HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
An Illustrated History
by Marjorie Johnson
A PUBLICATION OF THE RIO GRANDE VALLEY PARTNERSHIP
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HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
An Illustrated History
by Marjorie Johnson
Published by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership
Historical Publishing Network
A division of Lammert Publications, Inc.
San Antonio, Texas
The ruins of Revilla, renamed Guerrero in
1828, emerge from the waters of the Falcon
Reservoir during times of drought.
Copyright © 2001 Historical Publishing Network
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopying, without permission in writing from the publisher. All inquiries should be addressed to
Historical Publishing Network, 8491 Leslie Road, San Antonio, Texas, 78254. Phone (210) 688-9006.
Library of Congress Card Catalog Number: 2001093392
Historic Rio Grande Valley: An Illustrated History
author: Marjorie Johnson
contributing writers for
“sharing the heritage”: Marjorie Johnson
Marie Beth Jones
Historical Publishing Network
president: Ron Lammert
vice president & project coordinator: Barry Black
project representatives: Roger Smith
director of operations: Charles A. Newton, III
administration: Angela Lake
graphic production: Colin Hart
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
5 CHAPTER I early history
23 CHAPTER II part of four nations
35 CHAPTER III the valley takes shape
51 CHAPTER IV taming a wild country
73 CHAPTER V the Civil War to 1900
95 CHAPTER VI the twentieth century dawns
103 CHAPTER VII cities grow along the railroad
159 CHAPTER VIII entering the twenty-first century
194 SHARING THE HERITAGE
The Queen Isabella Causeway, longest
bridge in Texas, spans 12,510 feet across
the blue Laguna Madre from Port Isabel to
South Padre Island. Pleasure boats that ply
the Laguna’s peaceful waters and barge
traffic on the Gulf Intracoastal Canal can
move safely under the high causeway.
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY is a project of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership in conjunction with Historical Publishing Network
of San Antonio. Though it deals specifically with the four counties of Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy that comprise the Rio Grande
Valley, by necessity it deals with all of Texas and Mexico. Its purpose is to present in one volume the fascinating history of the Rio Grande
Valley from the first explorations by Europeans to the dynamic and driving forces that have propelled it into the new millennium. It is
written in a readable, informal style with historic and current illustrations to provide a permanent record of the area’s settlement, growth
The Rio Grande Valley is among the oldest and most historic areas of Texas. This relatively small region has lived through violent conflicts
between early European settlers and Native Americans; witnessed battles that determined boundaries between rival nations of this
continent; played a pivotal role in the Civil War; and spread the Spanish-Mexican cattle culture over Texas and the rest of the Southwest.
The Rio Grande (“Big River” for those who are not bilingual), now the border between the United States and Mexico, winds through the
area’s past, present and future. Spanish Colonial settlements, the ranching economy, trade routes, military campaigns and agricultural development
of the early 1900s were defined by the river. Through the years towns of the borderland became intertwined through shared values
of family, friendship, health and economic livelihood to form the cultural continuity that exists between the U.S. and Mexico in this area.
Long accessible to the rest of the world only by sea and river steamboat, today the border region is open to the world. And that world
is just beginning to learn about the area’s past, its people, and what they created in this land. For those who want to know more about
this unique area at the tip of Texas, this book relates a fascinating story in words and pictures of how it got to be the Rio Grande Valley
The publication of this keepsake book with its hundreds of historic and current illustrations was made possible by those who share
their own history in the Heritage section of the book. They are part of the region’s past, present, and future. The sponsor and publisher
appreciate their participation and you are invited to share their heritage as you explore the pages of HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY.
Rio Grande Valley Partnership
A map of the Rio Grande Valley.
Rio Grande Valley Partnership
P.O. Box 1499
Weslaco, TX 78599-1499
Phone: (956) 968-3141
Fax: (956) 968-0210
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
The international stream known as the Rio Grande in the United States and Río Bravo del Norte
in Mexico has played an important part in the area since long before recorded history.
The Rio Grande rises on the eastern face of the Continental Divide in southern Colorado. It
winds eastward across southern Colorado and turns southward to cut across the whole length of
New Mexico. Then it turns southeastward, except for the immense deviation known as the Big
Bend, forming the boundary between Texas and Mexico.
Along its way the Rio Grande receives few tributaries for so long a river. In Texas and Mexico
the Rio Concho renews the river as it is about to die in the desert. The Pecos River, Devil’s River,
and Río Salado are additional tributaries, as is the Río San Juan south of Rio Grande City, its last
tributary as it winds its way toward the Gulf of Mexico.
The romance and legends of the river have intrigued many writers through the years. Perhaps
the most complete study was made by Paul Horgan, a Pulitzer Prize winner, for his monumental
work, Great River—The Rio Grande in North American History, first published in 1954. In explaining
the length of his 945-page, two-volume work, Horgan said:
The Rio Grande (known as Río Bravo in
Mexico) as seen from the historic plaza at
Roma on its winding route along the U.S.-
Mexico border to the Gulf of Mexico.
COURTESY OF CRAIG WIEGAND.
The river is nearly two thousand miles long. Its historical course takes us through something over ten
centuries of time and through the chronicles of three cultures. To do it anything like justice, I have
wanted to produce a historical experience rather than a bare record.
That is what the publishers of this work hope to provide: A historical experience in words
The story of the Rio Grande is as varied as the meandering of its current. Yet this winding, sometimes
treacherous and always muddy stream is the lifeblood of this fertile area. From it stems the
region’s heritage, agriculture, and industry, as well as the water supply for its people.
On a map of the United States, the Rio Grande Valley hardly shows. Even on a Texas map it is a small
part of a large state. Yet it has a fascinating history and has been of great importance in the life of
two nations. This work is designed to give a
unique view of the region’s past as part of New
Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, and the
United States as it enters the twenty-first century.
The Rio Grande Valley is located in the
southern tip of Texas and consists of the lands
along the north bank of the Rio Grande in
Starr, Hidalgo, Cameron, and Willacy
Counties, covering 4,244 square miles. This is
the region specifically considered in this
book, although other parts of Texas and
Mexico are included as they affect its history.
Though called a “valley,” it is really a fertile
flood plain, delta, and associated uplands of
the Rio Grande. It is bounded on the east by
the Laguna Madre, South Padre Island, and
the Gulf of Mexico, on the west by Zapata
County, on the north by Jim Hogg, Brooks,
and Kenedy Counties, and on the south by
the Rio Grande, the international boundary
between the United States and Mexico.
moderating effect on Valley temperatures. In
general, summer highs are hotter and winter
lows are cooler as the distance from the Gulf
increases. Humidity is relatively high, with a
daily average of 40 to 50 percent and a nightly
average of about 90 percent.
In the early part of its history, the land area
was mostly covered with a dense growth of
cactus, thorny shrubs and trees, including
mesquite, huisache, and retama, and for a long
time was considered unfit for settlement.
When Stephen F. Austin passed through the
area in 1823 on his way to Mexico City, he
described the region as follows:
The country between the Nueces and the
Rio Grande is the poorest I ever saw in my life.
It is generally nothing but sand, entirely void
of lumber, covered with scrubby thorn bushes
and prickly pear.
The pages that follow document the region’s
transition from wild chapparal country, with its
thorny, low growing plants, into the irrigated
farmlands and modern cities of today.
The land was covered with a dense growth
of cactus, mesquite, and thorny shrubs.
For a long time it was considered unfit
It is a smooth, nearly flat, coastal plain with
a slope to the northeast, away from the Rio
Grande and toward the Gulf. Elevations range
from sea level at the Laguna Madre to five
hundred feet in the hilly areas of Starr County.
Geologically, the Valley’s surface land is still in
its youth, with sand, silt, and clay deposits of
recent ages, which overlie more ancient fluvial
deposits. Most of the soils are level, naturally
fertile, easily cultivated, and suitable for irrigation.
The Rio Grande Valley has a sub-tropical,
semi-arid climate, characterized by short,
mild winters and long, hot summers. The
moisture-laden air from the Gulf has a
Wandering tribes of nomadic Indians roamed
the vast expanses of South Texas long before the
Spaniards came. However, there were no wellestablished,
permanent settlements as were
found in the pueblo settlements of the upper Rio
Grande and other parts of the Southwest.
Compared with such tribes, these natives were
among the most primitive inhabitants of the
continent. Called Coahuiltecans by scholars,
they were related to the storied Karankawas of
the upper Texas Gulf Coast. They were divided
into several subgroups, of which the most
numerous were the Carrizos.
Bands within the groups consisted of up to
two hundred individuals, but there was little
social and economic cohesiveness. Their main
occupation was finding enough food to eat.
Their lives were affected greatly by the South
Texas environment. Since no large animals
inhabited the area, they depended on smaller
animals such as deer, antelope, small javelinas,
rabbits, and rodents. Those living along the
Rio Grande, Salado, and San Juan Rivers often
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
supplemented their diets with fish taken with
bow and arrow or nets. Most of their diet was
vegetarian, however, with their staples being
prickly pear, tuna, and mesquite beans. Large
quantities of the beans were often gathered
and thrown into a hole dug in the ground,
where they were pounded with a wooden club
They consumed mescal, a potent
intoxicating drink made from the leaves of
agave, and drank a “tea” made from the peyote
cactus, dried and ground into powder. They
also ate peyote, both green and dried. Though
neither a narcotic nor habit forming, it had a
hallucinatory effect and was commonly used
in religious ceremonies. It is still gathered by
area natives and sold legally to members of the
Native American Church in South Texas.
The tribes engaged in intense warfare with
each other, and feuds among tribal leaders were
quite common. Combat usually consisted of
small battles employing hit and run techniques,
similar to the guerrilla warfare of the modern era.
When the Spanish colonies were settled on
the southern banks of the Rio Grande, some
of the Indians were hostile, but others
accepted the colonizers and welcomed the
missions, where they lived and farmed under
the supervision and protection of the priests.
Such a mission was established near what
was first called Revilla and later Guerrero.
Called Ampuero, it was under the supervision
of Fray Miguel Santa María de los Dolores,
who described in detail some of the customs
of the Indians. One of his stories relates to the
mourning habits of the Rio Grande Indians:
When an Indian mother lost a son, daughter
or husband by death, she would go to some
isolated place, taking with her other women of
her household. In this place of seclusion, the
women would pull out their hair and with the
extraction of each strand would give a piercing
scream, all others present joining in the
outburst. This lasted days and weeks or as long
as the pain caused by the loss of the deceased
lasted, and the results were not a thing of beauty.
The priest added that, in the case of a widow, as
soon as someone else appeared to court her, that
sorrow was soon forgotten and all effort used to
again make herself attractive.
He also described their successful methods
of hunting: While hunting land animals they
used great craftiness by forming a big circle
over a larger area in the woods and slowly
closed in around all the game. By this method
they were able to kill a great deal of game.
A cunning way was used to secure ducks.
Placing baskets over their heads, they would
dive under the water and reach up and grab
the ducks by their feet, thereby catching all
that were needed in a very short time.
Contact with the Spaniards in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought
great disaster to the Coahuiltecans. Disease
brought to the New World by the Spaniards,
especially smallpox, spread to the Indians and
destroyed entire bands and villages.
Though some of the natives mixed and
mingled with the Spanish settlers, the majority of
the Coahuiltecans refused to settle and continued
their nomadic lives until decimated by war,
disease or both. By 1850, only a few of the once
numerous Carrizo remained along the banks of
the Rio Grande. Numerous pieces of pottery,
stone tools, and campfire sites remain as evidence
of the Coahuiltecans and their ancestors.
THE FIERCE KARANKAWAS
The Karankawas, those distant cousins of the
Coahuiltecans, were a fierce five-tribe nation of
The lifestyle and artifacts of Coahuiltecan
Indians who once lived in the area are
depicted in this exhibit at the Hidalgo
County Historical Museum, Edinburg.
coastal Indians whose greatest claim to fame was
their practice of cannibalism. The men were
giants in size, fine physical specimens ranging in
height from six to seven feet. Their facial features
were grotesque and their hair was as coarse as
that of horses and worn long, often reaching to
the waist. The women, worn by the drudgery of
their lives, looked sullen and morose. They were
fat, plain and even in youth not pretty.
Numbering only a few thousand at any one time,
they were scattered over some three hundred
miles of Texas coastline from Matagorda Bay to
the southern tip of Padre Island.
They usually traveled in bands of 30 to 40
people, seldom remaining in one place more than
a month. They used little fleets of crude pirogues
to move from island to island along the coast in
search of food. Their main diet was fish, along
with clams, mussels, tortoises, and alligators that
they managed to catch in the rivers.
In the spring they moved away from the
fishing waters of the Gulf, going inland where
there were wild dewberries, blackberries and
mulberries to be had for the picking. The
outing was in the nature of a picnic—the
Indians remained in the woods for weeks,
gorging themselves, dancing and enjoying the
warm spring weather. With no permanent
settlement to call home and no cultivated fields
to maintain, the nomads spent their summers
roaming from place to place; the men fishing
and hunting, the women “grubbing for truffles.”
Though engaged in constant struggles with
the white men as they pushed their way into their
domain, the “Kronks,” as they were called, did
accept the Franciscan padres, who built four
missions in a futile attempt to tame and
Christianize them. The padres continually sought
to bring the Indians into the various missions to
teach them both religion and the delights of
common labor. However, it proved an impossible
task as the Kronks were interested in neither.
In 1768 Fray José de Solís visited the region
and wrote a vivid description of the
Karankawas and their brother tribesmen from
the coastal areas:
These Indians are dirty, foul smelling, and
pestiferous, and throw off such a bad odor
from their bodies that it makes one sick. The
men are keen-witted and shrewd and go about
stark naked. They are cruel, inhuman and
ferocious. They are so greedy that they eat
meat almost raw, parboiled, or half-roasted
and dripping with blood. They look upon
their wives as simple instruments of pleasure
in which the heart takes no part, not paying
them the slightest attention.
The Karankawas naturally resented the
colonists and adventurers who confiscated land
that the Indians had long considered their own,
and they had trouble with almost everyone who
crossed their path. This included the pirate Jean
Lafitte when he attempted to establish his
empire on Galveston Island in the early 1800s.
They put up such a fight for their tribal land
that the pirates called them “demons from hell.”
According to available records, only
approximately 250 Karankawas remained
The fierce Karankawas lived along the
seacoast and traveled in dugout canoes.
There are many legends about these early
inhabitants of the Texas coast.
COURTESY OF THE PORT ISABEL HISTORICAL MUSEUM.
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
when the Texas colonists revolted against
Mexico in 1836. Having lost most of the land
over which they once roamed, they continued
their wanderings along the coast and up and
down the beaches of Padre Island, gradually
sliding into extinction. There are many legends
about these fierce natives, who established
a niche for themselves by the obstacles
they tossed in the paths of those who were
attempting to bring civilization to the area.
It was 1519, twenty-seven years after
Columbus’ first voyage, before Hernán Cortés
headed for the mainland of what became New
Spain and then Mexico. As the Spaniards
conquered the larger islands of Hispaniola,
Cuba, and Jamaica, they established Spanishstyle
governments, subjugated the natives, and
tried to Christianize them. Cortés had sailed
from Spain to Hispaniola in 1504 when he was
only nineteen. There he settled as a farmer and
public notary in a small town near Santo
Domingo. He must have seen friends and
neighbors sailing for glorious conquests and
dreamed of such glory for himself. In 1511 he
accompanied Diego Velásquez in his expedition
to Cuba, where he became alcalde of Santiago
for several years. Velásquez sent him to explore
what is now Mexico in February 1519, and his
great adventure began.
Meanwhile, the Spanish governors of other
island kingdoms had their own dreams of
further conquests. In 1519, Francisco de Garay,
who had been with Columbus on his second
voyage, was the wealthy and ambitious governor
of Jamaica. A strong rivalry had developed
between Garay and Cortés, and Garay wanted to
lay claim to some of the unexplored coast before
Cortés claimed all of it. He sent an expedition of
four vessels under the command of Alvarez de
Piñeda to explore and lay claim to the area.
Piñeda sailed north by Cuba and followed
the Gulf coast toward the west, making detailed
notes on the land, bays and rivers, the natives
and the vegetation. He reached Veracruz in
August, only to learn that Cortés had already
been there. When Cortés learned of the arrival
of this expedition, he feared the intruders would
interfere with his conquest and occupation of
Mexico. With some of his men he marched to
where Piñeda’s ships were anchored and
captured seven of the newcomers who had gone
ashore. Piñeda didn’t stay around to meet Cortés
personally, but sailed away to the north.
RÍO DE LAS PALMAS
After leaving Veracruz, Piñeda did not stop
until he reached a “very large river” where there
were many palms. He named it “Río de las
Palmas” and went ashore to claim the land for
Spain. His ships entered the mouth of this stream,
where they spent forty days repairing the ships
and exploring the country. A party of Spaniards
went upstream about eighteen miles, where they
found forty mud and reed Indian huts. The
expedition then sailed back to Governor Garay
with glowing reports of their findings and said the
land was suitable for colonization.
Because of the sabal palm jungle along the
mouth of the Rio Grande, most historians
have considered Piñeda’s river to be the Rio
Grande. In recent years, however, many
believe that what Piñeda saw was the mouth
of the Río Soto la Marina, some 120 miles
south of the larger Rio Grande.
Either way, it was in the neighborhood, and
Governor Garay believed it was his destiny to
establish a colony in his new territory. The
following year, he got permission from the King
to mount another expedition, and early in the
Above: Spanish ships plied the seas in
the early 1500s and explorers often
competed with each other to claim new
lands for Spain.
COURTESY OF THE TREASURES OF THE GULF MUSEUM,
PORT ISABEL, TEXAS.
Below: Hernán Cortés feared the explorers
under Piñeda would interfere with his
conquering and occupying all of Mexico.
This portrait was taken from Historia
This Piñeda tablet found by local Naval
reservists looking for Civil War relics at
Boca Chica Beach. It was buried several feet
down under the remains of two wooden
boats. Now on display in Rio Grande Valley
Museum, Harlingen, it has aroused much
summer of 1520 he sent Diego de Camargo to
establish a permanent settlement. This
expedition had three ships, 150 infantrymen,
seven cavalrymen, brass cannon, a supply of
brick and lime, and several masons. Camargo
was to supervise the building of a fort at the
mouth of the Río de las Palmas, from which
missionaries would be sent to convert the native
tribes and to keep Cortés from claiming the area.
Historians agree that this expedition reached
the Rio Grande. Camargo sailed upriver about
twenty miles and found the native inhabitants
friendly. These natives, however, soon tired of
their visitors when they made demands for food,
shelter, and women and decided to drive them
away. Camargo tried to punish them, but was
defeated, losing his horses and eighteen of his
men. The remainder reached their ships and,
pursued by hundreds of canoes filled with angry
natives, succeeded in reaching the mouth of the
river. One ship sank in the river and the other
two were old and worm-eaten. Some of the
strongest men decided to head for Veracruz
overland. One ship reached Veracruz, but it
sank three days later. Camargo, who was a
former governor of Jamaica, and sixty of the
survivors got permission from the commanding
officer at Veracruz to march to Mexico City,
where they joined Cortés.
Still dreaming of establishing the colony of
“Garay” and assuming that Camargo had built
his fort at the mouth of the river, Garay
organized a third voyage, which he led himself.
The king of Spain had granted his request to
establish a settlement in the land explored by
Piñeda. He was directed to choose locations
with a healthful climate not subject to floods
and to give the natives instruction in the
Catholic faith. By early summer of 1523, Garay
was ready to head for the mouth of the Rio
Grande. He had sixteen vessels and 600 men,
among them prominent residents of Jamaica
and Cuba, supplies of provisions, 200 guns,
300 crossbows, and several pieces of artillery.
On St. James Day, July 25, 1523, his
expedition sailed through a pass between two
long islands, today’s Brazos Santiago Pass. To
Garay’s surprise, no fort was found. An officer
was sent upriver to find a site for the settlement,
but returned after four days with the report that
there were native villages further up, but the
land was not suitable for a settlement. Though
this was not true, Garay believed him. He
commanded that four hundred of his men and
all of his horses be landed so he could lead
them overland to the Panuco River near
present-day Tampico, where they would meet
the ships and the rest of the men.
The explorers encountered many
difficulties on the long march across rivers
and marshes. Horses drowned, hostile Indians
attacked the men, mosquitoes and other
tropical insects harassed them, and some of
the men threatened mutiny. When they finally
arrived at the Panuco, they fell into the hands
of Cortés. Though treated with courtesy and
allowed to spend time in Cortés’ home, the
broken-hearted Garay died in less than a year.
While in Mexico, Garay met an old friend,
Pánfilo de Narváez, who had been defeated
and imprisoned by Cortés. Feeling sorry for
this friend, he interceded with his captor,
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
equesting that Narváez be allowed to return
to Cuba. Feeling that neither man could
endanger his interests, Cortés agreed, gave his
prisoner his freedom and bid him Godspeed.
