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Chapter 4

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Spanish-American Frontier, 1783‑1795

by
Arthur Preston Whitaker

as reprinted by
Peter Smith,
Gloucester, MA, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 6

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

p63 Chapter V
Gardoqui's Mission

If you want to follow along on the author's maps, they're here. (They'll open in another window, so you won't lose your place.)

The frontier origin of Gardoqui's mission

The Spanish government's uneasiness at the growth of the American West was a constant factor in its diplomacy from the beginning of the Revolution throughout the period with which we are concerned. It will be seen again and again in the following pages how this uneasiness, justified and increased by the reports of its agents in North America, shaped the course of Spain's policy with regard to the United States and its Western settlements. To begin with, it was one of the chief reasons for Gardoqui's mission to the United States.

We have already seen how Floridablanca deliberately postponed an adjustment with the United States until after the peace settlement of 1783. In the negotiations of 1782‑83 he had failed first in his attempt, with French assistance, to have the western boundary of the United States fixed well to the eastward of the Mississippi, and then in his effort to beguile England into playing the buffer between the Spanish dominions and the United States. After this double failure he had no recourse but to settle the points at issue with the United States by a separate treaty. This he postponed until after the general peace settlement of September, 1783, in order, no doubt, to avoid as far as possible the danger of coöperation between the United States and England. Thus a Spanish-American treaty was conspicuous by its absence from the general settlement, and Floridablanca seemed in no hurry to supply the deficiency.

p64 Less than ten months later — that is, before the end of July, 1784 — he had decided to take the initiative in resuming the negotiation with the United States, and had drawn up the instructions for that purpose. Within another three months he had chosen Gardoqui to represent Spain in the negotiation and had ordered him to the United States to open it. This sudden zeal for an accommodation is explained by the pressure of Spanish officials in North America, and their insistence in turn is explained by their uneasiness at the activity of their republican neighbors in the Mississippi Valley.

One of the first officials to warn Floridablanca was Bernardo del Campo, then chargé d'affaires and later ambassador in London, who, under Floridablanca's direction and with the assistance of Gardoqui, had conducted the fruitless negotiation with Jay in Spain (1780‑82). Writing from London in November, 1783, he reported that swarms of discontented Americans were crossing the mountains into the Mississippi Valley, where they might soon become a serious menace to Spain's neighboring possessions. Floridablanca was sufficiently interested by this information to refer it to José de Gálvez, the colonial secretary,1 but did nothing further in the matter until he was prodded into action by similar warnings from many other sources.

On March 2, 1784, Bernardo de Gálvez, then in Madrid, wrote his uncle, the colonial secretary, requesting in his capacity as governor of Louisiana and the Floridas instructions as to the boundaries of West Florida.2 Such instructions were necessary, he pointed out, in view of the conflicting provisions of England's treaties with Spain and the United States on that subject. He warned the colonial secretary that the line claimed by the United States would give them Natchez p65"which I had the honor to place under the obedience of my sovereign in the late war," most of the Western Indian tribes and their fur trade, and access to Mobile Bay, leaving Spain with nothing but a thin strip of territory along the Gulf coast. Such a situation, together with the free navigation of the Mississippi River, which the United States claimed as a right, would be a perpetual source of discord between the two powers.

The navigation of the Mississippi, mentioned in passing by Count Gálvez, was the principal theme of letters to José de Gálvez from the acting governor of Louisiana, Estevan Miró, and the intendant, Martin Navarro.3 Writing from New Orleans in March, 1784, they reported the recent arrival at that city of the America, Captain Christopher Whipple, from Providence, Rhode Island, with a Rhode Island passport. Underº Article 8 of the treaty of 1783 between England and the United States, Whipple claimed the right to pass freely up the Mississippi to the possessions of the United States, which, he declared, extended as far south as the thirty-first parallel. Miró and Navarro had no instructions that would cover such a case. Their latest order from the court relating to the Mississippi was dated October 29, 1781, and opened its navigation to the Americans for the duration of the war. Now that the war was over, the governor and intendant were in doubt as to the course that they should follow. Suspicious of Whipple, who had his cabin fitted up as a shop with shelves and weights, they put a detachment of soldiers on board his ship in order to prevent illicit trade with the plantations in Spanish territory along the Mississippi; but, since they had no orders to the contrary, they gave Whipple permission — with their p66tongues in their cheeks, no doubt — to sail up the Mississippi, turbulent with the spring floods, to the American settlements at the Illinois. Navarro advised strongly against opening the river to the commerce of the United States, for, said he, the cédula of 1782 permitting trade between Louisiana and France made adequate provision for the needs of the province, and the admission of any other nation would facilitate contraband and injure the merchants of Louisiana.

