Defending a “Forgotten” Frontier

Spanish Texas, 1716–1821


Spaniards viewed the coast of Texas for the first time in 1519, and slightly more than three centuries would elapse before the flag of Castile and León was lowered for the final time at San Antonio in 1821. Uninterrupted Spanish occupation of Texas, however, lasted for only one-third of that period, the 105 years from 1716 to 1821. Spanish Texas (or Tejas, as it was called by its first European settlers) lay above the Nueces River to the east of the Medina River’s headwaters and extended eastward into western Louisiana. This amounted to only a small portion of the present Lone Star State, but even then the area was large enough to offer daunting challenges to soldiers, explorers and settlers.

Spanish Texas was first and foremost a military province. With only a few exceptions, every governor of the province was a commissioned officer in the Spanish army who held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel or Colonel. These governors commanded soldiers stationed at presidios, the Spanish term for military garrisons, and were responsible for the security of Spanish civilians, missionaries, and partially Hispanicized Indians who were congregated in the religious establishments known as missions. Thus, to understand the military history of Spanish Texas, we must first examine how the Spanish came to depend on presidios and missions as an approach to dealing with the indigenous population of northern Mexico and the Spanish Southwest, which ultimately stretched from California to western Louisiana.

Spain’s first experience in establishing its colonial or overseas empire came in the Canary Islands where most of the native population were sedentary farmers or fishermen. Next came Spanish colonization of the major islands of the Caribbean-Santo Domingo, Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. Once again, Spaniards found an indigenous population that was settled and fairly easy to control-especially since islands have more finite geographical limitations. The primary agency in dealing with these sedentary people was a complex institution known as encomienda. Spaniards received grants of encomienda, which included a specified number of Indians who were to work as vassals for their Spanish overseer (encomendero) or pay tribute to him.

Then came the conquest of mainland Mexico from 1519-1521, following which essentially all of the sedentary Indians of Central Mexico who survived the conquest were assigned to Spanish encomenderos. The process of conquering outlying areas such as the Gulf Coast, western Mexico, and Yucatán and placing these Indians in encomienda then occupied Spain for the next twenty years.

By 1540 the effective line of Spanish settlement in Mexico ran from Culiacán on the west coast southeastward to Lake Chapala, east to Querétaro just north of Mexico City, and then northeastward to presentday Tampico on the Gulf Coast. With few exceptions, (notably in the Yucatán where Lacandón Maya Indians resisted the Spanish conquest for the next two hundred years), all of the Indians south of this line had been conquered. They, too, as a generalization were sedentary Indians who had been placed under an encomendero. Once again, these settled Indians worked for the Spanish overseer or paid tribute to him. As for the encomendero, he was responsible for bringing the Christian message to his vassals, Hispanicizing them, and protecting them-an obligation few encomenderos took seriously.

Everything Spain had experienced in the Canary Islands, in the Caribbean Islands, and in Central Mexico had been pretty much the same-sedentary Indians (not all of them peaceful to be sure, the Aztecs and Mayas come to mind here) had fallen under Spanish control. Then a “whole new dimension” in Spanish-Indian relations came about in the 1540s and lasted until the 1790s in Spanish Texas.

North of the previously mentioned line of Spanish settlement, were non-sedentary Indians collectively known as Chichimecs. These Indians, which included a great variety of nations and languages, were decentralized and masters of the bow and arrow. They were so tough that even the Aztecs, the most powerful Indians in North America, did not attempt a conquest of Chichimec lands. The Aztecs labeled the Chichimecs as barbarians, or with the pejorative terms “uncivilized dirty dogs.” (As an interesting sidelight, Aztec nobles could dine on human flesh, but they rationalized their inability to conquer the Chichimecs by claiming that “they did not taste good!”)

Spaniards by the early 1540s had little reason to venture into Chichimec lands. The reports of Coronado, whose army had traveled along the west coast away from hostile Indians, as well as accounts from survivors of the De Soto expedition, were not favorable about the North Country. To this discouraging news add the known hostility of the Chichimec nations, all of which made northern Mexico an unattractive and dangerous place for Spaniards.

