Spanish Reactions

Part 11: Spanish Reactions

Disponible en español


No one really knows for sure how much the Spaniards were manipulated. I don't think they had to be manipulated very much. They were determined for their own reasons not to allow the Americans to explore into the Southwest. For one thing, they were afraid of letting the Americans come in contact with the Indian tribes of the southern plains. The Comanches, which were extremely numerous, and had fond memories of the days when the Spaniards and the French had competed for their favors, now looked on the Americans as a new competitor with the Spaniards, and were anxious for the Americans to reach into the southern plains.

The Spaniards had no intention, then, of letting the Americans treat with Comanches and groups like that, and so for their own reasons, the Spaniards were determined to make every effort to block these American expeditions. They sent three different expeditions out to try to capture Meriwether Lewis, but the Missouri River was so far away that these Spanish expeditions were never really able to get close to capturing Lewis.

On the other hand, the Red River of the South was easily accessible to those Spanish troops, and so Spain, in the spring of eighteen-six, began to put together a plan for stopping this Southwestern Expedition. It decided—the Spanish government in Madrid, and in Cuba—decided to, first of all, alert the authorities in New Mexico and in Texas of the impending American expedition. A whole series of Spanish officials, the commandant-general of the interior provinces—whose name was Nemicio Salcedo—personally directed the opposition. He instructed the governor of Texas, whose name was Antonio Cordero y Bustamante, to make sure that the Americans did not get to the Wichita and Comanche country. He said, do whatever is necessary, including a declaration of war on the United States if you have to, but do not allow these Americans to make contact with the Indians of the Southern Plains.

And so, Spanish officials basically threw themselves into a frenzy of activity. They put together two different expeditions to block Jefferson's exploration. One was launched out of Nacogdoches, a city that was only about a hundred miles or so from Natchitoches, in Louisiana. The expedition from Nacogdoches was led by a man named Francisco Viana, Captain Francisco Viana. It consisted of about two hundred and twelve Spanish dragoons—including an ancestor of mine, who was a lieutenant in that army; his name was Jose Flores, of Nacogdoches. He was one of the officers, in fact, who ended up meeting with Jefferson's explorers in the summer of 1806.

The other force, that was going to be the insurance force, was launched from Santa Fe under the leadership of Lieutenant Fecundo Melgares. It was a six-hundred-man force, and it was to be the insurance policy, as I said. In case the American expedition somehow managed to slip by Viana—or Viana—Melgares was going to try to confront the Americans farther up the Red River.

As Peter Custis described it in eighteen-six, "This expedition seems to have thrown their whole country into a ferment." And he was right. The Spanish were determined not to allow this expedition to proceed.

Among the array of scientific discoveries that the Jefferson expedition into the southwest hoped to make, were not only masses of metal (that turned out to be meteorites), mountains of partial salt—and that, in a way, reflected reality because the Red River did, in truth, head in an area that is laced with gypsum; it's an extremely salt-laden region and so that was not entirely a chimera. But one of the other things that really intrigues Jefferson about the southwest were reports that wild horses roamed the southwest in large herds. In fact, some of his informants told him that there were herds of thousands of wild horses in the southwest. And this really intrigues Jefferson because he said, If true, this is the first time in the modern age that the horse can be studied in its wild state. So he was very interested in having his explorers have a look at these herds of wild horses. Unfortunately, they never do make it far enough west to see those large herds. But this was another reality; the southwest was full of—some estimates are—as many as two million wild horses in 1800.