4: Historical Outline of Mission Development in Texas

Journal of the Southwest, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

4: Historical Outline of Mission Development in Texas


The initial settlements of New Spain's northeastern sector were effected by Luis de Carabajal in the Nuevo Reino de Leon in the sixteenth century: Saltillo was founded sometime prior to 1578, other outposts in the 1580s. Due to Indian hostilities, however, colonists of such outlying colonies as Nueva Almaden (Monclova), Leon (Cerralvo), and Nueva Extremadura (Monterrey) were soon forced to retreat to the security of Santiago del Saltillo. Eventually these settlements were reoccupied, and four missions were established by the Franciscans in 1644. By 1698 friars were carrying Christianity to the Indians of the Rio Grande, where five more missions were founded. Nevertheless, permanent pacification and colonization of the area that was to become Coahuila was retarded by bickering between Nueva Vizcaya and the Nuevo Reino de Leon as to which had jurisdiction over the area.

The catalyst for colonization of Texas, which Spain had claimed since Cabeza de Vaca's day, was suspicion of French intentions on the Gulf Coast. Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, who had planted French forts down the Mississippi Valley from north to south, reached the mouth of the great river in 1682. Claiming the territory for France, he named it Louisiana in honor of King Louis XIV. He followed this accomplishment with a reconnaissance of the Texas coast. With the backing of the king, he returned in 1685 for the purpose of establishing a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi. However, lacking reliable charts and accurate navigational instruments, the three ships overshot the delta and ended up in Matagorda Bay on the Texas coast. There they erected Ft. St. Louis. Reports of the French presence in "their" gulf, which had the potential to drive a wedge between the Spanish-held Floridas and Mexico, caused a spate of activity on the part of the Spaniards. Four maritime and five land expeditions were dispatched on "search and destroy" missions. The fourth land expedition reached the ruins of the French fort in 1689. Confirmation of the foreign presence convinced the viceroy of the necessity to act to protect New Spain's northeast flank.

The threat could not have come at a worse time. During the century, Spain, under a succession of weak Hapsburg kings, had lost the last vestiges of her political hegemony over Europe, including the loss of important towns in the Netherlands and the bordering Franche-Conte Her currency was chaotic and her industry in shambles, leading to total administrative and economic collapse in the early 1680s. In short, Spain's sun was setting and France's sun was ascending. An able minister, the Conde de Oropesa, finally took over the reins of government in 1685. Recovery was slow in Europe and its effect would not be felt in the New World for some years. Spain's initial response to the French claims to Texas were minimal. A single Franciscan mission was founded on the Neches River in east Texas in 1690, and the new frontier province of Texas was named the following year. As the foreign threat receded, that lonely outpost was quickly forgotten and the mission was abandoned in 1693.

Once again, New Spain took a backseat to events in Europe that occupied the Spanish crown. As England and France vied for American territories in expanding their empires, thus threatening Spanish claims, Spain became embroiled in the War of the Spanish Succession. Since the last Hapsburg king, the feeble-minded Carlos II, left no heir, French, Austrian, and Bavarian dynasties, related to the Hapsburgs through marriage, contended for the throne. Philip V of Anjou (grandson of Spain's Felipe IV and France's King Louis XIV) won out to begin the Spanish Bourbon dynasty. In the meantime, France had founded outposts in Biloxi (1699) and Mobile (1702) and had extended its Indian trade to Natchitoches on the border of Spanish Texas and French Louisiana by 1713. The sudden appearance of the French trader Louis Juchereau de St. Denis at the Presidio del Rio Grande (Guerrero, Coahuila) alarmed Spanish administrators in Mexico City ever fearful of foreign plots to gain control of the rich mines of her northern provinces and encroach on the Santa Fe trade.

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