Sunday, September 26, 2021

ARP219 Turning General Arnold

We last left Benedict Arnold in April 1779.  He had just bought a mansion in Philadelphia and married the 18 year old Peggy Shippen.  He had resigned the military governorship of Philadelphia, as the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania under President Joseph Reed had accused him of misusing his office for personal gain.

The Continental Congress had already dismissed most of the charges levied by Pennsylvania.  Much of public opinion seemed to be in Arnold’s favor.  Many viewed this as one of the army’s greatest leaders being taken down by politicians for minor accounting problems.  Arnold was looking forward to a quick court martial that would acquit him of the remaining charges and allow him to return to duty. 


Washington scheduled the court martial hearings to begin on May 1, 1779.  The Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania led by President Joseph Reed had issued the charges and did not want to see them swept under the rug.  Reed wrote to Washington telling him that he did not want a cursory hearing and demanded a delay so that the Council could gather its witnesses.  Reed threatened to prevent the Continental Army’s use of any state wagons for transport of supplies if the Army did not comply.  As a result, Washington delayed the hearing until June 1.

Joseph Reed 

Arnold traveled to Middle Brook, New Jersey for the hearings.  But just as they were about to get underway, the British attack up the Hudson River that led to the Battle of Stony Point led to another delay.  Repeated delays would mean that the hearings would not actually begin until December 23.

On May 5, just a few days after the first delay, Arnold expressed his frustration in a letter to Washington.  Arnold knew the political game used to destroy great men.  Make accusations, then let those accusations hang over them for months or even years without clearing them up.  

Arnold had to look no further than a guest in his own home, Silas Deane, for an example of this.  Deane had been fighting with Congress for more than a year to clear his name and with no end in sight.  Deane would leave later that year, sailing for France at his own expense, in a futile attempt to find sufficient paperwork regarding his expenses to satisfy Congress.  Arnold saw how Deane’s political enemies had cut him down with innuendo, rumors, and baseless accusations in the press, without any real effort to resolve the matter.  It had destroyed Deane’s reputation and career.  Arnold worried that he was headed down that very same path.

Money Problems

In addition to threat to his reputation, Arnold had growing money problems.  Following his resignation as military governor of Pennsylvania, Arnold had no income opportunities beyond the base pay of Continental paper money that he received as a major general.  He had just purchased a mansion for his bride, heavily mortgaged, and had to rent a second house since the Minister of Spain was still living in the home he had just purchased.  Arnold’s new wife came from a wealthy home and expected to live a lifestyle that came at a hefty cost.

Peggy Shippen Arnold

Over the summer, Arnold’s sister, Hannah, came to Philadelphia with his three sons, ages 7-11.  They also moved into Arnold’s house, making for a crowded home.  The children got into trouble and did not get along well with their new stepmother.  His oldest son had gotten in trouble with the town watch.  Arnold decided to ship the three boys off to boarding school in Baltimore, incurring another expense that he could not afford.  Peggy also became pregnant, meaning an even larger family to support.  

Arnold found it difficult to engage in any trade in Philadelphia.  No one wanted to enter into business with him while the Supreme Executive Council was breathing down his neck.  Local merchants knew that a partnership with Arnold would only bring more government scrutiny on themselves.  

While he still had been military governor, Arnold had made a secret deal with Gideon Olmstead to help him win his case against Pennsylvania over the captured British Sloop, the Active, which I discussed in Episode 209. Arnold had hoped that the prize money from that would keep him solvent. Not only did the case not settle, Arnold had to spend another £5000 on Olmstead and his shipmates in order to keep them from selling even more shares in the collection effort.  

Arnold did not want word to get around to more people about his deal, especially while his court martial was still pending.  This deal would appear to the public as part of the corruption for personal benefit that he was trying to fight.  If Olmstead took on more partners, he would have to disclose his deal with Arnold.  Therefore, the agreement only continued to cost Arnold more money, if only to keep it quiet.

In desperation, Arnold submitted a bill for £5000 for the nine months he had served as military governor and that he needed to be paid immediately in order to cover expenses until he was reinstated to a new command.

The Chairman of the Treasury Board argued that the amount Arnold sought was far too high.  Congress appointed a special committee to examine the matter.  They offered to pay Arnold about half of what he had requested, and to pay in Continental paper, meaning he would be getting about 10% of what he had requested.  Arnold refused to accept the settlement, meaning he got nothing while the committee put the claim on hold for further auditing.

The Offer

While he was facing all these troubles in May 1779, while Arnold was stewing about his delayed hearing and his money problems, a young man asked to speak with him privately at his home.  The man, in civilian clothing, introduced himself as Lieutenant Christopher Hele of the Royal Navy.  

Hele had attempted to deliver a peace proposal from the Carlisle Commission in October 1778.  As his ship sailed up the Delaware under a flag of truce, it crashed and wrecked, with several of the crew killed.  Lieutenant Hele escaped the wreck, only to be captured several days later by local militia.  

Despite the fact that Hele was under a flag of truce, Congress held him as a prisoner of war after passing a rule that anyone who attempted to release seditious materials would be held, regardless of any flag of truce.  The fact that Congress passed this law about a week after Hele was captured, and the fact that an enemy officer delivering a peace proposal to Congress should not be considered sedition, did not seem to help Hele’s case.

In any event, Hele had been given parole and had been living in Philadelphia for the past six months.  On his visit to see Arnold, Hele was not there to discuss any of that.  After introducing himself and trying to make a bit of small talk, Hele produced a sealed envelope.  Placing the envelope on Arnold’s desk, Hele told the general “You know as well as I do, General, that both sides are weary of this long war.  What is needed, Sir, is a man of decision - someone with character and power - to step forward and bring this tragic conflict to an end.”  With that, Hele turned and took his leave.

Beverly Robinson
The note was from Colonel Beverly Robinson of New York.  Robinson was the son of former Virginia Speaker John Robinson, whose death in 1766 had caused a financial scandal that I addressed back in Episode 25.  Prior to that, Beverly had married and moved to New York where he owned a large estate.  Robinson had been friends with Washington when the two men were younger.  Washington even visited Robinson on several occasions before the war, and according to some accounts, apparently had a crush on Robinson’s sister-in-law, Mary Philipse.  

