Spanish Texas

By: Harriett Denise Joseph and Donald E. Chipman

Type: Overview Entry

Published: February 1, 1996

Updated: May 4, 2022

Spanish Texas, situated on the border of Spain’s vast North American empire, encompassed only a small portion of what is now the Lone Star State. The province lay above the Nueces River to the east of the Medina River headwaters and extended into Louisiana. Over time, Texas was a part of four provinces in the Viceroyalty of New Spain (Colonial Mexico). The El Paso area was under the jurisdiction of New Mexico, the missions founded near La Junta de los Ríos were under Nueva Vizcaya, the coastal region from the Nueces River to the Rio Grande and thence upstream to Laredo was under Nuevo Santander after 1749, and Texas was initially under joint jurisdiction with the province of Coahuila.

Slightly more than three centuries elapsed between the time the Texas shoreline was first viewed by a Spaniard on an unknown date in 1519 and July 21, 1821, when the flag of Castile and León was lowered for the last time at San Antonio. Those 300 years saw an early era of exploration in which there was a preliminary evaluation of the land, its people, and its resources. As rumored wealthy American Indian civilizations to the north of Mexico proved illusory, attention turned more to the south. Spain nevertheless determined to maintain her claim to present-day Texas, a defensive borderland with strategic significance based on geographical location. Much of what Spain did was dictated more by international considerations, particularly real or perceived threats posed by the French, than caused by the momentum of an expanding empire. In the process, Spaniards acted upon the First Peoples of Texas and were acted upon by them. While books on Texas history traditionally portrayed American Indians as “victims or villains” in these interactions, more recent scholarship argues that these dynamic, diverse First Peoples “dictated the terms of contact, diplomacy, alliance, and enmity.” Hence, they became “the dominant partner in their relations with the Spanish,” despite the superior technology and deadly pathogens that worked to the advantage of the Europeans.

For various reasons, including challenges posed by American Indians, the uninterrupted Spanish occupation of Texas (1716–1821) lasted for just 105 years. However, the legacies of Spanish Texas, which affect the lives of virtually every Texan today, are lasting and significant. On reflection they seem out of proportion to the relatively small number of resident Spaniards and Hispanicized Texas Indians who became part of the Mexican nation in 1821.

Perhaps most obvious, yet superficial in importance, is the use of Spanish names for hundreds of towns, cities, counties, rivers, and creeks in Texas. San Antonio, the first formal municipality in Texas, is one of the ten largest cities in the United States. Forty-two of the 254 counties in Texas bear either Hispanic names, or an Anglicized derivation such as Galveston, or a misspelling such as Uvalde. The names of physiographical features such as Llano Estacado, Guadalupe Mountains, and Padre Island serve as reminders of Spanish explorers and conquistadores who crossed portions of Texas well before the English settled the Atlantic coast of North America. They and their successors left a legacy of documentation on the peoples, land, flora, and fauna they encountered, as well as bequeathing a treasure trove of artifacts to be uncovered by later archeologists. Spaniards also brought numerous European crops to the area, implemented irrigation at San Antonio and other mission sites, and gave birth to ranching by introducing their various livestock, livestock-handling techniques, and related ranching terminology. Farming, initially practiced by some Native American groups in Texas, was expanded by Spanish missionaries and settlers. Indeed, Spanish livestock and agriculture had a lasting environmental impact by altering the landscape over time.

The restored missions at San Antonio and Goliad stand as enduring monuments to the Franciscans who, for better or worse, zealously worked to bring the mantle of Christianity to the First Peoples of Texas, make them productive subjects of the Spanish crown, and assist the state in expanding its claims to the Northern frontier. From 1682 to 1793, these friars established almost forty different missions of varying longevity. Notably, the faith introduced by Spanish religious personnel remains strong, with Catholicism ranked first in a unitary church denomination in the state at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Also, except for those in California, the finest examples of Spanish mission architecture in the United States are found in the Lone Star State, and these are much older than their California counterparts. San José y San Miguel de Aguayo Mission in San Antonio can appropriately be called the “Queen of the Missions.” Another significant frontier institution, presidios (forts) theoretically operated in tandem with the Catholic missions to achieve the goals of state and church on the frontier. The reconstructed Nuestra Señora de Loreto de la Bahía Presidio at Goliad is a fitting monument to the military pioneers of Texas. Also, significant is the wives of soldiers stationed at Texas forts, who were among the early Spanish settlers in the province.

Other significant legacies can be found in language and law. Spanish is a second language for millions of Texans; for an increasing number it is their first. Although much of the linguistic makeup of the state is the result of Mexican influence, Spanish—not English, German, French, or Dutch—was the first European language spoken there. The lasting impact of Spanish jurisprudence is likewise of vital importance. Significant colonial practices survived to become a permanent part of Texas’s body of law, particularly in rules of judicial procedure, land ownership and water rights, family relations, and women’s rights. As examples, modern Texans owe Spanish precedent for the practice of adoption, protection of essential personal property from creditors, and the concept of community property.

Worthy of special mention is that women, even the poor and uneducated, enjoyed more privileges under Castilian law than did their English and Anglo-American counterparts. They not only could own property in their own name but also had equal ownership of any wealth and property acquired after marriage. Likewise, they were held responsible for any debts incurred during the marital union. Although the husband managed his spouse’s assets, protections existed to prevent him from mishandling them, as he could not sell any of their joint holdings without her explicit written permission. Additionally, legitimate daughters could inherit equally with legitimate sons, and a widow could manage and sell inherited assets at her own discretion. These legal and other Hispanic influences helped shape the Lone Star State and merit greater appreciation than traditionally accorded to them.

The Spaniards who left so many legacies first approached Texas from the east by sea along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, then overland almost simultaneously from New Mexico and Louisiana. The initial contacts were the result of historical processes generated within the West Indies and the vast kingdom of New Spain. Contemporaneously with the conquest of Mexico, begun by Hernando (more commonly known as Hernán) Cortés of Cuba in 1519, the Spanish governor of Jamaica outfitted Alonso Álvarez de Pineda with four ships and 270 men. Searching for wealth, Pineda sailed the northern Gulf waters from the Florida Keys to Veracruz, constructed the first map of the region called Amichel, and gave the name Río del Espíritu Santo (River of the Holy Spirit) to the Mississippi River. He and his crew were the first Europeans to view the entire Texas coast, but recent scholarship has dispelled the long-held notion that Pineda established a settlement on the Rio Grande.

While the conquest of Mexico was ongoing, minor participant Pánfilo de Narváez not only lost an eye but also command of his army in a skirmish with Cortés. Seeking redress from the king, Narváez returned to Spain in the early 1520s where he was eventually awarded a royal patent to establish a colony in “Florida,” a term applied to the Gulf Coast between the Florida peninsula and the province of Pánuco, situated to the north of Veracruz. Narváez left Spain in June 1527, wintered in Cuba, and landed near Tampa Bay with some 400 men in the spring of 1528. Some 300 of them, along with their leader, were soon separated from their support vessels and stranded on the Florida coast. In improvised barges, roughly 250 survivors in September set out from northwestern Florida for Pánuco. The small flotilla passed the mouth of the Mississippi River, and short of the Texas coast it was caught in a violent storm. Two of the craft landed near the western extremity of Galveston Island in early November; their occupants were the first non-Amerindian people documented to have set foot on Texas soil. Of the men who had left Florida only four—Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, his African-born slave Estevanico, and Alonso Castillo Maldonado—survived. They lived for seven years amid various Native American communities and the harsh environment of the Texas coast. Only after an incredible odyssey did they reach Mexico City in the summer of 1536.

The accounts of these four men and the later writing of Cabeza de Vaca provided the first descriptions of American Indian peoples and culture as well as landforms and biota ing Texas. He was the only Spaniard to record the names of the First Peoples of South Texas and to locate them relative to each other. According to one writer, these descriptions of the Mariames, Avavares, Yguaces, and associated groups supplied cultural information that “quantitatively exceeds that of all his successors combined.” Also noteworthy is the collective experiences of the four “ragged castaways, as they came to be called, spurred interest in possible wealth to the north, particularly the rumored Seven Cities of Cíbola. This prompted Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza of New Spain, to request and receive a royal license to sponsor “the first organized European-led penetration . . . of what is today northwestern Mexico and the U.S. Southwest.”

Viceroy Mendoza named the governor of Nueva Galicia, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, as leader of the ambitious venture to explore the lands to the north. Even though the Spanish crown authorized the entrada, and as was common practice, those involved were expected to bear the financial burden in expectation of making discoveries that would produce ample rewards. Mendoza and Coronado, among others, made sizable investments in the venture, and non-elite Spanish participants also incurred debts to outfit themselves. Notably, some 1,300 or more “Indios amigos” (translates to friendly Indians) from Mexico composed the largest component of the roughly 2,000-member expedition. Playing a key role, they served as warriors, intermediaries, and emissaries, as well as performing necessary manual labor. Unfortunately for all involved, the undertaking, which lasted from 1539 to 1542 and covered thousands of miles, produced hardship, frustration, and disappointment, rather than fame and fortune. The toll was also heavy for some of the First Peoples encountered such as the Pueblos of New Mexico. As examples, some Texas Indians voluntarily or involuntarily had to provide supplies for the large exploratory force, found themselves in military conflict with the technologically superior interlopers, and/or became exposed to European diseases to which they had no natural immunity.

