Bárbara de Arias was born in the island of Tenerife in 1767. In May, 1780, at the age of thirteen, she arrived in the city-port of New Orleans with her father, Sebastian de Arias, an infantry soldier. They had been traveling on the brigantine Nuestra Señora de los Dolores as members of an expedition that had embarked from Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Sebastian had learned of an opportunity to prosper by serving in the Fijo de La Luisiana Regiment. In exchange for everything that he and others like him were leaving behind, each of these men would receive a deed to some land. It was an arrangement designed to address two concurrent needs: the reinforcement of military garrisons in the wide expanses of North America and the supply of skilled labor, in both farming and manufacturing, for the mostly uninhabited region, thus generating a local self-sufficient economy.
As a young girl of modest means, Bárbara would learn every task pertinent to running a home, from needlework to shellfishing, as well as all kinds of farming chores. In addition, since she was motherless, she took on the role of homemaker, managing the family household.
Bárbara and her father eventually settled in Terre aux Boeufs, an area circumscribed today by St. Bernard Parish, in Louisiana. There she would put the skills she’d acquired in her young life to good use. The land was harsh and demanded rigorous efforts, but the Mississippi River also could be generous, and they found a means of livelihood and trade opportunities in shellfishing.
Everything in their surroundings—the landscape, their neighbors—was totally new. The cultural diversity they first encountered ceased to be anecdotal and became a quotidian reality. Sebastian’s army buddies married women of different ethnicities, and Bárbara’s friends and neighbors came from every region of Spain. Many others were French, Irish, German, Acadian, Anglo-Saxon, indigenous, or even of African descent, owing to a measure allowing slaves to “self-purchase” their own freedom.
One of these cases involved Mathieu Devaux, one of Sebastian’s military comrades. Mathieu had married Agnes, a freed slave who, by virtue of her marriage, would now enjoy the same rights as Bárbara. However, Agnes’s “self-purchase” required Governor Gálvez’s intervention, in order to overcome the obstinate opposition of her proprietress to her freedom.
Bárbara, like all the women in these military families, assumed three roles: first, she worked side by side with the men for the fruit of their labor, whether it was farming, hunting, or fishing. Secondly, she brought the surplus produce to market, taking also some of the delicate embroideries she had learned to make from childhood. They earned her a bit of extra cash. Lastly, as did every military wife or daughter, she served the armies of the king. On June 16, 1779, when Gálvez ordered his men to march against the English strongholds, hold their positions, and reclaim the territories lost in the previous war, the women marched along with the troops. They prepared meals, did the washing, cared for the wounded, and distributed gunpowder; they were the quiet soldiers who kept the military machine finely tuned and running.
Bárbara’s history is the silent history of countless anonymous Spanish women who raised a new world with their own hands. Where there were only forests and swamps, they would see the birth of a nation, and they transformed their children into its citizens.
_(*) Real character. Biography elaborated with the available data_