Most of you undoubtedly know that, over time, the capital of Texas has moved about from place to place. But did you know one of the earliest capitals was situated about thirty miles east of the Sabine River in northwest Louisiana? It’s true. From 1729 to 1770 the first official capital of the Spanish province of Tejas was Los Adaes. In fact, fourteen territorial governors ruled over Tejas from this location during that period. Over the five decades it served as an active settlement, Los Adaes anchored what was quite literally the end of the road for the Spanish territory. It was the easternmost point on the trail titled El Camino Real de los Tejas (the Royal Road of the Tejas Indians). This road, more of a glorified trail really, linked Los Adaes in the east with Mexico City, the seat of Spanish royal authority in New Spain.
Both a fort and a mission, the Spanish built this outpost to bring Christianity to the Caddo Indians and to keep the French out of New Spain. Ultimately, it didn’t really succeed in either endeavor.
All during those forty years, the border separating Louisiana and Texas was vigorously debated with both France and Spain continually claiming sections of each other’s territory as their own. The French established Fort St. Jean-Baptiste at Natchitoches, Louisiana in 1714. (This is the basis of Natchitoches’ claim to be the oldest permanent settlement in the entire Louisiana Purchase). Eight years later, the Spanish constructed Los Adaes thirteen miles away to protect their claim to the land and to keep the aggressively expanding French from encroaching further.
Officially named the Presidio Nuestra Senora del Pilar Los Adaes (Fort of Our Lady of Pilar at the Adaes), the structure was a hexagonal fortress measuring 115 feet on each side. Each of three alternating corners were fortified and defended by two cannons. The whole structure was surrounded by a moat. Nearby the mission of San Miguel de Cuellar de Los Adaes was erected.
Almost immediately, Spain designated Los Adaes the capital of the province of Texas. The governor’s official residence was built there and it remained the administrative seat of government for the entire province for the next 44 years. The remote provincial capital eventually grew to become the home for over 400 Spanish citizens. Among these were families, soldiers, priests, French traders, converted Indians, escaped slaves and an assortment of other settlers of the frontier.
Yes, Los Adaes was built to counter the French incursion into Spanish territory, but as it happens, if it had not been for their proximity to the French supply center, Los Adaes might not have survived. This presidio was no plush capital city. Life at Los Adaes was harsh and unforgiving. Frontier posts were expected to be self-sufficient so the soldiers stationed there also worked as farmers and ranchers. But the land was poor and crop failures were a common happenstance. The nearest Spanish supply post, Saltillo, was 800 miles away and the humid, rainy climate meant supplies brought in were often spoiled by the time they reached their destination. Without the ability to trade with the French at the Natchitoches settlement, those at Los Adaes would most likely have starved.
This set the stage for Los Adaes to become the site of a unique cooperation among the Spanish, the French and the Caddoans. Though Fort St. Jean-Baptiste and Los Adaes were located near one another and were established primarily to protect their respective nations’ interests from aggression by the other, their inhabitants got along surprisingly well. In fact, when the French fort was attacked in 1730 by about 400 Indians who kept them under siege for 22 days, it was the soldiers from Los Adaes who eventually came to their rescue.
The French capitalized on the shortages of supplies in the Spanish camp to set up a flourishing, if illicit, trade. The Caddo Indians traded with both sides. Though the Spanish Crown banned this commerce, the Spanish settlers eventually took on the role of go between the Indians and the French. No battles were ever fought at Los Adaes during the years it served as the Spanish provincial capital. Instead a stalemate, reminiscent of a cold war, existed between the opposing forces.
In 1763 France ceded Louisiana to Spain. Finally, in 1772, Spain transferred the capital of the Tejas province to San Antonio and most of the 500 plus settlers relocated. By the 1780s the center of Spanish life in East Texas had shifted to Nacogdoches. In 1800 the Louisiana territory was transferred back to the French who sold it three years later to the United States. Interestingly, in 1806 Los Adaes was reoccupied by the Spanish for a short time but the Americans quickly drove them back. Both the United States and Spain continued to lay claim to Los Adaes until the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 finally settled the matter and Los Adaes, once the capital of Texas, ended up firmly within the boundaries of the state of Louisiana.
Los Adaes is very likely the only Colonial Spanish provincial capital that is still intact from an archeological perspective. Admittedly, other capitals such as Sante Fe, San Antonio and Saltillo are still population centers today. But most traces of their provincial origins have been erased – either built up, dug up or obliterated in some other manner. What parts do survive are but remnants of the original settlements. Los Adaes, on the other hand, is an archeologist dream. While the standing architecture, made entirely of wood, disintegrated over time, beneath the ground the patterns and substantial material evidence of the presidio remain, traces that archeologists are still exploring today. The state of Louisiana now owns the property so this very special site will be preserved and available for study for many years to come.