The Illusion of Empire: Spanish Texas

Spanish America was part of an empire in name. Missionaries expanded the frontier zone, but they never really controlled it.  

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Spanish Missionaries intended to project power, but the Indians held the balance of power and Spanish authorities proved unable to control either mission culture or powerful native groups across the countryside.

Further Readings/References:

Barr, Juliana. Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands. Chapel Hill (NC): University of North Carolina Press. 2007.

Historical Documents Relating to New Mexico, Nueva Vizcaya, and Approaches Thereto, to 1773, Charles Wilson Hackett, ed. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution. 1926.

—“Papers of Admiral Mateo de Vesga, 1620-1622,” pp. 119-137.

—“Reply of the Fiscal,” pp. 419-463.


Anthony Comegna: On a Lipan-Apache bison hunt in 1763, north of the Rio Grande, Chief El Lumen awoke from a terrible nightmare. He’d dreamed that Spanish men back at Mission San Lorenzo were busy enslaving the women and children the Apache had left behind. The missionaries blamed Satan, saying that he no doubt wanted to provoke an Apache rebellion, led by their [00:00:30] spiritual sorcerers. The spirits warned against concentrating the Apache population for murdering conquest at the missions, extinction by baptism. Rather than disrupt his hard-worn peace with the Spaniards, El Lumen blamed Apache women for sleeping with Spanish men and Christian Indians. The Lipan abandoned San Lorenzo, taking with them a piece of the Spanish empire.
Welcome to [00:01:00] Liberty Chronicles, a project of I’m Anthony [Comegna 00:01:05].
Spanish America might look imposing on a map, but it was really part of an empire in name only. Spanish power was actually limited to local acts [00:01:30] of terrorism and shifting, pretty tenuous alliances with the native power brokers, mainly on the coast. Spanish America’s slow expansion of the frontier zone only happened mission by mission, over many years.
The mission complexes or mission presidio complexes were designed to combine the functions of church and state into a single building. The outside consisted of a defensive wall, and on the inside, there was mainly a church, military barracks, [00:02:00] and other government-type buildings. The church’s purpose was to convert as many Indians as possible, and the military buildings’ purpose was to protect Spanish power and authority into the countryside. Out there, and even inside the missions, the Indians really held the balance of power. Spanish authorities were unable to control either mission culture or the powerful native groups out there, spread across the countryside.
For three centuries, missionaries and their allied military companies [00:02:30] slowly expanded the frontier zone, but they never really controlled it. Spaniards and indigenous people shared no common languages. There were rarely even interpreters on the frontier. Even their symbolic speech drew on entirely different sets of cultural meaning. They could not understand one another, even in the best of circumstances.
When Indians brought women and children with them to diplomatic negotiations, they meant it as a sign of peace and goodwill. The Spaniards thought this was basically barbaric and dangerous. [00:03:00] They thought the protected sex should stay as far away from a war zone as possible. In Indian societies, women were really the key connective tissues for political, economic, diplomatic, military affairs. Women were all essential actors. They were central to Indian politics, especially in matters of negotiation and diplomacy. They were the signals of peace embodied.
To the Spanish, all red Indians were more or less alike, but from the native perspective, legitimate authority [00:03:30] came from family relationships, defined by women. With no shared concept of race, and without the Spanish understanding almost anything about native societies, communications between the two proved difficult.
Despite these communication barriers, and even sometimes because the Spanish actually learned to negotiate them, they were able to forge alliances whenever advantageous. If unable to do that, they mercilessly destroyed their enemies when possible. Otherwise, [00:04:00] the goal was steady conversion and concentration of Indian populations in the missions. The missions had their uses, but again, they could not really project power.
While the Indians had little use for the Christian god, they did value the missions’ walls, the food stores, and the trading center. They were intended as centers of Spanish authority, Catholic authority, and Crown authority, merged into one building, out there taming the frontier. In practice, they were Creole Indian towns [00:04:30] where people came and went as they pleased.
