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Conquering Sickness: Race, Health, and Colonization in the Texas Borderlands

Conquering Sickness: Race, Health, and Colonization in the Texas Borderlands

by Mark Allan Goldberg

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Published through the Early American Places initiative, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Conquering Sickness presents a comprehensive analysis of race, health, and colonization in a specific cross-cultural contact zone in the Texas borderlands between 1780 and 1861. Throughout this eighty-year period, ordinary health concerns shaped cross-cultural interactions during Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo colonization.

Historians have shown us that Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo American settlers in the contested borderlands read the environment to determine how to live healthy, productive lives. Colonizers similarly outlined a culture of healthy living by observing local Native and Mexican populations. For colonists, Texas residents’ so-called immorality—evidenced by their “indolence,” “uncleanliness,” and “sexual impropriety”—made them unhealthy. In the Spanish and Anglo cases, the state made efforts to reform Indians into healthy subjects by confining them in missions or on reservations. Colonists’ views of health were taken as proof of their own racial superiority, on the one hand, and of Native and Mexican inferiority, on the other, and justified the various waves of conquest. As in other colonial settings, however, the medical story of Texas colonization reveals colonial contradictions.

Mark Allan Goldberg analyzes how colonizing powers evaluated, incorporated, and discussed local remedies. Conquering Sickness reveals how health concerns influenced cross-cultural relations, negotiations, and different forms of state formation. Focusing on Texas, Goldberg examines the racialist thinking of the region in order to understand evolving concepts of health, race, and place in the nineteenth century borderlands.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803295827
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 02/01/2017
Series: Borderlands and Transcultural Studies
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 328
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Mark Allan Goldberg is an assistant professor of history at the University of Houston.

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Conquering Sickness

Race, Health, and Colonization in the Texas Borderlands

By Mark Allan Goldberg


Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9582-7


Medicine and Spanish Conquest: Health and Healing in Late Colonial Texas

In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Spanish conquistadors invaded North America and envisioned a transcontinental empire that connected Iberia to the Americas. At the local level, the plan for Spanish America was to tame the "wild" landscape with pockets of well-arranged towns, structured in a gridlike fashion and organized around a central plaza. Working to make order out of chaos, Spaniards sought out "healthful" places to build small settlements, missions, and presidios. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, they established themselves in east, central, and south Texas, "healthy" areas that were geographically and economically strategic. It was not long before they created maps of their North American claims that reflected their desires for order and domination, which often meant erasing local claims on land. However, the newcomers were never alone in these so-called Spanish lands. Native peoples did not submit quietly, and the Spanish enterprises produced little profit. Because of their limited success, the colonists decided to reinforce their colonies with missionaries and more soldiers. These early efforts set the stage for Spain's colonization program, in which Spaniards arrived on lands, built and settled towns, and used force to protect their claims. They carved imperial territory through physical force, but also through trade and diplomacy with Native peoples. Responding to a social, economic, and diplomatic world that Indians largely created, colonists quickly realized that Native peoples had a part to play in Spanish society as subjects and allies.

Concern for well-being influenced where colonists settled, how they interacted with the land, how they related to Native peoples, and how they defined their place in this multiracial world. Centered on the late eighteenth century but with an eye to earlier moments of Spanish-Indian contact, this chapter introduces Spanish medical therapies in Texas and looks at multiple ways that medicine shaped Spanish colonization in the late colonial period. Similar to Spanish notions of healthy living, which will be the focus of chapter 2, Spaniards in the Americas saw their forms of medicine as markers of civilization, as the right and proper way to treat patients and tackle disease. They worried constantly about sickness, and physicians and patients addressed disease in a variety of ways. For example, they relied on the lands' healthful properties. Colonists consumed botanical remedies for a variety of ailments, and they regularly moved to "healthier" locales to recuperate and to bathe in medicinal sulfur-rich waters or thermal springs. Many Spaniards also traveled from various parts of the countryside to the military hospital at San Antonio de Béxar to see orthodox physicians. In the early nineteenth century, the crown sought to vaccinate colonial subjects throughout Spanish America, transporting cowpox vaccine around New Spain and all the way north to Texas.

