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Jeffery Robenalt

Texas | Columns | "A Glimpse of Texas Past"

Texas Filibusters

by Jeffery Robenalt
Jeffery Robenalt

At the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763, the victorious English forced the French to cede the Louisiana Territory to Spain. In an era before the invention of rails or other efficient land transport, Spain now controlled the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans, the only outlet to the sea for the center of the North American continent. However, Spain suffered from the same weakness that plagued France in its attempts to control the vast territory straddling the Mississippi River; a critical lack of Spanish subjects willing to settle on and actually take physical possession of the land.

Since the ethnic homogeneity of New Spain had already been shattered when many French citizens were incorporated during the takeover of Louisiana, Don Francisco Bouligny, a Spanish officer commanding in Missouri, proposed that Louisiana be populated by providing land grants to American settlers. Of course, the Americans would have to comply with Spanish law by converting to Catholicism and swearing allegiance to the King of Spain. Bouligny’s plan proved to be successful under the leadership of empresarios such as George Morgan, who established the settlement of New Madrid on the west bank of the Mississippi across from the mouth of the Ohio River. However, the experiment with pluralism and free immigration came to an end in 1803, when the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France who had recently reacquired it.

At the stroke of Napoleon’s pen, Spanish Texas shared a border with a virtual horde of land-hungry Americans who had long ago developed a taste for territorial expansion. With a sense of “manifest destiny” that foretold of a country which would one day span the entire continent from ocean to ocean, it is little wonder that New Spain was soon gripped by an attitude approaching a phobia toward all Anglo-Americans and their attempts to settle in Spanish Texas. It is against this background that the filibusters (Spanish for pirate or freebooter) cut a brief, but bloody, swath across the old Southwest.

Wild mustangs
Wild Mustangs by Jaime Jackson
Wikimedia Commons

The first of the American filibusters, Philip Nolan, was not a filibuster in the truest sense of the word. Nolan, an educated man who immigrated to America from Ireland, was involved in the business of capturing wild horses in Texas and selling them in New Orleans. In 1797, Nolan signed a contract with the French governor of Louisiana, Baron de Carondelet, to sell the mustangs to a Louisiana regiment. Carondelet knew Nolan was conducting illegal roundup operations in Texas, but he was not always on the best of terms with his Spanish counterpart, Texas Governor Manuel Munoz. Nolan also came to a financial agreement with Governor Munoz to ignore his illegal activities, and the American’s mustanging operations continued unabated for the next few years.

In October of 1800, Nolan again reentered Texas with twenty men and a few slaves, but by this time a new governor, Juan Bautista de Elguezabal, had been appointed. Governor Elguezabal issued an order that all Americans exhibiting the least suspicious conduct should be arrested. This order definitely pertained to Philip Nolan, who the governor learned had been meeting in secret with General James Wilkinson, the commander of the American Army in the west, to discuss the separation of Texas from New Spain. Orders were issued to all Spanish patrols to permanently silence Nolan if he returned to Texas.

Peter Ellis Bean etching
Peter Ellis Bean

Within a few days, a company of Spanish cavalry under the command of Lieutenant Musquiz tracked Nolan down at a camp on the Brazos River where the mustanger had assembled nearly three hundred wild horses. The Spanish surrounded the camp by night and attacked at sunrise. During a brief, but vicious fight Philip Nolan was killed and Peter Ellis Bean took command. Heavily outnumbered and nearly out of ammunition, Bean soon surrendered. Lieutenant Musquiz marched the survivors into Mexico, noting in his journal that he had granted Nolan’s slaves permission to bury their master “after causing his ears to be cut off in order to send them to the Governor.”

The King of Spain eventually decreed that every fifth prisoner should be hanged as a pirate and the rest sentenced to ten years at hard labor. By then all but nine of the filibusters had died in prison, so the survivors were blindfolded and made to throw dice. Ephraim Blackburn, who threw the lowest number, was duly hanged. The fate of the other prisoners except for Peter Ellis Bean has been lost and long-forgotten over time, but Bean, a true survivor, was later made a colonel in the Mexican army, married a rich widow, and died of old age in a warm and comfortable bed.

After the United States’ purchase of Louisiana, the border between Louisiana and Texas immediately came into question. Although the generally accepted border was the Sabine River, Spanish authorities insisted their territory extended to the Arroyo Hondo some fifty miles further to the east, while the United States claimed a line that lay much further to the west. Minor clashes between American and Spanish troops over the border continued until 1806, when General Wilkinson met with Spanish General Simon Herrera and reached a compromise, agreeing to create a neutral zone from the Arroyo Hondo to the Sabine.

General James Wilkinson
General James Wilkinson
Neutral Ground Agreement Map
Neutral Ground Agreement

According to the agreement, neither country would try to take control of the neutral ground between the rivers or patrol it with their troops. The so-called Neutral Ground Agreement brought a halt to the frequent skirmishing along the border, but it had the unfortunate consequence of creating a haven for outlaws, murderers, and smugglers from both countries. Eventually, Spain agreed to permit a unit of the United States Army under the command of Lieutenant Augustus Magee to enter the Neutral Ground and clean out the nest of outlaws.

