In Texas in March 1801, Philip Nolan warned his men: Fight for a chance to escape. Otherwise, the Spanish will put you in chains and imprison you for life.
Now his men found themselves in that feared position.
Nolan was a Natchez horse trader who had entered Spanish lands in Texas at a time when the Spanish feared an Indian uprising and that Americans would soon rush westward across the Mississippi River in numbers too big to control.
Nolan primarily was in Texas to make money by catching and taming wild horses and selling them east of the Mississippi River. When he disobeyed Spanish warnings not to journey west, the Spanish went after him.
At a small fort near Blum in east central Texas, a Spanish force of 120 men led by Spanish Commander Miguel Francisco Múzquiz surrounded the fort. That’s where Nolan made his final stand and urged his men to fight.
But a cannon shot killed Nolan – the only fatality in the battle. His men then did just what he asked them to do – attempt to escape. But the forces against them were too great and they were cornered. Now prisoners in the hands of a nation known for its brutality to prisoners in the Americas, the men were marched to Nacogdoches.
One prisoner – Tennessee native Ellis Bean – described what happened next:
“In some days after we arrived at Nacogdoches, the commandant told us he was waiting for orders from Chihuahua, to set us at liberty and send us home. We waited in this hope for about a month, when, instead of our liberty, we were seized and put in irons, and sent off under a strong guard to San Antonio. Here we lay in prison three months.
“Then we were started to Mexico, but were stopped at San Luis Potosi, where we were confined in prison one year and four months. By this time we were getting bare of clothes. I told them I was a shoemaker, and would be very thankful if they would permit me, in the daytime, to sit at the door of my prison, and work at my trade … but in a short time afterward, orders came that we should be sent to Chihuahua. This order was quickly obeyed; and we started on horseback, with heavy irons. Yet it was cheering to think that we were going to change our prisons, hoping that in some change we might be able, some day or other, to escape.”
But their imprisonment was far from over. And stories of the Spanish and their earlier ventures in North America were recalled, especially the stories of the brutality against Native Americans at the hands of the conquistadors. Life as a Spanish prisoner was greatly feared.
COLUMBUS, CORTÉS, PIZARRO
In 1492, when the Italian Christopher Columbus landed on San Salvador Island in the Bahamas, he thought he was in Asia. He planned to enter the lucrative spice trade. Instead, he discovered a New World, a finding that rocked Europe.
Spain, which financed this and subsequent voyages by Columbus, soon learned that the Americas could lead to great riches. It fueled speculation that in this vast land existed a region known by legend as the Seven Cities of Gold.
A few years after Columbus’ first voyage, the Spanish established a government in Cuba. Back in Spain, young men looking for riches and adventure were organizing their own expeditions across the Atlantic and looking for financial backers and the government’s blessing and money.
In 1519, Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico. By 1521, with a force of a few hundred men and hundreds of Indian allies he toppled the great kingdom of the Aztecs and the millions who lived there. While conquistadors were ruthless, brutal, cruel and heartless men, their feats and endurance were nothing short of amazing.
Several factors made them formidable. The native populations had never seen horses, which gave the Spanish speed and endurance. Nor had the Indians ever seen the powerful weapons and armor in the Spanish arsenal. Cortésemployed what would become a common Spanish tactic – he allied with other Indian nations that had been conquered by the Aztecs.
Ironically, in addition to the army of soldiers and supply lines, priests were also in the train. Every acre of land the conquistadors saw, they claimed for Spain. Then the missionaries began the work of converting the Indians to the Gospel. In the meantime, even outside battle, the natives began to die from the European diseases the conquistadors carried across the ocean with them. The Indians had no immunity to smallpox, measles and other horrific illnesses.
When Cortes sent trunks of gold back to Europe, the world took notice.
Even more amazing was the conquest of the Incas in South America by Francisco Pizarro in 1533. So powerful were the conquistadors fighting abilities, coupled with the advantages of their weapons and the use of horses, that in one battle alone Pizarro’s men slaughtered 7,000 Incas and seized their leader.
Pizarro had entered the country with only 128 men. The Inca army was estimated at 80,000.
As plans to colonize both Americas began, the Spanish exploited the riches of the land. One mine alone in Columbia generated 7,000 tons of silver for the Spanish Crown.
SEVEN CITIES OF GOLD
When the Spanish organized a government in Cuba, it began plans to explore what is now the United States. Conquistadors were willing to risk death every hour for the chance of wealth. While the lands they claimed were for Spain, conquistadors could make use of the land for life and only had to pay their mother country 20 percent of the revenue generated from any source. Additionally, the soldiers and members of their expeditions would receive land grants.
In 1528, Pánfilo de Narváez led 300 men to Florida to search for gold. After many months, he and his men vanished from earth. In a related story, another Spanish conquistador, Pedro Núñez de Guzmán departed Mexico for the American southwest. When he didn’t find gold, he kidnapped Native Americans and sold them as slaves, a violation of Spanish law that Spanish officials ignored.
In 1536, by pure accident, Guzman ran into four survivors of the Narváez Florida expedition. They explained thatNarváez not only found no gold but faced fierce resistance from the Indians. Eventually, the men, unsure where they were, built boats and set sail in the Gulf. In darkness and storms, the boats separated along the way. Soon Narváez and scores of the men disappeared, never again to be seen. The others eventually landed in south Texas, but only four survived.
One of the survivors was taken to Mexico City, built by the Spanish on the ruins of the Aztec empire. There, he told the viceroy that he saw ceremonial arrowheads that may have been emerald. This, thought the viceroy, was surely a sign that the Seven Cities of Gold existed.
Months later, the viceroy sent 27-year-old Francisco Coronado on a mission. Coronado displayed the typical brutality of the conquistadors when he traveled through Arizona, New Mexico, the panhandle of Texas and Kansas in search of the treasures. Everywhere he went, he demanded that the Native Americans submit to the rule of the Spanish, who came from a land across a vast ocean. The Indians knew nothing about such things.
Along the way, Coronado displayed unspeakable brutalities to anyone who defied Spanish authority. They burned men, women and children at the stake, fed them to Spanish war dogs, confiscated their food and their homes. They tortured and executed hundreds.
And they also exploited the conflicts of tribes, made some their allies and overwhelmed their enemy with their horses, matchlocks and armor.
The Native Americans soon learned that the Spanish more than anything else were looking for gold. So, they often lied and claimed that the gold the Spanish was seeking was somewhere else.
In the end, Coronado found no gold. He returned to Mexico broken in spirit and in the pocketbook. He suffered in poor health for years and struggled to survive. His final years were not much different than any other conquistador.
Even Hernando de Soto, who was credited in Europe with discovering the Mississippi River (which would have been news to the Indians), died while looking for gold in the southeast United States. Upon his death, his body was dropped into the Mississippi River. Most historians believe his body was cast away in Arkansas. Some said he died in Ferriday.
De Soto had been part of Pizarro’s expedition against the Incas. He used the fortune he made there to finance his expedition to the Mississippi River. Had he survived, he would have returned home just like Coronado – a broken man.
A little over two centuries later, stories of the conquistadors were well known in Natchez and in Texas. Many remembered only the riches they discovered.
But anyone on land claimed by the Spanish – like Nolan and his men – had also heard stories handed down by generations of the brutality of the conquistadors.
That’s why Nolan fought for a chance to escape the Spanish. For him, death at the hands of the Spanish was better than the likelihood of torture in their prisons.