Ortiz Parrilla Red River Campaign

By: Robert S. Weddle

Type: General Entry

Published: May 1, 1995

In late summer, 1759, a Spanish troop led by Diego Ortiz Parrilla undertook a campaign to punish the Norteños (northern tribes) for their destruction of Santa Cruz de San Sabá Mission. The march culminated early in October in a battle at a fortified Taovaya (Wichita) village near the site of present-day Spanish Fort. Ortiz Parrilla, a dragoon colonel and commandant of San Luis de las Amarillas Presidio (San Sabá) lost nineteen men killed, fourteen wounded, and nineteen by desertion. Although the Spanish defeat has been exaggerated by Ortiz Parrilla's detractors, the expedition failed in its objectives of taking the Indians' position and vindicating Spanish arms. It spelled the end of the missionary effort on the San Saba River. More important, it demonstrated the significant changes that had occurred on the frontier: the volatile combination of Spanish horses and French firearms had given the natives a capability in warfare that came close to matching the Spaniards' own. Such an outcome set the stage for the reshuffle of frontier defenses that followed the Marqués de Rubí's inspection some years later.

The campaign grew out of Ortiz Parrilla's effort to shed blame for the mission attack in which two priests and six others had been slain on March 16, 1758. Recognizing the implications for the future of the mission enterprise, he suggested moving it and punishing the Indians. The slowness of communication with Mexico City and the deliberate decision-making process in the capital stalled action for months. Finally, with approval of viceroy and king, a conference of frontier governors and military leaders convened at San Antonio de Béxar in early January, 1759. The following summer a force from the provinces of northeastern Mexico and all the presidios of Texas gathered at San Antonio to direct the offensive against the Tawakonis, Tonkawas, and Wichitas. (The Comanches were excluded because their country was considered too far.) When Ortiz Parrilla set march in August for San Sabá, he had a force of 576, including 176 mission Indians and Apaches. There were 1,500 horses, several hundred mules, and provisions of dry beef, flour, corn, and beans for four months. In the interim, the resolve had been strengthened by occurrences at San Sabá. The previous December, a Comanche band accompanied by members of eleven other groups, all armed with muskets, surprised a group of Apaches near the presidio and killed twenty-one. In March a native force reportedly made up of the same tribes responsible for the mission attack massacred nineteen men guarding the presidio's horse herd, leaving only one survivor.

As the campaign got under way, Juan Ángel de Oyarzún, captain of the San Luis Potosí company, kept a diary, begun on September 1, 1759, when the troop gathered at San Antonio made camp at the site of the destroyed San Sabá Mission. Almost a week later, the force took up the march in a northerly direction, angling northeast, crossing plains of grama grass punctuated by mesquite, with frequent signs of buffalo and horses and mules stolen from San Sabá. Confusion resulted several times from the scouts' mistaking the trail of the expedition's own buffalo hunters with that of the enemy. On October 1, the Spanish force surprised a Yojuan (Tonkawa) ranchería, probably on the main course of the Brazos River. Fifty-five Indians were slain, including five women and five children whose deaths Oyarzún lays to the Apaches. Additionally, 149 captives were taken, and 100 horses of those stolen from San Sabá were recovered. The Spaniards lost only two horses killed, while two Apaches were wounded.

In view of such a triumph, momentary consideration was given to withdrawal. Yet Ortiz, recognizing that this was not the main focus of the enemy he sought, decided to press on. Spies went out to the Red River, seeking the Indians, Oyarzún says, who were primarily responsible for the mission attack. On October 7, before the Spanish commander had notice of the hostiles' proximity, the troop was charged from woods by sixty or seventy warriors, whose purpose was to lead the Spaniards into a well-laid trap. Pursuing their attackers, the troop found itself sinking in a sandbank at the edge of the Red River, before the fortified Taovaya village. Prior to 1965, this village was presumed unequivocally to have been on the river's south bank. That assumption was challenged by Lathel F. Duffield, who pieced together "scattered scraps of information" from Ortiz Parrilla's accounts suggesting that the Indian fortress was on the left bank with its entrance facing the river. The question has been pursued by Elizabeth A. H. John, who has presented a 1763 map sketch that actually places the fort on the left bank.

After coming unexpectedly to the fort, the Spanish troop withdrew to assess the situation. Oyarzún describes a village of oval-shaped huts enclosed by a stockade and "a moat"-possibly an old river channel-the stockade, facing the river, swarming with Indians firing muskets. As the Spaniards sought to withdraw to assess the situation, they found the road cut off by mounted Indians firing muskets, keeping them in the sand, in which the horses often sank to their knees. In this precarious position, the Spaniards fought a four-hour battle against superior numbers, with elements of several nations, including Comanches, Yaceales, and Tawakonis, as well as Taovayas. The enemy, in Ortiz Parrilla's assessment, had all "the advantage in arms and determination." Fire poured on the Spaniards from the woods as well as from the stockade. At last the troop unlimbered two cannons to fire eleven times at the fort, but to little effect. The Apaches and mission Indians who had guarded the flank stole away, and a number of militiamen deserted. As darkness fell, Ortiz Parrilla managed an orderly withdrawal, leaving the cannons on the field. Camp was made for the night a short distance from the Indian village. In council with his officers, the commander determined to move the camp next day to be near water and pasture. That done, a day was spent treating the wounded and reconnoitering the battle scene. Ortiz Parrilla later claimed that more than 100 natives had been slain, including the fifty-five killed at the Tonkawa ranchería. With a French flag having been observed flying over the Taovaya fort, he believed the natives French-directed.

All the first-hand accounts indicate that the Spanish withdrawal was orderly, notwithstanding nineteen desertions besides the Apaches. There is no mention of pursuit. Reports to the contrary, apparently originating with Ortiz's enemies, caused Herbert E. Bolton to call the withdrawal a rout. Reaching San Sabá about October 25, Ortiz Parrilla left Manuel Rodríguez, commandant of San Juan Bautista, in charge of his post and proceeded to San Antonio to disband his troop. In his reports to the viceroy, he asked permission to proceed to the capital, where he arrived in August 1760. Never permitted to return to San Sabá, he was replaced by Felipe de Rábago y Terán, who held the fort on the San Sabá River as a face-saving measure for almost another decade.

Henry Easton Allen, "The Parrilla Expedition to the Red River in 1759," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 43 (July 1939). Carlos E. Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas (7 vols., Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1936–58; rpt., New York: Arno, 1976). Robert S. Weddle, The San Sabá Mission (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964).
  • Peoples
  • Native American
  • Military
  • Campaigns, Battles, Raids, and Massacres
Time Periods:
  • Spanish Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Robert S. Weddle, “Ortiz Parrilla Red River Campaign,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 15, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/ortiz-parrilla-red-river-campaign.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 1, 1995

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