Spanish Expeditions into Texas, 1689-1768

[ History ]

Spanish Expeditions into Texas, 1689-1768

By William C. Foster

William Foster produces the first highly accurate maps of the eleven Spanish expeditions from northeastern Mexico into what is now East Texas during the years 1689 to 1768.



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7 x 10 | 351 pp. | 22 maps, 13 illustrations, 11 tables

ISBN: 978-0-292-72489-1

Mapping old trails has a romantic allure at least as great as the difficulty involved in doing it. In this book, William Foster produces the first highly accurate maps of the eleven Spanish expeditions from northeastern Mexico into what is now East Texas during the years 1689 to 1768.

Foster draws upon the detailed diaries that each expedition kept of its route, cross-checking the journals among themselves and against previously unused eighteenth-century Spanish maps, modern detailed topographic maps, aerial photographs, and on-site inspections. From these sources emerges a clear picture of where the Spanish explorers actually passed through Texas.

This information, which corrects many previous misinterpretations, will be widely valuable. Old names of rivers and landforms will be of interest to geographers. Anthropologists and archaeologists will find new information on encounters with some 139 named Indian tribes. Botanists and zoologists will see changes in the distribution of flora and fauna with increasing European habitation, and climatologists will learn more about the "Little Ice Age" along the Rio Grande.

  • Preface
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. In Search of La Salle: Governor Alonso de Léon's 1689 Expedition
  • 3. A Mission for the Tejas: Governor Alonso de Léon's 1690 Expedition
  • 4. San Antonio de Padua: Governor Domingo Terán de los Ríos's Expedition, 1691-1692
  • 5. To Resupply the Mission: Governor Gregorio de Salinas Varona's 1693 Expedition
  • 6. New Road to the Colorado: The 1709 Expedition of Fray Isidro de Espinosa, Fray Antonio de Olivares, and Captain Pedro de Aguirre
  • 7. In Quest of Commerce: Captain Domingo Ramón's 1716 Expedition with Espinosa and Saint-Denis
  • 8. A Way Station at San Antonio: Governor Martín de Alarcón's 1718 Expedition
  • 9. Back to the Bay: Governor Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo's 1721-1722 Expedition
  • 10. The Presidios Reviewed: Brigadier Pedro de Rivera's 1727 Inspection Tour
  • 11. The French Threat Fades: The Marqués de Rubí's 1767 Inspection Tour
  • 12. Review of the Zacatecan Missions in Texas: Fray Gaspar José de Solís's 1768 Inspection Tour
  • 13. Conclusion
  • Appendixes
  • I. Wildlife Recorded on Spanish Expeditions into Texas, 1689-1768
  • II. Trees, Shrubs, Bushes, Vines, Mosses, and Grasses Reported on Spanish Expeditions into Texas, 1689-1768
  • III. Documented Epidemic Disease Episodes in Northeastern New Spain, 1577-1768
  • IV. Indian Tribes Reported on Spanish Expeditions into Texas, 1689-1768
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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The discovery and early exploration of North America in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries ignited a European power struggle that engaged principally England, Spain, and France. One of the areas of intense regional conflict between Spain and France during the later part of the seventeenth century was the northern Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf was considered a Spanish sea in the 1680s, and the lands known today as Mexico, New Mexico, and Texas were subject to a firm Spanish claim. Nominal Spanish occupation extended north from Mexico City to military and mission outposts in present-day northern Nuevo León (at Cerralvo ca. 1583), Coahuila (near Monclova), West Texas (at El Paso and Presidio), and New Mexico (at Santa Fe in the 1580s). Since the Spaniards Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and Hernando de Soto (with Luis de Moscoso) had explored but found treasures in neither northwestern or northeastern Texas in the middle sixteenth century, that vast area was claimed by Spain but basically remained without an established Spanish presence. An attempt in 1632 to start a mission for the Jumano Indians on the Concho River near present-day San Angelo lasted only six months. Other efforts to establish missions in Texas around El Paso and near the junction of the Rio Grande and the Mexican Conchos River in the 1680s were more successful.