Soon after returning to New Orleans and resigning his commission in the army, Augustus Magee met Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara, a former follower of Mexican revolutionary leader and priest, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. Before he was captured and executed by the Spanish, Father Hidalgo sent Gutierrez to New Orleans to gather support for the revolution. Gutierrez and Magee were destined to continue the filibuster movement by assembling a group of volunteers made up of Anglo-Americans, Tejanos, Indians, former slaves, and adventurers of all manner and reputation. In 1812, the pair proceeded to march their diverse little army into Spanish Texas, where they easily occupied Nacogdoches and declared the Republic of the North to be independent of Spain.

Gutierrez and Magee next marched to the presidio of La Bahia near the settlement of Goliad, where they were attacked by a force under the command of Spanish Governor Manuel Salcedo. Magee was killed during the fighting. Undeterred, the filibusters, now under the command of first Samuel Kemper and then Henry Perry, advanced on San Antonio and again met the Spanish forces under Governor Salcedo at the Battle of Salado in February 1813. The filibusters routed the Spanish and occupied the old mission town.

With the occupation of San Antonio, the filibusters controlled the three most important settlements in Spanish Texas. Unfortunately, the Anglo filibusters were in favor of establishing a republican form of government, and the Tejano filibusters wanted a government based on the Spanish model. Many Anglos gave up in frustration and returned to the United States when the two sides could not come to an agreement.

In August 1813, as the argument over the form of government continued to rage, a large force of Spanish soldiers under the command of General Joaquin de Arredondo advanced on San Antonio. The disorganized filibusters met Arredondo’s forces fifteen miles south of town on the banks of the Medina River in what was to become the bloodiest battle in Texas history. Refusing to allow the filibusters to surrender, the Spanish killed most of them and proceeded to execute the residents of San Antonio de Bexar who had conducted business with the usurpers. Although the Republic of the North was crushed, a few of the men who accompanied Gutierrez and Magee would live to one day see their dreams of a free Texas come to pass.

Adams-Onis Treaty Map
Adams-Onis Treaty Map
Wikimedia Commons
The official border between the United States and Spanish Texas was finally settled in 1819, when Secretary of State and future president, John Quincy Adams negotiated the Adams-Onis Treaty with Spanish diplomat Luis de Onis. Unfortunately, this diplomatic effort did not prevent Dr. James Long from leading the last filibuster into Texas. In June 1819, Dr. Long, with the help of the citizens of Natchez, Mississippi, organized and equipped an expedition “to invade Texas and establish a Republic.” The good doctor had gained his reputation fighting at New Orleans alongside his friend and mentor Andrew Jackson. He also married the niece of General James Wilkinson. Taking his young wife Jane and his infant child, Dr. Long marched for Texas with only eighty men. However, by the time he crossed the Sabine River the force had grown to nearly three hundred, including the former Mexican revolutionary, Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara.

After easily capturing Nacogdoches, which the Spanish left nearly undefended, a convention was convened and Texas was declared a free and independent republic with Dr. Long as its Chief of State. The new President immediately began selling Texas land on generous terms and sent men to establish outposts on the Trinity and Brazos Rivers.
Jean Lafitte
Portrait of Jean Lafitte
Wikimedia Commons
Once this was accomplished, Dr. Long set out for Galveston Island, seeking the assistance of Jean Lafitte. Although the famed pirate, who was the true power in the region, greeted Dr. Long and his delegation cordially, wishing them every success in their endeavors, he wisely refused to become involved in the filibuster. In fact, he stated no group of Mexican revolutionists and American adventurers could hope to gain control of Texas without the assistance of a well-disciplined fighting force, something which Long surely did not possess.

On his return to Nacogdoches, Dr. Long found the settlement nearly deserted. In his absence, his forces had been soundly defeated by the Spanish who killed his brother and captured most of his settlers. The survivors including his wife and child fled to Louisiana. With no choice, Long crossed back over the Sabine into the safety of the United States and rejoined his family. However, even though his efforts had been met with one setback after another, Long remained convinced that Texas was there for the taking, and he returned to New Orleans with thoughts of organizing a new expedition.

In spite of his earlier failure, Dr Long had no trouble finding supporters for his latest scheme, and again accompanied by his wife and now two small children, he set out for Texas. This time he led an expedition that traveled by sea, making landfall at a place known as Point Bolivar. Long ordered his men to build a small fort on the site and, leaving his wife and children behind, marched his army inland to La Bahia. La Bahia, as Nacogdoches had previously, easily fell into the hands of the American invaders, but a strong force of Spanish royalists soon surrounded Long’s ragtag troops and forced them to surrender.

After his capture, Dr. Long was sent to Mexico City where he was later shot by a prison guard during an alleged escape attempt. Jane Long went back to Mississippi when she learned of her husband’s death, but later returned to Texas and eventually settled in Richmond. She operated a successful hotel and a plantation, and became one of the most prominent pioneer women in Texas. Today Jane Long is known as the “Mother of Texas.”

Though the filibusters were unsuccessful in gaining independence for Texas, their efforts were not entirely in vain. Reports of their activities in newspapers and periodicals all across the country brought the vast land of Texas to the forefront of American thought and encouraged countless settlers to pull up stakes and journey to the new land of promise. This quiet flood tide of American settlement served more to loosen Spanish, and later Mexican, control of Texas than any of the filibuster expeditions, and led to the era of the Texas Empresarios.

© Jeffery Robenalt, September 1, 2011 Column
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