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

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.
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Chapter 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p1  Chapter I
Rival Empires

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.)

If ever a peace failed to pacify, it was the peace of 1783. The international settlement at the close of the American Revolution was incomplete, for no treaty defined the relations or restrained the rivalry of the oldest and newest empires in America, Spain and the United States. The treaties that did form a part of that settlement were mutually conflicting or silent on matters of vital import to these two powers. And yet the most comprehensive and definite treaties could have done nothing more than postpone the ineluctable conflict between the old order and the new. This conflict, indeed, had been in progress for generations before the Revolution. It merely entered upon a new phase when the thirteen colonies of British North America won their independence.

The eighteenth-century Renaissance of Spain

Since the day when the destruction of the Armada baffled Spain's attempt to protect its American empire against English invasion by invading England, Spain had been compelled to surrender first at one point and  p2 then at another her arrogant claim to universal empire in the New World. Virginia, Jamaica, Georgia, Campeche, the Floridas, had one by one fallen into English hands.​1 By 1775 England had built up the most numerous, the richest, and most powerful colonies in America. Through economic penetration, whether contraband trade or legitimate commerce under the treaty of Utrecht, she was threatening Spain's hold on her remaining dominions on the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico.

At the same time, Spain seemed to be emerging from her age-long lethargy. Throughout the eighteenth century the Bourbons had striven to revive the energies of the nation. By the third quarter of the century their efforts seemed to be producing results of permanent value. The reign of the austere Charles III (1759‑88) is the one which in all the history of Spain since the sixteenth century is least wounding to national pride. Government finances were reduced to order and commerce and industry encouraged by tariffs, the building of roads, and the founding of such corporations as the Philippine Company and a national bank. Splendid individual achievements illuminate these years: the statesmanship of Floridablanca, Goya's brush, the economic writings and reforms of Campomanés and Jovellanos.​2 In the colonial field, in which our immediate interest lies, talent and energy abounded. Even England's colonial service could boast no abler men than Charles III's colonial secretary, José de Gálvez, or José's nephew, Bernardo de Gálvez, conqueror of British West Florida, or the viceroy of New Spain, the Marqués de Revillagigedo.​3 As for Spain's colonial policy, the commercial regulations of 1778 liberalized the old monopolistic system in some important respects, and seemed to promise an era of progressive reform.

 p3  This national revival was accompanied by a resumption of the territorial advance of Spain in North America. Northwestward the Spanish flag was carried into Upper California; northeastward, into the Floridas and up both banks of the Mississippi. The acquisition of Louisiana (1762), the conquest of West Florida (1779‑81), the recovery of East Florida (1783), the establishment of forts San Marcos, New Madrid, Nogales, Confederation and San Fernando de las Barrancas in the Mississippi Valley region (1787‑95), were paralleled by the founding of San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Bárbara and San Fernando Rey de España on the Pacific coast (1760‑97).4

Spain's recovery, coinciding with the territorial and commercial expansion of England, led to numerous wars and incessant contention between the two powers throughout the eighteenth century. In the first six decades of the century the Spanish Bourbons had met with one reverse after another, although supported by their royal cousins of France. They were driven from Guale to the northward of St. Augustine from St. Augustine itself and from Pensacola, and by the close of the Seven Years' War (1763) the Spanish frontier in North America had been forced back from the Savannah River to the Mississippi.

The American Revolution seemed to offer the Bourbon monarchies of France and Spain a providential opportunity to shatter England's power, and in 1783 a superficial observer might have thought that Spain had taken full advantage of the opportunity and had won a substantial reward. East and West Florida were in her possession, giving her control of the Bahama Channel and the Mississippi River and making the Gulf of Mexico a Spanish lake. In reality, Spain found herself  p4 in a more dangerous situation than ever, for she was left face to face with the first independent power of the New World, a power possessing a numerous and energetic population animated by the British urge to expansion and liberated from that intimate participation in the European state system which had so often checked England's spoliation of Spain. Had the sole object of the English government been, as many Spaniards thought it was, to destroy the Spanish empire at all costs, and had it possessed the Machiavellian cleverness attributed to it, England would have granted without delay the American demand for independence.

