- Historic Sites
Bernardo De Gálvez
The Forgotten Revolutionary Conquistador Who Saved Louisiana
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
Imagine, for a moment, an alternate ending to the American Revolution. The thirteen rebel colonies sign a peace of exhaustion with Great Britain in 1783. Instead of a trans-Appalachian nation, with boundaries on the Mississippi, the Americans are restricted to a few river valleys in Tennessee and Kentucky. The Mississippi valley is British, as well as Canada and all the territory north of the Ohio, peopled with hostile Indians whom Britain controls. South and west of Georgia the continent is also British; everything from Florida through what is now Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans and Louisiana is under the Union Jack—with more thousands of hostile Indians bound to Britain by flattery, gifts, and habit. It is hard to believe that the United States would have long survived England’s readiness to manipulate Indians, subvert politicians, and fan sectional jealousies to destabilize the fragile confederation.
The war might have ended this way—except for Don Bernardo de Gálvez. Few Americans have heard of this Spanish nobleman who became governor of the province of Louisiana on January 1,1777. On that date he was even more obscure—a thirty-year-old soldier whose chief previous experience had been fighting Apaches on the Mexican frontier. Louisiana was not an assignment that inspired fierce competition in Spain’s Council of the Indies. The province had been given to Spain by France in 1762, supposedly as compensation for the losses Spain had suffered in the Seven Years’ War with England. Actually, the French were unloading a colony that had failed to produce a sou of profit after sixty years and as many millions of livres had been poured into the swampy, malaria-ridden wilderness. Spain had accepted the white elephant because it was the only buffer she had left to shield her kingdom of New Spain (Mexico) and its priceless silver mines from England’s ever-advancing commercial empire. In the Seven Years’ War, England had acquired the provinces of East and West Florida. This meant the English fronted Louisiana along thirteen hundred miles of the Mississippi.
To make things worse, Louisiana’s Creoles were less than enthusiastic about their transfer to the Spanish empire. In 1768, in a forgotten prelude to the American Revolution, they chased the first Spanish governor out of New Orleans and talked of setting up a republic. King Carlos III replied by sending an army whose general cowed New Orleans into surrender without firing a shot and then executed five of the protorepublicans. This act earned Spain profound enmity among the Creoles. They ignored Spanish customs laws and avidly bought goods from “floating stores” that enterprising English merchants from West Florida sent up and down the Mississippi. A frustrated Spanish officer reported in 1776 that the colony’s trade was worth six hundred thousand dollars a year, and Spanish ships and goods got only fifteen thousand dollars of it. The rest went to the hated Anglois .
By the time Gálvez became governor, the war raging between England and her thirteen colonies had produced a new menace. Thousands of refugees had flooded into West Florida from Georgia and the Carolinas, more than doubling its original population of 2,500, bringing it alarmingly close to Louisiana’s 8,381 whites and 536 free blacks. (The remaining 9,000 Louisianians were slaves, another threat to stability.) The Spaniards found the size of British settlements at Natchez and Manchac on the Mississippi especially ominous. Before Gálvez arrived, the policy of Spanish officials had been to do nothing to arouse the pugnacious British lion. The war news of 1776, which consisted of little but stories of American armies routed from Canada, New York, and New Jersey, only reinforced this caution.
Gálvez proceeded to startle everyone in and around r Louisiana. First to be surprised were New Orleans’ Creoles, who discovered that the young governor was neither an aloof aristocrat, an icy militarist, nor a mild-mannered cipher, widely held characterizations of his three predecessors. He had a zest for friendship and not an iota of aristocratic hauteur. This was doubly amazing because his uncle, José de Gálvez, was minister of the Indies, the most powerful post in the Spanish empire, and the governor’s father, Matias, was viceroy of New Spain. Young Gálvez socialized freely with the Creoles and encouraged his officers to do likewise. Two of them soon married local beauties, and the governor fell in love with one himself. Her name was Felicie de St. Maxent d’Estrehan, a young widow “of surpassing loveliness” according to one possibly biased Louisiana historian. Her father was one of Louisiana’s leading citizens. The whole province reacted with delight and applause. After the wedding Gálvez probably could have run for governor and been elected, if such a republican tactic had been permitted in the King of Spain’s authoritarian empire.