64 Parishes

Spanish Colonial Louisiana

By the end of Spanish rule, Louisiana was a stable colonial outpost.

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Spanish Colonial Louisiana

The Historic New Orleans Collection.

A translated copy of the original Spanish Plan of New Orleans from 1798.

Spain governed the colony of Louisiana for nearly four decades, from 1763 through March 1803, returning it to France for a few months before France sold it to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The Spanish colonial period began with uncertainty and a major rebellion, but by its end Louisiana had reached a new level of prosperity. By employing effective administrators who were culturally sensitive to the colony’s French-speaking Creole population, the Spanish accomplished what the French had never done—transform Louisiana into a stable, growing outpost.

During the Spanish colonial period, there was a dramatic expansion of slavery in the young colony. The plantation economy drove the slave trade and grew in the mid-1790s as cotton and sugar replaced tobacco and indigo as the region’s major cash crops. The arrival of thousands of enslaved Africans, combined with Spain’s liberal manumission policies, also contributed to an increase in the colony’s population of free people of color, or gens de couleur libres. Trade connections multiplied—both up the Mississippi River toward the expanding American West and downriver toward the Gulf of Mexico—as New Orleans grew into a vital port. By the time Louisiana was sold to the United States, it had been transformed from a sparsely settled zone into a dynamic center for trade.

What did Spain stand to gain by possessing Louisiana?

Louisiana’s economic potential was not the main reason Spain wanted Louisiana. During the French and Indian War (1756–1763), Spain lost important colonies in Cuba and the Floridas to the British. Likewise, the French had lost their northern colony of Canada to Great Britain. To keep Louisiana from also being taken by the British and to help compensate Spain for its losses, France gave the colony to Spain with the 1762 Treaty of Fontainebleau, which was kept secret until France could negotiate peace with the British. In 1763 France, Spain, and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Paris, ending the French and Indian War. For the Spanish, Louisiana would now serve as a buffer, keeping lucrative Mexican mines safe from the British in North America, whose territories now stretched as far west as the Mississippi River.

What was Louisiana like when Spain took control of the colony?

When Spain took control of Louisiana, the colony was vast and sparsely populated. It stretched north to remote French fur-trading settlements on the upper Mississippi River and west into the Texas borderlands, where Natchitoches served as a key Indian trading post. The colony numbered about 7,500 people, and the majority lived along the lower Mississippi River. About a third were enslaved Africans. Louisiana was too remote for regular trade with the broader Atlantic world; Native people and settlers traded furs and subsistence crops in relative isolation from larger markets.

Around New Orleans, however, a new white Creole merchant-planter class began to grow among second-generation colonists who were descended from French- and German-speaking settlers. During the colonial period, “creole” (criollo in Spanish) meant people (free or enslaved) born in the Americas, as opposed to those born in Europe or Africa. With fewer ties to Europe, white Creoles showed a strong determination to maintain their own hard-won status. This group dominated the colony through the Superior Council, Louisiana’s governing body, in the final years of French control. Feeling threatened, they made a serious challenge to Spanish rule in the Insurrection of 1768.

How did Spain respond to the Insurrection of 1768?

The rebellion began when the first Spanish governor—scholar and explorer Antonio de Ulloa—arrived in New Orleans in March 1766. Because Ulloa lacked military reinforcements, he failed to immediately proclaim Spanish sovereignty. Instead Ulloa governed for two years through a puppet French governor. Despite his weak position Ulloa wanted new restrictions on trade and to weaken the Superior Council’s authority. The response of the Creoles, led by attorney general Nicolas de Lafrénière, was to banish Ulloa from the colony in November 1768. In response Spain sent a far more determined governor, the Irish-born Alejandro O’Reilly, who arrived in August 1769 with a formidable force of 2,000 troops aboard twenty ships. O’Reilly immediately proclaimed Spanish sovereignty, abolished the Superior Council, and arrested and punished the insurrection’s leading conspirators. In the decades after the insurrection, prominent Louisianans lived comfortably and prospered under Spanish rule.

How did Alejandro O’Reilly change colonial Louisiana?

Though O’Reilly lived in Louisiana for only six months, he created a set of institutions and laws that had a lasting effect. He crafted an adaptation of the colony’s existing French laws, bringing them in line with those of Spain. The result, known as the O’Reilly Code, became the basis of the colony’s legal system.