The Mississippi River drainage area east of present-day Texas was subject to a French claim established in 1681 by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. Returning to the New World again in 1684, La Salle sailed--intentionally or by navigational error--not to the Mississippi Delta but to the Texas coast. La Salle landed his colony, which numbered about three hundred, including nine women, some with young children, at Matagorda Bay, thus staking out a new French-Spanish battlefield. This book deals with the major Spanish overland expeditions undertaken in response to this threat, which lasted from La Salle's arrival in Spanish Texas to the end of the French presence. These expedition routes (and the Indian trade routes they followed) became the first Spanish road system across Texas and have been woven into the present state highway network.

Reports of the French settlement, at first unconfirmed, sent shock waves from Mexico City to the Spanish outposts in northern New Spain. The Spanish viceroy in Mexico City issued orders to send expeditions by both land and sea in search of La Salle's colony, which was thought to be somewhere along the Texas coast. One marine expedition from Veracruz in early 1687 was successful in locating and identifying a French vessel in Matagorda Bay (named San Bernardo on the expedition), but the expedition leaders--Martin de Rivas and Pedro de Iriarte--decided that the ship, acknowledged to be one of La Salle's, posed no actual threat because the colonists were presumed to have perished. The colonists were actually gathered near a fort located a few miles upstream on a creek that entered the bay.

Despite the report from the 1687 marine expedition, overland expeditions continued. One such expedition from Presidio de Conchos in northern New Spain south of the Big Bend was led by Captain Juan Fernández de Retana in early 1689. After passing the mission at La junta (near present-day Presidio, Texas, on the Rio Grande), Retana continued northeast about 100 miles to the Pecos River, where his party met a large number of Cibolo and Jumano Indians returning from their annual hunting trip and "visit to the Tejas trade fair" in Central or East Texas. The well-recognized Jumano leader, Juan Sabeata, told Retana of reports that the French settlement on the coast had been destroyed. As evidence, Sabeata showed the Spaniards some papers written in French and wrapped in lace. The captain decided to return home for further orders.

While Captain Retana awaited instructions, another expedition was underway near the lower Rio Grande. The Spanish outpost closest to the area where the La Salle settlement was reportedly located was Monclova, about 120 miles south of the Rio Grande in the modern state of Coahuila. The captain of the military post or presidio recently established at Monclova was Alonso de León an officer who earlier had led unsuccessful expeditions from Nuevo León to and beyond the Rio Grande in search of La Salle's colony. On his trip in June 1686, De León had followed the lower Rio Grande to a point near the present-day city of Brownsville; in 1687, he had crossed the Rio Grande and ventured up the Gulf Coast as far as a large river or bay area that he was unprepared to cross or to circle.

But events along the lower Rio Grande in 1688 and early 1689 greatly improved the prospects of locating the French settlement. The most significant occurrence was the capture of Jean Géry, a Frenchman apparently from La Salle's colony, who was found living among the Indians at De León's doorstep, about 50 miles northeast of the Rio Grande, probably in the Zavala-Uvalde-Kinney County area. Géry said he would guide De León and his entrada to the French settlement, accurately estimating that the trip could be made in about twelve days.

The Spaniards who interrogated Géry referred to him as a "demented Frenchman," and this characterization has been accepted by at least some Spanish colonial historians. But the old Frenchman proved to be a helpful guide and a loyal and trusted friend to De León He is one of the most intriguing figures associated with the early expeditions.

As promised, Géry, with the assistance of a local Pacpul and a Quem Indian guide, led De León to the French settlement. De León's expedition in the spring of 1689 was the first of a series of dramatic journeys during the next eighty years from northeastern Mexico into country new to the Spaniards, but well known and traveled by Indian tribes from Chihuahua and Coahuila. The Spaniards later called the country the "Province of the Tejas." Between 1689 and 1768, the Crown financed or otherwise promoted eleven elaborately planned overland expeditions into Central and East Texas. With each expedition the Spaniards' knowledge of the region north of the Rio Grande and its native people expanded. The following chapters retrace these eleven expedition routes day by day from their origin in what is today northeastern Mexico into Spanish Texas.

