Chapter III: A History of Jefferson County, Texas
Spanish and French Activities
by W. T. Block
During much of the eighteenth century, Spain and France contested the ownership of Jefferson County equally.1 Spanish claims to East Texas rested firmly upon the wanderings of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and other survivors of the Panfilo de Narvaez expedition, who were cast ashore on, or near, Galveston Island in November, 1528.2 He possibly’ was the first European to visit in Jefferson County for one account, which follows, states that Cabeza de Vaca travelled extensively during his four years in East Texas:
Spain’s claim was strengthened by the journey into East Texas of the survivors of Hernando de Soto’s expedition, who, in 1543 under Luis de Moscoso, traveled in a southward arc between present-day baton Rouge, Opelousas, and Nacogdoches.4
French claims to East Texas stemmed from the ill-fated voyage of Robert, Sieur de La Salle, whose colony landed, probably in error, at Matagorda Bay in Texas in 1685, where they built Fort Saint Louis. La Salle was assassinated by his men as they approached the Trinity River in Texas en route to Canada.5 Subsequent claims arose from the journeys of Louis Juchereau de Saint Denis, who founded the French colony at Natchitoches, Louisianain 1713.6
Throughout the eighteenth century, Spain expressed only sporadic interest in East Texas, and virtually none in the Jefferson County region. However, until the cession of Louisiana to Spain in 1763, Spain was ever mindful of the French and English attempts to trade or colonize in East Texas, and sought to suppress such activities. While trade with the Attakapas tribe of Jefferson County offered no profit incentive to the Spanish, as Father Morfi’s evaluation implies, the suppression of the French trade in that area was necessary to avoid a transfer of tribal allegiance to the French.7
By 1730, the French fur traders had crossed the lower Sabine River, and were engaged in trade with the Orcoquisa tribe on the Trinity River.8 However, this early trade with the Attakapas tribe was not highly esteemed, for when an Indian trade delegation arrived in New Orleans in 1733, Governor Jean Baptiste de Bienville wrote as follows:
There is furthermore, no ground to expect that a fur trade could be carried on with these [Attakapas] Indians. They are so lazy that they hardly have anything with which to cover themselves. It is true that they have some horses, but the difficulty of bringing them would cancel the profit that might be derived from this trade.9
In July 1745, Captain Joaquin de Orobio led a party of twenty-one soldiers from Nacogdoches to the mouth of the Trinity River, giving the tribesmen of the Orcoquisa village their first view of Spanish troops. Before leaving the Navidachos village on the Neches River, Orobio observed a great quantity of French firearms and trinkets, and learned that fifteen shipwrecked Frenchmen had passed through there en route to Natchitoches, Louisiana.10 Orobio was told that French traders who came overland, had visited El Orcoquisac regularly for six years, promising in addition to settle permanently among them, and that other Frenchmen “came annually by water, entering the Neches, Trinity, and Brazos Rivers.” This information prompted the Spanish to settle permanently along the lower Trinity River.11
In 1756, the Spanish built the presidio of San Augustin de Ahumada at El Orcoquisac, near - present-day Wallisville, Texas, about fifteen miles west of Jefferson County. In 1774, they added the presidio of Pilar de Bucarelli on the Trinity River near the Deadose Indian village. Bucarelli soon became the headquarters of the Spanish officer Captain Antonio Gil Ybarbo.12
Under the regime of Spanish governor Don Jacinto de Barrios, which began in 1751, French traders were tolerated for a time, and a trader named Joseph Blancpain settled permanently at El Orcoquisac. When an expected transfer and promotion threatened to implicate the governor in 1754, Barrios had Blancpain arrested and sent to Mexico City, where the latter was imprisoned and later died. Blancpain stated that he had traded among the Attakapan tribes for twenty-five years without previous molestation by the Spanish. His imprisonment and death brought a protest from Governor Kerlerec of Louisiana, who claimed that the Trinity River flowed within French territory.13
Despite warnings of severe treatment by Spanish authorities, French fur-trading continued, and within months after Blancpain’s arrest, a Spanish soldier reported that French fur traders were active again on the Trinity River.14 These traders were probably employed by Blancpain’s competitors, M. de Masse and his partner, an errant priest named Abbe Disdier, and a neighbor named Cortebleau, who operated “rancherias” at a point east of the Sabine River, but on land claimed by Spain.15