When the British occupied New York, Robinson threw in with the loyalists.  He raised the Loyal American Regiment and became its colonel.  In 1779, Colonel Robinson was serving in New York under General Sir Henry Clinton.

Robinson's letter spoke in generalities about the horror and futility of the war.  It suggested that an American general would be greatly rewarded if he could be part of an effort to end the war and help to reestablish the King’s rule over the colonies.  The letter gave no specific proposal, and did not suggest that Arnold simply switch sides and join the British Army.  Rather, this was part of a larger effort to try to turn some American leaders, who might be able to sway public opinion in favor of a negotiated peace and a return to colonial status.

British intelligence was well aware of Arnold’s money problems, his resignation as military commander of Philadelphia, and his ongoing legal battle in Pennsylvania.  It saw this opportunity to approach one of the Continental Army’s top generals, and perhaps convince him to lead his country back to the King’s authority.

Arnold was hardly the first prominent leader to be approached.  The British had made a concerted effort to turn opinion leaders to their side.  This was nothing new.  Kings back in England often stayed in power during difficult times through offers of money, land, and titles.  Rewarding powerful men for loyalty, and punishing opponents brutally, was the key to any monarch’s survival. Efforts in America tried to follow this same gambit.

I’ve already discussed efforts to get Commodore John Barry to switch sides.  I’ve also mentioned attempted bribes to members of Congress, including Robert Morris, Francis Dana, and Arnold’s rival in Philadelphia - Joseph Reed.  All of these men turned down these overtures and made them public very quickly. 

The Acceptance

Unlike those other men, General Arnold did not immediately reject or expose the offer.  For the prior year, Arnold had been hanging out in Tory social circles around Philadelphia.  That is what, in fact, had incurred the wrath of the radicals.  

The people in Arnold’s social circle had long believed that permanent independence from a power such as Britain was an impossibility.  At some point, there would be a negotiated peace.  America simply was not powerful enough, nor united enough to govern itself.  From their view, taking down a top general like Arnold on minor ethics charges, or cheating him out of compensation, were some of the many examples of why the current leadership was incapable of maintaining a government.

Arnold’s experience with the Continental Congress and state governments over the years supported this argument.  It made him susceptible to the idea that the government lacked the maturity and experience to maintain a stable power structure, and that, absent a return of the king’s peace, the end result would be chaos and civil war, eventually followed by reinstatement of the king at some later time.  An even worse scenario would be to come under the control of the King of France, whom many colonists despised and distrusted even more than King George.  France did not have the tradition of personal liberties that the Americans were fighting to sustain. Arnold carried a life-long hatred of the French for the massacre of his friend and neighbors at Fort William Henry during the French and Indian War.  Arnold’s inner thoughts at this time are not recorded.  We can only speculate what combination of Tory defeatism, anger at the charges against him, and his continued money problems all weighed on Arnold as he read Robinson’s note.

There is some evidence that Arnold discussed the matter with his new wife Peggy.  According to one account, Peggy admitted to a friend that she had encouraged her husband to change sides and helped introduce him to contacts that made continued negotiation with the British leadership possible.

Possibly through Peggy or through others in the Shippen family, Arnold soon contacted Joseph Stansbury, a suspected loyalist.  Stansbury had only immigrated to Philadelphia from London a decade earlier.  He ran a china shop in Philadelphia, and was also known for writing humorous and satirical songs. Although he expressed sympathy with many of the early colonial protests, he opposed independence and was imprisoned by the patriots for part of 1776 for signing God Save the King at a party in his home.  During the British occupation of Philadelphia, Stansbury had served in several minor roles supporting the British army

After the British evacuation, Stansbury was one of those loyalists who decided to take his chances in Philadelphia.  He signed an oath of allegiance to Pennsylvania, moved out of town to live with relatives in Moorestown, New Jersey, and kept his head down.  Despite his newly professed loyalty, many people, including Arnold, believed that he still had contacts with the British Army in New York.  He frequently visited Philadelphia on business and also was able to travel to New York.

Within days of Arnold receiving Robinson’s letter, Stansbury traveled to New York City, where he met with Major John André.  The two men discussed Arnold’s willingness to play ball, if they could work out acceptable arrangements.

André gave Arnold the code name Monck which was a reference to George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle.  General Monck had been a Scottish military leader during the English Civil War a century earlier.  Monck had supported Oliver Cromwell during the era of the Protectorate.  However, when Charles II returned to Britain to take the throne, Monck accepted an offer from Charles and helped to overthrow Cromwell’s son Richard and restored the House of Stuart to the throne.  For his services, Monck was absolved of his former treason and richly rewarded by King Charles II, including a peerage and a generous pension.  I think it's easy to see how the British saw, or hoped there would be some parallel between Monck's behavior: first betraying his king and then being a key figure in bringing the king back to power, and what they were hoping what Arnold would do for them in the coming year.


André had taken a position as Deputy Adjutant General under Henry Clinton and had been put in charge of Britain’s Secret Service in America at the recommendation of André’s commander, General Charles Grey.  His new role primarily focused on intelligence and handling spies.  André also knew Arnold’s wife Peggy from his time in Philadelphia, although there has been some modern speculation that the two were linked romantically, anything beyond superficial flirtations, seems to be without evidence. 

John André

André began a correspondence with both Benedict and Peggy Arnold.  He adopted the pseudonym of John Anderson, a merchant.  He would often write letters that appeared to be about business deals, but which had coded messages, or included lines in invisible ink to avoid detection. Much of the correspondence took place between André and Stansbury, who would then relay the messages to Arnold.

Once he established communications with Arnold, André began discussions with General Clinton.  Although André was the correspondent, he made clear that Clinton was making the decisions about how to proceed.

