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Last update: 3 March 2000

Painting of Soldado de Cuera by Jack S. Williams Los Soldados de Cuera

Painting of El Soldado de Cuera
     by Dr. Jack S. Williams
click on picture to see full size

Quote from Costansó

    The  Soldiers of the Californias Presidio, of whom equity  and fairness  require us to own that they labored endlessly  in  this Expedition,  employ two kinds of arms, offensive  and defensive: The  defensive ones are Buffcoat and targe; the first  of  these, whose  cut  is similar to a sleeveless Coat, is made  of  six  or seven  plies  of white worked deerskin,  impenetrable to Indian arrows unless shot from very near by. The targe consists of  two facing[s]  of rawhide, it is managed with the left arm, and  they use it to deflect arrows ("jaras" as they call them), the horseman  thus defending himself and his mount.  They  employ  besides these, a sort of apron of cow-hide leather pinned to the head  of the saddle and falling down on both sides, that they call "armas" or defensas, covering their legs and thighs so as to  keep  them from injury when galloping through brush.  Their offensive  weapons are the lance, which they handle deftly a [on] horseback, the broadsword,  and a short musket which they carry put up and  fastened in a sheath.  They are men of great hardiness and endurance in their work; quick to obey, determined, nimble, and, we do  not scruple  to say, the best Horsemen in the world and among  those Soldiers who best earn their Bread from that August Monarch  whom they serve. 

Miguel Costansó, Diario Historico, 1769

Letter from Portolá 

     . . . I regard the uniform worn by the California Buff-coat Company as extremely useful; our Soldiers [his dragoons] can't  continue to  wear the uniform they do now, for our first excursion  abroad has just left  everyone stripped of it - I  more  than  anyone reached here torn and scratched to pieces by the terrible  Thorn-trees [cactus] along these same trails in this Country  . . . Certainly, Sir, a man must have more Cowherd than Soldier in him in order  to serve in this land . . . 

México, Archivo General  de  la Nación, ramo de Californias, t. 76

    Costansó and Portolá agreed, together with most other  observers, that the soldados de cuera were among the best horsemen  in  the world. The primary reason was that they were recruited from  the ranchos of northern Mexico and later from California and Arizona. They  had spent most of their youth on horseback, so learning  to be a soldier on horseback was a small step for them.

    The soldados de cuera were regular soldiers of the Spanish  army, but  with a difference, they were mounted, and required to  maintain six horses.  They were supposed to be paid a regular salary, receive  uniforms, arms and housing, and much of their food.  In fact,  in California, even before 1810, pay and  uniforms seldom got this far, the soldiers were frequently described as in  rags, and  trading uniforms to the Indians for food.  Between 1812  and 1822  there was no pay at all.  After the success of the  revolution,  the new government left the maintenance of the  California soldiers to the local government, which rapidly reduced the force to an unpaid militia.  It is probable that the "soldado de cuera" essentially vanished from California by the 1820s. 

    The leather jackets, while providing protection from arrows,  had a serious defect, they were not rainproof, and in a sudden rainstorm they soaked up water like a sponge, multiplying the weight. They dried slowly, and worse, became stiff.  It is fortunate that the southwest was a desert. 

    The  weapons they used were supposed to be musket, pistol,  sword, and lance.  The musket and pistol were effective only in a cavalry charge against a massed enemy, which as far as is known never happened here. Therefore, the lance and sword, and, a weapon seldom mentioned, the bow and arrow, were the mainstays. The lance  was the primary offensive weapon and the soldados de cuera were  very skilled in  its use.  Even as late as 1846,  the  American  army learned of its effectiveness at the Battle of San Pasqual. 

    The Indian raids on the missions and private ranchos, as well  as against friendly Indians for cattle, horses, and young women, had a  standard response.  Notice was sent to the Presidio, eight  or ten  soldados would get their six horses and ride at  top speed after the  raiding  Indians. If possible,  they  would  recruit friendly  Indians, but the only hope of catching the raiders  was to  ride  at top speed.  When one horse gave out, they  switched saddle  and  continued.  Hopefully, they would pick up the  spent horse  on  the return.  The pursuit continued  until  either  the raiders managed to get far enough into the mountains to escape or the  soldados  caught up.  The battles were  usually  short, the Indians  abandoning  part of their loot and  escaping  with  the rest.

    Each  of  the Missions had 5 soldados and a  Cabo  (Corporal)  as guard, occasionally a few more when there was need.  Since there were  only 55 soldiers per Presidio, after manning the Missions, there were only 25 or so soldiers left at the Presidio.  Then  a guard was kept at the Presidio horse rancho, soldiers handled all the  mail  delivery,  and  acted  as  escorts. As  one soldier expressed  it, "I have more duties than the Devil has fallen angels". 

    With four Presidios, there were only 220 soldiers in Alta  California for most of the Spanish reign; there were estimated to be over  200,000 Indians. With these odds, how  did  the  Spanish prevail? Part  of the answer is that there was  a  considerable support  from the local Indian tribes.  In fact, at least in the southern  part of the state, many Indians were recruited  into  a militia.  At  Santa  Barbara some 200 Chumash  were  trained  and armed.

    Now, where did the soldados de cuera go?  

    In the main they didn't go, they stayed, had families, and their descendants are us.

Maurice Bandy, March 2000

Catalonian Volunteers essay coming soon.

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