Eighteenth-Century Military Policy In Northern New Spain: A Review Essay

by Mark Santiago
Originally published in The Journal of Arizona History volume 37, Autumn 1996, p. 283- 290.

DURING THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, the Bourbon kings of Spain sought to infuse new vigor into the lumbering apparatus of their far-flung empire. Coming to power in 1700, they found the machinery of Spanish government decrepit and backwards, the result of the enervating policies of the last Hapsburg kings. In the face of entrenched traditionalism, the first Bourbon monarch, Philip V (1700-46), and his son Charles III (1759-88) repeatedly attempted to apply methods of governance based on French models inspired by Enlightenment ideals. Because of the crown's efforts, Spain would again, although ephemerally, emerge as a world power of the first rank.

In the face of continuous British hostility, military reforms were especially important to the Spanish crown. But with worldwide commitments, it was hard pressed not to spread Spanish forces too thinly. Perhaps nowhere else was this dilemma more evident than in North America, where Spain concentrated its military force on the exposed islands and coastlines of the vital Caribbean basin. As a result, fewer than 1,000 men defended the Provincias Internas of New Spain, a 2,000-mile arc of territory from California to Louisiana.

Spanish attempts to evaluate, invigorate, and reinforce the military establishment along this exposed northern frontier have been the theme of numerous historical works and are a primary topic of Spanish borderlands studies. The publication of two works containing hitherto unpublished details on the Interior Provinces provides a valuable opportunity to enrich this tradition.

Reports of Brigadier Pedro de Rivera and the Marqués de Rubí concerning their respective inspections of the province of Texas are contained in the first of these two works, Imaginary Kingdom. The second, The Defenses of Northern New Spain, describes Brigadier Hugo O'Conor's 1777 assessment of the frontier situation on the eve of the establishment of the independent military government for the Provincias Internas.

Imaginary Kingdom compares and contrasts two Spanish inspections of the northeastern frontier provinces of Nueva Leon, Coahuila, and Texas. The first, conducted in 1727 by Brigadier Pedro de Rivera Villalón and engineer Francisco Alvarez Barriero, occurred at a time when Philip V's government was reforming fiscal abuses rampant on the northern frontier and was consolidating those areas Spain actually controlled, rather than merely claimed. Rivera's suggestions resulted in the promulgation of the 1729 Military Regulations for Northern New Spain, which dealt with the frontier in a unified and coherent manner.

This is the first English translation of Rivera's diary, an account of the eastern leg of his three-year, 8,000-mile inspection tour. It is accompanied by Barriero's supplementary descriptions of Coahuila, Nueva Leon, and Texas. The editors' concluding assessment evaluates Rivera's work. They find that Rivera realized Spanish missionaries had failed to convert the aboriginal inhabitants of east Texas, but with France now allied with Spain the possibility of foreign invasion was minimal. Those two factors led Rivera to advocate the abandonment of much of the area and, despite the clamoring of the missionaries and other vested interests, his decisions are seen as both practical and necessary.

The second half of Imaginary Kingdom, reviews the situation forty years later. Now Apaches, rather than France, pose the greatest danger to Spain's hold on the northeastern frontier. Between 1766 and 1768, the Marqués de Rubí was sent to inspect the northern frontier, much as Rivera had done. Rubí's recommendations led to the establishment of an independent military commandery of the Interior Provinces and the formation of a presidial cordon designed to contain the Apache menace.

Rubí's diary of his eastern journey has never before been published. It is supplemented by the first English publication of sections of his Dictamen recommending the formation of a line of presidios. A brief 1767 description of Coahuila by Joseph Castillo y Teran, originally appended to Rubí's report, is also included.

In summing up Rubí editors Jack Jackson and William C. Foster address historians' criticisms of his achievements. They strive for balance, arguing that Rubí's recommendations, while far from perfect, concentrated Spanish military forces where they could best be utilized, rather than squandering resources on claimed but unoccupied areas.

Imaginary Kingdom is logically arranged and thoughtfully presented. The annotations supply historical, geographical, botanical, and anthropological details that greatly enhance the text. The book also contains clear and handsome color reproductions of two eighteenth-century maps end Joseph de Urrutia's 1766 plans for eight of the eastern presidios. The work's only shortcoming is an exclusive focus on Texas, rather than a wider regional context. Yet, while this might limit its audience, Imaginary Kingdom provides a valuable contribution to the study of the borderland frontier.

The Defenses of Northern New Spain: Hugo O'Conor's Report to Teodoro de Croix, July 22, 1777, presents a broader view of Spanish military policy in the Interior Provinces. The findings of the Marqués de Rubí had clearly demonstrated that continuous warfare with the Apaches posed the most serious threat to Spain's hold on the northern frontier. Therefore, Rubí recommended, and King Charles III approved, a massive military reorganization for the region. First, a defensive cordon of presidios was formed, stretching from the Gulf of California to the Gulf of Mexico. Simultaneously, the presidial garrisons were to be uniformly reorganized and equipped according to policies laid out in the Regulations of 1772. Operating from their new bases and, Rubí hoped, with renewed vigor, the presidial troopers were to take the battle to the Apaches.

