At over 1,200 m.a.s.l., between Mounts 20 de Febrero and San Bernardo, lies the Valley of Lerma and the City of Salta, capital of the province and second most important city in Northwest Argentina.
The Inca empire occupied these lands from the XIIth century onward, coming from the region of Lake Titicaca, and during their zenith (in the XVth century) they spread across the Andes (Northern Argentina) thus constituting the Province of the Collasuyo. Their domain collapsed with the arrival of the Spanish conquerors in the early XVIth century.
They lived by agriculture and livestock. They maintained their weaving and pottery activities, as well as a typical music tradition with instruments such as the quena, the anata, the siku, the erke and the erkencho.
The ruins of Incahuasi, which give evidence of their presence, are located in the department of Rosario de Lerma -near the Capital-, at 2,860 m.a.s.l.
Researchers assert that these are the remains of an ancient fortress, built in the times of the Inca Yupanqui and his son Huaina Capac, and used to hold dominion over the diaguita, atacama, humahuaca, chiriguano or lules tribes.
The word "salta" has two usual translations. One means "pleasant place to settle down", in the Quechua tongue; according to the other, it refers to the name of the "sahta" tribe -of the Chaco nation of "Lule"- which is supposed to have dwelt in this valley in the times when the Spaniards arrived.
The first explorative expeditions of the territory of Salta came from Perú around 1535, 43 years after Christopher Colombus arrived in America.
In 1550, the definitive colonization of a vast area called “Tucumán” began.
In April 16, 1582, Hernando de Lerma founded the “City of Lerma in the Salta” on the banks of the Arenales River with the purpose of offering defense and support to commerce and communications from Santiago del Estero to Perú.
Once established in this valley, Lerma took advantage of the natural ways of communication already used by the natives and strengthened the scattered, weak and sparse centers of Spanish settlements. The formation of a network of circulation for men, animals, goods and news was attempted with its axis in Potosí, so as to allow communication between the ports of El Callao (Perú) and of the newly-founded Buenos Aires.
Legally settled, Lerma distributed the plots of land among the new neighbors with the condition that they should fence them in the term of a year and remain in them on pain of losing them. These venues would belong to the King, who delegated their division and distribution among the governors.
Life was difficult during the early times of the settlements. The day after the foundation, Governor Lerma and bishop Victoria agreed to call this valley San Felipe de Lerma in the Valley of Salta. San Felipe, as a tribute to the King of Spain; Lerma for being the surname of its founder.
Even if traffic with Potosí would provide the city with food, the hostility of the natives was also present, which limited their expansion and jeopardized their continuity. Nevertheless, it remained as a result of its remarkable strategic function as regards commercial traffic.
The reduction in the Indian population could be partly compensated by the introduction of African population, which had a gravitation in the population of Salta: in 1778 this migration and its descendants would make up 46 per cent of the inhabitants.
After the first twenty years, Salta tended to reduce rather than increase the size of its population. It was the Calchaquí Indians who most aggressively confronted the Spaniards between 1630 and 1640.
The balance between the ports of El Callao, in Perú, and Buenos Aires was difficult and unstable during the times of the Spanish colonization. In 1776, the Viceregency of the Río de la Plata was established and in 1784 a new Service Corps was created with its headquarters in Salta.
After 1810, the interruption of commerce with Upper Perú and the war of independence caused deterioration of the economy of the Northwest.
The city did not begin to grow until pacification on the eastern border took place between the Spanish governor and the chief of the Mocoví Indians.
Salta began to receive resources through the payment of taxes per head of cattle traveling to Upper Perú.
During the war of independence, the royalist armies, loyal to the Spanish crown, were defeated in Salta (1813) by the Argentinian general and lawyer Manuel Belgrano.
Located between Lima (royalist) and Buenos Aires (independent), Salta was trapped in the crossfire and was the retaining wall for the Spaniards who tried to enter these lands from the North.
Güemes was the best to anticipate the times to come. Trained in the military career and son of an important Spanish officer in the Service Corps of Salta, he continued his studies in Buenos Aires, where he took part in the repulsion of the British Invasions of Río de la Plata. Back in Salta after the death of his father, this young man was appointed to the border, a destination that enabled him to broaden his knowledge of the territories of the province and show his skill as a rider and his capacity for organization and command.
Güemes had studied the beginnings of the war, but he especially knew the territories of Salta. The first great test was the Battle of Salta, fought on February 20, 1813, when the army led by Manuel Belgrano defeated Pío Tristán's troops.
Later, after the defeat of the patriots at Sipe Sipe, in Upper Perú, Salta had to repulse seven invasions: this was the famous victory by Güemes and his “infernal fighters”, as his gauchos used to be referred to.
From 1815 onward, from his position of civil governor -he was only 30 years old-, he transformed his military power into political power and made decisions such as the exemption of rent and debt payments for those who wished to participate in the fight for independence.
In 1820, while he was in Upper Perú as a general of the Observation Army by command of General San Martín, the Salta Town Council deprived him of office. His presence and that of 600 lancer gauchos in the city put an end to this political attempt. He took up command again and the townspeople restored him to office.
While the Spanish forces were at the gates of the city, a party entered on the night of June 7 and unleashed a hail of bullets on Güemes, who was mortally wounded.
Seizing his horse, he galloped to the Horqueta Canyon, where he lay in agony until he died on June 17, 1821.