The Spanish arrived in Florida in 1539 and concentrated their interest in the peninsula and eastern Florida. They lost Florida to the British in the 1763 Treaty of Paris, but because the British believed that administering the port of New Orleans would be a nightmare, Spain was allowed to keep New Orleans and Louisiana land on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Spain won back Florida in 1783 by supporting the upstart colonies in their successful war of independence. Thus began the second Spanish period of West Florida domination.
More than anything else, Spain was interested in populating West Florida with farmers producing staples needed worldwide—staples that could be shipped through New Orleans. Therefore, they offered current English landholders eighteen months to leave unless they took an oath of allegiance to the king of Spain. They also offered land grants to farmers from nearby southern states and territories. William Dunbar, a planter with a British land grant in the Natchez area, transitioned easily to Spanish rule, offering his language, surveying, and architectural skills to the Spanish.
Spanish land in America, as elsewhere, belonged to the king, who appointed intendants (district administrators) who supposedly controlled grant-making authority in Spanish colonies worldwide. In truth, however, the king’s appointed governor in New Orleans controlled all activities in that colony. The first Spanish governor, appointed in 1763, never ventured to New Orleans to take office. He was followed by Don Alexandro O’Reilly (1769–72), Col. Don Louis Unzaga y Aranaga (1772–79), Don Bernardo de Galvez (1779–86), Col. Don Esteban Miro (1786–91), Col. Franco Louis Hector, Baron de Carondelet (1791–96), Brig. Don Manuel Gayoso de Lemos (1796–99), and Col. Don Manuel Juan de Seledo (1799–1803).
Spain claimed that West Florida included the land between the thirty-first and thirty-second parallels, which included Natchez; the United States did not recognize that claim. The boundary dispute created instability in Natchez throughout the period of Spanish rule. Also, increasing numbers of American citizens migrated to Natchez, relegating Spanish officials and settlers to a small minority.
Many of Natchez’s planters and farmers nevertheless thrived. Horse racing became a favorite sport, and elegant homes were built. Governor Gayoso, seeking local input and regional peace, created what would be called today a city council of eighteen elected officials, most of them Americans and former British landholders. In 1795 Spain and the United States negotiated the Treaty of San Lorenzo, which allowed the appointment of a joint commission to run the thirty-first parallel. In addition, the treaty guaranteed Americans free use of the Mississippi River and of New Orleans to deposit goods for export and exempted Americans from export duties for three years. In 1798 American and Spanish commissioners ran the thirty-first parallel line, and Natchez became a part of the United States. When Gayoso left Natchez on 29 May 1797 to assume the West Florida governorship in New Orleans, he was applauded and toasted—a good way to end Spanish domination in what was soon to be Mississippi Territory.
- Francis P. Burns, Louisiana Historical Quarterly (1928)
- William Dunbar, Life, Letters, and Papers of William Dunbar, ed. Eron Rowland (1930)
- Jack D. L. Holmes, Gayoso, The Life of a Spanish Governor in the Mississippi Valley, 1789–1799 (1965)
- Lawrence Kinniard, ed., Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1945 (1949)
- Catherine Van Cortlandt Mathews, Andrew Ellicott, His Life and Letters (1908)
- Daniel H. Usner Jr., American Indians in the Lower Mississippi Valley: Social and Economic Histories (2003)
- Charles A. Weeks, Paths to a Middle Ground: The Diplomacy of Natchez, Boukfouka, Nogales, and San Fernando de Las Barrancas, 1791–1795 (2005)
- Arthur Peterson Whitaker, ed., Documents Relating to the Commercial Policy of Spain in the Floridas with Incidental Reference to Louisiana (1931)