Thursday, October 27, 2011

My Mississippi Project: Defending the Spanish Border

In 1783 the United States and Spain were allies, two of the signatories of the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution.  The United States won its independence and  the vast lands west of the Appalachians to the Mississippi River.  If they could wrest them from their Indian inhabitants.  Spain won the Floridas from Britain, together with its port of Pensacola.  If they could stave off their weak but potentially dynamic young ally.
The Louisiana Regiment was  one of the few regular Spanish formations in North America.

Fast forward 15 years. By 1797 thousands of settlers poured over the Appalachians into Kentucky and Tennessee.  The American army, through stumbles and disasters, conquered a peace with the Indians.  Productive farms in the Ohio valley, unable to get their goods over the Appalachians sent it by flatboat to the Mississippi and from there to New Orleans, where it was sold or trans-shipped to the Atlantic coast or Europe.   Or not.

The stumbling block was Spain.  The Spanish controlled New Orleans, the Floridas and Mexico.  They were determined to keep the Americans, rapidly expanding west, out of Spanish territory.  To do that they established military posts on the west side of the Mississippi, established posts at Natchez and Chickasaw Bluffs on the east side of the Mississippi (against the terms of the Treaty of Paris) and made peace overtures to the powerful Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians in the Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama regions. They put oared gondolas on the Great River with orders to inspect and obstruct traffic headed to New Orleans.
Chickasaw warrior.  The Spanish made alliance with many native tribes to deter invasion by the Americans.
The Spanish empire bordering American territory was enormous.  To garrison it, the Spanish depended on a few European troops augmented by colonial militias.  The system of presidios, or military posts, was systematized in New Spain by the 1770's as was the number of cuera or presidial militia.  These soldiers were intended largely to defend the frontier from Louisiana to New Mexico, chiefly against Apache and Comanche indian attacks.  Armed with the escopeta, a short musket or shotgun, sword, lance and shield, they were deemed to be effective against clubs, lances and arrows wielded by indigenous warriors. Their clothing featured a knee length leather vest, heavy enough to turn aside many of these weapons, much like the buff coats worn by Cromwell's Ironsides. As more of the indians were armed with trade muskets from English traders, they posed a greater challenge for the cuera.

In order to maximize their troop strength to deal wit a potential American conflict the Spanish made alliances with various Indian tribes.  In order to preserve approaches to New Orleans, the Spanish enlisted the aid of Chickasaw warriors.  To the west, the Spanish were on friendly terms with the Comanches, and included some of their number in the expedition to intercept Lewis and Clark.
Traditional Cuera soldier that served in the Spanish borderlands.  This  illustration  shows  the subject with lance, shield and musket.  He is equipped with a thigh-length leather jacket. 

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