As the Mississippi problem was presented to Floridablanca for decision in the summer of 1784, it presented two aspects, one familiar and vexatious, the other new and alarming. In the first place, Navarro's letter of which we have just spoken made it clear that if Spain admitted the validity of Article 8 of the Anglo-American treaty of 1783, an immediate consequence would be the revival of that contraband trade whose eradication had been one of Spain's principal war aims, and that now two nations instead of one would "cause her infinite vexation" on the lower Mississippi and in the Gulf, as Floridablanca had complained of England in 1778.

In the second place, the case of the America called attention to a new aspect — new since 1775 — of the Mississippi problem: its relation to the rapidly growing American settlements in the Ohio Valley. While the Revolution was still in progress, Navarro had written José de Gálvez on this subject, and Gálvez had, by order of the king, transmitted his letters to Floridablanca. If the Spanish government followed Navarro's advice, it would close the Mississippi River to American commerce in order to stifle the Western settlements. In this letter and another of the same year (1781),4 Navarro reported the rapid growth of Kentucky and of the American settlements at the Illinois, and shipments p67of American corn down the Mississippi. The Americans were an active, enterprising people, he said, citing by way of illustration the case of a former South Carolinian, Gaillard, who had emigrated from that state to Natchez by way of Pittsburg with his family and slaves, stopping in Kentucky long enough to make a crop for their support. Such energy and resourcefulness, said Navarro, combined with the greedy ambition of the Americans, made them a menace to Mexico. Spain had a remedy, however, for it could strangle the American West by closing its only commercial outlet, the Mississippi.5

Further evidence of the alarmingly rapid development of the American West was contained in a letter from Francisco Rendón, the agent of Spain in Philadelphia. Writing in December, 1783, he reported that Kentucky had applied to Virginia for permission to form a separate state in conformity with the general principles of the Confederation, and that Connecticut was preparing to make use of the territory claimed by it in the Ohio Valley. These indications of the rapid extension of the American system across the mountains, confirming earlier reports, disturbed the colonial secretary, who submitted Rendón's letter to his nephew, Bernardo, for his opinion. The latter replied briefly that if the territory between the Mississippi and the Appalachians belonged to Spain, the Americans should by no means be permitted to settle in it; but that if it belonged to the United States, Spain could not prevent their occupation of it. Clearly a definition of Spain's territorial claim and of Spanish policy was necessary, and José de Gálvez, forwarding Rendón's letter and the Count's report thereon, reminded Floridablanca of the urgency of the matter.6

p68 Strangling the American West

To meet this situation, Floridablanca adopted three measures. A royal order was issued closing the Mississippi River to all but Spanish ships; a formal statement was drawn up setting forth Spain's position in regard to the navigation of the Mississippi and the boundary of its possessions on the east bank of that river; and Gardoqui was sent to negotiate a treaty with the United States.

The order closing the Mississippi was, at Floridablanca's suggestion, drawn up by the colonial secretary without waiting for the completion of the formal statement of Spanish claims then in preparation. On June 26, 1784, Gálvez wrote the governor and the intendant of Louisiana and Spain's agent in Philadelphia, Rendón, directing them respectively to announce in the colonies and to inform Congress of Spain's exclusive right to the navigation of the Mississippi and to warn the Americans not to expose themselves and their property to arrest and confiscation pending the settlement of the questions at issue between Spain and the United States. A proclamation to this effect was published in Louisiana, and Rendón communicated the substance of the order to Congress through the agency of the French chargé, Marbois.7

Not only was this the first, but it was also by all odds the most important, of Floridablanca's three measures, and the other two were subsidiary to it. In drawing the boundary line, the object was to give Spain possession of both banks of the river as far north as possible; and the chief purpose of Gardoqui's mission was to secure the acquiescence of the United States in the closing of the Mississippi. By this means he expected, p69on Navarro's assurance, to strangle the American settlements in the Mississippi Valley.

