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spanish texas 1519-1821

21 september 2022

Spanish Texas 1519-1821 is that rare textbook that really does read like an adventure novel. The colonization of Texas in the days when it was the remotest outpost of the European empires makes for a kinetic, violent, and hugely improbable collection of anecdotes.

For pretty much the whole three centuries covered by Donald Chipman and Harriett Joseph, Texas belonged to the Spanish empire; but they might as well have been claiming the Moon for all the effective control they wielded over the region. The vast, varied region of Texas was populated all along by numerous Native American groups, as diverse as the ecosystems they'd adapted to. Chipman and Joseph, always careful to call these Natives "First People," avoid the blindness of received histories of Texas, which so often depict the territory as an empty map for the advance and retreat of colonial forces.

The Spanish tried to govern this domain via parallel religious and military efforts. Tiny groups of Franciscan missionaries established churches and tried to win Native converts. Sometimes Spanish troops would accompany them, building and manning the forts they called presidios. This dual project was inherently conflicted and never very stable. Without the troops, the friars were in danger from attack; but when they were well-protected, the exercise of Spanish arms often impeded the friars' attempts to win over Native converts.

We now associate Spanish mission culture in Texas with San Antonio, its most successful outpost, the one that preserves old missions as strange hybrids of church and state: active churches to this day though they are also federal park facilities. But the mission enterprise and its accompanying presidios stretched for hundreds of miles west and east of San Antonio. Los Adaes, the furthest east, is near present-day Natchitoches, Louisiana, and was one of the earliest constructed. Working westward, other mission centers included Dolores in what is now far east Texas, Nacogdoches, the Xavier complex near where Brushy Creek flows into the San Gabriel River near present-day Rockdale, Texas (a remote site that has been studied but is deliberately concealed from tourists), and the Santa Cruz and San Saba missions well west of San Antonio, built to convert and defend against the Apaches, and always in a precarious situation. In addition, the famous mission and presidio of La Bahia has been restored, near Goliad, Texas – though it was a fairly itinerant outpost, originally constructed much nearer the Gulf coast near the site of a failed attempt at a settlement by the mercurial Sieur de La Salle.

Only a few thousand Hispanic people lived at any given time in those centuries, along this loose network of stations. San Antonio thrived because it attracted true settler-colonists, especially a community relocated there from the Canary Islands. Bexareños developed a mix of farming and ranching that became sustainable. They maintained the strongest military presence and became a magnet for missions that relocated from the hinterlands. And they maintained the best relations with the locals, many of whom married into Spanish and Isleño families and formed the nucleus of a great modern city.

Then everything collapsed, almost overnight compared to the 300 years it took to build Spanish Texas. Even before Mexican independence in 1821, Anglo-American filibusterers had tried to detach San Antonio from the Empire by fomenting rebellion. The war of independence that culminated in the 1813 Battle of Medina (a decisive victory for the royalists) reads like a dress rehearsal for 1836.

But South Texas (and the distant El Paso del Norte, more a part of New Mexico, historically, than of the Texas where it now finds itself) have been Hispanic since their founding, and continue to be. The First People were indeed first, but as in much of the American West, Spanish people were next. Anglos, in this part of the world, need to remember that they too are immigrants.

Chipman, Donald E., and Harriett Denise Joseph. Spanish Texas 1519-1821. Revised Edition. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010. F 389 .C44 2009

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