Day-to-day governance fell to the newly formed Cabildo, a combined municipal council and judicial system. O’Reilly also divided Louisiana into parishes, which still exist today, instituted a new slave code that banned Native enslavement, and reorganized the regular and militia forces, which included a battalion of free men of color. In February 1770 O’Reilly handed power to his lieutenant Luis de Unzaga y Amezaga, having created a set of institutions and laws that changed very little prior to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

How were Unzaga and other Spanish administrators able to successfully integrate into Louisiana politics?

As O’Reilly’s successor, Governor Unzaga set the tone for future Spanish governors by embracing Louisiana’s elite Creoles, especially when he married one—Marie Elizabeth St. Maxent, the oldest daughter of a prominent New Orleans planter. Unzaga’s successor Bernardo de Gálvez later married Marie’s younger sister, and many Spanish officials followed the governors’ example, marrying power with wealth and influence by wedding daughters of the Creole elite. It soon became clear that Spanish rule would allow Louisianans significant autonomy. Spanish officials did not make Louisianans speak Spanish; all Spain’s governors and colonial officials spoke French. And like the French, the Spanish were Catholic. Spain’s administrators focused much of their efforts on organizing the military and collecting taxes.

What groups contributed to Louisiana’s growing free population under Spanish rule?

Under Spanish rule, Louisiana’s population began to grow, especially through renewed immigration from various locations but also through a growth in the population of free people of color. Acadian immigrants (whose descendants are known as Cajuns) were by far the most numerous, having been evicted from their North Atlantic homeland by the British during the French and Indian War. As many as five thousand Acadians arrived between 1762 and 1770, settling in the bayous and prairie country south and west of New Orleans. Encouraged by Spain to make their homes in undeveloped areas, groups of Canary Islanders, or Isleños, also began to arrive in the 1770s, some settling in Galveztown in Ascension Parish, others traveling downriver from New Orleans to what is now St. Bernard Parish. Settlers from Malaga, Spain, founded the town of New Iberia. Numerous Anglo-Americans also came to Spanish Louisiana, some as merchants, others as pioneer settlers lured by free land in the regions farther upriver. During the Haitian Revolution (1791–1803), numerous immigrants, including more than 3,000 free people of color, from the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) also found their way to Louisiana.

How and why did slavery expand in Spanish colonial Louisiana?

As Creole elites began to prosper under Spanish rule, they sought forced labor for plantations along the Mississippi River as far north as Pointe Coupée. At the same time, British slave traders based in the Caribbean colony of Jamaica began to export enslaved people to Spanish America in greater numbers. The increased demand and supply led to a dramatic expansion of African slavery in Louisiana. It was not Spain’s intent to suddenly increase the supply of enslaved laborers, but Spanish governors were not inclined to block the human traffic that their Creole allies so obviously desired. The increased slave trade of the 1770s and 1780s transformed Louisiana’s economy and culture alike.

Before 1782 the British slave trade was illegal in Louisiana, but ships with a stated destination of Manchac in British West Florida could not be refused entry to the Mississippi River. Once there, slave traders found it easy to sell enslaved people to Louisiana enslavers. By the time the Spanish legalized this trade in 1782, the enslaved population of Louisiana was already more than double what it was in 1769. During the next decade, slave traders brought an average of 800 enslaved people per year to New Orleans, with a peak of 1,550 brought in 1787. In comparison to the total Atlantic slave trade, these numbers were still small; however, for Louisiana, they were enormous. In the thirty-seven years of Spanish rule the enslaved population grew ten times, with as many as twenty-nine thousand enslaved men, women, and children arriving in Louisiana—almost all of them African and brought through Jamaica.

This sudden influx of enslaved people “re-Africanized” an enslaved population that had adapted to the Creole, French-speaking ways of the previous regime. African music and drumming began to be heard on rural plantations as well as during Sunday gatherings in an open field (now known as Congo Square) in New Orleans. As enslaved Africans spoke their native languages in the streets and enslaved peoples’ quarters, the African population became both more visible and more distinctly foreign.

How did Spanish laws alter how slavery was practiced in colonial Louisiana?

Differences in the laws that governed enslaved people and enlavers in the Spanish colonial empire led to other significant social changes in Louisiana. Wealthy Creole plantation owners were unhappy with new Spanish rules that limited the slave trade. They also feared that the government’s more lenient policies would spur enslaved people to revolt. Mass meetings in Congo Square, for example, could not have taken place under the French laws. The Spanish legal code also made provisions for enslaved workers who were severely abused: they could—and did—lodge formal complaints against their enslavers. While the overall conditions of slavery remained inhumane and unjust, a few enslaved people managed to improve their lives.