At the outset, André wanted Arnold to provide intelligence: troop movements, the condition of the army, or other details that would be helpful.  Not only would this be helpful to the British, it also provided verifiable proof that Arnold was truly planning to break with the patriots.  It also put General Arnold in a position where he was committing a little treason, and could not easily back out of it later.  Although Arnold made clear at Stansbury’s first meeting with André that he was prepared to defect and join the British, André wanted to make the best use of this prize.

Over the next few months, Arnold would provide intelligence.  Arnold provided information about Washington moving his army up the Hudson Valley.  He also reported that the Americans would not expend too many resources to defend Charleston, South Carolina if the British attacked there.

The men discussed the terms of Arnold’s defection.  Arnold wanted compensation for all of the property that he would lose.  Patriot governments would seize his home and other property.  He also wanted compensation for the debts that he still believed the Continental Congress owed to him.  He wanted a commission as a major general in the British army, with full pay and benefits.  

All of these terms were under discussion. André informed Arnold that if he were able to surrender an entire army, or an important position as part of his defection, that could result in a greater reward.  He suggested that Arnold try to get command of an important post.

Later that summer, Arnold was asking for assurances that the British did not plan to give up on winning the war.  Arnold feared that after he switched sides the British might pull out of America entirely.  André was not willing to provide detailed information about British plans.  He did not say so, but there must have been a fear that Arnold could be working as a double agent.

The two men suggested several ways Arnold might continue to assist the British without defecting.  One was for Arnold to take command of an army, lead it into a trap that could be captured.  The British were still interested in the return of Burgoyne’s Convention Army that was being held as prisoners.  If the British had a similarly-sized army to exchange, that might move along that process.  Arnold might even then be returned to the Continentals with his fellow officers none the wiser to his treasonous activity.  As a reward, Arnold might receive a cash payment of 10,000-12,000 guineas.

Nothing seemed to come of the correspondence, beyond some general intelligence that Arnold provided about the positions of some armies, their numbers, and their conditions.  By the end of August, 1779, the correspondence seemed to come to an end.  Arnold may have been looking for an opportunity to provide a valuable prize for the British.  

André made clear that the surrender of an entire army would mean more money.  Arnold knew that he would not get a command until the court martial cleared him of any wrongdoing.  Arnold was more eager than ever to get that court martial behind him.  Despite his wishes the schedule for a hearing would continue to be delayed.  

All of the plans seemed to go on hold until Arnold received a new command, one that the British would value greatly.  Both sides put their discussions on hold until that could happen.  Those opportunities would not come until the following year.

Next Week: we return to South Carolina where General Benjamin Lincoln continues his efforts to prevent the British army in Georgia from marching north.

- - -

Next  Episode 220 Assault on Charleston 

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Further Reading


“To George Washington from Joseph Reed, 1 May 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Major General Benedict Arnold, 5 May 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

John André Letter to Joseph Stansbury, May 10, 1779. Henry Clinton Papers

Book Codes between Benedict Arnold and John André (1779-1780)

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Almon, John The Remembrancer or Impartial Repository of Public Events,Vol.7, London: Almon, 1779 (pp 177-78, capture of Lt. Hele). 

Hill, George Canning Benedict Arnold. A Biography, Boston: E.O. Libby 1858. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Flexner, James T. The Traitor and the Spy: Benedict Arnold and John André, Little, Brown, & Co. 1954. 

Randall, Willard Sterne Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, William Morrow & Co. 1990.

Rappleye, Charles Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution, Simon & Schuster, 2010. 

Thompson, Ray Benedict Arnold in Philadelphia, Bicentennial Press, 1975. 

Van Doren, Carl Secret History of the American Revolution, Viking Press, 1941. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

ARP218 Onondaga Creek

In April of 1779, the Americans launched an offensive into the Onondaga villages of western New York.  Before getting into the details of the attack, I thought it might be a good time to take a step back and go over the role of the Iroquois Confederacy in the war.

Iroquois Confederacy

The Confederacy dated back hundreds of years, possibly even before Columbus reached America.  Initially, the Confederation consisted of five tribes, the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca.  In the early 1700’s a sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, joined the Confederacy.

An Onondaga Village
As I’ve explained in earlier episodes, the Iroquois were a relatively small group of native tribes living in what is today upstate New York and southern Canada.  Based on language, they are thought to have migrated to this area from the south, settling amongst much larger groups of Algonquin-speaking native groups within this region. The confederacy particularly found itself threatened after the French in Quebec allied with many of the Algonquin tribes that were the traditional enemies of the Iroquois.

The power and influence of the Iroquois really took off in the late 1600’s after the Iroquois began a trading relationship with the Dutch in the New Netherlands. After the British took control and changed the name to New York, the Iroquois continued the beneficial relationship with the British.  Trade gave the Iroquois access to guns and other western technology that allowed them to extend their reach, as far south as the Carolinas, and as far west as the Mississippi River.  

The Iroquois claimed authority over all the tribes living in those areas, including the Shawnee, Delaware, and Mingo tribes.  It asserted authority to negotiate on their behalf, and enriched itself by selling large amounts of land belonging to these other tribes to the European colonists.

Although the Iroquois generally worked and traded with the British, the Confederacy made an effort to remain neutral in disputes between Britain and France.  During the French and Indian War, when the Iroquois lands became a main point of contention between the two armies, Iroquois neutrality eventually gave way to backing the British, especially after the war seemed to be going in the favor of the British.

Much of this was due to the efforts of Sir William Johnson, a trader who became very influential among the Iroquois and received an appointment as British Indian agent for the Iroquois.  The British made some efforts to protect Iroquois lands.  The Royal Proclamation of 1763 prevented new settlements west of the Allegheny mountains.  This Proclamation reserved most Iroquois lands for the Iroquois.  In addition, to relieve pressure on its New York lands, the Iroquois sold most of the lands in what is today western Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio in order to direct western movement to those lands and away from the Iroquois homes in New York.

Iroquois Map
Despite the efforts of the Iroquois to redirect migration, the removal of the French threat, and the establishment of western New York as British lands encouraged a great western migration by colonists into much of upstate New York in the late 1760’s and early 1770’s.

