by Anthony W. Fabio
In the year 2003, with the Bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, many people have the mistaken notion that Louisiana had always been exclusively a French colony from the time of its
first settlement to its sale to the United States. Actually, Spain controlled Louisiana for over
thirty years, and Spain provided Louisiana with a rich colonial legacy.
The French Colony of "Louisiane"
During the reign of King Louis XIV of France (1643 to 1715), the French colony of New France or Quebec became very profitable. Agricultural development, fishing, the production of tar
and turpentine, and most especially the fur trade made New France a most lucrative gem of a colony
for France. However, as the demand for skins increased, Quebec's population of fur-bearing animals
decreased. So, fur trappers and explorers moved further westward through Canada.
Meanwhile, in France, the study of geography became a factor in colonial planning. François-Michel Le Tellier, the Marquis de Louvois, the Secretary of State for War, believed that the defense
of the most profitable New France Colony equated to the control of North America. He also thought
that the dominance over any large landmass required the control of the large rivers within it. France
had already commanded the Saint Lawrence River, and now France had to control the longest river
in North America, the Mississippi River. Furthermore, he believed that the key to controlling a river
was to dominate its mouth.
In 1677, Henri de Tondi (the "Iron Hand" as he used an iron hook to substitute for a severed right hand) sailed from Quebec to France to request that the French government allow explorations
along the Mississippi River. This was exactly what the Marquis de Louvois wanted to hear, and so
the French government granted permission for an expedition to explore as far south as the mouth of
the Mississippi River.
After four years of delay, René-Robert Cavalier, the Sieur de La Salle took command of the expedition.
He and his crew moved westward from the New France Colony and passed through the Great Lakes region. They followed the Wisconsin River to the Mississippi River, and then they
moved south along the great river for three more months. They finally reached the Mississippi delta
on 9 April La Salle planted a cross and a French flag, and he and his men knelt down and prayed. He
then stood up and claimed all of the lands drained by both the Mississippi River and the Mississippi
River System on behalf of King Louis XIV of France, and he named it "Louisiane" or "Land of
France, however, did not immediately capitalize on the claim, and a second expedition was
a failure. Finally, in 1698, Louis Pheypeaux de Pontchartrain, the Chancellor of France, and his son, Jerome Pheypeaux de Maurepas, the Minister of Marine, convinced King Louis XIV to finance the establishment of a colony in Louisiana near the mouth of the Mississippi River. The king agreed, and
he selected the distinguished naval officer Pierre Le Moyne, the Sieur d'Iberville to command the
project. Iberville enlisted about two hundred Canadian woodsmen, and he selected his half-brother
Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, the Sieur de Bienville as the deputy commander. On 2 March 1699 (Mardi
Gras Day), the expedition reached the delta of the Mississippi River. Soon, the first settlements were established, the city of New Orleans was established in 1718, and the colony grew.
Over the next sixty years, the Louisiana Colony never made a profit for France. The
swampland was not conducive to farming, the fur trade did not develop, and the settlements were
damaged by flooding. Bienville served four terms as the Colonial Governor for a total of thirty years.
He advocated establishing trade with the Indian Tribes, but this only resulted in battles against the
Natchez Tribe and the Chickasaw Tribe. Frustrated with Louisiana, Bienville returned to France.
The French government even experimented with a Proprietary System for the colony, but in the
continued failed attempt to make a profit all it did was to introduce slavery to Louisiana. During the
War of Jenkins' Ear and the French and Indian War, the colony barely survived as it was isolated
from France and other French colonies. With the two wars, however, some merchants in Louisiana
became wealthy as they built an economy based on smuggling with Spanish colonies and British
colonies. By 1762, the French government, in particular King Louis XV (1715 to 1774), considered
Louisiana to be a financial disaster that needed to be discarded.
The Transfer of Louisiana
During the French and Indian War, the British Empire defeated the French and drove them
out of North America. By 1761, Quebec was securely under British military authority. The
Spanish, an allied Bourbon Court, joined France late in the conflict only to go down in defeat and
suffer the loss of Florida to the British. Thus, by the summer of 1762, the British now controlled
most of North America (at least the eastern half).
