The Destruction of the Saint Sabá Mission by José de Páez

Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City/Artchives/Alamy

José de Páez: The Destruction of the Saint Sabá Mission in the Province of Texas and the Martyrdom of the Priests, Fray Alonso Giraldo de Terreros and Fray José de Santiesteban, circa 1758

In the grand epic of American history, the English were latecomers. The failed colony of 1587 on Roanoke Island, off the North Carolina coast, was followed by the founding of two initially precarious settlements, Jamestown in 1607 and Plymouth Colony, far to the north, in 1620. By that date, over 400,000 Spaniards and over 30,000 Portuguese were living on the far side of the Atlantic, alongside indigenous inhabitants, peoples of mixed race, and a rapidly growing population transported from Africa to provide a labor supply. When the Pilgrims landed on the eastern fringe of modern Massachusetts, they set foot in an “America” that had been claimed for well over a century by the crowns of Spain and Portugal as their own exclusive preserve. Although doubts were beginning to surface, from the vantage point of the 1620s it may well have seemed that the hemisphere’s future lay with people of Iberian stock.

The history of the next three centuries turned out otherwise. It was one thing to lay claim to vast tracts of territory and quite another to make that claim a reality. In the story of Spain’s colonization of America there was always an imbalance between space and people. With an emigration rate to the New World of perhaps two thousand a year, Spaniards, who tended to congregate in cities and towns, could hardly hope to occupy such a vast expanse of land, even though their numbers were growing. This created opportunities that their European rivals—the French, the English, and the Dutch—were all too happy to seize.

These northern Europeans were tempted above all by reports of the fabulous gold of an American El Dorado, and of the rich silver resources of the Spanish viceroyalties of New Spain (Mexico) and Peru. It was American silver, annually shipped in increasingly large quantities to Seville, that made the sixteenth-century Spain of Philip II the dominant European power and gave rise to fears across the continent that the king was well on his way to establishing a “universal monarchy.” Northern European corsairs, with or without the permission of their rulers, responded with growing boldness, attacking Spanish shipping on the high seas, plundering coastal settlements, and tentatively setting up bases on Caribbean islands or the American mainland from which to conduct their depredations. But the silver convoys were well guarded, and Spain had the power to wreak terrible revenge on those who trespassed on its “Empire of the Indies.” This was something that the French discovered in 1565, when a Spanish expeditionary force under the command of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés wiped out a nascent French settlement on the coast of Florida, then built a fortress and set up a town at St. Augustine, which was to become the longest continuously occupied European city in the United States.

It was uncertain, however, how long the Spanish authorities could hold off their European enemies. The territorial integrity of their American empire had to be defended at all costs, but nobody had any notion of the nature and extent of the territory involved. The cartography of the New World was largely a blank and had to be pieced together from information, much of it opaque or deliberately unreliable, provided by indigenous peoples encountered by Spanish expeditions moving northward into the American interior in pursuit of wild dreams, like finding the fountain of eternal youth or the Seven Cities of Cíbola.

While some of these expeditions have been largely forgotten, others have won a secure place in the annals of exploration and human endurance: that of Cabeza de Vaca and his companions, for instance, who started from Florida in 1528 and over the course of eight years covered some six thousand miles, through today’s Texas, before stumbling, more dead than alive, across four fellow Spaniards in northern New Spain; or that of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, whose party left in 1540 from the coastal region of Jalisco in northwestern Mexico and wandered through the lands of the Pueblo Indians and into what is now northern Arizona before returning to Mexico two years later, disappointed in their hopes of riches, like so many before and after them.

The motives behind these expeditions were many and mixed, like those that led to the original Spanish conquests of Mexico and Peru. The world of the conquistadores was shaped by the long struggle to rid Spain of Moorish domination and by the religious and secular culture of late-medieval and Renaissance Europe. Hopes of riches, lordship, and undying fame mingled with sheer curiosity about a world hitherto unknown to Europeans, as well as the desire and determination to bring its peoples to a knowledge of the true faith. That is why friars accompanied the raiders and explorers, and in the process so often met with and embraced martyrdom. Conquest, plunder, and conversion moved in concert.


Already by the beginning of the seventeenth century, bands of Spaniards had gone deep into what is now the United States, sometimes setting up garrisons and outposts to defend mining areas and vulnerable supply routes from the attacks of hostile Native Americans. These incursions into northern America and the consequences that flowed from them are the subject of two new books, Robert Goodwin’s América: The Epic Story of Spanish North America, 1493–1898 and Carrie Gibson’s El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America. It is perhaps unfortunate that they appeared at nearly the same time, since they cover much the same ground in much the same way. Both authors are historians and journalists who have written well-received books. Gibson is the author of a history of the Caribbean, Empire’s Crossroads,1 while Goodwin, after following the wanderings of an African slave named Esteban through what is now New Mexico and Arizona in the early 1530s, published in 2015 an ambitious study of early-modern Spain as “the centre of the world.”2 Both authors, moreover, were inspired by the same aim—to dispel what they see as ignorance of the part played by Spain and Spaniards in the making of the United States.

