Spanish Texas —Part IV

(Continued from Last Week)

In 1806, the only towns in Texas were San Antonio (about 2,000 inhabitants), Goliad (1,400 people), and Nacogdoches (nearly 500 residents).  Despite the dangers that constantly threatened them, several American families with good reputations settled near Nacogdoches.  These, along with the officers of the Mexican army stationed there, formed the higher circles of society.  Elaborate dinner-parties were abundant, at which the conversation was bright and sparkling, and the toasts and speeches were witty and eloquent.  Toasts were always offered to the King of Spain and the President of the United States.

Spanish Army 1800

Spanish Army officers

Living in San Antonio were the descendants of aristocratic Spanish families.  As they often came from the Vice-regal Court in Mexico City, Spanish army officers were generally men with polished manners and the priests were men of learning and refinement.  The governor hosted frequent receptions and each night on the public square, the people met to promenade, dance, and converse.  After visiting San Antonio in 1806-07, American explorer Zebulon Pike reported it as being one of the most delightful places in the Spanish colonies.

Spanish officials inside Mexico did not reciprocate this “good feeling.” For many, the notion of a graceless and aggressive white race helping themselves to the continent was disturbing. There was, of course, historic antagonism between Spain and the English, rooted in the collapse of the Middle Ages. The feeling among American frontiersman was that Spain represented tyranny of the worst sort, which also included popery.  Among the Spaniards, these American explorers were despicable piratas.  The Anglo-Saxon mob (in Spanish, Anglosajón) were at best ill-mannered sloths, and at worst, rapists and thieves.

When France’s dream of a vast North American empire crumbled, Spain inherited all French settlements along the Mississippi River.  The Spanish standard flew over New Orleans; Spanish cannon protected the river from interlopers.  About twenty-thousand Europeans lived within this Empire — all of them within the Louisiana Territory.  Most of those people were French-Canadian.  Ten-thousand Spanish speaking people did not guarantee Spanish power, however.  Spain did not have the military footprint to display Imperial power, and Spanish leadership (for the most part) was either inattentive or incompetent —although both could be true.  Spanish title to Louisiana was a legal fact, but history doesn’t depend on who owns title to such lands.  What matters is the people who populate it because ultimately it is the population that controls the land.

Francisco Domingo Joseph Bouligny y Paret

Francisco Domingo Joseph Bouligny y Paret

One exception to the above generalization was Francisco Domingo Joseph Bouligny y Paret.  He served as a high-ranking officer in Spanish Louisiana, as lieutenant governor under Bernardo de Gálvez in the late 1700s, and it was he that first proposed the settlement of Spanish and other Catholic immigrants throughout Louisiana as a means of bolstering Spain’s claim to these territories.  His idea included Anglo-Americans willing to switch their allegiance to Spain.  It was a dangerous proposal, of course, but how else could Spain increase its population and control in such a large area?  Bouligny wasn’t pulling feathers out of the air; he’d observed the settlement of Kentucky and reasoned that if English-speaking settlers dominated Upper Louisiana, then the Americans would eventually take over the entire territory.

Bouligny was a wise man; if he had ever seen an early map of the thirteen American states, he would note that the largest of these existed in the southern half of the United States, and that they began on the Atlantic coast and extended linearly across the entire North American landmass.  Thinking outside the box, Bouligny wanted to bring Anglo-settlements west of the Mississippi under the flag of Spain.  He was certain that if he could induce the Americans through liberal grants of land, the only real cost to these settlers would be their loyalty to Spain.  Besides, the homogeneity of the Spanish Empire had already been affected by the incorporation of thousands of French-Canadians.

Bouligny proposed that Spain offer English-speaking Roman Catholics [1] land grants.  When you think about it, the proposal made perfect sense from the Spanish point of view.  There was only one problem: there were no Roman Catholic settlers in the Mississippi River Valley.  Not only that, but of the total of Catholics living in the United States (numbering about 30,000) none were much interested in becoming frontiersmen. When this reality finally registered, Bouligny went even further.  He proposed that immigration should be opened to “any individual, whatever his nation, especially if he comes with his family and his negroes.”  He ignored the religious test entirely.  Governor Gálvez could not make the laws, but he could ignore them —which is what he did— and smart man that he was, he never put anything in writing.  Governor Gálvez wasn’t a trouble-maker; he was a free thinker.  This could cause Gálvez problems, of course, so he always walked softly when dealing with the Viceroyalty of New Spain.  Gálvez wasn’t the only free thinker.  Some of these high-ranking Spaniards were also Freemasons.