From a base on the Rio Grande north of present-day Albuquerque, Coronado reached the Panhandle of West Texas in the spring of 1541. His army crossed the Llano Estacado, discovered Palo Duro Canyon, and encountered the Plains Indians of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, some of whom would become major protagonists on the Texas stage. These included “a group of relative newcomers . . . , the buffalo-hunting Apaches,” one of the first groups to develop equestrian mobility, as well as the matrilineal Wichitas who had a semi-sedentary lifestyle that combined hunting and gathering while also being talented at establishing trading relationships. On the return trip to the Pueblo country, Coronado again crossed the Panhandle at its extreme northwest corner.

Hoping to spread the Catholic faith among the Indians encountered, Juan de Padilla, a friar who accompanied Coronado, chose to return to Quivira, as the Wichita country along the Arkansas River in Kansas was called. Accompanying him were a Portuguese companion and two Indian lay brothers. After experiencing some success, Padilla was killed, possibly by the Indians to whom he was ministering. His companions, however, escaped on foot and crossed Texas from north to south on their way back to Mexico. Their trek was yet another remarkable example of early pedestrian travel across the Texas landscape.

By timing and chance, the Coronado expedition is linked to that of rival explorer and conquistador, Hernando de Soto. “A scourge upon the land,” the latter expedition captured American Indians for enslaved labor and preyed upon native women. Both men were in the field during the early 1540s, but De Soto died during exploration that ultimately covered thousands of miles through ten states in the present southeastern United States. Luis de Moscoso Alvarado then assumed command and approached Texas from Louisiana, as Coronado marched back to Mexico. Evidence suggests that Moscoso entered the future Lone Star State in the summer of 1542 and penetrated to what may have been the Trinity River or perhaps the Brazos in Central Texas. In an ironic turn of events, an unfortunate captive Indian woman apparently had fled eastward from Coronado’s command on the Pecos only to fall into the clutches of Moscoso’s soldiers. Their leader, however, gave no credence to her story of having had contact with other White men and continued his efforts to find the way back to Mexico.

During his peregrinations, Soto’s successor made the first documented contact by Spaniards with the Hasinai Confederacy whose geographical location and level of attainment would pose them well in succeeding centuries to play the Spanish and French against each other in the Texas-Louisiana borderlands. Moscoso thus gained a greater acquaintance with an area of early importance in Spanish Texas than did Coronado. By way of the Mississippi River and the Texas Gulf Coast, Moscoso led his men in improvised boats to safety in Mexico when they finally reached Pánuco in September 1543. Both the Coronado and Soto/Moscoso expeditions “had ended in bitter disappointment.” They acquired some knowledge of the land and people encountered “but little else.”

While the early Spanish explorers in Texas and surrounding areas acquired little of value other than knowledge, their peregrinations had major significance for the First Peoples who fell prey to European diseases, including smallpox and measles. Pathogens spread not only from Europeans to American Indians but also from tribe to tribe with some groups eventually approaching extinction. Long-term survival strategies led certain declining bands to unify with others in the creation of new communities, a process that would only intensify as the presence of Europeans increased in coming centuries. Also, explorers in seeking to learn about the land and peoples to the north of Mexico introduced horses to tribes they encountered. Before Spaniards returned much later to establish a permanent presence in Texas, some tribes such as the Apaches acquired these animals and adapted them into their cultures, “greatly increasing their ability to hunt buffalo and to wage war.” Over time, the acquisition of European firearms enhanced those abilities even more.

While early European exploration began a cycle of significant changes for some First Peoples, the explorers’ reports dampened hopes of Spanish officials about the potential of lands to the north of Mexico. As a result, intentional future expansion toward Texas would be more measured and less dramatic. Nevertheless, the next recorded contact by Europeans with the Texas coast in 1554 was both unintentional and dramatic—the result of three Spanish ships wrecked off Padre Island in a storm. The more than 200 survivors included some women and children. Most were killed by coastal tribes as they tried to make their way to Mexico, but some escaped by boat and one on foot. News of the wrecked ships, which were laden with gold and silver, prompted salvage operations from Veracruz and Tampico in the summer of that same year; however, those efforts proved only partly successful. (See Padre Island Spanish Shipwrecks of 1554.)

By a twist of fate, the next remarkable experience in Texas involved Englishmen. In 1568 John Hawkins placed several dozen of his countrymen ashore near Tampico after experiencing a nearly disastrous defeat by the Spanish fleet in Veracruz harbor. David Ingram and two companions walked from Pánuco, along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts to near Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and lived to tell about the trek.

Information garnered from Ingram’s experiences, added to that of Pineda, Cabeza de Vaca, Coronado, and Moscoso, did little to encourage immediate settlement in Texas. As more than one historian has noted, Spaniards in the Americas tended to be motivated by one or more of the three G’s: God (to spread the Catholic faith), gold (to find metallic wealth), and glory (to gain fame and prestige). Reports indicated that Texas had little of these to offer. Nevertheless, legends died hard for Spaniards, which was understandable given their recent history. After all, Columbus, sailing in the name of Castile, had discovered what proved to be a previously unknown world; Cortés less than thirty years later had conquered a vast Aztec empire consisting of millions of subjects; and subsequently the impressive Inca empire in South America had fallen to other conquistadors. Therefore, despite discouraging reports about the dearth of readily exploitable wealth in the north country, Tierra Nueva (or New Land, as it was then called) continued to attract the attention of gold-hungry men in New Spain. Within five years after Coronado’s return, the presumed wealth of Gran Quivira was again a topic of interest. Future explorers also sought the rumored pearls of the Jumanos and the Great Kingdom of the Tejas.

Real, not imaginary, wealth was discovered in the second half of the sixteenth century, and rich silver deposits in northern Mexico drew Spaniards like a magnet attracts nails. The first of the mining boomtowns was Zacatecas, where a mountain of silver ore was discovered in 1546. By the 1570s additional strikes brought about the founding of settlements in southern Chihuahua near the headwaters of the Rio Conchos. The town of Santa Bárbara in that locale became the principal staging area for entradas into New Mexico and Texas.

Development of the mining frontier also spawned the Chichimeca Wars (1550–1590s) between the Spaniards as they pushed northward, and scattered, nomadic First Peoples of northern Mexico who proved more-than-worthy opponents. As efforts to defeat these First Peoples militarily proved frustrating, Spain increasingly employed frontier institutions designed to convert cooperative Indians and pacify rebellious ones. From their inception, missions and presidios served as interrelated agencies of church and state that validated Spain’s claim to frontier regions. While the primary function of missions was the propagation of the Catholic faith, they also served the empire by Hispanicizing the neophytes (resident Amerindian population), theoretically making them into tractable, tax-paying citizens whose labor could be exploited. As for the Native Americans, they “cooperated only when they believed they had something to gain from the new religion and the material benefits that accompanied it, or too much to lose from resisting it.” Exercising patronage over the Roman Catholic Church in the Americas, the Spanish crown not only “provided the friars with resources and military support” but also determined where and when missions were to be established. Presidios, as the nuclei of military presence, were clearly creations of the state; however, they also proved to be necessary adjuncts to the security of the missions and the discipline of the neophytes within.

As the frontier of New Spain advanced, the northeastern field of missionary work, which encompassed Coahuila, Nuevo León, New Mexico, and Texas, became the primary responsibility of the Franciscan order. In the American Southwest the Friars Minor, the Little Brothers of St. Francis, established their first missions in New Mexico. Forty years after the return of the Coronado expedition, three Franciscans journeyed to Pueblo country with Francisco Sánchez Chamuscado (1581), and within a year all of them had suffered martyrdom. A subsequent expedition to New Mexico, led by Antonio de Espejo and Diego Pérez de Luxán (1582), brought the first known Europeans into extreme Southwest Texas as they returned to Chihuahua. Although no Europeans visited this region again for a century, in 1583 the Spanish crown authorized the pacification of New Mexico by a private individual. Despite royal sanction, no formal agreement to fulfill it was reached for a dozen years. In the meantime, two unauthorized “bootleg” expeditions again brought Spaniards to Texas. The Gaspar Castaño de Sosa undertaking (1590) involved the first wagon train crossing of Southwest Texas. Three years later (1593), an enterprise jointly led by Francisco Leyva de Bonilla and Antonio Gutiérrez de Humaña from Nueva Vizcaya ventured into the Texas Panhandle. Finally, however, Juan de Oñate received the formal contract (1595) that led to the official occupation of New Mexico in 1598 and to the eventual establishment of more than twenty missions by 1680.

In the eighty-two years of continuous Spanish presence in New Mexico, Texas along the Rio Grande from modern Presidio to El Paso bordered the path from the mines, missions, and ranches of northern Mexico to the land of the impressive Pueblos. The interior of Texas, however, remained for the most part tierra incógnita. Nevertheless, there was some penetration of the region under highly unusual circumstances. María de Jesús de Agreda, a nun who never left Spain, was reported to be lapsing into deep trances during which her spirit was transported to distant lands to teach Christian doctrine to “pagans” including the Jumanos. Between 1629 and 1654, expeditions from New Mexico entered Texas to search for these First Peoples, some of whom did display rudimentary knowledge of Catholicism and claimed association with a woman in blue, the color of Sister María’s cloak. After Church officials investigated these claims, the nun was credited “with the conversion of thousands of Indians” and gained legendary status as “the Lady in Blue.” On a more practical note, these entradas also aimed to establish trade with the multiethnic Jumanos, who “shared several cultural and linguistic traits and were connected through a sophisticated commercial network.” In the process, the Spaniards carried aspects of their material culture as far as the eastern Gulf Coast and East Texas.

