The Spanish Frontier in North America

The Spanish Frontier in North America
© 1992 David J. Weber
602 pages

Although American history books will generally mention the early exploration of North America by figures like de Soto,  little attention on the whole is given to the Spanish colonial enterprise. At its height, Spain’s flag flew from the eastern coast of Florida, at St. Augustine, all the way across the continent to Baja California.  That height was reached shortly after the American Revolution, followed by a dramatic decline after the French wars erupted.  While the Southwest still retains its Spanish stamp, in places like the Carolinas or Alabama there’s very little left to remember New Spain by.  The Spanish Frontier in North America offers a history of the Spanish colonial enterprise in North America as it waxed and waned with Spain’s continental ambitions.

Largely a work of politics, Weber devotes some space toward the end on culture, and especially toward how Spain is remembered in architectural styles like Mission Revival.  At its most basic, it is a sweeping history of Europe’s exploration and resettlement of southern North America,  The author contends that understanding American (U.S.) history is impossible without appreciating Spanish America.  It certainly can’t be ignored, especially given Spain’s role in the war for independence, and The Spanish Frontier opens a new world for me in demonstrating not only the expanse of Spanish exploration, but  the amount of conflict between Spain, France, and Britain which unfolded for centuries before the thirteen English colonies ever entered the international arena.  Also of note, and displayed here, are the European powers’  ever-shifting attitudes towards Native Americans, spanning war and marriage. While all three major powers attempted to cultivate their neighboring tribes as trading partners — Spain was also very keen on Christianizing the Pueblos, Hopis, etc. This christening wasn’t simply a religious introduction, either: the intent was to create Europeans out of the Pueblos, in language, farming, and dress.  Ultimately, even the españoles would adopt their diet and architecture to the new climate as the native incorporated European plants and animals into their culture, creating something closer to a dynamic than a one-way cultural conquest.

I found The Spanish Frontier dense but fascinating. I never knew how far north Spanish explorers trekked, creating posts even in the Carolinas, and that they explored deep into the American interior. I was also unaware of the amount of European warfare on the continent prior to the revolution:  Florida  exchanged hands several times!  Similarly eye-raising was the swiftness of Spain’s fall: while it was able to reclaim a lot of lost territory after the Treaty of Paris which ended the American revolution, that brief moment when it stretched from coast to coast was a definite peak: shortly thereafter, Spain fell into succession crises, followed by the French revolution which isolated the colonies from Spain proper. The rising Americans made short work of claiming Florida and pushing across the Mississippi, The author has an odd detachment from European culture, sometimes writing about it as though it were foreign. He informs the readers, for instance, that the Christian rite of initiation is baptism, and that Christians worshiped in places called ‘churches’.  Is he writing to Martians?    Weber’s work has the heft of a textbook, and is copiously researched:  slightly less than half the text consists of notes.   Though it looks intimidating, it seems very valuable as a colonial reference book.

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7 Responses to The Spanish Frontier in North America

  1. Brian Joseph says:

    Thanks for the excellent commentary on this book.

    This sounds fascinating. I agree that the history of Spanish colonization of the Western Hemisphere is vitally important and too often overlooked. I am putting this one on my list.

  2. Some books invite the question: for whom is the author writing? This one sounds like such a book. I cannot imagine too many readers. Bravo to you for exploring it.

  3. James says:

    Thanks for your thoughts and excellent commentary. The less explored areas of history often provide surprises. My primary question would be why Spain's empire imploded. What were the essential weaknesses that led to their demise?

  4. James says:

    Thanks for your thoughts and excellent commentary. The less explored areas of history often provide surprises. My primary question would be why Spain's empire imploded. What were the essential weaknesses that led to their demise?

  5. Stephen says:

    I plan to do a little more reading into the Spanish empire in America later on, so stay tuned!

  6. Stephen says:

    This book is part of a series (by different authors) on the American frontier. Some of them have such exciting subtitles as “Water Law and Public Policy”.

  7. Stephen says:

    Aside from the succession crises and the French wars, Weber points to economic upheaval — Spanish manufacturing becoming highly uncompetitive even as gold flowed into the state's coffers from the Americas. Spain was also stretched thin: throughout the book they're constantly trying to get away with as little defend as they can get away with, because they're trying to compete with other colonial powers throughout the entire expanse of North America. The ambition is staggering. Of course, other powers did it as well: I was surprised to learn last year that France had a line of forts down through the southeast, including Alabama, during the pre-Seven Years War period.

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