Frenchman Nicholas de La Mathe lived as an American Indian trader, a rancher, and a militia captain in Spanish Louisiana and Spanish Texas. He made overtures of peace with the Norteños, he smuggled goods from Louisiana into Texas, and he proposed an unsuccessful plan to exterminate the Karankawa Indians. His birthplace and date of birth are not known.
A wealthy merchant of Pointe Coupée, Louisiana, La Mathe acquired a passport to enter Texas in 1775 to collect debts at the virgin settlement of Nuestra Senora del Pilár de Bucareli. Supposedly having a fondness for the town’s namesake saint, La Mathe offered to construct an impressive church for which he hired two workers to build in 1776. While some historians believe that La Mathe’s religious fervor alone “moved him” to erect this sumptuous church, in all likelihood it served as a means of forging a positive reputation for future smuggling operations among the citizens of Bucareli and its leader, Antonio Gil Ibarvo, whom La Mathe had traded with for several years prior. While in Bucareli, La Mathe acquired a small herd of cattle by selling an enslaved black child. He increased his cattle, mustang, and mule holdings in Texas until he had accumulated more than 700 stock animals by 1779.
La Mathe also served as an Indian Agent for the Spaniards. Most notably, he negotiated a temporary peace in 1778 with the Guiscates (Tawakonis), the Tancabos (Tonkawas), and Taguacanes (Tonkawas)—Native Americans who the Spanish collectively referred to as “Indians of the North” or Norteños. At this time, the Spaniards barely withstood attacks from the Apaches, the Comanches, and the Karankawas. The tentative peace with the Norteños provided much-needed breathing room, and as a reward, the commandant general of the Provincias Internas, Teodoro de Croix, granted La Mathe an unprecedented allowance to export 1,000 cattle out of Texas at a lowered tax rate. Such blatant favor toward La Mathe shows the importance French Indian traders played in the survival of a Spanish presence in Texas.
Before La Mathe could export or sell his cattle, Comanches raided Bucareli in February 1779 and stole 202 of his horses and mules. La Mathe lost an additional 500 stock in the following months after a flood, in an accidental fire that burned down half of Bucareli, and in another Comanche raid. With the citizens of Bucareli eventually abandoning the settlement, the governor of Texas, Domingo Cabello y Robles, provided La Mathe a passport to live in San Antonio de Bexar . In November 1780 Cabello assigned La Mathe to a peace-seeking tour to northeastern Texas and to give gifts to the Caddos and the Norteños. La Mathe was also to attempt to meet with the Comanches, seek a truce, and search for any signs of an English influence among them. This expedition ended lacklusterly. The first long-term success among the Comanches and the Norteños would not be achieved until 1785.
Finishing his trading mission at the end of 1782, La Mathe traveled over a thousand miles to Arizpe, Sonora, to report his findings to Croix. Letters from Cabello preceded La Mathe and portrayed him as “unbelievably efficient, industrious, and competent.” Such high praise—from a man who seldom handed out commendation—greatly affected Croix’s view and reception of La Mathe.
Upon meeting Croix in person, La Mathe proposed two major plans—both of which Croix approved. The first plan was to give gifts annually to the Norteños. La Mathe sought to be the commissioner of this tribute, an extremely lucrative position for a merchant with his connections. The second plan was to exterminate the Karankawas (Carancahuas). The Karankawas , under the leadership of Jose María, exerted tremendous pressure on the Spanish in southeast Texas, particularly for the Nuestra Señora de Loreto de la Bahía Presidio and the nearby missions of Nuestra Señora del Rosario de los Cujanes and Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga. Conditions in the region were such that Croix considered abandoning the area and consolidating all his forces in San Antonio. Beyond the Spanish government, La Mathe himself had a personal interest in seeing the Karankawas exterminated. Although his passport listed him as a resident of San Antonio after Bucareli’s collapse, La Mathe lived near the presidio of La Bahia and tended to his remaining cattle—stock that the Karankawas repeatedly stole with impunity.
La Mathe intended to destroy the Karankawas by building eight canoes capable of holding upward of thirty people each at Camargo on the Rio Grande (present-day Ciudad de Camargo), fill them with presidials, and paddle north to Matagorda Island where the Karankawas resided. Simultaneously, La Mathe planned to acquire men and watercraft from Louisiana and have this troop paddle south to Matagorda Island. Last, he prepared to have the soldiers, citizens, and Mission Indians of La Bahia and San Antonio wait on the shore across Matagorda Island and slaughter the Karankawas as they fled their island when the Spaniards’ southern and northern troops converged.
Lack of men, money, and proper wood doomed La Mathe’s plan from the start. So too did the frequent changes in overall leadership and the proposal’s lack of specificity. With the Karankawas’ destruction thwarted and with these American Indians continuing to exploit the Spaniards, La Mathe’s status diminished.
Another blow to his reputation came in July 1784 when the Taboayses and Guachitas, with whom La Mathe had negotiated a shaky peace six years prior, attacked Governor Cabello’s home and stole four of his horses, including two of his best. A more persistent problem for La Mathe was his relationship with the lieutenant governor of Texas, Antonio Gil Ibarvo. Once good friends and trade partners, they regularly feuded about financial disputes stemming from the trade with the American Indians in North Texas. After La Mathe repeatedly and unsuccessfully sued Ibarvo, the lieutenant governor labeled La Mathe his “public enemy.” In June 1792 Ibarvo alerted El Conde de la Sierra Gorda of La Mathe’s involvement in an illegal smuggling ring with the captain of La Bahia Presidio, Juan Cortes. The Conde de Sierra barred La Mathe from living near the border of Texas and Spanish Louisiana and ordered authorities to “remain ever watchful of [La Mathe’s] conduct.”
After 1792 La Mathe disappeared from the Spanish historical record. The date of his death is unknown. La Mathe’s influence in Texas demonstrates how the Spaniards in the mid-to-late eighteenth century relied on French traders from Louisiana, rather than missionaries, to control and protect their colonial territory. Their reliance was so great that they made extraordinary concessions to retain these traders. Moreover, La Mathe highlights the Europeans’ prevailing perceptions of the Karankawas. La Mathe, who made his living negotiating and trading with American Indians, saw them as hopeless savages—American Indians who could only be dealt with by sword.