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Texas History: Time-traveling back to the first capital of Spanish Texas

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
“Los Adaes: The First Capital of Spanish Texas” (Texas A&M University Press)
  • Los Adaes, first capital of the province of Tejas, was situated in a fluid territory shared by Spanish, French and Native Americans in what is now Louisiana.
  • Because they were located so far from other Spanish settlements in Mexico, Los Adaes and the East Texas missions related more directly to their Native American and French neighbors.
  • Meant to be a bastion against the Frenchs, Los Adaes made a poor Texas capital, which was moved to San Antonio in 1770.

Established Texas history moves backward and forward from the middle of the 19th century. By this, I mean that storytellers and historians, many of them white, for years concentrated on a period of time between the organized arrival of Anglo-Americans in the 1820s and the close of the Texas-Indian wars in the 1870s.

Francis X. Galán’s new book is part of a wave of Texas histories that finally focus on earlier and later eras. “Los Adaes: The First Capital of Spanish Texas” (Texas A&M University Press) is in fact among the first books about the presidio and mission planted in what is now northwestern Louisiana near the town of Natchitoches. It served as the capital of the province of Tejas in New Spain for more than 40 years in the 18th century. 

While aimed at an audience already familiar with its historical context, the book is so packed with eye-opening details, any Texas history buff would find it intriguing. I interviewed Galán in November. 

Think, Texas: You make a convincing case that the mission and fort at Los Adaes, although capital of Tejas from 1729 to 1770, was part of a fluid, porous borderland claimed by the French, Spanish and Native American people near the Red River in what is now Louisiana. What were the most important factors in this fluidity? 

Francis X. Galán: The most important were trade, kinship and worship. The Spanish at Los Adaes lacked basic food and other supplies, which they obtained from the nearby French fort at Natchitoches, located in northwestern Louisiana. Franciscan missionaries from the Spanish mission at Los Adaes, in turn, celebrated Mass and administered the sacraments at French Natchitoches, which often lacked regular Jesuit priests. In this manner, residents from both Los Adaes and Natchitoches established blood and fictive kinship ties that pulled the Spanish in East Texas increasingly into French and Caddo networks of military, economic and cultural relations.

History buffs know about the Caddos and the Tejas peoples, but some of the other American Indian groups that you discuss, such as the Adai, are not as familiar to me. Which were the main groups in this region, and where did they operate? 

The main groups in this region coalesced around three Caddo confederacies: 1. the Natchitoches of northwestern Louisiana among whom the French trader St. Denis established a post of the same name; 2. the Hasinai, located in East Texas, composed of many subgroups of Caddos, especially the Tejas, whom the Spanish considered their allies; and 3. the Kadohadacho, located to the north. The Adaes — or Adai — located near present Zwolle, La., were a smaller semi-autonomous Caddo-related nation composed of around 400 people, while their cousins, the Ais, were a similar nation located near present San Augustine west of the Sabine River. 

Another important group the Spanish considered allies were the Bidais, located along the lower Trinity River, who held close ties to the Orcoquisac and Atakapa nations of the Texas-Louisiana coastal region.

Why were the missionaries less successful in converting the American Indians of this region than in some other parts of northern New Spain? 

Francis X. Galán’s new book, “Los Adaes: The First Capital of Spanish Texas," is part of a wave of Texas histories that finally focus on earlier and later eras.

The viceroy of New Spain — colonial Mexico — in Mexico City prohibited the use of military force to gather the Caddos into Spanish missions out of the fear they might provoke a Caddo rebellion with French allies and thus kick out the Spanish from East Texas after two previous attempts at conquest failed. Also, the Adaes Indians were particularly known for their shamans or religious leaders and more interested in trade than conversion to Christianity.   

At times the French and the Spanish back in Europe, or at least their royal families, were more allies than rivals. How did that affect the interactions in the Los Adaes area?

While the Bourbon monarchs of Spain and France formally entered into the first so-called Family Compact in 1733, which helped avoid further imperial warfare between their respective overseas colonies, locals in the Texas-Louisiana borderlands did not wait for approval from distant governments whenever the need for cooperation arose. 

For example, a couple years earlier, around 18 Spanish troops from Los Adaes helped French Natchitoches defend itself against the Natchez Revolt that spread westward from the Mississippi River and one Spanish soldier was killed in action. The same interdependency applied more often when it came to natural disasters, famine and poverty that drove the Adaeseños — soldier/settlers from Los Adaes — to seek out French and Indian trade in the region.

Why were the Spanish so fierce about opposing imports into Texas and thus always concerned with smuggling? 

This had everything to do with Spain’s mercantile economic system and government-held monopolies in virtually everything produced in its overseas colonies from silver to tobacco. The government was concerned that comercio libre — free trade — for its subjects would only invite greater competition from its European competitors, the loss of Indian allies, and ultimately the silver trade in New Spain. 

Why then did Spain abandon Los Adaes? 

The Bourbon Reforms attempted to reinvigorate the Spanish economy and professionalize the military. Los Adaes had too many internal problems and could not prevent smuggling. Also, France had transferred Louisiana to Spain on the eve of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. That formally concluded the Seven Years’ War, aka French and Indian in North America, so the easternmost border of New Spain technically moved further east to the Mississippi River. Los Adaes, with its population of nearly 500 residents, and the East Texas missions became a drain on the royal treasury and considered useless.

What happened to the Adaseños after their departure? 

The Adaeseños were ordered out of their homes in June 1773 and forced to march to San Antonio, which became the new capital of Spanish Texas. Many of them passed away on this harsh journey along the Camino Real, mostly the elderly, women and children. More than half of the families returned to East Texas, while some Adaeseños who remained in San Antonio eventually received land from the secularized Mission San Antonio de Valero, better known today as the Alamo.   

I think we in the U.S. poorly understand the role of slavery in New Spain, including enslaved Native Americans and the forced labor of Spain’s own soldiers. Help us fill in the blanks. 

The enslavement of Africans throughout New Spain has been documented. However, we also discuss how Indian captives predominated in northern New Spain, where many became enslaved despite the prohibition against Indian slavery through the “just war” doctrine, and sent south to work in the silver mines and haciendas — semi-feudal estates — of central New Spain particularly as the African slave trade declined by the late 17th century. 

At Los Adaes, there were some Black slaves and Apache captives, but the Spanish governor who doubled as commandant of the fort relied mostly upon the labor of soldiers, many of whom were poor, illiterate and considered inferior in the casta — or caste — system of racial/social hierarchy in New Spain. Many of the Adaeseños fell into de facto debt peonage as far as not being paid wages and dependent upon the governor for distribution of food and supplies.

From the volume of books on the subject coming my way, I sense we are living in a sort of new golden age for pre-1820s Texas history. Do you agree, and why? 

Yes, perhaps a golden age of pre-1820s Texas history over the past several decades, especially from a borderlands perspective. My book places Los Adaes into this literature of early Texas history and broader regional/hemispheric perspectives in order to understand the complexity of borders then and now.

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