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Notable Men and Women of Spanish Texas

[ Regional/Texas ]

Notable Men and Women of Spanish Texas

By Donald E. Chipman and Harriett Denise Joseph

By combining dramatic, real-life incidents, biographical sketches, and historical background, the authors bring to life famous (and sometimes infamous) people of Spanish Texas.

1999

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 375 pp. | 5 halftones, 9 illustrations

ISBN: 978-0-292-71218-8

The Spanish colonial era in Texas (1528-1821) continues to emerge from the shadowy past with every new archaeological and historical discovery. In this book, years of archival sleuthing by Donald E. Chipman and Harriett Denise Joseph now reveal the real human beings behind the legendary figures who discovered, explored, and settled Spanish Texas.

By combining dramatic, real-life incidents, biographical sketches, and historical background, the authors bring to life these famous (and sometimes infamous) men of Spanish Texas:

  • Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
  • Alonso de León
  • Francisco Hidalgo
  • Louis Juchereau de St. Denis
  • Antonio Margil
  • The Marqués de Aguayo
  • Pedro de Rivera
  • Felipe de Rábago
  • José de Escandón
  • Athanase de Mézières
  • The Marqués de Rubí
  • Antonio Gil Ibarvo
  • Domingo Cabello
  • José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara
  • Joaquín de Arredondo

The authors also devote a chapter to the women of Spanish Texas, drawing on scarce historical clues to tell the stories of both well-known and previously unknown Tejana, Indian, and African women.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • One. Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
  • Two. Alonso de León
  • Three. Francisco Hidalgo/Louis Juchereau de St. Denis
  • Four. Antonio Margil de Jesús
  • Five. Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo/ Pedro de Rivera y Villalón
  • Six. Felipe de Rábago y Terán
  • Seven. José de Escandón y Elguera
  • Eight. Athanase de Mézières
  • Nine. Marqués de Rubí/Antonio Gil Ibarvo
  • Ten. Domingo Cabello y Robles
  • Eleven. José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara/ Joaquín de Arredondo
  • Twelve. Colonial Women
  • Afterword
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Had the authors chosen to give Notable Men and Women o f Spanish Texas a subtitle, it might have been "Biographical Sketches from Near Saints to a Near-Total Sinner." María de Agreda, the legendary "Lady in Blue," and Antonio Margil, renowned Franciscan missionary, have both been designated "Venerable," or worthy of sainthood; and by his actions in early life, Felipe de Rábago earned the second descriptive appellation. As for the title itself, we discussed whether the appropriate preposition should be "of" or "in." We finally resolved the matter by recognizing that we could not prove that María de Agreda ever was in Texas.

Our own experience, and that of many others, suggests that only a few readers peruse a preface. But for those who have been diligent enough to read this far and who have the will to continue, we would like to explain why we chose the personalities included in the twelve chapters.

By name alone, Cabeza de Vaca (Cow's Head) evokes interest among today's schoolchildren and adults. But more than half a millennium after his birth, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca remains the object of scholarly investigationranging from speculations that his shamanic powers as a healer among sixteenth-century Native Americans spawned the curandero phenomenon in Latino culture to route interpretations of his peregrinations on two American continents. We chose Cabeza de Vaca because his story is inherently interesting and because it demonstrates his essential humanity. Arriving in the New World as an arrogant conquistador, Cabeza de Vaca, himself mistreated as a slave by Indians and forced by his own admission to travel "naked as the day I was born," profoundly altered his view of Native Americans. By ultimately recognizing that "All Mankind Is One," he foreshadowed the great Dominican Protector of Indians, Bartolomé de las Casas.

Alonso de León (the younger) was a pathfinder without peer in late seventeenth-century Texas. The product of a distinguished family in Nuevo León and advantaged by formal education in Spain, León rose to the rank of general and achieved the governorship of his birth province, as well as Coahuila. In leading four overland expeditions in search of René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle's colony and a fifth to establish the first Spanish mission in East Texas, he wore out his body in the service of his monarch. At the same time, León's penchant for submitting unvarnished but truthful reports to his superiors in Mexico City irritated and provoked those high officials. Those circumstances contributed to his demotion and death at age fifty.

