Category Archives: Mexico

Gen. Sherman vs. the Comanches

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 332-333:

For federal Indian officials, the Comanche situation was a stinging embarrassment: half a decade after the Civil War had eradicated institutionalized slavery, Comanches were trafficking in human merchandise on U.S. soil and with U.S. agents. The distressed settlers, sheep and cattle magnates, and government officials directed their frustration at the Peace Policy, which in their view had weakened rather than strengthened the United States’ hold on the Indians. They found a powerful ally in the military elite, who had opposed the Peace Policy from the beginning for strategic and personal reasons: the end of the Civil War and the reduction of the army had closed avenues for promotion, which only another war could reopen.

The opponents of the Peace policy found their opportunity in May 1871, when a Comanche and Kiowa raiding party attacked a supply train near Fort Richardson, killing and mutilating seven teamsters. The raiders narrowly missed General Sherman, who was on an inspection tour in Texas. Hearing of the attack, Sherman implemented a policy change, ordering four cavalry companies to pursue the raiders and, if necessary, to continue the chase in the Fort Sill reservation [which had until then been demilitarized]. He then stormed to Fort Sill to confront agent Tatum. The flustered agent conceded that the Quaker experiment was failing. On the next ration day, Tatum authorized the soldiers to arrest three Kiowa chiefs—Satanta, Satank, and Big Tree—and send them to Texas for civil trial. His Quaker ideology crumbling, Tatum asked the army to pursue the Kwahadas and Kotsotekas into Texas, confiscate their stolen stock, and force them to enter the reservation “as kindly as the circumstances will admit.” Although the Peace Policy remained the official policy, by fall 1871 if had become a dead letter on the southern plains. Tatum was replaced in early 1873 by an agent more committed to Quaker principles, but by that time hard action had become the norm.

When fighting Comanche campaigns, the U.S. Army was able to draw on its rapidly accumulating experience in fighting the Plains Indians. The Lakota wars had revealed that regular soldiers, although armed with Colt revolvers and Winchester repeating rifles, were a poor match for the highly motivated and mobile Indian warriors. convincing the military leadership that the army needed a decisive numerical advantage to defeat Plains Indians on the battlefield. But numbers were exactly what the army lacked. The eastern public, weary of war and eager for normalcy, was unwilling to finance Indian wars in the West. Young men were equally unenthused: the prospect of fighting Indians for meager pay and under vigorous discipline on the Great Plains drew few volunteers. The army’s main instrument in Indian wars was therefore the light cavalry, composed of ten regiments, approximately five thousand men in total.

Short of troops and wary of open battles, the army set out to deprive the Comanches of shelter and sustenance by destroying their winter camps, food supplies, and horse herds. By the early 1870s this kind of total warfare against entire populations was an established practice in the U.S. Army. Sherman had pioneered it against the Confederacy in his “March to the Sea,” and Sheridan had introduced a stripped-down version of it to the plains in his 1868–69 winter campaign against the Cheyennes. Culminating on the Washita River where the Seventh Cavalry [under George Armstrong Custer] killed nearly a hundred noncombatants and eight hundred horses and mules, Sheridan’s campaign broke Cheyenne resistance on the central plains. This success convinced the army that targeting civilians and economic resources was the most efficient—and since it shortened the conflict, the most humane—way to subdue the Indians. But the army could not simply duplicate Sheridan’s straightforward offensive against the Comanches, who ranged over a vast territory and had a more diverse subsistence base than the Cheyennes. To subdue the Comanches, the army was forced to launch the largest and most concentrated campaign of total war in the West.

It was only now, twenty-three years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, that Comanches came to feel the depth of the United States’ expansionist power. They had been exposed to that power before—most tangibly through Texas, whose territorial expansion into Comanchería was a corollary of the South’s economic expansion into Texas—but its full force had been curbed by several factors: relative American disinterest toward the Great Plains, the Civil War, and finally the Peace Policy. It was therefore all the more shocking when the United States unleashed its military might on Comanchería in 1871. Whatever difficulties the army may have faced in mobilizing soldiers for Indian wars, the troops that were mustered could draw on their nation’s enormous resources—superior technology; bottomless supply lines; an elaborate communication system; and a strong, tested central state apparatus. More important perhaps, the troops formed the vanguard of an ascending nation-state driven by a civilizing mission and bent on expanding its frontiers through conquest and exclusionary borders. The U.S. Army that moved into Comanchería was an adversary unlike any Comanches had encountered.

