Spanish Texas —Part V

(Continued from last week)

The Neutral Zone (also called the Neutral Ground) became a large area where neither Spain or the United States exercised any jurisdiction or control.  Within a short time, the zone became a sanctuary for the worst sort of outlaws from both sides of the border: murderers, thieves, and smugglers called it their home. In 1810, when the Mexican War of Independence broke out, violence quickly spread to Texas.  West of the Sabine River, law and order dissipated in the blink of an eye.  The neutral zone quite suddenly found itself over-populated with Mexican revolutionaries. When the lawlessness became intolerable for the United States, the government authorized the US Army to clean it up.

Augustus Magee

Believed to be the image of Augustus Magee

The Army could not have chosen a more suitable man to achieve this.  He was a lieutenant named Augustus Magee, a no-nonsense frontier officer who quickly shot, hung, or chased off outlaws and revolutionaries.  He even tied a few of the desperadoes to posts and had them unmercifully flogged.  Law and order returned to the neutral zone —for a time.  But then Magee looked across the border into Texas and saw opportunity.

Mexico in 1810 was a political mess, beset with social tension, poverty, oppression, racial antagonism, and class warfare.  It didn’t arrive at that state overnight —it was a problem with Hispanic society that had been building for two hundred years.  The oppressed in New Spain included everyone below the status of Españoles and Peninsulares.  The American and French Revolutions encouraged the oppressed and within the intelligentsia there developed a strong republican sentiment, particularly after Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808.

The trouble in Spain paralyzed New Spain; the time was ripe for revolution.  Political paralysis in New Spain caused the collapse of the over-centralized Spanish political system and social structure.  A long-smoldering resentment of Hispanic society led to the formation of guerilla groups in Mexico.  One of these leaders was Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, a wealthy citizen of Revilla in Nuevo Santander (just south of the Rio Bravo), and an emotional republican. Lara fled to the United States to whip up sympathy for Mexico’s revolutionaries.  He established a headquarters (in exile) at Natchitoches, on the Texas-Louisiana border, and initiated a series of meetings with Augustus Magee.

Bernardo Gutirrez de Lara

Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara

Gutiérrez convinced Magee that corrupt royalists permeated Texas and that Texas was ripe for the taking.  Magee was no idealist, but he was aware of the report filed by Zebulon Pike, who held a very low opinion of the efficiency of the Spanish army.  In time, Gutiérrez had Magee convinced that an armed filibuster into Texas could yield untold riches for men of vision and courage. Magee vacillated on the idea until the US Army passed him over for promotion to Captain.  In 1812, Magee resigned his commission and appointed himself a Colonel of the Republican Army of North Texas.  Counting Magee, the army consisted of one person —so he set about recruiting men to join it.

Magee and Gutiérrez planned an invasion of Texas.  Gutiérrez would command the army (for political reasons) with Colonel Magee and his army doing the wet work.  Gutiérrez set about flooding Texas with flyers soliciting able young men to serve in the army.  Magee went to New Orleans to recruit men, successfully raising a remarkable collection of drifters, borderers, idealists, and “men of good family.”  Some of these men of good family were the same desperadoes he had driven out of the Neutral Ground.  A few Indians joined the mix.  Most of his American soldiers of fortune passionately believed that Texas rightfully belonged to the United States —as did Louisiana, and almost everyone opposed the tyranny of the Spanish King.  They were adventurers, of course, but they thought the adventure was for a good cause —and if not that, it was good for them.

Magee paid them $40.00 a month and promised a league of Texas soil (back then a league was a measure of distance that a man could walk in one hour).  Magee’s 800-man army had a multi-national flavor: Americans, Louisiana-French, Mexican rebels, and disaffected Indians.  They crossed into Nacogdoches in August 1812 and the Spanish guardia did exactly what Pike had predicted: they made a hasty retreat. Although Gutiérrez appointed himself general commanding, Magee was in charge, and most of Magee’s officers were Americans.  The Army marched south to La Bahia (Goliad).  Waiting to receive them was Governor Salcedo and 1,500 Spanish troops of Presidio La Bahia.  Magee bypassed the waiting soldiery and launched a surprise attack against the Presidio.  In doing so, Magee captured all the presidio’s stores and munitions. When Governor Salcedo began his siege of the presidio (lasting four months) Magee didn’t mind because they were well protected and had enough food, water, and artillery.

