Before 1690, the Spanish paid relatively little attention to Texas and made few efforts to settle the region. The first was the 1527 expedition of 600 colonists and soldiers led by Panfilo de Narváez to conquer and settle the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Accompanying Narváez was Cabeza de Vaca, one of only a handful of men on the expedition to survive shipwrecks, slavery, and other disasters. In 1528, Cabeza de Vaca was washed ashore in Texas, probably on the western end of Galveston Island, and began a seven-year journey to return to Mexico. His report, published in 1542, was the basis of continued Spanish interest in the area. It first told of mythical cities of gold and of buffalo-which he described as cattle-like creatures that roamed the prairie providing an endless source of hides. Dozens of later explorers followed seeking gold, land, and slaves-but with little thought for establishing permanent settlements.
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Cabeza de Vaca's report of cities of gold spurred Spanish exploration in Texas
Full Title: Relation that Alvar Nuñez Cabeça de Vaca gave of what befel the armament in the indias whither Pánphilo de Narváez went for governor (from the years 1527 to 1537) when three comrades he returned and came to
Fear of French intrusion, exemplified by the establishment of Fort St. Louis by the explorer La Salle, spurred the Spanish to found a series of Franciscan missions to secure dominance over the region. La Salle, whose full name was René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, wanted to establish a French presence at the mouth of the Mississippi River, but missed his target and in 1685 founded the fort at Matagorda Bay. By the time the Spanish arrived at Fort St. Louis in 1689 it was in ruins and La Salle was dead. Even so, the decision was made to establish the missions.
Over a period of 40 years beginning in 1690, the Spanish set up a dozen missions in East Texas and San Antonio. The Mission San Antonio de Valero, known today as the Alamo, was founded in 1718 as part of this effort. (In El Paso, then part of New Mexico and the focal point of Spanish presence on the northern frontier, the Spanish had established missions earlier, following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.) Conditions were harsh, however, and it was difficult to sustain the Spanish presence, particularly in East Texas. The missions, which were associated with military presidios, were frequently abandoned and then re-established when French threats seemed imminent. After Spain acquired the Louisiana Territory from France in 1762, the missions and military establishments in East Texas were no longer useful in border defense and were closed.
The Spanish attitude toward Texas focused on holding the territory and extracting its resources. Despite the sporadic attempts to settle loyal Spanish subjects, the land was vast and the settlers few in number. In 1810, when Aaron Arrowsmith's A Map of Mexico and Adjacent Provinces was published, it is estimated that Texas had fewer than 5,000 Hispanic (non-Native American) residents, approximately 3,000 of whom lived in San Antonio.
During the early part of the eighteenth century, the military was a major force in Texas's economy, but most of the residents were farmers and ranchers. Farming was largely at subsistence level, but in areas with irrigation (typically in the San Antonio missions) some products were exported. The Franciscans also established significant ranching operations, tending cattle, sheep, and goats. Ranching and mining were important contributors to the Texas economy. The province was not the wealthy resource described by Cabeza de Vaca, but it was well worth keeping.
Spanish law governed Texas during this period and was the basic law used in Texas until 1840 when English common law was adopted. Three areas of Spanish law, found in volumes like the De Las Leyes de Recopilación, were retained in Texas law. They included procedural rules affecting trials, laws affecting land titles and certain water rights, and rules affecting familial relationships. Perhaps the most significant area of Spanish influence in current law is family law. Adoption, unknown in English common law but part of Spanish law, was enacted by statute in Texas in 1850. The principles of community property-where both the husband and wife enjoy ownership of what has been accumulated during their marriage-also derives from Spanish tradition.
Nonetheless, it was difficult to govern such a vast, untamed land. The closing or moving of missions created friction between the displaced settlers and the government. Spanish King Charles III also made sweeping administrative reforms during the 1770s, creating a large semi-autonomous administrative unit called the Provincias Internas that was responsible for governing the interior provinces of New Spain-including Texas. Despite intentions to bring government closer to the people living on the frontier, the plan went through sporadic revisions and never worked well.
The economy was depressed, and in 1795, when ranchers were granted a one-year period to gather wild cattle tax-free, they shipped many head out of Texas, severely depleting the herds. Spanish efforts to encourage new settlers were also unsuccessful, and resulted in a series of revolts led by criollos, persons born in the New World to Spanish-born parents and entitled to fewer privileges than were Mexican settlers born in Spain.
The last person to govern Texas under the Provincias Internas was Commandant General Joaquín de Arredondo. Appointed in 1813 as a reward for repressing provincial revolts, he ruled with a heavy hand. Arredondo's bloody retributions against those who rebelled left Texas's population in serious decline. Through the end of the decade, Spanish soldiers did not so much protect the province as strip it. Antonio María Martínez, the last governor of Spanish Texas, said that the soldiers "drained the resources of the country, and laid their hands on everything that could sustain human life."
In 1820, Spanish King Ferdinand VII began military plans to re-take lost South American colonies. This action led the army in Spain to rebel, and others dissatisfied with Ferdinand's autocratic rule soon joined the soldiers. Augustín de Iturbide, who had sided with the Spanish government in previous rebellions but who disapproved of the turn in its philosophy, negotiated a plan for Mexican independence with rebel leaders. Called the Plan de Iguala, it guaranteed the status of the Catholic Church, established the country of Mexico as a constitutional monarchy, and provided equality for Spaniards and criollos. Texas, which had already endured much strife, looked at the plan cautiously, but both the military and civilians in Mexico voiced their approval.
In January 1821, shortly before Commandant General Arredondo accepted the Plan de Iguala, he approved entrepreneur Moses Austin's petition to bring Anglo settlers into Texas. Less than six months later he agreed to the Plan de Iguala and surrendered his command. When Spanish rule ended, there were fewer than 2,500 Hispanics living in Texas. Changes were in store, however, as the Mexican government sought to cope with the devastated economy, unproductive farms and ranches, and declining population.