Manumission was more available during the Spanish period than it had been under French rule. Unlike French laws, which did not allow enslaved people to have their own property or keep money they earned when their labor was not needed by their enslavers, Spain allowed enslaved laborers to earn and keep wages made by hiring themselves out or selling crafts or food. The Spanish slave code also permitted the practice of coartación, a system that allowed enslaved people who earned enough money to purchase their own freedom. Typically 2 to 4 percent of the enslaved population might be freed per year, about half through coartación; women made up a considerable majority of those freed. Coartación accelerated following the two devastating New Orleans fires in 1788 and 1794 as the Spanish Crown invested heavily to rebuild the city and hired many enslaved people to do the reconstruction—in effect, paying them to purchase their own freedom. In time these manumissions led to the formation of a distinct class of free people of color, who numbered about fifteen hundred by 1803. They worked as laborers, storekeepers, and skilled craftsmen; a small minority became enslavers themselves.

How did Louisiana’s economy change under Spanish rule?

Beginning in 1770 the Spanish Crown promoted the development of Louisiana’s tobacco culture by requiring the royal tobacco monopoly in Mexico to purchase the entire crop from the Natchitoches area. Soon the Louisiana product was in high demand, its quality judged to be among the best in North America. When the Spanish first acquired Louisiana, enslaved people at forty-nine Natchitoches plantations harvested eighty thousand pounds of tobacco per year; by 1791 eighty-three plantations there yielded more than seven hundred thousand pounds. The population of both free and enslaved people grew dramatically in this region as well; the number of enslaved people more than tripled from 269 to 948 people between 1765 and 1803. Tobacco production grew so quickly that warehouses in Mexico and Spain had large surpluses on hand. Mexico stopped importing Louisiana tobacco entirely, and Spain cut its quota to forty thousand pounds, leaving Natchitoches plantation owners without buyers. The market for animal pelts had also collapsed from oversupply in the 1770s.

In the 1790s Louisiana plantation owners began to shift away from tobacco and indigo, the latter crop also proving difficult to sell in the global market. Meanwhile, without manufacturing, Louisianans still had to import basic items, such as clothing, shoes, soap, glass bottles, and alcohol. Strict Spanish restrictions on trade stopped growth in both imports and exports.

Unzaga, Gálvez, and their successors dealt with this situation by turning an official blind eye to smuggling. British and American traders were technically forbidden to do business in Spanish New Orleans, but, in practice, the colony depended on them. In reality official tolerance of smuggling became the norm and led to corruption.

In 1795 two events transformed the economic future of Louisiana. In Spain American envoy Thomas Pinckney negotiated a treaty that gave the United States all Spanish territory east of the Mississippi River and north of the 31st parallel north. The treaty also granted Americans the right to freely navigate the Mississippi and allowed US merchants a place in New Orleans to deposit their goods for tax-free export. Just outside New Orleans, at the Boré plantation on the present-day site of Audubon Park, Antoine Morin, a chemist and free man of color from Saint-Domingue, produced granulated sugar for the first time in Louisiana history.

The Saint-Domingue Revolution had drastically reduced that island’s sugar production, and within a few years of the development of the sugar refining process many plantations in south Louisiana abandoned indigo and invested in sugarhouses and imported cane plants. With sugar production came an increased trade in enslaved people. Within a few seasons nearly two thousand people enslaved at more than one hundred plantations around New Orleans were producing six million pounds of sugar each year. For the men, women, and children forced to engage in sugar production, conditions were dangerous, particularly during the period that followed harvests. The round-the-clock labor required to grind, boil, and further process sugar cane into sugar posed significant risks to workers and sometimes resulted in maiming or even death.

At the same time, the development of the cotton gin, a machine that allowed easy separation of the cotton boll from its seeds, transformed the agricultural and demographic landscape of Louisiana, as it did throughout the southern United States and its territories. By 1802 there were twenty-five cotton gins along the Red River, and cheap, profitable cotton soon replaced tobacco as the crop of choice on Red River plantations, on the upper Mississippi, and in the western prairies. Cotton culture also predominated in what would later become the Florida Parishes, especially along the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge. In New Orleans commerce soon centered on the cotton, sugar, and slave trades, with enslavers importing greater numbers of enslaved people and forcing them to pick, harvest, haul, and process sugar and cotton across Louisiana.

How did the American Revolution affect colonial Louisiana?