Admiral Mateo de Vesga, Governor of Nueva Vizcaya, described a typical example of Spanish diplomacy when in 1621 a group of Concha Indians refused their annual compulsory service to Spain. To bring them to heel, the Spanish raised a militia, led by local Chief Justice and Captain of War, Cristóbal Sánchez.
Speaker 2: Papers of Admiral Mateo de Vesga, Governor and Captain General of the province [00:05:00] of Nueva Vizcaya. “On the fifth day of the month of November 1621, there arrived letters from captain Cristóbal Sánchez, Deputy Chief Justice and Captain of War of the valley of San Bartolomé with a report that the Justice sent Don Alonzo, Indian cacique of the Concha nation, to the interior country to summon the Conchos Indians to come to work in the fields and farms of the said valley, as they were in the habit of doing every year. The Indians rose up, and rebelled, and shot arrows at the said Don [00:05:30] Alonzo, the cacique, and wounded him in 10 places, so that he was in danger of losing his life. Locals offered to go in person and punish the offenders, without any pay from His Majesty except a barrel of powder, a box of irons for shoeing mules and horses, and the expense of a pack train to carry provisions for the friendly Indians who should go on the said punitive expedition to punish them or bring down the offenders and establish them in peace.
On 6 November, a knight of the order of Saint [00:06:00] Francis, a treasury inspector, the treasurer, the lieutenant governor, and the governor met in a room of the governmental buildings of this town. After they ahd learned of the rebellion, they unanimously declared that His Lordship should assign to a resident of this province an experienced soldier the said expedition that was to seek out and punish the said delinquent Indians, and punish and enforce the rest of the Indians to make peace. His Lordship gave the commission to Captain Cristóbal Sánchez, of the said province. [00:06:30] Sánchez enlisted a number of Spanish soldiers.
On 25 December of 1621, he went from the town of San Francisco one league down the river, in prosecution of the said expedition. As many as 85 Indians, caciques, governors, captains, and their subjects of the Concha Nation joined him and offered to go with him. With them and the Spaniards, Sánchez made the said expeditions against the said rebels, with whom it appears that he had several encounters, took and punished some of the guilty ones, [00:07:00] and made peace with the rest of the Indian allies of the said rebels.”
Anthony Comegna: His attack was successful, and peace secured. Indian slaves of war would be used as forced labor. They would be raped, or kept as concubines, or held as captives in mission towns to ensure compliance from their relatives in the countryside.
Speaker 2: In Durango, April 16, Sánchez delivered 10 prisoners taken during the expedition, five of them women already grown, four of them being from 20 to 30 years of age, [00:07:30] and one little girl of six, a large Indian named Sebastian, and three little boys from four to six years old, making altogether the said 10 persons. These he declared to be slaves, and that from them he would set aside for His Majesty what belonged to him as his royal fifth, delivering it to the royal officials of the real hacienda and treasury of this town. He designated for this purpose the said Indian brave named Sebastian and one of the little boys.
He ordered that the remaining eight should be sold at public [00:08:00] auction to the persons that would pay the most for them at once, a third of the proceeds going to campaign expenses, a third for mission upkeep, and a third to Captain Cristóbal Sánchez.
Anthony Comegna: Temporarily conquering a small group of Indians through terror and slavery was one thing, but actually governing this kind of extended empire was quite another. Missionaries repeatedly begged royals for more resources, more manpower, more attention paid to their North American flock. In April 1698, the colonial [00:08:30] fiscal officer in Madrid demonstrated the desperate of Spanish power over North America. The fiscal officer suggests relentless and cruel war against their many enemies. The reports suggest forging conspiracies between native spies and Spanish rulers to exterminate all those who would not comply.
Monarchs tried to put themselves above colonial violence. They usually preferred religious conversion to war, or at least, that’s what they said in their documents. Really, what did they know? [00:09:00] The view from Madrid was a much simpler and more straightforward path to empire. Those agents on the ground well knew that reality was too complex for monarchs to really control.
Speaker 2: Reply of the fiscal concerning various questions relating to the war with the hostile Indians of the kingdom of El Parral, Madrid. 1 April, 1698. “Although the soldiers of the presidios are few in comparison with the numbers of the hostiles, if they are well-governed, they are sufficient to [00:09:30] chastise and reduce the barbarous nations and to attempt new conquests, if it were feasible to maintain and settle them, and if the time were opportune.
