Texas in the Age of Mexican Independence

By: Jesús "Frank" de la Teja

Type: General Entry

Published: February 1, 1996

Updated: May 2, 2022

The nineteenth century opened with the western world at war and Texas once again about to become a bone of contention between Spain and rivals who would dismember the Spanish empire. Called upon to resume its early role as an international border region, Texas underwent a series of upheavals during the first two decades of the 1800s that left it ill-prepared to face the challenges of being one of the least developed parts of the Provincias Internas at Mexican independence in 1821. Foreign encroachments, Indian warfare, and insurrectionary activity all contributed to demographic and economic collapse. In the end, desperate Spanish authorities authorized Anglo-American colonization in an effort to bolster the province and so produced a new set of problems for the Mexican authorities who soon replaced them.

In the last years of the eighteenth century Spain once again faced concerted efforts by rivals, now including the United States, to wrest from it important parts of its North American empire. Relations with the United States had come dangerously close to war over navigation rights on the Mississippi River and the expansion of Anglo-American frontier settlements into the Spanish Floridas. Napoleon's coerced acquisition of Louisiana in 1800 and his subsequent sale of the vast territory to the United States in 1803 left Spanish North America divided and vulnerable. Under these circumstances Texas assumed a geopolitical importance vastly disproportionate to its economic or demographic place in the empire. To Spanish royal officials United States claims that the Louisiana Purchase included all the territory to the Rio Grande put in jeopardy not only New Mexico, but the silver-mining regions of Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí as well. Governor Manuel Antonio Cordero y Bustamante had orders to hold on to all of Texas, which at that time stretched northward from the Medina and Nueces rivers to the Red River and eastward to the Arroyo Hondo. (Laredo at this time was part of Nuevo Santander, today Tamaulipas, and Ysleta was then part of New Mexico.) Simón Herrera, Spanish military commander at the eastern border, decided to make his stand on the west bank of the Sabine River. Late in 1806 he and Gen. James Wilkinson, who had orders to occupy the territory to the Sabine, signed the Neutral Ground agreement, by which both sides agreed to stay out of the area between the Sabine and the Arroyo Hondo until its sovereignty was determined by treaty.

For the next decade Spain tried to keep the United States at bay in Texas while slowly ceding ground in Florida. The Mexican-oriented activities of Philip Nolan, Aaron Burr, Zebulon Montgomery Pike, and General Wilkinson concerned Spanish officials more than Anglo-American encroachments in Florida because Mexico was a richer colonial possession. The overthrow of the Spanish Bourbons by Napoleon, the formation of a resistance government in southern Spain, and the outbreak of various rebellions throughout Spanish America also contributed to loss of ground to the United States. Between 1810 and 1813 Baton Rouge and the Florida parishes and Mobile areas were incorporated into the United States. In 1814 and again in 1818 Andrew Jackson captured Pensacola. In 1817 a group of filibusters established the Republic of the Floridas on Amelia Island and resisted efforts by Spanish troops to oust them. Mexican viceregal authorities, successful in containing Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla's revolt (see MEXICAN WAR OF INDEPENDENCE) and in keeping Texas under Spanish rule, handed Ferdinand VII, the restored Bourbon monarch, at least one strong bargaining position in negotiations with the United States. Between 1816 and 1819 John Quincy Adams and Luis de Onís negotiated the conflicting territorial claims of the two continental powers. The resulting Adams-Onís Treaty, signed in Washington on February 22, 1819, recognized the obvious: the United States got the Floridas, much of which were already in Anglo-American hands; Spain retained title to Texas and got a clear demarcation of its boundary with the Louisiana territory. By terms of the treaty the Sabine and Red rivers marked the Texas-Louisiana border and the Neutral Ground became a permanent part of Louisiana.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Spanish Texas remained a sparsely settled territory heavily dependent on the military, its few settlements continually exposed to raids by Indians that contested Spanish sovereignty in the region. Crown efforts to bolster the small population and thus improve the province's viability proved unsuccessful, and the temporary advances made between 1805 and 1810 were quickly undone during the insurrectionary turmoil of 1811–13. By 1821 Texas had an even smaller Hispanic population than two decades earlier. The oldest and largest of colonial Texas communities was San Antonio de Béxar (see SAN FERNANDO DE BÉXAR). In its eighty-year history the settlement had evolved from a presidio-mission complex to the first chartered municipality and finally to the provincial capital. Its population of approximately 2,000 in 1800 was composed chiefly of Mexican settlers from Coahuila, Nuevo León, and other frontier provinces mixed with the descendants of a small number of Canary Islanders, acculturated Indians who resided both in town and in the neighboring missions, and a very small number of Spaniards and foreigners. After the United States acquired Louisiana, reinforcement of the Spanish military presence in Texas resulted in the transfer of the Second Flying Company of San Carlos de Parras (the Álamo de Parras company) to San Antonio, where it was headquartered in 1803 at San Antonio de Valero Mission, which had been closed. Other units from Nuevo Santander and Nuevo León swelled the population to more than 3,000 by 1810. La Bahía (present-day Goliad), was the second oldest settlement in the province. It was originally established in 1721 at the site of La Salle's Fort St. Louis, then moved in 1749 to the San Antonio River, where the presidio and two missions had the task of guarding the Texas Gulf Coast against foreign encroachment. In 1803 the settlement's population of approximately 618 soldiers and civilians continued to live under military jurisdiction. Far to the northeast, near the Louisiana border, Nacogdoches was attracting increasing numbers of immigrants, legal and otherwise, from the Anglo-American frontier. The settlement, established in 1779 by displaced Los Adaes settlers, began to be garrisoned in 1795 by a detachment from Béxar. The population of 660 in 1803 continued to grow until hostilities during the Mexican War of Independence caused its virtual abandonment.

