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Spanish Arrive in Louisiana, The: The Transformation from a French to a Spanish Colony

by Anthony W. Fabio

In the year 2003, with the Bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, many people have the mistaken notion that Louisiana had always been exclusively a French colony from the time of its first settlement to its sale to the United States. Actually, Spain controlled Louisiana for over thirty years, and Spain provided Louisiana with a rich colonial legacy.

The French Colony of "Louisiane"

During the reign of King Louis XIV of France (1643 to 1715), the French colony of New France or Quebec became very profitable. Agricultural development, fishing, the production of tar and turpentine, and most especially the fur trade made New France a most lucrative gem of a colony for France. However, as the demand for skins increased, Quebec's population of fur-bearing animals decreased. So, fur trappers and explorers moved further westward through Canada.

Meanwhile, in France, the study of geography became a factor in colonial planning. François-Michel Le Tellier, the Marquis de Louvois, the Secretary of State for War, believed that the defense of the most profitable New France Colony equated to the control of North America. He also thought that the dominance over any large landmass required the control of the large rivers within it. France had already commanded the Saint Lawrence River, and now France had to control the longest river in North America, the Mississippi River. Furthermore, he believed that the key to controlling a river was to dominate its mouth.

In 1677, Henri de Tondi (the "Iron Hand" as he used an iron hook to substitute for a severed right hand) sailed from Quebec to France to request that the French government allow explorations along the Mississippi River. This was exactly what the Marquis de Louvois wanted to hear, and so the French government granted permission for an expedition to explore as far south as the mouth of the Mississippi River.

After four years of delay, René-Robert Cavalier, the Sieur de La Salle took command of the expedition. He and his crew moved westward from the New France Colony and passed through the Great Lakes region. They followed the Wisconsin River to the Mississippi River, and then they moved south along the great river for three more months. They finally reached the Mississippi delta on 9 April La Salle planted a cross and a French flag, and he and his men knelt down and prayed. He then stood up and claimed all of the lands drained by both the Mississippi River and the Mississippi River System on behalf of King Louis XIV of France, and he named it "Louisiane" or "Land of Louis."

France, however, did not immediately capitalize on the claim, and a second expedition was a failure. Finally, in 1698, Louis Pheypeaux de Pontchartrain, the Chancellor of France, and his son, Jerome Pheypeaux de Maurepas, the Minister of Marine, convinced King Louis XIV to finance the establishment of a colony in Louisiana near the mouth of the Mississippi River. The king agreed, and he selected the distinguished naval officer Pierre Le Moyne, the Sieur d'Iberville to command the project. Iberville enlisted about two hundred Canadian woodsmen, and he selected his half-brother Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, the Sieur de Bienville as the deputy commander. On 2 March 1699 (Mardi Gras Day), the expedition reached the delta of the Mississippi River. Soon, the first settlements were established, the city of New Orleans was established in 1718, and the colony grew.

Over the next sixty years, the Louisiana Colony never made a profit for France. The swampland was not conducive to farming, the fur trade did not develop, and the settlements were damaged by flooding. Bienville served four terms as the Colonial Governor for a total of thirty years. He advocated establishing trade with the Indian Tribes, but this only resulted in battles against the Natchez Tribe and the Chickasaw Tribe. Frustrated with Louisiana, Bienville returned to France. The French government even experimented with a Proprietary System for the colony, but in the continued failed attempt to make a profit all it did was to introduce slavery to Louisiana. During the War of Jenkins' Ear and the French and Indian War, the colony barely survived as it was isolated from France and other French colonies. With the two wars, however, some merchants in Louisiana became wealthy as they built an economy based on smuggling with Spanish colonies and British colonies. By 1762, the French government, in particular King Louis XV (1715 to 1774), considered Louisiana to be a financial disaster that needed to be discarded.