Spaniards certainly focused their energies on their settlements, but their health was never divorced from Native health. The second half of the chapter focuses on cross-cultural medical encounters to show how medicine became a site of exchange and Spanish racial differentiation. While Spaniards sought healthful terrains to settle or recuperate, Spanish-Indian encounters shaped colonists' efforts at returning sick bodies to their healthy state. Medical exchanges and Spanish cultural appropriations dated back to the first years of conquest, and they helped tie Spanish well-being to the New Spain lands. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, Spanish naturalists and physicians observed Native healing, recorded information on medicinal plants, and took botanicals back to Spain. Over time, Spaniards learned how to scour the unfamiliar New World environment for its medical properties from Indians. In the eighteenth century, for example, New Spain physicians looked to maguey succulents, and patients at the Béxar hospital consumed large amounts of a cacao remedy. This medical relationship, which linked Spaniards to Native peoples and to the environment, became entangled with the colonial process. First, it helped colonists preserve their health and colonize. Second, access to medicinal plants necessitated access to land. Thus as physicians touted the efficacy of New Spain's botanicals, they laid medical claims on territory. Moreover, Spanish merchants utilized naturalists' observations of Native customs to develop resource-extraction ventures in the Americas. Cacao cultivation developed into plantation agriculture, further linking Spain's future in the New World to the landscape. Finally, the connections between Spanish and Native therapies shaped the Spanish sense of self, and Indian healing became a counterpoint to Spanish medicine.

Spanish perceptions of medical practice were an outgrowth of Spanish-Indian interactions. In this context of medical exchanges and cultural blending, Spaniards framed their medical practices as different. Their medicine was "scientific." This method of differentiation was rooted in the imperial project, which placed a premium on science and medicine, important symbols of Spanish civilization. Spaniards' definitions of what constituted proper medicine reflected their belief in white racial supremacy and in the superiority of scientific reasoning and European civilization. Their interpretations of medical practice were therefore laden with certain values beyond doctors' concerns for their patients. Spaniards practiced "scientific," or orthodox, medicine; Indian practices were something different, potentially heathen, dangerous, ineffective, and ultimately illegitimate. As varied as medical therapies were in New Spain, Spanish physicians and other elites understood medical practices through the same racial lens that they used to build societies composed of tax-paying Catholic subjects amid powerful Native peoples. Even though physicians and patients regularly crossed the imagined medical boundaries, exploring medico-cultural borders helps us understand how Spaniards sought to remake the borderlands and create Spanish societies that neighbored Native territories.

While the Spanish envisioned a colonial society where doctors had a monopoly over the medical marketplace, the boundary between Spanish/"legitimate" and Native/"illegitimate" medicine meant little in day-to-day life throughout colonial Mexico, where so few orthodox doctors resided. Because of the limited influence of orthodox medicine, a variety of healers flourished. Distinctions between Spanish and non-Spanish medical practice mattered little to patients: they just wanted treatments that worked. In practice, then, this medical division was not clear-cut. In the Texas borderlands, it remained blurry because Spanish visions of an ordered society organized by a socioracial hierarchy did not reflect the regional political, economic, and social world. Elite Spaniards did not hold a clear upper hand outside of their settlements. In northern New Spain, for example, nomadic Indians, whom the Spanish referred to as "indios bárbaros," held much sway economically and militarily. By the late eighteenth century, Indian relations had become central to Spanish empire building. The Comanches exercised their power throughout the borderlands, defying any Spanish geographic vision of clear, frozen geopolitical boundaries and swaths of land under Spain's political dominion. The Spanish "province" of Texas was really just a set of clustered settlements peppering the landscape. Native peoples set limits on Spanish expansion in Texas by extending their influence and creating their own territorial boundaries. This reality was at odds with images of healthy subjects inhabiting healthy lands and seeking out physicians as heroic as the medicine they practiced, equipped with vaccines and other efficacious medicines, and stationed in well-supplied hospitals and infirmaries.

