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The Spanish flag known as the Spanish Bars of Aragon

The Spanish flag known as the Spanish Bars of Aragon

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Gayoso letter to his third wife Margaret

Gayoso letter to his third wife Margaret soon after his arrival in New Orleans as the new governor-general of the Louisiana province. Courtesy, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

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Feature Story

Manuel Gayoso and Spanish Natchez

June 1789 — Manuel Gayoso de Lemos stood in the bow of the galley as the oars rhythmically dipped into the muddy waters pushing the boat forward against the current. Flowing out of the heart of the North American continent, the Mississippi was the largest river he had ever seen.

Outside New Orleans, the river banks were low and the forests were occasionally interrupted by clearings for French settlements. Many of the inhabitants had lived there for generations. Further upstream, high bluffs began to appear intermittently on the east bank. Then after a bend, Natchez stood far ahead on a 200-foot-high bluff.

As the boat drew closer, Gayoso could discern a small wood-and-earth fort on the crest of the bluff. The flag of Spain flapped overhead. The forty-two-year-old Spaniard had traveled a quarter of the way around the globe to reach this frontier outpost where he would serve as the first governor of the Natchez District. He planned to transform it into a viable and productive unit of the far-flung Spanish empire.

Gayoso was a member of a class of civil and military professionals who devoted their lives to administering and defending Spain’s presence around the world. Born in Oporto, Portugal, the son of a Spanish consul and a Portuguese mother, Gayoso was well-educated, fluent in several languages, including English, and skilled in diplomacy and military tactics. When the decision was made in the halls of power to upgrade the Natchez District from one ruled by a military commandant to one under a governor, Gayoso was selected. He was called back to Spain from Lisbon to receive his briefings. Then with his young Portuguese wife, Theresa, and infant daughter, he set sail for his distant destination.

Spain’s legacy in the New World

The new governor certainly had time to reflect upon the historical and political forces that had conspired to bring him thousands of miles to this lonely place. Although the area was new to Gayoso, the country to which he owed allegiance had deep roots here. Indeed, of all European nations, Spain had the longest continuous legacy in the New World. In 1492 the Genoan captain Christopher Columbus, sailing for the united crowns of Aragon and Castile, had inadvertently stumbled on the unknown lands. And only two years later, Spain and Portugal had divided up the globe among themselves by the Treaty of Tordesillas, which gave Spain proprietary claim to all of North America and most of South America.

Colonies had then followed, first in the Caribbean, then in Mexico and Peru. However, the New World was too vast for Spain to effectively explore, colonize, and defend from interlopers. Only a few Spanish expeditions such as those led by Juan Ponce de León, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, Pánfilo de Narváez, and Hernando de Soto had visited North America. The expedition led by De Soto had wandered through the southeastern part of the continent in 1539-1543, coming upon the Mississippi River in May 1541. A year later De Soto’s body would be quietly and unceremoniously dropped into its waters so the Indians would not know of his death.

Meanwhile, colonial ventures led by the rival nations of England, France, Sweden, Russia, and the Netherlands also claimed much of the land. Not until the latter half of the eighteenth century did Spain reacquire a recognized title to much of the Mississippi River basin.

Fort Natchez

Then, in 1789, Gayoso’s galley docked at the Natchez landing, which lay on a low, narrow shelf of land beneath the high bluff. Here a cluster of rather primitive commercial and residential buildings had sprung up to cater to both the inland farmers and to the boatmen who might stop there on their way downriver to New Orleans. The landing was the only semblance of urban life in the district. A steep road, or path, ascended to the bluff’s top. At the summit, the road passed by the fort, which was the center of Spanish authority and the base of the commandant — a Frenchman, Carlos de Grand-Pré.

The fort had been established decades before in 1716 as Fort Rosalie by the French who had first colonized the Mississippi River. Later, the fort was known officially as Fort Panmure, a name the British, its second proprietors, had given it during a brief occupation. However, most people simply knew it as Fort Natchez.

The growing settlement around the fort had begun during the 1760s, after the district had passed into the hands of Great Britain following the French and Indian War. Great Britain had issued land grants to prospective settlers. After the 1779 Spanish annexation of Natchez, Spain’s liberal immigration policies and liberal land grants continued to encourage British Americans to immigrate there. Consequently, Gayoso found there a population largely of British origin along with a substantial contingent of African-American slaves. A few Frenchmen and even fewer Spaniards had also settled there. Gayoso’s fluency in English would be of great value.

Gayoso knew that continued growth of the Natchez District needed the institutions and infrastructure of civilization. The founding of the city of Natchez would begin the political and social development of the district. Grand-Pré had begun the process in 1788 with the survey of a city plat; however nothing came of this effort. Soon after his arrival, Gayoso had a town surveyed in 1789-1790 adjacent to the fort. The town consisted of thirty-four city blocks surrounding a central plaza. A Catholic church, San Salvador, was constructed overlooking the plaza. Gayoso used a two-story house that stood on the edge of the bluff overlooking the river as the Government House.

The governor also busied himself with a wide variety of other projects. He built Villa Gayoso, a satellite administrative center north of Natchez, constructed fortifications at the sites of present-day Vicksburg and Memphis to defend the river against American incursions, and developed alliances with the neighboring Choctaw Indians. In addition, Gayoso acquired a land grant called "Concordia" adjacent to the newly founded city of Natchez. There he built a large mansion to serve as his personal residence.

Spanish withdrawal

However, while Gayoso was engaged in these activities, international forces were at work. The Pinckney Treaty of 1795 was signed between the United States and Spain. It called for Spain to withdraw from disputed lands lying east of the Mississippi River and north of the 31st parallel of latitude. The Spanish had to give the Natchez District to the United States. Thus the treaty, in effect, nullified Gayoso’s efforts on behalf of his country.

Spanish withdrawal was not accomplished until three years afterward. By that time, Gayoso had been promoted to governor-general of the Louisiana province.

Gayoso died July 18, 1799, in New Orleans of fever, probably yellow fever, and was buried beneath the altar of the St. Louis Cathedral. As the result of war and rebellion, his beloved empire would almost totally collapse in the New World, leaving a patchwork of new countries in its wake.

Gayoso’s efforts were not all in vain. His city of Natchez continued to thrive after Spanish withdrawal and served as the first capital of the Mississippi Territory. Later it served as the first capital of the state of Mississippi and was the largest and wealthiest city in Mississippi for decades afterward. Gayoso’s formative role in founding the city was his legacy to future generations who lived under other flags.

Today the streets in the old part of Natchez are the same that he had surveyed, providing his most visible reminder to us today.


Jack D. Elliott, Jr., is historical archaeologist with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Posted January 2001

Further Reading:

Elliott, Jack D., Jr. City and Empire: The Spanish Origins of Natchez. Journal of Mississippi History, 1997, vol. 59, pp. 270-321.

The Fort of Natchez and the Colonial Origins of Mississippi. Eastern National, 1998.

Holmes, Jack D. L.Gayoso: The Life of a Spanish Governor in the Mississippi Valley 1789-1799. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1965.

Weeks, Charles A. Voices from Mississippi's Past: Spanish Provincial Records in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Journal of Mississippi History, 1999, vol. 61, pp. 149-179.

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