Sustained contacts with Louisiana, although illegal, also brought about the reoccupation of the area between the Sabine River and Arroyo Hondo. Bayou Pierre, an informal settlement of unknown dimensions located near the abandoned former capital of Los Adaes, was occupied by Spanish troops in 1805. Although the troops withdrew after the signing of the Neutral Ground Agreement, Spanish authorities continued to claim jurisdiction there. In 1810 Governor Manuel María de Salcedo estimated the Neutral Ground population, including Bayou Pierre, at approximately 190 persons. The growing number of Spanish subjects in Louisiana who sought to avoid United States jurisdiction by applying for admission to Texas presented Spanish authorities with an important opportunity to address the lack of population on the frontier. Those officials who lobbied to admit the émigrés as settlers to Texas convinced policymakers that the benefits of the population increase outweighed the risks of contraband trade and disloyalty. Among the émigrés was the Baron de Bastrop, who in 1805 proposed a colony of settlers from the United States for an area between Béxar and the Trinity River. That same year, Commandant-General Nemecio Salcedo authorized Governor Cordero to establish settlements on the Trinity, Brazos, Colorado, San Marcos, and Guadalupe rivers. Of these ambitious plans only two became a reality—Santísima Trinidad de Salcedo, started with five families from Béxar and seven from Louisiana, and San Marcos de Neve, with an original population of eighty-one from Nuevo Santander, Béxar, and La Bahía. While Salcedo enjoyed small but steady growth until the outbreak of insurrection, San Marcos floundered in the aftermath of a flood and Indian depredations.

Beyond the borders of what was then Texas, other settlement activities brought increasing numbers of Mexican colonists north of the Rio Grande. Laredo, then part of Nuevo Santander, doubled in size between the end of the eighteenth century and the outbreak of Hidalgo's revolt. At this time numerous ranches were established east of Laredo and south of the Nueces River. On the eve of the independence struggle Antonio Cordero, as governor of Coahuila, ordered the establishment of Palafox Villa, half-way between San Juan Bautista and Laredo, with families from Coahuila. Although Laredo successfully held off the Indian raids that increased as Mexico sank into rebellion, the ranches to the east and Palafox to the west succumbed to the raiders and were largely abandoned by 1821.

Generally, the territory of what is now Texas remained beyond Spanish control. Although the Caddo in East Texas, the coastal peoples from the Akokisa to the north to the Karankawa to the south, and the many hunter-gatherer inland bands to the south were in decline, other Texas Indians exercised considerable control of territory. To the north and west the Comanches and Wichitas were the dominant peoples. They carried on a lucrative trade with westward moving American traders in horses and mules they captured from Hispanic settlements even as they obtained regular gifts from Spanish authorities in return for maintaining a nominal peace. Apaches, both the more eastern Lipan and the Mescaleros, having been forced southward from their territory in West Central Texas, also reached an agreement with the Spanish authorities of Texas, Coahuila, and Nuevo Santander through which a relative peace was maintained. Following the outbreak of Hidalgo’s revolt and as a result of a cut-off in funds to support the “peace through purchase” policy of gift-giving, raiding intensified during the last decade of Spain’s presence in Texas as these autonomous tribes sought to acquire what commodities they could to exchange with the ever growing number of American traders along the Red River country.