In July 1755, M. de Masse’s petition to re-settle in Texas, accompanied by the governor’s letter, which described de Masse as being the “absolute master of the Attacapa and northern tribes, owner of twenty Negroes, seven hundred head of cattle, and one hundred horses,” was forwarded to the Spanish viceroy.16 Masse’s petition was refused, but he continued to control the fur trade with the Attakapas Indians along the Coast for years afterward.17
The cession of Louisiana to Spain in 1763 did not appreciably diminish the border tensions for inter-provincial trade between Texas and Spanish Louisiana remained forbidden.18 Violators occasionally pleaded ignorance of the law, as did Augustin de Grevenverge, captain of the Spanish militia at Attakapas, Louisiana, when he was intercepted in Southeast Texas by Captain Gil Ybarbo. Grevenverge attempted to haul a “large quantity of merchandise” to San Antonio to trade for horses and mules.19
In the meantime, rumors of English incursions along the upper Texas coast began to circulate after 1770. In September 1772, a report that Englishmen were “cutting wood for houses and giving presents to the Indians” on the Trinity River prompted Captain Luis Cazorla of Bahia presidio to investigate.20 Upon reaching the Orcoquisa “rancheria” on the Lower Trinity River, Cazorla made the following entry in his diary:
I went with thirty soldiers in search of the said rancherias… It was full of heathen Indians—Orcoquisas, Atacapas, Vidais, and Cocos. I found among all of them indications of the existence of this trade, for both men and women went about wrapped in chintz, wearing fine camisas de vueltas [outer shirts?] and ribbons. Having endeavored to ingratiate myself with all of them, in order to accomplish the purpose of my mission, I found that the traffic in which they were all engaged was carried on with some Frenchmen who were on the other side of the Rio de Nechas…one and one-half day’s journey from where I then was. They informed [me] that they had left the said rancheria about four days before, two Negroes having gone there with loaded mules. The trade is now carried on by a Frenchman, named Distrive, who was in the place mentioned, with his brother and four Negroes. They told me that they [the Frenchman] got the muskets from the British in order to sell them to the Indians, but that they would not allow the English to come to trade. One Englishman who came for this purpose managed to win the goodwill of the Indians… The French caught him, and sent word to Natchitoches, whence ten soldiers came and took him away...21
It was a report of an English ship in the Neches River that caused Captain Gil Ybarbo to lead Spanish troops from Bucarelli to Jefferson County for the first time in July 1777. The English voyage had begun about December 1776 when Captain Joseph David and nine crewmen left Jamaica en route to New Orleans and Pensacola. Having only a small quantity of trade goods aboard, the Jamaican sloop was carrying bricks for ballast, which caused the Spanish to regard it as a colonizing voyage. Like La Salle a century earlier, Captain David miscalculated and grounded his vessel on a mudflat in the “Rio de Nechas,” actually Louisiana Point in the Sabine Pass.22 The journal of Captain George Gauld, master of the British surveying sloop Florida, gives a graphic portrayal of the Jamaicans’ plight:
The wreck at the entrance of Chicouansh [Sabine Pass] was a sloop from Jamaica bound to the Mississippi. Having fallen in to the westward, they bewildered themselves on this inhospitable coast, and after they were cast away, the savages plundered them and the vessel of everything they could carry off, even the sails and rigging. Only three people remained out of nine, the master and all the rest having died on the coast. These three men in a small boat wandered along the mast for some months in quest of the Mississippi, but after a fruitless search, they had returned to the wreck for some provisions, and were just going away again, when providentially the surveying sloop Florida appeared and relieved them from their distress July 22, 1777, after they had been eight months from Jamaica.23
When Gil Ybarbo arrived in Jefferson County, the Attakapan tribesmen told him that three Englishmen were still guarding the wreck, and that another English ship had entered the Neches River during 1774, the crew camping out on the east side of the river while they planted and harvested a crop. Ybarbo then circled the western shore of Sabine Lake until he found the wrecked vessel, but the three sailors had disappeared.24
Ybarbo left for the Trinity River to search for another English vessel, but found only a “lost and almost naked” Englishman named Miller, who had wandered aimlessly along the coast for seven months. Miller recounted that he had left Jamaica with Captain David, and that the captain had “cast him adrift in a canoe” in order to rob Miller of five slaves that he owned aboard the Jamaican sloop. Ybarbo took Miller to Bucarelli, but the account does not state what subsequently happened to him 25
