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Chapter 2

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.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 4
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p33  Chapter III
The Spanish Barrier

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.)

Buffers and bulwarks

The war of the American Revolution was hardly ended when the Spanish government began to execute a series of measures which would have proved to demonstration, had there ever been any doubt on the point, that sympathy for the American republic had had nothing whatever to do with Spain's entering the war against England. For all its lack of sympathy, however, Spain's intervention had contributed in a modest way to establish the independence of the rebellious colonists of England, to create a Frankenstein against which Spain must now defend herself. Spain's participation in the war had not affected the general military decision, but it had led England to grant the United States the boundary and navigation right now in dispute between His Catholic Majesty and the republic. Spain's own actions, therefore, had brought the Americans knocking at the back door of her empire.

That the thirteen jarring states, debt-ridden and exhausted by the war, should have been a source of uneasiness to the Spanish government may seem to indicate an extreme degree of timorousness on the part of the latter. We must remember, however, that the Spaniards of that day hardly distinguished between the English and the Americans, calling the latter Anglo-Americans and that two centuries of bitter experience had convinced the Spanish government of the Briton's reckless ambition. Floridablanca had two good reasons for believing that a mere change of government had not diminished the ambition of the  p34 Anglo-Americans: first, the terms of the treaty between the United States and England; and second, the rapid advance of the "Anglo-American" frontier during the Revolution. The boundaries claimed by the new republic seemed paradoxically to the Spaniards a proof of its limitless ambition. That this ambition was in train of execution seemed patent to any Spaniard who so much as glanced at the new settlements of Kentucky, Cumberland, the Holston and Georgia. Alexander McGillivray found in the American advance at the Indians' expense a powerful means of frightening the Spanish government for his own purposes.​1 His dire forebodings had been anticipated by Spanish officials in America, for Martin Navarro, the intendant of Louisiana, and Francisco Rendón, Spanish agent in Philadelphia, had warned the ministry repeatedly from 1780 to 1783 that the rapid growth of the American frontier settlements was a menace to Spain's empire in North America, and their warning had received the personal attention of the King's chief minister, Count Floridablanca.2

After the peace of 1783, that minister took up again the task of circumscribing his ambitious and turbulent neighbors. He adopted five measures in order to secure his purpose. With the first of these, his attempt to sell St. Augustine back to the British in return for Gibraltar or some other concession, we are not concerned, as it belongs to the diplomatic story. We merely record the fact. Two of his measures will be discussed in connection with Gardoqui's mission to the United States, namely, the closing of the Mississippi to the commerce of the United States, and the assertion of a claim to the east bank of the Mississippi as far to the eastward and northward as the Flint, Hiwassee and  p35 Tennessee Rivers. His fourth and fifth measures require our attention at this point. One was the encouragement of commerce and immigration in Louisiana and West Florida; the other, the conclusion of treaties of alliance with the Southern Indians. The reader will observe that he resumed his effort of 1782 to insert an insulation of alien territory between Spain's possessions and those of the United States. This insulation, as he planned it, would run in an unbroken line northwestwardly from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, and would consist of upper East Florida in British possession, and of the contiguous territory of the Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians. Up to 1792, the Spanish government made no effort to include the fourth Southern tribe, the Cherokee, within its political system. Furthermore, Floridablanca's policy was designed to weaken the American West and strengthen Louisiana and West Florida, thus fortifying Spain's hold on the Mississippi Valley and erecting a bulwark for the protection of Mexico.

The Cédula of 1782

Spanish merchants and manufacturers were, as we have already seen, unable to supply the colonies with the commodities that they required, and Spain was unable to consume their products. Since most of the people of Louisiana were French and since the Bourbon king of Spain was bound by intimate ties to his royal cousin of France, it was provided in 1768 and again, on more liberal terms, in 1778 that under certain conditions trade might be carried on between Louisiana and France.​3 Since experience soon proved these concessions inadequate, and since the colonial minister, José de Gálvez, was a particularly warm partisan of  p36 France, a cédula, or order in council, was issued in 1782 amplifying the privileges of trade with France and permitting trade between New Orleans and Pensacola and the French West Indies in urgent cases.​4 The cédula was to remain in effect for ten years. It was felt that if Louisiana was to be a dependable barrier against the United States, its population must be increased, for its vast extent made its defence by Spanish troops almost impossible. Besides these commercial concessions, direct encouragement was given to Catholic immigrants to settle in Louisiana and West Florida, the slave trade was legalized, and the government even permitted the British Protestants of West Florida to remain there as Spanish subjects.5

British Loyalists and the Indian trade

The 45,000 Indians on the frontier of the Floridas and the still more numerous American backwoodsmen beyond them to the north and east constituted both the problem and the opportunity of Spain. Upon her relations with these two groups depended in a large measure the success of her diplomacy, of her effort to keep the United States at a safe distance from the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico and Mexico itself. Indian relations and the frontier intrigue, and commerce, which was inseparably linked with them, therefore played a leading part in the history of Louisiana and the Floridas in the period from 1783 to 1795.

