Nicholas de La Mathe: Handbook of Texas Entry

Spanish Cross, Buffalo, Nicholas de La Mathe

Recently I wrote an entry for the Handbook of Texas on Nicholas de La Mathe. I have included the encyclopedic entry below with attached source footnotes.

LA MATHE, NICHOLAS DE (?-?). Nicholas de La Mathe lived as an Indian trader, a rancher, and a militia captain in Spanish Louisiana and Spanish Texas. He made overtures of peace with the Norteños, he smuggled goods from Louisiana into Texas, and he proposed an unsuccessful plan to exterminate the Karankawa Indians.

A wealthy merchant of Pointe Coupee, Louisiana, La Mathe acquired a passport to enter Texas in 1775 to collect debts at the virgin settlement of Nuestra Senora del Pilár de Bucareli. Supposedly having a fondness for the town’s namesake saint, La Mathe offered to construct an impressive church for which he hired two workers to build in 1776. While some historians believe that La Mathe’s religious fervor alone “moved him” to erect this sumptuous church, in all likelihood it served as a means of forging a positive reputation for future smuggling operations among the citizens of Bucareli and its leader, Antonio Gil Ibarvo, whom La Mathe had traded with for several years prior. While in Bucareli, La Mathe acquired a small herd of cattle by selling an enslaved black child. He increased his cattle, mustang, and mule holdings in Texas until he had accumulated over 700 stock animals by 1779.

Well acquainted in trading with First Peoples, La Mathe also served as an Indian agent for the Spaniards. Most notably, he negotiated a temporary peace in 1778 with the Guiscates (Tawakonis), the Tancabos (Tonkawas), and Taguacanes (Tonkawas)—Native Americans who the Spanish collectively referred to as “Indians of the North” or “Norteños.” At this time, the Spaniards barely withstood attacks from the Apaches, the Comanches, and the Karankawas. The tentative peace with the Norteños provided much-needed breathing room, and as a reward, the commandant general of the Provincias Internas, Teodoro de Croix, granted La Mathe an unprecedented allowance to export 1000 cattle out of Texas at a lowered tax rate. Such blatant favor toward La Mathe shows the importance French Indian traders played in the survival of a Spanish presence in Texas.

Before La Mathe could export or sell his cattle, Comanches raided Bucareli in February 1779 and stole 202 of his horses and mules. La Mathe lost an additional 500 stock in the following months after a flood, in an accidental fire that burned down half Bucareli, and in another Comanche raid. With the citizens of Bucareli eventually abandoning the settlement, the governor of Texas, Domingo Cabello y Robles, provided La Mathe a passport to live in San Antonio de Bexar. And in November 1780, Cabello assigned La Mathe to a peace-seeking tour north-eastern Texas and to give gifts to the Caddos and the Norteños. La Mathe was also to attempt to meet with the Comanches, seek a truce, and search for any signs of an English influence among them. This expedition ended lacklusterly. The first long-term success among the Comanches and the Norteños would not be achieved until 1785. 

Finishing his trading mission at the end of 1782, La Mathe traveled over a thousand miles to Arizpe, Sonora to report his findings to Croix. Letters from Cabello preceded La Mathe and portrayed him as “unbelievably efficient, industrious, and competent.” Such high praise—from a man who seldom handed out commendation—greatly affect Croix’s view and reception of La Mathe. 

Upon meeting Croix in person, La Mathe proposed two major plans—both of which Croix approved. The first plan was to annually give gifts to the Norteños. La Mathe sought to be the commissioner of this tribute, an extremely lucrative position for a merchant with his connections. The second plan was to exterminate the Carancahuas (Karankawas). The Carancahuas, under the leadership of Jose María, exerted tremendous pressure on the Spanish in south-east Texas, particularly for the Presidio of Nuestra Señora de Loreto de la Bahía and the nearby missions of Nuestra Señora del Rosario de los Cujanes and Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga. Conditions in the region were such that Croix considered abandoning the area and consolidating all his forces in San Antonio. Beyond the Spanish government, La Mathe himself had a personal interest in seeing the Carancahuas exterminated. Although his passport listed him as a resident of San Antonio after Bucareli’s collapse, La Mathe lived near the presidio of La Bahia tending to his remaining cattle—stock that the Karankawas repeatedly stole with impunity.

La Mathe intended to destroy the Carancahuas by building eight canoes at Camargo on the Rio Grande (present-day Ciudad de Camargo), fill them with presidial soldiers, and paddle them north to Matagorda Island where the Carancahuas resided. La Mathe simultaneously planned to have men and watercraft from Louisiana paddle south to Matagorda and, effectively, sandwich the Indians on the island. Lastly, La Mathe wanted to have the soldiers, citizens, and mission Indians of La Bahia and San Antonio wait on the shore across Matagorda Island and slaughter any Karankawas that fled their island when the Spaniards’ southern and northern troops converged. 

