Other American Colonies

views updated


The initial phase of Spanish imperial activity in the Americas involved finding, subjugating, and then exploiting nucleated Native American settlements. Later, Spaniards developed mechanisms for creating nucleated settlements from semi-nomadic Native American groups, gangs of enslaved Africans, and free Hispanic labor. Subjugation was followed by limited Spanish immigration. In the parts of North America that became the United States and Canada, these early purposes were soon expanded to include defensive ones as Spain tried to protect the Bahama Channel and Gulf of Mexico trade routes and, later, to create remote frontiers to protect the mines of northern Mexico from its European imperial rivals.


The Spanish explorers of the coasts of southeastern North America (the area that became the United States)Francisco Alvarez de Pineda, Diego de Miruelo, Juan Ponce de León, Pedro de Salazar, Pedro de Quejo, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, Pánfilo de Narváez and Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vacafound a coastal zone lacking nucleated settlements except for the areas around Sapelo Sound (Georgia) and the Caloosahatche River (southwest Florida). Ayllón and Narváez, in Georgia and Florida, and Cabeza de Vaca, in the Rio Grande valley, picked up hints of nucleated settlements in the interior. Hernando de Soto's epic peregrination in the southeast checked on the former, while Fray Marcos de Niza and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado examined the latter, in each case reporting not only the hardships of their journeys but also the existence of towns of sedentary Indian agriculturalists. Explorations on the coasts of Baja and Alta (U.S.) California failed to find nucleated settlements.

The Tristan de Luna expedition (15591562) to the Mobile-Pensacola area was intended to follow up de Soto's findings with conquest and exploitation of the interior chiefdoms of Coosa and Cofitachequi, but it failed to do so. Supply problems led to a mutiny, and Philip II (ruled 15561598) ordered most of the men removed to the Point of Santa Elena (Tybee Island, Ga.); this was in response to what he believed was a French plan to occupy a port on the Atlantic coast and thereby attack the vital Bahama Channel sailing route.

Thus diverted to the east coast and as a counter to French designs, Spanish imperialism in the American southeast took on the defensive posture that would characterize its later actions in North America. French colonies at Charlesfort (Parris Island, S.C., 15621563) and Fort Caroline (near modern Jacksonville, Fla., 15641565) resulted in the founding of St. Augustine in 1565. It remained the anchor of Spain's southeastern presence until the eighteenth century and the acquisition of Louisiana.

An effective sequel to Coronado's discoveries of the pueblos of the upper Rio Grande Valley was delayed until Juan de Oñate took up the task beginning in 1598. Several earlier efforts had failed.


By the time New Mexico was being subjugated, the Spaniards had worked out the mission-presidio system for inducing semi-sedentary peoples to accept life in nucleated agricultural communities. Offering food, clothing, tools, and protection from raiders (the ostensible reason for the garrison) to gather a population, the mission sometimes used coercion to retain it. Baptisms of the gathered Native Americans provided a justification for continued royal support when the crown, during the years 16001608, considered withdrawing the garrison at St. Augustine, the Florida missions, and Oñate's colony. Thereafter, defense against European rivals (in Florida) and Native American raiders of New Mexico again brought the defensive rationale to the fore, even as the missionary impulse continued.

For the balance of the seventeenth century and into the early eighteenth century, the mission-presidio system expanded in both Florida and the southwest whenever the Franciscan friars who manned it could persuade the crown to allow, and pay for, new ventures. In Florida that meant missions in the nucleated settlements of coastal Georgia and northeast Florida, then inland along the central Florida Ridge, and then in the area of modern Tallahassee after 1633. The Franciscans claimed in excess of 35,000 converts at the height of the missions' population. As Old World diseases reduced Native American populations, the friars relocated the people of outlying settlements into the central mission towns. The Hispanic population numbered less than 3,000. The next extension of the Florida missions would have been into the Creek towns in the Chattahoochee River drainage had not Englishmen from Charleston offered the Creek better prices and products and no overt political or religious control, beginning in 1685. In New Mexico, the nominally converted Indian population was some 17,000 on the eve of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680; there were some 2,500 Hispanic residents there at that time. The Spanish reoccupation of 16931694 was followed by less energetic missionary work. Warfare against raiders such as the Comanches and Navajos began long before 1680 and continued after 1694. New Mexico lived a precarious existence but grew to have a population of 19,276 Hispanics and 9,732 Puebloans in 1800.