The Transfer of Louisiana

During the French and Indian War, the British Empire defeated the French and drove them out of North America. By 1761, Quebec was securely under British military authority. The Spanish, an allied Bourbon Court, joined France late in the conflict only to go down in defeat and suffer the loss of Florida to the British. Thus, by the summer of 1762, the British now controlled most of North America (at least the eastern half).

On 3 November 1762, France and Spain agreed to the Treaty of Fontainebleau by which the Louisiana Colony was transferred from France to Spain. France was thereby sacrificing about seven thousand of its subjects, but to King Louis XV and his ministers, in particular Etienne François de Choiseul, the Minister of State, other factors took precedence over the people. First, France was unloading the financial disaster of Louisiana. Second, France would rather have Louisiana be owned by Spain rather than Great Britain. Third, France was repaying Spain for its help during the wars and compensating it for the loss of Florida. Lastly, since the most lucrative colony of New France was lost to the British Empire, France no longer had any strategic reason to keep Louisiana.

The Spanish government was at first not certain if it really wanted Louisiana. Richard Wall, the Irish-born Secretary of State, argued against acquiring Louisiana on the grounds that the colony was a great financial liability; furthermore, he added that Louisiana was not really needed to protect Mexico, and he said that Louisiana provided no real benefit to the Spanish Empire now that Florida was lost. However, two other Spanish ministers, Jerónimo Grimaldi and Pedro Pablo Abarca de Bolea, believed that Louisiana would eventually be beneficial to Spain. King Charles III of Spain (1759 to 1788) ultimately decided to accept Louisiana for various reasons. First, Spain would be compensated for the loss of Florida. Second, Spain would rather control Louisiana than having the British Empire occupy it. Third, Spain considered Louisiana to be a buffer between the growing British colonies along the Atlantic coast and the Spanish colony of New Spain or Mexico. Lastly, Spain would now be able to terminate the smuggling between Louisiana and Spanish colonies.

The British, the undisputed victors of the French and Indian War, could have superceded the Treaty of Fontainebleau, but instead they approved of the transfer with the Peace of Paris of 10 February 1763. The British saw the advantages of the transfer of Louisiana for four basic reasons. First, Great Britain now evicted France from North America. Second, Great Britain saddled Spain with the financial liability of Louisiana. Third, Great Britain gave Spain the burden of governing a foreign people of European origin. Lastly, Great Britain believed that Spain was much more serious than France about fighting smuggling in Louisiana, especially with the British colonies.

For a little over three years, Spain did not take formal possession of Louisiana. Spain had to recover after the loss of the French and Indian War, and the rebuilding defenses in more important colonies, such as Cuba, demanded immediate attention. Moreover, Richard Wall continued to oppose the acquisition of Louisiana, and the Spanish bureaucracy moved slowly. Finally, Richard Wall resigned, and Jerónimo Grimaldi became the new Secretary of State. Now, the Spanish government was ready to take control of Louisiana. On 24 April 1765, Secretary of State Grimaldi directed that the first Spanish Governor of Louisiana would be Don Antonio de Ulloa y de la Torre Guiral.

Meanwhile, the people of Louisiana, despite rumors of the transfer to Spain, continued to act as if they were still a colony of France. In Louisiana, the colonial government was centered around the Superior Council, usually consisting of twelve men, who advised the French Colonial Governors and who served as the highest judicial court in the colony. The Commissary was the colonial official responsible for financial management, and the Attorney General provided legal advice. Of course, the French were not very eager to relinquish their powers to the Spanish authorities. Moreover, although the colony had never made any profits for France, some citizens had become very wealthy from smuggling. The French authorities had often closed their eyes to smuggling, and the people in Louisiana feared that their source of income would be extinguished by Spanish power. In addition, the people of Louisiana, of course ethnically French, had cultural differences with the Spanish over education, art, literature, the conditions of slavery, the treatment of Free Blacks, and the guidance of religious orders like the Jesuits and the Ursulines.