During the siege, in early February, Magee died.  Some historians opine that he killed himself; others suggest that he contracted malaria. The papers preserved by Mirabeau Lamar suggest that his men poisoned Magee in retribution for his harsh treatment of them during the cleanup of the Neutral Zone.  It is more likely that Magee succumbed to disease; if not malaria, then something else in a vast inventory of Texas diseases.

Magee’s deputy was a man named Samuel Kemper [1].  He assumed the title of colonel and took command of the American volunteers. Salcedo, who was desperate for a solution to this problem ordered an attack.  Kemper’s artillery created heavy casualties to the Spanish, and, in March 1813, Governor Salcedo retreated northwest toward San Antonio de Béxar.

Kemper example 001

To my knowledge there is no picture or recorded likeness of Sam Kemper. This could have been the kind of clothing he wore, however.

The news of this “victory” spread across Louisiana and transformed the American volunteers into heroes fighting for Texas liberty.  It was a great recruiting tool and dozens of young men (including James Wilkinson’s son) flocked into Texas to join the fun.  Reinforced, Kemper pursued Salcedo to San Antonio.  In another sharp battle, Kemper forced the Spanish garrison at the Alamo to surrender.  Governor Salcedo gave up 1,200 men, and Kemper took possession of San Antonio. After rewarding his soldiers, Kemper released all prisoners, and on 6 April 1813, issued a declaration of independence of the State of Texas.  Colonel Kemper and his principal officer, one Major Lockett, kept the troops under control.  Kemper wanted to discuss Texas joining the United States, but Gutierrez dismissed that idea; instead, he wanted full control of the Army, reminded Kemper that he and his adventurers were on Mexican soil.

Gutiérrez, in consultation with his Mexican staff, devised a constitution reflecting Mexican liberalism; a construct that formed a governorship and junta closely resembling the structure of the Spanish Crown.  The document envisioned no elections, no consultation with the people, and a structure where loyal revolutionaries filled all major positions. It was no different than government in every other Hispanicized country.  One provision stunned Kemper: that the State of Texas would be part of the Mexican Republic, to which it would remain inviolably joined.  Since Gutiérrez de Lara and all his principal associates were Mexican, Kemper should not have been surprised.  And then Lara’s reprisals began when he sent assassins to track down Governor Salcedo and murder him along the road outside San Antonio.  When Kemper and men learned of the murder, they promptly returned to the United States in disgust.  General Simón Herrera and twelve other Spanish officers accompanied them.  A few American cutthroats remained behind and formed a coalition under Henry Perry and José Álvarez de Toledo.  Toledo was an aristocrat and idealist in the same mold as Gutiérrez. The Republican Army of the North thus became an army of freebooters.

Jose Arredondo

José Joaquín de Arredondo

As events unfolded, the pure Spanish Toledo remained aloof from his men and did not earn their trust.  Perry, however, was a more down-to-earth fellow and able to marshal his men to defeat the Spanish General Elizondo, whose orders were to destroy the rebellion. Elizondo’s trouncing prompted the response of yet another Spanish Army, this one led by José Joaquín de Arredondo —an extremely competent commander. Upon arriving near San Antonio, Arredondo incorporated the remnants of Elizondo’s force and established a base camp fifteen miles south of Béxar.  His arrival caused a great deal of excitement within the revolutionary camp: Toledo insisted on taking full command; Perry’s Americans refused to obey Toledo’s orders. Toledo wanted to establish a defensive position along the Medina River and force Arredondo to come to him, but Perry (foolishly) argued in favor of crossing the river and attacking Arredondo’s flank.

This is what in fact transpired, but Arredondo an accomplished general officer, anticipated such a move.  When the rebels charged, Arredondo had several of his companies fall back, as if in disarray, and this prompted the Americans to charge after them. Arredondo’s force then established a V-shaped formation and fired upon the Americans from both sides.  Toledo rallied his Mexicans and Indians and called a retreat; the Americans refused to run.  As a result, 850-Americans died, but not before inflicting extremely heavy losses among Arredondo’s 2,000 men.  Ninety-three Americans, including Perry, survived.  Both he and Toledo fled back to Louisiana.  Toledo eventually reaffirmed his allegiance to the Spanish Crown and served as Spanish Ambassador to the Court of Naples.