Tradition has it that, after Narváez was
released from prison, he and the remnant of
his men set out for Cuba. But Father Zamora
and five officers gave up further plans to
travel with Narváez and settled in Peñitas, just
west of Mission, in the early 1520s, making
Peñitas one of the oldest settlements in the
United States. The refugees were befriended
by Indians living in huts and dugout-type
homes in the vicinity. But the Spaniards
erected stone houses with whitewashed walls.
Father Zamora brought the Catholic faith to
the Indians, also teaching them weaving and
better farming while the Indians taught
cookery to their guests. Some of the
descendants of this small band of refugees still
live in the area and recall the stories handed
down through the centuries, though no
physical evidence remains of the early
settlement in present-day Peñitas.
As soon as he reached Cuba, Narváez started
planning another journey to explore Florida and
the Gulf Coast. This turned out to be the most
disastrous expedition of all. Narváez left Cuba in
1527 with sixteen ships and 750 men, among
them Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, comptroller
and royal treasurer. Their ships got lost, then
shipwrecked, and for seven long years nothing
was heard of Narváez. Then in 1536, north of
Culiacán, Mexico, a Spanish slave-gathering
expedition came upon four starving, almost
naked and destitute men. The leader of the party
was none other than Cabeza de Vaca. With him
were Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés
Dorantes, and Estevanico, a black Moorish slave
belonging to Dorantes. They were the only
survivors of the ill-fated Narváez expedition.
They recounted one of the great adventures
of all time. Shipwrecked on Galveston Island,
they were passed from native tribe to tribe,
sometimes as slaves, at other times sought
after. In the seven years of their wanderings
they saw no sign of white men. In their
travels, they passed through the Rio Grande
Valley. They had an opportunity to observe
the natives who lived in the area, finding
them no better than the barbarous tribesmen
who had mistreated them all along their
ORDER COMES TO
Once the conquest of New Spain was
accomplished, King Carlos I knew a more
orderly government was needed than could
be provided by Cortés and the interim
government in Mexico City of the audencia, a
court of judges. A viceroy, a personal
representative of the crown appointed by the
king to govern a territory, was needed.
Fortunately, he chose Antonio de Mendoza as
the first viceroy in 1535, and he served until
1550. A man of exceptional background and
talents, he established the basic foundation of
colonial government in New Spain.
He desired to preserve the Indian class
structure and advocated proper food and
clothing, decent wages, and protection of their
health. The Indians used human burden
carriers as they had no beasts of burden. Nor
did they have the wheel. Mendoza gradually
eliminated the custom through the introduction
of beasts of burden, carts, and road
construction. Agriculture was encouraged, and
the livestock of the Spaniards was introduced
—horses, mules, oxen, cows, sheep, goats and
pigs. A cattle association was formed as early as
1542. Gold and silver mines were developed, as
the primary interest of the Spanish Crown lay in
the wealth they could produce.
To Mendoza belongs the honor of setting
up the first printing press in the New World.
Early religious publications were followed
by books on mathematics, physics, navigation
and law codes, all before 1600. He was also a
strong advocate of education and supported
Franciscan Bishop Juan de Zumarraga in his
efforts to establish a university, which was
founded in 1553, two years after the viceroy
had left his Mexican post. Nevertheless, he
deserves to be listed among the founders of
the present-day National University of
Mexico, which, along with the University of
San Marcos in Lima, Peru, are the oldest
universities in the Americas.
During the three hundred year colonial
period, New Spain was to have sixty-two
The Spaniards became very demanding of
the natives who, though friendly at first,
soon tired of their visitors and their
demands. The natives attacked the
Spaniards, driving them back to their ships.
COURTESY OF THE TREASURES OF THE GULF MUSEUM,
PORT ISABEL, TEXAS.
Above: A member of the failed Narvaez
expedition, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
was shipwrecked on Galveston Island. After
seven years he and three companions made
their way across Texas and into Mexico.
What a story they had to tell!
Below: Twenty heavily loaded ships that
sailed from Veracruz for Spain in 1553
were buffeted by wind and rain. A large
part of the fleet, spars broken and sails
carried away, was grounded on the
sandbars off Padre Island.
COURTESY OF THE TREASURES OF THE GULF MUSEUM,
PORT ISABEL, TEXAS.
viceroys, some of whom were good choices
while other unfortunate selections were
corrupt and incompetent. But under
Mendoza’s leadership, New Spain was
launched on an orderly course from which
grew the great colonial civilization of Mexico,
which is the foundation of the bicultural
heritage of the Rio Grande Valley.
THE GREAT SHIPWRECK
OFF PADRE ISLAND
On an early summer day in 1553, a fleet
stood at anchor by the waterfront of Veracruz.
Twenty vessels with 2,000 passengers,
among them some of the most illustrious
names in New Spain, were sailing for home,
loaded with gold and silver bars and casks of
Finally all the cargo was loaded and
everything was in readiness, so the vessels set out
across the Gulf, docking at Havana for provisions
and visits with their New World friends.
When the time came for them to depart,
there was a fanfare of trumpets as the treasure
flotilla hauled up anchors and the travelers
waved their last farewells to friends on shore.
Among those on the ships were some of the
old conquistadores, merchants with their
families, colonists returning after years in
Mexico, and the beautiful Doña Juána Ponce
de León. Their savings, belongings, tax money
for the King, and tons of bulky cargo were
stuffed tight in the holds.
But the flotilla had lingered too long in
Havana, and when it prepared to sail the
hurricane season was well upon them. On the
second morning out of port, the first ominous
warnings of trouble were noted. By noon the
next day, heavy clouds blotted out the sun,
and rain closed in fast, drenching the deck
hands as they scrambled through their storm
preparations. The wind rose to a howling gale,
lashing the ships with awesome fury. Three of
the heavily laden vessels quickly floundered
and sank, losing all aboard. Five ships made it
to safety: one managed to return to Cuba,
three limped back to Spain six months later,
and one fought its way back to Veracruz. The
rest of the fleet, spars broken and sails carried
away, was driven swiftly across the Gulf of
Mexico and grounded on the sandbars off
Padre Island, somewhere between Corpus
Christi and Brazos Santiago Pass.
Only three hundred of those on board
reached shore and, as they thought, safety. The
rest drowned, a fate more kindly than the one
that awaited the survivors. The strongest swam
in and made their way through the breakers.
Some improvised rafts, and those too weak to
help themselves were washed in and pulled
from the surf by those on shore. There was not
an Indian village, not a living thing except the
white gulls overhead—only a sandy waste.
They did have one lucky break when cartons of
bacon and casks of sea biscuit washed in from
the ships, along with two good crossbows, five
quivers of arrows and several swords.
The 300 rested for six days on the beach
and saw no living soul, but on the seventh
morning they awoke to find themselves
surrounded by naked, hideously painted,
brown men of huge stature. They were
Karankawa Indians and were friendly at first,
but then started shooting arrows at them. The
Spaniards tried to fight back with their
crossbows, but were no match for their
tormentors. The wretched refugees then
moved along the beach, slipping from dune to
dune, hunted all the way down to the end of
the Island, tortured and finally killed by their
pursuers. A few of the Spaniards reached the
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
mouth of the Rio Grande, near Brownsville
and crossed over to the mainland, still
pursued by the savages.
Only two of the 300 survived the terrible
ordeal and lived to tell about it. Francisco
Vásquez, who had doubled back to the shipwrecks
under cover of darkness, stayed with
the broken ships. He survived by eating
seafood. He also found he could get fresh
water by digging with his hands or a piece of
driftwood, and this saved his life. He had
been at the docks when the valuable cargo
was loaded, and knew that eventually the
Spaniards would come looking for the
wrecks. It was half a year later that the salvage
ships came, and Vásquez was a great help to
them while they raised much of the cargo
with grappling hooks. His share made him a
wealthy man, and he enjoyed a long life.
Fray Marcos de Mena was the other survivor.
He had six arrows in his body, one in an
eye, but he pulled them out and struggled on
with the help of his companions. Finally,
when he could go no further, he begged his
friends to leave him to die. He lapsed into a
coma and his companions laid him in the
shade and covered him with sand, leaving
only his head exposed. When he awoke, he
followed the tracks of the others until he came
to their bodies. He trudged ahead for days
until he finally reached a stream near Panuco
where friendly Indians found him and took
him to their camp. They nursed him back to
strength, and eventually he was able to return
to his people to tell the sad story of the death
march of his companions.
THE SEARCH FOR INTRUDERS
coast. In 1684 the French nobleman, La Salle,
was driven westward by storms while searching
for the mouth of the Mississippi, where he
hoped to plant a colony. He landed on the
coast of Texas near Lavaca Bay, where he
established his fort, but it soon failed from
dissension among the men and raids by
Indians. Alonzo de León was sent from
Cadereyta to find the settlement, but he failed
to go far enough on his first three tries.
Finally, on his fourth expedition he succeeded
in locating the ruins of the French colony. The
Spaniards realized that the French were no
longer a threat, and another hundred years
would go by before they got serious about colonizing
the untamed area north of the Panuco
called Seno Mexicano.
At first the shipwreck survivors were treated
kindly by the Karankawa Indians, but soon
they began to torment the wretched refugees
until only 2 of 300 survived. This mural was
painted by Ramon Claudio in Raymondville.
COURTESY OF GLENN HARDING.
In 1638 rumors spread that a group of
strange men had landed on the coast to the
northeast, in what is now Texas. The Indians
reported that these intruders had blonde
beards and hair, wore red socks and steel plate
armor and had powerful guns. This alarmed
the rulers of both Spain and New Spain, but
search parties that were sent out to find
encroachers found nothing.
France gave the Spaniards their greatest
cause for alarm, and rumors of their activities
resulted in several expeditions to the Texas
It was 1743, or more than two hundred
years after the first viceroy came to Mexico
City, that Spain made plans to tame the long
ignored wild lands of northern Mexico. The
responsibility for selecting a leader for the subjugation
and settlement of these lands was delegated
to the Audiencia de México (the highest
court). The boundaries of the province, which
they named Nuevo Santander, were defined:
Tampico on the south; La Bahía del Espíritu
Santo at the mouth of the San Antonio River
on the north; the Gulf of Mexico on the east;
Above: José de Escandón, count of Sierra
Gorda, the father of the Rio Grande Valley.
Below: Texas historical marker beside U.S.
281 west of Brownsville tells of the Alonzo
de León expeditions from 1686-1688 in
search of the French settlement of Fort St.
Louis in the Matagorda Bay area. The
remains were finally discovered and
destroyed. De León led an expedition into
Southeast Texas in 1690 that established the
area’s first Spanish mission, San Francisco
de los Tejas, and eventually led to Spain’s
great enterprise of colonizing Texas.
and the Sierra Madre Mountains on the west.
Thus it included the Rio Grande Valley.
Therefore, the organization of this province
is a major force in the history of the Rio
Grande Valley. Lands on both sides of the Rio
Grande were a part of Nuevo Santander from
1746 to 1821.
The Audiencia realized how important it
was to select just the right person for this
mammoth undertaking. Several leaders of the
frontier applied for the post and presented
plans for the colonization. In 1746 they found
their man, and by all records it was an
He was José de Escandón, a native of Spain
born at Soto de Marina in 1700 into a
distinguished family. At fifteen he had left his
home, crossed the Atlantic, and enlisted in the
Spanish army as a cadet, serving first in the
Yucatán and then in Querétaro, where he married
into a noble family. He advanced through the
ranks to colonel, then was named conde (count)
de Sierra Gorda. He was especially noted for
subduing barbarous tribes of Indians and then
treating them with consideration, permitting no
outrages against them.
It was from Querétaro, his headquarters for
twenty years, that he organized his expedition
to subjugate the Indians and colonize the vast
reaches of Seno Mexicano, which became the
province of Nuevo Santander. It covered what
today includes Tamaulipas, part of Nuevo León,
and much of South Texas. An efficient colonizer
and strong leader, he inspired confidence and
respect in those he met. He spent almost two
years preparing a survey expedition, and in the
last months of 1746 completed preparations for
the journey. Escandón left Querétaro on
January 7, 1747 with a military detail of one
captain, two sergeants, ten soldiers, several
servants, a surgeon, two Spanish missionaries,
and a large amount of equipment and food. His
party traveled east and north toward the mouth
of the Rio Grande.
Meanwhile, seven divisions, consisting of a
total of 765 soldiers, proceeded from seven
points on the frontier, all bound for the
mouth of the Rio Grande, where they were
scheduled to meet about February 24, 1747.
Three divisions came out of the south and
three from the provinces on the west. One
came down from the mission of La Bahía del
Espíritu Santo at the northern edge of Seno
Mexicano, for they wanted to explore the
territory between San Antonio and the Nueces
and on to the Rio Grande. It is said that up to
that time, many thought the Nueces and the
Rio Grande were the same stream.
Escandón was to await his men somewhere
near the mouth of the Rio Grande, where they
would map the region and make future plans.
Indian chieftains along the way made friendly
advances to Escandón, who then employed
them as scouts for the expedition. One of
these, Chief Santiago, directed the party to a
campsite on the south bank of the Rio
Grande, where the colonizer spent several
weeks receiving his captains and studying
Six of the scouting parties reached him
near the scheduled time. The group from the
north missed the route and crossed upstream
at El Cantaro Ford near Mier. Messengers
from Escandón’s headquarters accepted their
findings, and then had them return to their
base on the Texas coast. They reported that
the Nueces and the Rio Grande were two
rivers instead of one with a large expanse of
land in between, and that the Nueces flowed
into the Gulf nearly two hundred miles north
of the Rio Grande.
The captains of the other teams reported that
the three principal streams emptying into the
Rio Grande were the Salado, the Alamo, and the
San Juan. They recommended settlement sites
near the juncture of each of these with the Rio
Grande as there was the possibility of irrigating
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
adjacent lands. The Indian problem had
proven far less serious than anticipated, though
there were many tribes who spoke different
dialects, making communication difficult. The
native population in the vicinity of the Rio
Grande was estimated at approximately twentyfive
Escandón had been gone from Querétaro
only three months when he returned, the survey
having gone smoothly with no loss of life. He
prepared his report for the viceroy and
requested adequate funding for the next stage of
the colonization. His plans called for
establishing fourteen settlements north of
Tampico within seven months. A great
promoter, Escandón spread the word about the
colonies in every established town along the
frontier, pointing out the advantages he found in
Nuevo Santander. He told of the free land, fertile
soil, agreeable climate, and an opportunity to
have a part in the making of a new country.
In establishing a villa or settlement, the first
step was to select a suitable site where a water
supply was assured. After the selection of a site,
the streets were marked off around the plaza,
which was one hundred and twenty-four varas
square—about three hundred and fifty feet.
Next to the villa were the common lands
designated for agriculture, and beyond these
were the pasturelands. Mission property for the
church was usually allocated. The towns
developed gradually. First the military camp
changed to a municipality; then many of the
solders married into the local families and
became attached to the locality, eventually
becoming permanent settlers.
The Spaniards, in their zeal to teach
Christianity to the Indians, sent their missionary
priests along with the first colonizers. They were
valuable in helping with the establishment of
villas and compiling the laws, as well as
gathering the Indians into their missions. In the
beginning, twelve priests were assigned to the
new colony of Nuevo Santander, all from the
College of Zacatecas. Initially, they were paid by
the government. Escandón cooperated with the
priests in urging community life to the Indians
and by pointing out the advantages of living
under the protection of priests and soldiers.
Because the new colony of Nuevo
Santander was so remote from the capital,
many decisions concerning its government
were made by Escandón, its governor and
capitán general, rather than waiting for royal
orders from the viceroy. In addition to the
ordinary concessions provided to the colonizer
by the Crown, the governor also benefited
from the opportunity to make money through
the commissary plan. Payment of soldiers was
made chiefly in provisions, purchased by
Escandón and his commanders and charged to
the soldiers at a profit. Thus the post of
governor was also that of merchant.
The first settlements in Nuevo Santander
were interior settlements in Mexico in what is
now Tamaulipas. These included Santander,
renamed Jiménez in 1827, which became the
capital of the new province and Escandón’s
headquarters. But the emigrants from Nuevo
León and Coahuila were more interested in the
Rio Grande country, which had been pictured
to them as a great fertile valley offering
wonderful opportunities for agriculture and
stock raising by those who had taken part in
the original survey expedition two years earlier.
THE FIRST RIO GRANDE
José María de la Garza Falcón had been one
of the captains on the initial survey expedition.
A person of considerable influence in Nuevo
León, he had many family connections. He
persuaded his brother, Miguel, his father-in-law,
and other relatives to sign up with him for the
site near the juncture of the San Juan and the
Querétaro, Escandón’s headquarters for
many years, was a well-developed colonial
city in the 1700s. It is famous for its
aqueduct, built between 1726 and 1738,
which brought water to the city from the
This Spanish map of the Seno Mexicano
region shows a 1792 date. All of the
Escandón settlements are shown, but the
many inaccuracies on the U.S. side show
that little exploration of the territory
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
Rio Grande. He wanted to be named captain of
the villa, which carried a handsome salary and
double the land of an ordinary settler.
These colonists were a fine class of Spaniards,
but were accustomed to the hardships of the
frontier. They realized that to make a success in
this new country they would have an everyday
struggle for family, food, and land. Determined
to succeed, they insured their future by taking
with them into the new province their livestock,
consisting of cattle, horses, goats, and sheep,
and as many of their household goods as could
be carried. The women slipped in among the
necessary articles flower and fruit seed, valued
heirlooms, medicines, small pieces of
needlecraft, dishes and silver, common in the
rich mining districts of Nuevo León.
The party arrived at the site and awaited
Escandón and his group. While waiting, they
made a clearing, erected crude huts, dug a few
irrigation ditches and made other preparations
necessary to make a good showing for El Conde.
Escandón reached the campsite early in March,
and soon all were ready for the founding of the
first of the Rio Grande settlements, which they
decided to call Santa Ana de Camargo.
The priests wanted some semblance of a
church, and the men hurriedly erected an arbor
using poles from both sides of the Rio Grande.
On March 5, 1749, Villa Santa Ana de Camargo
was officially christened by Escandón and Blas
María de la Garza Falcón was successful in being
named captain. At the sounding of the drum,
the soldiers and settlers gathered in the open
plaza in front of the crude arbor. The church was
blessed, and Escandón addressed the captain,
administering to him the oath to defend the villa
and comfort and encourage the settlers. Mass
was then sung, a volley was discharged in honor
of the occasion, and the soldiers and settlers
went to their jacales. The captains and jefes
concluded the ceremony as they drank wine
from silver goblets to the health of their great
leader and gave him thanks.
Thus was born the first Spanish settlement
along the Rio Grande. A garrison was set up
and Captain de la Garza Falcón was left in
charge of the original settlers, forty families
from the province of Nuevo León. A mission
was established south of the villa on the Río
San Juan, with Fray Marquís left in charge.
Today, Camargo, located six miles south of
Rio Grande City, is still a thriving agricultural
community and home to several thousand
residents who take great pride in their town
and its history.
THE SETTLEMENT OF REYNOSA
Much the same procedure was used in the
establishment of succeeding settlements. The
second villa was established downstream,
Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Reynosa,
with Carlos Cantú as captain. The first forty
settlers came with him from Cadereyta and
other Nuevo León settlements. These settlers
received one hundred pesos as a subsidy for
each family and enough grain and other food
for their first year. A mission was established
nearby with Fray Agustín Fragoso in charge.
Reynosa was the last settlement made
toward the east, as the lands near the coast
were thought unsuitable for settlement since
the settlers would need to depend on agriculture
for a livelihood, and because hundreds of
Indians inhabited the coastal plains.
The original site chosen for Reynosa was
prone to flooding, so the town was moved to
its present site on higher land in 1802.
Reynosa was to become the largest of the
Escandón colonies, with a strong manufacturing,
agricultural, industrial, trade, and service
economy. It is a blend of old and new, an
interesting place to visit.
Within six months, counting those
settlements further south in Mexico,
Escandón had established thirteen villas and
missions in the region. Though the project
cost twice the amount budgeted, the
Audencia was quite pleased at the work of the
colonizer and he was encouraged to continue
with the settlements.
Though Escandón had planned to establish
two settlements north of the Rio Grande near
the Nueces, scouts who were sent out to see if
they could find suitable locations returned
after eight difficult months to report adversely
on the tentative sites chosen. As a result, plans
for further settlements in the upper portions
of the colony were abandoned.
The first settlement north of the Rio
Grande in what is now Texas was established
by Coahuila rancher José Vásquez Borrego,
who had a ranch upriver from Revilla and
wanted to establish a villa. In the late summer
of 1750, Borrego settled Nuestra Señora de los
Dolores with twelve families. It became more
a ranch headquarters than a town, and its
structure was very military and authoritarian.
It also was subject to raids from hostile tribes
of Indians. In the first decades of the
nineteenth century, Indians struck the
settlement repeatedly with a terrible fury.
People were killed, women and children
carried off as captives, cattle were taken, and
the raiders even killed Borrego’s oldest son,
who had charge of the place. Eventually the
settlement was abandoned and only its ruins
can be seen today.