The first decades of the nineteenth century were also notable in Texas for the arrival of new Indian settlers. United States occupation of Louisiana, the War of 1812, and the pursuit of Indian removal policies all along the Anglo-American frontier contributed to Indian flight to Spanish territory, where southern tribes had learned they would be well-received. The demographic collapse of the Caddo population, combined with Spanish perceptions of these displaced agriculturalist Indians as willing allies against the expansionist United States, also favored their settlement in Texas. Bands of Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, as well as Alabamas and Coushattas (see ALABAMA-COUSHATTA INDIANS), were among the groups that established themselves in Texas at this time. Unfortunately for the Spanish authorities, and for the Mexican ones later, even as they fled American encroachment of their ancestral lands, the immigrant tribes became dependent on American traders and their manufactured goods and alcohol.

Prospects for the economic development of Texas improved markedly during the first decade of the nineteenth century. The enlarged military presence in the province; new settlement projects; increased, albeit illicit, trade opportunities with Louisiana; and relative peace with the Apaches and Comanches contributed to rising expectations among Texans. The beginning of hostilities in 1811 started an economic and social disintegration that saw Texas in ruins on the eve of Mexican independence. Military payrolls continued to be the driving force of the Texas economy in the early 1800s. The various presidio garrisons and other military units stationed in the province not only gave employment for those men who served in them but also provided work for civilian artisans and income to local merchants, farmers, and ranchers. Steady growth in this sector of the economy came to an abrupt halt after the outbreak of the Mexican insurrection in late 1810. As the viceregal government diverted available resources to the royal armies fighting Hidalgo, José María Morelos, and the regional revolts they began, the frontier garrisons went unpaid; they became burdens on the local communities. The dry-up of royal funds also had a devastating effect on Indian-Spanish relations. During the last decades of the eighteenth century Spanish policy had centered on appeasement of the Comanches and Norteños through regular gift-giving. In East Texas the Spanish government authorized Indian agents for the tribes in the region, the most prominent of which was the House of Barr and Davenport. As a result, Texas settlements enjoyed a prolonged period of peaceful trade with the various Indian peoples of the region that succeeded in maintaining their independence. Once the gifts became unavailable, raiding resumed. Between 1810 and 1820 Indian raiders made agricultural work, ranching, and travel dangerous in the western part of the province and throughout the Rio Grande country.

Agriculture remained largely a subsistence pursuit during this period. A few farmers produced enough surplus corn to market it among the various military units, and an even smaller number produced commercial amounts of beans, chiles, and even crudely-refined cane sugar (piloncillo). Cotton, which had once flourished at Béxar's mission farms, was no longer grown, nor was wheat. Most of the commercial farming that did go on took place around Béxar, the only Texas community with extensive irrigation works, although most of these fell into disrepair during the decade. Ranching also suffered. Over-harvesting and droughts during the last third of the eighteenth century contributed to a marked decline in cattle at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The expanding Anglo-American frontier brought new opportunities in horse and mule trading, however. But the production of equine stock was an even more dangerous activity than cattle raising, as horses made a particularly attractive target for Indian raiders. Nevertheless, the high prices paid in Louisiana for mustangs afforded Texans one of the few opportunities for export earnings. The population of Nacogdoches, which had long established close economic ties with Louisiana, was particularly involved in this contraband trade. Contraband was, in fact, a way of life on the Texas frontier. Its isolated position made manufacturing impracticable in the province, yet made it an acceptable conduit through which illicit trade goods could flow into and out of Mexico. The numerous reports of local officials, the recorded activities of those Texans who were caught participating in illegal trade, and the description of Anglo-American influences on the Tejano population during this time all attest to the increasingly eastern orientation of the Texas economy. Unfortunately, because of its illegal nature, direct evidence of the contents and volume of this commerce is largely lacking.

Whether legal or illegal, the volume of trade that the Texas economy generated was insufficient to raise the population out of general poverty. No families in the province were rich by colonial standards. Governmental and ecclesiastical hierarchies were represented by the governor, some missionaries, and Béxar's parish priest. The evidence suggests that only a handful of Tejanos had by the early nineteenth century managed to leave the province to seek a higher education. At Béxar, where the Canary Islanders had mixed with the original presidio population, social status tended to be somewhat independent of economic position. Throughout Texas personal accomplishment went far in establishing an individual's place in society.

