Spanish America

History is only valuable when presented in its unblemished condition. If presented in any other way, which is to say, watered down to placate the sensitivities of one group or another, then important lessons of history go unheeded, resulting in repeated mistakes. Besides this, actual history is far more interesting than its revised version. Raw history is neither unkind nor judgmental; it is simply what happened; its relevance becomes obvious when we connect it to subsequent events.

I have provided some background to Spanish Texas and the American Southwest in earlier posts, but nothing substantial.  The history of Spanish America is the story of empire, subjugation, rebellion, and independence.  History involves real people —some bad, some good— who made decisions with far-reaching concerns to subsequent generations.

A frustrated Spanish official by the name of Tadeo Ortiz wrote to the Viceroy of New Spain.  In his letter, he said:

Most excellent Senor:

The time has come when the Supreme Powers simply must understand that the Comanches, Lipan Apaches, Wichitas, and other small bands of savages have not only hindered the settlement of Texas, but for two centuries have laid waste to the villages and committed thousands of murders and other crimes… These depredations have dressed whole families in black and filled their eyes with tears.  The Government must realize that, with utterly baseless hope and with paralyzing fears, the cowardly governors and ecclesiastical councils have presided over enormous crimes, under the deliberate and infantile notion that someday these barbarians will be converted to the faith and reduced to their dominion. To this perverse view and policy, countless victims have been and are still being sacrificed.

Spain’s presence in the Americas was the effort of a multi-national conglomerate in the same context as the Roman Empire.  The Spanish arrived in the Americas for one purpose: to conquer the indigenous people.  For the most part, they accomplished that mission.  They displaced native populations and immersed them in Hispanic culture and society.  They created new towns, cities, and provinces and incorporated them into the Spanish Empire. Once subjugating natives, the Spanish installed themselves as the social elite, at the head of encomiendas [1]. Overall, it worked out quite well for the Spaniards, as demonstrated by brilliant 17th century societies in Lima, Peru and Mexico City.

The Spanish Empire nearly completed all that it set out to do; it conquered massive territories, vanquished millions of people and reshaped them in Spain’s own image.  The societies they created remain with us today. The Empire of Spain lasted for more than three hundred years.  Its longevity enabled the Spaniards to pass along to all subsequent generations their language, culture, religion, and social structure.

The downside to this story is that in achieving everything previously described, Spain also bequeathed to its successor states lasting problems that originated with Hispanic society itself: it’s social structure, its theory of government, how it distributes wealth, and its relationship to the Church.  Modern Hispanic society maintains many features from the Middle Ages.  Then, as now, Spanish culture was true to its history —able to transmit to others its own unique set of values.

Spain carefully controlled migration from Europe to the World.  It was not the Empire’s intent to colonize the Americas or work the land for its resources.  The Spaniards did intend to subjugate and incorporate others to perform work that they themselves did not want to do.  Seeking to reward Hernan Cortés for his many contributions to the Empire, Spanish authorities offered him vast lands in Cuba.  The generous offer offended Cortes because he had not come to the New World to work the soil as a common peasant.  His reaction is useful because it reveals Hispanic culture and the philosophy governing Spanish conquest.  Most Spaniards expected to live from the labors of their native populations.

The effect of Spanish exploration and conquest was that every place and every person became subjects of the His Most Catholic Majesty, The King of Spain. The system they used to incorporate native populations was the encomienda, a process that inflicted unbelievable cruelty upon indigenous people.  Of course, the Catholic Church never sanctioned Spanish brutality of these inferior people. In fact, the Church worked tirelessly to prevent the wholesale extermination of natives —and yet the Church never protested the mercilessness of Spanish conquest; it would have been alien to the value system of Spanish Catholicism.

Hispanic civilization was (and is) rigidly structured and centralized, but it would be a mistake to say ethnocentrism began with the Spanish Empire.  Besides, Spanish clergy could never have communicated any values that were foreign to Spanish culture.