On 3 November 1762, France and Spain agreed to the Treaty of Fontainebleau by which
the Louisiana Colony was transferred from France to Spain. France was thereby sacrificing about
seven thousand of its subjects, but to King Louis XV and his ministers, in particular Etienne
François de Choiseul, the Minister of State, other factors took precedence over the people. First,
France was unloading the financial disaster of Louisiana. Second, France would rather have
Louisiana be owned by Spain rather than Great Britain. Third, France was repaying Spain for its
help during the wars and compensating it for the loss of Florida. Lastly, since the most lucrative
colony of New France was lost to the British Empire, France no longer had any strategic reason
to keep Louisiana.
The Spanish government was at first not certain if it really wanted Louisiana. Richard
Wall, the Irish-born Secretary of State, argued against acquiring Louisiana on the grounds that the
colony was a great financial liability; furthermore, he added that Louisiana was not really needed
to protect Mexico, and he said that Louisiana provided no real benefit to the Spanish Empire now
that Florida was lost. However, two other Spanish ministers, Jerónimo Grimaldi and Pedro Pablo
Abarca de Bolea, believed that Louisiana would eventually be beneficial to Spain. King Charles
III of Spain (1759 to 1788) ultimately decided to accept Louisiana for various reasons. First,
Spain would be compensated for the loss of Florida. Second, Spain would rather control
Louisiana than having the British Empire occupy it. Third, Spain considered Louisiana to be a
buffer between the growing British colonies along the Atlantic coast and the Spanish colony of
New Spain or Mexico. Lastly, Spain would now be able to terminate the smuggling between
Louisiana and Spanish colonies.
The British, the undisputed victors of the French and Indian War, could have superceded
the Treaty of Fontainebleau, but instead they approved of the transfer with the Peace of Paris of
10 February 1763. The British saw the advantages of the transfer of Louisiana for four basic
reasons. First, Great Britain now evicted France from North America. Second, Great Britain
saddled Spain with the financial liability of Louisiana. Third, Great Britain gave Spain the burden
of governing a foreign people of European origin. Lastly, Great Britain believed that Spain was
much more serious than France about fighting smuggling in Louisiana, especially with the British
For a little over three years, Spain did not take formal possession of Louisiana. Spain had
to recover after the loss of the French and Indian War, and the rebuilding defenses in more
important colonies, such as Cuba, demanded immediate attention. Moreover, Richard Wall
continued to oppose the acquisition of Louisiana, and the Spanish bureaucracy moved slowly.
Finally, Richard Wall resigned, and Jerónimo Grimaldi became the new Secretary of State. Now,
the Spanish government was ready to take control of Louisiana. On 24 April 1765, Secretary of
State Grimaldi directed that the first Spanish Governor of Louisiana would be Don Antonio de
Ulloa y de la Torre Guiral.
Meanwhile, the people of Louisiana, despite rumors of the transfer to Spain, continued to
act as if they were still a colony of France. In Louisiana, the colonial government was centered
around the Superior Council, usually consisting of twelve men, who advised the French Colonial
Governors and who served as the highest judicial court in the colony. The Commissary was the
colonial official responsible for financial management, and the Attorney General provided legal
advice. Of course, the French were not very eager to relinquish their powers to the Spanish
authorities. Moreover, although the colony had never made any profits for France, some citizens
had become very wealthy from smuggling. The French authorities had often closed their eyes to
smuggling, and the people in Louisiana feared that their source of income would be extinguished
by Spanish power. In addition, the people of Louisiana, of course ethnically French, had cultural
differences with the Spanish over education, art, literature, the conditions of slavery, the treatment
of Free Blacks, and the guidance of religious orders like the Jesuits and the Ursulines.
