Stephen F. Austin State University

Los Adaes State Historic Site: A Safehouse for Freedom Seekers (October 2012)

Los Adaes State Historic Site: A Safehouse for Freedom Seekers
By Rolanda Teal

Anthropologist Rolonda Teal, co-founder of the cultural heritage organization Cultural Lore, successfully nominated Los Adaes State Historic Site to the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program (NURNF) in July 2012.

Although Los Adaes is currently located in Natchitoches Parish, during the 1700s when the fort served as the capital of Spanish Texas, it was part of what is now Sabine Parish. The mission component of the site, established in 1716, was intended to convert local Adaes Indians to Christianity. An attack by French soldiers from Natchitoches resulted in the building of a fort in 1721. During the period that the mission and presidio were most active, more than 500 people lived within its confines many of whom were Adaeseño soldiers and their families, but there were also other cultural groups at the fort as well, including African slaves. Why were freedom seekers arriving at the fort? There are three main reasons that they sought Los Adaes.

Figure 1: Illustrated drawing of Los Adaes as it looked in the 1700s.

The first reason is that the official Spanish position towards slavery, established in the early 1500s by Queen Isabella of Spain in response to the second voyage of Christopher Columbus, decreed that New World peoples were subjects of the Spanish crown and because of that status could not be enslaved. A few years earlier in 1493, Pope Alexander VI, mandated that people in the New World be converted to Catholicism and prohibited their enslavement as long as they accepted Christianity, however if the people reverted to their old religion then they could be enslaved. Throughout New World territories the attitudes of Queen Isabella and Pope Alexander VI were largely ignored and slavery blossomed in portions of New Spain; however that was not the case in all Spanish territories including at Los Adaes. In a Texas Census taken almost 20 years after the closing of Adaes, out of a total population of 3,005 residents there were only 34 Negroes and 415 mulattoes listed. No mention was made of slaves at all.

A second reason freedom seekers sought Los Adaes related to the existence of an established route into Spanish territory. Known today as El Camino Real de la Tejas, this route provided an illegal trading path between French and Spanish citizens. In terms of proximal distance, Los Adaes offered a haven for freedom seekers that could be reached within a day when traveling by foot from Natchitoches. For other enslaved people in French territory, travel distances were greater sometimes requiring weeks or months of travel to reach Adaes, however it was worth the journey and rather easy to navigate since the path was clearly established. It was far easier to leave Louisiana heading west towards freedom than trying to reach northern territories.

The third reason freedom seekers sought Los Adaes pertained to the 50-50 chance they had of obtaining freedom once they reached their destination. By the late 1700s French Louisiana restricted the freedoms of their enslaved population such as the ability to travel freely, engage in trade, and meet in groups. In addition, there was an increased presence of militia in the Natchitoches region during this period due to a fear of enslaved rebellions and escapes. These new policies towards the enslaved sometimes created tense situations for officials in both countries. There was a need by the French to maintain control over their enslaved population and be able to retrieve them from Spain in the event they should abscond. At the same time the Spanish had a need to maintain peaceful relationships with their French neighbors, especially at Adaes, and also be able to flex their muscles as a military entity for Spain. Consequently what happened is that when freedom seekers arrived at Los Adaes decisions were made often on an individual basis versus a standard policy as to the status of the enslaved. Each governor at Adaes actually enacted their own policy as to whether the enslaved was returned to their owner or allowed to remain in New Spain. While awaiting their fate, the fort served as a safehouse for freedom seekers.

The exact number of fugitive slaves that actually made it to Los Adaes and subsequently were granted freedom is unknown, however what is known is that they came from as far away as New Orleans in search of Los Adaes. The fort eventually closed in 1772 and enslaved peoples turned their temporary destination towards Nacogdoches.