by Frank W. Jennings
In June 1807, U.S. Army Lieutenant Zebulon Pike came to San Antonio de Bexar. President Jefferson was interested in what could be learned about the North American continent from expeditions such as those led by Lewis and Clark and other expeditions to Louisiana Territory and northern parts of New Spain.
New Spain included today's Central America and Mexico plus most of the United States west of the Mississippi, as well as Florida and Cuba. Pike explored part of Colorado, where he named a mountain peak, passed through Santa Fe, where he was politely taken into custody by the Spanish government, went, under escort, as far south as Chihuahua in Mexico and then through northern Mexico and Texas to Louisiana.
In the detailed notes, Lieutenant Pike described the kind of people he and his party talked with in San Antonio de Bexar—and the kind of entertainment they offered.
June 4, 1807, according to his notes: "We were met out of San Antonio about three miles by governors Cordero and Herrara, in a coach. We repaired to their quarters, where we were received like their children. Cordero informed me that ... Robinson and myself would make his quarters our home..."
"In the evening his levee [reception] was attended by a crowd of officers and priests, at which was Father McGuire and Dr. Zerbin [a physician]. After supper we went to the public square [today's Main Plaza], where might be seen the two governors joined in a dance with the people, who in the day time would approach them with reverence and awe."
June 9th: "A large party dined at governor Cordero's, who gave as his first toast, ‘The President of the United States, Vive la.’ I returned the compliment by toasting ‘His Catholic Majesty.’ These toasts were followed by General Wilkinson, and one of the company then gave, 'Those gentlemen; their safe and happy arrival in their own country -- their honorable reception, and the continuation of the good understanding which exists between the two countries.'"
June 10th: “A large party at the governor's to dinner. He gave as a toast, ‘His companion, Herrara.’"
June 11th: “Preparing to march tomorrow. We this evening had a conversation with the two governors, wherein they exhibited an astonishing knowledge of the political character of our Executive, and the local interests of the different parts of the Union.”
Pike described Father McGuire as "an Irish priest, who formerly resided on the coast above [New] Orleans, and was noted for his hospitable and social qualities.... He was a man of chaste classical taste, observation and research."
Don Antonio Cordero, said Pike, "Spoke the Latin and French languages well—was generous, gallant, brave, and sincerely attached to his king and country." He was in the rank of colonel of cavalry and governor of the provinces of Coahuila and Texas.
Don Simon de Herrara served in the infantry of France, Spain and Flanders, and, "Speaks the French language well, and a little of the English..... He possesses a great knowledge of mankind from his experience in various countries and societies.... He had been in the United States during the presidency of General Washington, and had been introduced to that hero, of whom he spoke in terms of exalted veneration. He is now lieutenant-colonel of infantry and governor of the kingdom of New Leon. His seat of government is Monterrey."
In a general report on the main features of parts of New Spain, Pike wrote: “San Antonio, the capital of the province [of Bexar], lies at lat. 29 degrees, 50' N. and long. 101 degrees W., and is situated on the headwaters of the river of that name; it contains perhaps 2,000 souls, most of whom reside in miserable mud-wall houses, covered with thatched grass roofs. The town is laid out on a very grand plan. To the east of it, on the other side of the river, is the station of the troops.”
"About two, three, and four miles from San Antonio are three missions, formerly flourishing and prosperous. Those buildings, for solidity, accommodation, and even majesty, were surpassed by few I saw in New Spain."
Pike observed that Governor Cordero, "restricting by edicts the buffalo hunts to certain seasons, and obliging every man of family to cultivate so many acres of land, has in some degree checked the spirit of hunting or wandering life which had been hitherto so very prevalent, and has endeavored to introduce, by his example and precepts, a general urbanity and suavity of manners which rendered San Antonio one of the most agreeable places that we met with in the provinces."
Pike wrote: "Both the men and women have remarkably fine hair, and pride themselves in the display of it. Their amusements are music, singing, dancing, and gambling.... Their games are cards, billiards. horse-racing, and cock-fighting, the first and last of which are carried to the most extravagant lengths, losing and winning immense sums...."
"At every town of consequence [in New Spain] is a public walk, where the ladies and gentlemen meet and sing songs, which are always on the subject of love or the social board. The females have fine voices, and sing in French, Italian, and Spanish, the whole company joining in the chorus...."
"In their eating and drinking they are remarkably temperate. Early in the morning you receive a dish of chocolate and a cake; at twelve you dine on several dishes of meat, fowl, and fish, after which you have a variety of confections, and indeed an elegant dessert; then drink a few glasses of wine, sing a few songs, and retire to take the siesta, or after noon's nap, which is taken by rich and poor."
"About two o'clock the windows and doors are all closed, and streets deserted, and the stillness of midnight reigns throughout. About four o'clock they rise, wash and dress, and prepare for the dissipation of the night. About eleven o'clock some refreshments are offered, but few take any, except a little wine and water and candied sugar."
Of course, Pike's report included many other topics besides people. He recorded information about trade, commerce, manufactures, revenue, climate, geography, natural resources, and political and military data.
Published in 1810, Pike's report had this statement on its cover: "An Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi and Through the Western Parts of Louisiana, to the Sources of the Arkansas, Kans, La Platte, and Pierre Juan Rivers; Performed by Order of the Government of the United States During the Years 1805, 1806, and 1807. And a Tour Through the Interior Parts of New Spain, When Conducted Through These Provinces by Order of The Captain-General, in the Year 1807. By Major Z. M. Pike. Illustrated by Maps and Charts."
Zebulon Pike had a great deal to say about many places, but his views about San Antonio and the people of New Spain in 1807 are especially interesting to today's Texans.