The invasion began from Texas, the state with the longest list of grievances against the Comanches. Comanche raids had taken a heavy toll in Texan lives and livestock since the late 1850s, stunting the state’s projected economic growth. Blocked by a wall of Comanche violence, the expanding Texas cattle kingdom had bypassed the Great Plains, extending instead toward less desired regions in New Mexico and the Rocky Mountains. By 1871, Texans considered the situation intolerable.


Filed under Mexico, migration, military, religion, slavery, U.S., war

Emancipation Comes to the U.S. Southwest, 1860s

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 318-319:

It was an open secret that the livestock and laborers that fueled New Mexico’s economic growth during and after the Civil War years were looted from Texas and northern Mexico.

The contraband cattle and captive trade and the violence it fueled in Texas were a stinging embarrassment for the federal agents in New Mexico, Kansas, and Indian Territory. They had failed to restrain the Comanches, who ignored the reservation boundaries as defined in the Treaty of Little Arkansas, refused to relinquish slave traffic, and yet frequented Fort Larned, their assigned agency near the Big Bend of the Arkansas, to collect government supplies. Shameful reports of “lives taken and property stolen by Indians … fed and clothed and armed by the representatives of the U.S. Gov” poured out of Texas, putting enormous pressure on the Indian Office and its agents. Determined to extend emancipation from the South to the Southwest, federal agents repeatedly demanded that the Comanches and Kiowas relinquish their captives. But instead of eradicating slavery and captive trade, such interventions ended up supporting them. Comanches and Kiowas did turn numerous captives over to U.S. agents, but only if they received handsome ransoms in cash or goods. As one federal agent despaired: “every prisoner purchased from the Indians amounts to giving them a license to go and commit the same overt act. They boastfully say that stealing white women is more of a lucrative business than stealing horses.” The United States’ emancipation efforts had created a new outlet for slave trafficking for Comanches, and its punitive reconstruction policies in Texas opened a deep supply base: the demilitarized western part of the state lay wide open for Comanche slaving parties.

The struggle over the captives epitomized the collision between the Comanches and the United States and precipitated its progression to open war. The persistence of slavery and captive traffic convinced U.S. policymakers that the Southwest was not big enough for both traditional borderland cultural economics and the new American system of state-sponsored, free-labor capitalism. Perplexed and put off by their own involvement in the captive business, U.S. authorities, most of them Civil War veterans, started to call for tougher policies and, if necessary, the extermination of the slave-trafficking Indians. In 1867, when presented with the case of a thirteen-year-old Texas boy for whom Comanches demanded “remuneration,” General William Tecumseh Sherman, the commander of the U.S. Army, responded that the officials should no longer “Submit to this practice of paying for Stolen children. It is better the Indian race be obliterated.”

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Depleting the Bison Herds before Buffalo Bill, 1830–1860

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 294-297:

It has been estimated that full-time plains hunters needed a yearly average of 6.5 bison per person for food, shelter, and clothing, which means that the Comanches and their allies were killing approximately 175,000 buffalos a year for subsistence alone. Moreover, although first and foremost horse traders, Comanches also produced bison robes, meat, and tallow for the market. In the early nineteenth century, their commercial harvest probably rarely exceeded 25,000 animals, but their hunting practices seriously aggravated the damage. Like most Plains Indians, Comanches did their market hunting in winter, when the robes were the thickest and most valuable, and they preferred killing two- to five-year-old cows for their thin, easily processed skins. Since bison cows produce their first calves at the age of three or four and their gestation period usually extends from mid-July to early April, Comanches slaughtered disproportionate numbers of pregnant cows, thus impairing the herds’ reproductive capacity.

