Francisco Cruzat, the only Spanish lieutenant governor of Upper Louisiana to occupy that office twice, was born in Navarre, Spain, on March 10, 1739. He came to Louisiana with Lieutenant General Alejandro O’Reilly in 1769 as a captain of grenadiers. In 1775 the governor, Luis de Unzaga, named Cruzat to succeed Pedro Joseph Piernas as lieutenant governor in St. Louis. Cruzat, who was less restrained and more outgoing than Piernas, was a good choice to administer the sprawling borderland region. Upper Louisiana’s French inhabitants liked him, and under his tutelage they became more comfortable with the ways of the Spanish regime. Although his initial term as lieutenant governor was short, it came at the critical moment when the outbreak of the American Revolution threatened to intensify the Anglo-Spanish conflict throughout the Mississippi valley. Louisiana’s staunchly pro-American new governor, Bernardo de Gálvez, recalled Cruzat in 1778 and appointed Captain Fernando de Leyba to replace him in St. Louis.
Following his return to New Orleans, Captain Cruzat participated in the campaign Gálvez led against the British. He took part in the conquest of Baton Rouge in 1779, and early the next year he gained a promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Leyba’s sudden death in St. Louis in June 1780 prompted Gálvez to reassign Cruzat to his former post as lieutenant governor. The decision to return the well-liked Cruzat to St. Louis was popular. When Cruzat took charge there in September 1780, however, the situation was precarious. Shortly before Leyba’s death, three hundred hastily assembled defenders had successfully repulsed an assault against the town by a force of British soldiers, Canadian traders, and Native American warriors.
Upon Cruzat’s arrival in St. Louis, a local delegation came to his headquarters demanding compensation for the services they had rendered in defense of Upper Louisiana’s capital. Cruzat was unable to grant their request, but his actions during the ensuing months enabled the Spaniards to regain the confidence of their French-speaking subjects. He called upon his diplomatic skills to negotiate agreements with several Native tribes and persuaded them to surrender British medals and banners in return for promises of Spanish replacements. Cruzat did complain that a chronic scarcity of trade goods limited his effectiveness and compelled him to make purchases from local merchants at inflated prices.
Persistent rumors of a new spring offensive against St. Louis prompted Cruzat to order the construction of a ten-foot-high stockade for protection. Unlike Leyba, Cruzat did not hesitate to draw upon the royal treasury for essential supplies and equipment as workers hurriedly erected a wooden palisade on all sides of the village except for its naturally fortified stretches along the river.
Acting on his own initiative, Cruzat dispatched a military expedition up the Illinois River in January 1781, commanded by Eugene Pouree, captain of St. Louis’s Second Militia Company. The force, with assistance from friendly Native American tribes, launched a surprise attack that destroyed the British fort at St. Joseph, Michigan. Cruzat intended the Spanish show of force to forestall another attack on St. Louis and prevent wavering Indigenous allies from reverting to the British. At the very least, the successful operation provided the beleaguered residents of Upper Louisiana with a badly needed boost in morale.
Although Cruzat’s actions prevented further attacks against St. Louis, they failed to check British influence among the tribes in the upper Mississippi valley. However, with only limited resources at his disposal, there was little else that Cruzat could do to reverse Spain’s declining fortunes.
Items needed for the trade with Native Americans were still in short supply in New Orleans, where a partial British blockade of the Gulf had disrupted trade. Even when the scarce goods could be procured, there was no assurance that the shipments would reach St. Louis. British fugitives driven out of Natchez following the Spanish conquest of that post frequently joined with itinerant traders and Native Americans to pilfer boats attempting to travel up the Mississippi.
Not even the lieutenant governor’s family was immune from the fugitives’ mischief. Cruzat was married to Nicanora Ramos, a native of Cartegena, Spain, and the couple had two sons, Antonio and José. When Madame Cruzat and the two boys were en route to St. Louis in May 1782, a roving British band seized them near present-day Memphis, Tennessee. The freebooters released them but kept the forty-five hundred pesos in cash intended for government expenses and the precious cargo of Native goods consigned to Upper Louisiana’s merchants. Nicanora Cruzat died in St. Louis in April 1786, but both sons lived to enjoy distinguished careers in the service of Spain.
In 1787 Cruzat relinquished his post at St. Louis to Manuel Pérez. The well-liked Cruzat had secured a promotion and been assigned to command the newly created Third Battalion at Pensacola, Florida, where he died in 1790.
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Dinn, Gilbert C., and Abraham P. Nasatir. The Imperial Osages: Spanish-Indian Diplomacy in the Mississippi Valley. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983.
Foley, William E. The Genesis of Missouri: From Wilderness Outpost to Statehood. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989.
Nasatir, Abraham P. Borderland in Retreat. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976.
Quintero Saravia, Gonzalo M. Bernardo de Gálvez: Spanish Hero of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.
Published July 7, 2023
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