In April 1764, on behalf of King Louis XV of France, Etienne Francois de Choiseul sent notification of the transfer of Louisiana to the acting Colonial Governor Jean Jacques Blaise d'Abbadie. He in turn informed the people that they were subjects of Spain. By January 1765, the shock had now worn off, and the people of Louisiana felt angry and fearful. They had been abandoned by France, and now their freedoms and sources of wealth could be terminated by the Spanish. Some people conducted mass meetings demanding that France continue their control of Louisiana. The situation was becoming more explosive when, on 4 February 1765, Governor d'Abbadie died of a sudden illness.

The leadership in Louisiana now passed to the highest ranking military officer in the colony, Captain Charles Philippe Aubry. Although a French officer, he continued to remind the people that they were officially under the control of Spain. He repeatedly said that someday the Spanish would arrive with a large army and large navy and a governor--so accept the inevitable. Captain Aubry would maintain law and order in the colony until (he believed) the Spanish arrive to take command.

The Superior Council of the Louisiana Colony resolved that a personal appeal should be made to the King of France. Captain Aubry advised that the request would not prevail, but the people ignored him. A wealthy merchant Jean Milhet sailed to France in the summer of 1765. He met former governor Bienville, and together they were able to obtain a meeting with Minister of State Choiseul. The minister flatly stated that King Louis XV would not change his mind; thus, the people of Louisiana had to accept Spanish authority.

The Arrival of the Spanish

On 5 March 1766, Antonio de Ulloa, the first Spanish Governor of Louisiana, arrived in the city of New Orleans. He brought with him only one boat and only seventy-five Spanish soldiers--this was certainly not the great demonstration of Spanish power about which Captain Aubry had warned. The city was hit by a rainstorm, and few inhabitants bothered to welcome or even look at the new governor. Furthermore, Governor Ulloa did not announce the formal possession of the colony on behalf of Spain, and he never ordered that the Spanish flag be raised at the center of the city, the location of the governmental buildings, known as the Place d'Armes. Such was an inauspicious beginning.

Governor Don Antonio de Ulloa y de la Torre Guiral was born in 1716 in Spain. In 1736, he went to South America as part of an expedition to determine the circumference of the Earth. He continued his scientific pursuits and became a scholar in mathematics, geography, customs of Indian Tribes, biology, and botany. He traveled throughout the Spanish Empire on the behalf of the government in order to resolve various problems. He was also an accomplished writer. Such talents, however, did not automatically translate in becoming a good governor, and years later Secretary of State Grimaldi said that Antonio de Ulloa was selected as the first Spanish Governor of Louisiana because he spoke French fluently.

Over the next two and a half years, Governor Ulloa encountered four major problems in Louisiana. He wrote several messages to his superiors, to include Secretary of State Grimaldi and the Captain General of Cuba, Antonio Maria Bucareli, but always the Spanish government was too slow or unable to help.

The first major problem was that the Spanish military force was entirely too small to impose authority and certainly too tiny to quell a rebellion; as stated, Governor Ulloa arrived with only seventy-five soldiers. Secretary of State Grimaldi wanted Governor Ulloa to recruit Captain Aubry and other French soldiers into the Spanish army, but they had no desire to do so and really wanted to return to France.

The second major problem that Governor Ulloa had in Louisiana was the lack of funds. Spanish pesos were needed to circulate within Louisiana, and they were needed to pay for the debts of the colony. Too often, however, the funds for Louisiana passed through Cuba, and there most of the funds were diverted to cover Cuban expenses. As such, Louisiana received only a trickle, and the colony's economy fell into depression.

The third problem was the inability to impose the Spanish legal and governmental systems upon the people of Louisiana. On 22 March 1767, Secretary of State Grimaldi decreed that the Superior Council of Louisiana be dissolved. The governor was to serve as the chief judge of the colony, and the Spanish Laws of the Indies would be proclaimed. Governor Ulloa decided to wait until he was certain that he could successfully implement the Spanish systems, and as such he was never able to accomplish the objectives.