The Revolution and the American frontier

The economic system and social ideals that had carried the English colonists from the Atlantic coast across the mountains into the Mississippi Valley emerged with undiminished vigor from the Revolution. More than this, the eight years' war gave a fresh impulse to the expansionist movement in the Old Southwest, a name we use to designate the region south of the Ohio, east of the Mississippi and west of the Appalachian ranges. In the first place, the restraining hand of imperial control was removed. Indian relations, frontier advance, land grants, had all been in the hands of a British superintendent of Indian affairs or of colonial governors responsible to the crown. The control of these matters now devolved upon the state governments, except in so far as the feeble Congress of the Confederation could extend its vague grant of power in Indian relations. The result was favorable to the advance of the frontier, for the chain of restraint was no stronger than its weakest link, and the state governments were less able to resist land speculators or to  p5 intimidate recalcitrant frontiersmen than the British government had been before the Revolution. This very weakness of the federal government was, as we shall see, an advantage to the republic in its conflict with Spain.

In the second place, the area of settlement was extended during the Revolution, whether by the establishment of new communities (e.g., those on the Cumberland River), or by the legalization and growth of settlements already made in defiance of law at the outbreak of the Revolution (e.g., Kentucky and Watauga).​5 This revolutionary advance was made in such a way that, as a glance at the map will show, further extension was required by the communication and transportation necessities of these settlements. Any further extension must be made at the expense of the Indians, as was always the case, and the Revolution left a heritage of real and fancied grievances against the savages that facilitated their dispossession.

In the third place, the states found that the easiest way to pay their war debts was to release the frontier. Money was scarce and land plentiful. During the Revolution land bounties were given to encourage enlistment, and after the Revolution the paper currency was extinguished by conversion into Western lands. Some of these grants were located in regions already open to settlement, some of them within the Indian hunting grounds. The economic readjustment during and after the Revolution sent merchants as well as farmers westward.​6 The result was an increase in the population of the frontier settlements and in popular pressure on the state governments to extinguish Indian rights and make Indian hunting grounds available for white colonization. Other forces that sent men westward were  p6 the heavier taxation consequent upon the war, and the natural and acquired taste for combat.

The result was that the land passed with amazing rapidity from public into private possession. In the decade following the close of the Revolution, more land was entered in the land office of North Carolina than in the previous hundred years of its existence as a colony.​7 The process was by no means unconscious. A frontiersman's interpretation of the Revolution as a release of expansive energy is found in a letter written by a Holston settler in 1785. Recording the defeat of the Cherokee Indians and the rapid extension of settlement down the Holston, he concluded: "Such are the fruits, such the foretastes of the glorious American Revolution."​8 Human material for frontier extension abounded, and such observers as William Grayson of Virginia and Hugh Williamson of North Carolina were struck by the "immense spirit of emigration" to the West, and by its concomitant, the "epidemic" fever of making new states.​9 The political designs of the Southerners, many of whom planned an early extension of their system to the Mississippi, were indicated during the progress of the Revolution by Virginia's erection of Kentucky into a district and by a provision in the North Carolina constitution of 1776 authorizing the legislature to permit the organization of a separate state in this western territory. The spirit of westward-straining Georgia found expression in 1785 in the charge of Judge Walton to the grand jury of Wilkes county: ". . . I look forward to a time, not very far distant, when . . . the whole [of Georgia] will be settled and connected . . . from the shores of the Atlantic to the banks of the Mississippi." What would become of the Indians and Spaniards actually occupying the territory  p7 in question, Judge Walton did not vouchsafe to say.10

At the close of the Revolution, the American settlements in the Mississippi Valley were firmly established, rapid growth seemed assured and statehood was promised. Continued extension was ingrained in the nature of the Anglo-American frontier, and the finger of destiny seemed to point down the Mississippi Valley. Even before further territorial extension was possible, the use of the river was essential to the prosperity of the existing settlements. Hardly had the Revolution begun when Patrick Henry, governor of Virginia and speculator in Western lands, opened a correspondence with governor Gálvez of Louisiana in the interests of American commerce on the Mississippi.11