Lack of men, money, and proper wood doomed La Mathe’s plan from the start. So too did the frequent changes in overall leadership and the proposal’s lack of specificity. With the Karankawas’ destruction thwarted and with these Indians continuing to exploit the Spaniards, La Mathe’s status diminished. 

Another blow to his reputation came in July 1784 when the Taboayses and Guachitas, the Peoples who La Mathe had negotiated a shaky peace with six years prior, attacked Governor Cabello’s home and stole four of his horses, including two of his best. But yet a more persistent problem for La Mathe, was his relationship with the lieutenant governor of Texas, Antonio Gil Ibarvo. Once good friends and trade partners, they regularly feuded about financial disputes stemming from the trade with the Indians in North Texas. After La Mathe repeatedly and unsuccessfully sued Ibarvo, the lieutenant governor labeled La Mathe his “public enemy.” In June 1792, Ibarvo alerted El Conde de la Sierra Gorda of La Mathe’s involvement in an illegal smuggling ring with the Captain of La Bahia Presidio, Juan Cortes. The Conde de Sierra barred La Mathe from living near the border of Texas and Spanish-Louisiana, and ordered authorities to “remain ever watchful of [La Mathe’s] conduct.” 

After 1792, La Mathe disappears from the Spanish historical record. The date of his death is unknown, as is his birth. La Mathe’s influence in Texas demonstrates how the Spaniards in the mid to late eighteenth-century relied on French traders from Louisiana, rather than missionaries, to control and protect their colonial territory. Their reliance was so great that they made extraordinary concessions to retain these traders. Moreover, La Mathe highlights the Europeans’ prevailing perceptions of the Karankawas: La Mathe, who made his living negotiating and trading with Indians, saw them as hopeless savages—Indians who could only be dealt with by the sword.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Bexar Archives, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, the University of Texas at Austin. Herbert Eugene Bolton, Texas in the Middle Eighteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1915; rpt., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1970). Carlos E. Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas (7 vols., Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1936–58; rpt., New York: Arno, 1976). Lawrence Kinnaird, Spain in the Mississippi Valley, 1765-1794, Translations of Materials from the Spanish Archives in the Bancroft Library, Part II: Post War Decade, 1782-1791 (Washington: United States Government Printing Offices, 1949). Robert S. Weddle, Changing Tides: Twilight and Dawn in the Spanish Sea, 1763-1803 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1995). Donald E. Chipman and Harriett Denise Joseph, Spanish Texas, 1519-1821 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992; reprint, 2010).

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Cabello to Vaugine, October 31, 1780 in Lawrence Kinnaird, Spain in the Mississippi Valley, 1765-1794, volume 2, part 1, the Revolutionary Period, 1765-1781 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1949), 389-390; Espadas to Muñoz, reporting arrangements for departure of Nicolás de Lamatte, September 20, 1790, Box 2C150, Bexar Archives, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.

[2] Muñoz to Ibarvo, requesting information on foreigners residing in Nacogdoches. Includes report, and evidence of copy sent to Pedro Nava, May 12, 1792, Box 2K40, BA; Carlos E. Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas, 1519-1936, volume 4, The Mission Era: The Passing of the Missions, 1762-1782 (Austin: Von Boekmann-Jones Company, 1939), 316; Herbert Eugene Bolton, Texas in the Middle Eighteenth Century, Studies in Spanish Colonial History and Administration (Berkely: University of California Press, 1915), 427; Nicolás La Mathe vs. Antonio Gil Thervo, demanding settlement of accounts, June 26, 1782, Box 2C47, BA.

[3] Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas, volume 4, 316; Bolton, Texas in the Middle Eighteenth Century, 427-428; Muñoz to Ibarvo, requesting information on foreigners residing in Nacogdoches. Includes report, and evidence of copy sent to Pedro Nava, May 12, 1792, Box 2K40, BA

[4] Fray José Francisco Mariano de la Garza’s affidavit as to Ibarvo’s character and services, November 14, 1787, Box 2C64, BA.

[5] Bill of sale between Nicolás de la Mathe and Toribio Fuentes, for Negro slave, June 10, 1778, Box 2C28, BA.

[6] Cabello to Croix, reporting Comanche depredations at Bucareli, and efforts to preserve peace with allied Indians, February 9, 1779, Box 2C31, BA; Cabello to Croix, reporting results of Nicolás La Mathe’s visit to various Indian tribes, August 30, 1779, Box 2C35, BA; Cabello to Croix, reporting abandonment of Bucareli, Feburary 11, 1779, Box 2C31, BA.

[7] Croix to Ripperdá, giving instructions on special favors to be shown to La Mathe, and ordering the preservation of peace with Northern Indians, September 13, 1778, Box 2C28, BA; El Cíbolo vs. Sebastián Mojarras, José Padrón and Joaquín Flores, accused of fraud, December 14, 1778, Box 2C30, BA; Cabello to Croix, reporting results of Nicolás La Mathe’s visit to various Indian tribes, August 30, 1779, Box 2C35, BA.

