, that at the time of the conquest of the Americas the Spanish crown made an attempt to prevent the chaos from spreading into the colonies.

"On the 12th of March, 1519, we arrived with all the fleet…[and] all the soldiers were landed at the Cape of the Palms which was about half a league distant from the town of Tabasco." With these words Bernal Diaz de Castillo, a lowly foot soldier in the invading army of Hernando Cortes, chronicled one of histories most momentous event. And along with the conquistadors the Castilian league stepped onto the tropical shore of Mexico.

On January 13, 1525, less than three years after its founding on the ruins of Tenochtitlan, the City of Mexico established the office of inspector of weights and measure; a silversmith being chosen as first office holder. A year earlier in 1524 Cortes had issued ordinances on his own authority, decreeing that every town have a sealer of weights and measure (fiel marcador) whose duties were to enforce the use of standard measure. But soon the Spanish crown took charge and sent its first viceroy in the person of Antonio de Mendoza.

Mendoza was an able administrator. He brought the first printing press to Mexico and, having observed that: "in this city there exists no measure for measuring land," ordered a standard constructed and preserved in Mexico City. By degree of March 9, 1536 Mendoza ordered that the Castilian (Burgos) vara of three feet be the standard for all of New Spain. In addition he imposed agrarian measures, a cabezada measuring 96 by 192 varas, and a cavalleria (grazing land for horses and mules) of 552 by 1104 varas. A standard bronce vara, grooved to measure aliquot parts and stamped with the citys coat-of-arms was placed into the City of Mexico archives.

Mendoza’s orders were confirmed and expanded by viceroy Gaston de Peralta on September 19, 1567, by defining the length of the measuring rope (cordel) to be 50 varas, and by specifying the size of the sitio de ganado major (grazing land for cattle) to be 1 league of "5,000 varas from east to west and the same from north to south." By that time, many surveyors referred to the league as 3,000 pasos de Solomon, each paso counted as 5 feet.

The order also gave detailed specifications for the surveying procedures to be followed. "The cordel shall be extended as much as possible and then the measurement taken…All sitios shall be laid out in the form of a cross. The center of the cross shall be established, and from the center the measurement shall be accomplished to the East, West, North, and South…the sighting of the sun shall be accomplished during the months of March, April, September, or October [probably to take advantage of the east-west sunrise/sunset near the equinoxes]…The most senior grant shall be laid out first, even if seniority is only for a day or an hour…It is ordered that each surveyed parcel of land be monumented…No person can occupy or build on the property line…" Very sensible rules.

In 1589 the vara of Burgos (835.8 mm) was again affirmed as the standard of length in New Spain, along with the 5,000-vara league, two years after the latter had been outlawed in its native Castile. In ordinances dating from 1620 penalties for use of non-standard measure were proscribed, fifty pesos for a first offence, one hundred for the second, loss of the right to do business for the third. However because of slow and cumbersome communication with centers of authority as well as lax administration, the use of non-standard varas (among other measures) was widespread, so that in 1667 new ordinances were issued requiring the official re-certification of measures every four months. As it pertains to the granting of land, the abuse was not so much in the use of an inexact measure but in the interpretation by land owners and surveyors of the many novel designations for area (there were more than a dozen), each with its unique characteristic as to size and shape. Grants varied in size with the character of the soil, suitability for irrigation, type of land use, and not least with the local jurisdiction.

There are Mexican title documents in which the league was divided into marks (marcas) of 2 and 7/8 varas each. This measure came in handy in laying out cavallerias of land using a cordel of 69 varas, which was the required length for measuring these tracts. Thus a cavalleria was an area of 16 by 32 cordeles of 24 marcas each, or about 3,027 by 6,055 USF.

After independence in 1821 one of the first acts of the government of the Mexican Republic was a degree of February 4, 1823, reaffirming the definition of the league, as had been enacted 250 years earlier. This was the statute league or legua legal of 5,000 varas (13,710.6 USF). Although the common league or long league was sometimes used to define travel distances, for the purpose of land measure the legua legal stood alone.

This discussion only touches on the complexity of Mexican land law and measurements, a complexity that invited the many abuses of the system by large land owners, made title disputes a way of life, and ultimately contributed to the Mexican revolution of 1911. When Mexico adopted the metric system in 1857 its surveyors must have breathed a long sigh of relief.

As Spanish colonization spread northward across the Rio Grande so did the Spanish league. Just as had happened in Mexico three quarters of a century earlier, the Spanish Viceroys insisted that their New Mexican colony adopt standardized measure. In instructions dated March 30, 1609, New Mexico’s 3rd Governor Don Pedro de Peralta was ordered to establish towns (villas) and to: "mark out for each resident two lots for house and garden and two suertes (a suerte measuring 276 by 552 varas) for vegetable garden and two more for vineyard and for olive growth and four cavallerias of land." The elected town councilmen were given civil jurisdiction in their town and "within five leagues around it."

Then there were the Native Americans. Contrary to popular belief the Spanish government made strenuous efforts to provide legal protection for the natives, including protection of their fields and pasture. Spaniards could not locate a cattle ranch within one and one-half league of an Indian pueblo. A royal cedula of 1687 granted to the Indians a minimum of six hundred varas in each of the four cardinal directions measured from the last house of the pueblo, which in 1713 by order of the crown was increased to 5,000 varas measured from the church. Thus was established the "Pueblo League" which became the accepted size for the Indian Pueblos of New Mexico. It must be noted however that the instructions of the crown were often: "recibido, obedecido, y no cumplido" (received, obeyed, and not complied with). Of the nineteen Indian Pueblos in New Mexico only Sandia and Taos Pueblos received formal grants from the Spanish governor.