The last two decades of the seventeenth century proved a time of crisis for Spain’s borderlands. When the successful Pueblo Revolt of 1680 forced prolonged abandonment of New Mexico, El Paso del Norte, where settlement west of the Rio Grande had occurred as early as the mid-1650s, became the focal point of Spanish presence on the extreme northern frontier. Its sparse population was severely tested by the arrival of nearly 2,000 Spanish and American Indian refugees. To accommodate the Indian exiles, Spaniards founded the first mission and pueblo within the present boundaries of Texas: Corpus Christi de la Isleta, at the site of modern Ysleta. In the following years, efforts also were made to found missions among the seemingly receptive Jumano Indians at the junction of the Conchos and Rio Grande near the site of present-day Presidio. In the mid-1680s, however, intelligence of French designs in the Gulf of Mexico downgraded the importance of that undertaking and shifted attention to elsewhere in Texas.

Concern centered on an extraordinary threat to Spanish realms posed by Frenchmen descending the Mississippi River from Canada. The French explorers Marquette and Joliet discovered in 1673 that the great river emptied into the Gulf of Mexico rather than the Gulf of California as they had hoped. Less than a decade later (1682), René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle explored the Mississippi to its mouth and formally named the region “Louisiana” to honor his king, Louis XIV, thereby claiming the region that De Soto had explored for Spain in the 1500s. La Salle, however, miscalculated the proximity of the river’s mouth to the edges of New Spain, a mistake that caused apprehension for France. Should Spain close that gap and occupy the lower Mississippi valley, Canada would lose its access to the seas and be threatened from the south. On the other hand, a French colony placed on the lower part of the river would be close to the much-coveted rich mines in Mexico. La Salle returned to France in 1683 to lay colonization plans before the court at Versailles. After some delays, he received crown support for his proposal to challenge the Spanish empire. The resultant expedition sailed from France in 1684, but, possibly because of geographical misconceptions, inaccurate maps, and a faulty astrolabe, overshot the Mississippi by some 400 miles to land at Matagorda Bay early in 1685. By the time La Salle discovered that he had not landed at “his river,” he was stranded on the Texas coast and had become the object of a resolute Spanish manhunt.

Determined to defend their imperial claims and commerce from the rumored French threat, the Spanish dispatched five sea and six land expeditions (four of them in Texas) in search of La Salle’s settlement, which contrary to popular notion was not called Fort Saint Louis. In 1689 Alonso de León finally discovered its ruins on Garcitas Creek, as well as three bodies, including that of a woman with an arrow in her back. By then La Salle, a victim of assassination at the hands of other Frenchmen, had been dead for two years. The vast majority of the roughly 180 men, women, and children who had accompanied him fared little better. Madame Barbier who gave birth to the first documented European child (see BARBIER INFANT) born in Texas, was killed by warriors during the Karankawa’s final assault on the outpost, and her baby was bashed against a tree trunk. Only sixteen colonists survived. Some were children saved by Karankawa women and taken to live among this community “as if they were their own.” As assessed by historian Robert S. Weddle, this “first European settlement on the Gulf Coast between Pensacola, Florida, and Tampico” failed not because of Spanish vigilance, but rather due to poor leadership, internal conflict, bad luck, harsh environment, fatal diseases, and Karankawa hostilities.

Worth reiterating is that by landing on the Texas coast instead of the Mississippi River, La Salle caused Spain to react defensively. Spread thin in North America, the crown tended to take no action in “peripheral areas of the empire” unless foreign powers threatened its claims. Ironically, the ill-fated La Salle expedition caused Spain to focus attention on East Texas where success would prove hard to attain. In the process, its underestimation of impending French designs on Louisiana left the strategic coast vulnerable.

Officials in Mexico City viewed the failure of La Salle’s colony as evidence of God’s “divine aid and favor.” They were also impressed by Alonso de León’s overly sanguine account of the land and people he encountered in East Texas. Father Damián Massanet, who had accompanied the expedition of 1689, volunteered his services and those of his brethren of the College of Santa Cruz de Querétaro should missions be authorized among the sedentary Hasinai, who were among the most populous, impressive Indians in all of Texas. León pragmatically suggested the need for presidios to bridge the gap between settlements in Coahuila and the proposed new mission field. Had his suggestions had been accepted, subsequent disasters in East Texas might well have been lessened, if not avoided. Nevertheless, budget-conscious officials in the capital concluded, with Massanet’s endorsement, that a strong military presence would impede spreading the gospel.

In May 1690 Father Massanet founded San Francisco de los Tejas, the first mission within the confines of present-day Texas, located about five miles west of Mission Tejas State Historical Park in Houston County. The sophisticated, agricultural, Caddo-speaking Hasinai at whom the enterprise was directed indicated willingness to cooperate, because “the ubiquitous nun, María de Jesús de Agreda, had visited them long ago.” More pragmatically, subject to attack from better armed Apaches and Osages, these Caddos hoped that the Spaniards would offer protection and provide firearms, as the French were doing for their enemies. For the neophytes, the results proved disappointing in all respects, because under Spanish rules they could only be given “items of civilization,” rather than “guns or tools of war.” Father Massanet alleged that Spanish-American Indian relations also suffered as the result of acts of sexual violence against native women committed by soldiers in both León’s 1690 expedition and a second incursion led by Domingo Terán de los Ríos in 1691. Adding to the alienation of the Hasinai was that close contact with Spaniards left them susceptible to deadly diseases, beginning with a smallpox epidemic in 1691 that claimed hundreds of lives.

The missionaries’ position became increasingly precarious because Massanet had disregarded Alonso de León’s recommendation that a contingent of fifty soldiers be stationed at San Francisco. Instead, the cleric had insisted that only three remain, the same as the number of missionaries. Believing that a rebellion was imminent, the friars made the decision to abandon the mission in October 1693. Burying the cannon and the bell, they set the structure ablaze and retreated to Coahuila. The late Franciscan historian Lino Gómez Canedo summarized the major reasons for this outcome as the following: natural disasters such as floods and epidemics, the relaxation of the French challenge, and the worsening of relations with local tribes. For his part, twentieth-century historian David Weber considered this to be the continuation of a cycle begun earlier in other parts of Spanish America, whereby “natives’ initial acceptance of missionaries had turned to disillusion, estrangement, and finally to resistance in its many forms.” Whatever the explanation for the Spanish withdrawal, their absence for more than twenty years provided an opportunity for the French to make inroads among the Caddos. Despite this setback, however, the mission effort in East Texas did serve the useful purpose of familiarizing Spaniards with the geography and people of the area, as well as convincing both church and government officials that future missions must be sustained by adequate military presence and civilian settlements.

One of the above missionaries, Father Francisco Hidalgo, had promised the Caddos that he would return to minister to their spiritual needs, and fulfilling that promise became a consuming passion. The friar experienced frustration in this endeavor, however, as East Texas remained low on Spain’s priority list unless and until another French threat was deemed to exist. Instead, resources were channeled elsewhere.

At the close of the seventeenth century, mining and ranching endeavors, combined with unswerving commitment to missionary goals, caused the advance of Spanish settlement in northern Mexico to the Rio Grande. Mission San Juan Bautista, which Robert Weddle appropriately called the “Gateway to Spanish Texas,” was founded on January 1, 1700, at the site of present-day Guerrero, Coahuila. Significantly, by that time the French had resurrected La Salle’s plan to settle the lower Mississippi valley. Under the leadership of Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, a fort had been constructed at Biloxi Bay in 1699, and he built a small post near the river’s mouth. By early 1700 the arrival of fresh supplies and reinforcements strengthened French presence in Louisiana. With d’Iberville was a relative by marriage, Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, a Canadian-born adventurer who would change the course of Texas history.

Despite Iberville’s best efforts, the crown colony of Louisiana suffered neglect, at least in part because of the resumption of the costly wars of Louis XIV (1702–13). To reduce royal expenses, Louisiana was assigned as a proprietary colony to wealthy Frenchman Antoine Crozat. His choice as governor of the colony fell on Antoine de La Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac, who arrived in May 1713. Cadillac was expected to run the colony in a businesslike manner and find a way to turn a profit. He concluded that the desired avenue of riches lay in establishing trade with New Spain, a commerce he knew to be forbidden by Spanish mercantile restrictions. He also knew that the remoteness of the borderlands from the center of power in Mexico City hindered enforcement of those regulations.

Fate intervened in the form of a letter received at this juncture by Governor Cadillac but drafted two years earlier by the above-mentioned Father Francisco Hidalgo. Having despaired of gaining support from the Spanish crown for plans to reestablish missions among the Hasinais, the frustrated missionary asked the French official to assist in accomplishing that goal, even though such a request bordered on treason. Hidalgo apparently gambled that awareness of renewed French presence in Texas would cause a Spanish response, “as it had done in La Salle’s day.”