When the Revolution began, the Confederacy at first tried to remain neutral.  However, the easternmost tribe, the Mohawk ended up supporting the British and fighting with them.  This was largely due to the efforts of Joseph Brant, who was closely aligned with the family of British agent Sir William Johnson.  The western-most tribe, the Seneca, also joined with the Mohawk in backing the British and sending warriors to fight with them.  The other tribes attempted to maintain their neutrality.  But after Mohawk and Seneca warriors began marching through their lands with the British, the Oneida sided with the Americans, and the Tuscarora joined them.  The other two tribes: the Cayuga and Onondaga continued to remain neutral, hoping this whole dispute would just go away.

By 1777 though, the war was raging in upstate New York.  Neutrality was not really an option.  Many Cayuga and Onondaga warriors joined with the British efforts, despite official tribal neutrality.  In early 1779, about 40 Onondaga warriors joined the Oneida to fight on behalf of the Americans, the rest of the tribe threw in their lot with the British-aligned forces under Joseph Brant or simply held out hope that individual neutrality would protect them.

As I’ve covered over several earlier episodes, the Iroquois raised hundreds of warriors who fought with British and loyalist forces in the effort to return upstate New York to British control and to kill or remove anyone of the patriot population in that area.  They fought under General St. Leger at Oriskany.  After the British withdrew, the Iroquois continued to carry out additional raids throughout the region.  These efforts led to many smaller attacks and massacres, as well as the more notable Cherry Valley Massacre in November 1778.

Patriot Response

The attacks had their intended effect. Many Americans fled their homes and farms in the areas subject to attack.  Many others, afraid but with nowhere to go, demanded Continental protection from the Indian and Loyalist threat.  New York leaders lobbied the Continental Congress, which passed a resolution on February 27, 1779, authorizing General Washington to take whatever measures he deemed necessary to remove this threat. 

Phillip Schuyler

Washington reached out to General Philip Schuyler, who was from this area and was one of his most senior generals, to see if Schuyler would command the expedition. Schuyler begged off.  He had just gotten through his court martial a few months earlier and was done with the army.  He had already sent his resignation to Congress, although Congress had not accepted it yet.  Washington hoped this new command could convince Schuyler to remain in the army and defend his home.  Schuyler, however, was not interested.

Next, Washington turned to General Horatio Gates, who was still recovering from his alleged role in the Conway Cabal and not doing much of anything for a military command.  Gates, however, also passed.  He did not want to take on this new command, arguing that the campaign would be too rigorous for the 51 year old general.  Instead, he passed Washington’s instructions to General John Sullivan, who was still in Rhode Island, following his failure to expel the British in late 1778.

Sullivan accepted the assignment, but it would take him several months to assemble the force  that he would need to carry out the expedition.  He would eventually be ready to move by summer, but that will have to be the topic of a future episode.

In March and April of 1779, the people in New York were demanding an immediate answer to this problem.  As winter was turning to spring, everyone feared that the Iroquois warriors and loyalist regiments would resume their attacks on the people of western New York.

Goose Van Schaick

That spring, one of the largest Continental garrisons in the region was the Continental force stationed at Fort Stanwix, although it was called Fort Schuyler by the patriots at this time.  Fort Stanwix was probably the most important fort in the area after the destruction of Fort Ticonderoga. It sat in the heart of Iroquois territory and had been the site of the treaty with the Iroquois many years earlier. The Americans had lost Fort Stanwix to the St. Leger expedition about a year earlier.  General Benedict Arnold was able to retake the fort and reestablish control of the area.

NY Gov George Clinton
In early 1778, the fort had about two regiments of Continental soldiers under the overall command of Colonel Goose Van Schaick.  Colonel Van Schaick was an experienced Continental officer.  He came from an old Dutch family that had been among the first European settlers at Albany.  His father had been mayor of Albany.

During the French and Indian War, the twenty year old Goose received a lieutenant’s commission in the New York militia.  He was wounded in the 1758 assault on Fort Ticonderoga, the same assault that led to the death of General William Howe’s brother George.  Goose received promotion to a captain, leading militia companies at the battles of Fort Frontenac and Fort Niagara.  By the end of the French and Indian War, he had risen to major, and then lieutenant colonel during Pontiac’s Rebellion.

In the years leading up to the revolution, Van Schaick sided with the patriots, signing a protest against the Stamp Act.  He later served on Albany’s Committee of Correspondence.

At the creation of the Continental Army in June 1775, Van Schaick raised the Second New York Regiment for the Continentals from those he commanded in the militia.  He received a commission as colonel.  Less than a year later, he took command of the First New York Regiment after Colonel Alexander McDougall received promotion to general.

Van Schaick served under General Arthur St. Clair for the defense of Fort Ticonderoga in 1777.  He was wounded in the face a second time, nearly twenty years after the assault at Ticonderoga, Van Schaick received a wound during the American retreat from Ticonderoga.

After some recuperation, Van Schaick returned to the main army in time to spend the winter at Valley Forge, then command a brigade at the Battle of Monmouth.  After Monmouth, Van Schaick returned to New York, where he took command of Fort Stanwix in November 1778.

Plan of Attack

The Continentals recognized that the loyalists and their Indian allies were engaged in a campaign to drive the Americans out of the region, not only by terrorizing the inhabitants, but also through a calculated policy of destroying property, burning homes, running off cattle, and destroying grain.  Without sufficient food or shelter to get through the winter, the inhabitants would have to move elsewhere.

Iroquois Council
The Continental leadership, in cooperation with New York leaders, developed a plan to use the same strategy against the Iroquois who refused to ally themselves with the patriots.  General Schuyler had written to Washington in March that the Iroquois could probably raise no more than 2000 warriors for battle.  On the assumption that the British leadership in Quebec would not risk sending additional support to the Iroquois, if the Continentals could produce a larger force of about 3000, they could fend off any attack, and could use that force to go on a campaign of destruction against Iroquois villages and food stores.  The largest threat came from the Seneca, which was the Iroquois tribe farthest to the west.  The Mohawks in the eastern part of the Confederacy had already fled to Canada by this time.  The next most eastern tribes, the Oneida and Tuscarora, had pretty firmly allied themselves with the Americans.  That left the Onondaga and Cayuga tribes as problems.

