On August 8, 1812, an army of approximately 130 men, mostly Americans, crossed the Sabine River into the Spanish province of Texas under a green flag and a lofty name, the Republican Army of the North, to make common cause with the revolutionary movement in New Spain. The Gutiérrez-Magee Expedition, the largest of all American private military incursions in Spanish territory, dramatically wrested parts of Texas from the clutches of Spanish royalists for nearly a year before collapsing amid recriminations and a royalist counteroffensive. One year after the army first set foot on Texas soil, a Spanish army under General Joaquín de Arredondo crushed the rebels at the decisive Battle of Medina on August 18, 1813, restoring royalist control in the province for another eight years. The revolt, begun by an American volunteer invasion force and completed by a mixed, but mostly native Mexican army, failed in its objective to republicanize Texas. Nonetheless, the war and aftermath ultimately sealed the fate of Spanish, and eventually Mexican, Texas. If an American demographic conquest was still uncertain before 1812, it became inevitable afterwards. That sense of inevitability, however, encourages a problematical backwards-looking historical perspective on the Gutiérrez-Magee Expedition. Historians invariably either dismiss the venture for its failure, or interpret it through a lens colored by the later revolution of 1836. Several volumes have traced the course of the war and numerous works have investigated the diplomatic maneuvers of the Jefferson and Madison administrations. Generally, debate centers on the level of American government culpability in the enterprise and whether or not the raid was a deliberate ploy to further expansionist goals.
The goal of this study is not to argue this point, but to investigate a crucial piece of evidence that has been virtually ignored in the debate: the men of the expedition themselves. Historians have often glossed over these individuals to focus the discussion of motivation to grander targets: U.S. presidents, American expansionist philosophy, or the spread of cotton and slavery. This thesis seeks to fill a critical gap by tracing the histories, agendas, and ambitions of the Americans on the ground with rifle in hand who actually made history. This work will demonstrate that the fighters who came to volunteer in the expedition did so for a variety of individual reasons. While these interests may have coincided with the goals of administrations, aristocracies, or other outside players, the American participants in the Gutiérrez-Magee Expedition were certainly not puppets. By looking closely at the personal histories and experiences of these men, we get a glimpse into their minds and can demonstrate how particular goals, grievances, or ideals drove them. They were not, as two historians dismissively referred to them, “nameless frontiersmen or adventurers seeking new lands” who were unwitting pawns of expansionist presidents. They did indeed have names and histories that we can trace and were, in fact, active agents in the revolution in their own right and on their own terms.
Studying obscure individuals provides deeper insight into a historical event that was very much bottom-up, and can shed new light on the Gutiérrez-Magee Expedition in particular because most studies of the episode rely on the same very limited sources, particularly the José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara diary and William Shaler papers. While valuable, these are old, thoroughly exhausted, and unlikely to open new avenues of inquiry on their own. This paper hopefully provides an end-run around this research bottleneck. The approach attempted here has heretofore been virtually impossible, but can be done now due to the wide range of resources that have been made available on the Internet in recent years, including genealogical information, obscure books, and primary sources.
Where does the Gutiérrez-Magee Expedition fit in historically? Historians work in boxes, which allows for classification of an event within a genre, for example, Texas History, Louisiana History or Mexican history. The Gutiérrez-Magee Expedition crosses these boundaries, and hence calls for a more nuanced approach. One could certainly place it in the broader box of “Southwestern” or border history, but this runs the risk of losing sight of its primary relation to the Texas story. The fault of many histories of Texas, however, is not including the expedition at all within the broader narrative, leaving it as a historiographical orphan outside of that box. Anglo Texas History, we are traditionally told, begins with the arrival of Stephen F. Austin, and its central event is the revolution of 1835-36. But as I will show, the Gutierrez-Magee Expedition is an important precursor to these events and thus belongs in – and, properly understood, reshapes – that Texas history box. Moreover, to put the expedition into context necessitates drawing comparisons with the future period to draw on the wide range of scholarship which has examined that time, and thereby shortcut the lack of scholarship on the earlier, failed revolution of 1812. Hence this study will occasionally appropriate observations from the second Texas Revolution of 1835-36, showing, on a case-by-case basis, their applicability, or inapplicability, as the facts may warrant, to circumstances of 1812-13.