REVILLA AND MIER
After establishing his headquarters and home
along the Río Santander at Jiménez, Escandón
again headed for the Rio Grande for another
colonization expedition in early 1750. He had
received a proposal from Vicente Guerra, a
rancher from the province of Coahuila, to settle
twenty-six families at Revilla, near the juncture
of the Salado and the Rio Grande. Guerra asked
only for the rights and title of a colonizer
without expense to the government. The villa of
Revilla (known since 1828 as Guerrero) was
established and its growth was rapid.
Within three years there were forty-three
families with thousands of cattle, goats, sheep
and horses pastured over the surrounding
country, which was much better adapted for
ranching than farming. Known for the attractive
architecture of its stone buildings, it prospered
well into the twentieth century. However, its
economy had declined, and its population had
dwindled to a few thousand by the time it was
abandoned in 1952, when it was partially
submerged by the construction of Falcon Dam
reservoir. Nuevo Guerrero, just across the
international crossing at Falcon Dam, was built
in the early 1950s to relocate the residents of
Guerrero Viejo. The bell from its historic
church by the old plaza now rings from the
church by the plaza at Nuevo Guerrero.
In recent years the ruins of Guerrero Viejo
have emerged from the waters of Falcon Lake,
Above: Camargo’s well-preserved
Presidential Palace faces the plaza and is
occupied by city officials.
Below: The Catholic Church of Santa Ana
faces the plaza and is the oldest building
in Camargo. Built in the 1750s, the church
has been carefully restored and is used by
Reynosa, which had a population of only
two thousand in 1842, has grown to become
one of the largest cities along the border.
This well maintained Catholic church by the
main plaza was built in the 1800s and has
seen many renovations.
as they do any time the lake level drops. The
site has become a popular destination for
visitors from both sides of the Rio Grande.
In 1752, two years after Revilla was established,
Lugar de Mier was founded upstream
along the banks of the Alamo River near the
Rio Grande. José Florencio de Chapa was in
charge and thirty-eight families arrived from
Cerralvo, only sixty miles away.
Already there were nineteen families living
on ranches in the area, and they joined the
newcomers to establish the villa of Mier. Since
no priest was provided at this new settlement, it
was impossible to develop the work among the
Indians with only an occasional visit from a
Mier was located near the best ford on the
lower Rio Grande, El Cantaro, which had already
been used extensively for crossing from the salt
lakes located to the north. Limestone was readily
available, so more permanent homes were erected
there than at most of the other settlements.
Today, a visit to Mier takes one back to
earlier days, as some of the old limestone walls
and buildings can be seen alongside modern
structures. Mier is a gem of an interior town,
with well-kept homes, churches and schools.
THE SETTLEMENT OF
In January 1753 Escandón made another
visit to the new settlements. The census was
encouraging, showing an increase in
population. While he was in the Valley, the
settlers made their first petition for the
individual allocations of lands, and some of the
people of Camargo asked for land on the north
side of the Rio Grande in a place known as
Carnestolendas, now Rio Grande City. Captain
Blas María de la Garza Falcón had chosen a high
hill overlooking the river for his ranch
headquarters and his herds roamed in the valley
north of the Rio Grande and over the hills and
plateau to the north. Don Nicolás de los Santos
Coy, his father-in-law, had established his ranch
to the west about nine miles and had named it
Guardado (now Garceño).
Don Nicolás was a very wealthy man, and
reports from the time show that he employed
more than a hundred men to work his two
ranches, the second one on the south side of the
river. Together, the de la Garza Falcón and de
los Santos Coy families were awarded one
hundred sitios (442,800 acres) of land north of
the river, with the provision that they settle
fifteen additional families on the land at their
THE LAST OF THE COLONIES
Escandón established the last of the
colonies on the Rio Grande in May 1755. He
gave permission to Don Tomás Sánchez to
settle on a ranch about thirty-five miles
northwest of Dolores on the north bank of the
Rio Grande. Sánchez was born in 1709 near
Monterrey, and his early career began in the
military on the northern frontier. Later he was
a rancher in the province of Coahuila. Fifteen
leagues of land, about 66,000 acres, were
included in the Sánchez grant.
Sánchez was commissioned a captain, but no
military garrison was provided and the settlers
were to defend themselves, since the colony was
to be founded without any expense to the
government. The town became Laredo, and it is
the only one of Escandón’s colonies located
north of the Rio Grande that has survived.
When the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was
signed in 1848, the old Spanish villa became a
part of the United States and Texas.
By October 1755 Escandón was ready to
go to Mexico City to make his report on the
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
colonies of his province. He felt the conquest
about complete and that the colonization
work had been successful. He also believed
the settlers and missionaries could complete
the plans initiated and supervised by him for
eight years, though he realized that they
would have to be careful to keep the colonists
and Indians from having internal troubles.
One-half of all the expense of the
exploration and colonization of Nuevo
Santander had been paid by Escandón himself,
according to his agreement with the
government. He had taken time from his own
home, family and business to accomplish the
colonization of the land along the Rio Grande
and in the interior. He had established twentythree
colonies with a total population of 6,384
people. In his report to the viceroy, he
explained that he had not felt it was time for
the actual assignment of the lands, which were
held and worked in common until the land
grants were made. He ended his report on a
successful of the Rio Grande settlements and
Reynosa the poorest at that time.
Cuervo made a detailed report and numerous
recommendations for the improvement
and progress of the province. Among them
was immediate allotment of land to individual
settlers, the division to be made on a fair and
equitable basis to Spaniards, respecting the
rights of the Indians.
I have sometimes been called crazy for
undertaking such a perilous expedition. But
what I have done in more than fifteen years in
the Sierra Gorda has been well spent, for it has
brought the pacification of many souls,
extended the main beliefs of the Catholic
Monarch, and I have gained the trust of Your
Nuevo Santander, August 8, 1755.
Don José de Escandón
About the time the colonizer was preparing
his report to Count Revilla Gigedo, viceroy of
Mexico, a change took place and the marquis
of Las Amarillas became the new viceroy. He
approved the report and recommendations,
but wanted to inspect the colonies before
completing the land grants. In March 1757,
he commissioned José Tienda de Cuervo to
inspect the colonies.
The Cuervo team visited each colony,
reporting on its general condition, the
number of families and individuals, and the
number of cattle, horses, sheep, goats and
hogs. Some colonies had prospered more than
others, with Camargo being the most
THE ASSIGNMENT OF LANDS
Cuervo’s report formed the basis for the
General Visit of the Royal Commission of 1767,
during which individual land grants were made.
More people kept moving into the colonies, and
the original settlers were getting restless for fear
there would not be enough land for all.
The Commission arrived in May and spent
four months surveying and assigning the
lands to the colonists, using as surveyors and
appraisers some of the oldest inhabitants.
The original settlers were given preference,
and great care was taken in the assignment of
the lands. The surveyors determined that all
assigned lands must have a watering place for
cattle or they would be useless. The land measurement
decided on took the shape of a long
quadrangle, with the width approximately
nine-thirteenths of a mile of river frontage, and
the length extending from eleven to sixteen
miles from the river. This was called a porción
(portion of land) and measures about the
equivalent of a square league (4,428.4 acres).
Revilla, renamed Guerrero in 1828, grew to
a sizeable city and prospered into the early
1900s. It had dwindled to a few thousand
residents before it was abandoned in 1952
and partially submerged by the construction
of the Falcon Dam and Reservoir. Its
residents were relocated to new homes
downstream in Nuevo Guerrero. The ruins
of its church by the plaza, Nuestra Señora
del Refugio, emerge from the water in
times of drought, as do the ruins of its many
Top: Mier’s Purísima Concepción Church by
Plaza Juárez dates to 1780 and its
enormous tower to 1795. It has been
restored and its roof structure modernized.
The church is in excellent condition due to
the interest and care of its parishioners.
COURTESY OF BILL BELL.
Above: Mier’s San Juan Chapel by Plaza
Hidalgo was constructed in 1836-40 for the
private use of the de la Peña family who
founded the city. It was later abandoned but
eventually restored in the 1960s.
These porciónes are numbered and are now part
of the description of a large percentage of the
land in Hidalgo and Starr Counties.
An interesting ceremony was followed in the
actual delivery of these grants. The justice usually
took the applicant by the hand and led him
around the land. Both pulled grass and weeds and
threw stones as evidence of ownership and
possession of the land, and stones were placed at
the corners. Most of the settlers lived in or near
the villas on the south side of the river and did
their farming there, using the land on the north
side for grazing their stock.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848
recognized the porciónes as land rightfully
granted by the king of Spain to his subjects
and their heirs. Some ranch lands on the
north side of the river were abandoned due to
Indian raids, and other families lost their
lands in the aftermath of the U.S.-Mexican
War. However, many descendants from the
original owners of the porciónes still reside in
the Rio Grande Valley and are proud of their
His great colonization completed to his own
satisfaction and that of the Crown, Escandón
made his headquarters in Villa Cápital de
Santander, now known as Jiménez. There he
built a handsome estate and established two
ranches, which became quite profitable, as did
his other business ventures in the province. He
held the office of governor of Nuevo Santander
until his death in 1770, and the great
conquistador is honored on both sides of the Rio
Grande for taming the wild frontier.
The land beyond Reynosa and on down to
the Gulf, on the south bank of the Rio Grande,
was granted to his heirs in appreciation of his
colonization work. This tract is described as
“six hundred forty-two leagues,” equivalent to
2.85 million acres, with one hundred miles
river frontage, beginning at the mouth of the
Rio Grande. This was sold by the Escandón
heirs in later years.
At the time of the General Visit of 1767, no
grants had been made on the Rio Grande
below Reynosa. Some of those in the Reynosa
jurisdiction had accumulated large herds of
cattle, sheep and horses and had spread out
towards the Gulf, extending their holdings
without formal process of law. Several applications
were made for these lands, and large
grants were made by the Crown from 1777 to
1781. Some of these included from twentyfive
to one hundred leagues in each grant.
The purpose of these large grants was to
establish ranches and develop the lands
beyond the porciónes. Records show that these
large grants were made to influential citizens
of Camargo and Reynosa who agreed to stock
them with both cattle and sheep and to form
a settlement on each grant. The owners seldom
actually occupied these lands, but
employed foremen to supervise the ranches.
Some of the larger grants and the counties
and cities that now occupy them are: Espíritu
Santo—Brownsville and a large part of
Cameron County; Llano Grande—Mercedes
and Weslaco in Hidalgo County; La Feria in
Cameron County; Concepción de Carricitos
includes San Benito in Cameron County and
San Juan de Carricitos—Raymondville and
Lyford in Willacy County. Another large grant
was San Salvador del Tule, which had 21,410
acres in Hidalgo, 9,358 in Willacy, 71,955 in
Kenedy, and 21,768 acres in Brooks County.
All of these grants were incorporated into
the Jurisdiction of Reynosa, extending its
boundaries to the coast and making it the
largest of the five jurisdictions of the Rio
Grande colonization. Though the royal land
grants were recognized by the 1848 Treaty of
Guadalupe by both the United States and
Mexico, they also led to great personal
turmoil and legal complications that have
lasted over two hundred years.
The assignment of practically all river lands
was completed by 1781, and the settlements
prospered and grew. Many of the Indians were
congregated in the missions, where they received
small allotments of land to work, but at intervals
there continued to be raids in the settlements
north of the river. By 1800 there were fifteen
thousand people settled in the colony of Nuevo
Santander, with substantial groups in Camargo,
Reynosa, Mier and Revilla. Thousands of stock
roamed the floodplains and uplands on both
sides of the river, and the Rio Grande settlements
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
were considered among the most successful
accomplishments the Spaniards had undertaken.
The colonists who had come with José de
Escandón little realized the fate in store for
them—revolution, secession from the mother
country, and three new rulers, all within half
SALT OF THE KING
No history of the area would be complete
without an account of the area’s natural salt lakes.
Long before the Spaniards came, early trails
through South Texas and Northern Mexico led to
the rich natural salt deposits found at La Sal del
Rey (Salt of the King), also known as El Sal del
Rey, in northeastern Hidalgo County and La Sal
Vieja (Old Salt) in western Willacy County.
Though the origin of the salt lakes is
unknown, geologists believe the residual lakes
were cut off from the sea untold ages past as
the Rio Grande delta emerged from the ocean
floor. As water evaporated through eons of
time, salt crystallized in the natural depression.
Salt crystals ninety-eight percent pure rise
perpetually to the surface in layers two to four
Because salt is so important to both animals
and man for many purposes—flavoring, medicine,
meat preservation, water purification,
mining and steel smelting, the salt deposits
have been utilized and coveted by many.
Warring Indian tribes from north and
south of the Rio Grande harvested supplies of
salt to cure meats and tan hides, resuming
their battles only after they had left the area,
for the tribes did not attack each other while
on salt missions.
Spanish explorers claimed the lakes for the
king of Spain, for under Spanish law all of the
minerals belonged to the Crown. There is
much recorded history, both fact and legend,
about La Sal del Rey, which became the subject
of over a century of litigation in later
years. The lake covers approximately five
hundred acres and has no connection with
any other body of water.
According to Elouise Campbell, the last
private owner of the lake, salt blocks removed
from any spot in the lake are quickly
replenished, often in two to three days.
Engineers estimate that the lake can produce
four million tons of salt. The depth of the
water varies from completely dry to two feet
in dry periods to more than ten feet in times
of heavy rainfall. It is perhaps most interesting
when the lake is almost dry and resembles a
glistening field of ice crystals.
Salt was taken from it by the Spanish
colonists for forty years before it became part of
the San Salvador del Tule Grant given by the
Spanish King to Juan José Balli in 1794. During
those early days of Spanish colonization,
wooden ox carts made the long trek, as Indians
had done long before them, to haul salt from the
lake’s edge. Without the salt with which they
bartered for corn and beans and tools, the first
Spanish colonies along the Rio Grande would
not have survived. Indians who were coaxed to
live at the missions outside the protected
settlements often carried baskets of salt to the
padres and received rations of beans and corn.
The right of everyone to take salt was
never questioned, though on large loads onefifth
of the salt went to the Viceroy. The
soldiers who took part in Escandón’s sevenpronged
reconnaissance of the territory were
allowed to take salt back with them as a
reward for the hazardous mission. Riches
far greater than the small fee went into
the Royal Treasury after pack trains delivered
their burdens to distant mines in Mexico.
The mineral was used in quantity in the
process of extracting ore and the textile
manufacturers in Saltillo and other Mexican
An ox cart team hauling salt from the El Sal
COURTESY OF GLENN HOUSLEY.
In 1784 Charles III, king of Spain, gave
Captain Juan José Ballí a 315,000 acre land
grant known as San Salvador del Tule west
of Raymondville, which included the greatly
treasured salt lakes. The king said, “All
minerals belong to my royal crown.” The
Texas Constitution of 1867 gave the
mineral rights to the landowners, subject to
taxation. The oil and gas mineral wealth of
Texas is based on this revision of the
Spanish law. This scene was taken from a
mural by Ramon Claudio in Raymondville’s
COURTESY OF GLENN HARDING.
cities used salt as a fixative agent in some of
In “Footprints Across the Rio,” a chapter in
Gift of the Rio, Minnie Gilbert wrote about the
salt trade of the colonists as follows:
Remnants of the Old Salt Trail can be identified
on both sides of the border. Conan
Wood, Sr., of Mission has traced the circuitous
route followed by mule trains carrying salt
cargoes into Mexico. Around thirty animals
were in a pack train, each carrying about 250-
pound loads. Laguna Seca was the first
overnight stop. The second was near present
Rio Grande City. The river crossing, probably
chosen because the stream has a sandstone
base at that point, was where the San Juan
River empties into the Rio Grande.
At one time, Santos Coy of Camargo
employed 500 men and used 10,000 mules in
connection with the operation of the Salt
Train, which traveled as far as Durango and
Zacatecas in the interior and Veracruz on the
Gulf Coast. The nearby villas of Bravo and
China were famous for producing the sturdy
mules, used in relays. Distance between the
stations, from 24 to 30 miles, represented a
day’s journey. Sites with available water were
chosen and frequent detours to avoid desert
terrain etched a snake-like path.
In addition to Spaniards who came to the
lake were pioneers from other parts of what
would become the United States. They made
the long journey to camp by La Sal del Rey
until they filled their wagons with salt to
barter as they returned home, paying a onefifth
royalty to the king of Spain.
Ships from Spain, France, and England
returned to their European ports loaded with
salt after bringing supplies to their colonies in
the New World. Wagons with huge wheels
came in trains of 20 or 30 to haul salt, not just
toward Mexico, but north, east and west. Salt
was the Valley’s first export.
The salt deposits also were of great importance
during the Civil War. Although the U.S.-
Mexican War caused a great decline in the salt
traffic, the Civil War brought about a huge
increase. The Confederacy’s need for six million
bushels of salt a year caused the price to rise
from sixty cents to twenty dollars a bushel. The
great wagons that brought cotton to the port of
Bagdad for shipment to the mills of England
and Europe returned with loads of salt.
The Southern cause received a catastrophic
blow in 1863 when a detachment from the
Union Army destroyed the Sal del Rey salt
works. After that, smaller amounts of salt
were taken from the site. As salt became
abundant through other sources, it was no
longer mined from the old salt lakes.
Ownership of the minerals went from the
king of Spain to the Mexican government.
The Republic of Texas, as succeeding sovereign,
became owner of such mines and minerals
under international law. Then ownership
went to the State of Texas. Finally, in 1866,
Texas released to the state’s landowners the
mines and minerals under surface soil on
their property, and this provision was reaffirmed
in 1869 and again in 1876.
Litigation over the ownership of La Sal del
Rey began in 1804 and was finally settled in
1937, when the land and its minerals became
privately owned. It went through several owners
before the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife
Refuge acquired both La Sal del Rey and La Sal
Vieja in the late 1900s. No longer needed as a
source of salt, the lakes and surrounding areas
are now protected wildlife refuges. Instead of the
great wagons on the old Salt Trail, visitors may
follow a birding trail to see such birds as Whitetailed
Kites, Bobwhite, Harris and White-tailed
Hawks and Crested Caracara.
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
PART OF FOUR NATIONS
THE END OF SPANISH RULE
Though the colonies along the lower Rio Grande were only around fifty years old when the
nineteenth century began, Spain had ruled their country for nearly three hundred years. The first
viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza (1535-50), who did such an outstanding job of organizing Spanish
rule, was succeeded by Luis de Velasco (1551-64), who is remembered as “the Liberator” because
of his emancipation of numerous Indian slaves. Some of the viceroys who followed them were
competent, but others displayed less integrity and the system became increasingly corrupt.
The Spanish government realized that reforms were needed, and in 1765 made administrative
changes and liberalized economic policies. This led to a rapid growth of prosperity, making the last
part of the eighteenth century the golden age of New Spain.
Population estimates as the nineteenth century began showed 2,685,000 mestizos, of Spanish
and Indian heritage, the largest group; two million indigenous people; one million creoles, born in
Mexico of Spanish heritage, and 80,000 peninsulares, who were Spanish-born. The natives and
other working classes continued to be poor and had no voice in government. The mestizos included
a few who had acquired wealth and education, but they had little political power.
The creoles could pursue military careers, hold municipal offices, and engage in artisan
occupations. The priesthood was open to them, but not the high ecclesiastical positions. Some were
professionals and small property holders, but they could not take part in the viceroy’s central
government. This was reserved for the peninsulares. This system was greatly resented by the creoles,
who felt they were quite able to govern themselves, as well as by the other social classes. Back in
Europe, Spain was having her own problems. In 1808 the once-great nation had come under the
control of Napoleon, who sent Spain’s King Ferdinand VII to live in France as a virtual prisoner and
established his brother Joseph as king of Spain. French rule was strongly opposed by the people of
Spain, and opposition to Napoleon’s rule spread throughout the Spanish Empire. This opened the door
to rebellion in the colonies. Creoles in Mexico City began talking about self-government, though they
continued to express loyalty to the legitimate Spanish king. However, the movement was quickly
suppressed by the royalist government, and its leaders were imprisoned.
Querétaro’s Corregidora Garden has this
monument to Doña Josefa Ortiz, wife of
Mayor Miguel Dominguez, who sent a
message by a soldier to General Ignacio
Allende warning them that their plot had
been discovered, saving them from arrest.
This caused them to start their uprising on
September 16, 1810 instead of December 8,
1810, as had been planned.
Above: Padre Miguel Hidalgo y Castillo was
a teacher and college administrator
in Valladolid before becoming a parish
priest at Dolores, where his home became
a literary, musical, and social activity
center. This portrait was taken from
Historia de Mexico.
Below: The city of Guanajuato is
surrounded by mountains and its historic
buildings are carefully preserved. The illequipped
insurgents numbered fifty
thousand when they arrived at Guanajuato,
which they captured in a bloodbath for
Revolutionary ideas continued to spread. In
Querétaro a group of prominent creoles formed
a literary club, which soon became a place to
discuss grievances against the peninsular
government in Mexico City. Among the group
were Ignacio Allende and Juan Aldama, military
officers from San Miguel el Grande (now San
Miguel de Allende). One of the invited guests
was Padre Miguel Hidalgo y Castillo from the
town of Dolores.