The policy of the Spanish government was directly opposed to the ambitions of the Americans. Its objects in entering the war against England in 1779 were, in Europe, to reconquer Gibraltar and Minorca, and, in America, to recover Florida and "to expel from the Gulf of Mexico some neighbors who are causing us infinite vexation";​12 in other words, to put an end to English contraband in the Gulf, contraband that was made possible by the English settlements in Honduras and Campeche, at Pensacola and on the Mississippi, and by the right, secured to England in 1763, to the free navigation of that river throughout its course. To wipe out illicit trade by closing the river to all but Spanish shipping was one of Spain's principal war aims. It was not a purpose that Spain would lightly surrender, for it grew out of the long, determined fight that the crown had for decades been waging against contraband in Spain itself as well as in America. The prevalence of illicit trade throughout the empire was  p8 galling to Spanish pride, injurious to Spanish business and a most striking proof of Spain's maladjustment to eighteenth-century conditions of life. Its monopolistic system was opposed in principle to commerce between its colonies and foreign nations, and there were few exceptions to the principle; and yet Spanish shippers, merchants and manufacturers were utterly unable to satisfy the needs of the Spanish colonists. The attempt to enforce an unnatural monopoly led to the corruption of government officials and the disaffection of colonists, and involved Spain in endless controversy with other nations. And yet the ancient system could not be abandoned, for it was believed that it was essential to the maintenance of a favorable balance of trade, and it was hallowed by immemorial custom.

With the United States a peculiarly acrimonious controversy arose out of this question at the end of the Revolution. In three years of fighting, Spanish arms under the leadership of Bernardo de Gálvez had conquered all of British West Florida, Fort Bute and Natchez on the Mississippi as well as Mobile and Pensacola on the Gulf. Both banks of the Mississippi in its lower course, and consequently the navigation of the river, were now in the hands of Spain. Gálvez's conquest made possible, and the possibility made certain, the closing of the Mississippi to all but Spanish shipping. This measure could not fail to precipitate a conflict with the United States. Not only did the Americans consider the free navigation of the river essential to the prosperity of their Western settlements: through long use they had come to regard it as an inalienable right. From 1763 to 1779 the river was open to them as British subjects. From 1779 to the end of the war Spain continued, as a war measure, to permit the rebellious  p9 colonists to use it. It was in this period of free navigation that the settlements of the Old Southwest — Kentucky, Holston and Cumberland — were established. Custom had by 1783 become inalienable right, and this conviction was reinforced by the application of a principle of private law to an international problem. It was argued that the Americans had as much right to the continued use of the Mississippi as a proprietor to the thoroughfare on which he has built his house.

The diplomatic settlement, 1783

Spanish ministers sensed the danger of the situation and shaped their policy accordingly. Count Aranda, the Spanish ambassador in Paris, and Martin Navarro, the intendant of Louisiana, warned their government to be on its guard against the turbulent, ambitious Americans, and Navarro further pointed out that the free navigation of the Mississippi would foster the growth of the American West.​13 Floridablanca, Charles III's secretary of state, turned a deaf ear to Vergennes' assurances that the bucolic Americans would never be dangerous neighbors, and used all his diplomatic resources to close the Mississippi to them and to keep their settlements as far as possible from its banks. Hence Jay's negotiations with Floridablanca were sterile, for his famous offer on behalf of the United States to submit to the closing of the Mississippi was hedged about with conditions altogether inacceptable to Spain.14

When Jay's abrupt departure from Madrid in May, 1782 broke off this negotiation, Aranda was instructed to renew it in Paris. Floridablanca directed him to establish Spain's exclusive right to the navigation of the Mississippi, to fix the western boundary of the  p10 United States as far to the eastward of the Mississippi as possible, and to leave England in possession of a part of East Florida — that is, the east coast from Cape Canaveral to Georgia — as a buffer between Spain's colonies and the restless Americans. On Rayneval's advice Aranda tried to create another buffer by neutralizing the Indian country south of the Ohio River. Supported by Vergennes he was making things very uncomfortable for Jay and his colleagues when England's clever stroke of diplomacy detached the United States from France and forced the conclusion of a general peace on terms most unwelcome to Spain.15

It was the treaties negotiated by England and the consequent policy of Spain that brought on an immediate controversy between the latter power and the United States. England's treaty with the United States granted the Americans the free navigation of the Mississippi throughout its course, reserved the same right for British subjects, and fixed the southern boundary of the republic at the thirty-first parallel.​16 In England's treaty with Spain, no mention was made of the navigation of the Mississippi. East Florida was ceded to Spain, which, it was provided, should "retain" West Florida. The treaty made no stipulation with regard to the boundaries of these provinces, but one thing was certain: Spain had failed to interpose either of the buffers and was left face to face with the United States.

