Manuel Gayoso de Lemos was the most famous Spanish ruler of Natchez. He was born in 1747 in Portugal to a Spanish diplomat and Portuguese woman. His education included languages, diplomatic skills, and military training, all of which proved beneficial to his career as an administrator of Spanish colonies in North America.
Spain gained control of the Natchez District after its victories over the British in the Lower Mississippi Valley during the Revolutionary War and decided to upgrade the settlement from an isolated military post to what they hoped would be a more prosperous colony. Gayoso was appointed as governor of the district in 1787 with orders from the Spanish Crown to bolster the region so that it would provide better protection for Spain’s more lucrative possessions in Mexico.
He faced a monumental task. When Gayoso arrived in 1789, Natchez was a small frontier settlement built around a dilapidated fort on the river. He oversaw the creation and development of the town and initiated policies to entice settlers to the region. He encouraged agricultural innovation to find a cash crop that would strengthen the local economy. Unlike many Spanish colonial rulers, he did not force Catholicism on the city’s residents. Persons of other denominations could not preach in public but could worship in their own homes. He improved the district’s defenses by building forts at present-day Vicksburg and Memphis and helped conclude important treaties with Native Americans to prevent the United States from encroaching on Spanish territory.
Gayoso had a congenial personality and charmed Natchez. He frequently held lavish social and political gatherings at his mansion, Concorde. Under his regime, the Natchez District grew and gained new settlers; however, Spain’s hold on the territory remained tenuous.
In 1795, with the United States expanding, its leaders negotiated the Treaty of San Lorenzo (also known as Pinckney’s Treaty) with Spain. The agreement granted the United States free usage of the Mississippi River and set the thirty-first parallel as the northern boundary of Spanish Florida, transferring the Natchez District to the young nation. Gayoso and other Spanish leaders subsequently attempted to nullify the treaty, offering excuses to American officials and delaying the Spanish evacuation of the area. Spain finally relinquished control in March 1798.
By that time Gayoso had already departed. He had received a promotion to governor-general of Louisiana and West Florida and reported to New Orleans in 1797. He died there of yellow fever on 18 July 1799.
- Jack D. Elliott Jr., Journal of Mississippi History (Winter 1997)
- Jack D. L. Holmes, Gayoso: Life of a Spanish Governor in the Mississippi Valley, 1789–1799 (1965)
- Jack D. L. Holmes, in A History of Mississippi (1973)