A Failed Dominion

by Nicholas Lemann
THE SPANISH FRONTIER IN NORTH AMERICA by David J. Weber. Yale University Press, $35.00.
DAVID WEBER begins this book by remarking on the amazingly low level of public awareness of the colonial history of the part of the country we now call the Sunbelt. A simple quiz will confirm his point: Do you know why Weber chose to begin his history of the Spanish frontier in 1513 and end it in 1821? Any fourthgrader could tell you why a similar history told from the British perspective would cover the period from 1607 to 1776. But whereas most Americans realize that Ponce de León landed on the coast of Florida, they probably couldn’t say when, and they probably believe he came in search of the fountain of youth, when in fact he had received permission from the King “to discover and settle” the island of Bimini. The date of Mexican independence from Spain—when what is now the whole American Southwest became a Mexican possession—isn’t something filed away in most people’s minds either. Nor is that the first European settlement in what is now the United States was a town called San Miguel de Gualdape, established by Lucas Vázquez de Ayllóon on the coast of Georgia in 1526.
Hispanics are today inexorably on their way to becoming the country’s largest minority group; the national balance of political power is shifting from the formerly British part of the country to the formerly Spanish part; and Spanish-founded cities like San Antonio, Los Angeles, and San Francisco are arriving at a position of dominance in metropolitan America. Surely the tale of the discovery, conquest, and settlement of the southern half of the country must be just as dramatic as the northeastern story we all know by heart. Its obscurity must be another example of the cultural dominance of the country by blindered residents of the East Coast.
Weber’s wonderful introduction to The Spanish Frontier in North America 1513-1821 doesn’t go quite that far, but it does artfully create the expectation of a sweeping epic of wilderness-taming which, because its subject is undeservedly arcane, will feel fresher than any other story of similar dimensions about this country possibly could. Spain’s North American holdings extended much farther than England’s or France’s: they stretched from the Florida Keys to Alaska (whose coast an explorer named Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra claimed for the King of Spain in 1775), and included areas not now thought of as formerly Spanish, such as the Deep South (Memphis was founded as San Fernando, Vicksburg as Nogales) and the lower Midwest. Also, their history is longer: the Spanish Colonial period lasted more than three centuries. Because Spain’s territory here was so vast and varied, the Spanish Colonial period contains a greater wealth of material than the English or the French in such relatively new areas of historical inquiry as Native American history and eco-history.
The Spanish Frontier in North America is indispensable as a one-stop source on the subject for the general reader, but, largely because Weber is so thorough and intellectually honest, the grandeur of the introduction does not carry through the whole work. By the end, the customary slighting of Spain’s role in American history may not seem justified, bur it’s certainly understandable: as a colonial power in what is now the United States, Spain was a complete failure. The admirable ambition of Weber’s project means that he has to include a tremendous amount of detail about kings, explorers, missionaries, chiefs, governors, towns, treaties, and wars—history in the old-fashioned sense of a basic chronology of events— which cannot be arranged along a rising are of portentousness, because Spain’s substantial efforts never amounted to anything. In 1821, when Spain withdrew from North America, the biggest Hispanic settlement, Santa Fe, had a population of 6,000; the next biggest, San Antonio and St. Augustine, had just 1,500 each. Only a tiny number of Americans are direct descendants of Spanish settlers in the United States. Usually the history of an undertaking is written only if it went well. At the heart of Weber’s effort, somewhat camouflaged under a glittering surface, is the history of an undertaking that went very badly, for reasons that are instructive.
PURELY AS AN adventure story, the Spanish Colonial period is fascinating—it has the essential elements of violence, heroism, and an overwhelming natural environment which fuel the Hollywood westerns that mythologized a later phase in the history of Spain’s former holdings. Weber’s enormous cast includes such figures as Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who landed on the west coast of Florida with a doomed Spanish expedition in 1528 and turned up in northwestern Mexico in 1536, leading a group of Indians who thought he was a medicine man; Popé, the Ho Chi Minh of the New Mexico Indians, who in 1680 united a group of Pueblos who spoke six different languages into a fighting force that captured Santa Fe from the Spaniards and held it for thirteen years; and the Plains Indian woman, name now unknown, who, centuries before the first transcontinental journey, provided the first human link between the East and the West by virtue of being captured by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado’s expedition in New Mexico, escaping in Texas, fleeing eastward, and being captured again by Hernando de Soto’s expedition in Arkansas.