Although the Seneca made up the bulk of the forces that could be arrayed against them, the Americans would have to go after the Onondaga and Cayuga tribes that were still claiming neutrality.  Otherwise, the loyalist forces would be able to subsist on food and shelter that they could coerce from these neutral tribes.  The Americans determined that they could not allow neutral tribes to remain in place.  Any warriors who would not ally with the Americans would be treated as enemies.

The first step would be to take out the Onondaga who were immediately to the west of the Oneida.  The Onondaga were probably the smallest of the Iroquois tribes at the time, with perhaps a few hundred members in total. After the forty warriors left to join with the Oneida, there were perhaps only about 120 warriors left in the tribe.

Despite the small size, the Continentals hoped to surprise the enemy so that they could not remove their supplies or call for reinforcements. There would be no further warnings that the Americans would treat all non-allies as enemies.  The Americans wanted the element of surprise when they launched their first campaign.  Washington also encouraged the use of Continentals rather than militia.  The Continentals were more disciplined and reliable, meaning that a smaller group of soldiers would be more effective for the mission.

Van Schaick Expedition

In early April, Colonel Van Schaick made his way from Albany to Fort Stanwix, which sat in friendly Oneida territory.  He outfitted a force of companies from various continental regiments, totaling just over 550 men, including one company of riflemen.

Marinus Willet
He selected Lieutenant Colonel Marinus Willet and Major Robert Cochran as his field officers. When Van Schaick arrived at Fort Stanwix, he found a group of 63 Oneida warriors who were eager to join the campaign, without even knowing the details.  Van Schaick did not want to reveal his plans to the Oneida. He wanted his attack to remain a surprise, and feared that the Oneida, who may still have friends among the Onondaga, might warn them of the attack.  He was also concerned that the warriors might prove reluctant in the field toward wiping out their neighbors.

Instead Van Schaick denied that any expedition was planned.  The warriors requested that they be given some mission, so Van Schaick deployed two companies of Continentals to march with the Oneida against Fort Oswegatchie to the north, on the St. Lawrence River. This sent the Oneida off in the opposite direction from where his expedition would be travelling and assured that they would be far away from the Onondaga during the expedition.  The Oneida left on the afternoon of April 18, headed for Fort Oswegatchie.

That evening, Van Schaick began to march his own troops to the west.  He deployed a fleet of 29 bateaux with eight days worth of food and other supplies, that would be floated down Woods Creek to Oneida Lake. The fleet would then cross the lake, whose western border began Onondaga territory.  The boats were not large enough to carry all the men, so they marched overland, planning to meet up with their supplies when needed.

It took two days to march to the western end of the lake.  The brigade was, at that point, only a few miles from their targeted Onondaga villages.  The supply fleet had not yet reached the rendezvous point.  Van Schaick opted to move inland without the supplies, rather than risk being discovered.  That night, only a few miles from the villages, the men camped without fires to give way their positions.  They slept on the snow-covered ground, eating only cold food that they brought with them.

The following morning, April 21, the advance guard captured one Indian who was out hunting, taking him prisoner.  They next came across a small party with at least one woman and several children.  One or two of the surprised Indians escaped and ran back to town to warn the village.  As they did, the army deployed to surround the village.  The settlements extended for about eight miles, meaning it took several hours to get the men into position.  

The Onondaga were mostly alerted to the presence of the invaders.  However, most only had time to flee into the woods, abandoning all of their possessions.  The soldiers looted or destroyed whatever they could find.  They plundered houses of all valuables, then set them on fire.  The Indians, who were apparently mostly women, children, and elderly, did not put up resistance, but were mostly able to flee and escape the attackers.

By about 4:00 PM, the target villages and settlements had been destroyed.  In his report, Colonel Van Schaick reported that his men killed twelve Indians, took three more as prisoners, as well as one white man living among the Onondaga.  They burned at least fifty homes, killed horses and cattle, and destroyed tons of beans and corn.  The attackers also captured at least 100 muskets and rifles, as well as more ammunition than the men could carry.  In total the attackers returned with 34 prisoners, most of whom were a group of women who were caught by surprise while working in the fields.

As soon as the soldiers completed their destruction, the men began marching back toward Fort Stanwix. During the return march, they came under fire from about twenty Onondaga who had managed to catch up with the attackers and engage them in combat.  The Continentals managed to kill one of the warriors before the rest fled into the woods.  The remainder of the march was relatively uneventful.  The brigade returned to Fort Stanwix by April 24.

The entire round trip march had covered over 180 miles and had taken just under six days to complete.  Amazingly, the entire party managed to return without a single man killed.

The Continentals considered the raid to be a great success.  Washington announced news of the successful raid in his general orders for May 8.  Many of the Onondaga who had tried to remain neutral, following this attack, threw their support behind the British.  The raid also created a rift between the Onondaga and the Oneida which never really healed.  Most of the Onondaga abandoned their land and moved north into Canada where they could receive protection from the British.

There were some accusations that the attackers had killed women and children, and had raped some of the Onondaga women that they had captured.  Despite the accusations Congress passed a resolution on May 10: 

Resolved, that the thanks of Congress be presented to Colonel Van Schaick and the officers and soldiers under his command, for their activity and good conduct in the late expedition against the Onondagas. 

Generally speaking the Americans viewed the attack as payback for the Cherry Valley Massacre, and the American leadership saw it as only the first step in what would become a much larger brutal campaign against the western Iroquois.

Next Week: Benedict Arnold makes contact with the British and begins taking steps toward betraying the patriot cause.

