The Spanish Frontier in North America Summary

David J. Weber


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Spanish frontier in North America was neither wholly Spanish nor wholly a frontier, at least not in the sense Americans usually have of Frederick Jackson Turner’s woodland frontier zone. It was not wholly Spanish because the invaders who entered the northern region from bases in Cuba and Mexico did not represent the full variety of Spanish culture: They came from peripheral areas in the homeland (Minorca, the Canaries) and in New Spain; they represented only a few classes (mostly soldiers and priests); and they were too few to impose even their language on the mass of Native Americans they came to govern. It was not a frontier because, in order to protect the natives from being abused or dispossessed by free farmers, herders, and merchants, the immense authority of the Spanish government and church crushed every sign of individual enterprise and ambition. The safest way to guarantee the rights and the health of the native inhabitants was to have as few Spaniards nearby as possible. Spain’s interest in converting and protecting the Indians was represented by friars and secular governors at the head of a handful of troops; everyone, even the leather-clad cavalryman, was expected to be a model of Christian behavior—brave, honest, tolerant, religious…and chaste.

This was too much to hope for. Consequently, the history of the Spanish frontier was one of idealism gone astray. In expecting too much of human nature, from both the conquerors and the victims, the Counter-Reformation Church and the royal court botched this hopeful experiment as much as Leninist idealists fouled their social experiment in the Soviet Union. The failure revealed itself suddenly in a total economic collapse during the Napoleonic era. When the subsidies ceased to arrive, the governors were unable to pay the army, unable to garrison the missions. The Spanish frontier gave way without resistance to the onward march of the Americans.

Although its plans were a failure in the long run, there were times when Spain’s hopes for success were high. De Soto’s army was able to march through the territory of the most numerous and well-organized tribes of the American woodlands, defeating every opponent and sustaining itself from the ever-increasing herd of pigs it had brought along. Coronado was equally invincible; and only the unfortunate timing of hurricanes prevented the permanent establishment of settlements on the Florida mainland. Moreover, there was no choice: Either the Spanish occupied the coastlands, or Protestant enemies from France and England would establish pirate bases there. Only by becoming the dominant power in North America could Spain limit the Indians’ access to weapons and thereby bring an end to intertribal warfare; only by establishing missions and forcing the Indians to live nearby could the friars save their souls and teach them the skills necessary for economic survival.

Even Catholic France was a dangerous rival. Sieur de La Salle’s explorations of 1682 and 1685 were correctly interpreted as a challenge to the utopian state Spain envisioned. If the Indians had access to French trade goods, especially to guns, powder, and shot, the frontier governments would lose their ability to control the Indians by economic means. The crown relied on the influence of the international Catholic orders (Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits) but discovered that they, too, had their own agendas. When rigorous Jesuits supplanted pliant Franciscans in Mexico, the unemployed friars headed north in search of new converts, only to discover that northern Indians had little resemblance to the former Aztec serfs they had been ruling. Although the string of Franciscan missions across Florida eventually became a victim of warfare, and the clusters in Texas and New Mexico came to survive in a state...

(The entire section is 1548 words.)