Francisco de Montejo (the Younger) founded a Spanish colony at Campeche, about 160km to the southwest, in 1540. From this base he took advantage of political dissension among the Maya, conquering T’ho (now Mérida) in 1542. By decade’s end, Yucatán was mostly under Spanish colonial rule.
When Montejo’s conquistadors entered T’ho, they found a major Maya settlement of lime-mortared stone that reminded them of the Roman architecture in Mérida, Spain. They promptly renamed the city and proceeded to build it into the regional capital, dismantling the Maya structures and using the materials to construct a cathedral and other stately buildings. Mérida took its colonial orders directly from Spain, not from Mexico City, and Yucatán has had a distinct cultural and political identity ever since.
During the War of the Castes, only Mérida and Campeche were able to hold out against the rebel forces. On the brink of surrender, the ruling class in Mérida was saved by reinforcements sent from central Mexico in exchange for Mérida’s agreement to take orders from Mexico City.
Mérida today is the peninsula’s center of commerce, a bustling city that has benefited greatly from the maquiladoras (assembly plants) that opened in the 1980s and ’90s and the tourism industry that picked up during those decades.