There was an obvious conflict between the provisions of these treaties. By using the word "retain" in the Spanish treaty, England apparently recognized Spain's right to West Florida as a conquered province. Now West Florida was conquered in its whole extent by Spain, and its extent, as fixed by a British order in  p11 council of 1764, included Natchez and all the territory as far north as the parallel passing through the junction of the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers, that is, about 32°26′.​17 Thus both Spain and the United States could claim under treaties with England signed on the same day (September 3, 1783) a broad band of territory extending, between the parallels 31° and 32°26′, from the Mississippi to the Chattahoochee and embracing the important post of Natchez and the heart of the Southern Indian country. Both in this case and in that of the Mississippi, Spain asserted that the English cessions to the United States were void since England ceded what was not hers to give.

No conclusive evidence has yet been produced to prove that the object of English diplomacy at this point was to embroil Spain and the United States, but circumstances certainly indicate that it was. Such was the conclusion drawn by the Americans when their preliminary treaty with England was first published in Philadelphia,​18 and such was the common assumption by Americans in later years.

Spain fell readily into the trap, if trap there was. Indeed, it is not easy to conceive of anything more maladroit than Floridablanca's policy towards the United States at this juncture as well as throughout the next three years. It is true that his foreign envoys did not serve him well, for, contrary to the common assumption of American historians, he never knew of the secret clause in the preliminary treaty between England and the United States (1782) fixing the boundary of the United States at the mouth of the Yazoo River in case British arms should recover West Florida before the final treaty;​19 nor was he informed of the British order of 1764 moving the northern boundary of West Florida  p12 up to the mouth of the Yazoo River. The lack of this important information weakened Spain's case and may be pleaded in extenuation of Floridablanca's excessive caution and subtlety. Even in larger matters of policy, however, where no lack of accurate information or sound advice can be urged, he adopted what seems to have been almost the worst possible course. Disregarding the repeated and urgent advice of Aranda and of France in the years 1777 and 1778 that he sell Spain's aid to the United States in return for an advantageous treaty with the republic, he let slip the unique opportunity and followed a course that alienated the United States, led to war with England and gave great offence to Spain's one ally, France.​20 A similar ineptness marks the Spanish diplomacy during the negotiations of 1782 and 1783. At no time did the government make a formal protest against England's concessions to the United States, nor was any attempt made to insert in the treaty with England a definition of the boundaries of West Florida or any clause relating to the navigation of the Mississippi.

Floridablanca's policy in this crisis is easy to state: it was one of studied silence; but it is difficult to understand. He explained it by saying that England was pretending to do something which in its nature could not be done, granting territory and a right that had already been lost by the Spanish conquest of West Florida, and that consequently no action on his part was necessary to protect the rights of Spain. Furthermore, he said, the points in question concerned Spain and the United States alone, and should be settled, not at the general peace conference at Paris, but in a subsequent treaty negotiated either in the United States or at Madrid.​21 Even if we admit Floridablanca's  p13 assumption of the utter incompetence of England to make the grants in question, we still wonder why he did not take exception formally and publicly to the Anglo-American treaty. His omission to do so enabled the Americans to argue that Spain had given the consent of silence to their treaty with England. As time went on, this not altogether convincing argument gathered strength and was finally one of the chief considerations advanced by Godoy in 1795 to justify his surrender of the disputed points.22

Stakes of the conflict

The foregoing survey has shown that the Spanish-American conflict was a direct result of the Revolutionary War. That war gave birth to an energetic republic in North America, and flung the unfortunate Spain across the path of its progress. The stage was set for the renewal of the struggle between the English and the Spanish systems. A conflict was certain to come sooner or later, and it came immediately because the diplomatic settlement at the end of the war gave a semblance of legal validity to important and irreconcilable claims of the two nations. Which of the two should control land grants at Natchez, trade and treaties with the Southern Indians, shipments of tobacco down the Mississippi? Behind these immediate issues was a larger stake, the destiny of the Mississippi Valley.