Making matters worse, Comanches’ commercial ambitions induced them to open their hunting grounds to outsiders. For much of the eighteenth century, Comanches had restricted outsiders’ access to their hunting ranges, but that environmental policy became increasingly difficult to maintain as their trading links multiplied. One by one, they disposed of the neutral buffer zones skirting Comanchería, inadvertently depriving the bison of their crucial sanctuaries. Particularly inauspicious in this respect was the 1835 Treaty of Camp Holmes, in which Comanches granted the Osages and the populous immigrant tribes of Indian Territory access to their lands in exchange for trading privileges. Discouraged by the poor lands of Indian Territory, Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks—all numerous groups—embarked on active bison hunting, and many Delaware, Shawnee, and Kickapoo bands became specialized hunters. Together with the Osages, the removed Indians did most of their hunting in the prime bison range between the upper Canadian and Red rivers, in the heart of eastern Comanchería. By 1841 the region’s bison populations were thinning rapidly.

At the same time on Comanchería’s western edge, ciboleros, the New Mexican bison hunters who had won hunting privileges in Comanchería in the aftermath of the 1786 Spanish-Comanche treaty, made animal hunting expeditions to the Llano Estacado, harvesting an estimated 23,000 animals per season. Even more pressure fell on the bison herds with the peace of 1840 among Comanches, Kiowas, Naishans, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes, which unlocked northern Comanchería for Cheyenne and Arapaho hunters, who embarked on a large-scale robe trade at Bent’s Fort and probably harvested a large portion of them in Comanchería. In all, in the early 1840s tens of thousands of Comanchería’s bison died every year in the hands of people not living in the region.

The combined toll of Comanches’ and their allies’ subsistence and market hunting probably neared, and in some years exceeded, the sustainable yearly rate of killing of 280,000, placing Comanchería’s bison herds on a precarious balance. This balance was rendered even shakier by the Comanches’ burgeoning horse herding economy. Horses and bison have an 80 percent dietary overlap and very similar water requirements, which makes them ecologically incompatible species. Even more critically, both animals could survive the harsh winters of the plains only by retreating into river valleys, which provided reliable shelter against the cold, and cottonwood for emergency food. But suitable riverine habitats were becoming increasingly scarce. To meet the expansive grazing needs of their growing domestic herds, Comanches had turned more and more bottomland niches into herding range, gradually congesting Comanchería’s river valleys. By the mid-nineteenth century, huge winter camps and horse herds could be seen stretching for dozens of miles along key wintering sites, covering the prime foraging and watering spots, and forcing the bison to retreat to poorer areas.

Most such areas were at the headwaters of major rivers and far from Comanches’ principal hunting and wintering grounds, but when the bison gravitated toward these perpheral habitats, they were blocked there as well. Southern Comanchería near the Texas frontier was the home for massive herds of wild horses, which had virtually taken over the region’s river valleys and resources. On the western portion of the Llano Estacado, at the headwaters of the Canadian, Red, and Brazos rivers and their tributaries, the bison had to compete for grass, water, and shelter with thousands of sheep driven there each winter by New Mexican herders, pastores. Perhaps most disastrously, freighting along the Santa Fe Trail grew into a large-scale industry in the early 1840s. A typical trade caravan consisted of some two dozen freight wagons and several hundred oxen and mules, and each year hundreds of such caravans trekked back and forth along the Arkansas corridor, destroying vegetation, polluting springs, accelerating erosion, and driving out the bison from their last ecological niches in the valley. It is also possible that the traders’ livestock introduced anthrax, brucellosis, and other bovine diseases to the bison herds….

In 1845 a long and intense dry spell struck Comanchería. The rains resumed briefly around 1850, but the drought returned and lasted in varying degrees until the mid-1860s. As the rains failed or came only as drizzles, springs, ponds, and creeks dried up and rivers shrank to trickles….

Although an unexpected climatic swing brought on the bison crisis, the Comanches’ actions had contributed to the shortage. By monopolizing the river basins for their horses, by slaughtering vast numbers of bison for subsistence and for trade, and by opening their hunting grounds to outsiders, Comanches had critically undercut the viability of the bison population, rendering it vulnerable to ecological reversals.