When war broke out between Great Britain and its American colonies, people who wanted to get out of the way began streaming across the Mississippi River.  Most of these people were Tories.  The Spanish military left them alone.  In 1779, Governor Gálvez paid the Anglo settlers an official visit.  When it became readily apparent that Great Britain had lost its war with the colonies, most of these people took the oath of allegiance to the King of Spain.  In 1783, Gálvez obtained a Royal edict that granted these Tories the right to remain within the Spanish Empire.  Many of these Tories did stay, and men such as Gálvez created pluralistic societies in places where one would least expect to find them: Spanish settlements.

Esteban Rodríguez Miró y Sabater

Esteban Rodríguez Miró y Sabater

Gálvez’s successor was Esteban Rodríguez Miró y Sabater and by 1787, Miro was pursuing two courses of action. The Spanish minister in Philadelphia had the authority to recruit Anglo-Americans for the Missouri [2] country.  United States Army Major General James Wilkinson was on the Spanish payroll to help separate the western settlements from the United States of America. Wilkinson, having secretly offered his oath of allegiance to Spain, attempted to foment a war between Virginia and Kentucky.  Of these two strategies, Spanish recruitment for Missouri was the most successful.

Colonel William Morgan of New Jersey, an Empresario, contracted with Spain to settle several American families at the mouth of the Ohio, at a town called New Madrid.  The Spanish offered lucrative deals, including enormous acreages of land, to responsible men who could recruit settlers and were willing to establish a colony at their own expense.  Spain also rewarded the families that accompanied them with leagues of land —and under far better terms than they could ever receive in the United States.  There were other advantages to Missouri, too.  There were no hostile Indians —long dead by virtue of warfare, smallpox, and venereal disease.  Thousands of Americans moved to Missouri.  All these people agreed to become Roman Catholic, but it was mostly an empty promise.  No official ever questioned them about their religion.  Religion aside, they all became citizens of Spain.

In 1789, Governor Miró faced a dilemma.  The Inquisition had sent a priest named Sadella to investigate a rumor that Governor Miró had offered citizenship to protestants.  After Sadella’s arrival in New Orleans, Miró had him arrested and deported, pretending that he did not know who Sadella was, or what he represented. To head off the Inquisition’s further inquiry, Miró wrote to the King, saying “His Majesty ordered me to foster an increase in the population, admitting inhabitants from the Ohio country. These people were invited with the promise they would never be molested —the mere mention of the name of the Inquisition would stop all immigration and cause those already here to depart.”

Contrasting with Hispanic settlements in Mexico, Anglo-American settlements in the Missouri country were prosperous. Trade was brisk between New Madrid and Pittsburgh and other trading posts on the Ohio River.  Aside from an occasional clash of culture, there was no real trouble between Anglos and Hispanics.  The issue of religion was carefully avoided.  Spanish Customs officers had even come to terms with the Anglo trader: they either took their cut (in Spanish, Mordida), or they turned their backs.

Thus, a handful of enlightened officials were able to create a free society, comparable to that of the United States, within the tyrannical Spanish Empire at a place called Missouri.  There is no question about the success of these efforts: Missouri was filling up with Spanish subjects who spoke English.  Colonel Morgan (and others like him) were Spanish officials who exercised vast powers over their colonies.  Spanish authorities expected the empresarios to govern as hidalgos.  Morgan wisely let the town of New Madrid run itself, but this concerned Governor Miró, who had no faith in the proposition that mere peasants could govern their own affairs.

Despite its successes, the Spanish-Mississippi Empire was not to be —and for two reasons.  First, the United States was able to hold on to its western settlements in Kentucky, and through the device of statehood fostered a remarkably robust economy.  Spain could close the Mississippi River, of course, but in doing that, Spain would risk a war with the United States.  Second, in 1800, Napoleon, First Consul of the French Republic, his ambitions blocked in Egypt, re-imagined a grand French-American Empire.  Napoleon forced the King of Spain to cede Louisiana in exchange for some obscure Italian real estate —and at the ceremony where the transfer was made legal and binding, Napoleon promised that the French would never alienate Louisiana or let it fall into the hands of an English-speaking power.  Napoleon many talents, of course.  As a politician, he was able to look someone in the eye and tell him convincing lies.  In 1803, Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States.

Thus, Spain’s experiment with pluralism ended quite abruptly.  It wasn’t a failure of pluralism —only a matter of circumstances and royal prerogatives.  The policies of Gálvez, Bouligny, and Miró were great successes —everyone thought so.  These ideas would later influence Spain in another province: Texas.  Clear-thinking men of the Spanish aristocracy had set an important precedent.