In April 1764, on behalf of King Louis XV of France, Etienne Francois de Choiseul sent
notification of the transfer of Louisiana to the acting Colonial Governor Jean Jacques Blaise
d'Abbadie. He in turn informed the people that they were subjects of Spain. By January 1765,
the shock had now worn off, and the people of Louisiana felt angry and fearful. They had been
abandoned by France, and now their freedoms and sources of wealth could be terminated by the
Spanish. Some people conducted mass meetings demanding that France continue their control of
Louisiana. The situation was becoming more explosive when, on 4 February 1765, Governor
d'Abbadie died of a sudden illness.
The leadership in Louisiana now passed to the highest ranking military officer in the
colony, Captain Charles Philippe Aubry. Although a French officer, he continued to remind the
people that they were officially under the control of Spain. He repeatedly said that someday the
Spanish would arrive with a large army and large navy and a governor--so accept the inevitable.
Captain Aubry would maintain law and order in the colony until (he believed) the Spanish arrive
to take command.
The Superior Council of the Louisiana Colony resolved that a personal appeal should be
made to the King of France. Captain Aubry advised that the request would not prevail, but the
people ignored him. A wealthy merchant Jean Milhet sailed to France in the summer of 1765. He
met former governor Bienville, and together they were able to obtain a meeting with Minister of
State Choiseul. The minister flatly stated that King Louis XV would not change his mind; thus,
the people of Louisiana had to accept Spanish authority.
The Arrival of the Spanish
On 5 March 1766, Antonio de Ulloa, the first Spanish Governor of Louisiana, arrived in
the city of New Orleans. He brought with him only one boat and only seventy-five Spanish
soldiers--this was certainly not the great demonstration of Spanish power about which Captain
Aubry had warned. The city was hit by a rainstorm, and few inhabitants bothered to welcome or
even look at the new governor. Furthermore, Governor Ulloa did not announce the formal
possession of the colony on behalf of Spain, and he never ordered that the Spanish flag be raised
at the center of the city, the location of the governmental buildings, known as the Place d'Armes.
Such was an inauspicious beginning.
Governor Don Antonio de Ulloa y de la Torre Guiral was born in 1716 in Spain. In 1736,
he went to South America as part of an expedition to determine the circumference of the Earth.
He continued his scientific pursuits and became a scholar in mathematics, geography, customs of
Indian Tribes, biology, and botany. He traveled throughout the Spanish Empire on the behalf of
the government in order to resolve various problems. He was also an accomplished writer. Such
talents, however, did not automatically translate in becoming a good governor, and years later
Secretary of State Grimaldi said that Antonio de Ulloa was selected as the first Spanish Governor
of Louisiana because he spoke French fluently.
Over the next two and a half years, Governor Ulloa encountered four major problems in
Louisiana. He wrote several messages to his superiors, to include Secretary of State Grimaldi and
the Captain General of Cuba, Antonio Maria Bucareli, but always the Spanish government was
too slow or unable to help.
The first major problem was that the Spanish military force was entirely too small to
impose authority and certainly too tiny to quell a rebellion; as stated, Governor Ulloa arrived with
only seventy-five soldiers. Secretary of State Grimaldi wanted Governor Ulloa to recruit Captain
Aubry and other French soldiers into the Spanish army, but they had no desire to do so and really
wanted to return to France.
The second major problem that Governor Ulloa had in Louisiana was the lack of funds.
Spanish pesos were needed to circulate within Louisiana, and they were needed to pay for the
debts of the colony. Too often, however, the funds for Louisiana passed through Cuba, and there
most of the funds were diverted to cover Cuban expenses. As such, Louisiana received only a
trickle, and the colony's economy fell into depression.
The third problem was the inability to impose the Spanish legal and governmental systems
upon the people of Louisiana. On 22 March 1767, Secretary of State Grimaldi decreed that the
Superior Council of Louisiana be dissolved. The governor was to serve as the chief judge of the
colony, and the Spanish Laws of the Indies would be proclaimed. Governor Ulloa decided to wait
until he was certain that he could successfully implement the Spanish systems, and as such he was
never able to accomplish the objectives.
