William Shaler: Early American Intelligence Agent in Spanish America

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Appointed by the Administration of James Madison as an intelligence agent, William Shaler was involved in the 1812 invasion of Spanish Texas.
William Shaler, Early American Intelligence Agent in Spanish America

Americans rarely associate government agents with the founding fathers. William Shaler, was only one of several agents appointed by the President James Madison. A former merchant with extensive experience in Spanish America, Shaler was actively, if unofficially, involved in an invasion of Spanish Texas in 1812.

The Madison Government watched with interest as independence movements erupted over Spain’s colonial empire in the Americas. In the Winter of 1812, Mexican Bernardo Gutierrez, came to Washington seeking assistance with the rebel cause. After meeting with Secretary of State James Monroe, Gutierrez sailed for New Orleans, where Louisiana Governor William Claiborne introduced him to Shaler. The American agent, with Washington’s approval, paid for Gutierrez’ passage and accompanied him upriver to the town of Natchitoches, on the border between the United States and Spanish Texas in the Spring of 1812.

Gutierrez spent the summer recruiting a revolutionary force to invade Texas. Most of his recruits were Americans, including Lt. Augustus Magee, who resigned his American army commission to act a co-commander of the expedition.

The Magee Gutierrez Invasion of Spanish Texas

On August 8, shortly after the War of 1812 broke out with Great Britain, Magee and Gutierrez crossed the Sabine River into Spanish Texas with 130 men and quickly captured the small garrison at Nacogdoches After defeating a Spanish army, estimated at 3,000 at Rosillo on March 29, 1813, the rebel army made a triumphant entry into San Antonio on April 1 and established the first Republic of Texas.

Shaler notified Governor Claiborne at least 3 ½ weeks before the invasion began, but U.S. officials made no effort to stop it. Not until after the Gutierrez-Magee expedition had departed did the Claiborne write to local military Commander James Wilkinson, asking him to squelch the expedition. Captain Waller Overton, U.S. commander of the garrison at Natchitoches, expressed surprise at Claiborne’s tardiness because the plans for the invasion had been so well known. In spite of Claiborne’s letter, men flocked across the border to join the invasion.

Shaler received no word from Washington until September 1, 1812. Responding to Shaler’s prior letter of July 12, Secretary Monroe, ironically informed him, “It will be proper for you to discountenance the measure as far as any opinion may avail.”[1] Shaler’s continued involvement, however, is documented by the letters he continued to receive from American officers involved in the invasion as well as from Gutierrez, reporting on the results of the invasion.

The triumphant rebellion soon began to unravel, when the Spanish Governor Manuel Salcedo, and several captured officers were brutally murdered. Despite his denial, many, including Shaler, believed that Gutierrez had given the order. A number of American officers resigned and the unity of the began to disintegrate.

Shaler demonstrated his influence by engineering the resignation of Gutierrez in favor his hand picked successor, Jose Alvarez de Toledo. But is was too late. On August 18, 1813, a Spanish force of about 1,800 soldiers defeated the rebels at the Battle of San Medina, the bloodiest encounter in Texas History. Antonio López de Santa Anna, future Mexican President and commander at the Alamo twenty three years later, fought with the victorious Spanish forces as a junior officer.

Whether U.S. involvement in the 1812 invasion of Spanish Texas reflected an early expression of America’s policy of “manifest destiny” is a matter of debate. William Shaler’s role in the incursion, however, placed him in a long line of intelligence agents associated with American support for the overthrow of sovereign governments in places such as Cuba. Nicaragua, Chile and Guatemala.

Reference:

  1. [1] James Monroe to Shaler, Sept. 1, 1812, Shaler Family Papers, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania Library
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