As we discussed last entry, the main (though not only) reason that the Spanish explored portions of what is now the United States was to search for further wealth and success to mirror what they had found in the conquests of the Mexica (Aztec) and Incan empires. By the early seventeenth century, such dreams had been abandoned. So, then, why did Spain still colonize so much of what is now the United States?
We can look to two major reasons, which aren’t always easy to separate. The first was the concern for Native American souls. The second one had to do with imperial security. Let’s look at the first reason first.
Even if no material wealth could be found, there was still a large “harvest of souls,” as one Spanish priest called it. Having preached the gospel to native groups and having baptized many (what the Native Americans meant by submitting to this ritual is not always clear), Spanish clergy now considered many Native Americans in what is now the United States to be Catholics for whom they were responsible. There was also the hope that other native groups could be reached, as well. Missions dotted the landscape in New Mexico, Arizona, Florida, Texas, and (much later) California.
We talked a bit in a previous entry about the role that missions played in the overall colonization plan for Spain’s New World Empire. It is worth repeating, though, that the goal was not just to make Catholics, but also good Spanish citizens. That meant enforcing what the Spanish considered to be “civilized” behavior. Spanish efforts at conversion and civilization could be quite severe, as priests tended to view Native Americans how we might view unruly young children. It didn’t help matters that Native Americans living at missions often did so involuntarily (this is especially true in California). Clergy officials also sought to control all aspects of the lives of mission Indians. This could even include things like locking up men and women in separate dormitories at night—much like an overly anxious youth pastor might do at summer camp! Corporal punishment and sexual abuse – by both soldiers and clergy--were also not uncommon.
As you can imagine, there was certainly resistance, though such efforts were limited in situations in which Native American groups were limited in power. And some Native Americans had voluntarily moved to the missions, seeking a relationship with the powerful Spanish newcomers to help them against traditional enemies. Still, resistance did come.
By far the most successful effort at resistance happened in New Mexico in 1680—an event known as the “Pueblo Revolt.” The Spanish had made life increasingly difficult for the Pueblos since their permanent arrival at the end of the sixteenth century. Labor and resource demands, slave raiding, sexual abuse, and disruption of traditional patterns of trade with other tribes (which caused these tribes to increasingly raid the Pueblos, since trade was not an option) all led to poor relations, as you might imagine. The Spanish also attempted to disrupt Pueblo ceremonial life. As drought hit the region, the Pueblos increasingly turned to their ceremonies to try to affect change, bringing things to a head. The Spanish arrested several Pueblo religious leaders, executing some and whipping others. The Pueblo response came in the form of an extraordinarily well-coordinated assault on all Spanish missions and settlements—so well-coordinated that, even when Pueblo plans were betrayed, they still managed to pull it off. Spanish missionaries were killed, and Spanish mission churches in the Pueblos desecrated. Most residents of the colony fled to the capital of Santa Fe, where they only survived because the Pueblos decided to lift their siege of the city and let the Spanish leave. By the end of the “revolt,” the only Spanish souls left in New Mexico were some women and children captured by the Pueblos during their raids on outer settlements. The Spanish would not return to New Mexico for twelve years. When they did, Spanish-Pueblo relations looked much different!
If the first reason for the Spanish colonizing portions of what is now the United States revolved around concern for Native American souls, the second revolved around concern for Spanish ones. Though what is now the US Southwest and Southeast had yielded little wealth, the Spanish New World Empire itself still produced fabulous riches – much of it flowing out of what is now Mexico. But those riches were vulnerable. Powerful tribes such as the Apache, Navajo, and later Comanche proved capable of launching deep raids into Mexico, threatening Spanish settlements and disrupting trade and transportation. There was also the issue of Spain’s European rivals. The British had settled along the Atlantic coast and seemed eager to move westward. The French were in Louisiana, and claimed pretty much the entire Mississippi River valley. The late eighteenth century would also bring fears of both Russia and Britain trying to expand down the Pacific coast.
In short, Mexico was vulnerable. Colonies in what is now the United States, then, served as a shield to protect Mexico from both Native Americans and Europeans. They served as the first line of defense against European expansion and as a buffer to take the brunt of Native American raiding. Sometimes I tell my students that Mexico was the creamy nougaty center, and Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Florida were the hard candy shell.
As you can imagine, living life in a frontier buffer zone could be quite different than what Spanish colonists expected. I intended to discuss life in the Spanish borderlands in this entry, but we’ve already done quite a bit for today. We’ll discuss the borderlands next entry.