[8] Croix to Ripperdá, giving instructions on special favors to be shown to La Mathe, and ordering the preservation of peace with Northern Indians, September 13, 1778, Box 2C28, BA; El Cíbolo vs. Sebastián Mojarras, José Padrón and Joaquín Flores, accused of fraud, December 14, 1778, Box 2C30, BA; Proceedings concerning petitions filed separately by Luis Mariano Menchaca, Vicente Flores and Simón de Arocha, to export cattle bought from La Mathe, August 13, 1784, Box 2S44, BA; Copy of annual report of taxes collected on stock, January 15, 1785, Box 2S45.

[9] Cabello to Croix, reporting results of Nicolás La Mathe’s visit to various Indian tribes, August 30, 1779, Box 2C35, BA; Cabello to Croix, reporting abandonment of Bucareli, Feburary 11, 1779, Box 2C31, BA.

[10]  Cabello to Croix, reporting Comanche depredations at Bucareli, and efforts to preserve peace with allied Indians, February 9, 1779, Box 2C31, BA; Cabello to Croix, reporting results of Nicolás La Mathe’s visit to various Indian tribes, August 30, 1779, Box 2C35, BA; Cabello to Croix, reporting abandonment of Bucareli, Feburary 11, 1779, Box 2C31, BA; Croix to Cabello, acknowledging receipt of news about a Comanche raid on La Mathe’s stock, May 14, 1779, Box 2C33, BA.

[11]  Cabello to Croix, reporting plans to send La Mathe on expedition to prevent Comanche depredations, November 17, 1780, Box 2C44, BA.

[12]  Cabello to Governor of Louisana, September 20, 1783, in Kinnaird, Spain in the Mississippi Valley, volume 3, part 2, 80-82. 

[13] Cabello to Rengel, reporting return of Juan Bousquet from trip to silver mine with Pedro Vial, Alfonso Rey and Antonio Mariano Valdés, who were settled among the Taboayse Indians, Feburary 18, 1785, Box 2C55, BA; Donald E. Chipman and Harriett Denise Joseph, Spanish Texas, 1519-1821 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010), 209, 211.

[14] Nicolás La Mathe vs. Antonio Gil Thervo, demanding settlement of accounts, June 26, 1782, Box 2C47, BA;  Neve to Cabello, discussing plan for securing Louisiana’s aid for campaign against Karankawa Indians, October 3, 1783, Box 2C50, BA; Cabello to Governor of Louisana, September 20, 1783, in Kinnaird, Spain in the Mississippi Valley, volume 3, part 2, 80-82. 

[15] Cabello to Croix, remitting Ibarvo’s report on deplorable conditions of the province and low Indian relations, October 20, 1780, Box 2C43, BA; Neve to Cabello, discussing plan for securing Louisiana’s aid for campaign against Karankawa Indians, October 3, 1783, Box 2C50, BA; Neve to Cabello, discussing plan for the establishment of comissariat for Northern Indians, October 3, 1783, Box 2C50, BA.

[16] Cabello to Governor of Louisana, September 20, 1783, in Kinnaird, Spain in the Mississippi Valley, volume 3, part 2, 80-82.

[17] Croix to Cabello, discussing conditions in Texas and the promotion of peace with Indians, June 13, 1781, Box 2C45, BA.

[18] Cabello to Neve, discussing plans for constructions of canoes for attack on the Carancagua, March 1, 1784, Box 2C51, BA.

[19] Cabello to Neve, reporting depredations by the Comanche, Guachita and Taboaya Indians, July 20, 1784, Box 2C53, BA; Cabello to Neve, reporting trip of Juan Bousquet to bring ore from mines among the Taboaya, August 19, 1784, Box 2C54, BA; Cabello to Rengel, reporting on plans for peace with the Huaes and new settlement on the west of Mississippi River, December 25, 1785, Box 2C57, BA; Cabello to Rengel, reporting return of Juan Bousquet from trip to silver mine with Pedro Vial, Alfonso Rey and Antonio Mariano Valdés, who were settled among the Taboayse Indians, Feburary 18, 1785, Box 2C55, BA.

[20] Fray José Francisco Mariano de la Garza’s affidavit as to Ibarvo’s character and services, November 14, 1787, Box 2C64, BA.

[21] Nicolás La Mathe vs. Antonio Gil Thervo, demanding settlement of accounts, June 26, 1782, Box 2C47, BA; Proceedings concerning case of Gaspar Higaldo vs. Antonio Gil Ibarvo, December 1, 1789, Box 2C67, BA.

[22] Proceedings in the case against Juan Cortés, Sergeant Treviño, and others, charged with smuggling, June 16, 1792, Box 2K41, BA; Correspondence between Castro and Sierra Gorda, concerning case against Juan Cortés, July 14, 1792, Box 2K41, BA.\

[23] Revilla Gigedo to Muñoz, concerning contraband trade of Juan Cortés, September 26, 1792, Box 2K42, BA; De Blanc to Muñoz, congratulating him upon re-appointment as Governor, November 10, 1792, Box 2K43, BA.

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