They rightly deplore such ignorance, but it has to be said that the topic of Spain in North America is hardly a new one, and many aspects of it have been extensively researched, although the Spanish contribution to the American Revolution still calls out for close examination. The Spanish presence in the northern hemisphere will forever be associated with the names of Hubert Howe Bancroft, with his thirty-nine volumes on the history of the American West and Central America, and Herbert Bolton, whose most famous book, The Spanish Borderlands (1921), illustrated the enduring legacy of Spain in Florida and the American Southwest. In his celebrated presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1932, Bolton appealed to his fellow historians to think in terms of “The Epic of Greater America,” a genuinely hemispheric history that would give due weight to the Iberian contribution to the making of a New World civilization. If Bolton’s plea fell largely on deaf ears, historians in more recent times have devoted considerable attention to Hispanic aspects of North American history. Among the best of them are Paul Hoffman3 and the late David Weber, whose publications included two outstanding studies of the Spanish frontier regions in the colonial era.4 Texas, too, has received much attention.5

If, as Gibson and Goodwin assert, the Spanish presence in North American history has been underrated or simply ignored among wide sections of the public, there are several reasons for this. One, and the most obvious, is the highly selective nature of the founding narrative itself, which notoriously privileges New England. The national concept of a shining city on a hill leaves little space even for the Jamestown settlement, let alone for Spanish settlements in California, Florida, and New Mexico. As an initially Protestant narrative, shot through with biblical overtones of a chosen people, it owes much of its staying power to the religious character of its message. That message, however, was reinforced by the powerful images generated by the famous leyenda negra—the Black Legend.

World Map by Juan Vespucci, Seville, 1526

Hispanic Society of America, New York

Juan Vespucci: World Map, Seville, 1526. ‘Note how little of North America is represented,’ Robert Goodwin writes in América, whereas ‘the Gulf of Mexico and the east coast of South America are shown in considerable detail, as is the isthmus at Panama.’

The Black Legend originated in European perceptions of late-medieval and early-modern Spain as an increasingly tyrannical power ruthlessly intent on imposing its domination, along with its own version of fanatical Catholicism, on the rest of the continent. It acquired a transatlantic dimension as the news filtered back to Europe of Spanish atrocities in the conquest of America, vividly described in the widely disseminated writings of the Spanish evangelist for the Indians Bartolomé de Las Casas. The legend, and the religious views that underlay it, were passed down from generation to generation. In the nineteenth century its component themes were encapsulated in “Prescott’s paradigm,” named after the historian W.H. Prescott, for whom the Spain of his day was the antithesis of the United States and all that it stood for. A fervent believer in American exceptionalism, Prescott saw the United States as a nation built on religious and political freedom, hard work, and individual enterprise. By contrast, Spain’s despotism and bigotry were responsible for its decline and had prevented it from taking its place in the modern world, whose distinguishing features were its representative governments, the free spirit of inquiry, and scientific and technological progress.6


Prescott lived from 1796 to 1859, years that saw the emergence of the United States as a continental empire. In the course of its apparently inexorable advance during the opening decades of the nineteenth century it incorporated Louisiana, Florida, and Texas, and in the peace settlement that followed its victory in the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848 it annexed Alta California and New Mexico and the lands to the north, now comprising the states of Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. Ironically, the war broke out only three years after the publication of Prescott’s epic narrative of the conquest of Mexico by heroic bands of Spaniards, who for him were a very different breed from those of his own times.

While religion, the Black Legend, and American exceptionalism have all hindered the recognition of the Hispanic contribution to the shaping of the United States, there was another significant impediment to its appreciation. This lay in frontiers and borders, or, more properly, in their absence. It was only in the eighteenth century, as the rivalry of the major European powers acquired a global dimension and spilled over into a struggle for control of America and its resources, that the demarcation of borders became a priority for European chanceries. But even where the will existed, the absence or inadequacy of maps and the existence of vast areas of North America still unknown and unexplored by Europeans made actual demarcation an almost impossible task. Where, for instance, did Spanish New Mexico end and French Louisiana begin?7 There were numerous borderlands but very few clear borders.