Father Francisco Hidalgo and Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, fueled by differing passions and objectives, interacted in a manner that brought about the permanent Spanish occupation of Texas in 1716, a presence that lasted for 105 years. The interplay of a single-minded Franciscan missionary and a devious French cavalier-entrepreneur profoundly changed the course of history in both colonial Texas and Louisiana.

Father Antonio Margil de Jesús is more famous in Mexico than in the United States, and with good reason. Margil performed signal services for his faith in Central America and New Spain proper before entering Texas late in life. Because of his fame and candidacy for beatification and sainthood, Margil's life has been examined by a number of biographers and admirers. In this instance, we were able to present an essentially "cradle to grave" biographical portrait. His alleged miracles, some of which were performed on Texas soil, and his role as founder of Texas' most beautiful and successful mission, San José in San Antonio, make his story inspiring.

The Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo, using part of his wife's vast fortune and drawing upon his own considerable energies, ensured a continuing Spanish presence in East Texas after it was abandoned during the Chicken War of 1719. Also among his significant accomplishments was initiating Texas' first big "cattle drive" in the 1720s. Much of his work unraveled in the late 1720s under the aegis of Pedro de Rivera, charged with implementing peso-pinching retrenchment as Spain and France moved toward cementing the Bourbon Family Compact.

Felipe de Rábago y Terán, the near-total sinner, brings the spice of rakish behavior and suspicion of murder to our narrative. But events unfolding in Central Texas at mid-eighteenth century also shed light on the essentially unavoidable conflict that arose between soldiers, separated from their wives and families and stationed on a distant frontier, and missionaries, pledged to extirpate vice and protect the virtue of Indian women. Late in life, however; Rábago attempted redemption of character and sought expiation of sin with some success.

José de Escandón y Elguera ranks among the most remarkable colonizers in Spanish North America. Like Margil, he is more famous in Mexico than in most of Texas, primarily because the great majority of the twenty-three towns and fifteen missions founded by him and his associates were situated south of the Rio Grande. But Escandón is also a hero in extreme South Texas. Residents from Laredo to Brownsville properly regard him as the pioneer founder of farming and ranching enterprises along both sides of the lower Rio Grande.

Athanase de Mézières was a transitional person between French/Spanish Louisiana and Spanish Texas. Married briefly to a daughter of St. Denis and Manuela Sánchez, this successful Natchitoches officer and landowner became the chief agent of Spanish Indian policy from the late 1760s to the late 1770s. Initially under suspicion as a facile adherent of His Majesty Charles III of Spain, De Mézières soon allayed Spanish distrust and ultimately received appointment as chief executive of Texas--a position that because of ill health and depleted personal finances he never assumed.

The Marqués de Rubí authored sweeping recommendations, which, with the weight of royal mandate behind them, led to profound changes along the northern frontier of New Spain in the early 1770s. Among those modifications were Spain's temporary withdrawal from East Texas and the permanent designation of San Antonio as the official capital. Antonio Gil Ibarvo, through skillful supplication and Machiavellian strategy, countermanded Rubí's influence on viceroy and king, founded modern Nacogdoches, and earned the title "Father of East Texas."

We selected Domingo Cabello y Robles as a notable administrator because of his long tenure as governor (1778-1786), years that overlapped Spain's participation in the American Revolution. Spanish involvement in the war reoriented Texas' cattle industry and brought calumny on the governor; it also tied Cabello's hands with regard to Indian policy and left him chained to an office that he hated from day one. But, importantly, a study of Cabello's administration provides valuable insight into the social and economic life that was San Antonio in the late eighteenth century.

Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara satisfied our desire to recount the activities of a prominent insurrectionist during the turbulent first two decades of the 1800s. He, more than anyone else, carried Father Miguel Hidalgo's "Grito de Dolores" of September 16, 1810, into the northern reaches of New Spain. Gutiérrez's activities brought down the wrath of Spain on Texas, and the scythe of vengeance fell into the willing hands of Joaquín de Arredondo. This commandant general of Spain's Eastern Interior Provinces, which included Texas, turned the future Lone Star State into a pathetic wasteland by 1821, paving the way to independence from Spain and assimilation into the new Mexican nation.