All of this changed, starting in 1546. In that year a Spanish captain, a few Franciscan friars, and some Indian allies ventured to the present-day site of Zacatecas. At Zacatecas they discovered what turned out to be a mountain of rich silver ore, still worked to this day. This discovery of silver touched off a mad rush of people into the Zacatecas area, and by 1550 (just four years later), the town of Zacatecas had turned into a classic boom town with more than thirty mining companies operating in the area. Zacatecas had attracted so many Spaniards that the town itself was safe from Indian attacks. The problem lay with roads and supply lines that ran into the area from Guadalajara and Mexico City.

Mule trains loaded with silver and headed south for Spanish counting houses in Mexico City or Veracruz were of little interest to the Chichimecs. What really interested the Indians was all manner of goodsfood, supplies, and weapons-being sent north to the mining frontier. In 1550 Chichimecs attacked a supply train and wiped it out, killing everyone. This incident was the start of the Great Chichimec Wars that lasted for half a century.

The Spanish response to these wars is crucial to understanding what would go on for about 250 years and eventually influence the military history of early Texas. To secure supply lines into and out of the silver frontier, Spaniards built strong houses and fortified towns located at the end of a day’s journey. These were Spain’s first presidios or military garrisons.

As an aside, we historians used to think that Spaniards were the most litigious people on earth. Americans, however, now rival them in every regard! But over time, Spaniards drafted a myriad of laws to cover seemingly every possible contingency-right down to where people could sit in church or march in a parade. Some 400,000 laws had been drafted for the New World by the mid-1600s. Laws governing these new military outposts stated they must be stocked with enough goods “to accommodate one hundred nude and hungry guests” at the end of their day’s journey!

Despite these military outposts, wars with the Chichimecs lasted for the better part of fifty years. Why? Keep in mind that Spaniards had defeated both the powerful Aztecs and Incas in record short times, but they had great difficulty in subduing the Chichimecs. There were several reasons for this: 1) The lands of northern Mexico were huge, Northern Mexico is about twice the size of Texas! [Mexico as a whole, 756,198 sq. miles; Texas today, 267,339 sq. miles] Much of the terrain was desert, but
also included rough country containing mountains, hills, and valleys. This provided good cover for Indians who knew these lands far better than Spaniards. 2) Chichimecs were fierce nomadic warriors whose food supply could not be cut off-a powerful lever that had worked well in controlling sedentary people. 3) Spain was seriously over committed both in Europe and America. This made it difficult to concentrate on any one theater of military operation. 4) Spaniards initially underestimated the seriousness of the situation. Having defeated powerful Indians in Mexico and Peru, Spaniards were supremely confident of their military prowess-overconfident. As it turned out, Chichimecs won the early battles and this gave them confidence. 5) Chichimec languages were so difficult that they hindered efforts to communicate directly with them. 6) And Chichimecs were often on the attack, Spaniards were on the defensive. In their attacks, the Indians could fire four or five arrows in the time it took for Spaniards to load a musket or crank a crossbow.

This is not one of the important points but an interesting one. Chichimec warriors wore no clothing other than a breechcloth. Often when attacking Spaniards, they would take off their loin cloths “for the effect” and attack in the nude. There is something about clothing that makes men going into combat feel more secure. Spaniards were absolutely astonished by the appearance of the Chichimec attackers.

Finally, let’s give the Chichimecs a lot of credit. Spaniards themselves who knew something about fighting-having carried out nearly 800 years of warfare against the Moors in Spain-were often, to use modern terminology, in “shock and awe” at Chichimec proficiency with the bow and arrow. As one observer put it, “In the opinion of men experienced in foreign lands, the [Chichimecs] are the best archers in the world.” “They kill hares, which, even though running they pierce with arrows; also deer, birds, and even little animals of the land, not even overlooking rats. They fish with the bow and arrow.” Children were taught the use of the bow from the time they could walk, “and they practice shooting at insects.” The Chichimec arrow was so deadly it could easily penetrate Spanish plate armor and chain mail. This forced the Spanish to use several layers of cotton quilting as armor (much like the modern flack jacket) that did prove effective against Chichimec arrows. By the way, Spaniards learned about cotton quilted armor from the Aztecs, who did not know how to forge metal.