The comprehensive statement of Spain's position on the boundary and navigation questions was issued by Floridablanca on July 29, 1784.8 It took the form of an "Instruction" to the captain-general, Gálvez, and was intended to govern both the colonial officials of the Floridas and Louisiana and the plenipotentiary to be sent to the United States. Stating that the time had now come to settle these two questions, the Instruction announced that His Majesty accepted theº boundary of East Florida as claimed by the United States, but that from its western extremity the Spanish boundary followed the Flint River up to its source, thence in a straight line to the Euphasee (Hiwassee), thence down the Euphassee, Tennessee and Ohio Rivers to the Mississippi, and thence to its source. This claim was based on the conquest of West Florida by Gálvez during the Revolution, the Spanish treaty with England of 1783, the subrogation by Spain of France's rights as ceded to England in 1763, the dependence of the Chickasaw on Pensacola, and the fact that the Spanish commandant of Arkansas had on November 22, 1780, taken formal possession of the east bank of the Mississippi in the name of the king of Spain. It is curious to note that, so far as this Instruction and all other available evidence show, the Spanish government was still not aware of the secret article in the preliminary treaty between the United States and England (1782),9 or of the proclamation of 1764 moving the northern boundary of West Florida up to the mouth of the Yazoo River.

As for the navigation of the Mississippi, the Instruction declared Spain's exclusive right to it so far as p70she owned both banks of the Mississippi. England's right to the navigation of the Mississippi, it was said, depended on the possession of the eastern bank; and since Spain had conquered this bank during the war, England's pretended cession of the free navigation to the United States was an attempt to cede something that England did not possess. Not even in order to reach their possessions on the Upper Mississippi were the Americans to be permitted to navigate its lower waters.10 In view of Spain's boundary claim, this was equivalent to the assertion that the United States had no right to navigate the Mississippi below its junction with the Ohio.

His Majesty's intention of sending a plenipotentiary to treat with the United States was referred to in the foregoing Instruction. After it was drawn up, and apparently before the final orders to Gardoqui were issued, another letter from Rendón, with still more alarming reports about the American West, was received by José de Gálvez and transmitted by him to Floridablanca. In this letter Rendón reported that Americans were said to be going from Kentucky down the Ohio River and up the Red River to carry on contraband trade with Mexico. Proceeding from this point of departure to observations of greater importance, Rendón gave warning that the Americans would not respect any treaty unless they were granted "a free mutual commerce," that they regarded the free use of the Mississippi as essential to the prosperity of the West, and that their resentment at Spain's conduct during the Revolution made precautionary measures indispensable if serious disturbances were to be avoided.11

By October 2, 1784, Gardoqui's instructions had been drawn up.12 He was given for his guidance a copy of p71the Instruction of July 29, and was directed to correspond with Count Gálvez, with whose consent he might make some concession to the United States with regard to the boundary, provided that the settlements of Louisiana and West Florida were protected as far as the Bahama Channel. In other words, his instructions indicated that the king would assent to the cession of St. Augustine to the United States and to some modification of the boundary in the Mississippi Valley as set forth in the Instruction of July 29. Gardoqui was further directed to insist on the exclusive navigation of the Mississippi so far as Spain held both banks, and to inform the United States that it was useless for them to request admission to the commerce of the Spanish colonies, since that was prohibited by treaties from Utrecht (1713) down to 1783. They might, however, be offered most favored nation treatment in Spain itself and the Canaries. In order to facilitate the negotiations, Gardoqui might agree to a defensive alliance and a mutual territorial guarantee. These terms, said Floridablanca, should prove satisfactory to the United States, since they were practically the same as those proposed by Jay in 1781, with the territorial guarantee and the commercial concessions the equivalent of Jay's demand for immediate recognition of the independence of the United States and aid in the war against England. Gardoqui was given the rank of encargado de negocios (chargé d'affaires), and was empowered to negotiate a treaty in accordance with the foregoing instructions. He was to correspond with Floridablanca by the roundabout way of Havana, which was connected with the court by a monthly mail service, but might send his despatches by commercial vessels going direct to Spain, in case he were satisfied p72that they were reliable. Rendón was to be his secretary, and two lads, Jáudenes and Viar, were sent with him to assist in the work of the legation. His salary was fixed at $12,000, and he was allowed a secret service fund. His credentials were drawn up in the same style as those of the Spanish ministers to Holland, and in presenting them he was to follow the same ceremonial as the French minister to the United States.