The Indians were nearer neighbors than the American frontiersmen, and so they required Spain's first attention in order to forestall the United States. The government adopted provisionally a method of securing European goods for the Indians which was in accordance with its general commercial policy in these  p37 border provinces, but even more liberal, for the goods were secured not from Spain's ally, France, as the Gálvez family and their Creole connections, the Maxents, wished, but from England. The system of managing Indian affairs that the government adopted was based partly on its own experience in Louisiana and partly on the British system as it already existed in the Floridas.6

During the Revolution, Indian supplies by way of Charleston and Savannah had been cut off and the trade thrown into the hands of loyal Britons in St. Augustine, Mobile and Pensacola.​7 At the end of the war it was a question which of their former enemies, Spain or the United States, the British leaders of the Indians would favor with their trade. Their decision was in accordance with the tendency, which we have already noted, for the trade to move southwestward from Augusta to Pensacola. Most of the traders and agents among the Southern Indians had remained loyal to the British government during the Revolution and had seen their property confiscated and their lives threatened by the Americans. The war with Spain, on the other hand, had been their government's rather than their own, and had left no such bitter feuds behind it as the barbarous fighting on the frontier of the United States.

That Spain succeeded in getting control of the Southern Indian trade was largely due to the activities of two of these Loyalists. The first was Alexander McGillivray, a quadroon Creek, the son of the powerful Georgia trader and politician, Lachlan McGillivray, and a half-breed Indian woman. The elder McGillivray's name headed the list of Loyalists who were exiled and whose property was confiscated by the state  p38 of Georgia.​8 Alexander, who had been employed as a British Indian agent, apparently fell heir to this claim on his father's retirement to Scotland, and freely admitted to the Spaniards that the loss of this property, valued at more than £25,000, was one of the principal reasons for his hostility to the Georgians.9

The younger McGillivray's life was as varied and his character as many-sided as his Scottish-Creek-French ancestry was heterogeneous. Far better educated than such American frontiersmen as John Sevier and James Robertson, he lived not the life of an Indian chief or even a white trader, but that of a prosperous Southern planter, with numerous slaves, horses and cattle, and broad acres of farm land on the Coosa River, near the present Montgomery, Alabama. He seldom if ever took part in the fighting that he instigated. He was a Mason, his garb was a white man's and his abode a house, and he possessed and used a well-stocked sideboard and spread a lavish table. But the lady who presided at his table was an Indian squaw, and there were other squaws. He was a heavy drinker — a fault common among eighteenth-century gentlemen — was subject to fearful, blinding headaches, and was sometimes seized by gusts of primitive passion, as one occasion when he could scarcely restrain himself from scalping the backwoodsmen of Georgia in order to avenge a slighting remark made by an Indian commissioner from Connecticut. His hold over the Indians gave him great weight in Spanish counsels and enabled him to render Panton invaluable service in securing concessions from Spain; yet he seems to have been in a kind of tutelage to Panton and at his death was heavily in debt to the Scotchman.10

The other Loyalist was this William Panton, whose  p39 name as well as that of the elder McGillivray was on list of confiscation and banishment of the state of Georgia. Going to St. Augustine just after the outbreak of the Revolution, Panton and his fellow-countryman Robert Leslie formed a trading company. They prospered, and by the end of the Revolution Panton, Leslie and Company was the largest mercantile house in East Florida. At the beginning of 1783 the first step in the firm's great expansion was taken when Charles McLatchy, one of the partners, established a store at St. Mark's, then still within the province of British East Florida.11