Historians of the early Spanish period in Texas have written extensively on the significance of these late-seventeenth- and eighteenth-century expeditions, but have offered widely different projections of the routes traveled by De León and by the leaders of subsequent expeditions. Historians such as Herbert E. Bolton, Carlos E. Castañeda, J. W. Williams, and Robert S. Weddle as well as the recent state-sponsored expedition route study by the Texas Department of Highways have differed by as much as 60 miles in their projections of where De León forded each of the first five major rivers he crossed in Texas: the Nueces, the Frio, the San Antonio, the Guadalupe, and the Colorado. Spanish colonial historians have repeatedly acknowledged that Indian tribes from West Texas and northeastern Mexico annually attended Tejas Indian trade fairs in Central and East Texas, but the Indian trade routes across Texas have never been located and the precise sites where the survivors of La Salle's colony were recovered by the Spaniards have never been accurately identified. In the early eighteenth century, five expeditions crossed the Brazos at the same river junction, where there were large Indian encampments collectively referred to by the Spaniards as the Ranchería Grande, but studies disagree on whether the Brazos de Dios crossing and the nearby Rancheria Grande were located at the Little River junction in Milam County, at the junction of the Little Brazos in Brazos County, or about 40 miles downstream near the Navasota junction in Grimes County.

Some of these differences may have resulted from attempts to project the route by the use of one diary alone, from a misunderstanding of the names of rivers used in the diaries, or from a general lack of confidence in the distances and directions reported by the diarists; but, as David J. Weber and Donald E. Chipman have noted, distorted projections may well have been perpetrated by local communities attempting to capitalize on history by promoting expedition routes close to home. These points of contention are specifically mentioned at relevant places in the text.

Probably the most basic reason for the confusion in the expedition routes, however, has been the absence of any multiexpedition study that utilizes cross-document analysis for the daily movement of all eleven expeditions, considered in chronological order, including a comparison of the names for rivers, creeks, and campsites. Because these names were generally (although not always) used on subsequent expeditions, such an analysis of the routes is critical to understanding the development of the earliest road system across Texas. The basic route map becomes more precise with the information added by each new expedition. Failure to study carefully the chronological changes in the names used by expedition diarists for the same rivers and campsites can lead route projections far astray.

Another factor that has perhaps discouraged any detailed chronological comparison of the early routes has been the warning by prominent Texas historians that the directions and distances given in diary accounts could not be relied upon to reconstruct the routes of early expeditions. In 1911, Eleanor Claire Buckley stated that no common route pattern could be found in the diary reports for the early expeditions. Writing in the 1930s, Carlos E. Castañeda echoed this sentiment by stating that no dependence could be placed "on the direction of travel as recorded in the [De León's] comprehensive diary." More recent warnings have come from several contemporary Spanish colonial historians, such as Professor Donald E. Chipman, who has characterized the charting of De León's path across Texas as "at best pure guesswork."

One of the best-known studies of expedition routes in Texas is the extensive account written by J. W. Williams and edited and compiled by his friend Kenneth F. Neighbors. In contrast to the present study, which is limited to expedition routes from northeastern New Spain into Texas during an eighty-year period, Williams made independent studies of a wide selection of journeys through Texas beginning with Cabeza de Vaca in the 1530s and closing with mail routes and wagon train trails of the late nineteenth century. Both favorable and critical comments on the accuracy of route projections offered by Williams are included in the text. Other published accounts of expedition trails include historians' projected locations of isolated campsites or river crossings on selected dates along the route, the 1991 state-funded study of expedition routes generally known as the Old San Antonio Road, and the annotations and maps provided in translations of several diaries.

The Methods Used to Document Routes

The central purpose of this study is to track as precisely as possible the route followed on each of the eleven expeditions. In projecting the daily line of march, two comparisons have been used: a cross-document analysis of the information given in the diaries kept for each of the expeditions and a comparison of that information with contemporary topographic maps, reinforced by on-site verification from the ground and from the air of particular features mentioned in the diaries.

