Texas in the American Revolution

Texas’ inclusion in the American Revolution began on June 21, 1779, when Spain declared war on Great Britain.  Over 10,000 head of Texas cattle were rounded up on the vast rancheros operated by the Spanish missions that spread along the San Antonio River.  Presidio La Bahía at Goliad served as the gathering point from which its soldiers escorted the vaqueros trailing the cattle and several hundred horses up through Nacogdoches in East Texas to Natchitoches and on to Opelousas in Louisiana.  To help finance Spain’s involvement in the war, King Carlos III asked for donations of one peso “from all men, whether free or of other status” and two pesos from Spaniards and nobles.  An accounting dated January 20, 1784, lists a total of 1,659 pesos from presidios all over Texas where the cavalry had two pesos each taken from their pay.  At that time two pesos represented the price of a cow.

King Carlos III commissioned Bernardo de Gálvez, the governor of Louisiana, to raise an army and lead a campaign against the British along the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.  BernardoGálvezGovernor Gálvez had been in contact with Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Henry Lee who sent emissaries requesting that Gálvez secure the port of New Orleans and permit only American, Spanish, and French ships to travel the Mississippi River.  The Mississippi served as the doorway through which vast amounts of arms, ammunition, and military supplies could be moved to the troops fighting in Kentucky, Illinois, and along the northwestern frontier.

The cattle grazing the mission rancheros in Texas offered the best hope for Gálvez to feed his Spanish troops and the governor of Spanish Texas eagerly answered the request. The Texas beef helped feed from 1,400 men to over 7,000 as the campaigns under Gálvez moved from defeat of the British at Manchac and Baton Rouge in Louisiana and on to a victory at Natchez, Mississippi.  After a month-long siege using land and sea forces in 1780, Gálvez captured Fort Charlotte at Mobile.  The final push to secure the Gulf Coast began in 1781 when Spanish troops captured Pensacola, the British capital of West Florida.  The next year, a two-month siege finally overwhelmed Fort George in Pensacola, leaving the British with no bases in the Gulf of Mexico.  Finally, the Spanish force under Gálvez captured the British naval base in the Bahamas.  The war ended before General Gálvez could initiate plans to take Jamaica.  The campaigns under Gálvez kept the British from encircling the American revolutionaries from the south and kept the supply lines open from the western flank.

Gálvez helped draft the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the American Revolutionary War and returned Florida to Spain from British control.  George Washington honored Gálvez by placing him to his right in the July 4 parade and the American Congress recognized Gálvez for his service during the revolution.  Gálvez capped his career in 1785 when the Spanish crown appointed him viceroy of New Spain.

While Gálvez served as governor of Louisiana, he ordered a cartographer to survey the Gulf Coast.  The mapmaker named the largest bay on the Texas coast “Bahía de Galvezton,” later becoming Galveston.  Galveston County and St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana are among several places that bear his name.  The famous Hotel Galvez, built in 1911 on Galveston Island overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, also bears the name of the Spanish hero of the American Revolution.

SPANISH SETTLEMENT IN TEXAS

Recently, I wrote about New Spain official’s sudden interest in Texas after they received word in 1685 that the Frenchman René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle landed a colony on Texas soil.  For the next four years the Spanish Colonial government sent eleven–five by sea and six by land–expeditions in search of the intruders.

When they finally discovered La Salle’s Fort St. Louis south of present Victoria, all the inhabitants were dead and Indians had captured a few of the children.  Fearing the French in Louisiana might move across the Sabine River into East Texas, the Spanish established Mission San Francisco de los Tejas near present Crockett  in 1690 with a plan of Christianizing the Indians and laying a buffer against the French.  The missionaries left under cover of darkness after only three years.

Over the next fifty years the Spanish made two more short-lived attempts to establish six East Texas missions.

