Manuel Alegre was a Copano-Karankawa leader in the late eighteenth century and a temporary advocate for Mission Rosario and Mission Refugio. In Alegre’s early years, the Spanish sent him to the College of Zacatecas in Mexico, a missionary school 500 miles removed from his homeland on the Texas Gulf Coast. At the school, he became fluent in the Spanish faith and language. Upon returning to Texas, Alegre lived primarily among the semi-nomadic Copanos who intermittently visited Mission Concepción in San Antonio.
In mid-February 1780, while Alegre and his peoples were on the shores of Mustang Island, a vessel captained by José Montezuma landed and asked for a guide. Alegre agreed to serve in that role, being offered “many gifts.” After skirting the coast for 200 miles, the crew reached their destination of the Bay of San Bernard (Galveston Bay) without complication. Nevertheless, when the voyagers encountered the narrow pass into Galveston Bay, it appeared too shallow for their vessel to traverse. Better acquainted with the labyrinthine seaside geography, Montezuma decided to retrace his steps and deposit Alegre among the Copanos before attempting to sail through the pass under better conditions. On the return trip, Montezuma’s ship struck a sandbar and filled with water. While the sailors unloaded goods from the vessel, seventy Karankawas led by Joseph María surrounded and killed all of the marines. Alegre survived by hiding in nearby brush. After three days, he walked back to his tribe, then located at the confluence of the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers.
The Montezuma massacre occurred during the Karankawa-Spanish War (1778–89), and, when anti-Spanish Karankawa groups (Guapites, Cujanes, and Carancahuas) heard of Alegre’s involvement with Montezuma, they made plans to track down the Copano and kill him. Alegre, accompanied by a handful of other Copanos, headed to San Antonio to find refuge. They informed the Spaniards of the Montezuma massacre upon their arrival. Undermanned and under repeated attack from various Native groups, the Spaniards did nothing, despite Alegre offering to take them to the wreck.
By the end of the war in 1789, Manuel Alegre acted as a proponent for Karankawa tribes to reenter Mission Rosario (which they had fled in July 25, 1778) and also the soon-to-be-established Mission Refugio. In 1790 Alegre is recorded as living at Mission Rosario and as being in a relationship with Joseph María’s former wife, María del Rosario. Her marriage to Alegre gave him ties to the Carancahua tribe of Karankawas because her father, Captain Grande, served as their chief.
As a result of Alegre’s Spanish-language skills, of his new connections with the numerous Carancahuas, and of his track record for being a loyal Spanish ally, the Castilians treated him as an intermediary for the Karankawa groups entering Mission Rosario and Refugio. This role provided him limited authority. Alegre attempted to assert this authority in April 1790 when he grabbed Copano chief Baltazar by the hair and took away his staff of office—an item the Spanish gave to recognized Native leaders. Outraged, the Karankawas at Mission Rosario demanded Alegre’s removal. The Spaniards calmed the mission Indians by temporarily sending the Copano to San Antonio.
When Alegre returned to Mission Rosario in early 1791, his relations with the Spaniards and his own people soured further. On July 20, Alegre tried to kill his wife, María del Rosario, for unknown reasons. Sent in chains to La Bahía, the Karankawa governor Santiago whipped Alegre fifty times. The Copano was then placed in Mission Refugio, and Spaniards began to look upon him as a troublemaker. On multiple occasions, they referred to Alegre as being another “Joseph María,” intending to incite the Karankawas to rebel. Their suspicions were well-founded. At Refugio in late September 1793, Alegre was caught trying to lure Spanish soldiers away from their posts. The exact purpose of this decoy is also unknown, but captain of La Bahía Juan Cortés thought it such a grave offense that Alegre again received lashes, reportedly 500. Alegre defended his behavior by stating that living conditions at the missions were atrocious, that the Spaniards had not fulfilled their promises to provide clothing for the Karankawas, much less regular gifts. After being sent back to Mission Rosario in December 1793, as reported in a letter by Captain Cortés on December 15, 1793, Alegre makes no further known appearances in Spanish historical records.
Histories often depict Karankawas as callously anti-Spanish. Manuel Alegre provides a stark contrast. He believed allying with the Castilians—not out of love for the Spaniards but for the protection and goods that Spaniards, rather inadequately, provided—best served his own interests. Alegre’s exact place and date of death are unknown.