I have plotted the daily directions and distances recorded in the seventeen diaries (kept on the eleven expeditions) throughout the 600- to 800-mile trek from Monclova and Saltillo to Matagorda Bay, East Texas, and in some instances on to Los Adaes in present-day western Louisiana. This multiexpedition approach allows a comparison of the routes and the named campsites used on successive journeys. Contemporary U.S. Geological Survey topographical maps, in which heavily forested areas are colored, have been used to check the accuracy of distances between rivers and between identified camp locations and to verify diary reports of heavily wooded areas. Aerial photographs and on-site inspections have provided verification of sites, particularly in remote areas.

This study assumes that expedition diaries are the primary and most reliable source for determining the route that the expeditions followed. There are sound justifications for this assumption. These diaries were official Spanish documents, mandated by the Crown to be kept on each expedition. Diaries were usually signed under oath by the diarist and attested by at least two responsible members of the party. On six of the eleven expeditions, more than one expedition diary or account was kept, giving an additional means of verifying the line of march.

Expedition leaders customarily received detailed orders that specified the manner in which the diary accounts were to be kept. Two notations of the number of leagues (one in the written diary entry and the second on the margin of the page) and at least one indication of the direction traveled each day were required. In addition, the orders required other information to be included in the diary, such as the names of streams and campsites. The diarist was also supposed to list the fauna, flora, and Indian tribes encountered. This systematic method of maintaining a diary record is also found in the journal of the Frenchman Henri Joutel, who faithfully recorded the daily direction and distance traveled on La Salle's last journey in Texas.

But any dependence on Spanish diary accounts requires not only a review of the English translation of the diaries, but a careful study of manuscript and typescript versions, where available. As noted in the text, several diary translations dropped one or more daily entries, so that manuscript and typescript copies had to be consulted to determine the direction and number of leagues traveled on those days.

Most of the expedition diaries were translated into English decades ago; De León's 1689 diary was translated in 1905. Until recently, the diaries of only Salinas Varona (1693 ), Pedro de Rivera (1727), and the Marqués de Rubí (1767) remained untranslated. However, the Southwestern Historical Quarterly published Salinas Varona's expedition diary in the fall of 1993. The editors of the translation of Salinas's diary, Jack Jackson and I, have prepared an annotated English translation of the Rivera and Rubí diaries, included in Imaginary Kingdom: Texas as Seen by the Rivera and Rubí Military Expeditions, 1727 and 1767, forthcoming from Texas State Historical Association.

The diarist used a compass to determine the direction traveled, and the expedition leader (with the diarist and perhaps others) estimated the number of leagues traveled daily. The basic method of establishing distance was probably to multiply their travel time by an experienced estimate of the speed of march that day. The weather, terrain, and size and composition of the expedition party all affected the speed of travel and thus the distance covered on any particular day. This proved to be a reliable way to estimate distance when used by experienced travelers.

The Spanish diarists and expedition leaders were frequently skilled frontiersmen, familiar with the use of the compass (and the astrolabe) and with estimating distances traveled. Nevertheless, the accuracy of the daily entry of the number of leagues traveled seems to vary according to the experiences of the diarist, the condition of the terrain, the severity of the weather, and whether the route was along a new pathway or one that had been used repeatedly.

The compass direction, recorded at least once a day, was sometimes general ("eastward") but usually specific--"to the north-northeast" (with a projected accuracy of 22.5°). A reader is still required to exercise judgment in projecting the location of each campsite day by day.

Although the diarist did not explain the method used to arrive at the number of leagues his party traveled each day, it can be demonstrated that most daily distances given are reasonably reliable. First, it appears that all diarists employed the Spanish league customarily used in New Spain at the time (approximately 2.6 miles) as the standard measurement of distance. A comparison of the total number of leagues recorded by diarists between two locations with the distance measured along the same line of travel using large-scale contemporary United States and Mexican government maps supports this conclusion. For example, in the movement between Monclova and the Francia crossing area on the Rio Grande in 11689, De León recorded traveling 49 leagues. The next year, the governor estimated 47 leagues; in 11693, Salinas reported 51 leagues; and in 1727, Rivera gave 52 leagues as the distance through the comparatively open country between the same two points. The measured distance on contemporary topographical maps along the same route is about 125 miles or 48 leagues.