Lastly, Governor Ulloa remained remote and aloof. He spent too much time writing and conducting experiments aboard ships, and often he resided not in New Orleans but closer to the delta at Balize. Then, in June 1767, he missed a good opportunity to win some popularity with the people. His wife by proxy Dona Francisca Ramírez de Lareda y Encalada arrived in Louisiana, and the people in New Orleans expected festivities to celebrate with the marriage ceremony of the governor and his bride. Instead, the people were greatly disappointed. The governor and his new wife, who did not speak French and thus did not want to make a societal appearance, avoided a public ceremony by having a chaplain marry them at Balize. Unfortunately, the French people considered the private service as an insult and example of Spanish arrogance.

All of these problems simmered with the people of Louisiana. The problems were enlarged by the perception that Spain was weak and did not seem committed to controlling the colony. Again, the people saw few Spanish soldiers, little funding, and the continuation of the French flag flying in New Orleans.

Then, in the late summer of 1768, two decisions by Governor Ulloa, combined with the lingering problems and perceptions, made the presence of the Spanish so completely unacceptable to the people of Louisiana. The people resolved to evict the Spanish from the colony.

The first decision of Governor Ulloa in the summer of 1768 was the closing of the mouth of the Mississippi River to only one channel. Safety and coastal defenses would certainly be improved, but with only one channel open the Spanish military would be able to restrict smuggling. Therefore, many merchants, who generated much wealth through the exchange of contraband, were made angry.

The second decision was to tie Louisiana's economy to the rest of the Spanish Empire. Although Governor Ulloa never announced that Louisiana could no longer trade with France or French Colonies, the people realized that their economic links to France would soon be severed. Several subjects became embittered as they thought that harsh Spanish mercantile policies would make the colony's economic depression become worse.

The four major problems, the perceptions, and the two recent decisions combined in the autumn of 1768 to move some people in Louisiana to action. The wealthiest men in the colony, the leading merchants, those engaged in smuggling, and anybody who thought that they had something to lose with continued Spanish rule stepped forward to oust the Spanish from Louisiana.

The Rebellion of 1768

Denis-Nicolas Foucault was one of the principal ringleaders in the plot to oust the Spanish from Louisiana. He was the Commissary of Louisiana (both under France and continuing into 1768), and he had been ordered by the French government to remain in the position until the Spanish had imposed their economic system on Louisiana. He had great respect in Louisiana by his official position with the French government, and although he had taken bribes from smugglers he at least distributed his wealth around the colony.

Nicolas Chauvin de La Freniere was another major instigator of the rebellion. He had served as the Attorney General of Louisiana (under France and unofficially under the Spanish), and he acquired much influence and many friends. By 1768, he began to advocate that colonists had rights and freedoms.

The plot contained wealthy merchants in New Orleans. Jean Baptiste Noyan, Jean Milhet, Joseph Milhet, and Joseph Petit were unhappy with Spanish economic policies. Pierre Poupet and Pierre Hardi de Boisblanc were disgruntled bankers. Joseph Petit was a merchant who had lost much wealth over the prior two years. Pierre Caresse drafted a list of grievances against Governor Ulloa, and Julien Jerome Doucet wrote a legal argument that the Treaty of Fontainebleau was contrary to the Laws of Nations. The documents of Caresse and Doucet were presented to the printer Denis Braud, who distributed copies of them in New Orleans. In the middle of October 1768, Foucault and La Freniere set the rebellion into motion. They sent Joseph Milhet to the settlements west of the Mississippi River, the villages of the Acadians (the recently arrived forced immigrants from Canada) to incite insurrection. They sent Joseph Villere to the communities northwest of New Orleans, the villages of the German immigrants, to spread revolt. Next, Foucault and La Freniere declared that Pierre Marquis was a colonel of a so-called militia consisting of the Acadians and the Germans. They also sent Balthasar Masan to the British colony of West Florida for some type of support; British officials, however, were not supportive as they wanted to avoid an international incident.