Texas was the scene of two important episodes of rebellion against Spanish rule between 1811 and 1813. In succeeding years a number of invasions, some tied to the continuing struggle against Spanish colonial rule and some not, kept the Spanish military on the defensive. Surprisingly, the underpaid, ill-equipped frontier troops successfully held off the various threats to the crown's interests. The collapse of royalist control throughout the northeastern provinces bordering Texas in late 1810 and early 1811 contributed to a similar occurrence in Texas. Frontier supporters of Hidalgo's movement found their manpower in the presidio companies and provincial militias. The men in these locally-recruited units were wary of exposing families and property to Indian attack and other dangers in order to go fight Hidalgo's rebels in the interior. In Texas, Juan Bautista de las Casas, a retired militia officer and Hidalgo supporter, took advantage of these very fears to lead a mutiny of the Béxar garrison on January 22, 1811 (see CASAS REVOLT). His aides met little opposition when they arrived at La Bahía and Nacogdoches to assume control. Nevertheless, disaffection, internal divisions among the rebel leadership, and loyalist leanings among local elites contributed to the quick restoration of royal rule. Gen. Joaquín de Arredondo led the counterattack in Nuevo Santander, while a counterrevolutionary junta in Coahuila liberated Governor Salcedo, who had been sent there by Casas, and organized resistance against the rebels. A similar organization of the local leadership took place at Béxar under the leadership of Juan Manuel Zambrano, son of one of the wealthier families in the community and a member of the clergy. The counter-revolutionaries proclaimed their allegiance to Ferdinand VII on March 2, 1811. Nine days later Coahuilan loyalists captured Hidalgo and the rest of the rebel leaders as they attempted to make their way to Texas in order to escape to the United States.

Eighteen months later, rebellion once again engulfed Texas. José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, a native of Nuevo Santander who had been sent as Hidalgo's emissary to the United States, entered Texas at the head of a force of Mexicans and Anglo-Americans styled the Republican Army of the North. He shared the command with West Point graduate Augustus W. Magee, who resigned a commission in the United States Army to help organize the expedition. The Gutiérrez-Magee expedition, as this episode in Texas history is commonly called, captured Nacogdoches in August 1812 and La Bahía in early November. Governor Salcedo failed to defeat the invaders either at La Bahía or later on the outskirts of Béxar. Following the battle of Rosillo on March 29, 1813, Salcedo surrendered the Texas capital. Gutiérrez and a group of supporters declared Texas independence from Spain on April 6, 1813, but tensions among the various factions involved in the revolt left the insurrectionists unprepared to meet Arredondo's forces. Governor Salcedo, Colonel Herrera, and more than a dozen other Spaniards in the province were executed, although they had been promised safe conduct out of Texas. A conservative constitution organized the province as a state within an illusory Mexican republic under the leadership of Gutiérrez de Lara. Samuel Kemper, who had assumed command of the Anglo-American contingent, withdrew to the United States along with a number of other officers dissatisfied with the turn of events. At the beginning of August 1813 José Álvarez de Toledo y Dubois replaced Gutiérrez as political leader of the insurrection, just in time to be defeated by Arredondo at the battle of Medina on August 18. In the days that followed, the rebels abandoned La Bahía and Nacogdoches, thus restoring the province to royalist rule.

In the aftermath of the battle of Medina the province’s Hispanic population suffered greatly. Hundreds of men who had sided with the insurgents were either killed or forced into exile. Among the latter were future leaders during the Mexican period such as Juan Martín de Veramendi and José Francisco Ruiz. It was not just the men who suffered, however; immediately following the battle, the wives of known insurgents were incarcerated and, according to reports, made to prepare food for the royalist forces and suffer numerous indignities (see LA QUINTA, 1813). Confiscated property meant that these women could not hope to provide for themselves and their families with the loss or absence of their men. A general pardon issued in October 1813 by General Arredondo, which excluded only a handful of the Tejano insurgent leaders, began to bring some normality to the province, but years of hardship confronted the surviving population.

