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Indian Nations, Europeans, Africans and Americans in Spanish Arkansas

In 1763, France relinquished Louisiana to Spain. It was an enormous territory of indeterminate boundaries, extending from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada along the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, where it fronted British territories. The area was inhabited by various Indian tribes who considered the land theirs. Rivalries also existed among the tribes, as well as opposing interests, and the Indian peoples formed different political alliances and made various trade deals with the Europeans, depending on which part of the territory they occupied, east or west of the Mississippi, and the advantages of the moment.

When Spain took over Louisiana, rather than establish the Spanish colonial system common to other territories of the Crown, it decided to retain the system previously set up by the French: commercial and diplomatic alliances based on an exchange of merchandise and of gifts that symbolized political power (medals and banners). The slavery of Indians was declared illegal. Commerce was vital toward good relations with the Indian peoples, who were far more numerous than the European newcomers. The Louisiana French became subjects of the Spanish Crown, and the military pledged their loyalty to Spain. Soon they were occupying positions of leadership. A small local rebellion flared up early on, but it was quickly quelled, and the population gradually came to accept the new authorities. Undoubtedly, respecting the status quo contributed positively to the transition. The openness and adaptability displayed by these Spanish governors of the Enlightenment contributed to the greater objective of keeping the territory free from British incursions and protecting New Spain. The Spaniards were less successful in impeding the entry of English products into Spanish Louisiana, since these goods were less expensive and more abundant than the Spanish ones. Curbing smuggling was important for financial and strategic reasons. Commercial dealings with the British weakened the Spanish alliances with the Indian peoples, and consequently, Spanish control over the territory. The Indians would often take advantage of this imperial rivalry, displaying diplomatic savviness in their adaptability to change.

In Lower Louisiana, between New Orleans, the capital, and the recently founded city of St. Louis, lay the outpost of Arkansas, a small fort with a military detachment and their families, most of which were French. In the surrounding woods lived hunters and trappers, also with their kin, as well as itinerant merchants. The French had established the outpost of Arkansas near three Quapaw villages named Oghappas, Othonalimon, and Ossothous, seeking their protection. The Quapaw maintained a similar political alliance with the Spaniards. From the results of a 1777 census sent by the local commander Balthazar de Villiers to Governor Bernardo de Gálvez, we know there were 309 inhabitants in the three villages. Other Indian tribes in the area were the Osage in the northeast, the Caddo in the southeast, and the Tunica in the south. On the other side of the Mississippi lived the Chota and the Chickasaw Indians, who had forged close ties with the British.

The Osage, a large tribe with expansionist ambitions, coveted the Quapaw hunting grounds, and violent Osage forays against both Indian and European hunters continued in Arkansas under Spanish rule. However, the Spaniards, who were short on manpower, did not carry out an organized campaign against the tribe. They were also wary of the effect of open hostilities on the lucrative fur trade with St. Louis.

Spanish records, particularly the frequent correspondence between the post commander and the governor of New Orleans, reflect the daily life of this frontier land and the close relations established with the Indian people, especially the Quapaw. For example, Commander Fernando de Leyba would inform Governor Luis Unzaga y Amezaga that “these Indians are in the post practically every day and every night.” The Quapaw would go to the fort to engage in trade, to drink alcohol, and also to be guests of the commander, whose hospitality was essential to maintaining good rapport with the Indians. Spanish historical documents clearly reflect what Spain’s policies were and how they were put into practice, as well as the difficulties of their implementation.

Throughout the Spanish era, the post had some commanders with French surnames and others with Spanish surnames, and the correspondence with the governor was carried out in the commander’s native tongue. Agreements with the Indians were negotiated through an interpreter, often a settler of French descent who held an official title and received a salary for his service.

Life in Arkansas was characterized by hunting, commerce, the strategic and logistical support between New Orleans and St. Louis, and the constant security problems posed by Osage raids. The aggressive commercial activities of the British, in the form of recurrent smuggling, also presented a major challenge. Yet, it was practically impossible to curtail it, given the shortage of men, the extent of the territory, and the interest of the Quapaw in British goods.

The isolation of that frontier post also hindered its growth. In a report to Governor Unzaga y Amezaga, Commander Fernando de Leyba remarked that a trip to Natchitoches, the nearest village, could take as many as ten days if the waters of the river were low.

The area’s climatic cycles of river floods and droughts impacted the life of its inhabitants, whether European or Indian. The Quapaw, mostly the women, grew corn, squash, melons, and beans, while corn, tobacco, and wheat, among other produce, were grown inside the post. Yet, overall, farming methods developed very slowly. Records show that recurring poor harvests meant the seasonal subsistence of the inhabitants was often at risk; they relied on wheat and other food staples that the river brought from various settlements scattered in Spanish Louisiana. Despite the efforts of a succession of commanders to improve agriculture, hunting and trade remained the leading means of livelihood.

Life in Arkansas changed with the North American War of Independence. Years before Spain signed its declaration of war against Great Britain, Spanish Louisiana was already playing an important role in providing aid to the rebels. From New Orleans, Governor Bernardo de Gálvez was sending money, foods, arms, medicines, uniforms, blankets, and other goods up the Mississippi River to the revolutionary troops. He had also ordered that refuge and protection be extended to the rebels in Louisiana’s posts and settlements. Thus, the Arkansas post served to support the traffic of goods and the interchange of communications. It also served as a sanctuary for the revolutionaries and a stopover for travelers on their way to New Orleans to meet with the governor, who would provide them with strategic information and material aid.