As for Captain Charles Philippe Aubry, on 27 October 1768, he first learned of the rebellion, but he was powerless to stop it. His own forces, even combined with the Spanish soldiers, were outnumbered by the so-called militia under Pierre Marquis. The captain protested to Foucault and La Freniere that their rebellion was treason and would ultimately be destroyed, but they ignored him. So Captain Aubry gathered the small number of Spanish soldiers, officials, and sympathizers to board a Spanish vessel for safety. He also warned Governor Ulloa, who was in New Orleans, of the danger.

On 28 October 1768, the so-called militia of Acadians and Germans turned to alcohol and became intoxicated. Captain Aubry decided that he did not have enough men at his disposal to take the opportunity of the drunkenness and disburse the mob. He did, however, escort Governor Ulloa, his pregnant wife, and their young child to the shelter of the Spanish vessel.

On 29 October 1768, as riots erupted in New Orleans, La Freniere went before the Superior Council (some members were part of the plot) and argued that it expel Governor Ulloa form Louisiana and declare that the people of Louisiana were free to trade with any nation and any colony in the world. Captain Aubry invited himself to the meeting, and shouted his objections, and was told to be quite; he left the meeting with the warning that neither Spain nor France would approve of the rebellion. The Superior Council then voted that Governor Ulloa leave the colony within three days.

On the night of 31 October to 1 November 1768, Governor Ulloa, his family, soldiers, officials, and sympathizers sailed down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. Many people in Louisiana celebrated, but Captain Aubry warned them that the worst was yet to come.

The conspirators now faced the question of what to do next. They never showed any indication that they sought independence; rather, they wanted to revert back to French authority. They selected Jean Milhet (the same man who had traveled to France in 1765) to request that the French government reclaim Louisiana. However, his mission was a failure. Minister of State Choiseul refused to see him. The Minister of the Navy, Gabriel de Praslin informed Milhet that the government of King Louis XV disapproved of the rebellion and would do nothing on behalf of the people of Louisiana--especially since Spain had every intention to return to Louisiana.

The Return of the Spanish

In January 1769, Spanish Secretary of State Grimaldi first learned of the rebellion. The next month, Governor Ulloa arrived in Spain with his account. Grimaldi decided to act quickly. He first sent diplomatic notes as a courtesy to France and Great Britain in which he expressed Spain's clear intention to retain control of Louisiana. He then summoned a meeting of the Council of State to determine the actual course to follow. By the end of March 1769, the Council of State favored swiftness and vengeance. Grimaldi then obtained the approval of King Charles III for a military expedition against Louisiana commanded by General Alejandro O'Reilly.

Born in Ireland in 1722, Alejandro (born as Alexander) O'Reilly became a soldier of fortune. He joined Spanish forces fighting in Italy, and he quickly distinguished himself with his leadership. He played a major role in the Spanish invasion of Portugal during the French and Indian War, and later he became the Inspector General of the Spanish Army.

On 19 July 1769, General O'Reilly with a force of over two thousand soldiers on twelve ships entered the Mississippi River delta. They stopped at the settlement of Balize for three weeks. On 24 July 1769, Lieutenant Colonel Francisco Bouligny reached New Orleans to announce the return of the Spanish, and immediately Captain Aubry placed his small for at the disposal of the general. Three days later, Nicolas Chauvin de La Freniere, Pierre Marquis, and Joseph Milhet conferred with General O'Reilly. At the meeting, they insisted that Governor Ulloa had been too harmful, that no blood was shed during the rebellion, and that they respected the King of Spain. The general acted so friendly at the meeting that none of the plotters ever tried to flee Louisiana over the next three weeks.

The convoy reached New Orleans on 18 August 1769. The Spanish soldiers paraded, the French flag was lowered, and the Spanish flag was raised over the Place d'Armes. General O'Reilly announced that Spain was officially taking possession of Louisiana. He also thanked Captain Aubry for his services over the last few years.