Gardoqui's mission and the resumption of the negotiation were clearly due to the initiative not of the United States but of Spain,13 and the Spanish government was actuated partly by a desire to prevent the recrudescence of contraband trade on the Mississippi, but above all by its uneasiness at the rapid growth of the American West. The policy that it adopted at this time in the face of the American menace remained, despite occasional reluctant deviations, substantially the same throughout our period: namely, to secure the acquiescence of the United States in a system that would protect Spain against the American frontier. The terms his Catholic Majesty was willing to offer changed with changing circumstances, but Spain usually relied for success upon an appeal to the provincial interests of the Atlantic States, a course suggested as early as 1778 by the first Spanish agent in the United States, Juan de Miralles.14

The instructions given to Gardoqui and the correspondence relating to his mission show that the possibility of a converse policy, an appeal to Western sectionalism, played no part in Floridablanca's calculations at this stage of the game. Although the possibility of a British intrigue with those people was mentioned by Miralles, no Spanish official proposed before 1786, so far as the records show, that Spain p73undertake such a measure. Intrigue was indeed a hazardous alternative to negotiation, and it is not surprising that it was not considered while there seemed to be any hope of concluding a satisfactory treaty with Congress.

Don Diego de Gardoqui found his way into diplomacy through the tradesman's entrance. The Bilbao firm of which he was a member had traded with the United States, then colonies, for a full generation before the Revolution,15 and was the screen behind which the Spanish government furnished arms and clothing to the rebellious colonies of England when Spain was still ostensibly a neutral power. Don Diego was the company's representative in arranging these matters with the Spanish government. His knowledge of English made the transition to diplomacy easy. He was Grimaldi's interpreter at the time of Arthur Lee's unwelcome visit to Spain (1777), and in 1780 he formally entered the government service. When John Jay and his secretary, William Carmichael, arrived in Spain, Gardoqui not only had charge of financial arrangements with them, but also discussed purely diplomatic questions. As early as 1780 the Spanish government planned to send him to the United States, and in 1782 John Jay wrote that Congress had long been expecting his arrival in the capacity of minister plenipotentiary to the United States.16 For various reasons the mission was postponed. In 1784 developed the disquieting situation described above, and Gardoqui was finally despatched. For a detailed account of his negotiation with John Jay, Congress's secretary for foreign affairs, the reader is referred to a formal diplomatic history of the period. It is enough for our purpose to sketch the situation in the barest outline and to note the results p74of the tedious negotiation, which lasted from 1785 to 1788.

The Conflict of sectional Interests

Despite the indignation aroused in the West and on the Atlantic coast by Spain's announcement of the closing of the Mississippi, and despite Gardoqui's isolation — his only regular channel of correspondence with Spain was by way of Havana, and his sources of information in the United States were scanty and unreliable —17 he found conditions favorable in several respects to the success of his mission. In the first place, the usual post-war economic depression was settling down upon the United States.18 American shipping and exports, with former markets in the British empire wholly or partially lost, were seeking compensation elsewhere. Commercial concessions for the United States in Spain and its colonies, vainly sought by Jay during his Spanish mission (1780‑82), were more important to the country than ever now that the Revolution was over. Rendón had transmitted to his government a plan outlined by Robert Morris for the development of trade between the two countries, and Gardoqui wrote home that nothing could give the Americans more pleasure than a trade that would bring Spanish gold and silver into their ports.19 Moreover, the whole of the United States' growing Mediterranean trade would be benefited by the interposition of Spain's good offices with the vexatious Barbary States.