As Spanish Louisiana grew, the eastern half of North America was plunged into war when the thirteen British Atlantic colonies declared their independence from England in 1776. Spain, seeing a chance to reclaim the Floridas from Britain, entered the Revolutionary War (1775–1783) on the side of America (and France) in the summer of 1779. Under Governor Gálvez’s personal leadership, a mixed force of Creole militiamen, Spanish regulars, and volunteer free men of color overwhelmed British garrisons at Manchac and Baton Rouge. The group went on to seize Mobile, Alabama, and eventually Pensacola, Florida. These campaigns made Gálvez a hero and, in the ensuing peace settlement, returned the Floridas to Spain after twenty chaotic years under British rule.

How did Governor Esteban Rodríguez Miró deal with the newly independent United States of America?

After his victory in Florida, Gálvez appointed Esteban Rodríguez Miró as acting governor in 1782. Miró served nearly ten years, until 1791, making him the longest-serving Spanish governor of Louisiana. In these years it became clear that the ambitions of the British colonists had been tame compared with those of the newly independent Americans. Louisiana’s connections with the United States soon became the key problem of Miró’s administration.

Even before the end of the Revolutionary War, Anglo-American settlers had begun to migrate across the Appalachian Mountains into what became the new states of Kentucky and Tennessee. Further south, both Spain and the United States claimed the region around Natchez on the Mississippi River’s east bank. Miró offered land grants and promises of religious tolerance to get Americans to settle in Spanish territory while at the same time encouraging separatist movements in the American West. Thousands of American settlers—including well-known figures like Daniel Boone—gladly swore Spanish loyalty oaths in exchange for lands in Louisiana and West Florida. A settlement along the Ouachita River at Fort Míro in what is now Monroe extended Spanish influence northward.

Meanwhile, starting in 1787, Miró negotiated with General James Wilkinson, a veteran of the American Revolution who had settled in Kentucky. In exchange for trading privileges and bribes, Wilkinson agreed to encourage separatist sentiment in Kentucky, assuring Miró that the West’s break from the United States was all but guaranteed. Wilkinson promised to help support an eventual union with Spain during Kentucky’s statehood convention in 1788. However, separatist sentiment in Kentucky declined after statehood was granted, and eventually Spain ordered Miró to stop meddling with the American West.

How did Governor Francisco Luis Héctor, barón de Carondelet, deal with the aftermath of revolutions in France and Saint-Domingue?

Miró’s successor, Francisco Luis Héctor, barón de Carondelet, governed Louisiana for six years, from 1791 to 1797, during which the aftermath of the French Revolution (1789–1799) dominated Louisiana’s affairs. New notions of liberty and egalitarianism reached New Orleans, eventually affecting almost all parts of society, from enslaved people to wealthy enslavers. In the nearby French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), a 1791 rebellion started by free people of color and enslaved men and women eventually led to the emancipation of all people enslaved in French territories in 1793.

Numerous Saint-Domingue exiles settled in South Louisiana, where they exerted a strong influence on local culture and politics. Tension ran high as enslavers tried to keep news of the rebellion in Saint-Domingue from reaching enslaved men and women. Pierre Bailly, a free man of color and businessman, was reported to have said that he and his allies were awaiting the order from Saint-Domingue to set a Louisiana rebellion in motion. Governor Carondelet ruled Bailly guilty of treasonous activity, and he spent two years imprisoned in Havana, Cuba.

A royalist aristocrat, Carondelet faced these developments with revulsion and fear. He renovated the fortifications of New Orleans in anticipation of a rebellion. He suspended importation of enslaved people after 1792, fearing a Saint-Domingue-style uprising. He also banned Americans from immigrating to Louisiana, because he thought they were capable of spreading radical ideas. When a group of fifty merchants sent representatives to France to express support for the French revolutionary government, Carondelet had the leaders banished from Louisiana.

Unlike his predecessors, Carondelet was not liked by the colony’s wealthy Creole enslavers. They shared some of his concerns but were appalled by the money and resources Carondelet spent strengthening New Orleans’s defenses—particularly since the anticipated uprising never came. Above all they were outraged by his ban on importing enslaved people as well as his intermittent efforts, also inspired by his fears of rebellion, to promote humane standards in the treatment of enslaved people. Carondelet’s mindset, spending, and arrogance made many wealthy Creole enslavers disgusted with the Spanish regime they had thought fondly of for the previous twenty years.

How did New Orleans change and develop under Spanish rule?