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New Mexico as Comanche Tributary

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 211-213:

The 1830s also saw the escalation of the comanchero trade into a major economic institution that wedded New Mexico’s economy firmly to that of Comanchería and inescapably pulled the province further apart from the rest of Mexico. This expansion of the comanchero trade stemmed from changing geopolitics in Comanchería: western Comanches had temporarily lost their control of the lucrative upper Arkansas trade center to the invading Cheyenne-Arapaho-American bloc and turned to New Mexico as an alternative source of crucial imports. New Mexicans seized the opportunity, and the 1830s and early 1840s saw comancheros making regular annual trips into Comanchería, traveling along well-marked trails, and bringing in guns, powder, scrapes, brown sugar, corn, wheat tortillas, and specially baked hard bread. In return for the all important weapons and foodstuffs, Comanches offered bison robes, bear skins, and, above all, horses and mules, which were in high demand among the New Mexicans who had embarked on a large-scale overland trade with the United States. Comancheros, many of them genízaros [slaves, etymologically related to janissary] with strong cultural ties to Comanchería, had few qualms with doing business in stolen animals with Mexican brands. By decade’s end, Comanches routinely used New Mexico as an outlet for war spoils taken elsewhere in northern Mexico. …

By now, New Mexico had distanced itself from Mexico City to a point where its political ties to Comanchería began to seem tighter. In 1844 a Comanche delegation visited Santa Fe and told Mariano Martínez, now governor of New Mexico, that three hundred Comanche warriors were about to invade Chihuahua. Instead of trying to pressure the chiefs to call off the raid, Martínez sent them away with presents and dispatched a letter warning his counterpart in Chihuahua of the imminent assault. A year later New Mexico’s administrators refused yet another call for a general campaign against the Comanches, making their disassociation from Mexico City and its Indian policy complete. In their efforts to protect the vulnerable province—and their own positions within it—New Mexican elites had been forced to choose between appeasing one of two imperial cores and, in more cases than not, they chose Comanchería.

Viewed in context, the story of Mexican New Mexico becomes a dramatic counterpoint to that of Mexican Texas. Whereas Texas violently dismembered itself from Mexico starting in 1835, New Mexico remained within the Mexican fold until the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. The Chimayó Rebellion [1837] tested the federal government’s mettle in New Mexico, and the Anglo-dominated Santa Fe trade served as a vanguard for “the unconscious process of economic conquest,” yet neither development spawned a strong secessionist movement. The divergent trajectories of Texas and New Mexico owed much to geography and demographics: New Mexico was shielded from the expansionist embrace of the United States by its relative isolation, which made it less attractive a destination for American immigrants, and by its larger Hispanic population, which ensured that the Americans who did immigrate remained a minority. …

But while compelling, the dichotomy of wavering Texas and steadfast New Mexico is a simplification, for it neglects the penetrating, if often unspoken, influence of Comanches over New Mexicans. Intimate, violent, exploitative, and mutualistic all at once, New Mexicans’ ties with Comanches both forced and seduced them to act and organize themselves in ways that were often deplorable and at times disastrous to the rest of Mexico. Indeed, it seems justifiable to ask to what extent New Mexicans who paid tribute to a Comanche nation at war with the rest of northern Mexico, who made profit by trafficking in goods Comanches had stolen from other Mexican departments, who openly defied federal orders to sever unsanctioned ties to Comanchería, and whose way of life was permeated by Comanche influences were still Mexican subjects?

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Comanche Attacks and the Texas Revolution, 1830s

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 198-199:

By the mid-1830s, it was clear that the Indian policy of Texas was a complete failure. The decision to open the province to American immigrants had backfired. Rather than moving to the interior to shield the province’s core areas around San Antonio from Comanche attacks, most Americans stayed east of the Colorado River, beyond the Comanche range and within an easy reach of Louisiana, their main commercial outlet. The result was a splintering of Texas into two distinct and increasingly detached halves. The Anglo-dominated eastern half experienced steady growth, developing a flourishing export-oriented cotton industry and spawning nearly twenty new urban centers by 1835. This half was part of Mexico only in name. It main economic and political ties extended eastward to the powerful mercantile houses of New Orleans, and its settlers often spoke no Spanish, held slaves in spite of a widespread aversion toward the institution in Mexico, and harbored separatist sentiments.