Lastly, Governor Ulloa remained remote and aloof. He spent too much time writing and
conducting experiments aboard ships, and often he resided not in New Orleans but closer to the
delta at Balize. Then, in June 1767, he missed a good opportunity to win some popularity with
the people. His wife by proxy Dona Francisca Ramírez de Lareda y Encalada arrived in
Louisiana, and the people in New Orleans expected festivities to celebrate with the marriage
ceremony of the governor and his bride. Instead, the people were greatly disappointed. The
governor and his new wife, who did not speak French and thus did not want to make a societal
appearance, avoided a public ceremony by having a chaplain marry them at Balize. Unfortunately,
the French people considered the private service as an insult and example of Spanish arrogance.
All of these problems simmered with the people of Louisiana. The problems were
enlarged by the perception that Spain was weak and did not seem committed to controlling the
colony. Again, the people saw few Spanish soldiers, little funding, and the continuation of the
French flag flying in New Orleans.
Then, in the late summer of 1768, two decisions by Governor Ulloa, combined with the
lingering problems and perceptions, made the presence of the Spanish so completely unacceptable
to the people of Louisiana. The people resolved to evict the Spanish from the colony.
The first decision of Governor Ulloa in the summer of 1768 was the closing of the mouth
of the Mississippi River to only one channel. Safety and coastal defenses would certainly be
improved, but with only one channel open the Spanish military would be able to restrict
smuggling. Therefore, many merchants, who generated much wealth through the exchange of
contraband, were made angry.
The second decision was to tie Louisiana's economy to the rest of the Spanish Empire.
Although Governor Ulloa never announced that Louisiana could no longer trade with France or
French Colonies, the people realized that their economic links to France would soon be severed.
Several subjects became embittered as they thought that harsh Spanish mercantile policies would
make the colony's economic depression become worse.
The four major problems, the perceptions, and the two recent decisions combined in the
autumn of 1768 to move some people in Louisiana to action. The wealthiest men in the colony,
the leading merchants, those engaged in smuggling, and anybody who thought that they had
something to lose with continued Spanish rule stepped forward to oust the Spanish from
The Rebellion of 1768
Denis-Nicolas Foucault was one of the principal ringleaders in the plot to oust the Spanish
from Louisiana. He was the Commissary of Louisiana (both under France and continuing into
1768), and he had been ordered by the French government to remain in the position until the
Spanish had imposed their economic system on Louisiana. He had great respect in Louisiana by
his official position with the French government, and although he had taken bribes from smugglers
he at least distributed his wealth around the colony.
Nicolas Chauvin de La Freniere was another major instigator of the rebellion. He had
served as the Attorney General of Louisiana (under France and unofficially under the Spanish),
and he acquired much influence and many friends. By 1768, he began to advocate that colonists
had rights and freedoms.
The plot contained wealthy merchants in New Orleans. Jean Baptiste Noyan, Jean Milhet,
Joseph Milhet, and Joseph Petit were unhappy with Spanish economic policies. Pierre Poupet and Pierre Hardi de Boisblanc were disgruntled bankers. Joseph Petit was a merchant who had lost
much wealth over the prior two years. Pierre Caresse drafted a list of grievances against
Governor Ulloa, and Julien Jerome Doucet wrote a legal argument that the Treaty of
Fontainebleau was contrary to the Laws of Nations. The documents of Caresse and Doucet were
presented to the printer Denis Braud, who distributed copies of them in New Orleans. In the
middle of October 1768, Foucault and La Freniere set the rebellion into motion. They sent Joseph
Milhet to the settlements west of the Mississippi River, the villages of the Acadians (the recently
arrived forced immigrants from Canada) to incite insurrection. They sent Joseph Villere to the
communities northwest of New Orleans, the villages of the German immigrants, to spread revolt.
Next, Foucault and La Freniere declared that Pierre Marquis was a colonel of a so-called militia
consisting of the Acadians and the Germans. They also sent Balthasar Masan to the British
colony of West Florida for some type of support; British officials, however, were not supportive
as they wanted to avoid an international incident.
