The history of Fort Nogales, constructed by the Spanish in 1791 at Walnut Hills, is a fascinating story that pitted the newly formed United States against the well established Spanish that intended to hold control of this rich land. Throughout the later portion of the 16th century, control of this land was a high priority of the Spanish as they attempted to thwart the expansion of the United States and establish themselves a permanent boundary along the river. Fort Nogales would become that boundary and marked the final chapter of this struggle for power in the Mississippi Valley.
Spain had claimed control of Walnut Hills as early as 1541 as part of the expedition of Hernando De Soto, but made no attempts to develop the land over the next 132 years. By default, the land was lost and claimed by the French in 1682 during LaSalle’s descent to the Gulf of Mexico in which he claimed all lands that drained by the Mississippi River from Canada to the Gulf in the name of King Louis XIV. French colonization of the area persisted until the Treaty of Paris in 1763, which ceded this land to the English. Although the land was in possession of the British, very little settlement took place as tensions between the colonies and the Crown were growing. Spain seeing an opportunity, seized all lands along the British frontier of the Mississippi River, and began implementing plans to hold this new territory at all costs.
From 1781 to 1795, the Natchez District area became a bone of contention between the United States and Spain as to who truly held ownership. Although the United States technically owned the territory, it was being occupied by pioneers that had settled the area under land grants given by the Spanish government. It had become clear that if Spain was to hold their claim, they would need to do so in a militaristic manner. Governor Gayoso was the official in charge of the Natchez District, and in 1791 was the dominating figure for the erection of Fort Nogales. He was responsible for drafting the plans of the fort, as well as the settlement surrounding it known as “Los Nogales.” Gayoso, in a letter to his superior, described the necessity of holding onto the area as such:
“Walnut Hills has the advantage of being the first high land of West Florida on the east bank of the Mississippi River. This place overlooks the river, and nearby there is a spot suitable for a town with good anchorage for ships. All of these advantages make for a good settlement. The territory in question is the richest in this province. I know there are many persons in America who have their eyes on it and especially at ‘Walnut Hills’ which is coveted by the Americans.”
Adding to the contention between the two governments was nearly twenty years of Spanish denial of free passage for Americans along the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. This issue festered among them as both parties sought to seize the prize of absolute control of the River.
The Spanish held a great deal of respect and fear for the aggressive fighting spirit of the Americans. They thought if they could not stop their southern advance, then they could at least stall them in hopes that the newly formed United States would abandon their goal that would come at a great cost. Spain devised several plans to halt the Americans, the scope of which makes it very clear the lengths the Spanish were willing to go to maintain control. The first of these was a series of incredibly liberal treaties with the Natives tribes between Nashville, the Yazoo River, and the present State of Alabama. The treaties came at a cost of $55,209, over 10% of the Louisiana budget in 1793, and were highly effective at establishing a buffer area of nearly 400 miles between the two. The second stage of their plan was to create distrust between the frontier settlers of the United States and their leaders. Spain knew that Congress was largely ignoring the needs of those along the River at the time, and would exploit this by any means necessary, including bribing U. S. Army officials to respond slowly to their calls or even naturalizing the pioneers as Spanish citizens.
The third phase of the plan was the establishment of forts along their border from St. Louis to the Gulf, of which Fort Nogales was the most important. To aid the fortifications, a naval fleet was put into commission known as the “Spanish Light Naval Squadron”consisting of six galleys, four galiots, one bombadier, and one extra large galley mounted with 18 pounder cannons and ten swivel guns. The purpose was to patrol the entire length of the Mississippi River and protect the rights and properties of Spanish subjects. The fleet was so effective that it remained in use until 1799. Nogales was further fortified with its own smaller river fleet at the advice of Governor Gayoso, who had the Fort setup as a checkpoint for checking and issuing passes for traders heading to the Gulf.
The final part of the Spanish plan for control was done with the means of land grants for anyone wishing to settle permanently in this area. Approximately 185,227 acres were granted to nearly 4,690 individuals from 1791 – 1798, adding even more credibility to the Spanish claim in the region.
Fort Nogales was evidently Gayoso’s top priority for the plans success. His instructions to the commandant were to “take every precaution to protect the fort and town against all outsiders.” The fortification itself consisted of three forts and two lunettes along the northern portion of Walnut Hills. They were given the names Fort of the Great Battery, Fort Sugar Loaf, Fort Vigia, Lunette Gayosos, and Lunette Ignatius. The soldiers occupying the fortification were ordered to alienate themselves from the townspeople, and any soldier found quarreling with the settlers were sent to Natchez for punishment. With Nogales having the closest proximity to the Americans, Gayoso could not risk even the slightest internal trouble. Records show that the forts were extensively repaired in 1795 and again 1797, meaning they were kept in the best condition that was feasible. Nogales had served its purpose perfectly, and there is no way of knowing how long it could have continued had other political issues not arisen for the Spanish.
Fort Nogales’ time was coming to a conclusion around the turn of the 17th century. Pinckney’s Treaty in 1795 had opened the Mississippi River to duty free transport, and moved the United States boundary just below Natchez, nullifying the need to have a fort at Walnut Hills. Spain was also dealing with other complications on another international front. In the secret Treaty of Il Defonso, the territory of the Mississippi Valley was ceded back to France cutting all Spanish claim to the region. France, who was suffering financial burden left from wars past, sold the territory to the United States in 1803 in what is known as the Louisiana Purchase, and Walnut Hills officially became part of the United States. Fort Nogales was renamed to Fort McHenry in honor of Secretary of War, James McHenry, but was soon abandoned as the frontier boundary of the country had shifted further west, negating any need for a fortification in the area. Fort Nogales faded into history, having served its intended purpose well, and remains an interest to scholars and archeologists to this day.See a typo? Report it here.