THE SPANISH IN JEFFERSON COUNTY, TEXAS:
FROM EXPLORERS TO FILIBUSTERERS, 1528-1821
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, February 5, 1984.
Sources: Principally from Morfi, HISTORY OF TEXAS TO 1779; also Hackett (ed.), PICHARDO'S
TREATISE ON THE LIMITS OF TEXAS AND LOUISIANA, 1806, four volumes; also, H. E. Bolton,
TEXAS IN THE MIDDLE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY.
A study of three centuries of ownership of Texas and Jefferson County
by the Spanish king between 1528 and 1821 can result in some startling conclusions
regarding the Spanish colonial attitudes toward Texas in general. During the fifteen years
prior to 1543, three Spanish expeditions were traveling in Texas, although not
simultaneously: Cabeza de Vaca, Luis de Moscoso (successor to the ill-fated DeSoto), and
Francisco Coronado. By 1545, the remnants of all three expeditions were back at the
viceroy's headquarters in Mexico City, and, with minor modifications, those explorers'
conclusions formulated Spanish colonial policy toward Texas for three centuries.
Generally, each explorer reported that there was minimal prospect for mining precious
metals in Texas, leaving only one other reason for Spanish colonialization, the religious
conversion of the Indians, within the boundaries of Texas.
Between 1540-1542, Coronado explored in a broad northward arc that
carried him across the Pecos country and the Llano Estacado ("Staked Plains" of
the Panhandle) of West Texas and westward into New Mexico. Moscoco, who led the survivors
of Fernando DeSoto's expedition, traversed an east-west arc between present-day, Baton
Rouge, Opelousas and Nacogdoches in 1543. He probably came no closer to Jefferson County
than some point about 100 miles north of Beaumont.
De Vaca and his four companions were the only survivors of the Panfilo
de Narvaez' fleet, which shipwrecked south of Galveston island during a hurricane in 1528.
They spent four years traveling in East Texas, at first as Indian prisoners, probably of
the Karankawa or Orcoquisa tribes. After his escape, De Vaca lived with a
"forest-dwelling tribe and became a trader, traveling far inland and along the coast
for forty or fifty leagues (about 150 miles) . . ."
Of the three explorers, only the latter is believed to have traveled in
present-day Jefferson County. Although both Moscoso and De Vaca could report on the East
Texas Indians, it was the latter who carried back to Mexico the Indian tales of the golden
Gran Quivira, or fabled "Seven Cities of Cibilo," which triggered Coronado's
explorations which may have reached from Kansas to Arizona.
When all three explorers reported no evidence of gold or silver mines
in Texas, the Spanish quickly lost all interest in that region. However, in 1685 a
Frenchman, Robert Sieur de LaSalle, while in search of the mouth of the Mississippi River,
accidently entered Matagorda Bay, where he built Fort Saint Louis. While he and some of
his men were en route back to Canada afoot, LaSalle was murdered by one of his men at a
site still argued by historians, but believed by others to be somewhere between Navasota
and the Trinity River.
When another Frenchman, Louis Juchereau de Saint Denis, founded
Natchitoches, Louisiana, and traveled from there to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, in 1714 in order
to trade, Spanish interest was quickly rekindled in order to counter any claims of the
French. But unknown to the Spanish, French interest was always limited to control of the
fur trade in East Texas. Like Aesop's "sour grapes" fable, the Spanish may have
had no interest in a fur trade of their own, but to allow the French traders to pursue
that trade unmolested would amount to losing the allegiance of the Indian tribes.
A second modification of colonial policy came in the year 1680 when the
Pueblo tribes mutinied and expelled the Spanish from New Mexico with considerable loss of
life. In 1718, following St. Denis' journeys into Texas, the first permanent Spanish
settlement and mission was built at San Antonio, Texas, and as that century advanced, they
moved eastward to build presidios at Goliad, Nacogdoches, and Bucarelli on the (Spanish
Fort) Trinity River. In addition, they built other, although often temporary, Indian
missions in East Texas during the 1750s, including one among the Tejas tribe and another,
San Augustin de Ahumada, among the Orcoquisa Indians on the lower Trinity, near
Despite the settlements and missions, Spanish efforts at colonization
and Christianization of the Indians were quite feeble at best, and the number of Spanish
soldiers in Texas at any given moment probably never exceeded 500 men.