- - -

Next  Episode 219 Turning General Arnold 

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Further Reading


The Six Nations Confederacy During the American Revolution:

US Presidents – Hanadagá•yas

Col. Gosen Van Schaick:

Goose Van Schaick:

The Van Schaick Expedition, April 1779:

Goose Van Schaick Leads The Onondaga Expedition

“To George Washington from Major General Philip Schuyler, 1–7 March 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Brigadier General James Clinton, 8 April 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Philip Schuyler, 24 April 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“To George Washington from Philip Schuyler, 27 April 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“General Orders, 8 May 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Sullivan's expedition against the Indians of New York: a letter from Andrew McFarland Davis to Justin Winsor, corresponding secretary Massachusetts Historical Society : with the Journal of William McKendry, Cambridge: University Press, 1886. 

Graymont, Barbara The Iroquois (Indians Of North America), Chelsea Press, 2005. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Calloway, Colin G. The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation, Oxford Univ. Press, 2018.  

Egly, T.W. Goose Van Schaick of Albany, 1736-1789: The Continental Army's Senior Colonel, 1992. 

Graymont, Barbara The Iroquois in the American Revolution, Syracuse Univ. Press, 1972. 

Mann, Barbara Alice George Washington's War on Native America, Praeger, 2005. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

ARP217 Spain Enters the War

In April 1779, France and Spain signed the Treaty of Aranjuez, which effectively drew Spain into the war with Britain.  For the past couple of centuries, Spain had been France’s traditional ally and Britain’s traditional enemy.  While Spain did not share France’s enthusiasm for American liberty, it did harbor grudges against Britain and welcomed an opportunity to settle some of them by entering the war.

Spanish Background

In the late 1700’s Spain was near the height of its worldwide empire.  Spain, of course, had been the first European power to colonize the Americas following Christopher Columbus’ revelation that an entire western hemisphere existed and was available to be conquered.

Spanish Flag - Overseas Territories
After Columbus returned from his first voyage, Spain claimed sovereignty over the entire western hemisphere.  It did so, even though Columbus only had limited information about a few islands in the Caribbean.

About a year after Columbus’ return, Spain and Portugal signed the treaty of Tordesillas, which essentially recognized Spain’s claims to all lands west of a vertical line drawn through the Atlantic Ocean.  This treaty was designed to recognize Portugal’s claims to some islands in the Atlantic, while ceding to Spain all the unknown lands further west. In fact, unknown to both of the parties at the time, the line ceded what is today eastern Brazil to the Portuguese, which is why Brazil became a Portuguese colony.

In truth though, when the vast size of North and South America came to be understood, there was no way that Spain would be able to occupy or defend its vast claims to the hemisphere.  Britain, France, the Netherlands, and other European powers were not parties to the treaty and did not recognize Spanish claims.

But Spain was the first to establish a colonial empire.  For more than a century, Spain conquered most of South and Central America, as well as many Caribbean islands.  It was not until the early 17th century that other European powers seriously began to consider American colonies of their own.  

By that time, Spain had enslaved much of the native populations and was hauling gold and silver by the shipload back to Spain.  The age of conquest and colonization could be an entire podcast by itself. Suffice it to say that Britain, France, the Netherlands, and a few other European powers, got into the game late, and had to settle for leftovers, mostly in North America, where Spain had not really established a presence yet.

Part of Spain’s problem during this era was that it was not really a well-organized nation-state.  Rather, it was still a collection of kingdoms.  A modern army and navy were not its top priorities.  King Carlos III was beginning to change all of that, but it would take time.

Spain at this time was considered an enlightened absolute monarchy.  That meant the country was open to some social and economic reforms such as encouraging more scientific learning and allowing the ownership of private property.  But ceding political power was out of the question.  The king controlled the government.  Ideas about shared sovereignty, inalienable rights, or rule by consent of the governed were just not welcome in Spain.

When Britain saw the tons of gold and silver that Spanish mines in America were producing, it knew it had to establish its own colonies.  Britain and France both invested in powerful navies in order to challenge Spanish claims in America.  For the most part, Spain was having enough trouble controlling all the colonies it had already established by that time, and tolerated the colonization of North America by other European powers. 

King Carlos III
There were, of course, disputes that sometimes resulted in war.  For most of the 17th and 18th centuries, European powers tried to take colonies from each other.  Since Spain had originally claimed everything, it had nowhere to go but down.  British naval power created problems for the Spanish Empire.  Over time, it not only impacted their colonies in America, but elsewhere as well.  At the end of the War of Spanish Succession in 1714, Spain not only had to cede the Mediterranean island of Menorca to the British, but also Gibraltar, which was on the Spanish mainland.  Gibraltar was a key piece of land at the very southern tip of Spain, which controlled entry and exit to the Mediterranean Ocean.  Spain also gave Florida to Britain after the Seven Years War, in exchange for getting back Cuba, which Britain had captured during the war.

Spain was eager to reclaim some of its lost territories from Britain, particularly Gibraltar.  But as it had found over the years, wars were very costly, and could result in losing more territory than they won.  Spain had proven effective conquering natives in America, but things seemed not to go as well when the Spanish tussled with other European powers.  Spain had almost gone to war with Britain over the Falkland islands in 1770, but then conceded British control of the islands rather than risk another costly war.

As France moved toward war with Britain, it tried to drag along its traditional Spanish ally.  With Britain relatively isolated and none of its European allies joining in the fight, and with Britain’s resources sapped putting down the rebellion in the North American colonies, this was a perfect time for France and Spain to gang up and take back some territory.

Spain, however, was not as enthusiastic as France. In 1776 and 1777, Spain was fighting a war with Portugal, primarily over the border in South America between the Portuguese colony of Brazil and the rest of Spanish-controlled South America.  The main outcome of this war was to confirm that Uruguay would be under Spanish authority.

Spain had hoped that Britain would recognize its weakened position and would agree to return Gibraltar, Menorca, and the Floridas to Spain, and also give up its illegal colonies in Central America.  Spain had provided some of the funds early in the war to provide covert military aid to America via Rodriguez Hortalez & Co. run by Silas Deane and Pierre Beaumarchais.  Spain had also given cover to a few American privateers early in the war.  

But even after France went to war in early 1778, Spain did not want to go to war until it gave Britain a chance to buy them off by ceding back the territories they wanted.  It probably would have been happy just to regain Gibraltar.  If Britain had ceded Gibraltar back to Spain, then Spain almost certainly would have stayed out of the war.  Spain attempted these negotiations as the war progressed.