For thirty-five years the Spanish answer to Chichimec attacks was increased military pressure and vicious reprisals for loss of lives. In the final analysis, what the Spanish called “Fire and Blood” policy failed and failed miserably.

Around the middle of the 1580s, Spain gave up on “Fire and Blood” tactics and adopted what historians have called “Peace by Purchase.” This new policy, urged on by the Spanish clergy and accepted by army commanders, was out carried for fifteen years (1585-1600) and it worked: 1) Peaceful sedentary Indians, especially Aztecs and Tlaxcalans, were brought to the frontier to serve as models of good conduct. The transplanting of sedentary Indians to the frontier was used as far north as New Mexico. This was considered for Spanish Texas but was never used. 2) Wives and children of Chichimecs were captured and held as hostages to insure the good conduct of their warrior husbands and fathers. 3) Gifts of clothing, food, and supplies were given as rewards to pacified Indians. 4) And by this time the missionary clergy had begun to learn the Indian languages and could serve as agents of persuasion and pacification.

By 1600 the Chichimec wars in northern Mexico had largely come to an end. During these wars and for the first time in its history, Spain used missions and presidios to deal with decentralized and largely nomadic Indians. (You can readily see that encomienda could not possibly have worked in dealing with these indigenous people). From this point on, Spain would use a combination of force and persuasion on its northern frontier, including Texas. The presidios represented force, and the missions were another aspect of “Peace by Purchase.”

As the frontier of northern Mexico expanded in the second half of the 1500s, the overall strategy of how missions and presidios were intended to work in pacifying nomadic natives took form. In theory, it worked along these lines: 1) The settled and relatively secure areas on the frontier included mines, ranches, and missions, and of course the line of settlement
moved northward toward Texas-a movement that continued throughout the 1600s. 2) A new mission and presidio would advance into the unsettled region, perhaps as many as fifty miles beyond the settled frontier. 3) The new mission was supported and defended by a nearby presidio staffed with soldiers. 4) The missionary clergy were usually members of the Franciscan Order-that is, regular or order clergy. These regular clergy were temporarily assigned to the mission. They were to serve a maximum of ten years, and then move on to a new mission beyond the settled frontier and start the process all over again. 5) And the overall goal of the regular clergy was to Christianize and Hispanicize their Indian charges and make them tax-paying citizens. Once the regular clergy left a mission, they were replaced by secular or non-order clergy.

On January 1, 1700, the first mission of lasting importance to Spanish Texas was founded on the south bank of the Río Grande, a short distance from present-day Piedras Negras or Eagle Pass. The Río Grande mission, San Juan Bautista, was soon joined by two more missions and a presidio in 1703, also named San Juan Bautista. This locale was at a ford in the Río Grande and was the main avenue into and out of Texas.

Now, at this juncture, Spanish Texas as we have defined it was not occupied by Spaniards. But they had explored parts of Texas in the 1680s and occupied an East Texas mission in the early 1690s.

Briefly, the French led by René Robert Sieur de La Salle had set up an ill-fated colony near Matagorda Bay in the mid-1680s. Spaniards learned of the colony’s existence soon after its founding but did not know where it was located. In the late 1680s, Spain sent out five sea expeditions and six by land before finding the remains of the French colony in April 1689-by then Indians had already destroyed the colony and killed all the adults.

To secure East Texas, Spain established its first mission, San Francisco de los Tejas in 1690 (probably near modern August in northeast Houston County). There was no presidio to defend it. At this juncture, it is important to note that the Franciscan clergy believed the sedentary Caddo Indians so peacefully inclined (especially when compared with the Chichimecs of northern Mexico) that they did not need or want a military presence. The military commander, General Alonso de León, wanted to leave fifty soldiers in East Texas; the clergy would accept only five.

Within three years, the Franciscans had to abandon this first mission and burn it before fleeing southward to Mexico. The failure of this mission may be attributed to floods, epidemic diseases among the Indians, and opposition by the Caddos who threatened rebellion. Bottom line Texas was abandoned from 1693 to 1716; and at no time in the future were missions established anywhere in Texas without the eventual support and security provided by military garrisons.

