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Defining Moments in Chile's History

Updated on November 4, 2016
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Katie graduated with both a BA in Chemistry from BYU and a BA in Spanish from UVU in 2016. She graduated from medical school in 2020.

Places Relevant to Chile's History


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This is the island on which Christopher Columbus landed


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Ancient Peoples of South America

The first people reached the Americas between 25000 and 14000 BC. It is believed that they probably came from Asia via the Bering Strait.

Several ancient peoples flourished in Mesoamerica. They included:

  • The Olmecas, the mother culture of Mesoamerica, flourished from 1200-400 BC.
  • The great urban center around Teotihuacán flourished from 300-650 AD.
  • The Maya from 300-900 AD
  • The Toltecas from 900-1200 AD
  • The Aztecs from 1200 AD on
  • The Incas from 1200 AD on

The Treaty of Tordesillas

Christopher Columbus

This is a portrait of Christopher Columbus
This is a portrait of Christopher Columbus | Source

Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus reached the Americas, Hispañola-the island we know as the Dominican Republic and Haiti today, in 1492. As a response to Columbus’ findings, Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas which established the line of demarcation between the Spanish territories and the Portuguese territories.

Hernán Cortés

This is a portrait of Hernán Cortés.
This is a portrait of Hernán Cortés. | Source

Hernán Cortéz

Hernán Cortés reached Mexico in 1519. His men conquered the Aztec empire and destroyed their capital city of Tenochtitlán. While present-day Peru, Colombia, and North America were quickly explored, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay were not, due to hostility from the natives and a lack of precious metals.

The Discoverers and Conquerers of Chile

This is a portrait of Ferdinand Magellan
This is a portrait of Ferdinand Magellan | Source
This is a portrait of Diego de Almargo.
This is a portrait of Diego de Almargo. | Source
This is a portrait of Pedro de Valdivia
This is a portrait of Pedro de Valdivia | Source

The First European to See Chile

The first European to see Chile was Ferdinand Magellan. He saw Chile after crossing the Strait of Magellan on November 1, 1520. However, the title of discoverer of Chile is usually given to Diego de Almargo.

The Initial Conquest of Chile Against the Araucanos

Diego de Almargo failed in his attempts to conquer Chile in 1535. However, Pedro de Valdivia, decided to start new efforts. In 1539, Pizarro, Diego de Almargo’s partner, the conquerer of the Incans and a distant cousin of Hernán Cortez, gave Valdivia permission to march with 150 Spaniards and 1000 indigenous men south to what is now present day Chile.

They fought against the Araucanos for the next 15 years, before Valdivia’s death on New Year’s Day 1554.. The araucanos were known as the most combative and independent group of indigenous people in Mesoamerica. They were a hunter-gatherer group that farmed with the use of irrigation. And, while they didn’t have a written language but did have a shared spoken tongue and. The Araucanos resisted the Spanish conquerors until the 19th century. Finally, a system similar to the United States Indian Reservation system was implemented.

The First Encomiendas or Spanish Civilizations in Europe

Valdivia helped establish dozens of towns and the first encomiendas. Encomiendas were grants by the Spanish crown that allowed the new leader to demand tribute and forced labor from the Indian inhabitants. They also sought to force Catholicism and Christianity on the indigenous people.

While he set up a few encomiendas, the greatest resistance to Spanish rule came from the Mapuche tribes, a specific branch of the Araucanos. The Spaniards never brought the Mapuche people under their control and several attempts at both military and peaceful conquest failed. Valdivia became the first governor of the Captaincy General of Chile. In this post he was subject to the demands of the Viceroy of Peru, and through him, the Spanish King and Royal Government. Chile remained one of the poorest of the Spanish colonies for most of its Colonia History.

What Were the Encomiendas?

First Rulers and Conquerers of Chile

This is a portrait of Bernard O'Higgins.
This is a portrait of Bernard O'Higgins. | Source
This is a portrait of José Miguel Carrera.
This is a portrait of José Miguel Carrera. | Source
This is a portrait of José de San Martin.
This is a portrait of José de San Martin.

The Old Republic of Chile

Chile’s first attempts at self-government started September 18, 1810 in support of the deposed king Ferdinand VII, under the leadership of José Miguel Carrera. This attempt lasted until 1821 and was known as Patria Vieja, or “Old Republic.” As a response to Carrera’s leadership, Bernardo O’Higgins began a rival faction that wanted complete Chilean independence from Spain and caused a civil war amongst the Criollos. O’Higgins’ faction was further divided by varying opinions on how French revolutionary ideas should be implemented in their movement.