For the journey between the Francia crossing area and the ford on the Nueces, several miles north of present-day Crystal City, De León recorded 18 leagues in 1689 and 19 the following year, Salinas reported 19 leagues in 1693, and Aguayo gave 21 leagues in 1721. The measured distance is about 52 miles or 20 leagues. From San Antonio northwest to the Colorado River crossing below Austin, Espinosa recorded 32 leagues in 1709; Aguayo reported 36 in 1721. The measured distance is about 88 miles or 34 leagues. Farther east, in the movement through a forested area between the Brazos and the Trinity, Espinosa recorded 33 leagues in 1716, Alarcón noted 34, and Rivera 35. The straight-line distance is about 83 miles or 32 leagues. This rather consistent pattern of estimating distances, with an accuracy range within 10 to 115 percent of actual distance, indicates that the distances recorded by the diarist should be given substantial weight in the absence of conflicting evidence such as a diarist's pattern of understating or overstating distances (as in the case of Terdn and Solis).

The diary accounts must be read and studied sequentially to find the names first used for the rivers and creeks and to understand the modern streams to which these names apply. The various accounts must then be adjusted for deviations and errors in the names of rivers actually crossed and the directions and distances recorded. Carlos Castañeda characterized his confusion in trying to understand the various names used for rivers in Texas as a "nightmare" and added that Pichardo and Fray Morfí were likewise baffled.

It is virtually impossible to trace accurately the route of a single expedition since no single diary provides sufficient information, and every diary has some "mistake," such as omitting the distance or direction traveled that day or assigning the wrong name to a river or campsite given another name on a previous expedition. But by comparing the seventeen diaries kept on the eleven expeditions, an accurate route can be worked out for each of them. The pattern of the routes emerges clearly as the named rivers and campsites are repeated on successive journeys.

Each expedition built on the experience of preceding ones, often using the same named campsites (parajes) or referring to them by name in passing. Road signs were carved in trees and on stone and were constructed in the form of wooden crosses and piles of rock or cairns. This study concludes that the riverbeds of the larger rivers have not been changed substantially by natural causes in the last 300 years--nor have the inland prairie areas or the tree lines bordering the coastal prairies. Therefore, verification of route projections has also been enhanced by the use of contemporary topographic maps, aerial photographs, and on-site inspection. Most features reported by the diarists--such as a river junction, significant turns in a river's direction, a dense woods, or a treeless prairie--can be found and verified on contemporary maps or by observation today.

Frequently, several senior members or Indian guides included in a new expedition party had accompanied earlier expeditions along the same route. The continuity of personnel on successive expeditions is impressive. In 1689, De León was accompanied by Fray Massanet, Alférez Martínez, and two identified Indian guides. The same four (including the same Pacpul and Quem guides) were with De León again in 1690, as was Salinas. Massanet, Martínez, Salinas, and the same two Indian guides were on the 1691-1692 journey with Terán, for all or part of the way. When Salinas returned to East Texas in 1693 with a relief convoy, therefore, he covered a route that he had twice traveled earlier.

The same continuity of personnel is found in the expeditions in the early eighteenth century. Espinosa, who was one of the leaders and the diarist for the 1709 expedition to the Colorado, accompanied Ramón and kept his own diary account again in 1716. Both Espinosa and Ramón (with their own experienced Tejas guides) joined the Alarcón expedition in San Antonio in 1718 on the march to East Texas, and Espinosa was with the Aguayo expedition in 1721 from the Rio Grande to the Sabine. It is reasonable to suggest that the route reports by these experienced travelers, who repeatedly used the same river crossings and campsites, were quite accurate.

The interpretation of the daily entries in the diary accounts is simplified by two factors. All expeditions between 1689 and 1727 crossed the Rio Grande at the same crossing area, about 35 miles below Eagle Pass, and all expeditions that went beyond the Brazos had as one of their points of destination a small valley (San Pedro) in northeastern Houston County, a few miles west of the Neches River. This firm fix on the points of departure and destination gives the diary reader significant benchmarks to use in projecting the route patterns.