The firm's first success in securing a privileged position under the Spanish government was won at St. Augustine. When the Spaniards took possession of the province in 1784, the new governor, Zéspedes, found himself with a paucity of funds and a superabundance of Indian beggars on hand. Accustomed by British liberality to expect a present whenever they visited the governor, these Indians would have returned home with bitter hearts had Zéspedes sent them away empty-handed, and the consequences to Spain might have been serious. With no alternative, the governor sought the aid of Panton, Leslie and Company, got a large supply of goods from them on credit, and was forever after their close friend and ardent advocate. It was he who forwarded their first memorial with vigorous support to the Spanish government. Deploring the necessity of permitting English traders and English goods to dominate Spain's trade with the Indians, Zéspedes assured the court that the services of Panton's company were indispensable in order to hold the Indian trade against competition from the United States until Spanish merchants and traders  p40 were able to take it over. He supported in detail the various requests made in the memorial. The most important of these were that the company be permitted to remain in East Florida on taking an oath of obedience, not of allegiance, that it be permitted to import a certain amount of Indian goods directly from England to East Florida each year, and that it be permitted to export directly to England the commodities taken in payment from the Indians, chiefly furs, paying a six per cent duty on imports and on exports.12

The court returned a favorable reply. By a royal order dated May 8, 1786, the requests contained in the memorial were granted provisionally, but without the specification of a time limit.​13 Thus the British firm began its career as an instrument of the Spanish government to combat the influence of the United States among the Southern Indians.

In East Florida, the company's success in securing the government's support was due to its own resources, its control of the machinery of Indian trade, and its conquest of Governor Zéspedes' good will. In West Florida, the situation was quite different. Panton, Leslie and Company were newcomers in the province, where Gálvez and Miró, the permanent government and ad interim governor respectively, had protégés of their own for whom they wished to secure the plum of Indian trade. The concession was much more valuable here than in East Florida, for Mobile and Pensacola were trade centers for most of the Creek as well as the Chickasaw and Choctaw towns, and it became still more desirable when in 1784 St. Mark's was separated from East and added to West Florida.

Bernardo de Gálvez, captain-general of Louisiana and West Florida, had spent seven troubled years in  p41 his two provinces, and was convinced of the importance to Spain of maintaining friendly relations with the neighboring Indians and of controlling their supply of blankets, munitions and mirrors. Bernardo was also aware of his family obligations. In 1781 his father-in‑law, Gilberto Antonio de Maxent, was sent to Spain, where, through the influence of José de Gálvez, he concluded a contract with the king for supplying the Indians of West Florida with French goods. Disaster soon overtook him. On his return to America he was captured by the British and lost a shipload of his goods; and hardly had the British released him when Spanish officials brought against him a charge of smuggling, in which Francisco de Miranda, later the revolutionizer of Venezuela, was also implicated. Other provision must be made for supplying the Indian trade of West Florida.14

Protectorates and spheres of influence

Already before Maxent's failure the Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians had been summoned to congresses with representatives of the king of Spain for the purpose of establishing peace and friendship, of regulating trade and fixing prices, and of excluding American traders from the Indian country. The first of the two congresses​15 was held with the Creek at Pensacola (May 31-June 1, 1784). Governors Miró and O'Neill, the latter in command at Pensacola, and Intendant Navarro urged McGillivray to agree that the New Orleans firm of Mather and Strother should supply all the Indians of West Florida. Though the half-breed held out resolutely for his partner, Panton could secure nothing more than the bare permission to remain at St. Mark's, Mather and Strother being commissioned  p42 to supply Mobile and Pensacola with a shipload of goods for the next year's trade. It soon proved, however, that the New Orleans firm's credit was unequal to the strain, and in 1785 Panton took over the trade at Pensacola.​16 The permission was for one year only, but it was renewed again and again for many years, and the firm remained at Pensacola, with an occasional change of name, until the Florida purchase in 1819. Its conquest of the Southern fur trade after 1785 was rapid. In 1788, Mather and Strother gave up their concession at Mobile, and again Panton, Leslie and Company succeeded them, thus securing the bulk of the Choctaw and a part of the Chickasaw trade.17

After the Creek Congress of 1784, Miró and Navarro went to Mobile, where in July they concluded treaties with the Chickasaw and Choctaw. We need not linger over the terms of these various treaties, by which Spain brought all the Southern Indians except the Cherokee under her protection. It is enough to note that the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Creek all agreed to acknowledge the protectorate of Spain, and to exclude all traders who could not show a Spanish license. This is the only clause in either of the two treaties at which the United States could justly take offence, for most of their towns lay within the territory in dispute between the two powers. This latter fact, indeed, was one of the chief reasons why Spain cultivated their friendship.