Perhaps more impressive than what the Spanish did in Texas during the
eighteenth century is what they did not do. They ignored the coast country completely,
although logic would assert that that region should have been the easiest to reach and
supply. Probably their fear of Indians or hurricanes, or both, acounted for that fact.
The Spanish had almost no topographical information about Texas before
1750, except for that trade route from Louisiana to become known as the Camino Real, or
"King's Highway." Most of the eighteenth century maps of the Texas-Louisiana
coast are of French origin. Until 1785, the Spanish still had made no attempt at coastal
map-making, and what maps they had were so inaccurate that one of extreme Southeast Texas,
drawn by Fr. Augustin Morfi in 1777, showed the Neches River emptying into Galveston Bay.
In 1785, Don Jose de Evia began the mapping of the Texas-Louisiana coasts, which was
eventually published in 1799 as Juan de Langara's "Map of the Mexican Gulf."
During the American-Spanish negotiations of 1818, which led to the
Adams-Onis Treaty, John Quincy Adams had to rely on French and English maps to locate the
Sabine River. And as late as 1840, during the life of the Texas-United States Boundary
Commission, the U. S. Secretary of State John Forsyth insisted that the Sabine River of
the Spanish maps was actually the Neches River.
It is also uncertain exactly what part the hostile Indians may have
played in Spain's general lack of interest in Texas, but many tribes were continually
migrating about in Texas and elsewhere. Until about 1650, the fierce Apaches occupied most
of West Texas. At that time, the even fiercer Comanches began their migration southward
from the vicinity of Wyoming, displacing the Apaches to the west, and creating another
buffer to Spanish colonization in Texas.
About 1600, the Attakapas tribe of Jefferson and Chambers Counties
entered Texas after losing a battle to another tribe in the vicinity of Lafayette,
Louisiana. As they fled westward along the coast, it appears that they displaced the
Karankawas, who fled farther southward toward Corpus Christi. However, in 1818 the
Karankawas lost a pitched battle with Jean Lafitte's pirates, which accounted for Indians'
abandonment of Galveston Island.
Despite the extreme hostility of many Texas tribes, particularly the
Kiowas and Comanches, but also including the Tonkawas and Wacos, Spanish expeditions in
Texas after 1745 rarely exceeded thirty soldiers, and so small a group would have been
easy prey for any sizeable war party. Hence, it is no secret why the Spanish built their
missions among such friendly tribes as the Orcoquisas of the lower Trinity or among the
Ai, Tejas, or Navidachos (Nacogdoches) Indians of the Hasinai-Caddo confederation. After
1745, as the first incursions of the English and French fur traders moved westward into
Texas, the first small Spanish expeditions came eastward and south to the coast to expel
In July, 1745, Captain Joaquin de Orobio and 21 soldiers left
Nacogdoches and made the first appearance of Spanish soldiers among the Orcoquisas of the
Trinity. While visiting earlier among the Navidachos of the upper Neches region, Orobio
noticed large quantities of French firearms and trinkets. He also learned that fifteen
shipwrecked Frenchmen, who had crossed the Neches en route to Louisiana, "came
regularly to the Trinity to trade for fur," whereas other Frenchmen "came
annually by water, entering the mouths of the Neches, Trinity, and Brazos Rivers."
This information led the Spanish to establish Presidio Pilar de
Bucarelli (often called Spanish Fort) on the upper Trinity and mission San Augustin at El
Orcoquisac, the Indian village near the mouth of the Trinity. However, neither of these
deterred the French and English trading incursions.
Beginning with the regime of Spanish governor Don Jacinto de Barrios in
1751, officials tolerated and in fact colluded with French fur traders on the Trinity, and
a Frenchman, Joseph Blancpain, opened a permanent trading post at El Orcoquisac. When a
transfer and promotion threatened to expose the governor in 1754, Barrios had Blancpain
arrested and imprisoned in Mexico City, where he died.