The Spanish returned to Jefferson County in May 1785, when Don Jose de Evia mapped and sounded the Louisiana and Texas coasts. Evia left the Mississippi River in two schooners, but later switched to smaller boats powered by both oar and sail. At the mouth of the Sabine Pass, Evia discovered a wrecked English brigantine.26 He and his men camped out on the Front Ridge at Sabine Pass, and later crossed Sabine Lake to the mouths of the Sabine and Neches Rivers. In 1799, the results of Evia’s work was published as Juan de Langara’s “Map of The Mexican Gulf.”27
In 1 800, France recovered the Louisiana cession from Spain. At the time, the French government considered the Rio Grande to be the western boundary of Louisiana.28 Three years later, France sold Louisiana to the United States, and American commissioners arrived in New Orleans in December 1803 to assume control of the government. 29
The French sale of Louisiana to the United States caused the Spanish great concern. In 1805, Spanish forces in East Texas were reinforced and placed under the command of General Simon Herrera. A small detachment reoccupied Atascosita near El Orcoquisac. Another force crossed the Sabine River and occupied the old presidio of Los Adaes near Natchitoches, Louisiana.30 Danger of conflict ended in 1806, when Herrera and General James Wilkinson, commander of United States troops in Louisiana, concluded the Neutral Ground Agreement, leaving the area between the Sabine River and the Arroyo Hondo unoccupied by the troops of either nation.31 This agreement remained in effect until the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 established the point of landfall on the west bank of the Sabine River, Sabine Lake, and the Sabine Pass as Texas’ eastern boundary.32
Spanish ownership of Jefferson County ended in 1821 when, by the Treaty of Cordova, Texas became a part of the revolutionary republic of Mexico.33 The Spanish influence continued in Texas until the period of the Texas Revolution. Except for some place names and units of measure, the heritage of the Franco-Spanish colonial era was barely discernible in nineteenth century Jefferson County, for the Anglo-American pioneers quickly substituted the laws, customs, and standards of the United States.
A renewal of the heritage came in the twentieth century when significant numbers of Mexican and Acadian French minorities migrated to Jefferson County. Their arrival accounts for the preservation of both languages and some of the folkways, music, customs, and dances, which stem from the French and Spanish colonial periods of American history.
VALENTINE WIESS—As an 18-year- old Jasper County youth, V. Wiess enlisted in Co. A, Spaight’s Bn. (in which unit three of his brothers also served) and fought at the Battle of Calcasieu Pass. He was a leading Beaumont financier after 1872.
ABEL COFFIN, JR.—An early Sabine hardware dealer, ship carpenter, and steam boatman, Coffin participated in the offshore battle that resulted in the capture of the blockaders.
1 Because of the vague information on Melish’s map used by the negotiators, even the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 did not identify precisely the true eastern boundary of Texas to the satisfaction of the United States. As late as 1838, Secretary of State John Forsyth insisted that the Neches was actually the Sabine River. If this interpretation had prevailed at the Texas-United States boundary negotiations of 1839-1840 and been accepted by the Republic of Texas, Jefferson County would have been split in half. See George P. Garrison (ed.), Diplomatic Correspondence of The Republic of Texas, in American Historical Association Annual Report, 1907, (3 volumes; Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1908-1911), II, Part 1, pp. 138, 284.
2 Charles W. Hackett (ed.), Pichardo’s Treatise on The Limits of Texas and Louisiana (4 volumes; Austin: University of Texas Press, 1931), I, pp. 35, 80-81, 415n, 424n, and II, pp. 294-295, 388-389; Gerald Ashford, Spanish Texas Yesterday and Today (Austin: Jenkins Book Publishing Company, 1971), pp. 13-15, 20-24.
3 Cleve Hallenbeck, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca: The Journey and Route of The First European To Cross The Continent of North America, 1534-1536 (reprint; Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, 1971), p. 127.
4 F. W. Hodge and T. H. Lewis (eds.), Spanish Explorers in The United States, 1528-1543 (reprint; New York: Barnes and Noble, Incorporated, 1953), pp. 238-241; B. F. French (compiler), Historical Collections of Louisiana (Philadelphia: Daniels and Smith, 1850), pp. 108, 195-196, and fold-out map of Guillame de l’Ille. Naudacho and Naguatex are variant names for the “pueblo” of the Navidachos Indians, a Hasinai-Daddo tribe, who occupied the area around Nacogdoches. See Hackett (ed.), Pichardo‘s Treatise, III, pp. 47-49, 599-600.
5 Alcee Fortier, A History of Louisiana (4 volumes, New York: Manzi, Joyant and Company, 1904), I, pp. 26-29.
6 Ibid., p. 79; Ashford, Spanish Texas, pp. 93-96.
7 H. E. Bolton, Texas in The Middle Eighteenth Century (reprint; Austin: University of Texas Press, 1970) pp. 35-38, 418.