As for the rest of Toledo’s revolutionaries, Arredondo tracked them down, arrested, and then executed them —giving no quarter.  This wouldn’t be the last time a Mexican general ordered the massacre of prisoners of war.  In San Antonio, Arredondo then turned on the local citizens, arresting over 300 for aiding the revolution and executed them, as well.  After this, General Arredondo began his march to Nacogdoches sending advance word to all that he intended to kill every Anglo he found on Spanish soil. Hundreds of Anglos fled into Louisiana. At the end of Arredondo’s punitive expedition, hardly anyone remained in Texas.  In fact, he was so efficient that when he finished executing people, there was no one left capable of filling any government post in San Antonio de Béxar.

General Simón Herrera (1751-1813), a former governor of both Nuevo Leon and Texas, and a republican, escaped to Galveston Island with a few colleagues, later joined there by Colonel Perry.  Together, they organized a miniaturized Republic of Mexico.  Then, enlisting the aid of a few sea captains, they began a campaign against Spanish commerce as privateers.  Initially, this illegal venture was successful, and they were able to seize several wealthy Spanish ships.  Their success didn’t last long, however, and for two reasons: First, some of their sea captains began attacking other than Spanish vessels, and second, Herrera and Perry involved themselves in the slave trade —which brought them to the notice of the emerging US Navy.  The US Navy’s mission back then was two-fold: stop piracy and put an end to the slave trade.  In 1817, Herrera and Perry wisely relocated their republic to the central American coast. At this point, Perry could count his remaining days on one hand and we will hear no more about him in the history of Spanish Texas.

Portrait of Pirate Jean Lafitte

Jean Lafitte

Following the demise of Herrera and Perry, a new buccaneer took over at Galveston Island: Jean Lafitte.  His first claim to fame occurred in 1807 when he became known for a rather robust smuggling operation along the Louisiana coast.  Lafitte became a legend in his own time and today it is difficult to separate fact from myth.  What we do know about Lafitte is that he harbored a deep hatred for Spaniards. Hounded by various authorities of the US government, Lafitte went into hiding for a spell, soon revived by the British.

In 1814, the British were planning to invade Louisiana and seize the mouth of the Mississippi River from the United States.  They appealed to Lafitte for aid, promising him British citizenship, command of a Royal Navy frigate with the rank of post Captain, and £30,000 to make war against the US.  Lafitte always maintained that while he frequently broke the laws of the United States, he was always a loyal American.  He sent documentary proof of the British offer to the Governor of Louisiana offering instead to assist the United States in any way possible.  The governor was overjoyed to receive this news and because of his patriotism, New Orleans society welcomed him.

After assisting Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, Lafitte received a Presidential pardon for all his previous transgressions. Meanwhile, because Lafitte’s business dealings had suffered over several years, and inspired by General Herrera, Lafitte secured letters of marque [2] from the rebel regime now operating from Venezuela to sail against Spanish shipping.  Lafitte moved to Galveston Island in 1817 and within a few months, had assembled a thousand men to help him with his enterprise.  To strengthen the legality of his position, he established “The Republic of Mexico” at his pirate colony, which he named Campeche.  Lafitte required all those serving him to take an oath of allegiance to the republic; he prohibited them from attacking any vessel of the United States.  He ordered his captains to confine their piracy to Spanish shipping, and while not every one of Lafitte’s captains followed those rules, Lafitte did considerable damage to Spanish merchantmen during this period.

The succession of filibusters, freebooters, buccaneers, and pirates operating from the United States did nothing to ease tensions between the United States and Spain.  Officially, the United States maintained its claim to Texas and each time a group of American adventurers crossed over into Texas, the more convinced the Spanish were that the United States was up to no good. History assures us, however, that the US government did not conspire against Spain; it was only that the activities of individually motivated freebooters (such as Wilkinson, Magee, and Lafitte) made it look that way.  Spain politely disbelieved Washington’s assurances that it had little control over these filibusters.  In 1819, the United States agreed to purchase Florida. As part of that treaty, the Neutral Ground became part of Louisiana territory and the US abandoned all its claims to Texas.

It was also in 1819 when the well-connected Dr. James Long, from Natchez, Mississippi, organized an expedition, “to invade Texas and establish a Republic.”  Long was married to the niece of General James Wilkinson and owing to his distinguished service during the Battle of New Orleans, became one of Andrew Jackson’s favorites.  Elected to command the expedition, Dr. Long, his bride and infant in tow, led 80-men toward Nacogdoches, Texas.  By the time Long reached the Texas border, his force had swelled to three hundred —among them the old revolutionary, Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara.  At the time, Nacogdoches was nearly deserted, so it did not take these men long to capture the town.  Following a convention of the participants, Long, as president, declared Texas a free and independent republic.  Long then sent detachments of men to establish posts on the Brazos and Trinity rivers.