Blancpain's arrest and imprisonment brought a strong protest to the
Spanish from Louisiana's French governor Kerlerec, who claimed that the Trinity River
flowed within the French territory of Louisiana. In retaliation, the Spanish built Mission
Los Adaes (at present-day Robeline, La.), claiming that the Arroyo Hondo (Calcasieu River)
was Texas' true eastern boundary. The dispute, resulting in the "Neutral Ground
Agreement" and creation of the "Neutral Strip" in 1806, continued until the
Adams-Onis Treaty of 1818.
Despite Blancpains's arrest, French fur traders employed by his
competitors, three French fur traders who lived on the Sabine River and who controlled the
Attakapas fur trade, visited the Trinity River village again within a few months and
apparently returned at intervals annually thereafter.
In 1763, Louisiana was ceded to Spain as a result of a treaty between
France and England. Yet, despite a Spanish governor and army in New Orleans, no trade
between the two Spanish provinces was permitted for the next fifteen years. In 1770
Augustin de Grevenverge, captain of the Spanish militia at Poste des Attakapas
(Lafayette), La., was arrested between Liberty and Beaumont by Capt. Antonio Gil Ybarbo of
Bucarelli. The former had attempted to transport merchandise over the 'Old Spanish Trail'
to San Antonio to trade for horses and mules. After the trade ban between Spanish Texas
and Spanish Louisiana was lifted in 1778, a Spaniard named Francisco Garcia drove a herd
of 2,000 Spanish cattle from San Antonio to New Orleans, the first herd of record on the
"Opelousas Trail" to cross the Neches River at Beaumont in 1779.
By 1770, there were rumors of English trade incursions along the upper
Texas coast as well. In September, 1771, a report that Englishmen "were cutting wood
for houses and giving presents to the Indians" prompted Capt. Louis Cazorla of
Presidio LaBahia to investigate, as this entry from Cazorla's journal verifies that:
"I (Cazorla) went with thirty soldiers to the said 'rancheria'
(the Indian town of El Orcoquisac)....I found that the traffic in which they were engaged
was carried on by some Frenchmen on the Rio de Neches (at the Nacazil Indian village at
present-day Port Neches) . . . named Distrive, his brother and four Negroes, but they
would not allow the English to come and trade. They told me that they had got the muskets
from the British in order to sell them to the Indians. One Englishman who came for this
purpose manged to win the good will of the Indians....The French caught him, and sent word
to Natchitoches, from whence ten soldiers came and took him away...."
In 1774, an English fur-trading ship sailed up the Neches River to the
Attakapas Indian village at Port Neches. The English remained for about four months, long
enough to plant and harvest a crop of corn. When the report of another English ship in the
"Rio de Neches" reached Bucarelli in June, 1777, Ybarbo set out with thirty
soldiers to investigate, the first known instance of a Spanish expedition reaching
Jefferson County. He was accompanied by a priest, Rev. Fr. Augustin Morfi, whose journal
and diary, kept over a period of many years was eventually to become the first chronicles
of Texas, published as the two-volume "History of Texas Until 1779."
Morfi wrote much about the stone-age culture of the Attakapas village
at Port Neches, although he said nothing about their alleged cannibalistic practices. He
and the soldiers then followed the shores of Lake Sabine until they found an abandoned,
shipwrecked Jamaican sloop at Louisiana Point in the Sabine Pass. Indians already had
plundered the ship of sails, rigging, and merchandise, but a load of brick ballast in the
ship's hold misled the Spanish into believing that the English had come to Texas, bent on
That same week, about the middle of July, 1777, Ybarbo's men almost
collided with the English surveying sloop "Florida," which was then mapping the
shores of Sabine Lake and its river tributaries as well as all the coastal waters of Texas
and Louisiana. At that very moment, both Spain, France and the American colonies were at
war with England. Captain George Gould of the "Florida" made several statements
on his map (No. D-965, dated July 22, 1777, Admiralty Archives) that coincided hand in
glove with notations in Morfi's diary. Morfi also drew a map of the Southeast Texas area,
noteworthy only for its volume of errors. In contrast, Gould's map of Sabine Lake is so
accurate that it would compare favorably with aerial topography.
