Spanish Borderlands

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The historian Herbert Eugene Bolton coined the term "Spanish borderlands" in his 1921 book of that title. The Spanish borderland colonies included Florida, the northern Gulf Coast, Spanish Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, present-day Arizona, and California, along with the northern provinces of Mexico that bordered them. Borderlands historians examine these provinces from a Hispanic viewpoint as the "other" colonial history crucial to understanding national development. The Spanish borderlands are customarily divided into two geographic areas: the eastern and western borderlands. The eastern grouping includes Florida, the Gulf Coast, Louisiana, and the Mississippi Valley drainage system—all areas controlled by Spain by the end of the eighteenth century. The western grouping includes Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

Spain's first attempt to put colonies in the borderlands was Panfilo de Narvaez's unsuccessful effort in the 1520s to plant a settlement near present-day Tampa, Florida. In quick succession came the expeditions of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and Hernando de Soto; in 1565 Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine. Spanish settlers pressed into New Mexico a little over thirty years later with the expedition of Juan de Oñate. Throughout the seventeenth century, the Spanish established a number of settlements in both Florida and New Mexico. In spite of some spectacular setbacks, such as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Spain came to view these colonies as territorial buffers between the rich heartland of Mexico and the expanding North American colonies of France and Great Britain. The settlement of Texas, starting in the 1690s, further expanded the Spanish borderlands; at the same time, missionaries began to push into present-day Arizona. Alarmed by the French incursion into Louisiana during the late seventeenth century, Spain reacted with the founding of Pensacola. Hence, by the eighteenth century the Spanish borderlands encompassed Florida in the east, including fortifications on both the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, with French Louisiana sandwiched between and the two main Spanish colonies to the west, Texas and New Mexico.

the spanish borderlands and the american revolution

The Seven Years' War (1756–1763) forever changed the territorial balances of the major European colonial powers in North America. With the Peace of Paris (1763), Canada passed to the British while France surrendered all of its Louisiana colony to Spain, a former ally during the war. The British, who had defeated both Bourbon adversaries during the conflict, wanted Spain to administer Louisiana as a drain on its international resources. Additionally, all of Spanish Florida went to Great Britain, as the British organized two new colonies, East and West Florida, with their respective capitals at Pensacola and St. Augustine.

The territorial shifts of 1763 ensured that Spanish Louisiana would play a significant role in the American Revolution. New Orleans quickly became a supply depot for the Continental Army once the military phase of the revolt began in 1775. Starting in that year, regular shipments of supplies to Fort Pitt found their way up the inland conduit of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to supply the troops commanded by George Washington. An Irish merchant, Oliver Pollock, served as an agent of the Continental Congress at New Orleans for most of the Revolution, working in liaison with Governor Bernardo de Gálvez, who supported the rebel cause. With Spain's entry into the conflict in 1779, Gálvez began a series of campaigns against British positions in West Florida, capturing Baton Rouge in 1779, Mobile in 1780, and Pensacola in 1781. By the time of Yorktown, the entire Gulf Coast and the whole Mississippi Valley had come into Spanish hands. Spanish participation in the Revolution, however, did not create a new ally for the United States. King Charles III and his ministers in Madrid worried that frontier pressures created by a new nation in North America would only be a substitute for their traditional territorial rivalry with Great Britain. Hence, although Spain declared war against the British, there was no alliance with the United States. Spain did send an unofficial representative, Juan de Miralles, to the Continental Congress, and he monitored Spanish interests there.