As for Captain Charles Philippe Aubry, on 27 October 1768, he first learned of the
rebellion, but he was powerless to stop it. His own forces, even combined with the Spanish
soldiers, were outnumbered by the so-called militia under Pierre Marquis. The captain protested
to Foucault and La Freniere that their rebellion was treason and would ultimately be destroyed,
but they ignored him. So Captain Aubry gathered the small number of Spanish soldiers, officials,
and sympathizers to board a Spanish vessel for safety. He also warned Governor Ulloa, who was
in New Orleans, of the danger.
On 28 October 1768, the so-called militia of Acadians and Germans turned to alcohol and
became intoxicated. Captain Aubry decided that he did not have enough men at his disposal to
take the opportunity of the drunkenness and disburse the mob. He did, however, escort Governor
Ulloa, his pregnant wife, and their young child to the shelter of the Spanish vessel.
On 29 October 1768, as riots erupted in New Orleans, La Freniere went before the
Superior Council (some members were part of the plot) and argued that it expel Governor Ulloa
form Louisiana and declare that the people of Louisiana were free to trade with any nation and
any colony in the world. Captain Aubry invited himself to the meeting, and shouted his
objections, and was told to be quite; he left the meeting with the warning that neither Spain nor
France would approve of the rebellion. The Superior Council then voted that Governor Ulloa
leave the colony within three days.
On the night of 31 October to 1 November 1768, Governor Ulloa, his family, soldiers,
officials, and sympathizers sailed down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. Many
people in Louisiana celebrated, but Captain Aubry warned them that the worst was yet to come.
The conspirators now faced the question of what to do next. They never showed any
indication that they sought independence; rather, they wanted to revert back to French authority.
They selected Jean Milhet (the same man who had traveled to France in 1765) to request that the
French government reclaim Louisiana. However, his mission was a failure. Minister of State
Choiseul refused to see him. The Minister of the Navy, Gabriel de Praslin informed Milhet that
the government of King Louis XV disapproved of the rebellion and would do nothing on behalf of
the people of Louisiana--especially since Spain had every intention to return to Louisiana.
The Return of the Spanish
In January 1769, Spanish Secretary of State Grimaldi first learned of the rebellion. The
next month, Governor Ulloa arrived in Spain with his account. Grimaldi decided to act quickly.
He first sent diplomatic notes as a courtesy to France and Great Britain in which he expressed
Spain's clear intention to retain control of Louisiana. He then summoned a meeting of the
Council of State to determine the actual course to follow. By the end of March 1769, the Council
of State favored swiftness and vengeance. Grimaldi then obtained the approval of King Charles
III for a military expedition against Louisiana commanded by General Alejandro O'Reilly.
Born in Ireland in 1722, Alejandro (born as Alexander) O'Reilly became a soldier of
fortune. He joined Spanish forces fighting in Italy, and he quickly distinguished himself with his
leadership. He played a major role in the Spanish invasion of Portugal during the French and
Indian War, and later he became the Inspector General of the Spanish Army.
On 19 July 1769, General O'Reilly with a force of over two thousand soldiers on twelve
ships entered the Mississippi River delta. They stopped at the settlement of Balize for three
weeks. On 24 July 1769, Lieutenant Colonel Francisco Bouligny reached New Orleans to
announce the return of the Spanish, and immediately Captain Aubry placed his small for at the
disposal of the general. Three days later, Nicolas Chauvin de La Freniere, Pierre Marquis, and
Joseph Milhet conferred with General O'Reilly. At the meeting, they insisted that Governor Ulloa
had been too harmful, that no blood was shed during the rebellion, and that they respected the
King of Spain. The general acted so friendly at the meeting that none of the plotters ever tried to
flee Louisiana over the next three weeks.