Treaty of Aranjuez

By 1779, it was clear that Britain was in trouble. It still had no interest in ceding territory back to Spain. It rejected the Spanish overtures over Gibraltar. France and Spain were traditional allies.  The two Catholic countries were ruled by Bourbon kings whose families had closely intermarried.

French Foreign Minister, the Comte de Vergennes, had been working with Spanish Foreign Minister José Moñino y Redondo, Conde de Floridablanca to agree to terms that would entice Spain into joining the war.  

Conde de Floridablanca
King Carlos III saw a real danger in supporting an American rebellion against a European king.  All of Spanish America could use that precedent to overthrow Spanish rule throughout the Americas.  Revolution is always a dangerous game for monarchs to play.  

Beyond the concern of Spanish Revolutions, Spain feared that an independent America might soon threaten its Louisiana Territory.  Spain had acquired Louisiana from France after the Seven Years War.  Unrestricted Americans pushing westward might threaten those claims, and could lead to future wars.  For Spanish interests, that cautioned against American independence.   Like France, Spain was happy with an ongoing rebellion that would sap British resources and occupy its rival.  But it really wasn’t looking forward to dealing with either party as the winner after the war concluded.

For a time, Spain held out the offer to Britain to mediate an end to the war.  The price, of course, being Gibraltar.  Spain really had no leverage over the American colonies.  It’s main value to Britain probably would have been to take France back out of the war.  But since there was not much realistic chance of that either, Britain did not accept the Spanish offer of mediation.  With the lack of British interest, Spain could either remain neutral, or join the war with France.

Spain was in no hurry to join the war, while France really wanted the extra support in its war with Britain. The British Navy was still larger than the French Navy.  But it was not larger than Spain and France combined.  This meant that a Spanish alliance would help to protect French island colonies, and put British island colonies at risk.  In short, France was desperate to bring Spain into the war in order to tip the balance of power.  

The result was that France had to agree to Spanish demands in order to entice it into joining the war.  The big issue was Gibraltar.  France had to agree that it would continue the war until they had recovered Gibraltar for Spain.  Since the Franco-American treaty committed the US to continue fighting until France concluded its peace, this treaty between France and Spain effectively committed the US to the recovery of Gibraltar as well.  Spain also hoped to recover Menorca and the Floridas.  

Spain had also pushed for some sort of joint French-Spanish control of the North American colonies once Britain ceded authority.  Like France, Spain did not believe that the Americans could govern themselves and that they would eventually have to become part of a protectorate.  France, however, realized that the Americans would not agree to this. While the Americans might someday appreciate the need for some royal authority to govern them, it was not possible to make such a proposal at this time.  Therefore, the idea of a joint protectorate did not make its way into the treaty.

The treaty made clear that Spain did not recognize American Independence.  This was a treaty with France only, to cooperate in the recovery of colonies.  If the American rebellion aided in that process, great.  But Spain was not committed to the establishment of an independent United States.  Spanish forces would not assist in the ongoing struggle of the newly self-proclaimed United States.  Rather, Spanish efforts in America would focus on shoring up control of Louisiana and reclaiming East and West Florida.

France, which had already been at war with Britain for over a year, asked for relatively little in the treaty, mostly support for its claim of a return of fishing rights from Britain off the coast of Newfoundland.

With the terms of the treaty resolved, France and Spain signed the treaty on April 12, 1779. The terms of the treaty were not made public. Spain declared war on Britain in June.  Word reached America about Spain’s entry into the war.  That news, of course, was met with great celebration.  Regardless of Spain’s motives or interests, forcing Britain to spread its military resources even more thinly to deal with another enemy would only benefit the American cause.

The news, however, was slow to arrive.  Even months after Spain’s declaration of war, the Americans were still unsure of Spain’s status.  By late August, 1779, Washington was only writing that he had reason to believe Spain had entered the war, but could not say for certain, and, if they did, on what terms.

It was only in October that Washington and Congress received definitive word that Spain had entered the war.

Don Juan de Miralles

Because Spain still did not recognize the United States as an independent nation, it did not send an ambassador.  However, Spain had sent an “observer” to Congress some time earlier.

Juan de Miralles

Don Juan de Miralles came from a relatively well-off family, but not aristocracy.  His father was a Spanish officer and his mother was French.  He was born in Spain, but moved to Havana, Cuba as a young man.  

There, married the daughter of a successful Havana merchant and ran his own trading company.  In search of markets, he began trading with the British colonies in North America. He spoke English and had made a number of contacts in St. Augustine, Charleston, and Philadelphia.

Of course, in the pre-war era, most trade between Spanish and British colonies at the time was illegal.  But neither government was enforcing those rules very much, and trade flourished.  Miralles established himself as a wealthy Havana merchant.

When the Revolution began, Spain remained officially neutral, but often did what it could to encourage the rebellion against British authorities.  When American privateers began arriving in Havana with British prize vessels, Miralles made money buying the prizes, then reflagging them and selling the ships and cargo.

By 1777, Spanish officials in Madrid sent word to the Governor General of Cuba to send agents to various British colonies. Miralles’ brother-in-law was sent to Florida to stir up the natives against British rule.  Another agent went to Jamaica.  Miralles took the assignment to go to Philadelphia and maintain relations with the Continental Congress.

Getting to Philadelphia from Cuba was not easy.  British naval traffic in the area was focused on keeping military supplies from the West Indies from reaching the rebels in North America.  Miralles left aboard a Spanish ship purportedly bound for Cadiz, Spain.  The captain of the ship had orders to put into Charleston, South Carolina, purportedly for emergency repairs.  Miralles left the ship at Charleston in January, 1778.

While in Charleston, Miralles wrote to Spanish officials hoping to get some sort of commission for his new role.  He did not know it, but about this same time, officials in Spain had appointed him as a commissioner.  Since Spain did not have formal relations with the US, his role was more of an observer.  There is some debate, both then and now, about his official status as a representative of the Spanish government.  However, it was clear that he was effectively Spain’s representative to the Continental Congress.  