Padre Hidalgo was born in 1753 on a
hacienda near Guanajuato to creole parents
whose ancestors had arrived in Michoacán in
the 1500s. He entered the secondary school of
San Francisco Xavier in Valladolid at age twelve.
There he was influenced by Jesuit scholars with
enlightened ideas who stressed rational learning
rather than learning based on accepted
authorities and who offered an expanded
curriculum that included empirical sciences,
modern language and history. Though the
association ended abruptly with the expulsion
of the Jesuits from the Spanish Empire in 1767,
his teachers had made a lasting impression on
the young student. He continued his studies at
the Colegio de San Nicolás Obispo in Valladolid
and was ordained a priest in 1778, two years
after he began his teaching career at the colegio.
Hidalgo stayed at the colegio as a teacher and
later as rector until 1792. In January 1793 he
became a parish priest, and soon was sent to the
pastorate of San Felipe, near Dolores in the
Guanajuato area. There he made his home a
literary, musical and social activity center. He
organized an orchestra that provided music for
the church, dances and concerts. These popular
activities attracted many followers, as did his
strong belief in equality of all classes. Times were
hard in the area, and he worked to develop a
better economy for the community by teaching
a variety of skills and encouraging the
production of additional agricultural products.
Though Hidalgo was not involved in the
initial discussions of the Quéteraro group, he
was well informed about them through his
contacts with Allende. In the late summer of
1810 he was invited to join the discussions
and became a strong advocate for change.
The group made contacts with sympathizers
in other cities and developed a plan that called
for setting up revolutionary juntas in the
principal towns to campaign against the
peninsulares, accusing them of being unable to
save Mexico from the French. Next they would
call for independence, expel the peninsulares,
and expropriate their property to finance the
independence cause. The first strike was set for
December 8, 1810, during the great fair at San
Juan de los Lagos where there would be many
people likely to join the movement. But word
got to the authorities in Mexico City about the
plans, with orders to arrest its perpetrators. A
message was sent to Hidalgo that their plans had
There was no turning back for Hidalgo and
the rebel leaders, for they knew that capture
would mean execution. The revolt that had
been planned for December 8 took place at
5:00 a.m. on September 16, 1810, in Dolores as
Padre Hidalgo proclaimed his Grito de Dolores,
the shout for independence. The priest was no
longer a pastor, but an insurgent commander, a
charismatic leader who attracted the masses.
The insurgents numbered 600 as they headed
southwest, growing to 25,000 as they captured
Celaya and 50,000 as the undisciplined and illequipped
army arrived at Guanajuato. They
captured the city in a bloodbath for both sides.
They moved on to Valladolid on October 17 with
an undisciplined army of 60,000 and took the
city without resistance. They left with eighty
thousand men, many armed only with machetes
and homemade spears.
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
As they headed for Mexico City, they were
joined by Padre José Maria Moreles, a former
student at Colegio de San Nicolás when Hidalgo
was rector. He was made a lieutenant and sent to
lead the movement in the south of Mexico. As
the army neared Mexico City, Hidalgo decided
not to invade the city, but to retreat, possibly
fearing too much looting and bloodshed by his
followers. Allende and some others disagreed,
but the army turned back and continued to
other cities, including Guadalajara, where they
With royalist resistance strengthening, the
tide soon turned against the insurgents. Cities
previously taken were regained by the royalists,
and the army dwindled to a few thousand. On
March 21, 1811, just six months after the revolt
began, the rebel army was ambushed at Baján,
near Monclova. Among the insurgents captured
were Hidalgo, Allende, and Aldama.
The Hidalgo revolt was over, and all that
remained was the trial of the leaders and their
execution. Hidalgo was found guilty of high
treason and murder, and he was excommunicated
from his church. He was sentenced to be executed
by firing squad after removing his clerical robes.
The sentence was carried out on the morning of
July 30, 1811, ending the life of the beloved parish
priest at the age of fifty-eight.
The disastrous end of the Hidalgo revolt did
not end the quest for independence, and the
Spanish authorities were in constant fear of
another Hidalgo movement. Though most of
the rebellion was far removed from the growing
settlements along the Rio Grande, José
Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara of Revilla was active
in promoting the insurgent cause in Nuevo
Santander. A fiery spirit, he met with Hidalgo
and Allende, who commissioned him a
lieutenant colonel and appointed him as
emissary to seek support for the revolution
from the United States. After they were
captured, Gutiérrez de Lara refused to see the
revolution abandoned and sought to carry out
his mission. He managed to get away unseen by
the royalists, cross the river, vanish into Texas,
and get to Washington, D.C.
There he met with officials from the State
Department, then with Secretary of State
James Monroe, who heard him with sympathy
but offered no support of men and arms. The
Secretary dismissed him kindly, urging him to
return home, pursue his plans, and assure his
associates that the United States regarded
their intentions favorably. He then helped
Gutiérrez de Lara make his way homeward,
where he continued to work for the cause.
Meanwhile, roving bands from the Hidalgo
movement roamed the countryside in the
northern provinces. The insurgency movement
of Padre Moreles south of Mexico City
continued until 1815, when he also met the fate
of his mentor. The independence movement
rapidly disintegrated, though Vicente Guerrero
and others continued to lead guerilla forces.
The final phase of the independence
movement began in 1820 when a change to a
more liberal government in Spain moved the
clergy and conservatives to favor independence.
Leadership was assumed by Agustín de Iturbide,
a creole who had formerly been an officer of
the viceregal army. He proposed the three-part
Plan of Iguala to which the dissident parties of
Mexico—clergy, people of property, and the
creoles—could rally. It proposed, first, the
continuation of the Catholic Church as the
established church of Mexico; second, the
establishment of an independent limited
monarchy, and third, equal rights for Spaniards
and creoles. Also, there was to be no confiscation
of property. Despite the conservative tendencies
of the plan, insurgent leader Vicente Guerrero
was persuaded to accept it.
Iturbide’s Plan of Iguala gathered support
wherever he went and soon had overwhelming
approval from most Mexicans. Not a shot was
fired. When the new viceroy, General
O’Donojú, arrived from Spain to quell the
rebellion, he realized that, unless he accepted
the fact of Mexican independence, a civil war of
fearful dimensions would come. On July 24,
1821, he signed away Spain’s dominion over
Mexico and all the outlands she embraced. The
grasp of Spain was broken at last! The
movement begun by Padre Hidalgo more than
ten years before had finally succeeded.
Every year on September 16, the Mexican
president commemorates the Grito de Dolores
from the presidential palace in Mexico City, and
spirited independence celebrations take place in
cities all over Mexico. Dieciséis de Septiembre is
also widely celebrated in the Rio Grande Valley.
Though the Hidalgo revolt ended after only
six months, Padre Hidalgo is revered as the
“Father of Mexican Independence” and
there are many statues in his honor in both
Mexico and the U.S. This statue is in the
U.S. border city of Hidalgo, which was the
first county seat of Hidalgo County when it
was formed in 1852. Hidalgo was named
for the Mexican hero.
THE REPUBLIC OF MEXICO
General Antonio López de Santa Anna
moved in and out of the presidency of
Mexico from 1833 to 1855 and was a key
figure in the Texas War for Independence.
The transition from being a Spanish colony
to establishing an independent nation was a
rough one. As his first step toward forming a
new government, Iturbide became president
of a council of regents and a congress was
elected. When conflicts developed, Iturbide
took the title of emperor with the dream of
establishing a monarchy, but rebellion in
March 1823 forced him to abdicate and he
went into exile. Returning in 1824 in the hope
of regaining power, he was promptly shot.
Meanwhile, the congress had proclaimed a
republic, but republican government was not
easy to establish among a people sharply
divided by class and race differences and
accustomed only to authoritarian rule.
A constitution closely modeled after that of
the United States was approved in 1824,
dividing Mexico into nineteen states and four
territories. Guadalupe Victoria, one of the
early leaders of the independence movement,
then became president and served a full fouryear
term, providing some stability. After his
presidency, changes came often as power
moved from the conservatives to the liberals
and back again. The early years of independence
were turbulent, with much power
belonging to the army. This was soon discovered
by the flamboyant and unscrupulous
General Antonio López de Santa Anna, who
moved in and out of military power and the
presidency itself from 1833 to 1855. The disorder
was intensified by continuing financial
crises. The mining industry, historically the
main source of tax revenue, had been wrecked
during the War of Independence, and the government
subsisted largely on loans.
It was during the brief presidency of the
liberal Vicente Guerrero (1828-29) that the
Escandón settlement of Revilla changed its
name to Guerrero in his honor. Though the
turmoil and intrigue of the new republic was
far removed from the settlements along the
lower Rio Grande, much of what was happening
to the north in Texas and to the south in
Mexico City would greatly affect their future.
In 1821 a group of settlers from Reynosa and
San Fernando petitioned the governor asking
that the settlement of Congregación del Refugio
be organized into a village. This was done and
the new town was named Matamoros. Two
years later, work was begun on a port around
the mouth of the Rio Grande, and within a
short time, Matamoros was one of the most
important settlements on the northern frontier.
Almost from its founding, Matamoros proved
the connecting link between the regions that are
now the states of Tamaulipas and Texas.
Under the 1824 constitution, Nuevo
Santander became the free and independent state
of Tamaulipas, with the same boundaries as the
former province. During the state’s early years
various villages were designated the capital. On
April 21, 1825, the village of Santa María de
Aguayo, settled in 1750 during the Escandón
colonization and located near the center of the
state, was named the permanent capital. Santa
María de Aguayo was renamed Ciudad Victoria in
honor of the first president of Mexico, Don
Guadalupe Victoria. After its first state
constitution of 1825, Tamaulipas adopted a
liberal colonization policy to settle the vacant
lands along the Rio Grande and to strengthen the
frontier towns. Those who had received authentic
grants by royal assignment and allocation were
protected by special laws of the Mexican courts.
The state government was anxious that all vacant
lands along the river be occupied. Among new
grants was Padre Island to Padre Nicolás Ballí and
his nephew, Juan José Ballí, about 1829.
At the time the larger grants below Reynosa
were made in the late 1770s, a large triangular
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
shaped piece of land with considerable frontage
on the north side of the Rio Grande had been
left vacant. These unassigned lands were sold in
1834, with each tract provided with ample river
frontage, narrowing with distance from the river
and intersecting the Llano Grande Grant at their
northern point. The present towns of Alamo and
Donna are located on these lands.
Meanwhile, a new wave of colonization was
under way in central Texas. At the beginning of
the 1800s, the population of Texas numbered
only about five thousand inhabitants, not
counting tribal and warlike Indians. They were
scattered in three main settlements and in
several military forts and mission outposts. By
far the largest town was San Antonio de Béjar
with twenty-five hundred people. Then came
Nacogdoches with around eight hundred
permanent inhabitants plus transients who were
constantly crossing back and forth across the
border between U.S. and Mexican territories. La
Bahía del Espíritu Santo (Goliad) with 600
inhabitants, including 200 mission Indians.
Though the Spanish government had tried
many times to establish additional colonies, the
efforts had not been successful. It had been
difficult, indeed impossible, for Spain to
administer this largely unoccupied land, and it
was just as difficult for independent Mexico.
The forts were charged with the responsibility
of keeping foreigners, especially would-be
settlers from the United States, out of their
territory. Several filibustering expeditions by
Anglos attempted to populate Texas and some
tried to declare it an independent country, but
Prior to the 1820s, all Anglos who entered
Texas did so illegally. Enter Moses Austin, a
businessman who had come first from
Connecticut, then Pennsylvania, and eventually
west of the Mississippi River to Missouri while
the territory yet belonged to Spain. He was
successful there, weathering political changes
while Missouri passed from the control of Spain
to France to the United States. When the hard
times of the Panic of 1819 drained his wealth
and left him in debt, he turned his eyes toward
Texas. As a Spanish subject when Missouri was
surrendered, Austin retained the privilege of
petitioning for admission to other territory
controlled by Spain.
Therefore, when Austin petitioned the
Spanish governor at San Antonio early in 1821
for permission to settle three hundred families
on Texas land, he received provisional
permission to do so. The grant was confirmed
by the Spanish viceroy in Mexico City. Moses
Austin died before he could lead the expedition,
and his son Stephen left his law studies in New
Orleans to continue with the project. The
Spanish terms were exceedingly generous:
unlimited grants of land anywhere in the
province for three hundred families in return for
an oath to defend the king and government and
a profession of the Catholic faith. Stephen F.
Austin selected a site on the Colorado River and
went to New Orleans to round up the colonists.
By the time they returned, the Spaniards
had been expelled and the political situation
was drastically changed. Austin was informed
that he would have to reconfirm his grant
with the Mexican Congress. He traveled by
land to Matamoros, then by sea to Veracruz,
and on to Mexico City with the applications of
colonists to present to the Mexican
government. In January 1823, one of the last
acts of Emperor Agustín I was to sign the
decree approving Austin’s request. Iturbide
abdicated on March 19, but the new
government under President Guadalupe
Victoria confirmed Austin’s grant. He had
been in Mexico 355 days and left with the
best intentions of adjusting completely to the
duties and obligations of a Mexican citizen.
Matamoros was founded in 1821 and grew
rapidly. Here it is shown opposite
Brownsville. This illustration was taken
from Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper,
December 5, 1863.
Stephen F. Austin headed the colonization
activities in Texas, begun under Spanish
rule and continued under the new
Republic of Mexico. Austin traveled to
Mexico City twice; first, to present the
applications of colonists and, second, to
seek a separate state for Texas, which was
originally combined with the Mexican state
COURTESY OF THE CENTER FOR AMERICAN HISTORY,
THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS, AUSTIN, TEXAS.
This was the beginning of U.S. migration
into Texas, a fateful step for both Texas and
Mexico. President Victoria’s administration
encouraged the entry of American immigrants
into Texas. The territory’s population estimates
in 1825 numbered between 7,000 and 7,500,
about evenly divided between Mexican citizens
and American settlers. By 1830 the number had
increased to around thirty thousand, with the
increased population almost totally colonists
and settlers from the north, while the Mexican
population was virtually unchanged.
Most of the new settlers from the United
States became Mexican citizens and a few
became nominal Catholics, but for the most part
they retained the English language, the
Protestant religion, and in general their United
Alarmed by the growth of American
influence, Mexico passed a drastic measure to
get a firmer grip on Texas. The Law of April 6,
1830 forbade further colonization in Texas by
United States citizens, and those already in
Texas who had not yet received land grants
would not be permitted to receive them.
Mexican convicts would be sent to Texas as
colonists and European colonization was
encouraged. Restrictions were placed on trade
with U.S. entities and customs collectors were to
be stationed in Texas to direct trade toward
Mexico. These severe measures were directed at
what the government leaders felt was a crisis of
authority in Texas. Though this had not been
true previously, the decree created one.
When the new Republic of Mexico was
organized into states, Texas was combined
with the state of Coahuila to become Coahuila
y Texas, and the seat of government was at
Saltillo. It was an awkward arrangement, and
there was much exasperation among the
Texan colonists. The mails were uncertain, it
was almost impossible to get timely decisions,
and the Texans resisted bitterly the repressive
policies imposed on them, especially the one
prohibiting additional immigration.
The conservative General Anastasio
Bustamente came to power with the overthrow
of Vicente Guerrero in 1829 and held the
presidency until 1832. Texas mainly sought
two things from President Bustamente: The
Texans wanted the law set aside that prohibited
North American settlers from entering their
territory, and they wanted separation from
Coahuila with individual statehood for
themselves as a part of the Mexican federation.
President Bustamente was not responsive to
their requests, and it didn’t help that all of
Mexico was in political turmoil by 1832, still
only eleven years into independence.
The summer of 1832 passed with no sign of
interest in the Texans’ problems. On October 1,
the Texan aldermen of San Felipe de Austin on
the Brazos met to discuss how they could
achieve separate statehood. They agreed that
they must have separation from Coahuila; but
they did not seek separation from Mexico. They
drafted statements and petitions for changes in
the governance of Texas, for repeal of the Law of
April 6, 1830, and for separate statehood within
the Mexican government. Their petition was
returned by the head of the central government,
stationed in San Antonio, who reminded them
that they did not enjoy the rights of assembly
and petition under Mexican law.
Meanwhile, there was a new arrival on the
Texas scene—General Sam Houston, former
U.S. congressman and governor of Tennessee,
who would play an important role in the
future of the state and nation. Texas held its
second convention on April 1, 1833, the same
day that General Santa Anna was inaugurated
as president in Mexico City. The convention
drafted a state constitution, and the
committee assigned to this task was headed
by General Sam Houston. They also framed a
petition to the national government appealing
for statehood and appointed Stephen F. Austin
to take their case to Mexico City.
Again Austin made the twelve-hundredmile
trip to Mexico City. He made his way to
Matamoros and, at the mouth of the Rio
Grande, boarded a schooner for Veracruz. The
voyage, which usually took a week, took a
month, the last ten days on short rations, little
water and a bad case of seasickness. Finally
arriving in Mexico City, he learned that Santa
Anna was away putting down a civil war, so
he could only await his return.
Austin got along well with Santa Anna, who
promised to grant statehood to Texas just as
quickly as possible. Austin started home in
high spirits, but in Saltillo he was unexpectedly
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
arrested when Mexican officials learned he had
written home recommending the organization
of a state without waiting for the consent of the
Mexican congress. He spent the next ten
months in various jails, exhausting his money
and worrying about his colonists. Finally
granted amnesty and released, he arrived home
in July 1835 to find increasing unrest among
the Texas colonists.
Especially irritating to the colonists was
that Santa Anna had overthrown the
Constitution of 1824 and abolished the
Federalist system, which had allowed citizens
to control their local municipalities and districts.
With the institution of a Centralist
political system, local laws and customs
became subject to veto from Mexico City. The
Centralist government was determined to
enforce Mexican laws, and the rumble of discontent
among the Texans grew louder.
THE TEXAS REBELLION
Because of the rebellious attitude of the
Texans, Santa Anna ordered his brother-in-law,
General Martín Perfecto de Cos, to move an
army into position at Matamoros in September
1835. He loaded his army on small ships and
sailed up the Laguna Madre to Matagorda Bay,
where they landed. He marched his soldiers to
Goliad, where several pieces of artillery, rifles,
money in strongboxes, and plentiful supplies
were stored inside the old mission of Presidio
La Bahia. Leaving thirty soldiers to guard this
base, Cos marched the rest of his troops to San
Antonio, where they fought the sharpshooting
Texans in the streets. Badly defeated, three of
his companies marched out of town and
headed for the Rio Grande. Cos surrendered
and began his return to Laredo.
Meanwhile, on October 9, a small group of
colonists attacked and overwhelmed the
Mexican garrison of thirty men at Presidio la
Bahia at Goliad, taking their arms and supplies.
Santa Anna could not accept such defeats and
began to raise a force of ten thousand to quell
the rebellion. In turn, the Texans prepared to
send an expedition against Matamoros.
Santa Anna marched toward Laredo with six
thousand men. After a ball in Laredo held in his
honor, he and his men headed for San Antonio.
The following day General José de Urrea crossed
the river at Matamoros and started northward.
It was a viciously cold winter and a
miserable march for the Mexican troops as they
suffered from freezing northers, forded swollen
streams and struggled with mired vehicles in
the mud of drenching rains. At the end of their
bitter journey was the Alamo, manned by a
hardcore band of desperate Texans. Though
much of the former mission was in ruins, the
Alamo still had a great walled plaza, thick stone
rooms used as a jail, a corral, and a church
whose roof had fallen in. Texas’ citizen army
had readied the old mission for battle by
shoring up its walls and mounting cannons.
Led by Santa Anna himself, the siege of the
Alamo lasted for thirteen days, from February
23 to March 6, 1836, with the final assault
inside the old fort lasting only a few hours. The
Alamo’s defenders fell, fighting savagely before
giving up their lives. Then all was quiet.
Meanwhile, the Texas expedition that was
heading for Matamoros ran into General
Urrea’s forces and was soundly beaten. Several
hundred prisoners were marched to Goliad.
Santa Anna sent orders that they were to be
executed immediately. More than 300 of the
Texans were executed; twenty-seven managed
to escape. Santa Anna was pleased. He was
sure the rebellion was quashed.
While the fighting was going on in San
Antonio and Goliad, the Consultation met in
Washington-on-the-Brazos on March 1, 1836.
The fifty-nine delegates knew that the Alamo
The siege of the Alamo lasted for thirteen
days from February 23 to March 6,
1836, though the final assault inside the old
fort lasted only a few hours. The Alamo’s
defenders fell, fighting savagely before giving
up their lives. This illustration was taken
from an issue of The Illustrated London
News published in 1836.
It was just before Christmas 1842 that the
Texans advanced on Mier and fought their
way to within fifty yards of the main plaza.