In the second place, there were many influential people in the United States who were opposed to the rapid development of the American West. Contempt for the lazy, shiftless backwoodsmen; sympathy for p75the dispossessed Indian tribes; the self-interest of landlord and employer; Northern jealousy of the agricultural South and West; the conviction that the ultimate secession of the Mississippi Valley settlements was a certainty — one or more of these considerations disposed such representatives of the commercial states as Rufus King, Timothy Pickering and Gouverneur Morris in favor of any measure that would check the alarming exodus of population from the Atlantic coast and the equally alarming spread of settlement in West.20 In the period 1786‑88 the Mississippi question was the subject of even bitterer controversy within the United States than between the United States and Spain, and the controversy assumed a dangerously sectional character. William Grayson, speaking in the Virginia ratifying convention of 1788, voiced the sentiments of many in the South and West when he said: "I look upon this as a contest for empire. Our country [Virginia] is equally affected with Kentucky. The Southern States are deeply interested in this subject. If the Mississippi be shut up, emigration will be stopped entirely. There will be no new states formed on the western waters. . . . This contest of the Mississippi involves this great national contest; that is, whether one part of the continent shall govern the other. The Northern States have the majority, and will endeavor to retain it."21 So long as this "national contest" remained unsettled and the Americans were unable to decide whether or not they wanted the free navigation of the Mississippi, there was little likelihood that Spain would concede it.

In the third place, Gardoqui's offer of a territorial guarantee was equivalent to an offer that, if the United States would yield to Spain a part of its claims in the p76Southwest, Spain would join the United States in forcing England to evacuate the posts that it still occupied in the Northwest. Since the Northwest had been ceded by the claimant states to Congress, and since the Southwest had not, the majority in Congress was inclined to give more weight to the interests of the former than of the latter.

Well might Jay declare, as he did in a notable address to Congress in August, 1786, that the treaty with Spain was the most important treaty the United States could negotiate with any power.22 With this preface, he proceeded to describe the hopeless state of his negotiation with Gardoqui, for both the plenipotentiaries were bound by instructions that left them little discretion and made agreement impossible. Diplomacy had failed to move Spain, and the United States was in no position to go to war. It was impossible, said Jay, to secure both the navigation of the Mississippi and the thirty-first parallel; but, by yielding the former for a term of years, the United States might secure the latter, as well as valuable commercial concessions in the ports of Spain. At the end of the period of suspension the United States could renew the assertion of its claim to the navigation of the Mississippi with even better reason than at present. After a long and bitter debate on this proposal, in which the opposition was led by the Virginia delegation, Congress empowered Jay to negotiate such a treaty, leaving undetermined in its instructions the number of years for which the navigation of the Mississippi might be closed to the United States.23

No treaty was ever negotiated under this revised instruction. According to Gardoqui, who was himself not overbold, Jay was intimidated by the widespread p77denunciation of Congress' decision, which, though taken in secret session, soon became public property. Now and then the two plenipotentiaries conferred, but without result. Jay held that such a thorny question should be reserved for the new federal government then forming, and such was the decision of Congress in 1788 upon the ratification of the federal constitution by nine states.24

The result of this new turn of affairs was twofold. The decision of Congress to surrender for twenty or thirty years the navigation of the Mississippi precipitated a secessionist movement in the West. On the other hand, Gardoqui warned Floridablanca from the moment Congress adopted this resolution that it was a moral certainty such a treaty would never be negotiated, so great was the popular clamor against it.25 Out of this situation, as we shall see, grew the intrigue between the American frontiersmen and Spain, but not before Floridablanca had made one more attempt to secure a treaty with the United States government.


The Author's Notes:

p228 1 AI, 86‑7‑24, (José de Gálvez) to Floridablanca, Dec. 20, 1783, draft, written in margin and at foot of Floridablanca to J. de p229Gálvez, Dec. 9, 1783; ib., El Conde de Gálvez to J. de Gálvez, Dec. 20, 1783.

[decorative delimiter]

2 AHN, E, l. 3885, exp. 24, Floridablanca to J. de Gálvez, July 29, 1784, and accompanying documents.

[decorative delimiter]

3 AI, 87‑1‑19, Navarro to J. de Gálvez, March 12, 1784, No. 202; ib., PC, l. 3, Miró to El Conde de Gálvez, March 12, 1784, No. 108; AHN, E, l. 3885, exp. 18. A British vessel from Jamaica also appeared and claimed the right of free navigation under the treaty.

[decorative delimiter]

4 AHN, E, l. 3885, exp. 2, Navarro to J. de Gálvez, Sept. 10, 1781, and Dec. 15, 1781, both res.; ib., J. de Gálvez to Floridablanca, March 26, 1782.