Tracing the line of march across northern Coahuila and Texas was also simplified by the geography of the region traversed. The terrain covered along the routes was rather flat, with no mountains to climb. The vegetation was relatively sparse in the southwest, but rainfall was higher and frequent flooding occurred in the thickly wooded areas of the eastern sector. David J. Weber has called attention to recent studies by climatologists indicating that the Spanish expeditionary period into Texas occurred during a "Little Ice Age," a 300-year-period (ca. 1550 to 1850) when Europe and North America experienced colder and wetter conditions than we have today. Susan L. Swain has described the adverse effects of the Little Ice Age on agricultural production in colonial Mexico. Some unusually frigid and wet weather reports from South Texas and Coahuila in the expedition diaries tend to confirm the harder evidence of the Little Ice Age found by geographers and climatologists in the expansion and contraction of glaciers during the period.

As the expeditions moved northeast from the Rio Grande, the belted nature of the soil, particularly across the central part of Texas, created grassy prairies or corridors that influenced the selection of routes in some of the more heavily wooded regions, such as the Monte Grande northeast of the San Antonio area. The most significant physical features, however, were the large rivers that flowed to the southeast, following the tilt of the land toward the Gulf of Mexico. Had the Texas coast offered several deep natural harbors and access by river to inland destination points (as the French found in Louisiana), some of the Spanish overland expeditions might never have been undertaken or repeated, and the routes of communication during the colonial period would have been dramatically different.

Standard orders not only directed the expedition leader to maintain a diary, but also required expedition parties to use experienced Indian guides at all times. These guides were not asked to blaze new trails, but to lead the expedition party along known Indian trails to the destination. The mandate to use Indian guides was realistic and wise, being based on z00 years of Spanish expansion experience in the New World. But this reliance on Indian guides necessarily meant that no early Spanish expedition routes would be blazed through previously untrod wilderness. Instead, the first Spanish trails followed the best available Indian trade routes. Although this conclusion is not nove1, many Texas historians have discussed route projections without acknowledging the expedition leader's dependence on Indian guides or noting the specific linkage between expedition routes and early Indian trade routes.

Spanish authorities required each expedition not only to use Indian guides at all times but to record the Indian tribes encountered on the trip and to describe the wildlife and vegetation seen along the route each day. This study, which is directed primarily at locating expedition routes, uses the method of cross-document analysis and verification by employing contemporary sources and comparative materials to examine the extensive reports in the diaries on the location and movement of Indian tribes and the presence and range of wildlife and vegetation.

The route maps in each chapter depict the results of the route study. In the following chapters, each expedition party is tracked daily along its route across Texas, as the expedition diarist identifies the Indian tribes encountered and describes the terrain, wildlife, and vegetation, giving occasional reports on the weather and epidemics.

Indian Tribes and the Environment

The ancestors of the tribes covered in this study arrived in the Southwest via Alaska from Asia ca. 10,000 B.C. They had spread through the Americas and outnumbered the Europeans by the early 1500s, when the Spaniards arrived in central Mexico. The Spaniards thus had been in the New World for almost 200 years (and in northeastern Mexico for over a century) when the first expedition crossed the Rio Grande to meet the French threat. Consequently, they knew the Indians of New Spain very well. Two of the foremost Spanish historians who wrote about Indians on the northeastern frontier in the 1600s were Juan Bautista Chapa and Alonso de León (the elder). These two historians joined Fernando Sánchez de Zamora in writing a classic history of Nuevo León which included extensive comments on the Indians. Chapa and De León described in detail their manner of living and named over two hundred and fifty tribes that resided at that time in the area between the Rio Grande and Monterrey. In their respective essays in the Historia, both Chapa and De León identified graphically the most critical physical weakness or vulnerability of the Indians--their lack of any natural defenses to resist the deadly and highly contagious European diseases, such as smallpox.

De León tells the story of a young Spaniard in 1646 recuperating from a bout with smallpox (viruelas) who ignited a one-year epidemic near Monterrey that killed over 500 Indians and Spaniards. The local Indians reportedly fled in fear of the deadly smallpox, thereby spreading the disease to more distant tribes and depopulating Indian villages (despobló rancherías enteras).