In abandoning Texas for about twenty-five years, the Spanish failed to take into account France’s goal of establishing a colony near the mouth of the Mississippi and the threat this would eventually pose for East Texas. Starting in 1699, the French established a foothold near present-day Ocean Springs, Mississippi, and began the settlement of the lower Mississippi Valley. In July 1714 Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, a Canadian-born French adventurer, crossed East Texas and arrived at Presidio San Juan Bautista, which alerted Spain to the dangers of an unoccupied Texas.

The Spanish response was not long in coming. In 1716 and 1717 six new missions and a presidio were set up in East Texas and western Louisiana. This was the very locale where Mission San Francisco de los Tejas had failed in 1693, but now there was a military garrison in the region. Then in the following year, 1718, a mission, presidio, and civil settlement were established on the San Antonio River.

As mentioned in the conference’s introductory remarks, by the late 1600s wars in Europe began to spill over into the Americas, and this continued through the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), which actually began in the Americas in 1754 and then spread to Europe. The point here is that a relatively obscure war in Europe began in early 1719—it pitted a Quadruple Alliance of England, France, Holland, and Austria against Spain. Six months passed before the Spanish in East Texas knew that the mother country was at war with France.

The Spanish first learned of this far-off conflict when half a dozen French soldiers from Natchitoches descended on the most eastern of the six new missions in East Texas. The French quickly subdued one halfnaked and unarmed Spanish soldier, as well as the local priest. They then turned their attention to the mission’s chicken house, caught a few hens, tied their legs together, and slung the birds over the back of the French captain’s horse. The chickens flapped their wings in protest, which caused the horse to shy and spill the captain in the dirt. In the confusion, the priest fled into the woods and escaped. He reached the presidio with news of the attack and panic set in-a version of Chicken Little’s “The Sky is Falling” lament. Soon rumor spread that one hundred French soldiers were on their way to East Texas. Overreacting, Spaniards abandoned all six missions and the presidio and began a long retreat to San Antonio.

This war is derisively called the “Chicken War” by the Spanish, but it had important results. Once again, East Texas was unoccupied by Spaniards. The war in Europe lasted for just more than a year. But in Mexico, where there was a substantial time lag in news from the Continent, plans went forward for the reoccupation of East Texas-by force of arms if necessary.Five hundred armed men and cannon crossed the Río Grande in late 1719, but by then there was word that the Quadruple Alliance and Spain were negotiating a truce that would end the war in Europe. This Spanish expedition, led by the Marqués de Aguayo did reoccupy East Texas in the summer of 1721. And Aguayo did a lot to ensure that Texas would be Spanish not French. 1) He refounded the six missions in East Texas. 2) He built two presidios in East Texas to protect the missions

and defend against the French. 3) He marched to the site of the old French colony near Matagorda Bay, where he founded a presidio and mission. 4) Aguayo had brought six hundred mule loads of merchandise, plus literally hundreds of horses, cattle, sheep, and mules into Texas. His expedition was the first big “Cattle Drive” in Texas history. In many respects, Aguayo brought Spanish livestock to Texas. 5) And a second mission in San Antonio, San José de San Miguel de Aguayo, had been founded and named in his honor.

Because of the theme of this conference, it might interest you to know that Aguayo had apparently studied the works of Louis XIV’s great military engineer, Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban on siege craft and fortifications, which existed only in manuscript form until its publication in 1740. Many have long argued that Aguayo never built anything very elaborate in Texas. But recent excavations at the French fort near Matagorda Bay have discovered the footings for his star-shaped Presidio Nuestra Señora de Loreto. I think we can assume that his plans for all Texas presidios were actually carried out.

Aguayo had increased the strength of the military guard in Texas from 60 or 70 to 268. But his work was soon undone. In the 1720s France and Spain, both under Bourbon dynasties, began the long process of becoming allies in the eighteenth century. Spain first began its retrenchment in East Texas. By 1730 Spain closed the western most presidio in East Texas, and the three nearby missions were left without military support. By 1731 these missions had been moved to San Antonio, bringing the total number of religious establishments there to five.

The weakening of military defense in Spanish Texas, primarily because the French were no longer considered a serious threat, led almost immediately to problems with the Indians-especially the Lipan Apaches, who were being driven toward San Antonio by their archenemies, the Comanches. By the 1750s the Lipans were in serious trouble, squeezed as they were between Comanches in the north and Spaniards in the south.