Our final chapter, "Colonial Women," presented the most difficult challenge. Aside from such high-profile personalities as María de Agreda, Manuela Sánchez, and Jane Long, hundreds of women in colonial Texas have remained historically "faceless." We know they bore children, washed and mended clothes, swept chapels, and helped their husbands. But this is hardly the stuff of a chapter-length study--not to mention that dwelling on the obvious would constitute nothing less than a gross misrepresentation of women's many contributions. By examining lawsuits, estate settlements, wills, petitions, and other legal instruments, we were able to give names--and faces--to more of these women. We also gained insight into the daily circumstances, privileges, and obligations of colonial Latinas in general. Even illiterate women in colonial Texas demonstrated an "osmotic" sense of Castilian law, a knowledge passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. And the law granted all women, including those of Indian and mixed ancestry, privileges and rights that were absolutely alien to their gender in contemporaneous Anglo America. That same law, however, made it incumbent on women to conduct themselves responsibly or face serious consequences.

A preface also seems a good place to expound briefly on the pitfalls and benefits of a biographical approach to Spanish colonial personalities. At the considerable risk of alluding to "national character," we believe it accurate to say that Spaniards, as opposed to Anglo Americans, are more inclined to be fatalistic than introspective. Accordingly, Spaniards did not keep personal diaries in which they agonized over matters of conscience, they seldom expressed doubts about their importance as individuals, and they did not often lose sleep over the propriety of their actions.

A biographer is especially at a loss when seeking information on the youth of Hispanic personages. The late Professor France V. Scholes, Chipman's mentor at the University of New Mexico, spent the better part of his adult life studying Fernando Cortés, yet admitted that he could say everything he knew about the Conqueror's early life in two or three pages. Indeed, it was a rare Spaniard of the sixteenth century who even knew his precise age. When deposing in lawsuits, witnesses would typically give their age as "about thirty-five," or "about forty." On other occasions, Spaniards would state a specific year as their age, but usually zfollowed that declaration with the words: "poco más o menos." Even in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Franciscans who were experienced historians, notably Father Isidro Félix de Espinosa, failed to say anything of consequence about the birth and youth of his personal friend Francisco Hidalgo. The researcher is thrilled if he or she can find a Spaniard's document of merits and services, and one is ecstatic upon uncovering a will.

Historian and biographer Milton Lomask reminds us that biography essentially falls into three categories. There is narrative biography, using the birth-to-death approach, which we employed with Father Margil; there is topical biography, approaching Cabeza de Vaca as historian, as ethnographer, as geographer, which we did not attempt; and there is the "and" biography, such as looking at Athanase de Mézières and Texas, which we chose to do. For the most part, we used the third approach. This permitted us to span almost three centuries of early Texas history.

Covering a broad expanse of time with the lives of notable individuals gave us the opportunity "to humanize history, to make us realize that the past was shaped by individuals with the same strengths and weaknesses that we recognize in ourselves and our leaders today." Placed in the most simple terms, by using the biographical approach we hoped to convince the reader that these people once walked the land and breathed the air that was Texas.

Finally, a word about preparing this book: We shared the research equally but were determined that readers not be forced to guess which one of us composed this or that chapter. For better or worse, the writing style is Chipman's, with substantial (and generally appreciated) editorial suggestions from Joseph. We have tried to the best of our abilities to make the chapters readable. Each begins with a dramatic incident that is later threaded into the narrative. The reader will note, we hope, that the text is fully documented, with scholarly accoutrement contained in extensive endnotes.

Donald E. Chipman, Denton, Texas
Harriett Denise Joseph, Brownsville, Texas

 

"In my knowledge of Spanish Texas and the Spanish Borderlands, there is no other work that covers the topic of this book. . . . No other book is so comprehensive and deals with so many personalities in one place."

—Oakah L. Jones, Historian and Professor Emeritus, Purdue University

Presidio La Bahia Award of the Sons of the Republic of Texas
Texas Old Missions and Forts Restoration Association Book Award, the Texas Old Missions and Fort Restoration Association and the Texas Catholic Historical Society

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