Nicholas de La Mathe: Handbook of Texas Entry

Recently I wrote an entry for the Handbook of Texas on Nicholas de La Mathe. I have included the encyclopedic entry below with attached source footnotes.

LA MATHE, NICHOLAS DE (?-?). Nicholas de La Mathe lived as an Indian trader, a rancher, and a militia captain in Spanish Louisiana and Spanish Texas. He made overtures of peace with the Norteños, he smuggled goods from Louisiana into Texas, and he proposed an unsuccessful plan to exterminate the Karankawa Indians.

A wealthy merchant of Pointe Coupee, Louisiana, La Mathe acquired a passport to enter Texas in 1775 to collect debts at the virgin settlement of Nuestra Senora del Pilár de Bucareli. Supposedly having a fondness for the town’s namesake saint, La Mathe offered to construct an impressive church for which he hired two workers to build in 1776. While some historians believe that La Mathe’s religious fervor alone “moved him” to erect this sumptuous church, in all likelihood it served as a means of forging a positive reputation for future smuggling operations among the citizens of Bucareli and its leader, Antonio Gil Ibarvo, whom La Mathe had traded with for several years prior. While in Bucareli, La Mathe acquired a small herd of cattle by selling an enslaved black child. He increased his cattle, mustang, and mule holdings in Texas until he had accumulated over 700 stock animals by 1779.

Interview with Dr. Orellano Norris: “General Alonso de León’s Expeditions into Texas, 1686-1690”

You said your book took quite a long time to write, how long exactly?

Well, it started as a project in one of my classes. I was taking Colonial Spanish Paleography when I was doing my PhD and we were working on some texts from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century—we wanted to see how the Spanish language had changed over time. Remember, I am a linguist, not a historian. We were analyzing the text from a linguistic point of view, looking at the way it was written in seventeenth-century Spanish. I was given a fragment of Alonso de León’s 1689 expedition. I looked at secondary sources and found that there were some discrepancies. I started to ask myself why does it say one thing in the English translation and something completely different in the Spanish original text. That’s how it all started. It took several years to do the research and a few more to write the book.

You made quite a few corrections to previous translations of the 1689 and 1690 Alonso de León expeditions.

Those were the two English translations that had the most errors in them, specifically that of the 89’ expedition. De León lead five expeditions in search of the French in Texas. The 89’ expedition is the most important one because during this entrada they actually found La Salle’s Fort Saint-Louis and located Jean L’Archevêque and Jacques Grollet [two surviving colonists from Fort Saint-Louis]. That 89’ expedition diary is the most published one, yet it’s based on a faulty translation.

In 2005, when I finished the class I mentioned, I said to myself, I really want to look into Alonso de León’s expeditions further. My degree was supposed to be in Spanish Golden Age Literature, but it changed completely after that Colonial Spanish Paleography class. I talked to my professor and went into Historical Linguistics. He provided me with some initial manuscript copies, then I did some additional research, applied for research grants, traveled to different archives, and in the end, I located the sixteen manuscript copies I am analyzing in my book. The reason why the most published English translation of the 1689 manuscript had so many errors is, in part, because it was based on the least reliable manuscript copy