The Tejano-dominated western half, meanwhile, descended into underdevelopment. As raids and violence engulfed vast portions of western and southern Texas during the early 1830s, basic economic functions began to shut down. Villages and farms were stripped of livestock and the reviving ranching industry faltered once again. Agriculture deteriorated as farmers refused to work on fields where they were exposed to attacks. Laredo on the lower Rio Grande lost one-sixth of its population between 1828 and 1831 to Comanche raids, nearly expiring during a cholera outbreak in 1834. Settlers lived in perpetual fear and near-starvation even in San Antonio, where, in the words of one observer, “nothing can be planted on account of the Comanches and Tahuacanos [Tawakonis] who frequently harass the city even in time of peace.” Villages curled inward and grew isolated, for settlers “seldom venture more than a mile from town on account of the Indians.” Major roads leading to San Antonio were frequently cut off, and Berlandier traveled on deserted roads lined with crosses marking places “where the Comanches had massacred travellers or herdsmen.” The road from Coahuila to Texas crossed “an uninhabited country” where Indian raiders ruled, and commercial and political links between New Mexico and Texas existed only on paper. When assessing the long-term impact of Comanche raids on western and southern Texas, Berlandier depicted a decaying, psychologically disfigured captive territory. …

It was this divided Texas that in 1835 rebelled against the central government and in 1836 became an independent republic with close ties to the United States. The Texas Revolution was the product of several long-simmering problems, which came to a head in 1834 and 1835 when the military strongman Antonio López de Santa Anna assumed dictatorial powers in Mexico City and imposed a conservative national charter known as Las Siete Leyes. Las Siete Leyes ended the federalist era in Mexico and ushered in a centralist regime bent on curtailing states’ rights and sovereignty. The momentous shift galvanized Texas, turning the smoldering tensions over slavery, tariff exemptions, and immigration (further immigration from the United States had been banned in 1830) acute and then violent. When centralist forces marched into Texas in fall 1835 to rein in the renegade province, they faced unified resistance that included the vast majority of Anglo colonists and many prominent members of the Tejano elite. In November, delegations from twelve Texas communities met in San Felipe de Austin, declared allegiance to the federalist constitution of 1814, and cut off ties to the centralist regime.

Texas independence may have been predetermined by geography—Texas was simply too far from Mexico City and too close to the United States—but the event can be fully understood only in the larger context that takes into account the overwhelming power and presence of the Comanches in the province in the years leading to the revolt.

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Comanchería Meets Indian Territory, 1830s

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 152-154:

With the passing of the Indian Removal Act in 1830, the United States government began a wholesale relocation of eastern Indians across the Mississippi valley—the proclaimed permanent Indian frontier—into Indian Territory in what today are Oklahoma and Kansas. The removal policy brought thousands of Indians into present-day Oklahoma and Kansas, creating a new and deeply volatile geopolitical entity on Comanchería’s border. The most populous of the transplanted peoples—the Cherokees, Creeks, Chickasaws, and Choctaws—were placed in the southern and western sections of Indian Territory where, around the Wichita Mountains, their lands overlapped with Comanchería’s eastern fringe. Hundreds of removed Cherokees, Delawares, Shawnees, and Kickapoos also moved across the Red River into Texas, where Mexican officials offered them legal land grants if they served as border sentinels to protect the province from Comanche raiders and to keep illegal American traders from entering Comanchería.

A clash was immediate and, it seems, inevitable. Dismayed by the agricultural prospects in subhumid Oklahoma, many immigrant groups began to experiment with bison hunting. The westernmost bands of the Delawares, Kickapoos, and Shawnees developed a typical prairie economy of farming and foraging and started making regular hunting excursions to the plains, tapping into Comanchería’s bison reserves. Comanches responded to these transgressions by attacking the intruders and by raiding deep into Indian Territory to exact revenge and to plunder maize, cattle, and captives. The death toll climbed on both sides. The fighting also disrupted the Comanche-American trade that had flourished for two decades on the southern plains….