Still worried about foreign aggression, the Spanish constructed Mission Señora del Espiritu Santo de Zuniga and la Bahía presidio on the site of La Salle’s abandoned Fort St. Louis, which they later moved to present Goliad—a strategic site intended to halt a possible invasion of the central coast at Copano Bay.

Each time European colonial governments showed interest in the New World, Spain moved into action.  Spain’s war with England, coupled with the English occupying Georgia in 1733, spurred new worries about invasion along the coast from Tampico in Mexico to Matagorda Bay on the Central Texas coast.  The answer seemed to lie in establishing villas and missions along the Rio Grande.  The viceroy of New Spain appointed José de Escandón as military commander and governor of the new province of Nuevo Santander, which spread from modern Tamaulipas, Mexico into Southern Texas.

Charged with establishing settlements and missions between Tampico and the San Antonio River, Escandón sent seven divisions in search of the most favorable locales for future villas.

Escandón’s lieutenants nixed colonizing the area around present Brownsville and Matamoros because the land appeared too low—subject to flooding.  Moving up the Rio Grande, Escandón found eighty-five families waiting at its confluence with the San Juan River.  On March 5, 1749, the colonizer named Camargo (across the Rio Grande from present Rio Grande City) as his first villa.  A nearby mission opened to convert the Indians who occupied jacales

Lehmer–1939–jacales

 circling the home of the missionary priestsNine days later Villa de Reynosa became the second settlement.

Finally, in 1755 Escandón established his last villa where Tomás Sánchez de la Barrera y Gallardo, one of Escandón’s captains, convinced him an old Indian ford on the Rio Grande offered a good locale for a villa.  Sánchez brought three families to make up the original settlement on his 66,000-acre land grant.  Present Laredo grew from that original ranch to become the largest and most successful of Escandón’s permanent Spanish settlements in Southwest Texas.

In 1767 a Spanish royal commission began granting land to individual colonists within the villas along the Rio Grande.  Due to the need for access to the river for transportation and irrigation in this near-desert region, the commissioners surveyed 170 porciones, rectangular strips of land about one mile wide fronting the Rio Grande and sixteen miles long, extending north away from the river for grazing cattle.  Over the years, larger, cattle-grazing grants, which spread north of the porciones and along the Gulf Coast, went to influential residents of Camargo and Reynosa.

Escandón, who is know today as the “Father of the Lower Rio Grande Valley” and his lieutenants founded twenty-four towns and fifteen missions on both sides of the Rio Grande.

ANGEL OF GOLIAD

Many stories survive from the 1836  War for Texas Independence from Mexico, but several almost forgotten tales surround the deeds of a beautiful young Mexican woman whose name is shrouded in the mists of history.  To a person they called her the “Angel of Goliad.”

She steps onto the scene as the woman accompanying Capt. Telesforo Alavez when his ship from Matamoros, Mexico, landed at Copano Bay on the middle Texas coast about the same day as the fall of the Alamo, March 6, 1836.  Variously called Francita, or Panchita, or Francisca, those who met her assumed she traveled as Capt. Alavez’ wife; however camp women regularly followed the Mexican army, and later research disclosed that Capt. Alavez abandoned his wife and children in Mexico the previous year.

When Francita arrived at Copano Bay, she discovered that General José de Urrea’s army held prisoners bound so tightly that the cords cut off the blood circulation in their arms.  Several of those men remember her as the beautiful Mexican lady who convinced the guards to loosen the bonds and give them food.

As he headed to San Antonio and the Battle of the Alamo, General Antonio López de Santa Anna split his forces, directing Urrea’s army to move toward Presidio La Bahía (present Goliad), an ancient fort housing 500 militia, the largest collection of men in the Texas army.

It is unclear which route Capt. Alavez took with his cavalry regiment as he moved from the Texas coast to join Gen. Urrea’s forces.  Some accounts claim a priest and “a Mexican lady named ‘Alvarez’” convinced Gen. Urrea at San Patricio to save the lives of twenty-one captives and ship them back to prison in Matamoros, thereby ignoring Santa Anna’s repeated orders to shoot all prisoners taken in arms.