In 1848 the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war with Mexico, the United States acquired a little over 529 thousand square miles of territory from its former adversary. Add to that the 389 thousand square miles of the Texas annexation of 1845 and the 30 thousand square miles of the 1853 Gadsden Purchase and we have in excess of 600 million acres of land that might have been surveyed with Spanish and Mexican measure had not the sparse settlement of the region made extensive surveying unnecessary.

Yet several million acres had been deeded away by Spain and Mexico, private property that the United States in Article VIII of the Treaty had committed itself to respect. In New Mexico alone almost 12 million acres were included in land grants (I count only those confirmed by Congress or by the Court of Private Land Claims) and Small-Holding Claims, most described and some surveyed by measure related in some way to the vara.

Lack of effective administration of boundaries kept most surveyors and their cordeles at home until the arrival of a new wave of land hungry immigrants equipped with chain, solar compass and transit. Along with new tools they brought a radically different concept of measure.

Even before John Garretson, the first Deputy Surveyor of the U.S. General Land Office (now BLM) unpacked his compass on a low hill north of Socorro on the initial point of the New Mexico Base Line and Principal Meridian in April 1855, the Territorial legislature had in 1852 enacted that: "The weights and measures, as adopted by the United States government, … are hereby adopted as the legal weights and measures of the Territory of New Mexico." It took another fifteen years until that august body made the decision saying that: "The vara measure is hereby suppressed, substituting in lieu thereof as the legal measure in this territory, the yard…" This might have had surveyors scrambling for their dictionaries and the meaning of the word substitution. Did that ordain a vara equal in length to 36 inches? Surveyors had scratched their heads for some years, just how long is a vara? The answer was the same as had been in medieval Spain: "That depends on where you are and to whom you are listening." The problem was an old and familiar one. Yet there was some official action toward a solution.

On the 15th of September 1837, an agreement was entered into between the Minister Plenipotentiary of the Mexican Republic and her agents in London with British holders of bonds for Mexican lands. It defined the Mexican vara as equal to 837 French milimetres [sic] or 9.16469 English imperial yards (the agreement actually said 6.16469 yards but that was held to be a printing error). It also calls for 4840 English yards squared being equivalent to 5762.403 Mexican varas square. These folks probably were lawyers and meant square varas, because a reduction to inches, also quoted in the agreement, can only be obtained by dividing the square root of 5762.403 into the square root of 4840 and multiplying the result by 36. This yields a value of 32.99312 inches to the vara.

This conversion was adopted by the General Land Office for the survey in the public domain of the Southwest. This is probably as official as it is going to get and, multiplied times 5,000, fixes the length of the Spanish league at 13,747.13 feet or 2.604 miles. Sticklers for accuracy will have no trouble to discover the small discrepancy with the cited equivalent in mm.

Slightly different values are in use in California, Texas, and Florida as a result of somebody getting hold of one of the many standard bars prepared and distributed by the Spanish authorities for use in the outlying areas of the realm. The first person to do so was Alexander von Humboldt in 1803, who reported the length of the vara to be 839.16 mm. Others followed and no two measurements agreed. A standard vara taken from the Mexican archives by American military engineers at the close of the Mexican war measured 32.9682 inches. It is the old story of applying modern technology to the ways and means of more tolerant times.

In a U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1878 (United States vs. Perot; 98 U.S. 428) Justice Bradley said: "…a standard vara measure laid on an American yard would so nearly correspond to 33 inches, that the difference could not be perceived by the naked eye." That may be overstating the case, for the differences between high and low values exceed one part in a hundred, too much for even the most careless of modern surveyors. But the litigants were arguing whether to reckon the league to be 3 miles or only 2.6, thus making the true argument not the length of the vara but the definition of the league, and here the Court refused to consider anything but the 5,000 vara definition of Mexico.

Thanks to the adoption of the Metric System in Mexico, the resurveys of the U.S. General Land Office, the Texas Land Office, and to the surveying profession at large, the average citizen as well as the average surveyor will likely encounter leagues only in Cervantes’s Don Quixote and like tales of bygone days. To me, the Spanish league is part of the romance of Spain, and

…adventure, heat and cold,
If schooners, islands, and maroons,
And Buccaneers and buried Gold,
And all the old romance, retold
Exactly in the ancient way,
Can please, as me they pleased of old,
The wiser youngsters of today:…"

I offer this article to help you chart the voyage.

About the Author

Fred Roeder, LS

Fred Roeder lives in Tularosa, New Mexico. He emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1957 and spent most of his surveying career in the Southwest, working for the U.S. Forest Service. Now retired, he started writing a regular column for the New Mexico Professional Surveyors Newsletter in 1988. In 1994, NMPS produced Antepasados, a book of his columns. Many surveyors are good writers, especially about technical or legal matters. However, it's not often that we find a surveyor/story-teller who can present historical facts in a manner that makes them fun to read. Fred Roeder is such a writer and we are pleased to present more than 80 of his stories here. Bibliography is a list of the books Fred used in his writings, and includes a numbered index of the articles. Index is a list of all the articles Fred has written and when. Editor's pick: The King Who Had No Title
Contact Fred Article List Below