The plaza and bandstand are used for more
peaceful celebrations now.
was under siege and that the outlook was grim.
The next day they produced a Declaration of
Independence that resembled in form and
substance the model provided in 1776 by
Thomas Jefferson. They asked Sam Houston to
lead their army and selected David G. Burnet as
interim president, with Lorenzo de Zavala as
vice president, and Thomas Jefferson Rusk was
appointed secretary of war. The group
continued in session until March 17 to write and
adopt a constitution for the Republic of Texas,
should they be able to establish an independent
government after the war. It would be
September before Sam Houston was elected
president by popular vote.
While reorganizing his troops, Santa Anna
heard that General Sam Houston was
retreating eastward with the remaining Texas
forces and immediately went in pursuit,
determined to put an end once and for all to
the rebels’ resistance. He caught up with
Houston and his men camped in an oak grove
on the banks of Buffalo Bayou. The water was
behind Houston, a couple of miles of prairie
lay in front, and behind that was the Bay of
San Jacinto. Between the Texans and the water
were Santa Anna and his Mexican army.
April 21, 1836, was a lazy, serene day along
the banks of the bayou. Sam Houston slept late
and was awakened by Erastus “Deaf” Smith at
nine o’clock. Smith brought word that General
Cos was arriving with fresh troops, bringing
the Mexican forces to thirteen hundred men.
The Mexican soldiers cared for their horses,
some cooked their favorite dishes over campfires,
and others bathed in the stream or slept. General
Santa Anna took an afternoon siesta in his silken
tent. It was half past four in the afternoon when
Mexican pickets noted a movement of Texas
cavalry advancing toward them. The Mexicans
opened fire, but the cavalry was only a diversion.
From another direction a steady line of Texas
infantry materialized out of a stretch of timber.
They moved swiftly, in complete silence, holding
their rifles at the ready.
What an army it was! There were English,
Irish, Scots, French, Germans, Italians, and even
Mexicans who sided with the Texans, for this was
their fight, too. Santa Anna’s men began firing
when the Texans were three hundred yards
distant, but the Texans did not return their fire,
just kept marching on. Then the Texan “Twin
Sister” cannons, donated to the cause by citizens
of Ohio, appeared and round after round of grape
and canister crashed into the Mexican ranks.
As the cannon spoke, a mighty roar broke
the silence of Houston’s advancing men:
“Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!”
They shouted in unison. Then, for the first
time, they fired their rifles. Taking no time to
reload, they clubbed their guns and swung
them like demons as they cracked the
Mexican lines. The camp was in utter confusion.
Men fought each other as they attempted
to escape the terrible human avalanche.
The battle itself lasted about eighteen minutes.
Of Santa Anna’s thirteen hundred men
who entered the fight, only forty escaped
death, battle wounds or capture. Two Texans
were killed and twenty-three wounded out of
a total force of around eight hundred.
After the battle, Santa Anna attempted to
escape by disguising himself as a common
soldier, but was rounded up the next day by
Texas scouts searching for fugitives and
dragged back to camp. Recognizing him, the
soldiers came to attention and saluted. “The
President!” they cried. “Santa Anna!” The wily
Mexican general and president was their
prisoner! Though he feared for his life, he was
treated humanely by his captors.
After his defeat at San Jacinto, Santa Anna
was taken to Velasco by President David G.
Burnet, where on May 14 a treaty of peace was
signed with the following provisions: All
hostilities would cease; Santa Anna would not
again take up arms against Texas; all Mexican
troops were to retire beyond the Rio Grande,
and all private property taken from Texans was
to be returned. The boundary was to be the Rio
Grande, rather than the Nueces, making the
disputed territory between the two rivers a part
of Texas. The new Texas government also
secretly agreed to send Santa Anna to Veracruz
at once in exchange for his promise to use his
influence in securing the recognition of the
independence of Texas by Mexico.
On hearing of the disaster at San Jacinto, the
generals commanding other units of the Mexican
army promptly withdrew their forces toward the
Rio Grande. By June the last of the Mexican
troops had crossed the river into Matamoros.
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
THE REPUBLIC OF TEXAS
The Rio Grande settlements were but
remotely affected by Texas’ struggle for
independence from Mexico, though the
question of the Rio Grande as the boundary line
was still unsettled for many years. Laredo was
still the only organized town in the disputed
area. Many settlers on the Rio Grande and those
living on the large ranches between the Rio
Grande and the Nueces abandoned their homes,
deserted their interests, and left thousands of
head of cattle and horses to roam over the
country. They fled with their families south of
the Rio Grande, where they sought temporary
refuge. The new republic was too concerned
with setting up a government and finding
money to run it to attempt to establish
jurisdiction south of the Nueces in the sparsely
settled area that had become known as the
“Wild Horse Desert.”
There were practically no Anglo-Americans
living in the newly defined frontier, and the
Spanish and Mexican landowners were not
sympathetic to the change in government,
preferring to remain as a part of Mexico. Also,
Texas was not prepared to undertake the task
that certainly would ensue if Mexican troops
were sent into the territory under dispute. In
refusing to recognize Texas’ independence, the
Mexican government was even less willing to
acknowledge the new boundary.
THE REPUBLIC OF
THE RIO GRANDE
Because of the unstable government in
Mexico, the unrest among the people of her
northern provinces, and the uncertainties of
the new Republic of Texas, it is natural that
some Texans would be open to other
approaches to government. Early in 1839,
some Texans, though not the government of
the new republic, became involved in a
movement which, if successful, would have
changed the course of Valley history entirely.
This was a plan for the organization of
Zacatecas, Durango, Coahuila, Tamaulipas to
the Nueces River, Nuevo León, Northern
Mexico, and the Californias into the Republic
of the Rio Grande.
The movement had gained enough support
for a convention to be held in Laredo and a
provisional government was organized. Juan
Cardenas, the political chief of Tamaulipas, was
named president; Antonio Canales, the
instigator of the new nation, was commanderin-chief
of the army, and Laredo was the capital.
The legislative council of eight members
remained at Guerrero because it had a printing
press, which turned out their official
newspaper, Correo del Río Bravo del Norte.
These revolutionists called themselves
Federalists, while the forces of the Mexican
government were known as Centralists. When
Canales came to Texas to seek aid, the Texas
government reacted negatively, but many
prominent Texans joined the new movement.
The Federalist forces fought their way as far as
Saltillo, but after several defeats they gave up
on November 6, 1840, never again to be
revived. The Republic had lasted 283 stormy,
The sandstone and adobe building that
served as the capitol of the Republic of the Rio
Grande has been restored and is now a
historical museum located beside San Augustín
Plaza in Laredo.
There was very little trouble between the
two countries during Sam Houston’s first term
as president. However, when President
Mirabeau B. Lamar succeeded Houston, he
was more aggressive toward Mexico and the
Indians. The Mexican government retaliated
by repudiating the treaty made by Santa Anna
and began sporadic raids into Texas.
In January 1842 the Mexican army crossed
the Rio Grande and took possession of San
Antonio, Goliad, Victoria, and Refugio. Houston,
again president, ordered out the militia, but the
Mexican raiders returned across the Rio Grande
to Mexico before it could assemble.
The Mexican army came again in September,
with fourteen hundred troops led by General
Adrián Woll. They temporarily captured San
Antonio, but after a battle with the Texas militia
they retreated back to the Rio Grande. A great
demonstration on the part of the Texans
followed General Woll’s invasion into that city.
After the Texans reluctantly surrendered
at Mier, the wounded of both armies
were taken into this Catholic Church
One of five boys taken prisoner at Mier was
John C. C. Hill, then fourteen, who had
joined his father and brother on the
expedition. He broke his treasured rifle
rather than let it be captured by Mexican
soldiers. Impressed by his bravery, Mexican
General Ampúdia sent him to Matamoros,
where he provided food, clothing and shelter
for him and sent him to school. Later, Santa
Anna had him sent to Mexico City, where
the boy lived with the president and, later,
with General José Maris Tornel, who had a
son about his age. Hill graduated from the
Minería as a mining engineer and
physician. Though he wrote his family, he
did not visit them until 1855, the same year
he married Austine Segrado, the sister of a
famous Mexican painter, and they had four
children. Hill rose to prominence in Mexico
and for years was chief engineer for C. P.
Huntington's Mexican railroad enterprise.
He visited in Texas many times and worked
for a while in the land office in Austin as a
translator in clearing land titles. The other
four boy prisoners were eventually returned
to their parents in Texas. By coincidence,
during the Battle of San Jacinto, a Mexican
fifer-boy, Joseph Méndez, was captured by
the Texans and refused to return to Mexico.
John Hill’s father adopted the boy and
reared him as his own. He became a useful
and respected citizen of Texas.
LILLIAN WEEMS BALDRIDGE HISTORICAL COLLECTION.
It was the second time that year that the city had
been plundered, and as an added outrage, the
officers of the District Court, then in session,
had been captured and taken away as prisoners.
THE MIER EXPEDITION
A phase of history of the Republic of Texas
era that affected South Texas and the Rio
Grande Valley was the ill-advised and tragic
Mier Expedition of 1842. Historians differ
radically over the events leading to and resulting
from this expedition, and much has been
written about it, including diaries and books
of its survivors.
In November 1842, in response to the
Mexican incursions, a ragged and undisciplined
army of 750 Texans left San Antonio
and headed for the Rio Grande under the
commend of Brigadier General Alexander
Somervell, a veteran of San Jacinto who had
become secretary of war in the Republic. Most
were volunteers who were not being paid, nor
were they accompanied by sufficient supplies
to sustain the expedition. When word reached
Laredo that the Texan army was coming, the
military commander decided to depart for the
safety of Guerrero, taking with him more than
a hundred frightened citizens. Not a rifle was
fired either in conquest or defiance as the
Texas army entered Laredo.
Short on supplies, Somervell wasted no time
in levying a requisition on the populace. It was
soon found that there was not enough food in
the town to ration the Texas army. When only a
small amount was delivered, many of the
Texans became angry, slipped out of camp
against General Somervell’s orders, and sacked
Laredo. Later they were made to return all
stolen articles, except absolute essentials, and
General Somervell apologized to the alcalde
(mayor) of Laredo for the actions of his men.
While camped at Laredo, a council of war
was called and the captains were asked to
decide whether they should continue or turn
back home. When they hesitated to assume
the responsibility, Somervell asked all soldiers
who were in favor of crossing the Rio Grande
to step to the right, and those who wanted to
return home to go to the left. Two hundred
passed to the left, and they were placed under
the command of Colonel Bennett to march to
General Somervell led the remaining troops
toward Guerrero, where they camped opposite
the town. The following morning, the alcalde of
Guerrero appeared at the Texan camp with a
white flag. He said he would place his town at
their disposal if they would refrain from violence
and looting. Somervell promised to keep his men
out of Guerrero if they would provide five days’
rations for his army. Some of the officers were
allowed to visit Guerrero, where they found a
town of two thousand, considerably larger than
Laredo, with well-built houses arranged around
two plazas, well-kept gardens, and several groves
of orange trees.
A cold northwest wind blew into the soldiers’
campsite, bringing with it a deluge of rain.
General Somervell announced to the cold,
hungry men his intention of abandoning the
plan of pursuing the enemy into Mexico, and on
December 19 an order was read directing all to
prepare at once for a return home. Many were
perplexed as to the right course to take. Though
around two hundred decided to obey their
commander and return with him, the remainder
insisted they would stay and fight. After this
second division, General Somervell set off with
his men for San Antonio, evidently convinced
that the expedition could not succeed.
Those remaining had a strong spirit of
adventure and reckless courage and were
loathe to retrace their steps without a battle.
They elected Colonel William S. Fisher, a
veteran of San Jacinto, as their commander.
The Texans seized six barges and several small
boats, which they called their “navy,” and
headed down the river, stopping at various
ranches to confiscate supplies.
When word of the plundering of Laredo
had reached General Pedro de Ampúdia at
Matamoros, he began moving his army up the
river toward Mier and Guerrero. Some of the
Texans marched leisurely along the north
bank of the Rio Grande, unaware that General
Ampúdia was moving upriver with a large
The Texans reached the vicinity of Mier on
December 21, 1842. They camped on the
west bank and, as they had done at Laredo
and Guerrero, a party of Texans went to the
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
town to demand supplies from the alcalde. On
Christmas Day 1842, news arrived in the
Texan camp that no supplies were forthcoming
from Mier. Furthermore, General
Ampúdia had arrived in Mier with an army of
over six hundred men and had seized the
goods that had been gathered for the Texans.
His infantry was on the rooftops of many of
the houses in Mier, his artillery was in place
on the main plaza, and his cavalry occupied a
small hill just east of town. Still determined to
fight the Mexican Army, the Texans advanced
on Mier. The Texans fought their way to within
fifty yards of the main plaza, where they
were thrown back, but did manage to silence
the artillery before the day ended. The
Mexicans launched a brave counterattack on
the morning of December 26, during which
the valor of the Texans was matched by the
bravery of the Mexican soldiers.
Hungry, pressed from all sides, and fatigued
after a long day of spirited fighting, most of the
Texans realized their situation was hopeless.
Fisher agreed to surrender, and the Texans
came in small groups to lay down their rifles,
pistols and swords. The Battle of Mier was over,
and Mexico had won a decisive victory. General
Ampúdia reported 248 Texans captured. Ten
had been killed, and twenty-five wounded
Americans were taken into the old Catholic
church for treatment. The Mexican casualties in
dead and wounded were much higher.
After the battle, General Ampúdia had sent
out a detachment to bring in the men, horses,
and camp furniture that had been left on the
east bank of the Rio Grande. He ordered the
Texans to surrender. The Texas soldier chosen
as interpreter to shout across the Rio Grande
and order the men to bring the supplies over
called out, instead, “Boys, we are all
prisoners…. Take all the good horses and go.”
As difficult as it was for the Texans to lose
the battle and give up their weapons, more
misery lay ahead. They were marched in pairs
through Camargo and Reynosa to Matamoros,
where they learned they were to be taken to
Mexico City. They retraced their steps to
Camargo, and from there they were marched
to Cerralvo and on to Monterrey. The men
were poorly equipped for such a march. Soon
their shoes were too worn to even tie on their
feet and it was with great difficulty that they
managed to walk at all. The rations were
insufficient and unsatisfying, though the few
who had money assisted the others and along
the route they were able to obtain eggs, milk,
cheese and tortillas.
By February 10 they had reached Salado,
south of Saltillo, where a plan for a break for
liberty was announced. Some strongly
opposed this move, but others believed it the
only way out of their misery. Captain Ewen
Cameron was elected to give the command at
the proper time and to lead the men in their
escape. He called out in English, “Now, boys,
we go it.” An attack was made on the Mexican
guard, and most of the Texans made their
The prisoners who escaped execution after
the “Black Bean Lottery” were marched to
Mexico City, where they worked building a
road, and then to the Castle of Perote, a
prison built by the Spaniards in 1773
between Mexico City and Veracruz.
escape along with Cameron. They seized a
large amount of arms and a hundred horses.
The Texans soon became separated and
moved into the mountains, where they
became lost. After days of aimless
wandering, too weak to push on any farther,
they surrendered to a detachment of
Mexican cavalry whose camp they stumbled
upon. Some of the Texans had died of
starvation and thirst, but the majority were
recaptured and returned in irons, chained in
pairs, to Salado. Among the latter was their
captain, Ewen Cameron, a tall, twohundred-pound
Santa Anna was furious when he learned of
the escape. He first sent word to kill all of the
survivors, but the Mexican officers delayed
carrying out the order. Then, on March 7,
1843, it was learned that an order had been
received from Mexico that every tenth man
should be executed.
What followed was the infamous “Black
Bean Incident.” Seventeen black beans were
placed in an earthen jar, along with 159 white
beans. The white ones signified exemption,
and the black death. Cameron’s name was the
first to be called, and he drew a white bean.
The process went on, one bean at a time, until
all of the black beans were drawn.
When the drawing was completed, the
ones who drew the black beans were executed
by firing squad. The execution of Ewen
Cameron was stayed only one month, for on
April 25, the second order for his execution
was sent out from Mexico City and was
carried out a hundred miles from the capitol.
Cameron County was named for him.
The prisoners who escaped execution were
eventually marched to Mexico City, where they
were put to work building a road, and then to
the Castle of Perote, a prison built by the
Spaniards in 1773 located between Mexico
City and Veracruz. There twenty-two died and
a few managed to escape and make their way
back to Texas. Finally, on September 14, 1844,
after a number of prominent Americans
pleaded for their freedom, 110 of the Texans
were released and returned to Texas.
The tales of the “Black Bean Lottery”
became known in every Texas household. In
1846, during the war with Mexico, an
American patrol entered the little ranch
settlement of Salado where the men were
buried. General Walter P. Lane, a member of
the Mier Expedition who had drawn a white
bean, secured permission to exhume the bones
of his dead comrades, and later they were
placed in a memorial near La Grange, Texas,
the home of many of the volunteer soldiers.
The site is visited often by history buffs.
THE UNITED STATES
Though Texas was operating as an
independent republic, no peace treaty had
been completed with Mexico. The one signed
at Velasco by Santa Anna when he was a
prisoner was never accepted by his country. A
treaty was proposed in early 1844 in which
the two countries agreed to retain the
territory they presently occupied. However, a
problem complicating relations between the
republics of Texas and Mexico was the desire
in Texas for annexation to the United States.
Annexation was opposed by some
members of the United States government
and citizens in the east, but others strongly
supported it. By 1844 the annexation of the
Lone Star Republic had become a major
political issue in the presidential campaign.
James K. Polk, running on an expansionist
platform that called for annexation, was
elected by a large majority.
Seeing the election as a clear mandate for
annexation, a joint resolution calling for Texas
to become part of the Union was maneuvered
through Congress and passed on March 1,
1845, exactly nine years after the Texans
declared their independence from Mexico at
Washington-on-the-Brazos. In a convention at
Austin on July 4, 1845, Texas gave her
approval of the measure and became part of the
This Texas convention also had for
consideration a proposal by Mexico that it would
recognize the independence of Texas on
condition that annexation to the United States be
rejected, but annexation rather than
independence was the preference of the Texans.
This caused Mexico to break diplomatic relations
with the United States.
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
THE VALLEY TAKES SHAPE
THE U . S .-MEXICAN WAR — 1846-1848
The long-sought annexation to the United States brought a measure of security to Texas, but it did not
bring peace. In annexing Texas, the United States assumed the responsibility of protecting the boundaries
of its new state, which Texas claimed as the Rio Grande. Mexico said the boundary was the Nueces River,
and that the states of Tamaulipas, Coahuila, and Chihuahua met Texas further to the east and north at
the Nueces River, making the land between the Nueces and the Rio Grande a part of Mexico.
President Polk, known as an expansionist, first tried for a peaceful settlement to the dispute by
sending John Slidell of New Orleans as an envoy to Mexico City with a proposal to buy the disputed
territory of Texas for up to $20 million, plus a proposal to purchase additional western lands under
Mexican control. However, in January 1846, Polk learned that an indignant Mexico had rejected
Slidell’s diplomatic mission, and after several months the envoy returned to the United States.
Meanwhile, word was received in Washington that Mexico was organizing forces to defend its
claims to the disputed area. General Zachary Taylor was a seasoned officer serving at Fort Jessup,
Louisiana, when he received orders from President Polk and Secretary of War William Marcy to
move his troops to the small village of Corpus Christi by the Nueces River. As directed, Taylor
moved with fifteen hundred men by boat from Fort Jessup to Corpus Christi and set up camp on
the western bank of the Nueces, remaining there from August 1845 to March 1846.
The soldiers wrote home that the climate excelled that of Southern Italy, and hunting and fishing
relieved the boredom of the long hours of hard drill that General Taylor required of his men. Called
the “Army of Observation,” the number of soldiers grew to about four thousand as new recruits
arrived. The troops were healthy and there was plenty of food—fish, fresh beef, venison, and the
supplies they had with them.
“The sea breeze is so fine,” wrote one officer to his wife. “Everything goes smoothly and pleasantly.
The troops drill three hours each day and other little details keep them quite busily employed.”
In early March orders came for Taylor to move his troops to the Rio Grande. As they headed out on
March 11, 1846, the weather was fine, the troops well clad, well fed, well armed, well trained, and
In the process of leading his troops to
Corpus Christi, General Zachary Taylor
and his soldiers crossed the “Wild Horse
Desert,” which, due to rain earlier in the
season, were fields of beautiful wild flowers.
“The thickets were alive with singing birds,”
wrote a soldier.
COURTESY OF GLENN HOUSLEY.
March 11, 1846, the weather was fine, the
troops well clad, well fed, well armed, well
trained, and impatient for service. Along with
the troops there were supply wagons to provide
food and necessities. The country was described
as “a prairie, level and monotonous with not a
single inhabitant between Corpus Christi and
Matamoros,” a distance of 150 miles. Soon they
entered the sandy area known as the Wild Horse
Desert, described in his memoirs by Ulysses
Grant, then a second lieutenant in Taylor’s army:
Above: General Zachary Taylor, a
seasoned officer stationed in Louisiana,
received orders to move his troops to the
small village of Corpus Christi by the
Below: Soldiers of a U.S. artillery unit near
Fort Brown show pride in their equipment
before they join the fighting in this painting
at the Port Isabel Historical Museum.