One of the Spanish Missourians was a Connecticut Yankee by the name of Moses Austin.  He and his son, Stephen would become empresarios in Texas.  They would bring the first Anglo-Saxon settlers to Spanish Texas, but for now, at the beginning of the 19th century, westward moving settlers achieved opportunities as never before.  Anglo settlers pushed hostile Indians out of Illinois and into northwest Ohio.  Kentucky had transformed itself from a backwater into a prosperous state. Georgia acquired title to all former Indian lands, and the only Indians in Tennessee were friendly toward whites. These circumstances encouragd the westward migration of thousands of settlers.

Was this all part of America’s Manifest Destiny?  The answer will vary according to whom you ask.  In 1803, most Americans weren’t conquering much of anything beyond the next day.  If they were pursuing American Imperialism, it was no more than folk-imperialism. The move west was by and large an individual endeavor; governments only provided the environment through which citizens could make their own way.  Pioneers couldn’t have purchased the Louisiana Territory; President Jefferson could. Once he did, then it was up to the frontier men and women to make a success of it.  Individualism was the essence of the American spirit.

American Frontiersman

The American Frontiersman

A few years later, another Spanish territory was placed on the menu: Florida —also secured through diplomacy.  The Americans had tasted territorial expansion and liked the flavor of it.  Did they think of themselves a superior to everyone else on the continent?  Of this, there can be no doubt.  Fighting didn’t matter —winning the fight did.  People lacking self-confidence do not willingly go in harm’s way.  Were the frontiersmen belligerent?  Without a doubt —these were men capable of taking adequate measure of themselves, men who refused to take “no” for an answer, and —when combined with an absolute hatred of the old world— belligerence was the result of an abundance of self-confidence.

The year was 1800 and the Spanish were well-acquainted with acts of piracy —and abhorred them.  They viewed trouble-makers from the United States as pirates.  One of these was a man named Philip Nolan, who was not an American.  Nolan was born in 1771 in Ireland.  While still a young man, he found his way to Spanish Louisiana and into the employ of James Wilkinson.  Between 1788 – 1791, Nolan served as General Wilkinson’s secretary and bookkeeper.  In Natchez, he became acquainted with Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, governor of the Natchez district. Using Wilkinson’s influence, Nolan obtained a trade passport from Governor Miró and set out to establish a mutually beneficial relationship with native Americans west of the Mississippi.  We are told that Nolan lived with the Indians for about two years.  What may have alienated him toward Spanish Mexico was that his authorization to trade among the Indians was void in Texas, prompting authorities there to confiscate all his goods.  When Nolan finally returned to Louisiana, he took with him fifty horses that he’d captured on the Texas plain.  Nolan quickly realized that there was good money in selling horseflesh, so “mustanging” became his new area of concentration.

Philip Nolan 001

Purported to be Philip Nolan

In 1796, the 25-year-old Nolan began working for Andrew Ellicott, a US Boundary Commissioner who was mapping the Missouri River.  When the survey party arrived in Natchez, Gayoso was not pleased to learn that Nolan had aligned himself with the Americans.  In his youth, Nolan may not have realized the degree to which the Spanish distrusted America’s interest in Spanish territory. When confronted by the irate Gayoso Nolan explained himself sufficiently to earn a third trade passport. Subsequently, Gayoso changed his mind and wrote to the Viceroy of New Spain warning him about the presence of foreigners, such as Nolan, who (Gayoso believed) were stirring up the Indians against Spanish settlements.

Nolan departed from Natchez with a wagon train of trade goods, which he successfully transported to Béxar in 1797.  While in San Antonio, Nolan ingratiated himself into Spanish society. Not everyone was impressed. Commandante-General Pedro de Nava received instructions from the Viceroy to “deal with” Nolan.  Provincial governor Muñoz protected Nolan by issuing him “safe conduct” out of Texas.  When Nolan returned to Natchez, he took with him more than 1,200 horses from Texas [3].

By this time, Nolan realized that he’d worn out his welcome in Spanish Texas, but he also knew that trade (legal or otherwise) was profitable.  He organized an expedition of thirty frontiersmen to accompany him back to Texas, ostensibly to obtain more horses.  There are conflicting accounts of this expedition. Some historians claim that Nolan induced the frontiersmen to follow him by promising enough land to make them kings. What makes this doubtful is that the men who became frontiersmen hated kings with a passion and would never have wanted to emulate one.  My own guess is that Nolan simply told these men that Texas would make them rich.  In any case, the Nolan expedition crossed into Texas in October 1800, intending to  capture horses in the area north of Nacogdoches. When the Spanish authorities became aware of the expedition, de Nava ordered their arrest.

