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June 27th, 2012
Bartee Haile: Spanish capital of Texas was once in Louisiana

This Week in Texas History: A column

On Jun. 27, 1773, the new owner of Louisiana abandoned its missions and presidios in East Texas along with Los Adaes, for the past half century the capital of Spanish Texas.

The French first showed a serious interest in future Cajun Country during the closing months of the seventeenth century. Convinced that control of the mighty Mississippi River would tighten their grip on Canada, they founded on the banks of the titanic tributary the interior town of Natchitoches and a few years later the better known port of New Orleans.

In 1716 the lethargic Spaniards finally showed up in eastern Texas to see what their rivals were up to. To check potential westward expansion by the French, a number of missions were established in addition to a military garrison at the village of Adaes. Perched on a hilltop only 15 miles from Natchitoches and well on the Louisiana side of the Sabine River, the lonely presidio was supposed to keep a close eye on the French.

When the mother country declared war on Spain in 1719, the eight soldiers at Natchitoches did their patriotic duty by marching on Los Adaes. Since just two Spaniards happened to be home at the time, seizure of the enemy fort was surprisingly easy.

While departing with their captives, however, the Frenchmen ruffled the feathers of the garrison’s chickens causing the fowl to raise a disconcerting ruckus. In the confusion one fast-thinking prisoner escaped and immediately alerted his countrymen to the imminent invasion.

Thrown into a blind panic by the frightening alarm, neither friars nor foot soldiers bothered to confirm the size of the approaching force. The skittish Spaniards simply evacuated East Texas.

Taking no chances, the Spaniards returned with a 500-man expedition to reclaim Los Adaes. The presidio was subsequently designated the capital of Texas in spite of the ironic fact that it still remained outside the province.

Although the Los Adaes lookouts faithfully enforced the law strictly forbidding trade with the foreigners, the practical soldiers exempted themselves from the conditions of the inconvenient decree. Adverse to raising their own crops, the Spaniards bought food on the sly from the obliging French.

Many miles away in Mexico City, the viceroy recognized the futility of trying to put a stop to the fraternization and with a traditional shrug of the shoulders approved the purchase of beans and corn. But as the years went by, the twin outposts in the New World wilderness did a brisk business in every conceivable kind of contraband.

This mutually beneficial arrangement gradually blossomed into full-fledged detente. Until the French obtained their own priest in 1729, a Spanish Franciscan regularly dropped by to say mass. And whenever one garrison came under attack from hostile Indians, the other could always be counted upon to come running.

Detente did, of course, have its awkward moments. The Natchitoches commander had a lot of explaining to do after an Apache band was spotted carrying French firearms and flying the national colors. Yet even this embarrassing episode failed to dampen the spirit of cooperation between the cozy neighbors.

As a reward for a wartime alliance, France handed Spain full though secret title to the entire territory of Louisiana in 1762. With the former French possession serving as a broad buffer against British aggression, Spain shut down the suddenly expendable military and missionary installations in East Texas.

The people at Los Adaes took the shocking news badly. Instead of relocating to San Antonio as instructed, dozens disappeared into the piney woods or moved in with their French friends at Natchitoches. Those that stayed behind reluctantly abandoned Los Adaes in June 1773.

Twenty-seven years later, Napoleon talked Spain into giving back Louisiana, which he turned around and sold to Thomas Jefferson in 1803. Stunned by the shady deal, a small Spanish force rushed to reoccupy Los Adaes.

The Spaniards were met by a column of U.S. troops, and a tense stand-off ensued. Months of negotiations produced an historic compromise.

The Americans agreed to pull back to the eastern bank of the Arroyo Hondo at Natchitoches, if the Spaniards withdrew west of the Sabine. Both sides complied, and a messy international incident was narrowly averted.

However, according to the pact, neither the United States nor Spain could police the area between the Arroyo Hondo and the Sabine River. As a result, the region became a no-man’s-land infested by thieves and cutthroats, who defiantly thumbed their noses at everybody’s laws.

When the time came to clean up the so-called “Neutral Ground,” the U.S. Army would do battle with nothing less than an outlaw nation.

Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or

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