The rapid growth of Britain’s North American colonies took place at a time of increased jockeying for power among European empires, involving much of the area today included in the United States. But the colonies of England’s rivals, although covering immense territories, remained thinly populated and far weaker economically. The Spanish empire encompassed an area that stretched from the Pacific coast and New Mexico into the Great Plains and eastward through Texas and Florida. After 1763, it also included Louisiana, which Spain obtained from France. On paper a vast territorial empire, Spanish North America actually consisted of a few small and isolated urban clusters, most prominently St. Augustine in Florida, San Antonio in Texas, and Santa Fe and Albuquerque in New Mexico.
In the second half of the century, the Spanish government made a concerted effort to reinvigorate its empire north of the Rio Grande. It stabilized relations with Indians, especially the nomadic Comanches and Apaches who had wreaked havoc in New Mexico. But although ranching expanded in New Mexico and Texas, the economy of the Spanish colonies essentially rested on trading with and extracting labor from the surviving Indian population. New Mexico’s population in 1765 was only 20,000, equally divided between Spanish settlers and Pueblo Indians. Spain began the colonization of Texas at the beginning of the eighteenth century, partly as a buffer to prevent French commercial influence, then spreading in the Mississippi Valley, from intruding into New Mexico. The Spanish established complexes consisting of religious missions and presidios (military outposts) at Los Adaes, La Bahia, and San Antonio. But the region attracted few settlers. Texas had only 1,200 Spanish colonists in 1760. Florida stagnated as well, remaining an impoverished military outpost. Around 1770, its population consisted of about 2,000 Spanish, 1,000 black slaves, and a few hundred Indians, survivors of many decades of war and disease.
Three great empires—the British, French, and Spanish—competed for influence in North America for much of the eighteenth century.