The Spanish Encomienda

In Mexico [2], the encomienda (later called hacienda) worked brilliantly on the wet and fertile plateaus of older Indian civilizations. By 1575, there were more than 500 encomiendas, each producing massive amounts of annual revenue.  Additionally, Spain operated 320 estates, each yielding to the crown over 50,000 pesos annually.  But as the Spanish conquests worked their way northward, beyond the limits of the Aztecan sphere of influence, haciendas became far less successful.  The problem with these northern efforts, even after they were geographically adapted to include cattle ranches (called Estancia de Ganado), was that Spanish overlords were running short of submissive Indians.  The Spanish officially abolished the encomiendas in 1720, but the massive estates that they created remained —and these became the genesis of social problems prevalent in Mexico today.  Spanish estates fostered but two social classes: at the top, the elite, and below that, everyone else.

Early Spanish colonies in the Americas were part of the “sword and cross” methodology … the embodiment of clerical totalitarianism —albeit without slave masters.  In the success of Hispanicization and incorporation of Indian society, no slave masters were necessary.  What made this scheme impossible on the northern frontier was simply because there were no pliable Indians in Texas.  Noncompliant Indians forced the Church and State to devise new ways of solving their problem.  What evolved from this was the Presidio-Mission system.

Under the Presidio-Mission system, Catholic missions fell within the purview of the religious order, whose responsibilities involved several tasks: incorporate the Indians into the mission structure, Christianize them, teach them how to farm, and teach them obedience.  The presidio fell under the province of the military order whose job it was to defend the religious order and its converts, and to keep the Indians in line. In Spanish, reducidos, or transforming Indian populations into useful subjects of the crown.  The Spanish intended that in time, these Indians would perform the functions of a middle class.  Having been “incorporated,” the natives would build the towns, the towns would become cities, and the cities would evolve into economically viable provinces.  Spanish planners anticipated that such an undertaking might take around ten years —but the first challenge was to find savages who would not object to Spanish brutality. In this regard, Spanish missions were less religious organizations as they were agents of the Crown.

Presidio-Mission 001

Spanish Presidio

Spanish religious councils in Mexico City were proud of their presidio-mission system —and hopeful, because in devising it expressly for its northern territories, the Spanish placed all their eggs into this one basket.  In evaluating the system, we must admit that, from a humanitarian point of view, it was an improvement over Spain’s previous method in dealing with Indians.  While religious councils were excited about its prospects, the Spanish military was not. Soldiers who had faced hostile savages such as the Apache or Comanche could not imagine that such a man would one day become a peasant-farmer.  The ecclesiastics persisted, however, arguing that soldiers always took a cynical view of barbarians.  The clergy believed it was possible to save these Indians and convert them to the work of the Lord (and the Crown).  Experienced soldiers who knew better shook their heads and rolled their eyes.

Still, in one area, the Spanish colonial system of the 18th century was admirable because it was the only system in the Americas that ever envisioned a place for the indigenous populations within western culture —even if that place was at the bottom of the social hierarchy.  Moreover, the presidio-mission system was carefully (although not faultlessly) planned and implemented.  The Spanish put more attention, money, and effort into it than either England or France.  Even so, at is very inception, the Spanish colonial system was a triumph of ideology over reality, predicated on false assumptions and utopian ideals.  No war plan ever survives the first battle.  The problem with Spain’s presidio-mission system was that the Spanish had never encountered Texas Indians.  In time, the Plains of Texas would destroy all of Spain’s hope for the total conquest of the Texas Indians.

Also problematic was the fact that Spain placed too much responsibility on the shoulders of priests and friars.  Yes —they were men of God, but also persuaders, teachers, social stewards, law-givers, land managers, builders of missions, and makers and maintainers of roads.  In its move toward the northern frontier, Spain clearly regarded its priests as the last best hope for these far-off territories.  It was too much to ask.