The convoy reached New Orleans on 18 August 1769. The Spanish soldiers paraded, the
French flag was lowered, and the Spanish flag was raised over the Place d'Armes. General
O'Reilly announced that Spain was officially taking possession of Louisiana. He also thanked
Captain Aubry for his services over the last few years.
One day later, General O'Reilly held a reception at the Governor's Palace in New Orleans.
Using reports from Captain Aubry, the general invited several prominent citizens--including most
of the conspirators--to dinner. When the festivities were concluding, General O'Reilly arrested
the plotters, read the charges against them, and threw them in jail. On the morning of 20 August
1769, General O'Reilly ordered all residents to take an oath of loyalty to King Charles III of
Spain. He also announced that any rioting by Acadians, German, or any other group would not
be tolerated. Lastly, as a symbol of Spanish benevolence, he said that most people who had
participated in the rebellion would not be punished.
Careful to avoid any hint of an international incident, General O'Reilly did not arrest
Denis-Nicolas Foucault, the Commissary of Louisiana. Since Foucault still had an official
position with the French government, the general did not want any Spanish soldier to apprehend
him. Instead, the general ordered Captain Aubry to place Foucault under house arrest. In
December 1769, a French vessel transported Foucault back to France. In February 1770, he
confessed, was sentenced to prison, and served less than two years.
For two months, General O'Reilly, as judge and jury, conducted the trial of the other
conspirators. During the two months, Joseph Villere died. Captain Aubry was the principal
witness, but the defendants damaged themselves with their own testimony as they claimed all of
their actions were justified on the grounds that Governor Ulloa never had any legal authority over
On 24 October 1769, General Alejandro O'Reilly announced the sentences:
Nicolas Chauvin de La Freniere
Jean Baptiste Noyan
Ten Years Imprisonment:
Julien Jerome Doucet
Six Years Imprisonment:
Pierre Hardi de Boisblanc
The very next day, without any chance for a stay of execution or a commutation of
sentence, the five men faced the firing squad. The five other men were sent to Havana to serve
their sentences. All of the convicted men had their property seized and sold to cover colonial
Captain Aubry was thanked for his services. For his safety, however, General O'Reilly
decided that the captain should return to France. In early 1770, Captain Aubry died when his
General O'Reilly then abolished the Superior Council and replaced it with a Cabildo. The
general then abolished most French laws and replaced them with a Spanish code. In March 1770,
he relinquished his powers to the new Spanish Governor of Louisiana, Luis de Unzaga y
Amezaga. General Alejandro O'Reilly returned to Spain in June 1770. He was given an audience
with and rewarded by King Charles III. He served in the Spanish army for several more years, but
he was discredited with defeat in a war in Algeria in 1774. He died in 1794, but even today he is
still known in Louisiana as "Bloody O'Reilly."
A Brief Epilogue
From 1770 to 1777, Luis de Unzaga y Amezaga served as the Spanish Governor of
Louisiana. He was so well liked, and he even married a French woman from Louisiana, that most
people in the colony reconciled themselves to Spanish authority. Moreover, the economy of
Louisiana became healthy during his seven years in office. Governor Unzaga allowed Louisiana
to conduct trade with the British colonies to the east, and later he began to send some weapons
up the Mississippi River to the Americans, who were fighting for independence.
From 1777 to 1785, Bernardo de Gálvez was the Governor of Louisiana. He issued very
liberal grants of land on behalf of the King of Spain, and he also married a French woman from
Louisiana. During the American Revolutionary War, with Spain at war with Great Britain,
Governor Gálvez led soldiers in the capture of British positions at Natchez, Baton Rouge, Mobile,
and Pensacola; to his great credit, he achieved these victories with a minimum loss of life on both
For the next fifteen years, Spain continued to control Louisiana. In 1800, with the Treaty
of San Ildefonso, Spain returned Louisiana to France and the dictator Napoleon Bonaparte.
Three years later, France sold Louisiana to the Americans, who officially took control on 20
December 1803. Finally, on 20 April 1812, Louisiana entered the Union as the eighteenth state of
the United States of America.
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