The Peace of Paris, which ended the War of Independence in 1783, created additional territorial shifts in this region, further confirming the fears of the Spanish court. The peace settlement legitimized territorial rivalries in the borderlands that would determine the nature of United States–Spanish competition for the next fifty years. Spain regained control of both East and West Florida and received undisputed title to the entire west bank of the Mississippi River and the Isle of Orleans, where the great city stood. Great Britain ceded the east bank of the Mississippi above New Orleans to the United States. However, the boundary along the east bank of the river differed in the respective treaties the British negotiated with Spain and the United States, guaranteeing diplomatic problems. For fifteen years thereafter, Spain and the United States wrangled over the boundary between Spanish Louisiana and the United States, with the dispute not resolved until the Treaty of San Lorenzo in 1795. Two years later the Americans took possession of Natchez.

united states expansion into the borderlands

The Spanish borderlands of the Floridas, Louisiana, and Texas became a region of enduring controversy between Spain and the United States, motivated in large part by the frontier expansion of the young Republic. From the 1780s to the 1820s, thousands of English-speaking frontier folk from the United States moved into Spanish territory. This process began in the late 1780s when Louisiana governor Esteban Miró began a policy of "defensive colonization," which permitted migrants from the United States to receive land grants in Spanish territory if they swore a loyalty oath to the king and officially professed Roman Catholicism as their religion. Defensive colonization became an intermittent part of Spanish policy well into the 1820s, when the governor of Texas allowed Moses Austin and other entrepreneurs to settle Americans there. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 did not slow the process of expansion because this important territorial transfer did not include either the Floridas or Texas. In fact, as early as the 1790s an American resident of Natchez, Philip Nolan, had begun leading filibustering expeditions west of the Sabine River into Texas. (The term "filibuster," from the Spanish filibustero [freebooter], was applied to Americans stirring up insurrections in lands controlled by Spain.) His execution by the Spanish in 1801 did not stop these incursions, either in Texas or elsewhere throughout the borderlands. Indeed, the period from 1803 until the 1820s can properly be called the filibustering era, as almost a half-dozen major American expeditions, sometimes characterized as "revolts," had as their object Spanish territory bordering on the southern and southwestern United States.

The territories in Spanish Florida north of New Orleans became the first objective for some of these expeditions. After an unsuccessful uprising in 1804, a group of Anglo-Americans raised the Stars and Stripes at Baton Rouge as they declared the Republic of West Florida in 1810. Some historians view this act as a cover for United States expansionism that was legitimized the following year when President James Madison incorporated this region into Louisiana. The War of 1812 also provided opportunities for expansion by Americans into the borderlands. Most notably, General George Mathews led a group of insurgents into East Florida in 1812, taking possession of Fernandina and laying unsuccessful siege to St. Augustine. Some historians have argued that this so-called Patriot War in East Florida had the unofficial yet explicit support of the United States government. In addition, Americans took control of Mobile from the Spanish in 1813 and added it to the Mississippi Territory. In that same year, a frustrated Mexican independence fighter, Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, led a major military incursion into Spanish Texas. Gutiérrez organized an unsuccessful filibustering expedition that counted many Americans in its force. Six years later, Dr. James Long led another group of adventurers into Texas.

Perhaps the most spectacular of all these incursions, however, was the invasion of East Florida by General Andrew Jackson in 1818. All this activity helped motivate the Transcontinental Treaty of 1819, signed by Luis de Onís, the Spanish secretary of state. By this treaty, Spain ceded all of the Floridas to the United States and agreed to a transcontinental boundary line that ran from Sabine Bay on the Texas Gulf Coast northward up the Red River of the East, westward to the Rockies, and then north to the Pacific Northwest. This 1819 boundary, however, did not stop American expansionism; English-speaking settlers began to spill across the Sabine into Texas, brought there by legal immigration agents known as empresarios. This settlement continued during the 1820s, culminating in the Texas Revolution of 1836. By that time, however, following the War of Mexican Independence in 1821, Spain had left the borderlands. It thus fell to Mexico to deal with the final chapters of United States expansion into the western borderlands of Texas and California, culminating in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.

See alsoExpansion; Exploration and Explorers; Florida; Louisiana Purchase; Madison, James; Spain; Spanish Empire; Texas .


Chávez, Thomas. Spain and the Independence of the United States: An Intrinsic Gift. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002.

Cummins, Light Townsend. Spanish Observers and the American Revolution, 1775–1783. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

Kukla, Jon. A Wilderness So Immense: The Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America. New York: Knopf, 2003.

Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Light Townsend Cummins

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Spanish Borderlands

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