La Salle 001

Sieur de La Salle

In any case, the first missionary effort in Texas only materialized as a reaction to the encroachment of French explorers, occasioned by the landing at Matagorda Bay of the noted explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle [3].  La Salle’s effort, while abortive, did prompt the Spanish into taking a greater proprietary interest in its northern frontier.  Alonso de León [4] responded with a large body of soldiers and priests to establish a permanent colony and halt any further French explorations.

De León constructed a log mission and named it San Francisco de los Tejas (Tejas being the name the Spanish mistakenly gave to the confederacy Indian group called Caddo Hasinai [5]).  They constructed the mission in only three days.  It was situated on the Trinity River, about fifty miles south of present-day Nacogdoches, deep in the pine forests.

Although the Hasinai seldom ventured out onto the western plains, they were by far the most numerous of tribes in Texas.  Comanche and Kiowa occasionally raided the Hasinai, but their large population assured their continued existence.  Conversely, the plains horsemen did not care to place themselves at risk by plunging into dense, dank forests.  Hasinai and Plains Indians lived in completely distinctive worlds.

Hasinai 001

Hasinai Village

The Hasinai were a peaceful people and generously welcomed the Spaniards into their country.  Hundreds lined up to observe Spanish priests dedicate their new mission; many were impressed by Catholic pageantry.  They listened politely to the priests, they offered corn and other foods to the Spanish soldiers, and they promised to give careful thought to the friar’s offer of becoming mission Indians.  Only a handful of Hasinai accepted the invitation.  What may have amused the Indians was the padre’s promise to teach them how to grow their own food.  The Hasinai were already prolific farmers.  In the matter of giving up their warrior culture, these Indians were never hostile except in their own defense.

Hasinai goodwill didn’t last long, though —particularly after Spanish soldiers began fooling around with their young ladies.  Far worse than this were the diseases that quickly spread from the Spanish visitors into local villages.  European sickness had a lethal effect on all American Indians.  Within a short time, scores of Hasinai became ill and died.  Those who were lucky enough to survive began avoiding the mission; the few who had entered mission service soon melted away into the forests.  The friars ordered soldiers to bring the Indians back, of course, but Spanish soldiers (never known for their discipline) had become lazy and ill-disposed toward chasing Indians through the deep forests.  De León’s soldiers were arrogant and insubordinate in their behavior toward their superiors and priests.

Spanish Soldat 001

Spanish Soldat

As the priests and soldiers bickered among themselves, local Indians grew fretful. Spanish pageantry no longer awed them, and they lost all respect for Spanish authority. The Indians began stealing horses and cattle from the Spanish garrison.  The friars believed it was bad enough to have to endure insolence from soldiers; they were determined not to accept it from the Indians.  These circumstances were not a good start for the Spanish Presidio-Mission system.  Without Indians, there was no one to supply food.  It was an untenable situation —and since the French threat had already evaporated, the Spaniards closed Mission San Francisco de los Tejas and marched back to Mexico in 1692. They wouldn’t return to Texas for another twenty years.

It was only French encroachment that caused the Spaniards to return, this time in the person of a French-Canadian soldier/explorer named Louis Juchereau de St. Denis [6].  Inspired less by a desire to explore Spanish lands than by profits from smuggling, this new intrusion stirred Baltasar de Zúñiga y Guzmán [7], 1st Duke of Arión, 2nd Marquess of Valero, Viceroy of New Spain, to reenter Texas.  Once more, the Crown raised soldiers, funded and authorized another mission settlement.  This time, Guzmán was determined that the Crown’s settlement would become permanent.

(Continued next week)


  1. Burkholder, M. A. Spanish Empire, Encyclopedia of Latin-American History and Culture, 1996
  2. Thomas, H. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, Columbus to Magellan, New York: Random House, 2003
  3. Maltby, W. The Rise and Fall of the Spanish Empire, London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2009
  4. Valencia-Himmerich, R. and Joseph P. Sanchez. The Encomiendas of New Spain, 1521-1555: Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991
  5. McKendrick, M. Spain: A History, New York: Horizon Books, Electronic Edition
  6. Phillips, Jr., W. D., and Carla R. Phillips. A Concise History of Spain (Second Edition): Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 2016
  7. Fehrenbach, T. R.Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans from Prehistory to the Present: Austin, Da Pao Press, 1968, 2000
  8. Liss, P. K. Mexico Under Spain: Society and the Origins of Nationality, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975


[1] The system instituted in 1503 granted a tract of land or village (with all its inhabitants) to a Spanish soldier or colonist.