In moving across the Mississippi valley, the immigrant nations had encroached upon the Comanche realm but, more important, they had entered an ancient borderland where commercial gravity tended to pull peoples together. Their position between the livestock-rich Comanchería and the livestock-hungry Missouri and Arkansas territories invited the removed Indians to become middlemen who facilitated the movement of goods among the centers of wealth around them. Like the Wichitas, French, and Americans before them, several of the immigrant nations responded. A propitious diplomatic opportunity to attach themselves to the Comanche trade network opened to them in 1834 and 1835 when the U.S. government sponsored two large-scale political meetings among the Comanches, their allies, and the immigrant Indians, hoping to quell the violence that threatened to abort the entire Indian removal policy. In August 1835, some seven thousand Comanches and their Wichita allies gathered at Camp Holmes near the Canadian River, where nineteen Comanche chiefs signed a treaty and agreed to open their lands “west of the Cross Timber” to the immigrant tribes. In return, they expected trade.

The immigrant tribes did not disappoint, and within a few years the border region between Comanchería and Indian Territory had become a site for thriving trade. Although uprooted and dislodged, the removed Indians could still generate impressive surpluses of manufactured and agricultural products, which they were keen to exchange for the plains products they needed to survive in their new homelands. Comanches sponsored massive intertribal gatherings along the Red and Brazos rivers and on the salt plains of north-central Oklahoma, often sending messengers to Indian Territory to announce a forthcoming fair. Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole trading convoys frequented Comanche rancherías, bringing in maize, wheat, potatoes, tobacco, vermilion, wampum, beads, powder, lead, and government-issued rifles. In exchange, they received robes, skins, meat, salt, horses, and mules, a part of which they traded again to American settlers in Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Sometimes the seminomadic and more mobile Delawares, Kickapoos, and Shawnees served as intermediaries, moving commodities between Indian Territory and Comanchería. The thriving commerce also pulled more marginal groups into the Comanche orbit….

The dynamics of this exchange mirrored the direct Comanche-American trade it had supplanted, but there was an important new element: slave trade. The removed Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles [the “Five Civilized Tribes“] had brought with them approximately five thousand black slaves, and the bondage institution persisted in Indian Territory as the planter-shareholder elite set out to rebuild its exchange-oriented cotton and tobacco economy. This created secure markets for Comanche slavers who now commanded extensive raiding domains in Texas and northern Mexico. More improvised than organized, the slave traffic offered multiple opportunities for its practitioners. Removed Indians purchased kidnapped Mexicans, Anglo-Americans, and black slaves from Comanches, either to augment their own labor force or to resell them to American Indian agents, who generally ransomed the offered captives, especially if they had fair skin. At times Comanches bypassed the middlemen and took their captives directly to U.S. officials at Fort Gibson and other frontier posts, and sometimes they relied on comanchero intermediaries who then delivered the captives to American agents. Occasionally, Comanches even kidnapped black slaves from Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks and then sold them to Delawares, Kickapoos, and Shawnees. They also captured black runaway slaves from Indian Territory and incorporated them into their ranks.

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Comanche-U.S. Commerce after 1821

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 150:

In 1821, Spain’s American empire collapsed, and the resulting confusion in the Southwest opened the floodgates for Comanche–U.S. commerce. Only a year later, Stephen F. Austin reported that eastern Comanche rancherías had become the nexus point of three well-established trade routes that connected them to U.S. markets along the Mississippi valley. The northernmost route linked eastern Comanchería to St. Louis via a chain of Native middlemen traders. Below was the Red River channel, which funneled traders from Vicksburg, Natchez, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans into the heart of eastern Comanchería. The busiest of the trade routes was the southernmost one, leading from eastern Comanchería to Nacogdoches, which had nearly expired during the 1812–13 revolt in Texas and then, like Natchitoches, became a haven for American merchants and filibusters. With close ties to Natchitoches and New Orleans, Nacogdoches grew into a major trading community, boasting an annual trade of ninety thousand dollars in the early 1820s.

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