The striking thing about these congresses is their defensive, pacific character; a thing that is particularly striking in comparison with the mad policy of aggression adopted a few years later by Miró's successor in Louisiana. Far from encouraging Indian hostility toward the United States, Miró even refused McGillivray's  p43  request at Pensacola for arms with which to resist American encroachments, and would do no more than forward McGillivray's request to the court.​18 Not military but economic aggression was the keynote of the policy of Miró and Navarro, and their course met with the court's approval. While the ministry, with every appearance of sincerity, instructed the governors of these border provinces to restrain the Indians from attacking the American frontier, it made every effort to monopolize the trade of the Southern Indians. One of its principal objects was to destroy the influence of the United States with these tribes lest the Americans incite them to harass the Spanish settlements or persuade them in any way to coöperate in the conquest of Louisiana and the Floridas;​19 in other words, Spain's purpose was to accomplish through trade what her diplomacy had failed to do: to erect the Southern Indian tribes into a barrier between the United States and the Spanish empire in North America.

By the conclusion of these arrangements for supplying, regulating and monopolizing the Indian trade, the Spanish government succeeded in its purpose of anticipating the Americans; but the means that it had to employ in order to insure success revealed an organic weakness in the Spanish empire, a weakness of which we have already had occasion to speak. Spain was unable to carry on the commerce of her own colonies. In order to prevent Americans from trading with her Indian neighbors, she had to permit Englishmen to trade with them through her own ports. There was hardly a Spaniard to be found who had any acquaintance with the country or the language of the Indians. There was nowhere to be found a Spanish  p44 merchant who knew what goods the Indians required and how to get them. The Indians had long been accustomed to British goods, and it was out of the question to try to satisfy them with Spanish or even French goods. Hence if a Spanish merchant would trade with these Indians, he must send to England for his wares, bring them to Spain and reship them to Pensacola. Without the necessary knowledge as to the choice of a cargo, the Spanish merchant labored under the additional disadvantage of having to pay higher freight rates, port charges and duties. He must then have reliable traders and a large capital, for a year's credit must be extended to the traders. The latter were accustomed to get their goods on credit and to pay for them at the end of the next hunting season.20

If we suppose the hunting season over and the Spanish merchant's debts happily collected in the shape of the skins of deer, bear and beaver, he must turn these into cash and buy a new supply of goods for the fall hunting season. Here a new problem confronted him. He had no market for his skins in Spain. He might ship them to France, or, provided his ship flew the British flag, to London. Since he would find a better market and his next season's goods there, England would no doubt be his choice. Here arose his next difficulty. If the Spanish colonial laws were enforced and he had to call at a Spanish port on his way to England, he would probably lose his cargo of skins through warm weather and worms. If an exception were made and his call at a Spanish port dispensed with the colonial system would be in so far suspended. British goods would supply the Indians, Indian furs would go in payment to England and would be carried in British ships. A Spanish merchant conducting such  p45 a trade would be Spanish in name only. The commerce itself would be British.

Several courses were open to the Spanish government. It might drive British trade out by simply expelling the English merchants and prohibiting further imports. The Indians would then go unsupplied, or would pay a higher price for inferior Spanish goods. Such a course, however, would throw the whole Indian trade into the hands of the Americans, the very calamity that the Spanish government was trying to avert. Again, the government might resort to subventions, but such a policy would be very expensive. Another alternative was to leave the trade in the hands of the English for the time being, with careful governmental supervision, and to prepare a gradual substitution of Spanish merchants, traders and goods for those of England. This was the course that the government adopted. It did so reluctantly, and only after its attempt through the agency of Maxent to supply these Indians with goods from France, its ally, had ended in dismal failure. Even then, the court stipulated at first that Panton, Leslie and Company should use none but French or Spanish goods in their trade with the Indians.​21 Finally in 1786 it yielded to the repeated assurances of Miró and Zéspedes, reinforced by those of the converted Bernardo de Gálvez, that for the present at any rate none but British goods and British traders could prevent the Americans from gaining control of the Indian tribes lying on the border between Spain and the United States.

An organic weakness thus left the Spanish government no alternative but to turn over to two English firms the whole of the Indian trade of the two Floridas. The vital significance of this fact cannot be understood  p46 unless we remember that during the whole of the period with which we are dealing the Southern Indian tribes were relied on by Spain as one of her chief defenses against the aggression of the United States and that the conduct of these Indians exercised a powerful influence in determining the attitude of the American frontiersmen towards Spain. That Spain would be badly served by her British protégés was foreseen by more than one intelligent observer. That she was badly served will appear in the following chapters.

