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Collection Louisiana: European Explorations and the Louisiana Purchase

Louisiana as a Spanish Colony

Diplomacy of the French Cession

The impetus to cede the French colony of Louisiana to the Spanish was the long, expensive conflict of the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Year's War, between France and Great Britain. Initially, France offered Louisiana to Spain in order to bring Spain into the conflict on the French side. Spain declined. Spanish officials were uncertain about what exactly constituted the vague and immense colony of Louisiana. When the "Family Compact," a supposedly secret alliance between France and Spain, became known to the British, they attacked Spain. In November 1762 in the secret Treaty of Fontainebleau, France handed over Louisiana and the Isle of Orleans to Spain in order to "sweeten the bitter medicine of Spanish defeat and to persuade them not to fight on" against the British.  6

The cession of Louisiana was kept secret for over a year. France feared that Louisiana would become British. As a result, France sought to preempt any actions that Britain would undertake if it became known that Louisiana no longer enjoyed French protection before the Spanish were able to occupy and defend it. Great Britain officially conceded Spanish ownership of Louisiana in February 1763 in one of the series of treaties ending the French and Indian War. This gesture was a mere formality, for the territory had been in Spanish hands for almost three months.

Spanish Rule and a Revolt

Don Tomás López de Vargas Machuca, La Luisiana cedida al Rei N. S. por S. M. Christianisima, con la Nueva Orleans, è isla en que se halla esta ciudad. Construida sobre el mapa de Mr. d'Anville. Por D. Thomás Lopez, 1762. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. Call number: G4010 1762 .L6 Low 467

Spain was slow to take actual possession of its newly acquired colony. In general, French colonists reacted negatively to the idea of Spanish rule. Spain was also loathe to spend sufficient funds for either an effective military presence or adequate maintenance of the colony. To make matters worse, the new colonial governor, Don Antonio de Ulloa, did not arrive in Louisiana until March 1766.

Spanish rule in Louisiana needed to accommodate an ethnically diverse population. There were large numbers of different Native American tribes, a small but influential European populace that was primarily French, and a small but significant number of Africans, both slave and free. Many of the colony's officials were either French or of French ancestry, which contributed to the tenuous nature of Spanish management of the colony. Spanish officials, aware of their own numerical insignificance and of the diversity of peoples, showed some flexibility in procedures by maintaining the French language and customs.

Charles III, King of Spain, Real Decreto, que Previene las Reglas, y Condiciones con que se Puede Hacer el Comercio Desde España a la Provincia de la Luisiana . . ., Madrid, 1768. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress. Call number: F373 .S73

Ulloa landed at New Orleans with a small detachment of troops in March 1766. He delayed formal transfer of power for more than a year, by which time administrative and financial chaos ensued. In an attempt to remedy the damage and set the colony exclusively within the commercial sphere of Spain, Ulloa turned to various economic expedients which only worsened the situation. He also promulgated a series of unpopular ordinances.

Although Louisiana was granted more extensive privileges than were accorded other Spanish colonies, restrictions were placed on trade. Louisiana's trade was limited to nine ports in Spain and the passage of any ship that did not possess a captain and a crew that were two-thirds Spanish was prohibited. Trade with Great Britain and Mexico was outlawed and the importation of French wine into the colony was banned.

In the words of one historian, Ulloa had inaugurated the uprising that swept him from office because he had issued orders "that threatened the existing customs and economic interests of the colony but was denied the money and military manpower needed to give his authority credibility."  7. Facing a large wave of dissent, particularly from the leading French citizens of New Orleans who acted under the auspices of the Superior Council, Louisiana's local governing body, Ulloa was driven from the colony by an open revolt in October 1768.

Louisiana citizens loyal to the French Crown held a convention in New Orleans on October 29, 1768, to air their grievances against Spanish authority. They formally petitioned the Superior Council to reinstate the colony's former status and force Ulloa's departure. The Superior Council issued a decree ordering the expulsion of the Spanish governor and drafted a memorandum to present to the French minister of foreign affairs petitioning for the restoration of French rule, all to no avail. Spain, unwilling to countenance such a revolt, responded with force.

General Alexandre O'Reilly, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, n.d. Engraving after an undated miniature. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction number: LC-USZ62-41388

The crown discharged a fleet of 24 ships and 2,000 troops under the command of General Alexandre O'Reilly, who took possession of Louisiana on August 18, 1769. O'Reilly quickly arrested, tried, and convicted the leaders of the rebellion of treason, executing 12 men, sentencing others to lengthy prison terms, and confiscating the properties of all.

O'Reilly also established a series of reforms designed to reassert Spanish authority. In December 1769 he abolished the Superior Council and replaced it with the Cabildo. The Cabildo was a form of municipal government common throughout Spanish America a city council of 10 members presided over by a governor.

6. Paul E. Hoffman, A History of Louisiana before 1813 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Bookstore, 1996), 90. (Return to text)

7. ibid., 107. (Return to text)

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