A few days out from Corpus Christi the
immense herds of wild horses were seen
directly in advance of the head of the column
and but a few miles off. The country was
prairie and as far as the eye could reach to our
right, the herd extended. To the left, it
extended equally. There was no estimating the
number of animals in it; I have no idea if they
could have been corralled in the state of
Rhode Island or Delaware at one time.
“There had been rains earlier in the season,
which brought out beautiful wild flowers. The
flowers during today’s march were gloriously
rich; conspicuous above all were the Texas
plume, a beautiful scarlet flower, the Mexican
poppy, and the indigo,” wrote a soldier. “The
thickets were alive with singing birds, and the
ground appeared alive with quail.”
As the army marched along the coast, a fleet
of supply ships steamed down the Gulf toward
Point Isabel, a little port nine miles up the coast
from the Rio Grande. There General Taylor
intended to establish his base of supplies.
Taylor arrived at Point Isabel with part of his
army and established a bastion, which became
Fort Polk, to guard his coastal supply base.
Taylor’s soldiers unloaded the four supply boats
that had arrived at the harbor and established a
supply depot in the small village the Mexican
people called El Frontón de Santa Isabel. After
providing protection for the supply depot,
Taylor joined General Worth, whom he had
dispatched toward the Rio Grande a few days
earlier. The two groups met up on March 28,
1846 and proceeded to the Rio Grande.
Taylor immediately set his troops to work
on Fort Texas on the north bank of the Rio
Grande just across from Matamoros. Taylor
called it the “Camp opposite Matamoros” and
“The camp on the Left Bank of the Rio Grande”
in his official reports. Later the fort was named
Fort Brown. Offshore, Commodore David
Connor’s ships blockaded the coast at the
mouth of the Rio Grande. Major Jacob Brown
was placed in charge of Fort Texas, which was
begun on April 8, 1846. As the fort began to
take shape, it resembled a giant snowflake, laid
out with six bastion fronts. It was large enough
to accommodate five regiments, and a tall
flagpole reached skyward from within the
massive earthen walls to fly the Stars and
Stripes of the United States.
Meanwhile, across the river the Mexicans
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
also began building earthen fortifications in
which they installed batteries of mortars.
Since affairs were still on a peaceful footing,
American troops took the opportunity to
become acquainted with the dozens of Mexican
families whose shacks were close to the fort. To
the soldiers it seemed that every family had a
goat in the house and a gamecock tied under
the bed. In gardens strung up and down the
river they grew lemons, oranges, figs, peaches
and vegetables. The owners of these small truck
farms were quick to bring chickens, milk and
produce to sell to the troops, and vendors from
Matamoros crossed the river with food and
trinkets to sell to the Americans.
Such friendly exchanges came to an
abrupt halt on April 23, when President
Paredes appeared before the Congress of
Mexico and declared that “from this day
defensive war begins.”
Soon General Mariano Arista arrived in
Matamoros to relieve General Pedro de Ampúdia
with orders to commence action immediately.
The Mexican government was not in a strong
position to respond to the challenge it faced.
Unlike the United States, a nation seventy years
old in 1846, Mexico had been a republic only
twenty-five years and still suffered from long and
costly struggles against colonialism. Lingering
political, social, and economic divisions made it
difficult for the central government to retain
control of its vast northern territories.
Mexican forces that did reach the Rio
Grande also faced disadvantages. The
country’s turmoil and political opportunism
on the part of some military leaders weakened
the command structure in the field. Its
weapons were antiquated, often left over from
the wars of independence. Many soldiers sent
to oppose the well-equipped United States
army were conscripts, pressed into service
against their will.
However, Mexico did match the United
States in its determination. The young
Republic had its own visions of greatness that
demanded protection of existing borders. The
Mexican public, dismayed by the loss of Texas,
opposed further expansion by its northern
neighbor. Even conscripts demonstrated a
courageous dedication to defense of their
homeland. The conflict of wills pushed the two
nations toward an armed clash.
THE BATTLE OF PALO ALTO
Meanwhile, the two armies continued
activity in the disputed territory. General Arista’s
“Army of the North” marched into the area
between Taylor’s two forts—Fort Polk at Point
Isabel and Fort Texas across from Matamoros—
in an attempt to split American lines of supply
and communication. On May 1, General Taylor
responded. Leaving five hundred men with
Major Brown to hold Fort Texas, Taylor led his
army on a daylong march to Fort Polk to obtain
supplies. These troops successfully evaded
Arista’s forces and reached the coast, but the
next morning before reveille the men could
hear a heavy cannonading and knew that Fort
Texas was under attack.
The war had begun. Among its first casualties
was Major Jacob Brown, who was wounded by
an exploding shell while inspecting the damage
to the fort and died the next day.
Using sailors from Commodore Conner’s
blockade fleet to strengthen defenses at Fort
Polk, Taylor prepared 2,300 troops, assembled
250 wagons full of supplies, and set out to the
aid of Fort Texas. On the morning of May 8,
1846, Taylor’s troops met about four thousand
Mexican soldiers on the plains of Palo Alto,
midway between Fort Polk and Fort Texas.
Arista’s forces formed a battle line to block the
General Mariano Arista, commander of
Mexico’s “Army of the North.”
The Battle of Palo Alto.
COURTESY OF BROWNSVILLE HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION.
road and the U.S. forces deployed for combat
in similar formation.
Despite the Mexican advantage in numbers,
artillery would make the difference in the
coming battle. The Mexican army boasted about
twelve cannon, but many were old, as was the
ammunition. This was evident when they
opened battle with an artillery barrage from eight
hundred yards. The projectiles, mostly solid
cannon balls, approached so slowly that U.S.
soldiers could sidestep the incoming rounds.
Newly manufactured American cannons
fired farther and faster than the Mexican arms.
The U.S. forces employed a combination of two
eighteen-pound siege guns, one twelve-pound
howitzer, and seven light, highly mobile sixpound
smoothbores to fire a variety of shells,
explosive case projectiles, and canisters of
multiple shot. Instead of responding with an
infantry bayonet charge, General Taylor opened
with his heavy guns. The American shelling
devastated the Mexican forces, which
steadfastly held their positions. The rain of
metal also kept the Mexican infantry too distant
to threaten with their muskets.
General Arista then ordered a unit of Lancers
under General Anastacio Torrejón to strike
through the brush at the U.S. right flank in an
effort to change the course of battle by seizing
the U.S. supply train. The Fifth U.S. Infantry
repelled this cavalry charge. Marshy conditions
slowed the Mexican maneuver, allowing the
Americans to assume a hollow-square formation
that bristled on the outside with bayonets. A
close-range volley of musket fire halted the
charge, but Torrejón’s horsemen regrouped,
swung around and attempted to strike the
convoy farther to the rear. This time the Third
U.S. Infantry, with assistance from Major Samuel
Ringgold’s fast-moving field artillery, forced the
Lancers back to the Mexican lines.
About 4:00 p.m. the battle briefly halted.
Warm winds off the Gulf of Mexico fanned
smoldering cannon wadding, igniting the thick
grass and cloaking the battlefield in heavy smoke.
Both sides used the lull to collect dead and
wounded, fill canteens, issue ammunition, and
realign troops. Taylor pivoted the entire American
battle line forward toward the opposition. Arista
made similar changes, his troops now facing into
the bright, late afternoon sun.
When fighting resumed around 5:00 p.m.,
Mexican troops reclaimed the offensive,
increasing fire along the front while preparing
to envelop the American line from both ends.
Fighting was fierce. Then a battery of U.S.
horse-drawn artillery broke through the smoke
of battle, its intense, close-range cannon fire
causing immediate and massive destruction.
The battle ended when darkness came, and the
exhausted troops rested for the night.
General Taylor knew the Battle of Palo Alto
had injured but not eliminated the threat posed
by Arista’s army. American casualties numbered
only nine killed and forty-three injured, which
bolstered troop morale. Though estimates of
Arista’s losses ranged much higher, he still
retained a larger number of troops.
Mexican forces passed the night on the
southern edge of the battlefield after hurriedly
tending to the dead and wounded, and then
marched towards Matamoros. Taylor’s victorious
forces camped on the field, and in the morning
his troops buried the remaining Mexican dead in
mass graves and took measures to protect the
supply train from further attack, then marched
in pursuit of Arista’s army.
RESACA DE LA PALMA
The conflicting armies met again on May 9,
1846, five miles to the south along an old
bend of the Rio Grande. Mexican military
leaders had prepared defenses for a second
clash, choosing topography that neutralized
the superior American artillery.
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
At the Battle of Resaca de la Palma, hand-tohand
combat and cavalry charges, not artillery,
carried the day. After harsh fighting, U.S. troops
routed the Mexican defenders and forced
Arista’s remaining troops to retreat across the
Rio Grande, discarding their equipment as they
went, and fleeing in panic for their lives.
Thus ended the first battles of the Mexican
War, the only encounters in the disputed area
between the Nueces and the Rio Grande.
It was on May 9, 1846, the day of the Resaca
de la Palma battle, that the Cabinet of the
United States met with President Polk to
consider the situation. Earlier, on April 25,
Mexican forces had encountered an American
patrol at Rancho de Carricitos, about twentyfive
miles upstream from Fort Texas, in which
several U.S. soldiers were killed. President Polk
called this attack an act of war. The President
prepared his war message, which was passed by
the House two days later, ratified by the Senate
the following day and signed by Polk on May
13. Meanwhile, Congress voted a war
appropriation of ten million dollars and gave
the President authorization to call for fifty
This made the Rio Grande a household
word throughout the nation as families across
the land bade goodbye to their sons as they
left for the faraway war.
THE WAR MOVES TO MEXICO
Fort Texas was given the name of Fort
Brown in memory of its fallen commander.
Soon the town of Brownsville would build up
around it. Another casualty was Major Samuel
Ringgold, for whom Fort Ringgold of Rio
Grande City was named. Major Ringgold was
the hero of Palo Alto with his quick and
creative use of his “Flying Artillery,” and it was
at the Battle of Palo Alto where he was
wounded and would later die of his injury.
On May 18, 1846, Taylor began moving the
American forces across to Matamoros, using
captured boats and some Mexican ferries. They
did not meet opposition as General Arista and
his troops had moved inland. Because of a
shortage of water and forage, Taylor realized he
could not march troops into the interior from
Matamoros and sent back to the States for a
fleet of light draft steamers to transport 10,000
men, 4,000 animals, and all supplies upriver to
Camargo, from which they could march
against Monterrey, Saltillo, and Victoria. Soon
the vessels were steaming towards Brownsville.
The summer of 1846 found the U.S. troops
encamped in Matamoros, where they were
joined daily by new recruits from the states.
Volunteer camps were established on both sides
of the river from its mouth to Matamoros. Many
grew ill from dysentery, smallpox, measles and
intestinal disorders, and it is said some even
died of homesickness. On July 26, 1846, the
first detachment of troops proceeded by
steamer to Camargo, where many again came
down with illness. From there, his troops
moved into the interior, where the two armies
would meet again on battlefields with names
like Monterrey, La Angostura, and Buena Vista.
A larger U.S. invasion took several paths. As
General Taylor advanced the first front, General
Stephen Watts Kearny led another force into
New Mexico and California. Finally, in March
1847, an expeditionary force directed by General
Winfield Scott approached by sea and landed at
Veracruz. This army ultimately fought its way
overland to Mexico City, causing reluctant
Mexican officials to negotiate terms for peace.
RESULTS OF THE WAR
The U.S.-Mexican War resulted in
significant loss of life for both nations.
Combat and, more often, disease claimed the
lives of thirteen thousand American troops.
A map of the Palo Alto and Resaca de la
Palma battlefields from Palo Alto
Battlefield, National Park Service, U.S.
Department of the Interior.
Palo Alto Battlefield is now a National
Historic Site. The National Park Service
is to develop a comprehensive park around
the site. Presentations will acquaint visitors
with Mexican and American historical
Mexican civilian and military casualties
climbed much higher.
The U.S. State Department sent Nicholas P.
Trist to Mexico to work out terms of a peace
settlement. He wanted to secure the Rio Grande
as the boundary from its mouth to the thirtysecond
parallel, and thence west to the Pacific.
For all of New Mexico, which then included
Arizona, and upper California, he agreed to pay
fifteen million dollars, further pledging that the
United States would pay the claims of its
citizens against the Mexican government. On
February 2, 1848, a treaty was signed at
Guadalupe Hidalgo, a suburb of Mexico City,
and was soon ratified by both governments.
The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at last
established the southern border of Texas and the
United States at the Rio Grande. It also expanded
the United States by more than half a million
square miles. It completed the expansionist
vision of Manifest Destiny by adding California
and acquiring two of the best natural harbors in
North America, San Francisco and San Diego.
These lands provided a westward-looking nation
with riches, ports, a new frontier, and a push
toward international prominence. How the
United States acquired this vast additional
territory has often been forgotten.
The effect of the war on Mexico was much
more complex. Surrender of California and New
Mexico territories and the disputed border cost
Mexico half of its territory. The trauma of defeat
caused a surge of political and economic chaos
that opened the nation to a new series of
interventions. However, the loss also united a
divided nation with a desire to prevent another
defeat. Against future enemies, Mexicans
abandoned the in fighting and opportunism that
weakened defenses in 1846 and successfully
defended their borders. In time, Mexico
regained confidence, increased domestic unity
and developed national pride based on its
achievements. Nevertheless, the American
invasion has not been forgotten, and an
undertone of distrust lingers in Mexico’s
relations with the United States.
A NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
On June 23, 1992, an Act of Congress
authorized the creation of the Palo Alto
Battlefield National Historic Site at Brownsville
as a unit of the National Park Service. This law
calls for interpretation of the Battle of Palo Alto
and the U.S.-Mexican War, acquainting visitors
with Mexican and American historical
perspectives. Presentations are designed to
emphasize the political, diplomatic, military and
social causes and consequences of these events.
As the first battlefield of the war, Palo Alto
represents a rupture of relations between
neighboring countries that has taken a long time
to heal. As a national park that recalls that war,
Palo Alto Battlefield serves as a reminder that
respect and understanding—not war—is the
legacy toward which both nations must strive.
SOME HEROES & A HEROINE
Wars have a way of making heroes, and the
U.S.-Mexican War certainly had its share of
memorable people, both in and out of battle.
When the war began in 1846, there was
probably no more obscure spot in all the land
than the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Sparsely
populated, covered with thick brush, isolated
from the outside world, it was a most unlikely
place from which to launch a promising career.
Nevertheless, it was here that some of the most
prominent national figures of that century took
their first step toward fame and their niche in
General Zachary Taylor, who became known
as “Old Rough and Ready, the General who never
loses a battle,” was an experienced and highranking
officer when he was ordered to Texas. He
would have to be the first on the list of the war’s
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
heroes, for he fought with great strength and valor
in a war he did not quite approve of initially. His
conduct of the war pleased the American people
and they honored him by making him President.
General Winfield “Fuss and Feathers” Scott
also spent considerable time in the Brownsville
area before commanding the successful
seaborne invasion of Mexico. He was
particularly noted for his magnificent uniforms,
which were in sharp contrast to the “rough and
ready” attire preferred by Taylor. He was
commanding general of the U.S. Army from
1841 to 1861. At the outbreak of the Civil War
he commanded the U.S. Army until November
1861, when age forced his retirement.
General Robert E. Lee made his first trip to
the Valley in 1847 when he was forty years old.
Later he frequently visited Brownsville, including
a trip in 1860 when he was head of the U.S.
Army’s Texas Department to deal with the
Cortina raids. He became close friends with
Captain Richard King, and the Kings named a
son after him. A former superintendent of West
Point, he was an Army engineer, destined to
become the commanding general of the
Confederate forces in the Civil War.
In addition to these seasoned soldiers, a
legendary group of bright young officers, most
of them fresh from West Point, had their first
combat experience in the Mexican War, most of
it in the Brownsville sector. Two of them would
also become president: Franklin Pierce and
Ulysses S. Grant, destined to oppose Lee as head
of the Federal forces during the Civil War. Later,
in his memoirs, he described his experiences
when under fire for the first time during the
battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma.
George Gordon Meade, an engineer who
would also distinguish himself in the Civil War,
was instrumental in laying out the “Old Military
Highway” between Fort Brown and Fort
Ringgold. During the Mexican War he fought
alongside both Taylor and Scott. In 1863
General Meade was in command of the U.S.
Army of the Potomac when it repulsed Lee’s
Confederates at Gettysburg.
Jefferson Davis was another of General
Taylor’s bright young officers. He rose to
prominence later as president of the
Confederacy. A schoolmate of Lee at West
Point, he married General Taylor’s daughter.
General Lew Wallace visited the area several
times after his service with the military during
the Mexican War, the last time on March 11,
1865, to investigate the French occupation of
Mexico. Wallace later became governor of New
Mexico. He wrote extensively of the Brownsville
area, but is best remembered as the author of the
classic novel Ben Hur.
Another young man who became famous for
his work during this period was George Wilkins
Kendall, the nation’s first war correspondent. He
followed the army into its battles, and wrote
detailed, action-packed accounts of the battles.
Swift horsemen sped his reports across the
tangled brushland to Point Isabel, where they
were placed aboard a steamer bound for New
Orleans. He followed the troops on into Mexico,
where he rushed his stories by fast steamer to
New Orleans. His spicy articles made the New
Orleans Picayune one of the best known and
most frequently quoted papers in the country.
After the war he retired from reporting, bought
a ranch west of San Antonio, became a
cattleman, and had a county named for him.
But perhaps the most colorful figure to emerge
from this historic period was not an officer, not an
enlisted man, not a highly educated person, but a
most unusual woman determined to survive in a
man’s world. At that time, a few women would
travel with the armies in a semi-official capacity as
cooks and laundresses. They were usually wives
of soldiers, tough and self-reliant, and willing to
endure the hardships of army life.
Such a woman flashed across the pages of
history in the late summer of 1845 when she rode
her horse into General Taylor’s military camp at
Corpus Christi. Sarah Borginnis, as she was
known in those days, was a lusty woman with
grayish-blue eyes who stood over six feet tall and
was considered rather attractive despite her size.
She had been with Taylor’s forces in Florida
during battles with the Seminoles, and the Army
was her life. Even after her husband was killed in
action, she cast her lot with the soldiers.
Sarah became known throughout the ranks
as “The Great Western,” a nickname which
probably came from the huge steamer of that
name, the largest in the world in the 1830s and
the second steam vessel to cross the Atlantic
without using sails. Perhaps Sarah resembled
that ship under full steam. She was reputed to
Top: Robert E. Lee.
Middle: Ulysses S. Grant.
Bottom: George Meade.
The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo
firmly established the Rio Grande as the
boundary between the United States and
Mexico. This recent map shows the location
of the cities founded by Escandón and major
U.S. cities established later along the border.
be able to lick any man of her size and weight
in the Army and, under provocation, often did.
She also was a motherly person who attained
a semi-official status with General Taylor’s army.
She laundered uniforms, she cooked for the men,
and in battle she maintained a delicate balance
between bravery and compassion, much admired
and respected by the men of Taylor’s command.
She was preparing breakfast when the firing
started at Fort Texas, later named Fort Brown,
and she continued about her business with shells
exploding on all sides. She served breakfast to all
officers and then carried steaming coffee to
artillerymen engaged in returning the enemy fire.
She cared for the sick and the wounded. During
the shelling that killed Major Brown and an
enlisted man, she had many narrow escapes, but
stayed in the open and tended her fires. She asked
for a musket and ammunition and swore to
defend herself to the end.
A couple of weeks after the battles of Palo
Alto and Resaca de la Palma, a delegation arrived
from Louisiana to present a sword to General
Taylor. A dinner was given for the visitors,
during which many toasts were proposed and
drunk. And then Lieutenant Braxton Bragg, an
artilleryman who had served inside the fort
during the bombardment and who became a
general in the Confederate Army, rose to his feet.
He proposed a toast to the “Heroine of Fort
Brown.” All jumped to their feet with loud
cheers to drink to the Great Western.
When Taylor moved his troops into Mexico,
the Great Western rode with him. Along with
her boundless energy, she was shrewd about
money. Somehow she found time to go into
business for herself in an alien land with which
her country was at war. She set up a hotel in
Saltillo, providing rooms, drinks, and good
cooking for the Army officers and other soldiers
looking for relief from their duties. Her fearless
behavior during the Battle of Buena Vista was
highly praised. It was said that Borginnis dressed
many wounded soldiers and even carried them
out of the thickest fighting.