It is the porousness of borders that explains and justifies the historical narrative of the two books under review. Both Gibson and Goodwin trace the movement across these porous borders of the Hispanic or hispanicized peoples of the Spanish colonial world and their interaction with European settlers and their descendants moving southward from the north. Goodwin stops his story at the end of the nineteenth century, while Gibson follows it through to the building, or nonbuilding, of President Trump’s wall as the latest in a series of doomed attempts to seal off the southern border. Neither author has much to say about Native Americans, although the Comanches, after harnessing the potential of horses and firearms, make a brief appearance in Goodwin’s book as they erupt in the mid-eighteenth century into the midst of European imperial rivalries in the American Southwest.8

Both authors are well versed in the literature, primary and secondary, and Goodwin in particular makes extensive use of quotations from contemporary chronicles, to which he brings a keen critical eye. Both authors, too, write with verve and can be read with pleasure. Perhaps Goodwin, who revels in set pieces, has the edge in evoking historical personalities, particularly swashbuckling characters like Bernardo de Gálvez, the late-eighteenth-century colonial governor of Louisiana after whom the port of Galveston took its name. Gibson, on the other hand, has a more vivid topographical sense, aided by the fact that she appears to have visited most of the places about which she writes, like the main square of St. Augustine with its white obelisk and the coast of Amelia Island with its “browning patch of grass” and the ruins of its fort. Every chapter of her book takes as its title the name of a town, a mission station, or a presidio—a Spanish frontier post—like the Texan presidio of San Antonio de Béxar, and then loosely hangs on it the narrative that follows. But while dwelling on particular episodes, she does not forget the overarching purpose of her book, whereas Goodwin often seems more interested in simply telling a rattling good story.

Inevitably the same cast of characters appears in both books—Juan Ponce de León and Hernán Cortés; Juan de Oñate, the Mexican creole chosen by Philip II to undertake the settlement of New Mexico; and missionaries like the famous Jesuit Father Kino and the Franciscan Junípero Serra, who would leave as his legacy the first nine of the twenty-one missions set up in Alta California between 1769 and 1823. Goodwin can allot more space to these remarkable characters than Gibson, whose book is heavily tilted toward the postcolonial period. Both devote several pages to the career of Andrew Jackson, but Gibson offers more detailed coverage than Goodwin of the presidency of James Polk, so crucial for the geographical shaping of the United States as we know it today. She is also able to explore topics beyond Goodwin’s ending, such as the consequences of the annexation of Puerto Rico following the Spanish-American War of 1898 or the fraught relationship with Cuba.

Neither of these books can be said to add anything of great substance to the existing literature, and both are stronger on narrative and description than on analysis. But both demonstrate that the United States and its current social and political scene cannot be understood if the lands and peoples of the Caribbean and those located south of the Mexican border are airbrushed from the story. Its crux is to be found above all in the borderlands, where frontiers, even when they were drawn, remained and still remain highly permeable. With an overall Hispanic population in 2015 of 57 million, which accounted for 54 percent of total population growth from 2000 to 2014, twenty-first-century North Americans need to be better acquainted with the realities of that story.

Amid all the claims of the United States being swamped by waves of Spanish-speaking immigrants, with their criminal records, their drugs, and their gangs, it is salutary to be reminded, as these books both do, that many of the territories that now contain large Hispanic populations were once settled, however sparsely, by people of Hispanic origin, and not by North Americans of Nordic ancestry. What we are witnessing today is in some sense a reconquista by Hispanics of lands once governed, at least nominally, by the Spanish Crown. Spanish rule would draw to an end with the collapse of Spain’s American empire in the years after 1808, but Spanish-style cities, like Los Angeles, had by then been founded and settled, their inhabitants had put down roots, and, as a result, memories, language, and religion lived on.

It is also important to be reminded that movement was by no means all in one direction. Spanish-speaking settlers may gradually have moved northward from Mexico in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but as they did so they were increasingly likely to come face to face with North American settlers moving south. By the early nineteenth century, the influx of these northerners, hungry for land and for the new opportunities that the borderlands offered, was being transformed into a tidal wave, displacing in its irresistible advance the Native American peoples who could rightly claim to be the real owners of the land. As Gibson puts it, for Andrew Jackson, born of an Irish mother on the borders of the Carolinas,

the Indians in Florida needed to be destroyed and the runaway slaves returned to their owners, and he refused to let the issue of Spanish sovereignty stand in his way. A man of the frontier, Jackson was comfortable pushing boundaries, political and physical.

By 1830, the pushing of boundaries had reached such intensity that the government of the newly independent Mexican Republic found it necessary to pass a law to curb the inflow of immigrants into its territory from the north. Almost a hundred years later, in 1924, the United States established a Border Patrol. It was the first move in a process that would in due course, and by a supreme irony, mirror the legislation introduced in 1830 by the Mexicans. For each country its identity was at stake.

Both these books ultimately raise the same question: What does it mean to be an “American”? The exclusive appropriation of the term either by Anglos or Latinos can only lead to confrontation and mutual misunderstanding. “America” was created not by any single group of people, but by the interaction and intermingling of many. Although Herbert Bolton’s argument for the existence of a “Greater America” had its weaknesses, he was right to recognize that the exclusion of any one of the many different Americas diminishes the whole. In its diversity lies the richness of its civilization. For centuries the Americas have been a world without walls, and long may they remain so.