For Cadillac, the Spanish friar’s letter was an invitation to do God’s work and serve his own interests. The governor called on St. Denis, who not only was skilled in diplomacy and knew Indian languages but also had made explorations beyond the Red River. Entrusted to make overtures to the Spanish and accompanied by two survivors of La Salle’s settlement, the French adventurer set out late in September. At the site of Natchitoches in present Northwestern Louisiana, he stored some of his merchandise. Then, twenty-two days after crossing the Sabine River, the Canadian reached the first Hasinais with whom he began trading for livestock and buffalo hides. St. Denis had more ambitious goals, however. Using the rationalization that he had not found Father Hidalgo living among the Indians, he pushed on toward Spanish settlements, a decision that would have far-reaching consequences. Bearing a French passport, St. Denis arrived at San Juan Bautista in July 1714 with the news that the Tejas desired the return of Spanish missionaries. His appearance alerted officials that their enemies were in contact with Indians in East Texas. Once again, the fear that “the French will be masters of all this land” caused the crown to reassess the importance of Texas, but this time the result was permanent occupation of the province.

Diego Ramón, the presidial commander at San Juan Bautista, placed St. Denis under house arrest and awaited instructions from his superiors in Mexico City. The Frenchman’s genial incarceration provided an opportunity to win a promise of marriage from Ramón’s step-granddaughter, Manuela Sánchez Navarro (see St. Denis, Manuela S. N.). St. Denis was eventually sent under guard to the capital, where he likewise managed to win over the viceroy and obtain his freedom. Worth mentioning is that the Caddos attempted to intercede on behalf of the French Canadian to help secure his release. Also noteworthy is that the chief executive of New Spain appointed the charismatic St. Denis as commissary and guide for an expedition to reestablish Spanish missions in East Texas, a major purpose of which was to counter French influence in the region.

Returning to San Juan Bautista, St. Denis married his intended and departed for Texas on April 27, 1716. Captain Domingo Ramón, a son of the presidio’s commander, led a combined number of more than seventy people, including priests, lay brothers, soldiers, and civilians, along a path that became the Old San Antonio Road, or camino real. Among the group were the wives of seven soldiers and one single woman, “the first recorded female settlers in Spanish-controlled Texas.”

Responsibility for founding new missions in Texas was divided equally between the missionary colleges of Querétaro and Zacatecas. The former supplied two of the most famous Franciscans in Texas history: Fathers Isidro Félix de Espinosa and the above-mentioned Francisco Hidalgo. From the College of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Zacatecas came the renowned Father Antonio Margil de Jesús, whose cause for canonization is ongoing. The religious contingent reestablished Mission San Francisco at a different site from the original and renamed it San Francisco de los Neches de los Tejas. It also founded five new missions: Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de los Nacogdoches, San José de los Nazonis, Nuestra Señora de los Dolores de los Ais, and San Miguel de los Linares de los Adaes (near the site of present Robeline, Louisiana). At the western edge of the mission field, Ramón built Nuestra Señora de los Dolores de los Tejas Presidio.

The reestablishment of missions and a presidio in East Texas was very important historically, as it gave Spain a valid claim to the land north of the Rio Grande; did much to determine that Texas would be Spanish, not French; and helped to advance the eventual boundary between Texas and Louisiana to the Sabine River. For the enterprising St. Denis, who served as a translator and provided other valuable services, the presence of Spaniards near Louisiana opened the door for the contraband trade that became a way of life on the distant Texas frontier.

Although the Spanish again received a friendly welcome from the First Peoples of East Texas, the latter proved unwilling to congregate in missions. For these sedentary, agricultural Caddos, “it made little sense for them to give up their homes, ample supplies of food, and way of life for residence in a Spanish mission, with its enforced discipline and alien Christian message.” Also, mutually-beneficial trading networks existed between the French and the Caddos, as well as important kinship ties forged by marriages between Frenchmen and Indian women. These traders provided First Peoples with guns, bullets, powder, knives, and such, in return for horses, hides, and captives, while the missionaries offered sermons. For the Spanish to try to force compliance seemed foolish, since the strength of the military guard was inadequate. Unless Spanish presence could be augmented and a halfway station established between the Rio Grande and the eastward missions, this attempt to occupy Texas seemed destined to go the way of the failed enterprise of the 1690s.

The arrival in Mexico City in 1716 of a new viceroy, the Marqués de Valero, proved critical for the struggling missions and presidio in East Texas. At the instigation of Father Antonio de San Buenaventura y Olivares, who had earlier visited a site on the San Antonio River in 1709 and determined to establish a mission and civilian settlement there, the viceroy made the suppression of illicit trade from Louisiana a primary objective. He also pledged critically-needed support for the Franciscan missions in Texas. Late in 1716, Valero gave formal approval for a halfway mission and presidio, with responsibility for their establishment assigned to Martín de Alarcón, the governor of Coahuila and Texas. Indeed, support and supplies were badly needed in East Texas, as the Hasinai, who were trading with the French for goods that included firearms and horses, proved increasingly uncooperative. However, a series of delays, occasioned in part by differences between Alarcón and Olivares, postponed definitive action until 1718. On May 1 of that year, the governor founded San Antonio de Valero Mission (later famous as the Alamo) on the San Antonio River, and San Antonio de Béxar Presidio was established four days later (May 5). The governor also created Béjar, the only villa (chartered town) in Texas. These actions came none too soon.

In 1719 a brief war in Europe between Spain and France overflowed into Texas and reaffirmed fears about the threat posed by the French. From Natchitoches Philippe Blondel and six soldiers easily captured the poorly-defended Adaes mission, but in the resulting confusion a lay brother escaped. He spread fear of an impending French attack throughout the mission outposts all the way to Presidio Dolores. There Captain Ramón viewed the situation as untenable, since his men were without arms or horses. He ordered immediate abandonment of the six missions and the military garrison, thus bringing an inglorious close to the second effort at establishing a Spanish presence in East Texas. Fortunately, the retreating Spaniards found refuge at the new settlements on the San Antonio River, where Father Margil shortly after his arrival there began building a second mission, San José y San Miguel de Aguayo (1720), named for the governor of Coahuila and Texas who had replaced Alarcón the previous year.

The Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo was a veteran soldier and a wealthy man, thanks to his wife, Ignacia Xaviera de Echeverz , who owned vast estates in Coahuila. At his own expense, he accepted a royal mandate “to force the French to abandon the territory they unjustly hold” and to undertake the establishment of missions in East Texas for a third time. Embarking in the spring of 1721, Aguayo headed “the most imposing force Spain would ever send into Texas.” He had recruited 500 men and collected 2,800 horses, 4,800 cattle, and 6.400 sheep and goats. Even though livestock had accompanied previous entradas, Spanish ranching in Texas began with the arrival of these large herds in 1721. Because the war ended in Europe, the Marqués found his orders to invade Louisiana countermanded and was instructed not to use force. Nevertheless, he put his superior numbers to good use.

Aguayo impressively accomplished the reestablishment of the abandoned missions in East Texas, which were again entrusted to friars from the Colleges of Querétaro and Zacatecas; founded a new presidio, Nuestra Señora del Pilar, at Los Adaes; and secured a lasting peace with St. Denis, who had become commandant of the French settlement at Natchitoches. Of special importance is that the Spanish government in 1721, “named the easternmost mission-presidio complex at Los Adaes the capital of the Texas province” to counter the enemy’s presence in western Louisiana. Also of importance, Aguayo’s superiors hoped to avoid some of the problems of the 1690s by having “only men with families sent to Caddo lands;” however, that proved impractical in practice because of the shortage of women willing to go to the frontier. Among Aguayo’s other noteworthy actions in Texas was to have Domingo Ramón in 1722 begin construction of Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga Mission and Nuestra Señora de Loreto Presidio, both commonly called La Bahía, at the site of La Salle’s earlier failed settlement. For the San Antonio area, the nobleman selected a new site for the Béxar presidio and founded a short-lived mission south of mission Valero.

When the industrious Marqués de Aguayo departed Texas in May 1722, he left a province that was soon separated from Coahuila. It was secured by more than 250 soldiers at four presidios, two of which—at Los Adaes and La Bahía—were located where foreign aggression was most feared. Across the province were ten missions and hundreds of potential neophytes, in addition to the core of the small civilian settlement at San Antonio. Although there was a continuing problem of smuggling between French Louisiana and Spanish Texas, the threat of French dominance in Texas was ended, thanks in large part to Aguayo’s personally financed and ably executed endeavors.

Through no fault of the Marqués de Aguayo, some of his main accomplishments would prove temporary. Peace in Europe with its implications for America prompted the king of Spain to order reforms within New Spain in the interest of economy. To that end, the viceroy sent Brigadier General Pedro de Rivera y Villalón to make a thorough inspection of frontier posts in Texas. Rivera’s subsequent cost-saving recommendations in 1727 led to the reduction of troop strength at Los Adaes and to the abandonment of Presidio Dolores. Left without adequate military support, the missions of San Francisco, Concepción, and San José were moved westward to the Colorado River and subsequently to San Antonio in 1731.