Chapa's account of the local Indians' vulnerability to European-induced diseases predicted that all Indians in New Spain would die from the diseases and all tribes would soon be annihilated (va aniquilando). In his discourse on natives in northeastern New Spain, Chapa listed by name 47 tribes that once lived near Monterrey, 44 other tribes that lived near Cadereyta (a city east of Monterrey about 70 miles below the Rio Grande), and 70 other tribes that lived closer to the Rio Grande, near the city of Cerralvo. These 161 tribes had all resisted Spanish occupation and had been defeated or otherwise had become extinct. Chapa then listed by name another 95 tribes that would also soon vanish. The chronicler's reason for the depopulation of the native tribes is perhaps best rendered in his own words:

In the future these tribes [the second list of 95 tribes] will also disappear and it will be necessary to collect others because any Indian who falls sick will die, even if you care for him.... It will come to pass in this realm as it was told by Don Francisco López de Gomara ... that, of a million and a half natives that were on the Island of Hispañola, in less than fifty years they were all gone.... These local tribes are [now] being annihilated and in time all the Indians of New Spain and Peru will disappear, as they have done in other places.

As the Spanish colonial historian David J. Weber notes, some experts today estimate that in 1500 the population of the Americas was within a range of 70 million to over 100 million, more than the population of Europe, estimated at about 70 million. These demographers project that during the sixteenth century the Indian population in central Mexico was reduced substantially (perhaps as much as 90 percent), primarily by European diseases.

Contemporary demographers have estimated that by the time the first Spanish expeditions were launched into Texas to meet the French threat (1680s), the Indian population in some areas involved in this study, such as Nuevo León and Coahuila (including parts of South Texas) and the western Caddo (the Tejas) in East Texas, had already been reduced in population to only a small fraction (one-eighth to one-tenth) of their size in 1520-1540, the time of first European contact. David E. Stannard refers to the population collapse of the American Indian as the worst demographic disaster in the history of the world. The Spanish expeditions into Texas covered by this study were initiated during the later stages of the Indian depopulation in North America. The health of the native population and the impact of European diseases and epidemics on the Indians, as well as on the French and Spaniards, were noted by the expedition diarists. Epidemics affected each trip differently.

As indicated by Chapa and De León, the Indian tribes (termed "nations" by the Spaniards and the French) in northeastern New Spain were numerous and diverse, yet they were interrelated through trade and periodic aggressive engagements. Although the names of approximately 140 Indian tribes are given in the eleven diaries, the total number of tribes in the region covered by the expeditions, and in some instances even their tribal name and language, may never be known. As additional evidence is collected and studied, it appears that the lifestyle of the individual tribes that lived or passed through the 600-mile-wide area varied as greatly as the climate and vegetation.

Some Indian tribes from Coahuila and from below the Big Bend area of the Rio Grande were highly mobile hunters and traders who traveled 500 to 800 miles annually across much of northeastern New Spain and present-day Texas following distinct trade routes. They traded, hunted, and communicated with other Indians from northern Mexico and West Texas to Central and East Texas. Long before the arrival of the Spaniards, Indian trade fairs were held at locations near the southwestern edge of the traditional Tejas hunting grounds in the lower Colorado River area. Agriculture was well developed by the Caddo Indian communities in East Texas, such as the Tejas, and crops were also grown by the Jumano and other Indians along the Rio Grande and the Conchos River in northern Chihuahua. Beans, corn, and squash were staples in both locations before the first visit of a Spaniard.

In Coahuila, and also between the Rio Grande and the San Antonio River, the expeditions encountered numerous small nomadic tribes that had been depopulated and survived principally by hunting and gathering food by 1700. Although some preliminary studies have been made of these Coahuiltecan people, less has been published about the Indians who lived between the middle San Antonio River area and the Trinity. This deficiency may be met in part by the ongoing publication of the Handbook of North American Indians, which is scheduled to include as a subject area the Indian tribes in Central, North, and East Texas. As Thomas N. Campbell has stressed, the tribal situation at the time of Spanish exploration in Texas was also complicated by Indian migrations into and out of the Central Texas area as Spanish and Apache pressure was exerted, principally from the southwest and north.