[2] The capital of New Spain was Mexico City.

[3] La Salle was a prolific explorer and trader in North America.  Sieur de La Salle is a French title which means Lord of the Manor.  The French purchased their titles rather than earning them.  In time, his title became synonymous with his person, as if it was his name.

[4] Between 1660-1690, De León led a series of expeditions that traversed the northern coast of New Spain and the banks of the Rio de San Juan.  He was a seasoned outdoorsman and a successful entrepreneur. De León was a logical choice to lead overland efforts to discover foreign interlopers and destroy their colonies.   He led four expeditions between 1686 and 1689.  His initial reconnaissance followed the Río de San Juan to its confluence with the Rio Grande.  After striking the larger river, Don Alonso marched along the right bank to the coast and then turned southward toward the Río de las Palmas (also, the Río Soto la Marina).  This effort yielded no conclusive evidence that Frenchmen had visited the region. His second expedition set out in February 1687.  This entrada forded the Rio Grande, probably near the site of present-day Roma-Los Saenz, and followed the left bank to the coast.  De León then marched up the Texas coast to the environs of Baffin Bay but again found no evidence of Frenchmen.  The third expedition, launched in May 1688, was in response to news that a white man dwelled among Indians in a ranchería (temporary settlement) to the north of the Rio Grande. That effort resulted in the capture of a man called Jean Jarry, a naked, aged, and confused Frenchman.  The fourth expedition left Coahuila on March 27, 1689, with a force of 114 men, including the chaplain Damián Massenet, soldiers, servants, muleteers, and his French prisoner, Jarry.  On 22 April, De León and his party discovered the ruins of a French settlement named Fort St. Louis by La Salle, on the banks of Garcitas Creek. In 1687 De Léon became governor of Coahuila.  Three years later he and Massenet cooperated in founding the first Spanish mission in East Texas, San Francisco de los Tejas, at present-day Augusta, Texas.  De León was an honest soldier and an early pathfinder in Spanish Texas.  He left the region for the last time in July 1690. He was an early advocate for the establishment of missions along the frontier, way marking much of what would become the Old San Antonio Road. He returned to Coahuila and died there on March 20, 1691.  His descendants still reside in the Mexican state of Nuevo León.

[5] The Caddo Hasinai belong to the Caddoan linguistic group, a large family that includes the Arikara, Pawnee, Wichita, Kitsai, and Caddo Indians.  They occupied a compact area in the middle Neches and upper Angelina valleys.  Socially, they were the most advanced and historically important group in the region. The names Texas and Hasinai were interchangeable.  The term Texas or Tejas, was the Indian form of greeting.  It meant “friend.”  The Hasinai had many villages in the vicinity, where they lived in relative comfort, planting corn and vegetables in spring, hunting and fishing in the rich region in other seasons.  The Hasinai lived a secure, almost lazy lifestyle.

[6] We remember St. Denis for his exploration and development of Louisiana (New France) and regions of Spanish Texas.  He commanded the garrison as Fort de la Boulayeon the lower Mississippi River (1700) and founded Fort St. Jean Baptiste de Natchitoches in the area then known as La Louisiana.  St. Denis, who married a Spanish woman, became a thorn in the side of Spanish Texas. There was little doubt in the minds of the Spaniards that St. Denis was an agent of France.  Despite their misgivings about St. Denis, he nevertheless contributed to the geographical knowledge of Imperial Spain.

[7] Served as Viceroy of New Spain from 1716 to 1722 and later served as president of the Council of the Indies.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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2 Responses to Spanish America

  1. Pingback: Mexican California and the Bear Flag Revolt | Old West Tales

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