[decorative delimiter]

5 Cf. E. S. Corwin, French Policy and the American Alliance, 227‑28.

[decorative delimiter]

6 AHN, E, l. 3885, exp. 20, El Conde de Gálvez to J. de Gálvez, May 23, 1784; ib., Rendón to J. de Gálvez, Dec. 16, 1783, No. 91; ib., exp. No. 1: "Breve relacion de las fronteras . . .," in Gardoqui's handwriting, endorsed: "Pertenece a la carta No. 7 de 16. de Nove. de 1783. de Dn. Bernardo del Campo."

[decorative delimiter]

7 AI, 146‑3‑11, Rendón to Gálvez, Feb. 12, 1785, No. 124.

[decorative delimiter]

8 AHN, E, l. 3457, exp. 23, "Instruccion sobre limites de las floridasº y la Luisiana y sobre la navegacion de Misisipi," dated July 29, 1784, copy; ib., l. 3885, exp. 24, El Conde de Gálvez to J. de Gálvez, Aug. 4, 1784.

[decorative delimiter]

9 This fact was called to my attention by Prof. S. F. Bemis.

[decorative delimiter]

10 On the merits of this dispute, see Corwin, op. cit., 230, note 13; R. G. Adams, History of the Foreign Policy of the United States, 49; Jay, Correspondence (Johnston, ed., 1890‑93), I, 248, and II, 1, 296; and Bemis, 51, 52.

[decorative delimiter]

11 AI, 146‑3‑11, Rendón to Gálvez, July 30, 1784, No. 104.

[decorative delimiter]

12 AHN, E, l. 3885, exp. 21, "Instruccion para Dn. Diego de Gardoqui . . .," unsigned and undated; AI, PC, l. 1375, (El Conde de Gálvez) to Floridablanca, Oct. 26, 1784, acknowledging the receipt of the royal order of Oct. 2 in regard to Gardoqui's appointment; Conrotte, op. cit., 270‑76, publishes the instructions and gives the date as Oct. 2, 1784.

[decorative delimiter]

13 Yela, I, 481, and Bemis, 70, erroneously state that Gardoqui's appointment resulted from the proposals of Adams, Franklin and Jefferson to Floridablanca through Aranda. As a matter of fact, Aranda's letter of transmission was written on Oct. 4, 1784, at Paris, two days after the final orders had been issued to Gardoqui.

[decorative delimiter]

p230 14 AI, 146‑3‑11, Miralles to Gálvez, Dec. 28, 1778.

[decorative delimiter]

15 Yela, II, 66.

[decorative delimiter]

16 Conrotte, op. cit., 293‑95; Yela, I, 382‑83, II, 325‑26, 375‑77; other documents are in AHN, E, l. 3884, exp. 4, and ib., l. 893.

[decorative delimiter]

17 Ib., l. 3894, Gardoqui to (Miguel de Otamendi), no date; AI, PC, l. 104, Gardoqui to Miró, Feb. 14, 1788.

[decorative delimiter]

18 E. Channing, History of the United States, III, 408‑27.

[decorative delimiter]

19 AHN, E, l. 3885, exp. 25, Rendón to Gálvez, April 20, 1784, and enclosed translation of letter from Robert Morris; ib., l. 3893. Gardoqui to Floridablanca, Aug. 23, 1785, No. 14.

[decorative delimiter]

20 M. Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention, I, 583‑84, 603‑05; Rufus King Papers (MSS., N. Y. Hist. Soc.), King to Adams, Nov. 2, 1785.

[decorative delimiter]

21 J. Elliot, The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, III, 365‑66.

[decorative delimiter]

22 Secret Journals of Congress, Foreign Affairs, IV, 45 et seq.

[decorative delimiter]

23 Ib., 81‑84. For Jay's first instructions, see ib.III, 568‑71, 585‑86.

[decorative delimiter]

24 AHN, E, l. 3894, Gardoqui to Floridablanca, Oct. 24, 1788, No. 298.

[decorative delimiter]

25 Ib., l. 3893, same to same, Oct. 1, 1786, not numbered; Oct. 28, 1786, No. 124; and Dec. 31, 1786, No. 153.


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