Unfortunately for the residents at San Antonio, the reduction of military strength in Texas left the settlement vulnerable to raids by Apaches at the very time it attempted to integrate an influx of important colonists. Historians have generally marked the beginning of civilian settlement in San Antonio with the arrival on March 9, 1731, of fifty-five Canary Islanders, comprising fifteen families, two of which were headed by widows, María Rodríguez Robayna and Mariana Delgado Meleano. However, it is well to remember that Alarcón’s expedition of 1718 had not been a purely military undertaking, even though the presidio was to protect the missions and serve as a waystation between the Rio Grande and the East Texas missions. San Antonio would also be the site of a Spanish villa (San Fernando de Béxar), and to this end Alarcón had recruited frontier settlers from Coahuila and Nuevo León. Seven of the soldiers who accompanied him were married and brought their families. By the mid-1720s, forty-four families resided at the Béxar presidio, almost all of which included soldiers. As Jesús F. de la Teja has demonstrated, “From its founding in 1718 to 1731, forty-seven couples married and 107 children were baptized at Mission Valero.” Thus, a first generation of native Bexareños was already residing in San Antonio.

The appearance of the Canary Islanders, who were ill-prepared for life on the Texas frontier, temporarily disrupted the racially harmonious community at Béxar. That the newcomers had been granted special privileges by the crown, including designations of noble lineage, fueled the tension. With the formal establishment of Villa San Fernando de Béxar in July 1731, this privileged elite came into conflict with existing settlers and missionaries over a variety of issues. Over time, however, de la Teja notes that “Shared roles, kinship ties, and the frontier experience tied much of Béxar’s population into a dynamic community.” Also, Oakah L. Jones, Jr., has demonstrated that outside of San Antonio there was little by way of class rivalry among the Spanish population in Texas.

One reality Béxar residents, old and new, had to face was the threat posed by First Peoples, particularly the Lipan Apaches who found the San Antonio settlement a tempting target and initiated raids there in the 1720s. Although the peril abated from time to time, the severity of the attacks worsened notably in the 1750s, with the appearance of the Comanches at San Antonio. Relative latecomers to Texas from the north, the more mobile Comanches effectively “incorporated Spanish horses and weaponry to counter Spanish colonialism” and created their own “imperial organization that dominated the Southwest for over a century.” In the process, they brought pressure to bear on Indian rivals, most notably the semi-sedentary Lipans, who in turn put pressure on San Antonio. As one presidial officer reported, “the inhabitants of Béxar lived in almost constant terror.” In the summer of 1768, Bexareños had to fight off a twenty-two-day siege without outside assistance. An eventual approach favored by the Franciscans was to extend missionary efforts beyond San Antonio, and the Apaches used that initiative to their advantage. Nevertheless, despite both external and internal challenges, San Antonio grew to become the most important and viable community in Spanish Texas.

As for East Texas, Arroyo Hondo, a small stream between Los Adaes and Natchitoches, became the accepted boundary between the Spanish and French empires until the cession of Louisiana to Spain in 1762. The French, however, were much more adept than the Spanish in establishing trade with Texas Indians. The earlier-mentioned marriage alliances played a role, as did France’s willingness to exchange firearms and ammunition for trade goods, a practice forbidden under Spanish law. At the Red River, the French won favor with the Kadohadachos (a Caddo group), who used the European rivalry to their advantage. Frenchmen were likewise successful in exchanging goods with the Wichitas and Tawakonis in northern Texas. To the south, they crossed the Sabine in the early 1730s and initiated contact with the Orcoquizas and Bidais along the lower San Jacinto and Trinity Rivers. Unlike the French, Spanish settlers in East Texas faced bleak conditions in the 1740s, where the missions were “pitiful.” Still, recognizing a continuing threat from France, the Spanish in 1756 established San Agustín de Ahumada Presidio and Nuestra Señora de la Luz Mission in the general vicinity of Anahuac. Neither establishment enjoyed much success, however, and both were abandoned within fifteen years.

Besides continued French incursions, another concern for Spain involved the English colonization of Georgia in the early 1730s. Considering that area to be part of Florida, Spaniards viewed the presence of foreigners there as putting as-yet-unsettled Gulf Coast regions at risk. In 1739 alarm deepened with the outbreak of war between England and Spain, a conflict that presaged the larger War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748). Spain regarded the Costa del Seno Mexicano, an inhospitable region between Tampico and Matagorda Bay, as especially vulnerable to French and English designs. To counter these threats, the viceroy of New Spain approved the appointment of masterful organizer José de Escandón as military commander and governor of the recently-established province of Nuevo Santander, which came to include part of Texas below the Nueces River. In an impressive display of efficiency, between 1747 and 1755 the colonizer founded twenty-four towns, two of which were within present-day Texas, along with fifteen missions. Escandón also moved the mission and presidio at La Bahía from their second location on the Guadalupe River to the site of present Goliad on the San Antonio River. The founding of Laredo completed colonization efforts that had relocated more than 6,000 Spaniards, congregated nearly 3,000 Indians, and helped establish the cattle industry in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Notably less successful was a simultaneous effort to expand the mission system along the San Gabriel River, which the Spanish called San Xavier, to the northeast of San Antonio. In the area of modern Rockdale, Texas, three Franciscan missions (collectively known as the San Xavier missions) and a presidio were founded in the late 1740s and early 1750s to minister to the Tonkawas and allied groups. These First Peoples had indicated a willingness to be missionized, but their major motivation was to seek protection from Lipan raiders. Internal discord, fatal diseases, serious drought, occasional flooding, and Apache raids all played a role in the eventual failure of this undertaking. Also instrumental was conflict between licentious presidial commander Felipe de Rábago y Terán, whose immoral conduct was emulated by his men, and the resident missionaries that led to the temporary excommunication of the military contingent. Then, in 1752 a controversial double murder took the life of the husband of one of Rábago’s conquests, as well as that of a missionary. The officer attempted to blame former Indian neophytes; however, circumstantial evidence and damning testimony cast suspicion on the commander and some of his men. He and five others were sent to Coahuila and there placed under house arrest. These events effectively doomed the San Xavier enterprise, even though it continued to exist for a few more years. In 1755, three years after the infamous murders, two missions and the presidio were transferred to the San Marcos River. In 1757 the entire assets of the San Xavier missions were redirected to a new religious outpost for the Apaches in Central Texas—the most disastrous mission-extension project in the history of Spanish Texas.

Ironically, the new mission-presidio complex was established in the late 1750s at the request of Lipan Apaches, known for their previous hostility to the Spanish. Under increasing pressure from the mobile, well-armed Comanches, Wichitas, and others, the Lipans adapted a new coping strategy designed to draw the Spaniards into their enemies’ orbit. The Apaches not only pretended an interest in becoming neophytes but also assured that silver could be found to the north—two powerful motivators for Spaniards. Following a peace treaty negotiated at San Antonio in 1749, authorities in Mexico City ordered the selection of a mission site in Apachería. In so doing, the Spaniards gained “a powerful new enemy in the Comanches.” As historian Robert Weddle has written, “The story of San Sabá is one of Apache perfidy, Spanish gullibility, and the disastrous consequences of both.”

In 1757 near present Menard, Texas, Col. Diego Ortiz Parrilla and Franciscan missionaries, headed by Father Alonso Giraldo de Terreros, established San Luis de las Amarillas Presidio and San Cruz de San Sabá Mission, which was across the river about three miles from the stockade. During its brief existence of less than a year, the mission did not attract a single Apache resident. What it did attract was the enmity of the Lipans’ American Indian adversaries. When perpetrating raids on other First Peoples, the Apaches deliberately left behind Spanish items to demonstrate their ties to San Sabá. Apparently they hoped to draw their enemies into conflict with each other, and the plan worked all too well as the Norteños came to view the new mission as a refuge from which the Apaches could attack them. In mid-March 1758, perhaps as many as 2,000 Comanches and their allies, including Wichitas, Bidais, Hasinai, and Tonkawas, converged on the mission that they pillaged and burned. Bearing “French arms, bullet pouches, and very large powder horns,” the attackers killed eight persons, including Father Terreros who was shot and another friar who was decapitated. One cleric and perhaps two dozen others managed to escape, as Santa Cruz de San Sabá became the only mission in Texas to be destroyed by an outright American Indian attack. It was never rebuilt.

Although Col. Ortiz Parrilla prepared for a similar attack on the presidio, it did not occur. When his adversaries tried to lure him out of the fort, he refused to accept the challenge, and the raiding party eventually withdrew. Historian Juliana Barr has speculated that the death toll would have been much higher had the Norteños deemed the “Spaniards as worthy of a fight.” David Weber, on the other hand, suggests that the Norteños perhaps refrained from attacking the presidio, because they calculated “that a direct assault would cost them too many lives.” At any rate, Ortiz Parrilla lived to fight another day.

The question of how to respond to the assault on San Sabá received serious consideration in Mexico City. To abandon the site would inspire contempt for Spanish authority and encourage future attacks; however, mounting a campaign against the perpetrators would necessitate considerable manpower and expenditures. Ultimately, the conclusion was Norteños had to be taught that “even in their most remote haunts they would not be secure from the long arm of Spanish vengeance.” While plans for the punitive expedition were in progress, the emboldened Norteños in March 1779 managed to ambush twenty-one soldiers guarding the livestock of the San Sabá presidio, killed all but one of the Spaniards, and made away with 700 horses, cattle, and mules. This reinforced the imperative of punishing First Peoples.