While Urrea continued his march toward Presidio La Bahía, the commander at the old fort, Colonel James W. Fannin, ignored orders from General Sam Houston to move out of La Bahía and join forces with Houston’s ragtag volunteers as they moved ahead of Santa Anna’s advancing army.

Fannin delayed for five days before he began a slow march out of the presidio, only to be overtaken in mid-afternoon by Urrea’s rapidly advancing force.  The Texans and the Mexicans fought valiantly until darkness fell.  Without sufficient water for cooling their cannon or to ease the suffering of the injured, and without the hoped-for reinforcement by the next morning, the Texans chose surrender.

Despite the decree that Santa Anna pushed through the Mexican Congress the previous December, which directed that all foreigners taken in arms against the government should be treated as pirates and shot, General Urrea agreed to appeal to Santa Anna for clemency for Fannin and his men.

Urrea’s force moved on to capture nearby Victoria while about 240 uninjured or slightly wounded under the direction of Col. José Nicolás de la Portilla, marched back to Presidio La Bahía.  Colonel Fannin who sustained an injury and about fifty more severely wounded were moved back to La Bahía over the next two days.  Again, Francita appears as a comforter of the suffering, intervening to improve care for the prisoners crowded into the presidio’s 85- x 25-foot Chapel of Nuestra Señora de Loreto.  Soon, more prisoners from other battles arrived to increase the population to over 500.

A letter from Santa Anna arrived on March 26 demanding Col. Portilla carry out the orders to execute the prisoners.  Two hours later, Portilla received a letter from Urrea imploring him to treat the prisoners with respect, especially Col. Fannin.

Despite being torn between conflicting orders, Portilla continued with plans to execute the prisoners at dawn the next morning–Palm Sunday, March 27.  The prisoners marched willingly out in three groups–some believed they were going to gather wood, others expected to drive cattle, another group thought they were headed to Copano Bay for shipment to freedom in New Orleans.

Apparently Francita heard of the plans to murder the troops, for she worked during the night with several officers to hide about twenty men.  Dr. Joseph H. Barnard, who was spared from the massacre and sent, with another doctor, to the Alamo to aid the injured Mexicans, wrote: “during the time of the massacre she (Francita) stood in the street, her hair floating, speaking wildly, and abusing the Mexican officers, especially Portilla.  She appeared almost frantic.”

Years later Benjamin Franklin Hughes, who at age fifteen served as an orderly, claimed his group believed they marched toward embarkation and freedom. He saw Urrea’s wife and a young lady he called “Madame Captain Alvarez” watching the groups move out.  As Hughes marched past, the ladies asked to have him taken from the ranks and placed between them.  Within minutes the massacre began and Hughes realized the women saved his life.

A study of Fannin’s command indicates 342 executed, including Fannin and the wounded that were shot in the fort’s quadrangle.  Only 28 escaped the firing squads—diving into the nearby San Antonio River or escaping through the woods along the riverbank.  A group of blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and other artisans that served the Mexican army also escaped the massacre.  About eight avoided execution because Portilla claimed they were not captured while bearing arms.

Although Francita accompanied Captain Alavez to Victoria, she continued to send messages and supplies to the surviving prisoners at La Bahía. The grandson of one of the Victoria families preserved stories of the wives of Mexican officers throwing themselves in front of a firing squad, successfully halting the execution of three or four prisoners.

After Texas won independence from Mexico and captured Santa Anna in the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, the Mexicans began a slow retreat.  Captain Alavez evacuated his Victoria post and returned first to Matamoros where Texans told of “Señora Alavez” ministering to the prisoners.  After she followed Captain Alavez to Mexico City, he abandoned her.  Returning to Matamoros penniless, she found friends among the Texans who remembered her kind treatment.  However, none of the people who told the story of her humanitarian deeds ever bothered to accurately record her name.