At that time, the Apaches agreed to be peaceful if the Spanish would build a mission for them in their lands to the northwest of Austin. The Spanish agreed and in 1757 built the San Sabá mission and presidio located in Central Texas at present-day Menard. Although the Apaches had promised to live in the mission, they refused to do so. What happened instead is a good example of Apache guile. They would stop by the mission on their way north, pick up things that were clearly Spanish-like
shoes and clothes-then carry out attacks on the Comanches, always leaving behind articles of European manufacture and lending the impression that Spaniards had supported their attacks.

The Comanches were understandably furious. By March 1758, they had recruited hundreds of Indian allies, especially Taovayas (Wichitas), and descended on the mission-located about four miles east of the presidio. The Indians killed two priests, eight Spaniards, and burned the mission. In their fury they even killed the mission cats and oxen. By the way, the San Sabá mission was the only mission in Spanish Texas destroyed by outright Indian attack.

The Spanish responded to the destruction of their mission and loss of life by sending a message to the Comanches and their allies, that “even in their most remote haunts they would not be secure from the long arm of Spanish vengeance.” With a force of more than five hundred men, Colonel Diego Ortiz Parrilla left San Sabá and marched to the Red River near Nocona. In early October 1759, Ortiz Parrilla entered a clearing where he could see the north bank of the Red. To his astonishment there was a palisaded fort within which he spied the French Fleur de Lis (some reports say that the Spanish heard the sound of fife and drum within the fort). In a pitched battle with Indians that lasted for several hours, Ortiz Parrilla suffered losses but inflicted even greater ones on the enemy. Nevertheless, the Spanish commander was obliged to leave behind two cannon,
but the artillery pieces were retrieved about ten years later by Athanase de Mézières.

Following a series of skirmishes with powerful Plains Indians in the 1770s and early 1780s, the Spanish signed a peace treaty with the Comanches in 1785 that essentially lasted throughout the remainder of the colonial era. But by the mid-1780s, the only viable missions left in Texas were at Goliad and San Antonio, and even they were in serious decline. Beginning in the 1790s, Texas missions were secularized. This meant turning over operation of the missions to the secular, or non-order
clergy. As mentioned earlier, Texas missions were to be run by the regular clergy, such as Franciscans or Dominicans, for a maximum of ten years; but the Texas Indians were not considered Hispanicized and Christianized enough to do this for several decades.

The failure of the mission system essentially meant that a military solution was now the main course of action in dealing with Texas Indians. This was especially true of Karankawas along the Texas Coast.

The 1790s was also the decade in which American adventurers, mostly notable Philip Nolan, began making forays into Texas in search of wild mustangs for sale in Louisiana. Spaniards came to view Nolan as a spy or an advance agent of American expansion. On his fourth expedition in 1801, Nolan and his followers were surrounded by Spanish forces near Waco. Early in the fighting, Nolan was shot in the head and killed. Nine of his followers were captured and taken to Ciudad Chihuahua. These nine had to cast dice on a barrel head, and the one with the lowest number would be hanged for firing on the king’s soldier. Ephraim Blackburn’s “four” sealed his fate.

By 1810-1811, Spanish Texas was caught up in Mexico’s struggle for independence from Spain. For a brief time in early 1811, insurgents overthrew the Spanish government in San Antonio. But royalists regained control after only thirty-nine days. Nevertheless, it was clear that Spanish control over Texas was shaky.

Importantly, a Mexican insurgent named Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara traveled to Washington D.C., and arrived there in late 1811. Gutiérrez met with U.S. officials in War and State, as well as with President James Madison. Clearly, what Gutiérrez wanted was American aid for Mexican independence. There is no evidence that Gutiérrez received any encouragement
or promise of assistance whatsoever from the United States, despite claims to the contrary.

Gutiérrez did get passage on a U.S. ship from Philadelphia to New Orleans. From there he traveled to Natchitoches, where the Mexican insurgent found no shortage of volunteers and adventurers who were willing to attack royalists in Texas. One of his recruits was Augustus William Magee, a West Point graduate and artillery officer who had left the U.S. Army.

