History Files


The Americas

Central American Colonial Settlements




Modern El Salvador
AD 1841 - Present Day

Located in Central America, El Salvador borders modern Guatemala to the north, and Honduras to the east. Its capital is San Salvador. The original native Pipil name for the region was Cuzhcatl ('land of precious things'), but the Spanish christened it with a long-winded name which was abbreviated as El Salvador, 'the saviour [of the world]'.

From his base at the new colonial capital of Mexico City, the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado explored and conquered territory to the south between 1523-1527. El Salvador was created a province in 1528, and as with all the territory gained in southern Central America, it was incorporated into the kingdom of Guatemala. This consisted of Chiapas, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

These provinces passed onto the Federal Republic of Central America after independence, but when that began to disintegrate in 1838, the five provinces were given permission to become independent states in their own right on 31 May (although this was already happening anyway). El Salvador was the last to officially leave the republic, only declaring its independence in February 1841, after the republic had ceased to exist in all but name and the head of state, General Francisco Morazan, had left El Salvador to lead Costa Rica.

El Salvador's capital was at San Salvador. Despite the failure of the federal republic, the new countries shared a common history and the hope that reunion would eventually come, as evidenced by their many attempts over the years.


Fearing dominance by Guatemala City, the capital of the Federal Republic of Central America is moved to San Salvador.

Map of Central America in the 1830s
The Federal Republic of Central America was formed of Chiapas, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. This lasted from 1823-1841, by which time Mexico had grabbed much of Chiapas and the republic itself dissolved into the separate nation states known today - although Nicaragua did not control the independent Mosquito Coast until the end of the century, and British troops occupied eastern Belize (click on map to view full sized)

1842 - 1844

The attempt by General Francisco Morazan to establish the Confederation of Central America from Costa Rica leads to his death, but the confederation itself lingers on for two years.


A second attempt to recreate a federal republic is made with the Federation of Central America. Involving El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, it is established in October, and lasts all of a month.


The rivalry between El Salvador's president and the Guatemalan leader, Rafael Carrera, leads to open war. Guatemala suffers a defeat at Coatepeque and agrees to a truce. With Honduras siding with El Salvador, and Costa Rica and Nicaragua siding with Guatemala, the war soon ends with Carrera occupying the Salvadorian capital.


After a diplomatic approach between El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras fails, the president of Guatemala, Justo Rufino Barrios, attempts to reunite the states of the former federal republic by force of arms, but is killed in battle against El Salvador.

1896 - 1898

The Pact of Amapala, signed on 20 June 1895, heralds a new attempt at creating a union between El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. The build-up to the Greater Republic of Central America takes two years. When its constitution comes into effect in 1898 it is rechristened the United States of Central America, but it doesn't survive a military coup by General Tomas Regalado in El Salvador in the same year.

1917 - 1918

Unlike many of its neighbours in Central America, El Salvador remains neutral during the First World War against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire.

1921 - 1922

One more attempt is made at creating the Greater Republic of Central America between El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. A provisional federal council is formed, made up of delegates from each state, but that is as far as the project goes.

1931 - 1944

In a coup d'etat, General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez comes to power. Hernandez uses brutal methods to suppress rural opposition the following year during a peasant uprising. La Matanza (or massacre) is led by Farabundo Marti, but it is crushed by Hernandez at a cost of 30,000 casualties. On 8 December 1941, El Salvador joins the Second World War as an ally of the USA and Great Britain against Japan, Germany and Italy. In 1944 Hernandez is deposed, but the country continues to be ruled for the most part by army officers with few elections which are far from free or fair.


Border tensions between Honduras and El Salvador erupt into war following preliminary matches between the two nations for the forthcoming football World Cup. El Salvador launches an attack on Honduras on 14 July, but just six days later the Central American states negotiate a ceasefire. The conflict later becomes known as the Soccer War.


Jose Napoleon Duarte is elected president, but the military capture and torture him. When the chance comes, he is forced to flee the country.

1980 - 1992

The country experiences a second peasant uprising which leads to the Salvadoran Civil War. Supported by the USA, the government fights a coalition of four left-wing groups and one communist group, which are supported by Soviet Russia, making it a playground of the Cold War. Atrocities are committed by the National Guard and government-related death squads. Especially horrific to the outside world are the murders of Catholic missionaries and religious aid workers, and a total of 180,000 casualties are claimed in all. The violence doesn't end until the Chapultepec Peace Accords are signed in January 1991. The guerrilla factions then form their own political party in order to contest elections for president.

Suchitoto Church
Suchitoto Church is a fine example of colonial era building in the country


Lying as it does within the Pacific's ring of fire, the country suffers from frequent earthquake activity. On 13 January, El Salvador is rocked by an earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter Scale. Just a month later, on 13 February, a second earthquake destroys great swathes of the country's infrastructure.


El Salvador is the most heavily populated Central American country, with a total population of 5.8 million. It also has one of the highest murder rates in the Americas, perhaps somewhat due to the US policy of deporting thousands of Salvadorian citizens in the nineties.