Both archaeological work and historical records suggest the Tegucigalpa Valley was not a major population center, at least in the years shortly before the Spanish conquest. It’s postulated that the mainly Lenca population was dependent on the larger settlements in the nearby Comayagua Valley. Many believe the city’s name derives from the Lenca words meaning “land of silver,” but the Lenca had no interest in silver and are not likely to have named a place because of it. Others have suggested “place of the painted rocks” and “place where the men meet.” The ending “galpa,” common in the region, means “place” or “land.”
In the early 1540s at the latest, Spanish conquistador Alonso de Cáceres likely passed through the region on his way to Olancho under orders from Francisco Montejo, but he made no report on the valley. It’s probable that residents of Comayagua, who were combing the new colony for precious metals, found the first veins of silver near Santa Lucía by 1560. An official report to the Spanish authorities dated 1589 states silver was found in Tegucigalpa 12–15 years prior. According to local legend, the first strike was made on September 29, Saint Michael’s day; hence, San Miguel is the city’s patron saint.
Whatever the exact date, by the late 16th century, miners were building houses and mine operations along the Río Choluteca and in the hills above. Tegucigalpa had no formal founding, like Comayagua, Gracias, or Trujillo, but grew haphazardly and remained a small settlement of dispersed houses connected by trails for the first years of its existence. The original name for the settlement was Real de Minas de San Miguel de Tegucigalpa, but by 1768 the mines were producing enough wealth to merit the title “Villa.”
By the end of the colonial period, the city’s mineral wealth eclipsed Comayagua in economic importance. Because of the rivalry between the two cities, the legislature of the short-lived Central American Republic alternated between the two, and in 1880 President Marcos Aurelio Soto moved the capital definitively to Tegucigalpa. Some say Soto made the move out of anger toward the Comayagua aristocracy for snubbing his indigenous wife, but more likely he was following his liberal principles by locating the government where the economy was strongest.
In the early 20th century, Honduras’s economic expansion was centered on the north coast, and the lack of a cross-country railroad left Tegucigalpa behind in development. The mines at El Rosario provided some stimulus, but most of the profits went to New York rather than Tegucigalpa. To this day, Tegucigalpa has no major industry to speak of and survives mainly through the government, the service industry, a small financial community, and a handful of maquilas on the outskirts of town. In 1932, the Distrito Central was created, bringing neighboring Comayagüela and Tegucigalpa under a unified government.
© Chris Humphrey and Amy E. Robertson from Moon Honduras, 5th Edition