Health, Environment, and Spanish Colonization

Building healthy settlements on "new" and unfamiliar lands was the first part of the Spanish plan for Texas. Between the late seventeenth and late eighteenth centuries, Spaniards established settlements in the northeastern Texas woods, the hills around San Antonio de Béxar in south-central Texas, and the southern Gulf Coast. In 1790 only about 2,500 Spaniards lived in Texas, and their success depended on their own health as well as that of Spanish soldiers and missionaries. In hopes of building diplomacy with the Comanches, Pedro Vial and Francisco Chaves vocalized the common Spanish American belief that the human body was permeable and sensitive to its surroundings. Climate, astrology, and diet directly affected one's health. In the Americas, as in Europe, settlers assessed the salubrity of different terrains because they believed that environments perceived as unhealthy could upset the body's balance of the four humors, causing sickness. They were particularly sensitive to climate, because they felt that places had their own essences that could nurture or harm one's health. Except for when commerce was concerned, Spanish colonists tried to stay away from hot and tropical lowlands and forests. They knew that some places were "healthier" than others, but they praised the "healthiness" of American climates, even some port cities and wooded areas. They agreed that Texas boasted healthy environments, but Spaniards read Texas lands in different ways. Some believed that cold weather weakened the body, and they specifically sought out the Texas heat. Others felt that the heat was a sign of an unhealthy climate, but the coast, which was often humid and also home to numerous threatening plants, did not discourage Spanish newcomers. In general, Spanish colonists believed in Texas's "healthy and unharmful" landscape.

While Spanish colonial dreams hinged on healthy surroundings and settlers, the reality was much drearier. The Texas environment became inhospitable at times, and soldiers, settlers, and missionaries were constantly battling disease. They often relocated to healthier climes, which threatened to destabilize the colonization project. Soldiers were responsible for protecting settlers and commerce from Indian attacks and protecting Spain's land claims in the contested borderlands. Missionaries had their own part to play in pacifying the region by transforming "barbarous" Indians into Spanish subjects. Constant mobility, then, hindered soldiers and priests' day-to-day tasks.

As climates that were once healthy became hostile, colonial officials in early nineteenth-century Texas received floods of travel requests for soldiers seeking to move to other locales. Because of the environmental view of health, relocation was a popular therapy. In August 1810, for example, Captain Josef Agabo de Ayala experienced several complications from his treatment for colic pains. His surgeon, Pedro Lartigue, treated de Ayala at the small settlement of Trinidad de Salcedo, about 200 miles northeast of Béxar. The captain appeared to be dying, but Lartigue slowly brought him back to health. Lartigue "believed that in order to obtain complete relief [de Ayala] must move to a better climate, since this one is extremely unhealthful." The final stage in the surgeon's treatment plan was to relocate his patient away from the hot and muggy August days in Trinidad. Similarly, in October 1802 Miguel Músquiz, a military officer at Nacogdoches, wrote to the provincial governor to request sick leave for two of his soldiers. Músquiz had "determined that Ermerigildo de la Cruz and José María Cortinas need[ed] a change of climate to improve their health." In October 1806 troops in Nacogdoches fell ill, and Commandant General Nemesio Salcedo sought to move an entire detachment. A few months after Spanish forces almost came to blows with a U.S. scientific expedition, Nemesio Salcedo told the governor that U.S. troops along the Texas-Louisiana border were inactive and suggested that the time was right to move the sick Spanish soldiers to a "more healthful and better provisioned location." Governor Manuel Antonio Cordero ordered the outfit to relocate to a military post on the Trinity River. Months later, Spanish troops again moved away from the "unhealthy" New Spain-U.S. border region. While the moment to move seemed right, these soldiers were relocating at a time when Spaniards felt the threat of U.S. expansion in east Texas and when Comanches and Apaches blocked Spanish efforts at controlling central, south, and west Texas. Soldiers could not seek health without traveling through Native lands that surrounded Spanish settlements, so they had to rely on their Native allies to escort them around Texas. The military had to leave "New Spain," as it were, to transfer sick soldiers westward across Native territories, away from a potentially volatile area where two imperial powers and the Caddoan Indians vied for control. The stakes were high even before soldiers relocated.