In the conflict for this stake was tested each of the rival empires' power of incorporation, its power to produce a living social synthesis out of bewildering diversity. The conflict was waged in both Europe and America, by the two powers' diplomats and their frontiersmen, who sometimes worked in harmony with each other and sometimes at cross-purposes. The most  p14 striking contrasts are presented by the personages who move across the stage in this drama. A hard-headed Philadelphia republican is torn from his romance with a French duchess to follow the dusty peregrinations of the Spanish court in pursuit of a will-o'‑the‑wisp treaty about the Mississippi Valley. A suave Spaniard is sent from his master's embassy at Lisbon to keep open house for backwoods emigrants at Natchez, and to smoke the peace pipe with Choctaw headmen and warriors. A British fur trader is one of the chief bulwarks of Spanish power against the Anglo-Saxon tide sweeping down the Ohio and Tennessee; and one of the pilots of these simple Anglo-Saxon frontiersmen comes of a French family, plays cards, attends balls, and calls his wife his "lady" and his backwoods clearing a "plantation." And yet despite this confusion of races and nationalities, despite the surface aimlessness, despite the venality or shortsightedness of many a Spaniard and many an American, there were both Americans and Spaniards who knew that out of this welter there would emerge the destiny of one of the world's richest valleys, and more than that, the destiny of a continent.

Though all the world knows that in this conflict Spain had at last to yield, the conflict is not for that reason devoid of interest. All the world knows of Oedipus' tragic end, and yet there are many who will read and read again his tortured story. Spain's defeat has in it something of the quality of a Greek tragedy, for a relentless hand seemed to drive the monarchy on to work its own destruction. Energy and intelligence were of no avail. Turn and twist as it might, there was no escape, and its very virtues contributed to its undoing.

 p223  The Author's Notes:

1 Cf. H. E. Bolton, Arredondo's Historical Proof of Spain's Title to Georgia, Introduction, passim; and V. W. Crane, "Projects for Colonization in the South, 1684‑1732," in MVHR XII.23, discussing other and earlier phases.

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2 Danvila y Collado, El Reino de Carlos III; M. Colmeiro, Historia de la Economía Politica en España; J. F. Bourgoing, Tableau de l'Espagne moderne (2 ed., Paris, 1797).

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3 H. I. Priestley, José de Gálvez, passim.

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 p224  4 H. vander Linden, L'Expansion coloniale de l'Espagne, 329‑37, and map of Upper California in Priestley, op. cit.; C. E. Chapman, A History of California: the Spanish Period, 216‑417.

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5 A. V. Goodpasture, "The Watauga Association," in Am. Hist. Mag., III.110; A. Henderson, Conquest of the Old Southwest; Roosevelt, Winning of the West, I.166.

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6 AI, 146‑3‑11, Rendón to J. de Gálvez, Feb. 28, 1783, No. 72.

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7 Information given me by Prof. I. S. Harrell. See his recent book, Loyalism in Virginia.

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8 Maryland Journal (newspaper), Tues., Oct. 11, 1785, extract of letter from Caswell County, Frankland.

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9 Etting Col. (MSS., Hist. Soc. of Pennsylvania), Old Congress MSS., Autograph Letters, Wm. Grayson to –––––, Dumfries, Sept. 11, 1783; S. R. N. Ca., XVI, 459‑60.

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10 Gazette of the State of Georgia (newspaper), April 14, 1785.

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11 J. A. Robertson, ed., "Spanish Correspondence concerning the American Revolution," in HAHR I.311. Cf. S. R. N. Ca., XIV, 234‑46.

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12 Juan F. Yela Utrilla, España ante la independencia de los Estados Unidos, II.187. Referred to hereafter as Yela.

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13 Ib., II.42‑43; and see note 4, ch. V.

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14 Yela, op. cit., II.342‑50.

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15 Ib., II.477‑80; M. Conrotte, La intervención de España en la independencia de los Estados Unidos, 164.

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16 S. F. Bemis, Pinckney's Treaty, 44‑65. Referred to hereafter as Bemis.

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17 Ib., note 7, pp49‑50.

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18 AI, 146‑3‑11, Rendón to J. de Gálvez, April 12, 1783, No. 75.

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

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20 Yela, I.305‑70, 484‑85; Conrotte, 8.

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21 Conrotte, 182‑88; Yela, I.480.

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22 AHN, E, ACE, Aug. 14, 1795.

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