Native Americans, Relations with Spanish

By 1784 Spain possessed a transcontinental frontier empire in North America that stretched from New California through the Lower Mississippi Valley and Gulf Coast, including Louisiana (acquired from France in 1762) and East and West Florida (which had been returned to Spain in 1783). While one Treaty of Paris restored the Floridas, a second treaty between Great Britain and the new United States of America established American claims westward to the Mississippi River and an uncertain southern boundary. The architects of Spain’s resurgence, Carlos III and José de Gálvez, secretary of the Indies, understood the strategic value of this northern fringe of the Spanish empire and the importance of renewed relations with the Native Americans in the Gulf and Lower Mississippi.

In the spring of 1784 Spanish officials launched a bold strategy to deny American claims south of the Ohio River and west of the Appalachian Mountains and to develop relations with the southern tribes designed to stem American expansion. The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek—the Four Nations—signed treaties with the United States as well as treaties of friendship and fealty with Spanish representatives at conferences held in disparate venues from Pensacola to the Chickasaw Bluffs. These Native Americans, pro-American and pro-Spanish, used their considerable diplomatic skills to play the new American republic and the Spanish against each other to maintain the status quo and gain trade advantages.

Esteban Miró, acting governor-general of Louisiana and West Florida, and other Spanish officials signed four 1784 treaties with the Chickasaw, the Choctaw, and the Tallapoosa and Alabama of the Creek federation. Alexander McGillivray, a prominent mixed Scots-Creek, initiated the first treaty on behalf of the Tallapoosa at the Pensacola Congress on 30 May–1 June 1784. Eight Tallapoosa chiefs received “great medals” and six received “small medals” when they signed a defensive alliance with Spain and promised to maintain peace and friendship with Spain and other tribes. The Tallapoosa left Pensacola with a generous supply of powder, provisions, and rum.

Delegations from the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Alabama traveled to Mobile, where they negotiated three treaties with Miró. The Alabama danced and performed an elaborate calumet ceremony and signed a treaty of friendship and fealty to Spain on 23 June 1784. The Chickasaw signed a similar agreement on the same day, marking the emergence of Ugulayacabé as a war chief. In July, Miró welcomed a much larger Choctaw delegation of 185 great- and small-medal chiefs, captains, warriors, and women representing fifty-nine villages led by Taboca and Franchimastabé. The Choctaw signed a treaty on 14 July 1784 similar to the treaties signed by the other delegations but insisted on receiving gifts and provisions whenever they traveled to Mobile or New Orleans.

Although American commissioners negotiated treaties with the Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw at Hopewell, South Carolina, in 1785–86, the Spanish quickly responded to this American threat. McGillivray prevented the Creek from sending delegates to Hopewell and attempted to dissuade the Chickasaw and Choctaw from attending. Miró sent Juan de la Villebeuvre on a mission to the Choctaw that ended in a successful meeting with the principal chiefs of the Chickasaw and Choctaw at “Grand Yazoo” in late October 1787. Following the Yazoo Conference several influential Choctaw and Chickasaw traveled to New Orleans in January 1788 and met with Miró, exchanged their English medals for Spanish medals and gifts, and renewed their pledge of loyalty to Spain. Miró guaranteed fair trade and the delivery of quality merchandise by Panton, Leslie, and Company traders.

In December 1791 Francisco Luis Héctor, Baron de Carondelet, replaced Miró as governor-general of Louisiana and West Florida and implemented policies to check American land grabbing and contacts among the southern Indians. Before his arrival in New Orleans, Manuel Gayoso de Lemos, the governor at Natchez, moved up to the Yazoo River in April 1791 and constructed a fort near its mouth to prevent the South Carolina Yazoo Company from starting a settlement at Los Nogales or Walnut Hills (present-day Vicksburg). Franchimastabé and Taboca challenged the Spanish land claims, causing Gayoso to negotiate for a year before concluding a treaty with Taskietoka, Franchimastabé, Ugulayacabé, and some three hundred Choctaw and Chickasaw at Natchez on 14 May 1792.

Following Gayoso’s success at Natchez, Carondelet launched an aggressive plan to control the Indian trade, stifle American influence over the Four Nations, and build an Indian confederacy to defend Spain’s claim to the Lower Mississippi Valley south of the Ohio and west of the Appalachians. Carondelet’s confederacy received its first endorsement from Bloody Fellow, who led a Cherokee delegation to a November 1792 New Orleans conference that included Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Shawnee. He urged Carondelet to construct posts at Muscle Shoals on the Tennessee and at the site of the old French Fort Tombecbé on the Tombigbee River and to halt American intrusions on Indian lands. Carondelet proposed that Spain serve as a mediator between the Four Nations and the United States and suggested the creation of a congress with representatives from each nation to prevent conflicts and maintain peace.

Despite the efforts of George Washington’s administration to counter the Spanish influence, Carondelet’s plan met with success through the diplomacy of Gayoso and Villebeuvre. At Boucfouca (present-day Jackson), Villebeuvre signed a three-article treaty with twenty-six Choctaw chiefs and captains on 10 May 1793. Article 1 provided for the transfer of approximately 25.5 acres to the Spanish for the construction of a fort at the site of the former French fort on the Tombigbee River, where the Choctaw would receive “gifts and provisions.” In the other articles, the Spanish promised to protect and defend the Choctaw and their lands, and the chiefs and captains pledged to remain “steadfast friends” of the Spanish. Six months later at Fort Nogales, Gayoso welcomed two thousand Chickasaw, Choctaw, Tallapoosa, and Alabama, and they signed the Treaty of Nogales on 28 October 1793. By this treaty, Ugulayacabé, Franchimastabé, and four great-medal chiefs representing the Creek and Cherokee agreed to form “an offensive and defensive alliance” and accepted “His Catholic Majesty” as their protector, empowering the Spanish to regulate trade and mediate boundaries with the United States.

The Treaties of Boucfouca and Nogales led to the construction of Fort Confederation on the Tombigbee in 1794 and Fort San Fernando de las Barrancas on the Chickasaw Bluffs (present-day Memphis) in 1795 with the approval of the Chickasaw. While Choctaw and Chickasaw visited the new Spanish posts to trade and to receive gifts and munitions, Spanish and American representatives negotiated the Treaty of San Lorenzo in October 1795. The treaty established the thirty-first parallel as the boundary between Spanish and American territory east of the Mississippi River. It effectively ended Carondelet’s Indian confederacy and in 1797 and 1798 forced the evacuation of Spanish fortifications north of the new boundary, including Nogales, Confederation, San Fernando de las Barrancas, and San Esteban de Tombecbé, north of Mobile. The treaty left the Four Nations exposed to the demands of the southern states and the policies of the federal government.

Further Reading

  • Jack D. L. Holmes, Florida Historical Quarterly (October 1969, April 1980)
  • Jack D. L. Holmes, Gayoso: The Life of a Spanish Governor in the Mississippi Valley, 1789–1799 (1965)
  • Jack D. L. Holmes, Publications of the East Tennessee Historical Society 34 (1962)
  • Manuel Serrano y Sanz, Spain and the Cherokee and Choctaw Indians in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century, trans. Samuel Dorris Dickinson (1995)
  • Charles A. Weeks, Paths to the Middle Ground: The Diplomacy of Natchez, Boukfouka, Nogales, and San Fernando de las Barrancas, 1791–1795 (2005)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Native Americans, Relations with Spanish
  • Author
  • Keywords Native Americans, Relations, Spanish
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 2, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 2, 2018