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  • A170 Tom Rozman: A Perspective on the Leadership Footprint of the Presidial Troops on the Northern North American Frontiers of the Kingdom of New Spain

A170 Tom Rozman: A Perspective on the Leadership Footprint of the Presidial Troops on the Northern North American Frontiers of the Kingdom of New Spain

Above: Arms of the Kingdom of New Spain

Article by A170 Tom Rozman

Lost to the awareness of many today is a geopolitical entity that essentially existed from the Conquest of Mexico in 1521 until the Mexican Revolution of 1821.  It was the Kingdom of New Spain (Vice-Royalty of New Spain).  Its 300 year lifespan still exceeds by a margin any North or South American geopolitical unit of today.  Its demise was very much a product of the destabilization and political perturbations resulting from the activity of the 1st French Empire in the early 19th Century.  This activity fostered a cascade of events, the impact of which eventually led to the severing of the connections with the, in effect, imperial Spanish government in Madrid.

The Kingdom was geographically immense.  Its holdings extended to territorial claims in its southern regions over the northern tier of South America.   All of Central America was its center.  To the east it incorporated territory, less French Louisiana, to Florida and the Spanish possessions in the Caribbean.  Louisiana would come under its dominion in the 1760s after the Seven Years War.  To the north the Kingdom’s extended lands stretched to what is now part of Canada’s British Columbia.  To the west the kingdom extended to the Philippines and Indonesia and many other Spanish island holdings in the Pacific. Even for a time, New Spain had an enclave on today’s Formosa.

Though the Kingdom played a major role in developing these rich territories in terms of resources and attendant wealth, wealth that for a period made the Spanish Empire the world’s premier power, in time the economic situation waned.  Increasingly, the economic system and its shortcomings began to affect the fiscal capabilities of the kingdom.  These fiscal stresses had an increasing impact on security capabilities and the extension of Spanish settlement in, for example, the northern North American borderlands of the Kingdom, settlement and development of which was an expensive process.

A specific such region was northern California.  Spanish claims to this vast territory dated from the mid 16th Century with multiple expeditions made from the kingdom to the Northern California Coast and into the interior as far north as what is now the U.S. state of Colorado.

But sustained settlement had not developed.  In fact, sustained settlement of the northern California coast would not occur until the time of the American Revolution in the east in the mid-1770s.  The expensive effort of doing so would ultimately be in response to Russian settlement of the northern California coast at Ft. Ross.

To a degree, the logistics and costs of establishing settlements in the northern borderland territories from the established base of the Kingdom further south played a role in the delay.  Not until the discovery of vast silver deposits in the later 17th Century in northern what is now Mexico and the present U.S. Southwest was there a sufficient incentive to assume the costs of establishing settlements.

As well, the peoples of what are now Northern Mexico and the U.S. Southwest were nomadic and fierce and highly skilled combatants who maintained a constant state of war with the Kingdom’s northern North American frontier.

Nevertheless, throughout the Kingdom’s existence there was a steady incremental move northward.  Its 17th Century drive into Texas would be accelerated by New France initiatives to gain a coastal foothold on the Gulf of Mexico after extending exploration and territorial claims to the mouth of the Mississippi River.  Ultimately, by 1718 the Presidio of Las Aldeas, Texas, marked the frontier of New Spain with that of New France.

It is the system and means used by the government of New Spain in this northward expansion of settlement in the Kingdom’s borderlands to the north that is of interest in a leadership consideration.  In terms of the societal norms, cultural and economic imperatives and technological capabilities of the time, a form of effective individual and collective leadership occurred.

That leadership has provided a lasting legacy to what is now the U.S. southwest where many of the major cities in this region were established by that leadership.  One of the critical instruments of that leadership was the effective leading of the presidial dragoon companies of the Kingdom of New Spain in the successive processes of settling and securing the frontier.

The presidial troops of New Spain were a standing professional military corps unique to that geopolitical unit.  They functioned as separate companies of dragoons typically ranging at strengths of 50 officers and men per company but often less.

There was an Inspector-in-Chief commanding the corps who reported to the viceroy.  The strength of the corps ranged between 600 by 1690 to over 3,000 by the 1780s.  The force in 1777 stood at 2,200 including its 280 Indian scouts and a herd of 14,000 horses and 1,700 mules. In 1784 2,084 soldiers manned 22 presidios.  The lengthy existence of this corps under the Spanish crown from the 16th Century until the end of Spanish government in 1821 speaks well for its effectiveness in its unique mission.

Presidial Dragoons of New Spain 18th Century—“Soldados de Cuera” (California Military Museum)

Senior officers tended to be seconded from the Spanish metropolitan royal army which included officers of other ethnicities.  One of the most significant commanders in this category was of Irish birth.  From 1771-76 Lieutenant Colonel Hugo O’Conor, a 37 year old Dublin native of the Catholic faith when he assumed the position,  served as Inspector-in-Chief (Inspector Commandant) of Spanish forces in the Internal Provinces of the Viceroyalty’s northern frontier. Effectively he was the commander of the Presidial Troops deployed on this frontier.