The second and last record of a Spanish expedition to Jefferson County
came in 1785 when Don Jose de Evia and about twenty men sailed two surveying sloops while
mapping the shores of Louisiana and Texas. Evia began at New Orleans and worked westward,
and although his mapping of the shores of Sabine Pass, Sabine Lake, and its tributaries
was much more accurate, he made no mention of Indians anywhere on the Neches or Sabine
River. Since Evia noted the presence of Indians on the nearby Calcasieu and Mermentau
Rivers, the writer is thus led to believe that the Nacazil Indians of the lower Neches
either had moved away or had become extinct through catastrophic action during the
preceding eight years. Evia's mapping was eventually published in 1799.
Although Spain abandoned many parts of East Texas in 1773, it quickly
renewed its interest in 1803, after the Louisiana Purchase. By that date, it was no longer
the French or English that the Spanish feared, but the youthful and energetic, new
American republic, whom the Spanish believed was bent on colonization and expansion. The
most noticeable, new enemies of Spain were the filibusterers, such as Philip Nolan, Don
Luis de Aury, James Long, Augustus Magee, and Bernard Gutierrez, who used the new American
territory of Louisiana as a base of operations (although without the sanction of the
Spanish General Simon Herrerra of Nacogdoches and his Louisiana
counterpart, American General James Wilkinson, continued to dispute which river was the
actual boundary, but in 1806, they concluded the "Neutral Ground Agreement,"
leaving the wilderness between the Sabine and Calcasieu Rivers unoccupied by the law
enforcement or military troops of either nation. As a result, the "Neutral
Strip" became a sancutary for all the robbers and killers, all the social outcasts
and human garbage fleeing from the law enforcement of both nations, and beginning in 1817,
the old buccaneer Jean Lafitte succeeded in enlisting most of his Galveston-based pirates
from that region.
As another result of the dispute, the Spanish established a
"border reserve" of land between the Sabine and Trinity Rivers, an area in which
colonization by anyone except Indians considered to be hostile toward the United States
was forbidden. The hostile Comanches of West Texas, who of course followed the buffalo
herds for a food supply, had no interest in East Texas. A few Indian tribes came into East
Texas from the United States after 1800, but generally these were the friendly Alabamas,
Coushattas, and Biloxis, plus a few Cherokees and Choctaws. After title to Texas passed to
Mexico, the "border reserve" was continued until 1829, when that region was
issued as a land grant for colonization to Mexican empresario Lorenzo de Zavala.
In 1818, the Adams-Onis Treaty established the Sabine River as Texas'
new eastern boundary, and in 1821, the year of the treaty's ratification in the U. S.
Senate, and of Mexico's new-found freedom from colonial rule, Spain was evicted from Texas
and replaced by the new revolutionary republic south of the Rio Grande River.
But before Spain was evicted from Texas, the fortunes and misfortunes
of the American filibusterers, named earlier, are another exciting chapter of the Texas
frontier. The first of them, Philip Nolan, was really no threat to Spain since he was only
out to capture wild horses and return them to the United States. However, he was captured
and executed by the Spanish. Magee and Gutierrez were perhaps more fortunate at first,
capturing San Antonio and defeating the Spanish Royalists in battle. However, the leaders
quarreled over Gutierrez' cruel execution of the Spanish officers, and eventually, the
survivors retreated to Louisiana. James Long and his associates were the only
filibusterers who crossed Jefferson County to and from Louisiana and their base on Bolivar
Peninsula. Eventually, Long reached Mexico City, where he was murdered shortly after
Mexico was freed.
Except for numerous river and place names and a few adopted words, such
as 'vara' (the Spanish unit of measure equal to a yard) or 'vaquero' (meaning cowboy), the
Mexican and Spanish influence was quickly replaced by the Anglo-American ways of life,
vocabulary, and legal system. Although that part of Texas from San Antonio westward and
southward was always heavily-populated by Mexican-Americans, the seventy-five years prior
to 1900 saw almost no Mexicans in East Texas. Even the Mexican population of Nacogdoches
abandoned that place after the Texas Revolution. Since 1900, however, a new migration of
Mexicans, as well as French-Acadians from Louisiana, into Southeast Texas has brought
about a revival of the Spanish and French dances, language, folklore, music, and cooking
techniques, the preservation of which promises to become their permanent legacy to the
melting pot of cultures in the "Golden Triangle" comprised of Jefferson and