After a respite of about two years, challenges to Spanish governance of Texas by armed invaders resumed. In November 1815 Henry Perry, who had served as an officer during the Gutiérrez-Magee expedition, crossed the Sabine River with a small force and occupied Point Bolivar as part of a new plan to conquer Texas. The following September privateer Louis Michel Aury occupied Galveston on behalf of a group of New Orleans conspirators and declared the makeshift establishment a port of the Republic of Mexico. Francisco Xavier Mina, another insurgent interested in the liberation of Mexico, launched his invasion of Tamaulipas from Galveston in early 1817. Perry, who had joined Mina's expedition, abandoned the Tamaulipas venture and marched on La Bahía, where a force under Governor Antonio María Martínez defeated him on June 18. The Laffite brothers, Pierre and Jean, took over Galveston also in early 1817, ostensibly under the authority of the Mexican republic, and made it headquarters for their privateering and smuggling operations until May 1820. Although provincial authorities did not respond to the presence of pirates at Galveston, they did send an expedition to expel a large body of Napoleonic émigrés who attempted to establish themselves on the Trinity River at a site called Champ d'Asile in 1818. The following year Governor Martínez mounted an expedition of more than 500 troops under the command of Juan Ignacio Pérez to drive out the Long expedition, which had been organized by Americans displeased by the boundary of the Louisiana Purchase as established in the Adams-Onís Treaty. James W. Long returned to Texas in 1820 and remained at Point Bolivar for more than a year before attempting an attack on La Bahía. Pérez again took to the field and defeated Long on October 8, 1821, months after Mexican independence had been declared.

While colonial officials tried to preserve Mexico and Texas for the Spanish Bourbons, political instability on the Iberian Peninsula conspired to prevent peace. Although he took an oath to the liberal constitution of 1812, Ferdinand VII grasped the first opportunity after his return from exile to reestablish autocratic rule. His unrealistic expectations of recovering lost South American colonies contributed to widespread dissatisfaction in Spain, and in 1820 a revolt of the expeditionary force about to sail for America led to the reestablishment of the constitution of 1812. By the summer of 1821 one of the leading royalist commanders, Agustín de Iturbide, had reached an agreement with rebel leaders still in the field and declared Mexican independence. Texas, exhausted by its previous participation in the war of independence, by continuous Indian raids, and by periodic filibustering expeditions, embraced independence cautiously. Only in mid-July 1821, after Commandant-General Arredondo sent word of his acceptance of Iturbide's Plan de Iguala, did Governor Martínez order ceremonies to commemorate the event. At Béxar, La Bahía, and what little was left of Nacogdoches, Tejanos swore allegiance to the new Mexican nation and prepared to take their destiny into their own hands. These events took place at the same time that yet another effort to develop Texas through immigration was getting off the ground. In December 1820, Moses Austin, the last of the colonial era's would-be promoters of foreign settlement in Texas, arrived at Béxar and sought approval for a colony of 300 families. His son, Stephen F. Austin, on whom it fell to carry out the colonization plan beginning the following summer, presented national authorities with the final, successful challenge to preserving Texas as an integral part of Mexico. See also BOUNDARIES, SPANISH TEXAS, MEXICAN TEXAS.

Vito Alessio Robles, Coahuila y Texas en la época colonial (Mexico City: Editorial Cultura, 1938; 2d ed., Mexico City: Editorial Porrúa, 1978). Nettie Lee Benson, "Texas Failure to Send a Deputy to the Spanish Cortes, 1810–1812," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 64 (July 1960). Carlos E. Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas (7 vols., Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1936–58; rpt., New York: Arno, 1976). Donald E. Chipman, Spanish Texas, 1519–1821 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992). 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). Jesús F. de la Teja, ed., Tejano Leadership in Mexican and Revolutionary Texas (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2010). Odie B. Faulk, The Last Years of Spanish Texas, 1778–1821 (The Hague: Mouton, 1964). Bradley Folsom, Arredondo: Last Spanish Ruler of Texas and Northeastern New Spain (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017). Julia Kathryn Garrett, Green Flag Over Texas: A Story of the Last Years of Spain in Texas (Austin: Pemberton Press, 1939). Mattie Austin Hatcher, The Opening of Texas to Foreign Settlement, 1801–1821 (University of Texas Bulletin 2714, 1927). Jack Jackson, Los Mesteños: Spanish Ranching in Texas, 1721–1821 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1986). David La Vere, The Texas Indians (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004). Timothy Matovina and Jesús F. de la Teja, eds., Recollections of a Tejano Life: Antonio Menchaca in Texas History (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013). David McDonald, José Antonio Navarro: In Search of the American Dream in Nineteenth-Century Texas (Denton: Texas State Historical Association, 2010). F. Todd Smith, From Dominance to Disappearance: The Indians of Texas and the Near Southwest, 1786–1859 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005). David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

Time Periods:
  • Spanish Texas

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

Jesús "Frank" de la Teja, “Texas in the Age of Mexican Independence,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 16, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/texas-in-the-age-of-mexican-independence.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

February 1, 1996
May 2, 2022

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