The Reconquista of Chile

The Spanish troops in Peru took the opportunity to attack, and retook control of the territory in 1814. O’Higgins escaped to Argentina. This began the period known as the Reconquista, which lasted until 1817. The Spanish troops’ fierce punishment of suspected rebels convinced more people to fight for Chilean independence.

The New Republic and Declaration of Independence of Chile

O’Higgins joined forces with José de San Martín and they freed Chile on February 12, 1817. This began the “Patria Nueva” era. Chilean independence was formalized when San Martín beat the last noteworthy Spanish force on Chilean soil on April 5, 1818. Although San Martín then led his Argentine and Chilean followers to liberate Peru, fighting continued in Chile’s southern provinces until 1826. And, while Chile’s declaration of independence was officially issued on February 12, 1818, Spain didn’t recognize it until 1840.

O'Higgins, the Supreme Ruler of Chile

O’Higgins ruled as supreme ruler from 1817 to 1823. He was disliked by liberals and provincials because of his authoritarianism and he angered the church with his anticlericalism and landowners with his attempted reforms of the land tenure system. He also angered his opponents by sending resources to aid San Martín’s liberation of Chile. He attempted and failed to implement a constitution that would legitimize his government in 1818. Eventually, his opponents forced him into exile in 1823. As a response, he fled to Peru where he died in 1842.

After O’Higgins’ rule, anticlericalism and regionalism continued to be major issues and presidents and constitutions rose and fell quickly throughout the ‘20’s. In 1828, under Francisco Antonio Pinto, Chile adopted a unitary form of government, with separate legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Unfortunately, Pinto’s moderately liberal constitution alienated the federalists and the extremely liberal factions. This, in addition to continued controversy over anticlericalism, forced him into exile in 1830.

The Man Who Centralized the Government of Chile

This is a portrait of Diego Portales
This is a portrait of Diego Portales

Diego Portales

Diego Portales played an important part between 1830 and 1837. He installed an autocratic republic with centralized authority in the national government which was legitimized by the constitution of 1833. This time period saw economic and political stability and a win against the Peru-Bolivia Confederation. It also saw construction of ports, railroads, and telegraph lines. Unfortunately, he achieved his objectives by wielding dictatorial powers, fixing elections and censoring the press.

A Map of Chile and Araucania

This shows the area of land that was being fought over during the Occupation of Araucania.
This shows the area of land that was being fought over during the Occupation of Araucania.

The Expansion of Chile

The Occupation of Araucanía, also known as the Pacification of Araucanía, was a series of skirmishes and agreements from 1861-1883. It eventually ended in the incorporation of the Mapuche territory into the Chilean territory. In 1881, Chile signed the Boundary Treaty of 1881 between Chile and Argentina. The Treaty gave Chile the Strait of Magellan, but cost Chile Patagonia and a considerable fraction of the land it had during colonial times. As a result of the War of the Pacific against Peru and Bolivia, Chile gained valuable land and expanded their northern border.

Chile's Change From Dictatorship to Parliamentary Style Government

José Manuel Balmaceda was elected president in 1886. He established a dictatorship and had complete disregard for the constitution. Congress led an armed conflict against Balmaceda, which led to the 1891 Chilean Civil War. Balmaceda later committed suicide in the Argentinian embassy. Jorge Montt replaced him as president.

Although 1891-1925 is known as the Parliamentary era of Chile, Chile never really had a true parliament. A true parliament has a chief executive elected by the legislature. While the executive was not elected by congress, it was much more of a ceremonial office than it had been previously. Congress was dominated by land elitist during this time that overshadowed the office of the executive and exerted authority on him. They were often elected on bribes. Historians have berated this time as a quarrel-prone era with laissez-faire policy. However, when compared with the dark days of Augusto Pinochet that were to follow, historians also praise this era as one that had relative democratic stability. They controlled the armed forces and generally respected civil liberties.

During this era, Chile also resolved border disputes with Argentina with the Puna de Atacama Lawsuit of 1899, the Boundary treaty of 1881 and the 1902 General Treaty of Arbitration and an expensive naval arms race.

The First President after the Creation of the New Political Parties

This is a photo of Arturo Alessandri Palma
This is a photo of Arturo Alessandri Palma | Source

New Political Parties in Chile

In the early 20th century new Political parties began to form. These parties included the Democrat Party, the Radical Party the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Communist Party of Chile. A reformist president, Arturo Alessandri Palma was elected in the 1920’s. His reforms led to 2 coup d’états that caused political unrest until 1932. There were 10 different governments between 1924 and 1932. During this era, a new constitution was implemented by Palma, in 1925. The president gained new powers under this constitution and formed a Central Bank.