In September 1759, almost eighteen months after the destruction of the mission, Diego Ortiz Parrilla began the march “in pursuit of the enemy.” With him were hundreds of presidial soldiers, untrained volunteers, and Indian allies, including Lipan Apaches. Unfortunately for the Spaniards, the campaign was compromised from the beginning, because the lengthy preparations allowed time for the Norteños to learn of the threat. Consequently, they moved to the Red River to prepare their defenses. While pursuing the enemy, Ortiz Parrilla’s force fought skirmishes and took prisoners. Upon finally locating the Norteños encampment, however, he was distressed to find his troop outnumbered by the Wichitas, Comanches, and others on the north bank of the river in a well-fortified Taovaya town flying a French flag. Many were also armed with French muskets. In the resultant clash of arms that lasted for hours, neither side could claim victory. Rather than renewing the battle the following day, Ortiz Parrilla, whose dead, wounded, and missing totaled more than fifty, ordered a retreat and left two field pieces behind.

Historians have traditionally regarded the above Red River campaign of 1759 as a rout of the Spanish troops, and an argument can be made that the Indians scored a victory. Robert Weddle, however, offered a persuasively different interpretation when he noted that Indian casualties, combined with 142 captives held by Ortiz Parrilla, “were considered sufficient for the Spanish force to proclaim the campaign a success.” Regardless, Plains Indians with Spanish horses, French weapons, and impressive unity had proven themselves powerful—even superior—adversaries. Presidio San Luis de las Amarillas, where Ortiz Parrilla had held command, was strengthened and maintained for another ten years, only to be abandoned in 1769. In the interim, Franciscans had built for the Lipans two other missions, together known as El Cañón, but these also failed to attract neophytes and were “discontinued” at the same time as the San Sabá presidio.

Little did the Spaniards in Texas realize that Comanches, with whom their first confrontations occurred at San Sabá and the Red River in the late 1750s, were rapidly transforming themselves from hunters and gathers to become “lords of the Southern Plains.” As historian Pekka Hämäläinen has written, they were in the process of carving out their own empire, “a vast territory that was larger than the entire European-controlled area north of the Rio Grande at the time.” Comanches’ aim was not conquest for purposes of colonization in the European mold, but to “coexist, control, and exploit.” They became a force to be reckoned with in Spanish Texas, and their enmity toward the Apaches was something Spaniards would consider using to their advantage in the future.

The failed attempts in the 1740s and 1750s to extend Texas’s missions and presidios beyond San Antonio and the East Texas settlements saw a continuation of that trend in efforts on the lower Trinity River Basin. In 1754 verifiable reports that the French were trading with First Peoples in that area led the viceroy to decree the establishment of a garrison and mission that jointly came to be called El Orcoquisac near present Anahuac in southeast Texas. A proposed villa never materialized. Horrible conditions ranging from an inhospitable environment to supply shortages plagued the undertaking, even though permanent occupation at Orcoquisac did not end until 1770.

While San Xavier, San Sabá, and El Orcoquisac were undergoing travails, San Antonio witnessed significant progress with more than 4,400 American Indians baptized at the four Querétaran missions by 1762. This relative success can be attributed in part to the nature of the Coahuiltecan-speaking natives involved. Caught between northward moving Spaniards and southward moving Apaches, some members of these numerous small bands of hunters and gatherers accepted the restrictive life and harsh rules of the missions in return for “food and refuge.” The neophytes gained useful knowledge about agriculture, irrigation, weaving, and the like but also fell prey to epidemic diseases in the process. While the Coahuiltecan population was on the decline, the mission livestock herds experienced a dramatic increase and provided attractive targets for other Indians seeking cattle to eat and horses to trade. Also growing was the villa de Béxar which was becoming a more viable community as intermarriages connected the Canary Islanders to the larger population. The story was quite different in East Texas, where the friars were in “near total despair” at how little had been accomplished in forty years. However, profound changes were on the horizon for Spanish Texas, propelled in large part by events in far-off places. The impact would be felt by missionaries, soldiers, civilians, and Indians throughout the province.

In the mid-1750s, France and England found themselves at war, and not for the first time. This conflict, known in the colonies as The French and Indian War (1754–1763), arose in North America from a dispute over territorial claims in the Ohio River Valley; however, formal warfare was declared by the two European rivals in 1756. Initially, Spain was not involved in the fighting, but that would change. As the result of complex events earlier in the century, members of the Bourbon family occupied the thrones of both France and Spain during the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). While the conflict was ongoing, these monarchs signed a “Bourbon Family Compact,” which led Charles III of Spain to enter the war belatedly on what proved to be the losing side. The cost of defeat was high for Spain but devastating for France.

In the Treaty of Paris of 1763, France lost her territorial possessions on the North American continent. She ceded to England her claims in Canada, as well as those in Louisiana to the east of the Mississippi River. Spain surrendered ownership of the Floridas to England for the return of Cuba which had been captured during the war. Under an agreement negotiated the prior year, France granted its lands west of the Mississippi, a cession that included New Orleans, to Spain. King Charles III had reservations about incorporating western Louisiana into his empire, as it had been a financial disaster for France and would almost certainly prove the same for Spain. However, the fear that France instead might cede it to England was of greater concern, as aggressive English colonists might prove a threat to the Spanish borderlands, especially Texas and New Mexico, and could attempt to gain influence over First Peoples there. But, neither was leaving it under French control an attractive prospect, given the history of their interactions with the Indians and disregard for Spanish mercantile restrictions. Therefore, on paper at least, Spain took control of western Louisiana, although effectively incorporating the new territory into her empire proved problematic.

What did the redrawing of the map of North America mean for Spanish Texas? A real or perceived French threat had motivated much of the activity that had occurred in the province since the days of Sieur de La Salle in the late 1600s. That threat no longer existed as a result of the Seven Years’ War. As for any danger posed by English colonists, Texas was now an interior province with western Louisiana serving as a buffer from encroachment. Furthermore, Spain now faced responsibility for a vastly expanded northern borderlands of which Texas was a relatively minor part, and adjustments were necessary to meet changing circumstances that confronted the empire. Fortunately, the Spanish monarch was more than capable of meeting these challenges, and his policies had a significant impact on Texas.

Determined to make his “empire more defensible, profitable, and efficient,” Charles III instigated what came to be known as the Bourbon Reforms, based on “experimentation, innovation, and rationality.” Needing accurate information on which to base his decisions, the king commissioned inspectors to tour his overseas possessions and report back to him. Granted extensive powers, José Bernardo de Gálvez Gallardo spent six years in the heartland of New Spain and then returned to Europe where he later became minister of the Indies with responsibility for effecting major reforms in Spanish America.

The Marqués de Rubí received instructions from the crown to conduct a reconnaissance of all presidios along the Spanish borderlands, an area in which expenditures for defense had doubled during the 1700s, while American Indian depredations had shown no signs of abating. This was a particularly important charge, as military bases by the 1760s “had eclipsed missions to become the dominant institution on Spain’s North American frontier.”

During an extensive tour that covered thousands of miles, Rubí arrived in Spanish Texas in 1767 and was less than impressed by what he observed. Dismayed by conditions at San Sabá, for example, he labeled San Luis de las Amarillas as the worse presidio in New Spain. He reacted more favorably to conditions at La Bahía, which he concluded should serve as “the eastern terminus in a proposed line of garrisons that would extend from Altar in Sonora to La Bahía on the Guadalupe River.” After visiting all major settlements in the province, the Marqués concluded that they could not be maintained without needed consolidation and new resources. Deeming San Antonio to be one of the few settled areas in the province worth maintaining—even though it was north of his envisioned “cordon of presidios”—the inspector recommended moving both the civilian population and remaining missions from East Texas to that site. This was justified by the abominable conditions at the presidio at Los Adaes, then the capital of the province; the lack of a single neophyte at any of the three missions; and the end of French control of western Louisiana. Regarding the First Peoples along the frontier, the inspector recognized the need to gain ascendancy over “Indian barbarians,” those who had proven unwilling to accept conversion and Spanish sovereignty. To that end, Rubí proposed a new approach aimed at developing friendly relations with the powerful Comanches and Wichitas, coupled with a war of extermination against their enemies, the Apaches, whom he deemed responsible for numerous depredations. Making these recommendations proved easier than accomplishing them, however, and even under reform-minded Charles III, Spanish bureaucracy moved slowly.