When peace came, Sarah attached herself to
a cavalry unit headed out of Monterrey for
golden California. She got sick along the way
and never made it to the Golden State. After
much suffering and hardship, she ended up in
El Paso, where she opened another hotel
catering to the Forty-Niners. Later she made her
way to Fort Yuma, Arizona, a desolate, scorching
army post established in 1850. There she
married Albert Bowman, an upholsterer, opened
a restaurant in the raw settlement of Yuma, and
operated it until her death in 1866. She was
buried, with full military honors at Fort Yuma,
the only woman ever to be interred in the post
cemetery. After the Mexican War she had been
commissioned a colonel for her services and had
been made a pensioner of the government on
orders from General Winfield Scott.
Sarah’s death marked the end of an era, for
after the Great Western’s war, women were
never again officially permitted to accompany
their husbands into battle.
PART OF THE UNITED STATES
The military expedition and the results of the
war were important to the Rio Grande Valley for
many reasons. It gave the people of Texas and
other states their first accurate information of the
type of country over which the quarrel had raged
for so many years. The feasibility of navigation of
the Rio Grande was proven, and the new frontier
was opened to Anglo-Americans and to the
greater colonization which followed.
The provisions of the treaty between the
United States and Mexico as they relate to the
Lower Rio Grande Valley were: (1) that the
middle of the deepest channel of the river from
El Paso to the Gulf would be the boundary line
between the two republics; (2) that vessels of
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
oth countries should be entitled to navigation
rights; (3) that all citizens living in the territory
previously belonging to Mexico should retain
their property or, in case they wished to sell it,
they were free to remove the funds received from
same without tax or charge; (4) that those
citizens who preferred to remain in the territory
were given their preference of retaining their
Mexican citizenship, provided intention was
declared within one year, (5) or that they could
have the alternative of acquiring citizenship in
the United States with all its rights. Those who
declared no intention within a year were to be
considered United States citizens.
An estimated seventy-five thousand
Mexicans lived in the conquered territory in
1848, most of whom stayed to become U.S.
citizens. One hundred years had passed since
the founding of the first Spanish colony on the
Rio Grande. During this interim, the children,
grandchildren, and later generations of the
original grantee families sometimes became
separated by the great river on which their
homes and lives had been founded.
Although property rights and citizenship
choice were important considerations, the
private lives of the landowners in the old
Spanish jurisdictions living along the north
bank of the Rio Grande were deeply affected.
The settlers often made the property and
citizenship rights and many other decisions with
uncertainty, distrust and bitterness all around.
Accustomed to Spanish law and language, they
had to learn to function under new laws and a
new language. Should they remain on their land
or sell it? If they left it, where would they go
with their families? The year 1848 had to be a
heart-wrenching time for those who decided to
remain in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and to
rebuild their lives there.
Many property owners found themselves
enmeshed in a tangle of title and tax problems as
well as language difficulties. But through all of
their difficulties with language, law and politics,
the families of many of the old Spanish grantees
firmly held to their land, for the love of the land
for which their ancestors had labored was dear to
them. They learned the ways of the new
government and many studied the English
language, preparing themselves for participation
in affairs of the United States. Soon Mexican-
American leaders emerged to take part in the
leadership of the frontier. From Brownsville to
Laredo, descendants of old Spanish and Mexican
families still form a large part of the population.
Texans can point with pride to the work of
the early Spaniards on the Lower Rio Grande,
for the establishment of homes, churches and
schools, for experimentation with irrigation,
stockbreeding, horticulture, and agriculture
from 1748 to 1821.
COUNTIES ARE ORGANIZED
When Taylor’s forces arrived in Corpus
Christi, state officials realized that the Republic
Left: The grandfather of South Texas
counties is San Patricio. From 1836 to
1846, the area had been loosely referred to
as part of San Patricio County, as no
political subdivisions had been established
for the area. While Taylor’s army was
encamped on the Rio Grande, work began
on new political subdivisions.
COURTESY OF THE CORPUS CHRISTI CALLER-TIMES.
Right: In 1846, all of San Patricio County
between the Nueces River and the Rio
Grande was incorporated as Nueces County,
reaching from Brownsville to Laredo.
Cameron and Starr Counties were formed
in 1848; then Cameron was divided and
Hidalgo County was established in 1852.
The first Willacy County was created from
Cameron County in 1911, then divided into
Willacy and Kenedy Counties in 1921 for
the present boundaries as shown.
COURTESY OF THE CORPUS CHRISTI CALLER-TIMES.
Above: This Cameron County Courthouse in
Brownsville was built in 1883 and used
until 1913. It now serves as the Masonic
Lodge 81, A.F. & A.M. The original roof,
with its gables and central tower, was
removed during remodeling. Two
courthouses have been built since this one
COURTESY OF THE HCHC ARCHIVES.
Below: Hidalgo County Courthouse in
Hidalgo, c.1914. Built in 1886, it served
until the county seat was moved to Edinburg
COURTESY OF THE HCHC ARCHIVES.
of Texas had made no effort to establish political
jurisdiction over the disputed territory. For ten
years the area had been loosely referred to as
part of San Patricio County. So, while Taylor’s
army was encamped on the Rio Grande, work
began on the creation of new political
subdivisions. On April 18, 1846, the Texas
Legislature passed a special act which provided
for the organization of one large county to take
care of Texas’ interest, to be known as Nueces
County. It was a massive area that included all
land between the Nueces and the Rio Grande
from Laredo to the Gulf of Mexico.
In the same month that the Treaty of
Guadalupe Hidalgo was ratified, special bills were
passed by the Texas Legislature to create three
counties on the lower Rio Grande, all to be taken
from the territory formerly included in Nueces
County. The first of these was Webb, approved on
January 28, 1848, with Laredo as its county seat.
It was named for James Webb, a judge who
moved from his native Virginia to Texas during its
Republic days and served as secretary of the
treasury and later secretary of state.
Starr County was established on February
10, 1848, with the county seat located at Rio
Grande City, which had been called
Carnestolendas and, after 1846, Davis
Landing. The county was named for Dr. James
Harper Starr, a land commissioner in
Nacogdoches County who became interested
in land ownership in Texas and gave up
doctoring to become a land agent.
Cameron County was established on February
12, 1848, and named for Captain Ewen Cameron
of the Mier Expedition. The first county seat was
the ranching town of Santa Rita, which had
prospered with the arrival of Taylor’s forces and is
considered the first English speaking settlement
in the county. However, the county seat was soon
moved to the fast-growing town of Brownsville.
Hidalgo County was created on January 24,
1852, from the western section of Cameron
County. Supporters of the new county, named in
honor of Father Hidalgo, hero of the Mexican
revolution, said the size of Cameron County
made it difficult to travel to Brownsville to
transact business. Among those who worked for
the new county was John Young, who had
established a town opposite Reynosa called
Edinburgh for his native Scotland. At first, the
county seat was at Edinburgh, which would
later become known as Hidalgo. The new, more
centrally located Edinburg (without the “h”)
would become the county seat on October 12,
1908. It was more than a half-century before
Willacy County was created on March 11, 1911,
from parts of Cameron and Hidalgo Counties,
with Sarita as the county seat. It was named for
John Willacy, who served in the Texas
Legislature and as state tax comptroller. On
April 12, 1921, the present Willacy County was
created from a narrow strip of old Willacy
County and parts of Cameron and Hidalgo
Counties, with Raymondville as the county seat.
At the same time, the larger part of old Willacy
County became present Kenedy County.
Once the counties were established, county
governments were organized and political
jurisdictions established. A new set of laws and
officials began the taming of the borderlands,
establishment of new communities, and the
continued development of the Rio Grande Valley.
Soon the Wild Horse Desert, called El
Desierto de los Muertos (the Desert of the Dead)
by the Mexicans who braved the land of wild
cattle and horses, marauding Indians and
wandering desperados would be no more.
THE EARLY DAYS OF
Until Taylor’s forces established Fort Brown
across from Matamoros, there were only
scattered dwellings and small farms on the
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
northern bank of the Rio Grande. In anticipation
of United States possession, Americans had
begun to establish themselves on the Texan bank
of the river. To do this they began purchasing
tracts of land from the Mexican owners.
Immediately after the war, Charles Stillman,
an American merchant who lived in Matamoros,
saw a future for the land adjacent to Fort Brown.
Therefore, in June 1848 Stillman with partners
Samuel A. Belden and Simon Mussina, in an oral
agreement, formed a partnership named the
Brownsville Town Company. Stillman
commissioned George Lyons to survey a townsite
and lay out lots. The future town would be
named Brownsville in honor of Fort Brown. On
December 9, 1848, Stillman and his partners put
their verbal agreement into a written contract.
The following year there began a long series of
legal battles that would one day end in the
Supreme Court, for the Brownsville Town
Company had been shocked to learn that the
company had no legal titles to the land. They had
learned that the ayuntamiento of Matamoros was
without power to sell the ejidos and that María
Josefa Cavazos, a niece and heir of Francisca
Cavazos, had obtained a decree from the
Congress of Tamaulipas, declaring that Francisca
Cavazos had never been paid for her land taken
for ejidos and that her heirs were entitled to
repossess the land.
The citizens of the newly formed town of
Brownsville now sought relief from the State of
Texas, which had also claimed the land. The
Third Legislature of Texas passed a law on
January 24, 1850, incorporating the City of
Brownsville and relinquishing to the city all of
the state’s rights, title, and interest in the former
ejidos of Matamoros. The Fourth Legislature of
Texas then repealed this act of incorporation
effective April 1, 1852. Then in a special session
of the same legislature, it reincorporated the
city on February 7, 1853, which kindled a long
series of litigation in both state and federal
courts concerning the title to the land.
The dispute was settled by the United States
Supreme Court, which gave final title to the
original grantee. James Stillman, through various
conveyances, obtained the title to the larger part
of the lands in Brownsville, and his heirs then
conveyed their interests to the New York and
Brownsville Improvement Company in 1881.
Within a few months of its founding, the town
increased to over two thousand inhabitants, brick
store buildings were erected, and many residences
constructed. Elizabeth Street was named
for Stillman’s wife, Elizabeth Pamela Goodrich, a
native of Wetherfield, Connecticut. He was thirtyeight
when he went home in 1849 to visit his
mother and to marry Elizabeth, only twenty, a
gentle, educated, religious woman. He brought
her to the new home he built for her in the new
town in this wild and troubled area. She lived in
Brownsville until after their first two children
Since cholera and other diseases were
prevalent, she took the children, James and
Isabel, and left for the north. She never
returned, though Stillman spent some time
each year with his family and they had several
more children. By the end of the Civil War,
Stillman was ill and his trip north in 1865
ended his stay in the Rio Grande Valley.
However, he continued many of his business
interests in the area through his various
partners and later his son James.
Chauncey Stillman, his great-grandson,
who lived in New York, wrote in his book,
Charles Stillman, that “Captains of his
schooners, sailing between New York and
Brazos Santiago, were instructed to stow all
unused cargo space on board with ebony
chunks from the steamboat woodlots so that
the aging Don Carlos might enjoy the stored
energy of the Rio Grande sunshine.”
In 1958 Chauncey purchased the colonialstyle
Stillman home on Washington Street in
which his great-grandparents once lived, and
deeded it to the Brownsville Historical
Association. He also helped financially to
restore and furnish the four front rooms from
heirlooms given to him by his family. It is the
present Stillman House Museum.
In its early days, Brownsville had a population
of Spanish, French, and American merchants
who had been long established in Matamoros,
families who owned the land grants, and former
United States soldiers who had been stationed
there during the U.S.-Mexican War. The dregs of
society were also drawn to the border. They
included escaped criminals, deserters from both
armies of the recent war, gamblers, swindlers and
misfits. Fortunately, the hope of making their
Charles Stillman, founder of Brownsville,
and his wife, Elizabeth Pamela Goodrich
Stillman. The photographs of the
Stillmans are taken from Charles Stillman
1810-1875 by H. Minat Pittman
COURTESY OF THE BROWNSVILLE
Above: William Neale, an English immigrant
to Matamoros in 1834, was the first Anglo
settler to move across the river to the future
site of Brownsville. His home was used
continuously by the Neale family until 1950,
when Mamie Neale Del Valle presented it as
a gift to the Brownsville Art League.
Below: “Kino” Camarillo has lived and
worked at Stillman House for sixty-five
years. In this picture he stands in front of a
pecan tree he planted soon after he and his
family moved into quarters by the courtyard.
There he raised two sons and two daughters,
some of whom now assist at the museum. He
also has worked for sixty years and helped
serve communion at the Immaculate
Conception Church, taking off during World
War II to march through Italy with the
Eighty-eighth Division of the Fifth Army.
fortune in the California gold rush soon lured the
The rush for gold also brought hundreds of
other Forty-Niners through Brownsville,
which became an outfitting point for their
move westward. They had sailed from the east
coast, and their route would take them via
river steamer to Camargo and then by horse
or foot through Mexico to California. Some
decided to stay in Brownsville because of the
climate and the promise of productive land.
Among leading merchants of the time, in
addition to Stillman, were José San Román, a
successful Spanish merchant in both Brownsville
and Matamoros, and Francisco Yturria, born of
Spanish parents in Matamoros. Yturria married
Felicitas Treviño, whose father had been
awarded the San Martín land grant by the
Mexican government. He established the Yturria
Bank in 1854 and had extensive land holdings in
five counties. His descendants remain prominent
in Brownsville’s business and community life
and in the Valley’s ranching industry.
Another familiar name from Brownsville’s early
history is William Neale, an English emigrant
who arrived in Mexico in 1821, settling in
Matamoros in 1834. He operated a stage line
between Matamoros and Bagdad at the mouth of
the river, and later between Brownsville and Point
Isabel. He is said to be the first Anglo settler to
move across the river to the future site of
Brownsville. He lived to age ninety, locally famous
as historian, raconteur, wit and genial host.
Neale’s Brownsville residence, which he built
around 1850, was made of the finest materials
and workmanship, and the one-story frame
building survived the hurricanes of 1867 and
1933. It was used continuously by members of
the Neale family until 1950, when Mamie Neale
del Valle presented it to the Brownsville Art
League. His grandson, also named William A.
Neale, who worked for the U.S. Customs Service
from 1909 to 1932, filled much the same place
in community life that his grandfather had filled
half a century before. He was “oldest inhabitant,”
historian and tester of the truth of old tales.
Brownsville’s early culture was cosmopolitan,
as English, French, German, and Spanish were
spoken. Americans absorbed Spanish customs
and culture as they participated together in the
social, civil, business and military affairs of the
community. Fort Brown played an important
role in the social and political activities of the
community, sharing dances, musicals, and
church entertainment with the citizenry. A
strong French influence also developed through
trade with New Orleans and the arrival of
Catholic priests and nuns from France. The city
was well developed by the beginning of the
1860s, during which it would play a pivotal role
in another great war.
RELIGION COMES TO
There were no churches, preachers or
priests to serve the people of Brownsville and
the far-flung ranches of the area. At the request
of Brownsville citizens, Bishop Jean Marie Odin
of Galveston went to Montreal in 1848 to see if
the relatively new religious order called the
Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate from
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
France would send priests for mission work.
His request was approved, and in 1849 he and
four Oblates started their journey from Canada
to South Texas. They traveled down the
Mississippi River to New Orleans and finally,
two months after they started their trip, they
arrived in Point Isabel on December 2, 1849.
They were welcomed by the townspeople
and given food to eat and a shed for sleeping.
They established a church in Brownsville and
began to visit the outlying ranches, facing disease,
rough terrain, rattlesnakes, and border
bandits. Most had to learn both Spanish and
English, since their native language was
French. The priests faced so many hardships
that they were recalled after a year and a half,
but returned in 1852. From that beginning
grew the Cavalry of Christ, a group of Oblate
priests who traveled by horseback to the
ranches scattered over hundreds of square
miles. A second mission was established in
Roma in 1866 to serve the upper Valley,
including Rio Grande City and west to San
Ignacio. A little chapel was built at La Lomita
Ranch south of Mission to serve as a meeting
place and way station.
Many stories have been told of the Oblates
as they rode their horses to distant ranches,
performing marriages, baptizing children,
preaching sermons, comforting the sick and
dying, and hearing confessions. It is said that,
in twenty-five years, two of the hardier
priests, Father Jules Piat and Father José
María Clos, covered at least 175,000 miles on
horseback, or a distance of seven times
around the earth at the equator.
Father Pierre (Peter) Keralum was an architect
in France before he became an Oblate
priest at age thirty-five. Because of his talents
as a designer and architect, in 1852 he was
sent with the group to Texas. He designed and
supervised the building of the Gothic-style
Immaculate Conception Church at
Brownsville, begun in 1854 and completed in
1859, still a city treasure. He also built a
church in Roma, of which the spire was preserved
when a new church was built, and
inspired several other Gothic style chapels
and churches in the area. But his main love
was serving the people on the ranches, and he
worked for twenty years with the greatest
devotion, visiting the seventy ranches of his
district at least three times a year.
Despite declining health and failing
eyesight, he continued to make his visits, and
on November 9, 1872 he started on horseback
from Brownsville through the mesquite jungle
to distant mission stations, planning to return
around the New Year. But this was his final
trip, as he became lost after leaving the
Tampacuas Ranch, four miles north of the
present city of Mercedes. His horse was found
three days later, but an intense search failed to
find the beloved Padre Pedrito. It was ten
years before two cowboys in search of some
cattle came upon his remains in the dense
brush. His chalice, cross, an altar bell and
other items were found nearby. Thus the
mystery of the beloved lost missionary was
solved. His mysterious death strengthened his
legacy, and he is honored and remembered in
historical publications and museums.
Other religions soon followed the Oblates,
with Presbyterian, Episcopal and Methodist
churches established by 1851. Reverend Hiram
Chamberlain arrived in 1849 and founded the
Presbyterian Church, the first Protestant Church
in the Valley. Moving to Brownsville with him
was his high-spirited young daughter, Henrietta,
who soon caught the eye of the rugged young
riverboat captain named Richard King. They
married four years later and together they
established their famous ranching empire.
Girls from all over South Texas studied at
the Convent of the Incarnate Word and
Blessed Sacrament, which was blessed and
opened in December 1868 to replace the
second convent destroyed in the hurricane of
1867. The Sisters of the order once assisted
St. Joseph’s College by teaching small boys.
The building was razed in 1969.
The Immaculate Conception Church was
designed by Father Peter Keralum, O.M.I.
When built by the Oblates in 1859, it was
considered the finest example of Gothic
architecture in America.
In addition to the need for churches, there
was also a desperate need for education in the
growing community. Responding to that need,
four Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed
Sacrament from Lyons, France, arrived in
January 1853 to establish the Incarnate Word
Academy for young women. In 1854 Reverend
Chamberlain opened a “male school.” Melinda
Rankin, founder of the Rio Grande Female
Institute, gave instructions in “English branches
of education” and in French, music, and
painting, and public education began in 1854.
Schools and churches meant that a city
THE RIO GRANDE
The rapid growth of Brownsville was closely
tied to commercial steamboat navigation on the
river. Today the Rio Grande is a shallow, slowmoving
stream, except in times of heavy rains.
Criss-crossed with bridges and filled with
treacherous sandbars, it is difficult to imagine
that steamboats once moved upstream and
back, filled with people, mail and merchandise.
Yet, for several decades steamboats provided
the main transportation upriver to Rio Grande
City and Camargo, and on to Roma when the
river was high. First, they carried soldiers and
supplies for General Taylor’s army. Then they
carried staple goods and rare tobaccos, rough
lumber and fancy silks for overland transport
by carts and mule trains the rest of the way to
the people of the border and the mining towns
of northern Mexico.
Attempts were made to navigate the
river before the Mexican War, but existing boats
were not adapted for the shallow channels of
the Rio Grande. Neither did Matamoros
merchants encourage river navigation, for they
zealously guarded the lucrative trade with
northern Mexico supplied by trains of carts. It
was not until General Zachary Taylor decided to
use steamboats to take men and supplies
upriver to Camargo during the U.S.-Mexican
War that boats were used successfully.
The Corvette was the first boat brought in
for Taylor’s use—a luxury liner from the
Mississippi, and its skipper was Captain Mifflin
Kenedy. As many as ten steamboats were used
to shuttle men and supplies back and forth
during the war. The military maintained the
boats until the last soldiers had left northern
Mexico about November 1847. Taylor came
back from his famous victory at Buena Vista by
horseback to Camargo, and the steamer Colonel
Cross carried him downstream with young
Captain Richard King at the helm.
When the military mission ended, the
Quartermaster was left with eleven riverboats
of all shapes and sizes tied up in Brownsville,
and they were advertised for auction. The
Colonel Cross went to its former skipper for
$750, and other boats were purchased by
Charles Stillman, who saw a way to greater
wealth by shipping merchandise by boat.
Operating for profit in private ownership,
it soon became apparent that the boats were
not satisfactory on the Rio Grande. They
broke down too often and stuck aground, losing
revenue in delays and costly repairs. They
were not built sturdy enough for the rough
sea from Brazos Santiago to the river mouth
and their cranky engines lacked power.