The Safe Worker Massacre

The Seguro Obrero Masscre (Safe Worker Massacre) occurred on September 5, 1938 in Santiago. The Chilean government responded to an attempted coup d’état by the Nationalsocialist Movement of Chile, whose members were known as Nacistas, by shooting 60 Nacistas who had previously surrendered.

Chile's First Radical President-Eduardo Frei Montalva

This is a photo of Eduardo Frei Montalva
This is a photo of Eduardo Frei Montalva | Source

The Radical Era of Chile's History

The Radical Party dominated the political scene from 1932-1952. During this time, the state increased its role in the economy. Using the slogan, “Revolution in Liberty” Eduardo Frei Montalva was elected president by an absolute majority in 1964. His presidency marked a period of major reform. He implemented critical education, housing and agrarian reforms. Unfortunately he received a lot of criticism both from people who thought his changes were insufficient and people who thought his changes were extreme.

Salvador Allende

This is a photo of Salvador Allende.
This is a photo of Salvador Allende. | Source

Salvador Allende

Salvador Allende Gossens, a Marxist physician, became president in 1970. The US CIA aided 3 different opposition groups during the time and tried to start a coup to prevent Allende from taking power. Although, this may have been more out of an effort to protect the US’ investments in Chile’s mining industry than to protect democracy. Initially, Allende was successful in raising the GDP and lowering inflation and the unemployment rate through price freezes, wage increases and tax reforms. He nationalized the banking sector and much of the mining industries. Unfortunately, these efforts were not sustainable and Chile saw an economic depression that started in 1967 and peaked in 1972. Allende was deposed by the Chamber of Deputies of Chile and the military in 1973. Allende then shot himself to avoid capture. By 1973, Chile’s economy had seen inflation rise 800% under Allende.


This is a photo of General Pinochet.
This is a photo of General Pinochet. | Source

The Legacy of the Chicago Boys

The Great Chilean Economist

This is a photo of Hernán Büchi
This is a photo of Hernán Büchi | Source

Memory and Landscape: Unveiling the Historic Truths of Chile. 1973-1990. - Maria Veronica San Martin

Pinochet's bloody reign in Chile

General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte then took control of the country. His presidency is marred by innumerable human rights violations. He had thousands of Chileans tortured, captured and murdered. Tens of thousands of people fled the country and hundreds of thousands were affected by extreme trauma (capture, murder, loss of a loved one or torture) under the hands of Pinochet. His government also slashed tariffs and government welfare programs and did away with Allende’s agrarian and economic reforms.

A new constitution was approved in 1980 and Pinochet became president of the republic for an additional 8-year term. The Chicago boys, a number of young men who had been trained by University of Chicago professors, were able to implement reforms that reduced the rate of inflation more than 50 times between 1973 and 1981. Unfortunately, a number of banks faced bankruptcy and several of the largest banks had to be nationalized to prevent economic downturn. Hernan Buchi became Minister of Finance in 1985 and introduced a more pragmatic economic policy. From 1984-1990 Chile’s GDP grew 5.9% annually. Another constitution was established in 1988. This constitution allowed voters to accept or reject a single candidate proposed by the Military Junta. Pinochet was proposed for re-election, but was not granted reelection.

December 14, 1989, Chile elected a new president and the majority of members of a two-chamber congress on December 14. Patricio Aylwin was elected and served from 1990 to 1994. He created a National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation that investigated human rights violations committed during the military rule. Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle was president from 1994-1999 and was succeeded by Ricardo Lagos in 2000.

In 1998, Pinochet was arrested in London where he had traveled for back surgery. Judge Baltasar Garzón of Spain ordered his arrest on the universal jurisdiction principle. However, he was released by the UK’s Home Secretary, Jack Straw, on medical grounds. Pinochet returned to Chile in March 2000 where he was welcomed with a hero’s welcome, although thousands demonstrated against him. President Ricardo Lagos later commented that his arrival had damaged the image of Chile.

Chile's First Female President

Chile elected their first female president in 2006, Michelle Bachelet, a socialist. That same year, President Bachelet signed a Free Trade Agreement with the People’s Republic of China and trade deals with New Zealand and Singapore and Brunei. Deals with South Korea, the US, and the European Union had previously been signed. After Sebastian Piñera’s term between 2010 and 2014, Bachelet has been re-elected.

Chile's First Female President

This is a photo of Michelle Bachelet, Chile's first female president.
This is a photo of Michelle Bachelet, Chile's first female president. | Source

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