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Soldados de Cuera

by Michael R. Hardwick 

        The origin of presidial troops in New Spain goes back to the sixteenth century.  A line of fortified outposts called presidios was constructed north of Mexico City by 1570 to contain raids by the Chichimeca Indians.  Two centuries later the line of presidios or forts moved into what is now the American Southwest and extended from Texas to California. 

        Soldados de Cuera manning frontier presidios were a unique branch of the Spanish colonial armed forces, distinct from Spainís regular soldiers.  They were distinguished from Spanish regulars not only in having been born and reared in the frontier provinces and thus adapted to harsh conditions but also in having their own regulations.  Reglamentos of both 1729 and 1772 were distinct from those ordenanzas governing the regular army.  Presidial soldiers were more heavily armed and equipped than the regular army.  In addition to standard weapons of Spanish regulars (musket, pistols, and saber),  soldados de cuera carried a lance, a shield, and a heavy coat of leather armor.  The reglamento of 1729 specified that each presidial trooper was to have six horses and one mule at his disposal.  The ordinary Spanish dragoon only had two horses available to him. 

        The soldado de cuera was in fact named for his leather armor.  The cuera was a heavy, knee-length, sleeveless coat.  It consisted of several layers of well-cured buckskin which were bound together at the edges with a strong seam and secured to the body by encircling straps.  For protection, and in addition to the leather jacket, the presidial soldier carried a shield.  In form, there were two varieties in use.  The rodela, was a round shield. The adarga, was a shield design copied from the Moors in Spain which consisted of two overlapping ovals. 

        For offensive weapons, soldados de cuera, were armed with a smoothbore musket called an escopeta of .69 caliber, two pistols of the same caliber, a short sword, similar in design to a European hunting sword, called an espada ancha, a dagger or  puñal , and a lance or lanza.  Since cuera dragoons primarily fought as mounted troops, the lance was their principle weapon of choice.  The reliance on the lance was reinforced by inadequate supplies of powder on the frontier for firearms. 

        The enlisted uniform of the enlisted cuera dragoons consisted of a short blue coat or chupa with red collar, cuffs, and lapels.  Enlisted menís uniforms included blue breeches or calzones with buttons of brass.  The black Texcuco hat was wide brimmed, turned up, and held by a loop on the left side to handle the musket with ease. A black scarf or mascada negra de Barcelona and a blue cloth cape or capa were also issued. 

        Officers had a dress uniform consisting of a blue coat with scarlet collar, cuffs and lapels. The collar was edged with gold lace as was a buff or red waistcoat that was also worn.  The coat was worn with blue knee breeches.  The hat was a gold-laced tricorn.  The undress uniform consisted of a flat black hat turned up and edged with gold lace.  Breeches were blue or buff and the coat was shorter than the dress coat.  Blue or red ponchos trimmed with gold lace were also permitted.  Weapons and equipment were the same as those of enlisted men but were of better quality. 

        Each presidio along the Spanish Frontier consisted of a Caballaría or company of mounted soldiers.  The company normally consisted of a Captain or Capitán, a Lieutenant or Teniente, an Ensign or Alférez, a Chaplain or Capellán, one or two Sergeants or Sargentos, two Corporals or Cabos, some forty or so soldiers or soldados, and a number of Indian scouts. 

        It would have been a very rare occurrence to ever see a full presidial company in formation as the strength of a company was dispersed in small detachments on various assignments.  In addition to garrisoning the presidio, soldados de cuera were detached to explore, to help establish new missions, to garrison existing missions as an escolta--escort or guard--to protect missions from hostile Indians, protect supply caravans, carry dispatches, and perform any number of other duties as assigned to them by the provincial governors.  In response to a question about the number of duties assigned to presidial soldiers posed by an inspecting  Spanish official, one soldado responded, "I have more duties than the Devil has Fallen Angels!

        Soldados de cuera as individuals came from a variety of backgrounds.  Many were mestizos, or mixed European and Indian.  Some were mulato. Others were criollos, or Españoles born in America, and some were peninsulares or gachupines or Spanish from the Iberian Peninsula. 

        Presidial soldiers could advance themselves in a number of ways.  They were paid a salary (which might not be collected for as many as five years at a time).  They could be given land grants or advanced in the military based on their ability to read and write.  It is significant that in the Spanish military system, presidial soldiers were by royal decree of equal status as troops from Spain itself. 

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