The Author's Notes:

 p225  1 C. Gayarré, History of Louisiana, III: The Spanish Domination, 157‑60. Referred to hereafter as Gayarré.

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2 See below, ch. V.

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 p226  3 H. vander Linden, op. cit., p43; Gayarré, 1‑34, 101‑11. See also note 4, below.

Thayer's Note: The Gayarré citations are a little puzzling, especially since Whitaker's text elsewhere shows that he was using the same edition as the one I have onsite. Better citations are: 19‑28, 44‑46, 105‑110.

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4 The original of this cédula dated Jan. 22, 1782, is in AI, 87‑3‑21. It is published in part in M. Serrano y Sanz, España y los Indios Cherokis y Chactas, 15‑18; Priestley, op. cit., 4.

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5 AI, PC, l. 11, El Conde de Gálvez to Miró, April 24, 1785, and enclosed memorial; ib., 86‑7‑24, expediente on letter from El Conde de Gálvez to J. de Gálvez, Oct. 27, 1785, No. 56.

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6 AHN, E, l. 3885, exp. 17, Campomanés to J. de Gálvez, Sept. 14, 1784; AI, 86‑6‑16, Copia del Discurso Preliminar sobre Indios, by Zéspedes, Nov. 16, 1786.

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7 W. H. Siebert, "The Loyalists in West Florida and the Natchez District," in MVHR, II, 465.

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8 Georgia Papers, 1732‑1908 (MSS., LC), fol. 116, copy of a circular letter from Gov. Lyman Hall of Georgia, Aug. 25, 1783.

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9 AI, PC, l. 203, Panton to Miró, Aug. 31, 1789, and enclosure, and same to same, July 22, 1789; ib., l. 2352, O'Neill to Gálvez, Oct. 31, 1785, No. 3.

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10 Ib., l. 203, McGillivray to Panton, Aug. 10, 1789, copy; A. J. Pickett, History of Alabama, 429‑31 and 342 et seq.; L. Milfort, Mémoire; ou, Coup-d'oeil . . . sur . . . mon Séjour dans la Nation Creek (Paris, 1802), passim, to be used with great care.

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11 AI, PC, l. 197, McGillivray to O'Neill, March 26, 1784, and same to Miró, March 28, 1784; ib., C. McLatchy to O'Neill, March 4, 1784.

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12 AI, 86‑6‑7, Zéspedes to Gálvez, Aug. 16, 1784, No. 21 de preferencia, and enclosures, including Spanish translation of memorial by Panton, Leslie and Co., July 31, 1784.

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13 AI, PC, l. 1375, Sonora to Gálvez, May 8, 1786; AHN, E, l. 3901, extracto summarizing correspondence on this subject from March 22, 1784 to May 8, 1786.

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14 AI, 86‑7‑15, memorial of Francisco Fernández de Ravago, Feb. 6, 1787, and many other documents relating to this affair; ib., 86‑6‑16, Miró to Valdés, Nov. 3, 1787, No. 8, and enclosures.

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15 AHN, E, l. 3885, exp. 22, contains many documents relating to these congresses, including copies of the treaties; AI, PC, l. 1394, Miró to Ezpeleta, Aug. 1, 1794; Jane M. Berry, "The Indian Policy of Spain in the Southwest, 1783‑1795," in MVHR, III.462 et seq.; Gayarré, 160‑62; Serrano y Sanz, op. cit., 82‑85.

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 p227  16 AHN, E, l. 3898, El Conde de Gálvez to J. de Gálvez, May 6, 1785, No. 27.

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17 AI, 86‑6‑17, Miró to Valdés, May 20, 1789, No. 180; ib., PC, l. 202, Panton to Miró, April 7 and July 31, 1789.

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18 AI, PC, l. 1394, Miró to Ezpeleta, Aug. 1, 1784.

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19 AI, 87‑1‑19, Navarro to J. de Gálvez, April 16, 1784, No. 216.

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20 An instance is related in Miró and Navarro to El Marqués del Campo, March 4, 1788, draft: AI, PC, l. 104.

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21 Ib., l. 1375, J. de Gálvez to El Conde de Gálvez, May 30, 1784.

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