In September, Long set out for Galveston Island to seek the assistance from Jean Lafitte.  En route, Long learned that a Spanish army was marching to East Texas from Béxar.  He ordered Mrs. Long to take their child into Louisiana and his officers to merge their forces.  Then he hurried to Galveston Island where Lafitte refused to involve himself in the filibuster.  Jean Lafitte [3] schooled Long that without a large, well-disciplined army, he could not succeed against the Spanish army.  A disappointed president returned to Nacogdoches only to learn about the defeat of his army, the death of his brother, and that some number of his settlers were then in Spanish captivity.  As the town itself was nearly empty, Long re-joined his wife in the United States.  He might have learned an important lesson from this near-catastrophic experience, but Long had developed a psychosis: delusions of grandeur.  With new supporters and financiers in New Orleans, Long formed a partnership with the republican Felix Trespalacios.

Calling themselves the Patriot Army, Long and Trespalacios led an expedition by sea to the Texas coast in 1820.  Mrs. Long again accompanied her husband, now with another small child.  At Bolivar Point [4], Long and Trespalacios constructed a small fortification to serve as their base of operations and then sailed to Mexico to foment rebellion.

Dr. Long led some men to La Bahia and, as before, the town quickly fell to the American invaders. The victory was short-lived because royalists quickly surrounded Long, and he had no choice but to surrender. Dr. Long might have immediately faced execution were it not for the fact that Mexico was in a state of political instability; several high-ranking royalists were beginning to accept the notion of Mexican independence.  After several delays, Spanish troops escorted Long to Mexico City where, by the time of Long’s arrival, Spain’s royal government had fallen, and Agustín de Iturbide had proclaimed himself Emperor of Mexico.  Soon after, Iturbide appointed Trespalacios Governor of Texas.

The government in Mexico City did not know what to do about Dr. Long.  Was he a republican hero, or an American pirate?  In the end, Trespalacios ordered Long shot as a pirate. After Long’s death, his men returned to the United States leaving the 21-year-old Mrs. Long and her two children (and a Negro attendant) at Bolivar Point.

Part of the price the United States paid for Florida was to renounce its claim to Texas.  After Spain and the United States signed their treaty, President Madison prohibited Americans from entering Spanish territory. A presidential order may not have made much difference to the lone frontiersman, or even a small family seeking a place for themselves in the western territories —and in fact, Mexican independence from Spain rendered moot any need for future filibusters designed to “liberate” Mexico from Spain.

The Mexican war for independence raged for over eleven years.  Small but lethal military expeditions and conflicts between royalists and republicans had a disastrous impact on the province of Tejas.  The war for independence reversed Spain’s progress (if you could call it that) over the previous 100 years.  General Arredondo executed or exiled over a thousand people —at the time, approximately one-third of the population of Spanish-Texas.  Dr. Long’s expeditions caused royalist officers to drive away settlers, and much of the improved farmlands surrounding Béxar reverted to their natural state.  As a result of this, people in Texas faced starvation —even those living in San Antonio de Béxar.  At this time, the greatest problem in Texas was under-population.  In 1811, there were between thirty to forty-thousand Indians in the American southwest, and fewer than 4,000 Europeans.  After two decades of hostility and confusion, the bloodshed in Texas was far from over.

(Continued next week)

Sources:

  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

Endnotes:

[1] Historians believe that Kemper was born in Fauquier County, Virginia.  He and his brothers Reuben and Nathan fought in the 1804 rebellion against Spanish authority in West Florida.  Losing confidence in Mexican leadership, Kemper decided to withdraw his support and returned to the United States.  He died of malaria at St. Francisville, Louisiana in 1814.

[2] A letter of marque (and reprisal) was a license issued to a privateer to attack and capture sea vessels who were at war with the issuer of the letter.

[3] Historians believe that Jean Lafitte received mortal wounds while engaged off the coast of Honduras in 1823 and was buried at sea.

[4] Located on the Bolivar Peninsula in present-day Galveston County, Texas where the Gulf intercoastal waterway enters Galveston Bay.

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
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