In case the soldiers make war upon the hostiles, continuously in their country, following to them to their places of refuge and punishing them everywhere, they will have no opportunity to make incursions into our country, for it has been experienced that when they are followed in this matter, the roads are secure, and the cattle are safe, since the Indians center their chief attention on retreating from the fury of the troops and saving [00:10:00] the rabble of women and children.
As soon as the soldiers returned to their presidios and barracks, however, they come back to carry on their rascalities. This is the only way to restrain and reduce them, for when they find themselves punished and pursued in every direction, they are forced to submit to the discretion of the governors. In order to carry out the above recommendations, war ought to be carried on as was done on that campaign, leaving in each presidio 10 or 12 soldiers for its defense and as an escort for travelers. [00:10:30] Of the remainder, squadrons of 40 or 50 soldiers should be created, and these, accompanied by friendly Indians, should follow the hostiles to their dwelling places until they are conquered.
Afterwards, they should be placed in towns in sight of the presidios under the same troops, and should be compelled to build regular houses, and plant gardens, and raise chickens, so that they may acquire an attachment for settlements. The captain protector should always keep them in sight, and should observe their movements, ascertaining if any of them are missing in times [00:11:00] when robberies and murders occur, and keeping the bands of women and children well-secured as the best means of holding them to obedience.
By holding them in this manner, although they may run away occasionally, the soldiers will easily catch up with them. They will be punished and taught by experience. They should not be allowed, as has been customary, to choose the places and sites where they are to live, since they select those at a distance from the presidios, and from them carry on hostilities all the greater from the security given them by peace.
[00:11:30] War, sanguinary and without quarter, should be made upon the enemy Indian tribes. Until they are destroyed, troubles will not cease in that kingdom, nor expense to the real hacienda. While, if they are destroyed, the taxes collected will amount to a considerable sum. They could be successfully destroyed now, the number of fighting Indians among them amounting to 100. It is very important that the governor of that kingdom be very capable and experienced in affairs of war as well as in matters of government.
Also, [00:12:00] it would be an excellent policy, and it would be of far-reaching consequence if discord and distrust could be introduced skillfully among those nations, so that being disunited, they would suspect and fear each other. The conquered ones would then be kept loyal to His Majesty by fear of the unconquered, and with the former, war could be made upon the latter at the first opportunity. As a result, he says greater security will result to the Spaniards.
With respect to this matter, he points out the losses that will result if this government, [00:12:30] as well as that of the Philippines, compeche, and others of this hierarchy practice the sale of offices, for those who buy these places apply themselves solely to making a profit and to enlarging their authority. They name and give places which they have no right to do to persons who have only experience as merchants, and no military experience. From this, they say that various disputes originate between the captains of the presidios and this type of person, which the governors are in the habit of naming as lieutenants, for the latter tried [00:13:00] to interfere and give orders to the captains, who do not approve.
Anthony Comegna: Christian Indians were actually pretty rare, and only those few who adopted Spanish culture lived in missions for very long. Pretty much everyone else came and went as they pleased, temporarily rejoining the networks of kin that actually governed Texas. Without Indian cooperation, the missions vanished, and the Spanish frontier receded.
In contrast to these slowly dying mission towns, there were the new [00:13:30] Indian republics, the Rancho Rio Grandes. The Spanish called any unusually large native encampment a Rancho Rio Grande, but properly speaking, they included many different Indian groups living together in the same encampment, providing safety for refugees. In the early 18th century, though, some smaller Ranch Rio Grandes often depended upon the Spanish for protection.