When Spain entered the war officially in 1779, Spanish Louisiana was turned into a theater of operations. Setting out from New Orleans, Governor Gálvez seized Manchac, Baton Rouge, Mobile, and Pensacola, in effect dominating all of West Florida. New Orleans was now strategically vital, as it controlled the Gulf. However, other Spanish posts and population centers became possible targets of British attacks, and the traffic on the Mississippi was under threat.

In May, 1780, joint British and Indian forces attacked St. Louis. Fernando de Leyba, former commander of Arkansas, now commander of the city, repelled the assault. Months later, the Spanish troops took the British fort of St. Joseph (on the shores of Lake Michigan), but they held the post only briefly.

Arkansas was also vulnerable to English attacks. James Colbert, who had taken part in the defense of Pensacola, and a number of Loyalists with strong ties to the Chickasaw would lie in wait along the banks of the Mississippi and board the ships navigating the river, taking hostages and threatening the Spaniards. One of the most notable captures was that of Nicanora Ramos, the wife of the vice-governor of Illinois, and their four children.

Aware of the post’s vulnerability and with help from its civilians, the commander of the Spanish fort in Arkansas began construction of a new and larger fort, which he called San Carlos, and then moved all the families into it for their protection. The greatly feared attack did not occur until after the war, when news of the peace agreement failed to reach the frontier outposts in time. On the night of April 17, 1783, Colbert and his band of British Loyalists, joined by a group of Chickasaw, staged a surprise attack. They had persuaded the Quapaw chief Angaska to allow them entry, convincing him that they were Americans who had come to visit the fort. Once inside, they fell upon the inhabitants, taking several families hostage, including second officer Louis de Villars and his wife Maria Luisa Vallés. Commander Jacob Dubreuil led the soldiers and civilians in the post in a counterattack and managed to repel the enemy, but not before three Spanish soldiers were killed. As the attackers were fleeing, chief Angaska arrived with his warriors and offered to rescue the hostages. He was able to negotiate the release of most, but Colbert refused to hand over some of his captives, including several black domestic slaves.

After the attack, life in Arkansas reverted to its prerevolutionary pace: hunting, facing the danger posed by Osage raids in the surrounding woods, and supporting commerce along the Mississippi. The main difference was that the British had been replaced by the Americans on the other side of the river, and it would become far more difficult to restrain the expansionism of the young nation with its increasingly large population.

In order to fortify Spanish Louisiana, successive governors employed immigration policies that were alien to the rest of the Spanish empire; they promoted immigration, not only among Spaniards, but also among foreigners, offering them substantial land grants. These policies would vary from time to time. Governor Esteban Miró allowed the immigration of American families, among other nationalities. Years later, concerned with the increasing number of Americans from lands east of the Mississippi now settling in Spanish territory, Governors Luis Héctor de Carondelet and Manuel Gayoso de Lemos excluded most Americans from immigrating, “except those with exceptional references”. But the American population in Arkansas would grow with or without official approval. The post commanders reported their inability to stop the immigrants from settling in those areas that were distant from the outpost. Quite possibly, during the last years of the Spanish era, the number of Americans in the area exceeded that of any other group of European descent.

The Indian peoples of Arkansas traded with the fast-growing American population, particularly those settling in the northern reaches, much as they had done with their English precursors. The new nation would soon take control of the territory, its land and its inhabitants, and the ability of the native Indian population to guard its interests through diplomacy was evaporating.

News that Spain had ceded Louisiana to France and that France had sold the territory to the United States reached Arkansas far later than it did other parts of the country. On March 17, 1804, Captain Francisco Caso y Luengo yielded command of his post and the surrounding lands to Lieutenant James B. Many of the United States Army. The transfer agreement made no mention of the Indian population. A different era had begun.

In summary, during the Spanish period, Arkansas was a frontier territory with a diverse population composed of French and Spanish inhabitants, as well as those of African, English, German, Dutch, and American descent. Eighty-nine people registered during the 1769 census; by 1798, there were 393. The total population was actually higher, since the census did not count hunting parties or trappers and their families, who lived in the woods and rarely came to town. The number of Native Americans was much greater than recorded.

During the days of the Spanish frontier, the Arkansas post carried out its mission with meager resources. It fulfilled its main objective, to act as a barrier against the British, and it was an important contributor to Spain’s support of the American revolutionaries, whom it welcomed as visitors and to whom it provided material aid. As a result, it became the target of a British and Chickasaw attack that it managed to repel. Arkansas also played an important role in the communications between New Orleans and St. Louis, and it furthered the development of the West. Its population kept growing, through families drawn by the immigration policies and through the influx of others who were a part of the great migratory movement produced by the pulse of the new nation.

Lastly, the Spanish era served to preserve abundant information about the life of the Indian peoples who inhabited Arkansas and its environs. We know of their way of life, the friendly and hostile relations among them, how they learned to guard their interests against the French, the Spanish, the English, and the Americans. Spanish records give us details about the climate, the fauna, the agriculture, the river and its communications, the fur trade whose rich resources lay in the forests, and the importance of the Mississippi for commerce. These documents are of particular value to the Indian peoples, because they allow them to see their own lives and their livelihoods through the eyes of others, as well as the lands they would have to abandon in just a matter of decades. Perhaps this is the most important legacy of the four-decade Spanish presence in Arkansas.

Carmen González López-Briones
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