History of Ecuador's San Francisco De Quito

Gothic Quito
John and Tina Reid / Getty Images

The city of San Francisco de Quito (generally simply called Quito) is the capital of Ecuador and the second-largest city in the nation after Guayaquil. It is centrally located on a plateau high in the Andes Mountains. The city has a long and interesting history dating from pre-Colombian times to the present.

Pre-Colombian Quito

Quito occupies a temperate, fertile plateau high (9,300 feet/2,800 meters above sea level) in the Andes Mountains. It has a good climate and has been occupied by people for a long time. The first settlers were the Quitu people: they were eventually subjugated by the Caras culture. Sometime in the fifteenth century, the city and region were conquered by the mighty Inca Empire, based out of Cuzco to the south. Quito prospered under the Inca and soon became the second most important city in the Empire.

The Inca Civil War

Quito was plunged into civil war sometime around 1526. Inca ruler Huayna Capac died (possibly of smallpox) and two of his many sons, Atahualpa and Huáscar, began to fight over his empire. Atahualpa had the support of Quito, whereas Huáscar's power base was in Cuzco. More importantly for Atahualpa, he had the support of three powerful Inca generals: Quisquis, Chalcuchima, and Rumiñahui. Atahualpa prevailed in 1532 after his forces routed Huáscar's at the gates of Cuzco. Huáscar was captured and would later be executed on Atahualpa's orders.

The Conquest of Quito

In 1532 Spanish conquistadors under Francisco Pizarro arrived and took Atahualpa captive. Atahualpa was executed in 1533, which turned as-yet unconquered Quito against the Spanish invaders, as Atahualpa was still much beloved there. Two different expeditions of conquest converged on Quito in 1534, led by Pedro de Alvarado and Sebastián de Benalcázar respectively. The people of Quito were tough warriors and fought the Spanish every step of the way, most notably at the Battle of Teocajas. Benalcázar arrived first only to find that Quito had been razed by general Rumiñahui to spite the Spanish. Benalcázar was one of 204 Spaniards to formally establish Quito as a Spanish city on December 6, 1534, a date which is still celebrated in Quito.

Quito During the Colonial Era

Quito prospered during the colonial era. Several religious orders including the Franciscans, Jesuits, and Augustinians arrived and built elaborate churches and convents. The city became a center for Spanish colonial administration. In 1563 it became a Real Audiencia under the supervision of the Spanish Viceroy in Lima: this meant that there were judges in Quito who could rule on legal proceedings. Later, administration of Quito would pass to the Viceroyalty of New Granada in present-day Colombia.

The Quito School of Art

During the Colonial era, Quito became know for the high-quality religious art produced by the artists who lived there. Under the tutelage of Franciscan Jodoco Ricke, the Quitan students began producing high-quality works of art and sculpture in the 1550’s: the “Quito School of Art” would eventually acquire very specific and unique characteristics. Quito art is characterized by syncretism: that is, a mixture of Christian and native themes. Some paintings feature Christian figures in Andean scenery or following local traditions: a famous painting in Quito’s cathedral features Jesus and his disciples eating guinea pig (a traditional Andean food) at the last supper.

The August 10 Movement

In 1808, Napoleon invaded Spain, captured the King and put his own brother on the throne. Spain was thrown into turmoil: a competing Spanish government was set up and the country was at war with itself. Upon hearing the news, a group of concerned citizens in Quito staged a rebellion on August 10, 1809: they took control of the city and informed the Spanish colonial officials that they would rule Quito independently until such a time as the King of Spain were restored. The Viceroy in Peru responded by sending an army to quash the rebellion: the August 10 conspirators were thrown in a dungeon. On August 2, 1810, the people of Quito tried to break them out: the Spanish repelled the attack and massacred the conspirators in custody. This gruesome episode would help keep Quito mostly on the sidelines of the struggle for independence in northern South America. Quito was finally liberated from the Spanish on May 24, 1822, at the Battle of Pichincha: among the heroes of the battle were Field Marshal Antonio José de Sucre and local heroine Manuela Sáenz.

The Republican Era

After independence, Ecuador was at first part of the Republic of Gran Colombia: the republic fell apart in 1830 and Ecuador became an independent nation under first President Juan José Flores. Quito continued to flourish, although it remained a relatively small, sleepy provincial town. The greatest conflicts of the time were between liberals and conservatives. In a nutshell, conservatives preferred a strong central government, limited voting rights (only wealthy men of European descent) and a strong connection between church and state. Liberals were just the opposite: they preferred stronger regional governments, universal (or at least expanded) suffrage and no connection whatsoever between church and state. This conflict often turned bloody: conservative president Gabriel García Moreno (1875) and liberal ex-president Eloy Alfaro (1912) were both assassinated in Quito.

The Modern Era of Quito

Quito has continued to slowly grow and has evolved from a tranquil provincial capital to a modern metropolis. It has experienced occasional unrest, such as during the turbulent presidencies of José María Velasco Ibarra (five administrations between 1934 and 1972). In recent years, the people of Quito have occasionally taken to the streets to successfully oust unpopular presidents such as Abdalá Bucaram (1997) Jamil Mahuad (2000) and Lúcio Gutiérrez (2005). These protests were peaceful for the most part and Quito, unlike many other Latin American cities, has not seen violent civil unrest in some time.

Quito’s Historic Center

Perhaps because it spent so many centuries as a quiet provincial town, Quito's old colonial center is particularly well-preserved. It was one of UNESCO'S first World Heritage sites in 1978. Colonial churches stand side-by-side with elegant Republican homes on airy squares. Quito has invested a great deal recently in restoring what locals call "el centro historico" and the results are impressive. Elegant theatres such as the Teatro Sucre and Teatro México are open and show concerts, plays and even the occasional opera. A special squad of tourism police is detailed to the old town and tours of old Quito are becoming very popular. Restaurants and hotels are flourishing in the historic city center.


Hemming, John. The Conquest of the Inca London: Pan Books, 2004 (original 1970).

Various Authors. Historia del Ecuador. Barcelona: Lexus Editores, S.A. 2010

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Minster, Christopher. "History of Ecuador's San Francisco De Quito." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/the-history-of-quito-2136637. Minster, Christopher. (2020, August 28). History of Ecuador's San Francisco De Quito. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-history-of-quito-2136637 Minster, Christopher. "History of Ecuador's San Francisco De Quito." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-history-of-quito-2136637 (accessed March 28, 2023).