Spanish Colonialism in Texas
Part of studying Texas history, is studying the impact that different cultures had on the growth of the state. One of the most influential agents in the development of the Anglo-Texas society were the Spanish, particularly their colonialist ambitions. Spanish colonialism in eighteenth century Texas originated from the desire to expand and protect imperial frontier borders. This developed into a practice of assimilation, which created a multi-ethnic community that supplied Spanish need for trade and population.
In the three articles supporting this essay, each author has their own approach to the development of Spanish colonialism in the seventeenth century. Bolton uses missions as a lense to view Spanish policies for the frontier and the assimilation and control of indigenous populations in the empire. Weber uses the changing policies for indigenous populations to track the evolving ambitions of Spanish imperialism. De la Teja takes a different approach and uses the formation of San Antonio and the myths around it to analyze how Spanish intentions differed from the reality of frontier life.
In his article, Bolton subscribes to the traditional narrative of Spanish imperialism; the dissemination of their civilization through encomiendas and missionaries. More recent historians like Weber and de la Teja have argued that Spanish policies for the northern frontier were more economically motivated. One unifying theme of these arguments is that the Spanish desired to expand their territory and defend against outside hostilities from other Europeans and hostile Natives. This was accomplished by absorbing local sedentary populations into Spanish settlements, forging commercial relationships with the nomadic populations, and creating a source of consumerism that would bolster Spain against other European colonialism.
These communities were modelled after traditional Spanish values, but adapted to the local communities needs. Because one of the main purposes of the missions was to create self-supportive and disciplined communities to populate and protect Spanish territory. As a result of this growing Native population under Spanish control, these communities slowly mixed with Spanish settlers to become multi-ethnic, becoming less rigid in socio-political structure that traditional Spanish towns, with a more Enlightened view of race and socio-economic power. This formation of a unique regional community, however, was not without its challenges.
The Spanish faced many difficulties in their colonial pursuits. Because there were too few Spanish colonists to populate the settlements, local sedentary tribes were assimilated and absorbed as a way to populate the empire. Along the borders was where most of the tensions grew. Spain was threatened with hostilities on two fronts. The first came in the form of raids from nomadic tribes, which became more and more difficult to combat as the borders grew larger and the tribes obtained more ammunition. The other front was the growing French and English influence over trade, and the expanding power that came with that. These combined to create a harsh environment along the frontier, threatening Spanish hold over territory.
The remnants of Spanish influence proves that their empire was successful, though perhaps not in the traditional ways of other European countries. The aspects of language, culture, and religion that remain in Texas are a testament to the success of Spanish goals of imperialism. Accounts of early groups that united into a single community, like in Béxar, are evidence of Spanish success in establishing sustained control of their territory. The absorption of Natives into Spanish communities created a population to supply the empire, as well as a buffer zone to protect Spanish lands from being stolen, solving the challenges that the empire faced in the frontiers.
In a final analysis of the sources assigned, I will expound upon what I believe to be flaws from the authors. Primarily, I disagree with Bolton’s argument –that missions were the primary source of Spanish colonialism– because the argument is too focussed on the role of missions and generalizes other aspects of imperialism. I also believe that the source is heavily biased towards missions and the assimilation of indigenous populations, because the United States was using similar practices with boarding schools for indigenous populations when the article was published. De la Teja on the other hand, is too focussed on the formation of the San Antonio population, and doesn’t pay enough attention to the other aspects of Spanish imperialism, like politics or trade. Weber strikes and good balance between the other two pieces, acknowledging the merits of both arguments and building a history of Spanish imperialism off of that. In all likelihood that is probably true, given that Weber published his article most recently, and so had more perspectives and sources to use in constructing his history.
All of the scholars took a unique approach to the question of Spanish ambitions and intentions in eighteenth century Texas. The common theme between all of these articles was Spanish motivation to establish and defend the frontier borders. This resulted in assimilatory practices that transformed Spanish settlements into diverse and distinct communities that fulfilled the demand for a growing population and expanding economic influence. Understanding the role that assimilation played in the development of Spanish Texas clarifies the attitudes of race and socio-economic stratification that would lead to divisions and conflicts that define Texas history and mythology.
Herbert E. Bolton, “The Mission as a Frontier Institution in the Spanish-American Colonies,” American Historical Review 23, no. 1 (
Jesus F. de la Teja, “Indians, Soldiers, and Canary Islanders: The Making of a Texas Frontier Community,” Locus: An Historical Journal of Regional Perspectives on National Topics 2, no. 1 (Fall, 1990): 95.
David J. Weber, “Bourbons and Barbaros: Center and Periphery in the Reshaping of Spanish Indian Policy,” in Negotiated Empires” Centers and Peripheries in the Americans, 1500-1820, eds. Christine Daniels and Michael V. Kennedy (New York, 2002), 80-81.