The dawn of the eighteenth century brought new international challenges and a new focus on defensive reasons for Spanish imperial activity in North America. In 1704 a CreekEnglish force destroyed the Florida missions and effectively confined the Spanish presence to St. Augustine. Farther west, the development of French La Louisiane (1699) provoked the extension of Spanish missions into eastern Texas (San Antonio) and western Louisiana (16901693 and after 1716), supposedly to stop smuggling as well as to save souls, although they did little of either. Then in 1763 French Louisiana (population about 10,000) was divided into the British West Florida, along the Mississippi south of modern Vicksburg (and Indian territory between West Florida and the Appalachians), and Spanish Louisiana, which embraced the "Isle of Orleans" and all of the land west of the Mississippi. Viewed from the beginning as a remote defense of Mexico, much as Texas had been, Louisiana became, with Havana, the basis for the Spanish conquest of British West Florida in 17791781, as Spain sought to restore its control of the entire Gulf of Mexico as a defense for its economic interests in Mexico. The peace treaties of 1783 ratified that conquest and restored East Florida to Spain (it having been lost in 1763).

In the 1770s on the west coast of North America, rumors of Russian and British interest in sea otter pelts seemed to pose a threat to the use of harbors in California as emergency ports for Spain's Manila galleon trade. Beginning in 1769, the Spaniards built a string of mission-presidios in California as far north as San Francisco, ultimately embracing twenty missions and more than 21,000 converts. In the 1780s Spaniards began to assert their claims as far north as Nootka Sound, on Vancouver Island. The result was the Nootka Sound crisis of 17891790, which almost brought Spain and Great Britain to war. Spain backed down because of general naval and military weakness and because Revolutionary France was unwilling to honor the Franco-Spanish alliance against Great Britain. By agreement, in 1795 both Spaniards and Englishmen abandoned permanent camps at Nootka Sound.


The Spanish retreat at Nootka Sound marked the beginning of what proved to be a general retreat of imperial activities in the Mississippi Valley and the southeast in the face of growing U.S. demands that Spain recognize the Mississippi River and 31 degrees north as the western and southern boundaries of the United States. Although supportive of the major Native American nations in the southeast in their struggles against American encroachment and instrumental in increasing Louisiana's francophone population, Spain failed to develop a large, loyal Hispanic population in Louisiana and so lacked the local means to defend the colony. In 1803, the population was about 50,000, half of them African slaves. Moreover, Louisiana and Florida rapidly became economic dependencies of the United States despite Spanish efforts to foster trade within their own empire and with France (before 1793). Pinckney's Treaty of 1795, the Treaty of San Lorenzo of 1800 (the conditional retrocession of Louisiana to France), and the transfer of Louisiana to France in November 1803 marked the steps in Spain's retreat. The Adams-Onís treaty of 1819, effective in 1821, conveyed the Floridas to the United States and set the western boundary of the Louisiana Purchase, preserving Texas (population of about 2,500) as a Spanish province. The Mexican Revolution for Independence of 1821 removed Spanish control of the southwest, ending over three centuries of imperial activity in the areas that became the United States and Canada.

See also Colonialism ; Exploration ; Spain .


Hoffman, Paul E. Florida's Frontiers. Bloomington, Ind., 2001. Best recent study of Florida's Spanish periods and up to 1860.

Weber, David J., ed. New Spain's Far Northern Frontier: Essays on Spain in the American West, 15401821. Albuquerque, 1979. Useful collection of detailed studies.

. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven, 1992. Best overview.

Paul E. Hoffman

About this article

Other American Colonies

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article