The instructions given to the expedition leaders and diarists required them to record more information than the basic route and Indian tribes encountered. The formal instructions to Governor Terán in 1691 and to the two military inspectors, Brigadier Pedro de Rivera (1727) and the Marqués de Rubí (1767), demanded information on the types of fauna and flora found in the provinces of northern New Spain. The information in the appendixes on flora and fauna and on Indian tribes encountered is derived primarily from diary entries.

The results of this study will be useful to those interested in a systematic and reliable approach to the reconstruction of expedition travel routes. Since these expedition diaries give detailed firsthand accounts of the Indian tribes, vegetation, wildlife, and the weather along the route traveled, the study and analysis will also interest archeologists, ethnohistorians, anthropologists, biogeographers, climatologists, historical demographers, and other scholars. The historian David J. Weber has recently stressed the importance of extracting and analyzing baseline information on vegetation and wildlife found in Spanish colonial documents, such as expedition diaries, against which changes can be measured.

The precise location of an identified crossing or encampment is frequently critical to scholars who use information recorded at successive points along the route. For example, there can be no successful archeological investigation of an Indian campground or a river crossing used by local Indian guides on the early expeditions until there is some certainty as to where the diarist was on the date of the encampment or when the crossing occurred. The confusion caused by contemporary anthropologists' reliance on inaccurate route projections by historians is seen in William W. Newcomb, Jr.'s 1993 comments on the location of the Mayeye Indians in Central Texas. Newcomb, citing Herbert E. Bolton, says the Mayeye were seen in 1727 (by Pedro Rivera) near the city of Temple in Bell County, whereas Rivera actually reported meeting the tribe 60 miles to the south-southeast in Burleson County. It is therefore encouraging that historians, anthropologists, and archeologists have begun to focus their respective disciplines on common questions.

Alonso de León's 1689 expedition, guided by Géry and two Indians from Coahuila, was the first Spanish entrada to venture from northeastern New Spain beyond the San Antonio River, but it went no farther than the west bank of the Colorado across the river from the present city of La Grange in Fayette County. Still, this expedition again brought the Spaniards into contact with the friendly Tejas Indians of East Texas, who thereafter served as the essential local connection in the Spaniards' coming confrontation with the Apache on the frontier and with the French in Louisiana.

It was the threat of the French, more than any consideration of the Indians themselves, that controlled the pattern and flow of Spanish entradas during the following eighty years. The period of Spanish expeditions from northern New Spain that began in the 1680s ended soon after the French threat disappeared in the 1760s as a result of the transfer of French Louisiana west of the Mississippi to the Spaniards after the British defeat of the French in Canada and the close of the Seven Years' War in Europe. Spanish expeditions that crossed Texas after 1768 (and several before that date) tended to originate and be conducted within the area, rather than being sent into or across Texas from New Spain.

During the period after the 1760s, Indian power rather than the French imperial threat dominated colonial policy in northeastern New Spain. This new Indian power was generated not from within the depopulated ranks of local Texas tribes, but principally from the more nomadic, well-armed horsemen who rode in force off the Plains from the north, driving the Spanish to positions along a defensive corridor that generally followed the Rio Grande and driving the Central and West Texas Apache deep into northeastern New Spain.

As the chapters covering each expedition unfold, our familiarity with and respect for each diarist grows; in effect, the diarist serves as a present-day guide. Generally, the diary accounts were composed daily, while the impressions of that day were still fresh. The diarist not only directs our steps, but reveals the very earliest glimpses of the Province of Texas. Governor Alonso de León, our first diarist and guide, inspires such confidence. He was not only one of the most daring expedition leaders, but also one of the most accurate recorders of distance and direction and of scenes long since past.

By William C. Foster

"An illuminating history of early Spanish expeditions into Texas. . . . Foster does an excellent job sorting out his predecessors' fallacious interpretations of the significance and location of certain routes. . . . This book is a must-read for those interested in the Spanish presence in North America and Texas."
Colonial Latin American Historical Review

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