Franciscan missionaries were also on the move. In the fall of 1796, for example, Fray Manuel de Silva wrote to Governor Manuel Muñoz, requesting to leave the Nuestra Señora del Refugio Mission for health reasons. Fray de Silva had helped establish the Refugio Mission, but now he sought to leave the southern Gulf Coast, where he suffered from an unnamed illness that had left him "in a state of helplessness." He wanted to go south to Nuevo León "to get some relief, and [also] to have my hands loosened ... in the sulphur baths which are near the city of Monterrey." This was not Fray de Silva's first request to leave his post. In 1774 he received his initial assignment in Texas as a result of a petition to relocate for health reasons. He had been assigned to a hospice in Boca de Leones, Nuevo León, but the cold weather there "puts me in a weakened condition." "For this reason," wrote Fray de Silva, "I want to regain health, or at least some alleviation that I would feel in a warm climate." The College of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Zacatecas therefore reassigned him to the San Antonio missions. Excerpts from the college's meeting minutes show that in the late eighteenth century, it approved many requests from Texas friars to leave their posts to obtain medical care in mineral baths. Missionaries regularly moved about the countryside to fulfill their duties as chaplains, establishing a new mission, replacing an outgoing missionary, tending to hospital patients, and offering last rites to those who did not make it. When they left the missions on sick leave, though, the college did not send reinforcements immediately, leaving the missions without a clergyman.

In addition to moving to new surroundings, the Spanish established themselves in Texas by tapping into the landscape's more tangible healthful properties. Many Spaniards sought medical relief in mineral baths around northern New Spain. The baths were popular among soldiers, and in 1784 the crown published decrees regulating such travel for military personnel in its colonies in the Americas, the Caribbean, and the Philippines. For the crown, hospitals were the first line of defense. Thedecree required that "this remedy be prescribed only to those persons who cannot get well with the remedies in use in the hospitals." After all else failed, soldiers could obtain a permit from the hospital physician, who designated the nearest baths. They then had to secure a passport from their commanding officers marking the date of departure from their respective posts as well as a signature from the bath caretakers marking the arrival date. Finally, soldiers had to submit an official form to get reimbursed for the six reales that covered the cost of the trip and the medical care.

The medicinal bath decree did not fully reflect the Spanish medical world in Texas. Hospitals were supposed to be the first line of care, but the law preceded the establishment of Texas's first official hospital by over twenty years. In 1805, the colonial state built a hospital in the provincial capital of Béxar. It functioned as a military infirmary and employed one physician certified by the protomedicato, or Spanish medical board, and two or three nurses. Between 1805 and 1821, the Béxar hospital doctor was the only licensed practitioner working in the provincial capital. Before then, Texas Spaniards attended makeshift hospitals, which probably did not employ licensed doctors. When the crown published the decree, soldiers in Texas obtained the required permission to travel to medicinal baths from their military officers. The strict regulations suggest that troops had been abusing the system. They were most likely a way for the colonial state to maintain the cost of medical care, since it footed the bill, and to further keep tabs on soldiers' whereabouts in the colonies. Trying to control soldier mobility, the decree shows that the crown worried about constant military movement in the colonies.


Excerpted from Conquering Sickness by Mark Allan Goldberg. Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
A Note on Racial and Ethnic Terminology,
1. Medicine and Spanish Conquest: Health and Healing in Late Colonial Texas,
2. The Health of the Missions: Spanish Friars, Coastal Indians, and Missionization in the Gulf Coast,
3. Cholera and Nation: Epidemic Disease, Healing, and State Formation in Northern Mexico,
4. Making Healthy American Settlements: U.S. Expansion and Anglo-American, Comanche, and Black Slave Health,
5. Healthy Anglos, Unhealthy Mexicans: Health, Race, and Medicine in South Texas,

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