8 Ibid., p. 36.
9 Lauren C. Post, “Some Notes on The Attakapas - Indians of Southwest Louisiana,” Louisiana History, Ill (Summer, 1962), p. 225.
10 H. E. Bolton, “Spanish Activities on The Lower Trinity River, 1746-177 1,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, XVI (April, 1913), pp. 340-341.
11 Ibid., pp. 342-343; Isaac J. Cox, “The Louisiana-Texas Frontier, Part I: The Franco-Spanish Regime,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, X (July, 1906), p. 21.
12 Bolton, Texas In The Middle Eighteenth Century, pp. 74, 405-408; Hackett (ed.), Pichardo’s Treatise, I, p. 380 and II, p. 196.
13 Bolton, Texas In The Middle Eighteenth Century, p. 359; Bolton, “Spanish Activities on The Lower Trinity River,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, pp. 348-349; Cox, “The Louisiana-Texas Frontier, Part I,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, pp. 21-22; Hackett (ed.), Pichardo’s Treatise, I, pp. 376, 380 and II, pp. 198-20 1. Father Morfi stated that Biancpain settled in Texas “by permission of the governor and in the character of Spanish vassals.” Ibid., p. 201.
14 Hackett (ed.), Pichardo’s Treatise, I, p. 380n.
15 Ibid., II, pp. 201 -202.
16 Bolton, “Spanish Activities on The Lower Trinity River,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, p. 367.
17 Ibid Cox, “The Louisiana-Texas Frontier, Part I,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, pp. 22-23; Bolton, Texas In The Middle Eighteenth Century, pp. 359-361.
18 Cox, “The Louisiana-Texas Frontier, Part I,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, p. 32.
19 E. Bolton, “The Spanish Abandonment and Reoccupation of East Texas, 1773-1779,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, IX (October, 1905), pp. 120-121.
20 Ibid p. 101.
21 Hackett (ed.), Pichardo’s Treatise, I, p. 395.
22 Hackett (ed.), Pichardo‘s Treatise, I, pp. 384-386, map 389; Bolton, Texas in The Middle Eighteenth Century, pp. 425-426; Bolton, “Spanish Abandonment and Reoccupation of East Texas, 1773-1779,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, pp. 117-118.
23 Map D-965, July 22, 1777, British Admiralty Archives, copy owned by the writer. Gauld’s map, superbly drawn and detailed, compares favorably with modern-day cartography.
24 Bolton, Texas in The Middle Eighteenth Century, p. 425; Bolton, “Spanish Abandonment and Re-Occupation of East Texas, 1773-1779,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, pp. 117-118; Fray Juan Augustin Morfi, History of Texas, 16 73-1779 (2 volumes: Albuquerque: The Quivera Society, 1935), H, pp. 427-428.
25 Hackett (ed.), Pichardo’s Treatise, I, p. 386; Bolton, Texas in The Middle Eighteenth Century, p. 426.
26 This was not Captain David’s ship. A brigantine has two masts whereas a sloop has only one.
27 Hackett (ed.), Pichardo’s Treatise, I, pp. 364-367. An unverified, secondary source states that, in 1800, Spanish troops arrested the crew of a wrecked English ship, encamped on the ridge at Sabine Pass, and charged them with attempting to colonize on Spanish soil. See Beaumont Enterprise, August 2, 1927.
28 Richard Stenberg, “The Western Boundary of Louisiana, 1762-1803,” South Western Historical Quarterly, XXXV (October, 1931), p. 100.
29 Odie B. Faulk, The Last Years of Spanish Texas (The Hague: Mouton and Company, 1964), p. 119.
30 Julia Garrett, Green Flag Over Texas: A Story of The Last Years of Spain in Texas (Austin: Pemberton Press, no date), pp. 12-13.
31 Faulk, Last Years of Spanish Texas, p. 125; E. Wallace and D. M. Vigness, Documents of Texas History (Lubbock Texas Tech Press, 1960), pp. 37-38
32 Wallace and Vigness, Documents of Texas History. Pp 41-42; Robert L. and Pauline H. Jones, “Texas’ Eastern Boundary,” Texana, Ill (Sumnler, 1965), p. 124.
33 L. J. Wortham, A History of Texas From Wilderness To Commonwealth (5 volumes; Fort Worth: Wortham Molyneaux Company, 1924), I, p. 103.