New Orleans grew significantly during the 1790s, despite—or perhaps because of—catastrophic fires in 1788 and 1794. The fires led to the passage of new laws prohibiting wooden structures as well as the rebuilding of most of the town. For the first time the city expanded outside its original walled rectangle (the present-day French Quarter), when the Faubourg St. Marie was laid out on the former Jesuit plantation just above Fort St. Louis. St. Charles, Carondelet, and Baronne Streets were named after the Spanish king (Carlos IV), the governor, and the governor’s wife (la baronne). Governor Carondelet embarked on ambitious projects—most notably the construction of a one-and-a-half-mile canal to link the Mississippi River with Bayou St. John and Lake Pontchartrain. He also bought new streetlamps and created a corps of lamplighters who doubled as night watchmen. The city’s first theater was built in 1792, and two years later Le Moniteur de la Louisiane, the colony’s first newspaper, began publication.

As the city’s population grew, the increasing demand for goods spurred rural agricultural economies. In the Acadian prairie parishes to the southwest and on the Texas frontier near Natchitoches, ranchers raised large cattle herds for export and to feed the large New Orleans market. In the Texas-Louisiana frontier region, ranchers commonly adopted the technique of herding cattle on horseback. Maritime products including hemp, tar, and lumber—all vital to the growing shipping sector—came down the Mississippi from as far away as Kentucky.

Along with the new cash crops of sugar and cotton, trade with the United States fueled the colony’s sudden growth after 1795. Increasing numbers of flatboats descended the Mississippi carrying pork, hemp, and flour from as far away as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. New Orleans was a strategic shipping point and a major market. The long isolated colonial outpost had finally become a city with ambitious plans for development and improvements. Don Andrés Almonester y Roxas commissioned the rebuilding of the Cabildo, St. Louis Cathedral, and the Presbytère. Together the buildings formed an imposing façade on the Plaza de Armas (now known as Jackson Square), facing the bustling levee and a river filled with ships.

How did Spain lose control of Louisiana?

Even as Spanish Louisiana began to thrive, Spain itself was deeply troubled. Increasingly subject to the influence of France’s new leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, Spain agreed in October 1800 to give Louisiana back to France in the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso. In exchange, Spain received a small kingdom in Europe. The treaty remained a secret because Bonaparte wanted to achieve peace with Britain before implementing his grand colonial scheme—an undertaking that would make Louisiana the wheat-growing breadbasket for a reconstructed, slavery-based sugar colony in the Caribbean. But when the army sent to subdue and re-enslave the people of Saint-Domingue collapsed, Bonaparte abandoned the whole plan and sold Louisiana to the United States, violating his agreement with Spain that Louisiana would not be transferred to any third party.

Despite French ownership of the colony, Louisiana officially remained Spanish for three more years. News of the Louisiana Purchase reached New Orleans in August 1803 and received mixed reactions. Some Creoles looked back fondly on the years of relative stability under Spanish administration, but many others, especially merchants, anticipated prosperity, free trade, and self-rule in the American republic. On November 30 the Spanish flag was lowered in the Plaza de Armas and—with several hundred soldiers, militiamen, and townspeople looking on through a chilly rain—the Spanish colonial era’s four decades in Louisiana came to a quiet end.

How is the legacy of Spanish rule still present in Louisiana today?

Spain’s thirty-seven years of colonial rule left few obvious traces in Louisiana. The Spanish language was never widely adopted, and Spanish settlers never arrived in large numbers. Those who did immigrate, like Spain’s colonial officials, assimilated to French Creole customs rather than the other way around. Yet Isleño communities persisted—some of which maintain parts of their culture to the present day. Similarly, former frontier outposts have retained some of their Spanish colonial flavor—literally, in the case of the tamales celebrated in the town of Zwolle and in Natchitoches’s meat pies, which resemble empanadas. Jambalaya, strikingly similar to paella, is embedded in the foodways of Ascension Parish and most of South Louisiana. In southwestern Louisiana the Spanish cultural legacy survives in cattle herding and cowboy culture.

Today the most visible evidence of Spanish rule is undoubtedly the architecture in the oldest portions of New Orleans—especially in the ironically named “French” Quarter, where numerous structures from the Spanish colonial era remain intact. The distinctive style of the architecture resulted from Spanish building codes, enacted after the great fires of 1788 and 1794, that required stucco exteriors and tiled roofs. Settlers from southern Spain built homes that incorporated their customary patios and long iron balconies.