Part of what gives such figures their legendary quality is that they were prebourgeois. Not only the Indians but also the Spaniards were nothing at all like us. By today’s standards all the actors on the Spanish frontier were barbaric religious fanatics whose beliefs were a blend of the rational and the magical. Weber observes that the Spaniards accepted the Bible literally, and therefore thought that they were operating under divine instructions to “have dominion over . . . every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Non-Catholics were infidels at best and nonhuman at worst. The Spaniards not only fail every contemporary test of racial, sexual, and ecological sensitivity; they also treated their fellow European males brutally. In 1565 the explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés proudly reported to the King of Spain that an encounter with a group of Huguenot settlers in Florida had resulted in the deaths of 130 members of the “evil Lutheran sect.”
North America was a distant, uncharted, relatively unimportant part of a large and complex empire. It was about as central to the workings of the Spanish crown as the NASA program, or the Diego Garcia naval facility in the Indian Ocean, is to the American government. In the eighteenth century Spain offered to give Florida (then a territory that encompassed most of the American Southeast) to England in exchange for Gibraltar, and the vast Louisiana territory to France for Haiti; both offers were turned down. The real-estate value of the United States seemed minor in the Spanish perspective because so many expeditions in search of silver and gold had come home empty-handed or hadn’t come home at all. The only substantial treasure anyone brought back was a cache of freshwater pearls, discovered by De Soto at an Indian village in South Carolina called Cofitachequi. Given though the Spaniards were to enslavement, rape, plunder, beheading, dismemberment, and burning at the stake, their reasons for staying here were strangely uncynical: strategic military advantage, yes, but also a desire to convert the Indians to Catholicism, and what now looks like pure bravado. Though they knew North America to be inhospitable and believed it to be populated by Amazons and men who wrapped their giant-size penises around their waists, Spanish explorers kept undertaking new journeys. They would arrive carrying quantities of linen handkerchiefs and silk stockings, and upon encountering Indians would read them a summary of Spanish theology, which would then be stamped by a notary public.
In Mexico the Spaniards, starting with Cortés himself, immediately began interbreeding with the Indians, and their priests developed a New World Catholicism that was a mestizo religion, part Indian and part European. North of the Rio Grande, Spanish culture remained pure, and uninfluential. The Spaniards’ essential problem as colonialists here was that their minds were so firmly focused on military, religious, and exploratory matters that settlement—in retrospect, the key to holding the continent—seems hardly to have occurred to them. Only a few times in 300 years, for example, did Spain send any women here. Spain swiftly yielded to competitors who were on an equal linguistic, organizational, and technological footing: first the British, then the French, then the Americans. In 1670 English traders established Charleston, South Carolina; within thirty-five years pressure from the British and their Indian allies (Spain had few Indian allies in the region) brought about the collapse of Spanish Florida as a colony, even though Florida had had a 150-year head start on Carolina. When French expeditions began poking around the Gulf Coast, Spain reacted by mounting a spirited defense of Pensacola Bay, in Florida; meanwhile, the French discovered and claimed the mouth of the Mississippi River, which gave them control over, in Weber’s words, “the great river system that led into the heart of the continent.” It’s an emblem of the—irresistible word— quixotic nature of Spanish exploration that Spanish expeditions of awe-inspiring reach and ambition repeatedly passed the greatest commercial prize on the Gulf Coast without noticing it. The Spanish explorers were valiant, but they seemed flummoxed by practical tasks: Spain mounted eleven unsuccessful expeditions to intercept La Salle, and four to stop Lewis and Clark.
A survey of Spain’s holdings in North America in 1800—near the end, but well after the importance of the territory had become apparent—would have looked something like this: Florida consisted, as Weber puts it, of “little more than its military garrisons and the population that served them,” with a total Hispanic population in the low thousands. Nearly all the Spanish missionaries and settlers had decamped, and the most famous Spanish settlement, St. Augustine, founded in 1565, had been essentially abandoned. Louisiana was thriving, but was, Weber says, “Spanish more in name than in fact.”When the first Spanish governor had to flee New Orleans in 1768, he left in a French vessel, “since the only available Spanish ship was not seaworthy.”Spain protested the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, arguing that the territory wasn’t France’s to sell, but the new United States was able simply to ignore the Spaniards without ill effect. Texas, according to Weber, “lay in ruins”: Los Adaes, the traditional Spanish military capital of Texas, was no longer functioning; the Hispanic population of the state was only 2,510 in 1790, and most of these people lived on military posts, for not until 1749 had Spain founded a civilian settlement, the forebear of the town of Laredo. New Mexico “also failed to fulfill its original promise,” and was home to a few thousand Hispanics in a period when Mexico City, urbanized even under the Aztecs, had a population of 110,000. California consisted mainly of a string of small military posts whose purpose was to protect Spain’s holdings against Russian encroachment; the few fledgling towns, like San Jose and Los Angeles, “existed almost entirely to serve nearby military bases.” When Mexico became independent, in 1821, it got the entire Southwest “without firing a shot.”