Not until 1772 was a royal order issued that called for abandoning all missions and presidios in Texas except at La Bahía and San Antonio, designating San Antonio as the capital of the province, relocating the East Texas soldiers and settlers to the new capital, and inaugurating the new Indian policy aimed at exterminating the Apaches. The forced abandonment of East Texas was a bitter blow to its inhabitants. Nevertheless, in the summer of 1773, Baron Juan María de Ripperdá, the governor of Texas, reluctantly ordered the closure of missions in East Texas and forcible removal of the entire Spanish population to San Antonio. The roughly 500 settlers who were being displaced were reluctant to leave their homes and livelihood, and they suffered severely during the three-month march that claimed many lives. For the most part, the survivors “found San Antonio not to their liking” and petitioned to be allowed to return to their homes. Hugo Oconór, then inspector general on the frontier, denied the request; however, the discontented refugees persisted. Aided by a sympathetic governor, an audience with Viceroy Antonio María de Bucareli, and the leadership of Antonio Gil Ibarvo, however, they finally received permission to resettle East Texas but could go no farther than the Trinity River, which was a considerable distance from Natchitoches, Louisiana. Still, the refugees viewed any concession as encouraging. In late summer 1774, they founded the settlement of Bucareli at a site in present Madison County. The town attracted 347 residents by 1777 but was plagued by troublesome floods and Comanche raids. Without authorization, in 1779 the inhabitants moved again, this time to the location of the old mission of Nacogdoches, where they founded a new town with that name. Nacogdoches, along with La Bahía, San Antonio, and Laredo, became another permanent settlement within the boundaries of present-day Texas.

Another of Charles III’s sweeping reforms was the creation of a new administrative unit, the Provincias Internas, that encompassed the northern provinces of New Spain, including Texas. This was propelled in part by an awareness that the needs and challenges of the frontier were different from those of the heartland, that the viceroy in Mexico City had other priorities than developing the northern frontier, and that First Peoples did not recognize artificial imperial or provincial boundaries decreed by rulers across an ocean. However, the new political arrangement remained in flux to the end of the colonial era. The Internal Provinces began as an independent jurisdiction responsible to the king, then passed under the viceroy of New Spain, and finally were divided into shifting military districts.

One of the major military concerns of the period was the enactment of Rubí’s recommendations for a policy that would destroy the Apaches, while befriending the Norteños along the Red River. Neither the mission-presidio system nor the use of military force had worked well with the later groups in the past; so, Spain gradually developed a new Amerinca Indian policy that utilized experienced French agents in Louisiana. Athanase de Mézières, who was related to Louis Juchereau de Saint Denis by marriage, masterminded this arrangement. Fluent in several indigenous languages, the Frenchman selected and licensed traders to exchange goods with friendly tribes. Also employed was the effective French practice of giving annual gifts to secure their loyalty, while withholding supplies from uncooperative groups. De Mézières himself met with key chiefs to inform them that they were now all Spanish subjects and made them aware of their options: accept this reality and live in peace or the armies of Spain would fall upon them. The Nations of the North justified their earlier hostilities by denouncing Spain’s past support of their enemies such as the Apaches; nevertheless, some indicated their willingness to engage in peace negotiations. Thanks in large part to De Mézières, Spain enjoyed some success with the Wichitas—less with the Comanches with whom he refused to negotiate directly after learning that they had been raiding and killing in Texas. However, he was never able to piece together a general alliance of the northern tribes against the Lipans. His efforts were hampered by the diversity of natives with whom he was dealing and the complexity of their interrelationships, in having to deal with two Spanish jurisdictions (Louisiana and Texas) with administrators often at odds regarding Indian policy, and by Spain’s inability to supply adequate resources because of an impending war with England. Nevertheless, the talented Frenchman became so highly respected that in 1779 he was appointed governor of Texas, a post he did his best to decline. The issue became moot when he died at San Antonio, his health damaged and his fortune expended in his endeavors as an agent working on behalf of the Spanish crown.

Troubles with the Comanches continued until 1785, when Governor Domingo Cabello y Robles made achieving an accord with these First Peoples a priority. Some Wichita leaders served as intermediaries in these negotiations, as did French-born Pierre (Pedro) Vial. The governor distributed gifts to the Comanches, while offering them a choice between friendship or war. They were advised that alliances with the Spaniards would make them friends to Spain’s other Indian allies, “except the Lipans and Apaches with whom I do not want anyone to be friends, but to make continual war against them.” Recognizing the advantages of such an arrangement, several Comanche leaders met with Cabello in San Antonio and signed a treaty whereby hostilities would end not just in the province but beyond, annual presents would be bestowed upon the chiefs, and these bands would have safe passage through the province to make war on Apaches. The mutually-beneficial treaty finally brought peace that lasted, with some interruptions, for thirty-five years.

The accord between Spaniards and Comanches posed an obvious threat to their mutual enemy, the Apaches, who as Governor Cabello declared “deserved ‘no quarter.’” However, his successor, Rafael Martínez Pacheco made strides in improving relations with the Lipans. When some of their leaders came to San Antonio with their wives and children, he provided them with supplies and gifts. American Indian women who sought baptism received special rewards. With the governor facilitating increased interactions, a “new context of trust and camaraderie” began to grow.

As can be seen above, Native American women played an important role in Spanish-First Peoples relations. Staunch enemies, the Spaniards and the Comanches were distrustful of each other. Overcoming that suspicion so that treaty negotiations with Cabello could proceed was a challenge. Therefore, when Comanche men came to San Antonio to meet with the governor, they brought Comanche women—which not only signified peaceful intentions but also indicated trust that they would be safe. As historian Juliana Barr indicated in the title of her work on the subject, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman (2007).

Barr also noted that a tactic used by Spaniards in their earlier hostilities with the Apaches was to take their women and children hostage as a form of applying pressure on them. Later in the 1700s, Spanish officials took a different approach that involved ransoming captives, especially those taken by the Wichitas and Comanches, which helped to strengthen ties with those tribes. Spanish officials gave special attention to securing the release of abducted Native Americans who had become Christians, but their highest priority was to rescue Spanish women from life with “barbarians,” which was one of the issues discussed by Cabello in his negotiations with the Comanches. In the case of non-converted Indian hostages that were ransomed, Spanish officials could use them as bargaining chips to pursue negotiations with their kinsmen. In fact, during Governor Pacheco’s tenure, Apaches sometimes appealed to Spaniards to help secure the release of female relatives being held by their enemies.

Despite Martínez Pacheco’s success in improving relations with some Lipans, his superior, the viceroy of Mexico, focused on the threat that Apaches in general posed to people, property, and livestock in Texas and northern Mexico in the late 1700s. Considering these First Peoples to be treacherous thieves, he initiated reprisals against specific bands responsible for raiding and killing, as well as requiring settlers to assist soldiers in those efforts. Over time, this militaristic approach proved effective. Early in January 1790, a Spanish force, composed of soldiers, civilians, Comanches, and others, defeated the enemy in a battle at Soledad Creek, that “effectively broke the back of Apache resistance in Texas.”

Less successful was a final wave of missionary efforts among the Karankawa and other coastal tribes. Before his death, Athanase de Mézières had developed a plan for waging war against these First Peoples who for centuries had made the Gulf Coast a dangerous place, but his proposal was not implemented as Spain’s entrance in the American Revolutionary War redirected its priorities and channeled resources elsewhere. Instead, that nation fell back on the more familiar, cost-effective, and mostly humane approach of missionizing American Indians. The original Espíritu Santo had been established for the Karankawas, and in 1754 Nuestra Señora del Rosario Mission had been founded a short distance west of the site of present Goliad by the Zacatecan Franciscans. First Peoples in the area, however, proved difficult neophytes. Perhaps 200 did agree to be baptized, but most made only occasional visits in search of food and gifts, not religion. After they fled the mission in 1781, it was closed. For a time, the nearby La Bahía mission served tribes of the region. The Franciscans again directed their attention to Rosario when former mission residents asked that it be reopened, which occurred late in 1789. Four years later, the last of the Texas missions, Nuestra Señora del Refugio, was founded for natives who had deserted the missions of La Bahía and Rosario. Although unhealthful conditions led the friars to move the mission in 1794, it was finally reestablished early in 1795 at the site of present Refugio. Success among coastal tribes was hard to achieve, however, and in the end these missions, as those elsewhere in Texas outside of San Antonio, disappointed their Franciscan founders.

The overall picture in Spanish Texas, inside and outside of missions, was anything but encouraging when Teodoro de Croix, commandant general of the Interior Provinces, had undertaken an inspection tour in the late 1770s. In a damning assessment, he described “A villa without order, two presidios, seven missions, and an errant population of scarcely 4,000 persons of both sexes and all ages that occupies an immense desert country, stretching from the abandoned presidio of Los Adaes to San Antonio . . . [and] does not deserve the name of the Province of Texas . . . nor the concern entailed in its preservation.” As hard as it would have been for him to imagine, conditions in Texas would only deteriorate as the nineteenth century dawned.

The final crises for Spanish Texas came from the rapidly growing and westward moving population of the United States, the retrocession of Louisiana to France (1800); its subsequent sale to the United States (1803); the struggle for Mexican Independence, begun in 1810 by Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla; and increasingly incompetent and inconsistent leadership provided by Charles III’s inept successor. Spain’s response to the first three situations was a determination to defend its boundaries unimpaired, to prevent Anglo-American incursions, and to colonize Texas with loyal Spanish subjects. A dispute between Spain and the United States over the ill-defined western boundary of the Louisiana Purchase once again transformed Texas into an important buffer province vulnerable to foreign aggression. Claiming territory all the way to the Rio Grande, President Thomas Jefferson sent troops toward the disputed Texas-Louisiana border, and Spanish forces were dispatched to defend East Texas. Armed conflict was narrowly averted by the Neutral Ground Agreement of 1806, in which the two countries temporarily accepted the Sabine River and Arroyo Hondo as borders of their respective lands. The Neutral Ground between the two became a refuge for all sorts of undesirables, as well as an area from which filibustering expeditions could be launched into Texas. The boundary issue was not resolved until the Adams-Onís Treaty (1819–21). In the interim, Spanish officials were especially wary of Anglo-American intruders as agents of political discord and illicit trade, and they had legitimate cause for concern. One of the early filibusters, horse trader Philip Nolan, was killed and his men arrested by Spanish forces in 1801 near the site of present Waco. His fate, however, did not discourage subsequent adventurers from engaging in private military actions as they responded to the lure of potential wealth and recognized Spain’s tenuous hold on the vast, relatively unpopulated land that was Texas.