One day later, General O'Reilly held a reception at the Governor's Palace in New Orleans. Using reports from Captain Aubry, the general invited several prominent citizens--including most of the conspirators--to dinner. When the festivities were concluding, General O'Reilly arrested the plotters, read the charges against them, and threw them in jail. On the morning of 20 August 1769, General O'Reilly ordered all residents to take an oath of loyalty to King Charles III of Spain. He also announced that any rioting by Acadians, German, or any other group would not be tolerated. Lastly, as a symbol of Spanish benevolence, he said that most people who had participated in the rebellion would not be punished.

Careful to avoid any hint of an international incident, General O'Reilly did not arrest Denis-Nicolas Foucault, the Commissary of Louisiana. Since Foucault still had an official position with the French government, the general did not want any Spanish soldier to apprehend him. Instead, the general ordered Captain Aubry to place Foucault under house arrest. In December 1769, a French vessel transported Foucault back to France. In February 1770, he confessed, was sentenced to prison, and served less than two years.

For two months, General O'Reilly, as judge and jury, conducted the trial of the other conspirators. During the two months, Joseph Villere died. Captain Aubry was the principal witness, but the defendants damaged themselves with their own testimony as they claimed all of their actions were justified on the grounds that Governor Ulloa never had any legal authority over Louisiana.

On 24 October 1769, General Alejandro O'Reilly announced the sentences:

Nicolas Chauvin de La Freniere
Pierre Caresse
Pierre Marquis
Joseph Milhet
Jean Baptiste Noyan

Ten Years Imprisonment:
Julien Jerome Doucet
Balthasar Masan

Six Years Imprisonment:
Pierre Hardi de Boisblanc
Jean Milhet
Pierre Poupet

Denis Braud
Joseph Petit

The very next day, without any chance for a stay of execution or a commutation of sentence, the five men faced the firing squad. The five other men were sent to Havana to serve their sentences. All of the convicted men had their property seized and sold to cover colonial debts.

Captain Aubry was thanked for his services. For his safety, however, General O'Reilly decided that the captain should return to France. In early 1770, Captain Aubry died when his boat sank.

General O'Reilly then abolished the Superior Council and replaced it with a Cabildo. The general then abolished most French laws and replaced them with a Spanish code. In March 1770, he relinquished his powers to the new Spanish Governor of Louisiana, Luis de Unzaga y Amezaga. General Alejandro O'Reilly returned to Spain in June 1770. He was given an audience with and rewarded by King Charles III. He served in the Spanish army for several more years, but he was discredited with defeat in a war in Algeria in 1774. He died in 1794, but even today he is still known in Louisiana as "Bloody O'Reilly."

A Brief Epilogue

From 1770 to 1777, Luis de Unzaga y Amezaga served as the Spanish Governor of Louisiana. He was so well liked, and he even married a French woman from Louisiana, that most people in the colony reconciled themselves to Spanish authority. Moreover, the economy of Louisiana became healthy during his seven years in office. Governor Unzaga allowed Louisiana to conduct trade with the British colonies to the east, and later he began to send some weapons up the Mississippi River to the Americans, who were fighting for independence.

From 1777 to 1785, Bernardo de Gálvez was the Governor of Louisiana. He issued very liberal grants of land on behalf of the King of Spain, and he also married a French woman from Louisiana. During the American Revolutionary War, with Spain at war with Great Britain, Governor  Gálvez led soldiers in the capture of British positions at Natchez, Baton Rouge, Mobile, and Pensacola; to his great credit, he achieved these victories with a minimum loss of life on both sides.

For the next fifteen years, Spain continued to control Louisiana. In 1800, with the Treaty of San Ildefonso, Spain returned Louisiana to France and the dictator Napoleon Bonaparte. Three years later, France sold Louisiana to the Americans, who officially took control on 20 December 1803. Finally, on 20 April 1812, Louisiana entered the Union as the eighteenth state of the United States of America.


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