SPAIN MADE its greatest mistakes as a colonial power in the economic realm. It never understood that, as Weber puts it, “sovereignty depended on occupancy, and occupancy depended on economic development.” The idea that a market economy—not church, crown, or sword—could he the main factor in a society’s viability was foreign to the Spaniards. (Mexico, with its silver and gold mines and its vast feudal encomiendas and haciendas, must not have seemed to provide a model of colonial economic success that could be replicated here.) More particularly, colonial Spain provides a perfect example of the economic truth contained in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations: mercantilism doesn’t work. One reason Spain was so quickly outpaced by England and France is that those countries’ Indian policy was based on trade (especially what we would now call the arms trade), and Spain’s was based on the vain hope of mass conversion to Catholicism. Even among whites in North America, Spain consistently forbade manufacturing and severely limited trade, in Texas, Spain closed the entire coast to commercial shipping; civilian settlers in San Antonio, whose number understandably remained small, were not allowed to sell goods in outlying areas or to soldiers. In New Orleans the Spaniards began their brief reign in the late 1700s by attempting to ban American riverboats on the Mississippi and all foreign trade through the port. In California the Franciscan friars, Weber says, “worked assiduously to stifle the growth of civil towns and of private ranches.”Again and again, areas where Western society was, under the Spanish, the most tenuous of presences suddenly began to show rapid white population growth when some other group of Europeans occupied them. Weber’s work doesn’t contradict the theory that Paul Kennedy laid out about the Spanish empire in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers—that it fell victim to “imperial overstretch”—but it creates the impression that Spain’s failure to grasp the importance of capitalism was even more damaging than the expense of its excessive military commitments.
A country’s influence on its former colonies is usually direct: the descendants of people it sent continue to run the place, and institutions it founded remain essential. Spain’s influence on the United States has to be understood differently, since by the standard measure there has been almost no lasting influence at all, once you get past the many familiar place-names. In middleclass American culture the Spanish legacy is a fantasy that resulted from a vogue of the late nineteenth century for the romantic days of friars and conquistadores. The famous Spanish missions of California, Weber says, were “falling into ruins” until a promoter named Charles Fletcher Lummis organized their restoration in a way that was historically inaccurate but “appealed . . . to the tastes of local businessmen.”
The Spaniards had a much more profound effect on this country beyond the realm of human society. What we think of as the natural state of the American West was actually a Spanish creation: before the Spaniards arrived, there were no horses, no cows, and no gun-toting marauding Indians. Much of what is now scrubby country of mesquite and dry gulches was a beautiful sea of tall grass that was grazed away. Spaniards also introduced many deadly germs. European diseases felled Indians in pandemic proportions, and Weber calls them “Spain’s most important weapon in the conquest of America.” Such now familiar U.S. flora and fauna as tomatoes, chilies, Kentucky bluegrass, sheep, goats, and Arkansas razorbacks were brought in by the Spanish.
The historiography of Weber’s subject has been dominated by Herbert Eugene Bolton (1870-1953), a Berkeley professor with hundreds of professional protégés who spun a romantic story of “Spain’s frontiering genius.” Today the new historians of the West tend to emphasize the racism, sexism, and environmental sins of the Europeans in the region. Perhaps because this work is intended to be a textbook, Weber avoids baldly stating his own thesis and instead wanly praises everyone else’s (“There are many viewpoints, some of them contradictory and all of them valid. . . .”). But it’s difficult to read The Spanish Frontier in North America as anything but an overpowering indictment of Spain’s incompetence as a colonial power here. What proves the point, ironically, is that this admirable book is of almost no use in enriching our understanding of present-day Hispanic America, which is made up of recent immigrants from former Spanish colonies where the mother country’s culture took in a way that it didn’t in the United States.