On 21 March 1801, a Spanish force of around 120-men departed Nacogdoches to find and arrest Nolan.  They located him in the Texas hill country.  Several of Nolan’s men surrendered to the Spanish without incident.  Nolan, who was not willing to surrender, died from gunshot wounds.  This prompted the rest of his men to yield to Spanish authority.  What we know of this event comes from the journal of Ellis P. Bean, who served as the expedition’s second in command.  We today believe that Nolan was the first of the American filibusters —sort of [4].

The United States’ purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 no doubt stunned the Spanish, but I imagine they high-fived each other when they learned that the new military commander of the Department of Louisiana was none other than Major General James Wilkinson.  After all, Wilkinson had been on the Spanish payroll for many years. While Wilkinson advised American politicians to support the separation of Texas from New Spain, he provided Spain with useful (insider) information about what was going on inside the US capital.

Louisiana PurchaseNevertheless, the Louisiana Purchase presented a delicate situation.  Initially, the Spanish refused to evacuate their holdings. When they finally did agree to evacuate, they were once more shocked to learn that the United States had not only purchased Louisiana, but everything north and east of the Rio Grande, as well. Those clever French, having reasserted their old claim to Texas, sold Texas to the United States —and conveniently forgot to mention this to the Spanish crown.

Spain, long wary of US intentions toward Texas, was now convinced that no American was trustworthy.  The feeling created extreme tension on the US-Spanish border.  This too was awkward because there was never a survey of the border area between Texas and Louisiana.  In fact, the border area was actually a gentlemen’s agreement between France and Spain —and the Spaniards knew full well that there would be no such agreement with the Americans.  Spain responded by dispatching armed troops to the Spanish side of the Sabine River.

Still unaware that General Wilkinson was a Spanish secret agent, the United States authorized him to negotiate with the Spanish over the Louisiana-Texas border.  While talks were underway, Wilkinson sent Zebulon Pike to survey New Mexico. General Wilkinson was too clever by far. He alerted the British about a possible US invasion of New Spain and when the British seemed interested, he informed the Spanish that the British were plotting against them.  Spain was overjoyed to have such a man as Wilkinson in their employ.  They increased his payments.  This was about the time that Wilkinson brought in the Vice President of the United States to help him with his Texas land scheme —and, as it turned out, Aaron Burr was the ideal candidate for Wilkinson’s conspiracy because he had the kind of personality (and reputation) that suited Wilkinson’s schemes.  Burr was full of himself, greedy, and one of the least popular politicians in Washington.

MajGen James Wilkinson

James Wilkinson

Modern historians believe that all General Wilkinson’s intrigues had but one purpose: to frighten Spain into paying him more money.  Whether true, Wilkinson became a very wealthy man.  By informing Madrid what Burr was up to, and how he had personally worked to defeat Burr’s plot [5], an ever-grateful Spanish Crown paid Wilkinson his weight in gold.  In 1806, before leaving his post in Louisiana to testify against Burr, Wilkinson met with General Herrera, Commanding Spanish forces in East Texas.  Wilkinson suggested that two gentlemen should be able to cordially settle the border issue and agreed to accept a neutral zone between the Sabine River and Arroyo Hondo —a small tributary of the Red River. The effect of this agreement moved the US border seven miles further east … a clear win for the Spanish, which means that it was a clear win for Wilkinson, and besides that, Wilkinson knew full well that President Jefferson did not want a war with Spain.  The President commended Wilkinson for his foresight and initiative.

(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] Spanish law required all of its subjects to be Roman Catholic and recognized no other religion.

[2] One of these was a man by the name of Moses Austin.

[3] Nolan’s information about Texas was helpful to Wilkinson in his development a map of the Texas-Louisiana frontier in 1804.

[4] The Spanish word Piratas evolves from “freebooter,” also “filibuster.”  It refers to an irregular military adventurer, particularly one who engages in unauthorized military expeditions into a foreign country to foment or support a revolution.  In French, the English word filibuster translates to Buccaneer.  In Spanish, the French word Buccaneer translates to pirate.  There have been several American filibusters who went to Spanish Mexico to cause trouble, and while Nolan may have been the first, I see little evidence that he went to Spanish Texas to foment rebellion.

[5] The so-called Burr conspiracy involved a treasonous cabal of wealthy land speculators who intended to seize land, create an independent country and appoint Aaron Burr to lead it.  In fact, the individual who roped Burr into this crazy episode was James Wilkinson and Burr was his patsy.  It was Wilkinson who led Jefferson to accuse Burr of treason.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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