Lt. Col. don Hugo O'Conor, an Irish expatriate, was the man chosen to oversee these new policies. Appointed the first commandant inspector of the Interior Provinces in 1771. O'Conor labored diligently for six years to implement military reforms and establish presidial realignments. At the same time, he undertook a series of massive campaigns against the Apaches that ushered in more than a decade of unrelenting Spanish offensives.

But escalation of hostilities created a greater need for military centralization. In 1776, King Charles III separated the Interior Provinces from viceregal control and placed them under an independent military commander. That same year, Teodoro de Croix was named the first commandant general of the Interior Provinces. In the meantime, O'Conor had been promoted to brigadier and appointed governor of Yucatan. Before assuming his new assignment and at the request of Croix, the Irishman wrote a lengthy report outlining his accomplishments and offering his views on the frontier situation.

In The Defenses of Northern New Spain, Southern Methodist University's DeGolyer Library offers the first English translation of O'Conor's report to Croix. The source is an original manuscript acquired by the library in 1973. This is not the first time the report has appeared in print. In 1952 it was published as Informe de Hugo O'Conor sobre el estado de las Provincias Internas del Norte, 1771-1776, edited by Mexican scholar Jorge Ignacio Rubio Mane. Rubio Mane's edition was drawn from an incomplete copy of the manuscript, however, and lacked crucial data. Seeking to remedy this and to present the work to a wider audience, the DeGolyer Library commissioned Donald C. Cutter to edit and translate their complete copy of O'Conor's report.

The document is O'Conor's attempt to vindicate himself in the face of mounting criticism. Because Viceroy Antonio Maria de Bucareli resisted an independent government for the Interior Provinces, a feud soon developed between the viceroy and Commandant General Teodoro de Croix. Appointed by Bucareli, O'Conor naturally supported his patron, while Croix, in an attempt to magnify his new responsibilities, belittled the accomplishments of the Irishman. Cutter points out "the tone of O'Conor's lengthy letter was that of a person who felt the man he was addressing was almost totally uninformed and perhaps in large measure incompetent to serve as a replacement" (p. 23).

Still, despite having to address a skeptical successor, O'Conor's report reflects a genuine determination to see the vindication of Spanish arms against the Apaches. He begins with a recapitulation of the desperate straits the Interior Provinces were in when he assumed command in 1771, especially noting the sad plight of Nueva Vizcaya (modern-day Chihuahua), which O'Conor saw as the linchpin of the entire frontier.

O'Conor then describes his success reforming the presidial garrisons and establishing the presidial line. He writes that by 1775 work on the presidial cordon had progressed to such an extent that he was able to organize and launch two general campaigns against the Apaches along the entire northern frontier. Although moderately successful, the campaigns failed to stem Apache counterattacks.

The Irishman was convinced, however, that continued offensive campaigns into Apache homelands would achieve ultimate Spanish victory. To that end, he advises Teodoro de Croix to order presidial garrisons to make constant offensive sorties. Showing a grasp of terrain and logistics, O'Conor lays out in minute detail the routes that Spanish columns should follow, the number of days each detachment should operate, and the methods each should employ in pursuing the Apaches.

O'Conor also offers an appraisal of the fighting qualities of those Indian peoples allied with the Spaniards. He advocates using them in greater numbers and to more effect, an innovation many modern historians have credited to Croix. The Irishman also lists the various Apache groups along with descriptions of their arms and tactics. He concludes his report by calling for further campaigns as the most effective means of defeating the Apaches, thereby bringing to "those settlements and towns peace, which is of interest to the treasury and the public" (p. 94).

The Defenses of Northern New Spain is a unique and valuable book. Cutter provides a twenty-page, annotated biography of O'Conor, followed by the Irishman's sixty-page report, and three large, fold-out tables showing the status of all the frontier presidios. A page-by-page photographic reproduction of the original Spanish manuscript in the DeGolyer Library allows easy comparison with the English translation.

There are very few flaws in the work. Cutter's unfamiliarity with horse gear and weaponry leads to some mistranslation, such as referring to the mochilla saddle covering as a "knapsack," leather armas (the precursor to cowboy chaps) as "arms," and calling a fusil -a light musket-a "rifle." More significant is the lack of a detailed map showing the numerous theaters of operations repeatedly referred to in the text. But these deficiencies are minor and do not detract from the impact of the work as a whole.

The Defenses of Northern New Spain and Imaginary Kingdom allow the reader to look at the development and implementation of Spanish military policy along the northern frontier during the eighteenth century. Historians are seldom offered the opportunity to study crucial material in such an orderly fashion. That they can do so with two such handsomely produced and well-written works is a rare pleasure.

Permission to present this electronic version of Eighteenth-Century Military Policy In Northern New Spain was granted by the author and the Arizona Historical Society