The Spain Among Us


Florida has been a part of the United States only since 1821; it was Spanish for three centuries. It is one of those parts of the country that were fought and argued over, quite bloodily, by Americans, Spanish, French, and English. The standard Schoolbook texts dutifully explain the swaps, treaties, and overseas diplomatic maneuverings that ushered into our borders such places as Florida, the Northwest Territory, the Oregon Territory, and that peculiar strip known as the Gadsden Purchase. In the American mind it all tends to have been inevitable, and the rest is just details. But after the Revolution, when this country was at its most vulnerable, the United States might not have had the breathing space—not elbowroom, but vital territory—that it needed to survive had it not been for the masterful military and naval campaign led by Bernardo de Gâlvez. As governor of Louisiana, which France had transferred to Spain in 1762, Galvez opened the port of New Orleans to American privateers and clandestinely funneled thousands of dollars in cash—”very secret service money,” it was called—to the American agent in New Orleans. This money went directly to George Rogers Clark to pay for his campaign against the British in the Northwest Territory. When Spain declared war on England in 1779, Gálvez personally led a column north, captured British forts at Manchac and Baton Rouge, and successfully demanded the surrender of all the British forts on the Mississippi. In March 1780 he bombarded the British fort at Mobile into surrender. His greatest feat took place the following year, when he besieged and captured the formidable British stronghold at Pensacola. At the start of the assault, Gálvez led a small fleet past the guns of the fort, while a larger Spanish fleet tarried fearfully out of range. Gâlvez sent the reluctant admiral in charge a note: “Whoever has valor and honor will follow me.” The admiral followed.

The naval world is a small one, and it is not unlikely that Gálvez’s stinging note was much talked about. His words had an echo more than eighty years later in the famous utterance of a Union commander exhorting his officers to enter a minefield in Mobile Bay: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” Adm. David Glasgow Farragut might have heard of the Spanish commander’s exploits from his father, a Minorcan of Spanish blood who served for a time in the Continental Navy and whose name was Jorge Ferragut. After the Revolution Gálvez was made viceroy of Mexico. In 1785 he ordered a survey of the Texas coast, and the leader of the expedition honored his superior by putting the name Galvestown on his map. Anglo settlers changed the spelling to Galveston.

It is commonly known that much of the peculiar lingo of the American cowboy was derived from Spanish. Bronco, rodeo, lariat, cinch, mustang, and chaps all are based on Spanish words. From vaquero came “buckaroo,” and from juzgado came “hoosegow.” What is less well known is that the very concept of the ranch—lock, stock, and barrel—was Spanish. From the Old World to the New the Spaniards brought horses, cattle, sheep, goats, burros, and swine. The semiarid plains of the West were similar to the lands in central Spain, where Spaniards had centuries of experience raising cattle. Branding had been practiced in Iberia since the tenth century. The stock that the Spaniards brought with them became the trademark of the Western cattle baron. Known popularly as the Texas longhorn, they had been bred on the semiarid Spanish plain and were perfectly suited for a rugged life in the New World. For one thing they were virtually wild; they fended for themselves, needing no man’s help to find food.

It is commonly known that much of the Lingo of the cowboy was derived from Spanish; what is less known is that the whole concept of the ranch was Spanish.

Cattle raising had been carried on all over Europe, but Iberians were the only Europeans to practice largescale cattle ranching. From the Iberian Peninsula Spaniards transferred their knowledge to the Caribbean, Mexico, Panama, South America, and the North American West. The cattle drive was not invented in Texas; it was an established custom in Iberia, where herds were moved to different pastures with changing seasons. Other Europeans managed their small herds on foot, using dogs. Only the Spaniards herded on horseback. They developed the distinctive saddle that we now identify with the West, with its stirrups that let the cowboy’s legs stay fully extended during a long day on the range, large flat footrests for stability during gallops, and, perhaps most important, the big pommel to which the vaquero, with his lightning-fast hands, would tie his lariat ( la reata ) after he had roped a cow. Vaqueros were the acknowledged masters of this tricky maneuver, one that cost many an Anglo cowpoke a finger or two in trying to learn it. The timid preferred to tie the rope to the pommel first and then lasso the animal. From observing the success of the Spanish, Anglos learned that the West was suitable for ranching and that ranching was a way up the economic ladder for a man or woman with small capital.