Spanish and Mexican California
Soldados de Cuera
By Michael R. Hardwick
Soldado de Cuera (Leather Coated Soldier) circa 1790
Image courtesy of the Army Art Collection, US Army Center of Military History

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 Spain’s 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 men’s 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.

Lanza de Caballeria (Cavalry Lance)

Poled edge weapon; composed of an iron lance head (moharra) which is the main part of the weapon and located at the extreme end of a shaft (asta) made of Majagua (Hibiscus tiliaceus wood), Ash (Fresno), Beech tree (Haya) or other light straight-fiber strong wood; at the opposite end it is re-enforced with an iron cap (regaton) which shall balance against the lance head, and at the center of gravity, towards the center of the shaft, the lance sling-strap (correa porta-lanza) shall be wrapped, aiding in the hand action when gripping as friction increases, and comfortably rests the lancer when he hangs it on his arm after placing the end cap (regaton) on the lance carrier (porta-regaton) next to the right stirrup, immediately on the lance head is located the pennant (or streamer) (banderola), whose oscillating movements during charges attempts to cause unrest upon the enemy horses and promoting their disorder. The shape of the lance head (moharra), just as in the hand weapons (armas de puños), is what constitutes the different classes of lances, which has varied greatly according to the times and customs; the invention of this weapon is attributed to the ancient Spaniards, whose nobility used it exclusively, with hand (held) lance heads (moharras), of olive leaf (shaped) (hoja de olivo), of diamond (shaped) tip (punta de diamante) or with other denominations referent to its different configurations; the shafts have also received variations before arriving at their present simplicity, having more or less thicknesses and lengths, flutings to lighten them a bit without weakening as much as if made thinner, or with more notable alterations yet and coinciding with the necessities of the era in which the warriors dressed in full armor, demanded the lances with sufficient power to allow to pass through with their thrusts, in the courts(?) (corteses) or in tournaments, the lance head (moharra) or point(?) (roquete) instead of (having) points and angled edges, would regularly terminate in various smaller projections and rounds (?) (romas), broad or spread so that without damage to the opponent they could easily assert against some part of his armor, with the purpose of dismounting him.

The changes in dress and the almost complete omission of defensive weapons has produced less variations in the lance and of less importance; since its been in use in cavalry lancer regiments, it is most significant to mention the adoption of a cross bar (cruceta) across the head of the lance head (moharra) called the reins-cutter (corta-riendas), discontinued because of the inconveniences it presented in the handling of the weapon and because of not fulfilling in any way the objective of its intentions, which has been separated (detached) from the existing lance heads (moharras) of this class (type), which is why its not represented, nor the small value of the rest of the changes require it, which is only verified (confirmed) by the one in use on the approved day in 1842 as indicated with an M, and the one that is with an A, as example of the variations received in this weapon (arma), which is the ones used anciently and named by the shape of its iron laurel leaf (hoja de laurel).

Translated from Dictionary Ilustrado de Artililleria por el Cornel de Artilleria D. Luis de Agar, originally published in 1853 in Madrid.


A drawing of Soldados de Cuera, from page 36 of Uniformes Militares Esapanoles Tropas Virreynales (I) Nueva Espana, Yucatan Y Luisiana by Jose Maria Bueno. Left to right: Catalonian Volunteer 1769-70 , (Malispina); Soldier of Monterey 1769-70 (Malispina); Soldado de Cuera 1790 (from various sources); Lancer of the Legion of Principe, 1767 (from various sources).


The Author

Michael Hardwick graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1972 with High Honors. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology with graduate work in Public Administration from University of Redlands.

While in college, Mike did some of the original archaeology on the Presidio in Santa Barbara. In the 1970s he established the archive at La Purísima Mission State Historic Park and was a State Park Ranger Intermittent there for five years. Mike served on the Board of Directors of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation for 17 years. During that time he acted as Treasurer of the Trust, chaired the Archive Library, Descendants and Genealogy Committees, and was a member of the Reconstruction Committee.

As a living history enthusiast, Mike was a Civil War reenactor for six years and was a member of the Santa Barbara Civil War Council. He was instrumental in founding Los Soldados del Real Presidio de Santa Barbara in 1990 and is currently an active Soldado in that group. He established a Web site for Los Soldados and has written several papers on Spanish Colonial Military History.

Michael currently does a living history impression of Phelipe de Neve, first governor of the Californias, 1777-1782. Appointed the Soldados National Spokesperson for the Gálvez project, Mike orchestrated an impressive ceremony in October of 2003, which paid tribute to Bernardo de Gálvez as part of a Hispanic-American Heros Series sponsored by Somos Primos, Society of Hispanic Historical and Ancestral Research.

Mike’s interests are varied. He served on the La Purísima Mission Advisory Committee. He is on the Santa Barbara Mission Museum Board. He belongs to CMSA (California Mission Studies Association) and has published an extensive bibliography on Presidios and Soldiers of Northern New Spain on their WEB site.

Mike is currently working on the beginnings of horticulture in California and is actively researching that topic. He has recently published, Changes in Landscape, The Beginnings of Horticulture in the California Missions, which is available through the bookstore at the Old Mission, Santa Barbara, 2201 Laguna Street, Santa Barbara, CA. 93105. He is participating with others in a heritage plant project at Mission Santa Barbara and hopes to enlarge and republish his book.

Mike is a Vietnam Era Veteran. He spent six years in the Navy and was with the Commander of Seventh Fleet on the Flagship, USS Oklahoma City during the years 1968 – 1969. He retired from the County of Santa Barbara as a Senior Systems Analyst in 2002. He was a County employee for 26 years. As a data processing professional, Mike taught for a number of years in the SBCC Adult Education Program. He holds a California Community Colleges teaching Credential.

He may be reached at



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Updated 8 February 2016