The most complete census data for Spanish Texas in the early nineteenth century are for 1804, the first year after the sale of Louisiana by Napoleon to the United States. Possibly this systematic count resulted from the need to assess the strength and numbers of the Spanish and Hispanicized population in the face of aggressive Americans to the east. The following population figures were compiled between January and December 1804: Nacogdoches, 789; Presidial Company of San Antonio de Béxar (see Second Flying Company of San Carlos de Parras), 413; Mission San Juan Capistrano, 74; Mission San Antonio de Valero, 121; Presidio (Settlement) of La Bahía, 399; Presidial Company of La Bahía, 301; Missions La Bahía, Rosario, and Refugio, 224; Mission San Francisco de la Espada, 107; Villa San Fernando de Béxar and Presidio (Settlement) of Béxar, 1,117; and a total of 3,605. Although the Spanish-speaking population included merchants and a few artisans such as tailors and blacksmiths, most Texans were stock raisers and small farmers. The above figures do not include “uncivilized” American Indians or enslaved African Americans. In the case of the latter, as historian Randolph B. Campbell has demonstrated, there was virtually no Black slavery in Texas on the eve of Mexican independence.

What about women in Texas in its last decades as part of the Spanish empire? Like their predecessors, some came to Texas as wives, widows, and daughters. Others arrived independently or were born in the province. Like their male counterparts, they faced the hardships of life in a distant, isolated borderlands province, dangers that ranged from epidemic diseases to Indian attacks. These females also had the risks associated with childbirth, the threat of being taken captive, and the real possibility of losing a spouse. Generally illiterate, they tend to remain faceless and nameless in most historical records. Nevertheless, sources such as legal and church documents do provide information about them. As an example, census records indicate that by 1799 twenty-four females headed families on the East Texas frontier. As old as eighty-five and as young as thirty-four, these diverse widows “included Hispanics, castas (women of mixed-race), Indians, French, and one ‘American.’” At Béxar twenty years earlier, three women whose names we do know—María Ana Curbelo, Leonor Delgado, and María del Carmen Calvillo were among the top ten cattle owners in the area. The first two were widowed, while the third had an absentee husband. Each proved more than capable of caring for her family, its land, and other possessions, particularly Calvillo who, upon the death of her father in 1814, assumed ownership and management of Rancho de las Cabras, which grew tremendously in later decades. Without women such as these, Spain would neither have attained a permanent civilian presence in Texas nor have left such strong legacies for the Lone Star State today.

Regardless of gender, the aggregate Hispanic population of Texas in 1810, when Father Miguel Hidalgo issued his historic Grito de Dolores, was probably fewer than 5,000. Nevertheless, events occurring far to the south had a brief, but important, impact on their lives, as Juan Bautista de las Casas and a few fellow conspirators led an insurrection in San Antonio that was initially successful. By the summer of 1811, however, men loyal to the crown suppressed the Casas Revolt and restored royal authority. The reasons for discontent that caused the flames of rebellion to spread even to the Spanish-American borderlands were too many and too complex to explore in this essay; nevertheless, Spain was able to maintain sovereignty over Mexico for another decade.

A more serious challenge to Spanish rule in Texas during the early nineteenth century came from the activities of the unlikely pairing of José Bernardo Maximiliano Gutiérrez de Lara, a Mexican rebel, and Augustus W. Magee, a former United States army officer. On the Texas-U.S. border, these men organized the “Republican Army of the North,” a disparate band of filibusters who captured Nacogdoches, La Bahía, and San Antonio. After the death of Magee and the fall of the capital in 1813, Gutiérrez issued a “Declaration of Independence of the State of Texas” and drafted a Centralist (conservative) constitution. However, the motley collection of rebels was torn by dissension caused in part by Gutiérrez’s increasing tendency toward dictatorial behavior and the brutal execution of prisoners including the governor. The factionalized insurgents suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of Joaquín de Arredondo at the battle of Medina on August 18, 1813. Perhaps as many as 1,300 Republican Army soldiers, thirteen of every fourteen, died during this battle or were shot afterwards. Upon his return to San Antonio, he ordered his troops to round up and imprison hundreds of women. These women were physically assaulted, kept apart from their children, and forced to prepare the solders' food (see LA QUINTA). Subsequently, Arredondo’s bloody purges of suspected collaborations among the civilian population gained him the nickname of the “Butcher of Béxar” and left an indelible mark on Texas. In the process he did assure that it would remain under Spain’s control until Mexican independence was achieved in 1821. Those intervening years, however, were frightfully destructive. From 1819 to 1821, two filibustering attempts by James Long proved failures, while creating even more uncertainty and instability in the process. Although Royalists successfully repelled all military invasions, the defenders of Texas had also become its predators. In the words of Antonio María Martínez, the last governor of Spanish Texas, the king’s soldiers had “drained the resources of the country and laid their hands on everything that could sustain human life.”

In 1821, under the leadership of Agustín de Iturbide and Vicente Guerrero a successful rebellion in Mexico created a new nation that included Texas. The Mexican War of Independence marked the close of an era in Texas history, one in which the Franciscan padres had founded and re-founded missions at approximately forty different sites. While zealous, their efforts had failed to achieve the desired goals of converting and Hispanicizing substantial numbers of the diverse American Indian groups who inhabited the province. Some First Peoples had cooperated, or feigned cooperation, as best suited their needs at any given time. Others primarily saw Spanish missions and settlements as potential targets from which to acquire livestock, captives, and more. Municipalities ranged from Laredo to San Antonio and Nacogdoches with ranches and farms dotting the landscape. Despite the existence of ten presidios that had extended from Central Texas eastward to the site of present Robeline, Louisiana, and southward to Chambers County, Native Americans “remained the dominant force in Texas” during the period of Spanish occupation, a reality of which the officials, missionaries, soldiers, and settlers were aware.

Most of the non-American Indian population was probably mestizo, a combination of Spaniard and American Indian. After Mexican independence, Hispanics, whether multiracial or not, were soon outnumbered by Americans from the United States. Many of these Tejanos (Mexican Texans) would not fare well in their new circumstances. Nevertheless, modern Texas reflects its Spanish origins in many ways that are apparent to the knowledgeable observer and others that are not so obvious.

Given the rich history and heritage of the province before 1821, to accord Jane Herbert Wilkinson Long the title of “the Mother of Texas” for bearing an Anglo child at Bolivar Point in December of 1821 does injustice to the many women who came before her. To state the obvious, American Indian women resided in Texas long before Europeans or Anglo Americans arrived, continued to be significant throughout the colonial period, and helped determine the fate of their peoples. French women risked their lives to accompany Sieur de la Salle on his ill-fated expedition, and one of that number bore the first documented European child born on Texas soil. And, whether they came as soldiers’ wives and daughters, as Canary Islander settlers, or through other means, Spanish and multiracial women played a critical role in settling and populating the province during the period of Spanish occupation. These diverse women are the true “Mothers of Texas.”

Juliana Barr, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007). Walter L. Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away from Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2011). Donald E. Chipman and Harriett Denise Joseph, Notable Men and Women of Spanish Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999). Donald E. Chipman and Harriett Denise Joseph, Spanish Texas, 15191521, rev. ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010). Jesús F. de la Teja, Faces of Béxar: Early San Antonio and Texas (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2016). Jesús F. de la Teja, San Antonio de Béxar: A Community on New Spain’s Northern Frontier (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995). Richard Flint, Great Cruelties Have Been Reported: The 1544 Investigation of the Coronado Expedition (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 2002). Oakah L. Jones, Jr., Nueva Vizcaya: Heartland of the Spanish Frontier (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988). David La Vere, The Texas Indians (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004). F. Todd Smith, The Caddo Indians: Tribes at the Convergence of Empire, 15421854 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1995). F. Todd Smith, From Dominance to Disappearance: The Indians of Texas and the Near Southwest, 17861859 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006). F. Todd Smith, The Wichita Indians: Traders of Texas and the Southern Plains, 15401845 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2000). David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992). Robert S. Weddle, After the Massacre: The Violent Legacy of the San Sabá Mission (Lubbock: Texas Tech Press, 2007). Robert S. Weddle, The French Thorn: Rival Explorers in the Spanish Sea (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1991). Robert S. Weddle, Spanish Sea: The Gulf of Mexico in North American Discovery, 15001685 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1985). Robert S. Weddle, The Wreck of the Bell, the Ruin of La Salle (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001). 

  • Exploration
  • Peoples
  • French
  • Military
  • Politics and Government
  • Native American
Time Periods:
  • Spanish Texas

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

Harriett Denise Joseph and Donald E. Chipman, “Spanish Texas,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 30, 2022,

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February 1, 1996
May 4, 2022

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