Most of the officers at company level were ethnic Spaniards born in New Spain.  Enlisted soldiers included ethnic Spaniards born in New Spain and some other Europeans but primarily drew recruits from the localities and from people of mixed ethnicity, i.e., Spanish with indigenous groups or people of the local ethnicity.  The service was generally popular with sufficient enlistments to keep the ranks filled.  The focus on enlisting local people had the advantage of producing a fully acclimated soldier to the climate and conditions in the areas of operation.

A Presidial Dragoon ( Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau)

The following examination considers the leadership’s effect and the instrument of that leadership, the presidial company, in the transformative role it played in the old borderlands of the Kingdom of New Spain


The system used in projecting northward successively into the bands of the claimed territory, its settlement, and consolidation, was a latter day version of the German eastward marches of the medieval early renaissance period.  These marches were made into the as yet non-Christian lands in Central and Eastern Europe eventually subjecting the people in these lands, primarily Baltic and Slavic peoples, to a German governmental, cultural, and alliance system.

In New Spain’s application, a “march” expedition would be formed around a military base of usually a dragoon company, its commander being the march marshal (in German a Markgraf).  A religious leader would be part of the march’s leadership team and a person who would assume civil leadership of the community (the Alcalde) established by the march.

A march column of New Spain (Somos Primos)

The religious leader might have some additional persons in support.  The civil leader would have a group of prospective townspeople in form of artisans, merchants and other town class people.  Also part of the civil component of the march would be individuals granted large land tracts for rancheros and their element would include the cattle herds and people to work the herds.

The expedition would be preceded by a reconnaissance conducted by the dragoon commander with a party that included other key persons important to site selection.    The party would travel to the area of interest and on arrival identify sites most ideal in terms of topography, available water, arable and grazing land.

The site would be selected for its ability to be secured, its habitability and its potential to support a town, farmland and ranches or in the case of a mineral of value, mining activity.

The primary site would locate a military presidio, a fortified barrack and administrative center to house a company of dragoons, a town in Spanish format organized around a plaza and the establishment of the rancheros.


Presidio San Bernadino, Arizona (Legends of America)

In relative proximity the religious member of the leadership team would select a mission site for the mission church and compound that would serve as a base and community for conversion of the indigenous people in the area to the Catholic faith.  The mission was targeted on becoming a self-sustaining faith based community,

The mission would include a barrack for a small garrison of typically a squad to a section of dragoons to provide security for the mission against marauders. From some surviving written materials the padres did not always appreciate their soldiery due to the soldiers taking advantage of female acolytes.

Using this march type settlement device from the second half of the 1500s through the 1700s, belts of secured territory were gradually extended northward along New Spain’s northern border.  Ultimately, the settlement towns and missions would extend as far north as what is now the U.S. states of California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas.

Throughout the process of extending settlement north, the more northern and vulnerable frontier settlements required security. The belt of presidios that had been established and the assigned dragoon garrisons provided the required security. Though the garrisons were relatively small they were intended to be able to support each other.  The garrisons were usually in company strength, though sometime smaller and sometimes larger based on need.

This borderland region as it formed in what is now the U.S. southwest had a constant need for security.  There was an ongoing raid type of warfare with several of the indigenous peoples, the Apache in particular.  The constant patrolling and campaigning by the presidial dragoons, among other adaptations, required each dragoon to maintain initially 10 horses then reduced to 4 horses after the 1772 reforms.  The extended distances a unit and each rider traveled required an extensive remount capability.  A large remuda of  accompanying remounts was an operational necessity given the distances in the area of operations.

In terms of armament, the individual dragoon was a heavily armed soldier.  He carried a lance, a bow and arrows, a short musket, two pistols and a short sword and typically a serviceable knife.  On campaign, the dragoons wore a layered deer skin coat as protection against arrows. Thus the corps’ being referenced as the Soldados de Cuera, the leather soldiers.  A skilled horseman, the dragoon was a formidable foe against his Amerindian opponents.

This presidial troops establishment and its officers, in an excursion, led the two expeditions into the as yet unsettled lands of California in 1769-82 that established all of the current major cities from San Diego to San Francisco.  One expedition would make the first leg by sea up the Southern California coast to San Diego then by land north.  A second prong would depart the Presidio in Tubac, Arizona and march overland through several mountain passes.  The two expeditions would combine in California in the work of establishing of a coastal belt of presidios, towns, and missions along the Northern California coast

The overland expedition from Tubac demonstrated that the settlements could be resupplied and communicated with from the center of New Spain by land.  This was important as the sea lanes were not reliable at the time.