Miralles took his time getting to Philadelphia.  After arriving in Charleston in January, he met with Governor Edward Rutledge about plans to invade East Florida.  He also purchased and outfitted a ship that would run trade between Charleston and Havana.  Over the next few months, Miralles moved north, slowly, meeting with North Carolina Governor Abner Nash and Virginia Governor Patrick Henry.  A topic of discussion was Spain’s interest in cooperating in the recovery of the Floridas.

This was the same winter that the British occupied Philadelphia.  Washington was in Valley Forge, and the Congress was meeting in the small town of York.  Miralles did not seem in any hurry to get there.  However, shortly after the British evacuated Philadelphia in the spring of 1778, and Congress returned to the city, Miralles made his way to the American capital and began making contacts.

It was about this time that word of France’s entry into the war had arrived in America.  Everyone expected Spain to follow soon, but Miralles could not give any assurances.  Even so, Congress gave him the respect as the representative of a potential ally.

Robert Morris
Miralles also used this time to forge a partnership with Pennsylvania merchant, and delegate Robert Morris.  The men acquired a small fleet of ships to begin trade between Philadelphia and Havana.  When Washington returned to Philadelphia for an extended visit in late 1778 and early 1779, he and Miralles had a chance to get to know one another, and seemed to strike up a friendship of sorts.  So Miralles was mixing politics and business, and his personal interests, as well of those of Spain, all together.

Morallis' planned trade in cooperation with Morris would have assisted the American cause.  It also would have been extremely profitable to both men.  It was also extremely risky.  Running merchant ships past the British blockade of the North American coast created a high risk of loss.  Miralles was putting his personal fortune at risk, in large part to win the good will of the American leadership, but also to make a lot of money. In addition to making money, the smuggling would bring in much-needed military supplies from Havana  

As part of his political efforts, Miralles tried to establish an understanding with Congress.  His pitch was pretty simple: Spain would enter the war, but would want assurance that the US would support its claims to East and West Florida.  Of course, Miralles had no real authority to commit Spain to war.  Congress was not prepared to cast off the Floridas based on some general promise that Spain might someday enter the war.

At the same time that Miralles was encouraging the Americans to concede Florida, he was also writing to leaders in Spain and Cuba to establish a formal alliance.  His letters home make clear that the Americans had capable leaders and could be reliable allies.  He strongly encouraged Spanish officials to enter the war and form an alliance with the Americans.

In May 1779, Miralles, along with French Minister Gerard, visited the Continental Army in northern New Jersey.  They attended parades and feasts in their honor, and met extensively with General Washington.  By this time, France and Spain had already signed the treaty committing Spain to war with Britain, but it was still a secret.  Miralles himself did not know the state of negotiations, and could only say that he was hopeful of Spain’s entry at some time soon.

News of War

By August, word had arrived that Britain and Spain had both recalled their ambassadors and that Spain had deployed a fleet.  There were also unofficial reports that King George had made an announcement to Parliament of hostilities with Spain.

In September, the Continental Congress finally took up the Spanish concern over the Floridas.  In a divisive vote, Congress agreed to support Spanish claims over the Floridas, provided the Americans retained free travel up and down the Mississippi River. Many members of Congress were reluctant to cede their southern border to Spain.  John Jay, who would soon be appointed ambassador to Spain, voted against it. It is likely due to the lobbying of Miralles, who convinced Washington to support the resolution, that it passed Congress at all.

By this time British and Spanish fighting had already broken out between the British in West Florida and the Spanish in New Orleans.  A series of battles and skirmishes along the Gulf coast would tie up British forces and, as Congress hoped, force the British to focus their attention elsewhere.

Before the end of 1779, word arrived confirming that Spain was at war with Britain.  The result was celebration that the American position was growing stronger and that Britain’s difficulties were only growing.

Next week, The Americans begin serious efforts against the Iroquois with the attack at Onondaga Creek.

- - -

Next  Episode 218 Onondaga Creek 

 Contact me via email at

 Follow the podcast on Twitter @AmRevPodcast

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T-shirts, hoodies, mugs, pillows, totes, notebooks, wall art, and more.  Get your favorite American Revolution logo today.  Help support this podcast.

American Revolution Podcast is distributed 100% free of charge. If you can chip in to help defray my costs, I'd appreciate whatever you can give.  Make a one time donation through my PayPal account. You may also donate via Venmo (@Michael-Troy-20), Zelle, or popmoney (send to

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You can support the American Revolution Podcast as a Patreon subscriber.  This is an option making monthly pledges.  Patreon support will give you access to Podcast extras and help make the podcast a sustainable project.

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Further Reading


Treaty of Aranjuez

Spanish Participation in the American Revolution

McCadden, Helen Matzke. “Juan De Miralles and the American Revolution.” The Americas, vol. 29, no. 3, 1973, pp. 359–375. JSTOR,

“DON JUAN DE MIRALLES, THE SPANISH AGENT. HIS REQUIEM.” The American Catholic Historical Researches, vol. 3, no. 4, 1907, pp. 297–310. JSTOR,

A Forgotten Hero of the American Revolution: Juan de Miralles and the Relationship between Spain and the United States

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Moses, Bernard Spain's Declining Power in South America, 1730-1806, Berkeley, Univ. of Cal. Press, 1919. 

Paulin, Charles O. European Treaties Bearing on the History of the United States and its Dependencies, Vol 4, Washington: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1937 (Treaty of Aranjuez, p. 145). 

Spain in the American Revolution (PDF) 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Chávez, Thomas E. Spain and the Independence of the United States: An Intrinsic Gift, Univ. of N.M. Press, 2002. 

Paquette, Gabriel (ed) & Gonzalo M. Quintero Saravia (ed) Spain and the American Revolution: New Approaches and Perspectives, Routledge, 2019. 

Stein, Stanley J. & Barbara H. Apogee of Empire: Spain and New Spain in the Age of Charles III, 1759–1789, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2003. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.