First, there were the Apaches, who armed themselves with French weapons and horses from Louisiana. The Apaches wreaked enough [00:14:00] habit to make a legendary name for themselves in Spanish history, but they were soon surpassed by the Witchitas and Comanches from further north. By mid-century, these newcomers also armed themselves with French weapons. The Comanches attacked the Apaches from the north, hedging them in closer against the Spanish forts to the south. Pressed by the new Comanche rivals, the Apaches invaded and pillaged Spanish lands.
To the Spanish, the Apaches were the enemy of humanity, full of irrational blood [00:14:30] lust. For over 60 years, at Mission Valero, only 15 of the over 1,000 deaths were listed as committed by Apache raiders. Spanish forces responded to virtually any frontier violence by putting together their own raiding party to steal women from Apache rancherias. Again, for the Apaches, women were essential economic and political actors. For the Spanish, these women were captives of war, and perfect pawns to secure peace. The Apaches were pinned [00:15:00] between the Great Plains’ new power, Comancheria, and the Spaniards closer to the coast.
The Comanches thought the Spanish and the Apaches were already allies. Why else would Apaches live so close to the mission complexes? The Apaches aided this misconception by leaving Spanish-made goods like shoes at the site of a raid against the Comanches. They wanted to signal that they had powerful allies, and the Comanches better let up. They didn’t.
[00:15:30] After 1749, the Spanish and Apaches settled into peace, but both needed missions to solidify the truce and stabilize the Apache population. Authorities approved construction of Mission San Sabá, in what is today Menard County, central Texas. No Apaches joined, but one year after construction, March 16, 1758, 2,000 Comanche and allied warriors surrounded the mission in a full circle. [00:16:00] The Spanish thought for sure the Comanches would kill everyone, even the 237 women and children. Over three days, the so-called Norteño Alliance of Comanches and Wichitas killed only eight people. Four died during the initial assault against the mission, and four died during scuffles while the Comanches dismantled the mission.
No women or children were harmed whatsoever. This was not about death and destruction, it was about the maintaining the Comanches and Wichitas new political order on the southern plains. The crushed Apacheria. They [00:16:30] terrorized the Spanish frontier zone, and they dismantled San Sabá as a demonstration that Comancheria was now the real power here.
After San Sabá, the Spanish and Apaches allied against the Norteños, but military efforts failed. The Spanish-lead raiding parties excluded women. Because women usually were the primary diplomatic figures in Indian interactions, the raiders had no way to communicate that they actually desired peace. Without women in their company, the Spanish and Apaches were stuck [00:17:00] in a constant, dismal state of war against the Norteños, with no real way to communicate their intentions.
The Norteños continued to raid freely against the frontier, and the Apaches felt increasingly abandoned. They holed up in Spanish missions, waiting to be shot like fish in a barrel. This was the background to Chief El Lumen’s nightmare and the Lipan-Apache’s abandonment of San Lorenzo.
Official, top-down, imperial relationships [00:17:30] between Apaches and Spaniards deteriorated, but the two societies integrated together and creolized from below. When male leadership’s focus shifted from making war to maintaining peace, women again became the most important figures in these cross-cultural interactions. When Spanish men attempted to use women as pawns in warfare, it threw the Indian societies into chaos, causing mutual suspicion and distrust between peoples. When women gathered in the mission trading centers, [00:18:00] men could think of themselves, however briefly, whatever race, as proper neighbors, even brothers. The Indians concept of gender transcended the Spaniards’ concept of race.
After three centuries of empire, the Spanish still did not really control their portion [00:18:30] of the continent. Texas was a long way from Boston, and its story did not begin and end with conquistadors. In Spanish Texas, conquest was incomplete, because natives wielded the balance of power. When the Spanish left, the Comanches, the Katos, the Lipan-Apaches, and others, negotiated directly with the Mexican government. With the Europeans out of the way, the Comanches pursued their own imperial ambitions. By the mid-19th century, though, the Americans arrived. [00:19:00] They lumped all natives into the racial category red Indians, and unlike the Spanish or Mexicans, the US could enforce its will with relative ease.
Comancheria and the Rancho Rio Grandes disappeared. We’re left to wonder, what if these indigenous creolizing societies had just been left alone?
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