The resolute leadership of the officers and non-commissioned officers of these dragoon units in carving out settlement in often hostile environments is remarkable.   When viewed from today’s perspective that it was accomplished over so vast a territory with such limited resources makes the accomplishment a remarkable leadership feat.

The strength of the presidial dragoon corps as previously noted ranged from 600 in the mid-1600s to a little over 3,000 in the late 1700s.  This very small force maintained security over a territory whose expanse stretched from San Francisco, California east across Texas to the Texas coast, a distance of over 3,500 miles.

Along this vast frontier the Soldados de Cuera secured against continuous Amerindian depredations and Russian and French encroachment.  In the latter period of New Spain’s jurisdiction, the California military establishment did become increasingly autonomous though troops from the interior had been employed initially.

Additionally, the frontier’s northern most sustained outpost presidio, Santa Fe, had become the connecting land terminus for overland trade with the forming U.S. Republic.  As such, this garrison was setting the stage for the next momentous phases of the development of what is now the U.S. Southwest, the shaping of which had been developing thanks to the presidial dragoons and their operations for some 150 years.

Today we enjoy major cities like Capistrano, El Paso, San Antonio, San Diego, Santa Fe, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Monterey, and Tuscon as examples, all a legacy that developed as a result of the resolute leadership of the Viceroyalty of the Kingdom of New Spain and of the presidial captains, lieutenants and non-commissioned officers.  They built and secured the initial settled footprint of the Southwest.

The enduring legacy of the initial settlement of what is today the southwest of the United States is a testament to a very effective form of individual and collective leadership over an extended period.  The Presidial Troops of the Kingdom of New Spain and the leaders of this corps under frequently arduous service conditions prevailed and established the initial structure that later geopolitical organization would apply, still in operation now over 250 years later.

Flag of the Vice Royalty of New Spain


Note 1: Hugo O’Conor came from an Irish family that had been distinguished by involvement in the Irish uprisings leading to his departure from Ireland in 1751 for Spain.  Soon after arrival in Spain he entered service as a cadet in the Spanish Infantry Regiment of Hibernia.  He served in a newly formed regiment in the campaigns in Portugal and following initial assignment in the Americas, he rose through the ranks making a reputation that led to his assignment in 1771 to the Internal Provinces and ultimate command of the Presidial Troops.  On his relief from command of the Presidial Troops he was promoted to brigadier general in Mexico City and assigned as the Governor and Captain General of Yucatan.  At the age of 44 and 17 months into his new assignment he passed away ostensibly due to a degraded physical constitution brought on by fatigue from the arduous demands of his extended and dispersed frontier command.

Note 2: This vignette derives from information developed from visits to the sites of the San Antonio, Texas, and San Diego and San Francisco, California Presidios as well as the site of the Mission of Capistrano, California and several other mission sites and the museums at the sites.  Additionally, Wikipedia articles concerning the Kingdom of New Spain and the Presidio of Tubac, Arizona also provided insight.  The following print material was also consulted and is shown in relative priority to development of the vignette: “The Presidio-Bastion of the Spanish Borderlands,” M. L. Moorhead U. of Oklahoma 1975; “The Presidio and the Militia of the Northern Frontier of New Spain, Vol. 2,” Editors Hadley, Naylor, Meredith, and Scheutz-Miller, U. of Arizona 1997; “The Defense of Northern New Spain,” translator E. C. Cutter, DeGolyer Library 1994; “El Presidio de San Francisco-A History under Spain and Mexico” J. P. Langellier and D. B. Rozen The Arthur H. Clark Company 1996; “Juan Bautista de Anza-National Historic Trail,” D. Garate, Southwest Parks and Monuments Association 1994;  ‘Gaspar de Portola-Explorer of California ,” J. Carner-Rinalta, Tecelote publications 1990; “The Spanish Army in North America,” R. Chartrand, Osprey 2011;  “A Falcon Guide to California’s Missions and Presidios,” T. Salcedo-Chourre, Globe Pequot Press 2005; “Fray Junipero Serra,” M. Brunelle, Dobronte Publications 1987; “The Spanish Royal Corps of Engineers in the Western Borderlands-Instrument of Bourbon Reform 1764 to 1815,” J. R. Fireman, Arthur H. Clark Company 1977.

One Comment

  • Tom+Rozman

    September 2, 2020 at 3:59 pm

    To note, the several times reprised on TV and as a movie “Zorro” fictional romantic dramatization occurs during the 1769-1821 period in the New Spain Pueblo of Los Angeles. The presidial dragoons are employed as sometime allies, backdrop, and foil for the principle character “Zorro” some with a comic relief twist. But the real dragoons were largely a hard riding tough combatant that operated in the harsh conditions of the US southwest, capable in the constant warfare they waged. Their descendants manned New Mexico units of the U.S. Army in the Civil War and serve in the U.S. Army of today.