Gutiérrez and Magee operated under the self-chosen name of the “Republican Army of the North,” and soon had recruited about 130 followers. In 1812 this ragtag army descended on Nacogdoches and captured it without firing a shot, whereupon its numbers swelled to around 300.

The invaders then headed for Goliad and captured the presidio there, where they captured two or three cannons. Spaniards from San Antonio, headed by the governor and Lieutenant Colonel Simón de Herrera marched on Goliad and placed the presidio under siege. But the siege failed, and the Spaniards had to retire to San Antonio. During the engagement Augustus Magee died, leaving command of the rebel army solely in the hands of Gutiérrez.

The so-called Republicans then marched on San Antonio, won a major battle outside the city, and arrested Governor Manuel de Salcedo, Simón de Herrera, and fifteen Spanish officers and sergeants. These seventeen men were sentenced to death but given hope that they would be exiled to American Louisiana. Instead, they were taken outside San Antonio and murdered.

Spain, however, would not tolerate an independent Texas and the murder of its governor. It appointed a no-nonsense military officer in Mexico, Commandant General Joaquín de Arredondo who would alter the course of Texas history. Arredondo assembled more the 1,800 infantry and cavalry troops and marched on Texas. One of his second lieutenants was a young officer names Antonio López de Santa Anna, who got his first taste of battle in Texas and came away with a dim view of the fighting qualities of Anglo Americans.

Opposing Arredondo was the “Republican Army of the North” with about 1,400 former royalists, American adventurers, and a few Indian allies. This collection of men left San Antonio and marched about twenty-five miles south to the Medina River where it engaged Arredondo’s forces on August 18, 1813. The Republicans fought well for about three hours, and then they broke ranks and fled, making themselves easy targets for Spanish cavalry units armed with sabers and lances.

The Battle of Medina is the bloodiest battle in Texas history. An estimated thirteen hundred of the Republican army died in this battle or were later executed as pirates. Arredondo lost fewer than sixty men. Bear in mind the cost of this battle. Thirteen of every fourteen members of the Republican army either died in this battle or were soon executed.

San Antonio was then undefended and Joaquín “the Butcher” de Arredondo would soon demonstrate his “tender mercies” on its inhabitants. For fifty-four days Arredondo meted out executions to “those deserving death.” Anyone suspected of supporting or sympathizing with the rebels was summarily shot without trial.

The military history of Spanish Texas essentially ends with the Battle of the Medina and reprisals of Arredondo in San Antonio. Texas got a decent Spanish governor in 1817, a man named Antonio Martínez who presided over a ruined province until 1821. There was no fighting when Spanish rule ended on July 19, 1821. By then Nacogdoches, which once had a population of more than 500 people, was a ghost town. In words of Texas’s last Spanish governor, Arredondo and the king’s soldiers had “drained the resources of the country and laid their hands on everything that could sustain life.” Again in Governor Martínez’s words, Texas had “advanced at an amazing rate toward ruin and destruction.” One last observation: Spanish Texas reported 3,103 people in its first census of 1777. The estimated non-Indian population of Texas in 1821 was slightly more than 2,000. You can readily see how few people were in Texas and how open it was to Anglo-American immigration. Even Arredondo knew that “to govern is to populate,” and signed off on an agreement with Moses Austin allowing Anglo-Americans, whom he disliked and distrusted, to enter Texas. Clearly the ethnic population of Texas was about to change.


The military history of Spanish Texas may be characterized as periodic clashes with Indians, especially Taovayas, Comanches, and Lipan Apaches. When a mission was established for the Lipans at San Sabá in the late 1750s, it brought down the wrath of the Comanches and Taovayas who later stood off a Spanish army at Red River in 1759, forcing the temporary abandonment of two cannons. Peace with the Comanches in 1785 foreshadowed problems with American adventurers such as Philip Nolan in the 1790s and early 1800s. When the Mexican revolution of 1810 spilled over into Texas, it unleashed rebels within Texas and outside of it in Louisiana. This ultimately led to the punitive expedition of Joaquín de
Arredondo in 1813 and the destruction of Texas’s population to the point that Arredondo himself favored the immigration of Anglo Americans by the time Mexican Texas began in 1821.

Donald E. Chipman, Richard B. McCaslin
University of North Texas