Peñafiel Castle, both Arab and Spanish fortification

A presidio (English: jail, fortification)[1] was a fortified base established by the Spanish Empire between the 16th and 18th centuries in areas under their control or influence. The term is derived from the Latin word praesidium meaning protection or defense.

In the Mediterranean and the Philippines, the presidios were outposts of the Christian defense against Islamic raids. In the Americas, the fortresses were built to protect against raids by pirates, rival colonial powers, and Native Americans.

Later in western North America, with independence, the Mexicans garrisoned the Spanish presidios on the northern frontier and followed the same pattern in unsettled frontier regions such as the Presidio de Sonoma, at Sonoma, California, and the Presidio de Calabasas, in Arizona.

In western North America, a rancho del rey or king's ranch would be established a short distance outside a presidio. This was a tract of land assigned to the presidio to furnish pasturage to the horses and other beasts of burden of the garrison. Mexico called this facility "rancho nacional".[2] Presidios were only accessible to Spanish military and soldiers.

North Africa

Main article: European enclaves in North Africa before 1830

Royal Walls of Ceuta

After the Granada War and the completion of the Spanish Reconquista, the Catholic Monarchs took their fight across the Strait of Gibraltar, as the Portuguese had done several generations earlier with the conquest of Ceuta in 1415. The establishment of Spanish military outposts on the North African coast echoed earlier endeavors by the Kingdom of Sicily in the 12th century (and again in Djerba under Frederick III of Sicily) and the Kingdom of France in the 13th century (Eighth Crusade of 1270). During the period of Iberian Union between 1580 and 1640, the Spanish Crown gained Ceuta and the Portuguese outposts on the Atlantic Coast, such as Tangier, Mazagão/El Jadida and Casablanca; but of these, it only retained Ceuta by the Treaty of Lisbon (1668).

The Spanish North African presidios are listed here in geographical sequence, from West to East, and including neither Spain's Atlantic settlements in the Moroccan far South (e.g. Santa Cruz de la Mar Pequeña) nor outposts gained after 1830 (e.g. the Chafarinas Islands).


Main article: State of the Presidi

Several fortresses formerly held by the Republic of Siena were acquired by Spain following the latter's demise, by treaty between Philip II of Spain and Cosimo I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany on 3 July 1557, to form what became known as the Estado de los Presidios. They were held by Spain until the War of the Spanish Succession, when they came under Austrian ownership, and were administered from Naples.


Main article: Spanish colonial fortifications in the Philippines

Map of the Presidios built in the Philippines during the 1600s, in Fortress of Empire by Rene Javellana, S. J. (1997)





Presidio, Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó
Former Presidio San Gregorio de Cerralvo reconverted into the town hall
Presidio Ojuelos
Presidio, Mezcala Island [es]
Fresnillo's Parish of Purification blocks

Few presidios were established in the present-day desert frontier regions in northern Mexico to control and confine the existing rebellious indigenous tribes.[3] Captured indigenous warriors were confined and enslaved at the presidio.[4] Presidios was used to protect the colonial silver ship from rebellious raids from Indians in Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, mainly in Zacatecas and Guanajuato, starting new settlements.

Baja California Sur

Nuevo León








San Luis Potosí




United States

South Carolina





Presidio La Bahía in Goliad

New Mexico

Presidio Santa Cruz de la Cañada, New Mexico


Presidio Santa Cruz de Terrenate, Arizona
Interior of the reconstructed chapel of the Santa Barbara Presidio


Presidio of San Diego, California



Further information: La Frontera, Chile and Army of Arauco

See also


  1. ^ "presidio — Diccionario de la lengua española, Edición del Tricentenario". RAE (in Spanish). Retrieved October 28, 2017.
  2. ^ "Ranchos of California: Extracts from: Grants of land in California made by Spanish or Mexican authorities, by Cris Perez Boundary Determination Office State Lands Commission Boundary Investigation Unit August 23, 1982. Berkeley Library website". Archived from the original on February 2, 2009. Retrieved April 17, 2011.
  3. ^ "Spanish policymakers also decided to set up a line of presidios stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This presidial line was very close to today’s international border between Mexico and the United States." Reséndez, Andrés. The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (p. 198). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  4. ^ "As the eighteenth century unfolded, military garrisons and soldiers superseded the missions as the lynchpins of Spain’s efforts to stabilize the frontier. With the new approach came new forms of coercion. The word “presidio” captures the dual purpose of garrison and prison." Reséndez, Andrés. The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (p. 205). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
  5. ^ a b c Childers, Ronald Wayne (2004). "The Presidio System in Spanish Florida 1565–1763". Historical Archaeology. 38 (3): 24–32. doi:10.1007/BF03376651. JSTOR 25617178. S2CID 160809833.
  6. ^ "San Felipe de Gracia Real de Terrenate - Tumacácori National Historical Park (U.S. National Park Service)". Retrieved 12 February 2024.

References and further reading