With hard work, King made a reasonable
profit from his one boat, but the Stillman boats
were losing money. Stillman asked his friend
Mifflin Kenedy to become his partner and turn
the business into a profitable operation, to which
Kenedy agreed if Richard King would join them.
Thus, M. Kenedy & Company was organized in
1850, with the provision that Stillman would
finance the building of special boats for the
navigational hazards of the Rio Grande.
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
King designed two kinds of boats—one a big
and stout brute side-wheeler to carry large loads
from Brazos Harbor to the river mouth and on
as far upstream as practical, and then an upriver
boat with powerful boilers that could “float in a
light sweat.” The boats were built on special
order in Pittsburgh, with the first ones named
the Grampus and the Comanche. The Grampus
took merchandise as far as it could navigate to
their terminal ten miles upriver or on to
Brownsville. Then goods were transferred to the
Comanche for the rest of the route. Other boats
were added, including the Ranchero.
It was a good system and they were blessed
with good luck when the Matamoros
merchants decided to use the steamboats to
transport their goods upriver and into Mexico.
Stillman withdrew after the Civil War and the
name became “King, Kenedy & Company.”
During twenty-four years of continuous
business, the two companies bought and
operated about twenty-six boats.
The Civil War years were turbulent ones
along the river. Just as the steamers were
beginning to move quantities of Confederate
cotton to the booming Mexican port of Bagdad
for shipment to Europe, one of Lincoln’s sloops
of war, the Portsmouth, with twenty-two guns,
arrived at Brazos Santiago. They were sure to
fire on the steamboats, sailing under the
The boats were pulled out of service, but not
for long. In a few days they were flying the neutral
flag of Mexico with a front of Mexican ownership
and registry, which placed titles in the names of
friends and business connections in Matamoros.
Without a change in crew or supervision, the
boats began a boomtime business hauling cotton
under the noses of the Union blockaders, lasting
from the spring of 1862, when cotton was sixteen
cents a pound, until the war’s end in 1865, when
the price ranged from sixty-eight cents to over a
dollar a pound.
They also supplied the Confederate forces
along the border with items that had passed
through “neutral” customs, such as cases of
Enfield rifles labeled “Hollow Ware,” barrels of
gunpowder branded “Bean Flour,” boxes of
percussion caps bearing the legend “Canned
Goods” and the like, as well as food and other
supplies. They emerged from the war with their
boats and fortunes reasonably intact. After
receiving presidential pardons for their rebel
activities, Kenedy and King again hauled
supplies for the U.S. Army quartermaster as they
took stock of the boats and reorganized for
peacetime business. Other companies also
operated steamboats during this period.
The boats became key factors in the economy
of the lower Rio Grande and a wide section of
Above: A painting in the La Borde House
Restaurant in Rio Grande City depicts the
excitement of the townspeople when the
steamboats docked there. They brought
people, merchandise, and news of the
Below: Memories of the steamboating days
are preserved in many ways. This painting
on tile of the Ranchero is in the home of
Laurier McDonald, an Edinburg attorney,
historian, and collector of early Rio Grande
Above: This flier gives the schedule of
Bessie, the last steamboat on the Rio
Grande. After King and Kenedy turned
their attention to ranching, William Kelly
owned and operated the steamboat service.
COURTESY OF GLENN HOUSLEY.
Below: Merchandise is shown being
unloaded from the steamboat Bessie to
wagons at Rancho de Santa María. The
Bessie carried a four-hundred-pound bell
instead of a whistle. After its final trip on
the river in 1902, the bell had several
owners before it was moved to St. Joseph the
Worker Church in McAllen in 1975.
northeastern Mexico. They brought visible
changes along the river as towns and settlements
prospered. Although Rio Grande City was the
year-round head of steamboat navigation,
steamboats could travel to Roma and beyond for
at least the seven months from June to November.
Author-educator Florence Johnson Scott of
Rio Grande City, who did much research on the
steamboat era, said in a visit with the author in
1972: “Many of the businessmen have told me
that the boat whistle would sound at the landing
at Ringgold and no matter what time of the day
or night, everybody would drop what they were
doing and rush to greet it. The boat brought the
mail, the news of the outside world, and people.
They would look at everybody as they got off,
whether he was a gangster, officer, or whether he
was going to spend some money in the town.”
But changes were coming. The steamboat
business experienced a steady decline and by
June 1867 all but one of the steamers were tied
up, idle. In late 1867 the border suffered a
blow which put finishing touches to its already
well-developed postwar depression. A
hurricane roared in from the Gulf and ripped
at Brownsville and Matamoros, causing great
damage to both towns.
Wind and water destroyed the busy wartime
port of Bagdad in Mexico and Clarksville on the
U.S. side, and knocked flat most of the buildings
at Brazos Santiago and Port Isabel. The terminal
of the riverboat captains ten miles upriver was
destroyed and four steamboats were sunk.
The whole economy of the lower Rio Grande
staggered. King seems to have felt this damage
was a signal to quit the river and devote full
time to his ranch, and Kenedy also became a
rancher. Faced with the dwindling away of a
business that had seen golden days but saw
them no longer, the firm was sold to Captain
William Kelly, one of the company’s most able
skippers, who was backed by border
merchants. But the steamboats could not
compete with the Iron Horse.
The Rio Grande Railroad Company built
a narrow-gauge railroad from Port Isabel
to Brownsville in 1871 to carry merchandise
direct from the ships at Brazos Santiago
Pass to Brownsville, and by 1880 a railroad was
built from Corpus Christi to Laredo by the
Texas-Mexico Railroad. This changed the entire
importing system. Merchandise could be
unloaded at Corpus Christi and sent by train to
Laredo and into Mexico. Though efforts already
were under way to bring a railroad to the Valley,
it would be 1904 before the first train roared
The fleet of steamboats which had played
such a great role in the economic life of the
border finally dwindled to one small steamer
named the Bessie. It is said that the last boat ride
was taken about 1903 by a group of students
from Roma who chartered it to ride to
Brownsville to enter an academy and the Bessie
was never heard from again. However, the bell
that announced its arrival to stops along its river
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
TAMING A WILD COUNTRY
WILD CATTLE COUNTRY
The legendary Texas Longhorns had been roaming and multiplying in the wide expanses of the
Texas plains since the 1700s. They were the descendants of the Spanish breeds of cattle brought
first to the West Indies by Columbus, where they thrived and provided stock for export to the later
settlements of New Spain. Cattle also were brought directly from Spain to the haciendas of New
Spain by settlers, and on to the missions over Texas by the padres who hoped to Christianize the
Indians. The cattle provided food and helped make the missions self-sustaining. By the early
1800s, most of the missions had been abandoned and the cattle left to run wild when the padres
became discouraged and the Spanish government withdrew its financial support.
Spanish cattle also were among the possessions brought to the colonies established along the
Rio Grande Valley in the mid-1700s. Ranches were established on both sides of the river and some
of the land grantees built homes and corrals on the north side in what is now the United States,
living for a time on their ranches. However, when hostile Indians swept down and destroyed their
homes, families fled back across the river to the established towns. Again, cattle and sometimes
horses were left behind, which over time produced the wild mustangs of the Wild Horse Desert.
Wild, ownerless cattle of various shades and colors roamed the dry, lonely land looking for food
and water. Only the fittest survived, and they learned to live without the help of man. They thrived
and increased in numbers, becoming heavier and rangier than their forebears. Long-legged and
Wild, ownerless cattle roamed the dry,
lonely land of the Wild Horse Desert. Only
the fittest survived, and they learned to live
without the help of man.
COURTESY OF THE PORT ISABEL HISTORICAL MUSEUM.
A Texas Historical Commission marker
near the Gateway International Bridge in
Brownsville was dedicated in 1995 to
commemorate the southernmost part of the
Chisholm Trail. The famous cattle trail,
named for trailblazer and trader Jessie
Chisholm, allowed Valley and Texas
ranchers to move large herds to the railroad
in Kansas and on to eastern markets.
long-walking as well as long-horned, they
could endure thirst and fight off wolves and
even bears. The curves of the horns, often
beautiful, were as varied as the colors of their
hair, and some older animals had spreads up
to eight or nine feet from tip to tip. Fast as a
deer, wild, and protective of their young, these
animals formed the basis of the cattle industry
of the Southwest.
After the Civil War, about the only thing
Texans found in abundance when returning
home, broke and destitute, were Longhorn
cattle. Though Texas had not been too badly
scarred by the military conflict, the state’s
economy was badly wrecked like that of the
rest of the Confederacy. The borders of Texas
were bulging with Longhorns, hundreds of
thousands without brand and ownerless, but
markets were as scarce as cattle were plentiful.
Outlets to the depressed South and Mexico
were limited, so Texans turned their eyes to
the beef-hungry North. Texas had no railroads
and few roads of any kind. When the Kansas
Pacific Railroad pushed westward across the
prairie and reached Abilene, Kansas, in the
spring of 1867, cattle dealers built a big
stockyard and a hotel and announced that
they wanted cows—lots of them. The word
traveled fast down the Gulf Coast and the
days of the big cattle drives along the storied
Chisholm Trail began, as did the legends
The journey took as long as ten months
and required the stamina of a strong and
durable animal. The raw-boned Longhorn
became king of the trail, for only this longlegged
beast could have tramped up that trail,
enduring the drought, floods and blizzards.
He could rustle his own living, battle swollen
rivers, and race from prairie fire.
A feeder route of the storied Chisholm Trail
that roughly paralleled U.S. Highway 281, took
many thousands of the Longhorns from the
Wild Horse Desert up the trail to Abilene.
In the spring of 1870, Richard King began
the first of his big cattle drives to Abilene,
eleven hundred miles away, across twenty
rivers, through the Oklahoma Territory, and
finally to Abilene. Most of the cattle arrived in
good condition and brought twenty gold
dollars a head. During the years of the trail
drives, more than 100,000 head of King
Ranch cattle headed up the trail to help feed a
beef-hungry nation and to help stock the
ranches of a new industry.
The long trail drives peaked in 1871 with
seven hundred thousand cattle. By 1886 the
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
THE VAST KING RANCH
cattle spree clearly showed signs of playing
out and the end of the trail was in sight.
Railroad transportation was expanding and
northern beef was available again. Times were
changing. By 1890, when the trails were
plowed under and fenced across, ten million
Longhorns had been driven out of Texas. As
rain beat out twenty years of prints from ten
million Longhorns and grass spread over the
three-hundred-mile-wide Chisholm Trail,
cowmen adjusted themselves to a new
economy of fenced ranches, improved cattle
breeds, and shipments by rail.
Longhorns were eventually nearly bred out
of existence in favor of meatier types, but a
few are preserved today in government and
private herds, and a select few are visible to
King Ranch visitors on their guided tours.
Today, few physical traces are left of the
Chisholm Trail, but it served the times well. It
had provided a market when ranchers were
overstocked with cattle and short of cash,
spurred settlement and stocking of northern
ranges, brought down the price of beef for the
housewife and helped make beef the chief meat
item on the dinner table. It had shown Texas
cowmen the need for improved breeds and
given them the means to bring in blooded
stock, as well as to improve their ranches. The
trail drives also gave thousands of young men
an opportunity for adventure and provided
subjects for epic literature, art, movies, and
With the steamboat business going well, in
1853 Captain Richard King accepted an invitation
to attend the Lone Star Fair in Corpus
Christi being promoted by the town’s swashbuckling
founder, Henry Lawrence Kinney.
The fair, over-promoted and under-supported,
proved disastrous for Kinney, but it had a
lasting effect on the area between the Nueces
and the Rio Grande and on the cattle industry
The steamboat business was prosperous
but hazardous, and King was thinking of
other investments, like land. He welcomed
the opportunity to explore the area between
Brownsville and Corpus Christi. The 165-mile
trip took four to five days on horseback
through country usually visited only by
Indians, hide peelers, mustangers and assorted
roaming cutthroats. No one had tried to
buy land in the heart of that desert for many
harsh years, but it appealed to King. Grass
grew almost knee high, with flexible golden
blades bent westward in big billows by the
wind, for only part of the land had been made
brushy by the wandering herds, which could
become the initial stock for a cattle operation.
King and his party came to a creek when
124 miles from Brownsville and still 45 miles
to Corpus Christi. It was called the Santa
Gertrudis, an oasis with cool, sweet water to
refresh the traveler and large mesquite trees
Above: Captain Richard King.
Below: The Santa Gertrudis Creek Bridge.
According to tradition, the bridge dates
back to the Civil War years when wagons
loaded with Confederate cotton crossed
Top: The King Ranch great house became
famous for its hospitality through periods of
war, bandits, droughts, good markets and
bad ones, a stopping place for wayfarers.
Above: Modern day cowboys take time out
to rest and tell tall tales. Several generations
of Los Kineños tended cattle and raised
their families on the King Ranch.
that provided protection from the sun. At the
fair, King and a friend, Texas Ranger Captain
Gideon “Legs” Lewis, formed a partnership to
establish and operate a livestock operation
with headquarters at the site on the creek.
The land was part of a 15,500 acre grant
known as the Rincon de Santa Gertrudis. King
purchased the property, paying the widow of
Juan Mendiola $300, then considered a fair
price, which came to two cents an acre. When
he set up his cow camp by the Santa Gertrudis,
it was the opening gambit of his bid to tame the
Wild Horse Desert, and a sign of his willingness
to do battle with the marauding Apaches from
the north, the bandits who raided from south of
the Rio Grande, and with the tough, intractable
land itself. It was the beginning of a dream he
would pursue for the rest of his life, as would
his family after him.
When King introduced his young
Presbyterian bride Henrietta to the rigors of
early ranch life in 1854, she loved it—danger,
hardships, and all. The Santa Gertrudis
became the headquarters ranch, and on the
spot by the creek where the land was high,
they built their home. The ranch became
famous for its hospitality through periods of
war, bandits, droughts, good markets and bad
ones, a stopping place for wayfarers, a sort of
city of refuge for all classes, presided over by
the gracious Henrietta.
In 1855, King lost his friend and partner,
“Legs” Lewis, to a bullet just as they were getting
organized, a loss keenly felt, but King was
committed to his dream. Soon his friend and
steamboat partner Mifflin Kenedy joined the
ranching enterprise, and they continued to
extend the ranch holdings. Land was cheap, but
it took time to find the owners, their heirs, and
get titles cleared. For this job King chose the
highly respected lawyer, Stephen Powers of
Brownsville. He had come from high posts in
Washington to head the New York Volunteers
during the Mexican War and stayed in
Brownsville to establish his law firm in 1850.
What began as a business relationship became a
friendship that lasted the rest of their lives.
With additional land, more stock was
needed, and they bought cattle from Camargo,
Mier, and other ranches in northern Mexico,
then in a long drought. One little hamlet
found itself without a livelihood after selling
its bony stock. The captain offered to settle the
entire community on the Santa Gertrudis, to
which they agreed. The resulting entrada had
more than a hundred men, women and
children, their belongings piled high on
rickety carretas and packsaddle burros.
The transplanted hamlet took root, furnishing
the seed for a tough, proud, special
breed of vaqueros called Los Kineños, the King
People. Some of their descendants continue to
work on the King Ranch today. Henrietta
established a primary school for the children
and encouraged them to continue their education
in Kingsville and beyond.
During the Civil War, the area between the
Nueces River and the Rio Grande was the
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
ack door to the Confederacy and a way
around the Union blockade of Confederate
ports. King Ranch became a depot on the
Cotton Road over which hundreds of thousands
of bales of cotton were shipped to
Matamoros. From there, the cotton was trundled
to ships of foreign registry and shipped
to European markets.
In 1868, King’s partner, Mifflin Kenedy,
decided to move his family to Corpus Christi,
and the partnership ended amicably. They
divided the cattle equally, and Kenedy
established a ranch on twenty-six leagues of
the Laureles grant just east of the Santa
Gertrudis that he acquired from the brother of
Richard King died in 1885 with debts of
$500,000, as his fortune had gone into fences,
new land and better horses. His widow, with
son-in-law, Robert Kleberg, Sr., as ranch manager,
set about paying off the debts, improving
the cattle, increasing and consolidating the
ranchlands. Henrietta survived her husband
by forty years and left the ranch in good
financial condition in the hands of her son-inlaw
and his son, Robert Kleberg, Jr.
Kleberg found artesian wells that would
produce vital drinking water for the herds and
spearheaded the development of a special
breed of cattle that could function in hot,
humid and unfavorable environments. Called
Santa Gertrudis, the breed was developed by
crossing Indian Brahman with British
Shorthorn. In 1920 those matings produced a
particular bull calf, deep red in color, with
conformation that impressed everyone
involved. They called him “Monkey” and he
became the foundation sire of the first beef
breed that was recognized by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture as being developed
in the United States.
Meanwhile, the ranch had acquired considerable
debt, complicated by estate taxes
after the death of Henrietta King. While initial
oil exploration had been done on the ranch in
the 1920s, it was 1933 before a lease was
entered into with Humble Oil and serious
exploration began. The lease money from
Humble and income from oil and gas production
that began in May 1939 helped retire
debt and finance other activities.
In the ensuing years, the ranch has been a
bellwether of America’s ranching industry, a
producer of some of the all-time top running
and performance horses, and a source of
technology that has led to many significant
advances in livestock and wildlife production
By the year 2000, the King Ranch was
quite different from that cow camp by Santa
Gertrudis Creek. Still a vital part of the area’s
cattle industry, it sprawls across 825,000 acres
of South Texas land, an area larger than Rhode
Island. As the home of 60,000 cattle and 300
quarter horses, it is one of the largest ranches
in the world. Still owned by descendants of
Above: The only Longhorns now seen on the
King Ranch are well-fed, pampered, and
accustomed to being ogled by visitors.
Below: The Santa Gertrudis breed developed
by the King Ranch was the first beef breed
recognized by the USDA as being developed
in the United States. Thousands of Santa
Gertrudis are spread over the King Ranch,
as well as other ranches in the U.S. and
other countries with an environment similar
to South Texas.
COURTESY OF THE SANTA GERTRUDIS BREEDERS
INTERNATIONAL, KINGSVILLE, TEXAS.
Richard and Henrietta King, it is managed
from corporate offices in Houston. Guided
historical and agricultural tours are available
at the King Ranch near Kingsville.
BANKER AND RANCHER
Francisco Yturria in his later years.
COURTESY OF THE BROWNSVILLE
Francisco Yturria, one of Brownsville’s
successful early merchants and its first
banker, also became a rancher. Born of
Spanish parents in Matamoros, Yturria
married Felicitas Treviño, whose father had
been awarded the San Martin land grant by
the Mexican government. He purchased lands
adjoining those of his wife’s inheritance, plus
additional acreage. The large Punta del Monte
Ranch in what is now Willacy County was the
headquarters of an 85,000-acre tract which
produced 2,000 steers per year. Though he
never lived on the ranch, Yturria built a
school and chapel for the families who lived
and worked there, as well as a large house for
Yturria often joined cattle drives with King
and Kenedy. The combined herds sometimes
required three hundred cowboys for the trip up
the Chisholm Trail to Kansas. He brought the
first Angus cattle to the region and contributed
to the building of the St. Louis, Brownsville,
and Mexican Railroad in the Valley.
After his death in 1912, the lands were
divided between Daniel Yturria and Isabel
Yturria Garcia, the two adopted children of
“Don Pancho” and Felicitas. In Willacy and
Kenedy Counties, the Garcia heirs received
properties west of the railroad and the Yturria
families received the lands east of the rail line.
Now divided into several properties on each
side, the Yturria descendants continue to
develop and operate the ranches, a lasting
legacy of “Don Pancho.” His great-grandson
and namesake, Francisco “Frank” Yturria, is
also a businessman and rancher. He raises
Santa Gertrudis and Beefmaster cattle, but no
Longhorns. Frank Yturria has set aside one
thousand acres of his ranch to provide habitat
for endangered species. In April 2000, Texas
Parks & Wildlife chose him as “Lone Star
Land Steward of the Year,” an award given to
ranchers who protect wildlife.
A NATIONAL HISTORIC
Roma’s early history is rooted in the
Spanish colonial period. In 1746 José de
Escandón received permission from the
Spanish Crown to colonize Nuevo Santander,
which extended from the Sierra Madre
Oriental to the Gulf of Mexico and from the
rainforests of Tamaulipas northward beyond
the Rio Grande. By 1752 Escandón had
founded the towns of Camargo, Reynosa,
Revilla, and Mier south of the Rio Grande,
and Dolores on the north bank, followed by
Laredo in 1755.
Land was granted to families willing to
settle in these frontier outposts. By 1763 the
Saenz and Salinas families had established
Rancho de los Saenz north of the river on
lands belonging to Mier. The effort was shortlived,
but a second ranch, Rancho de Buena
Vista, was soon established nearby. By 1840
the rural settlement evolved into the village of
Garcías, and in the late 1840s, the name was
changed to Roma. The origin of the “Roma”
name is uncertain, but probably derived from
a ranch, San Pedro de Roma, across the river.
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
A reminder of the Spanish Colonial legacy
remains in the name of Los Saenz, a small
community on the southeastern edge of Roma
in the area of the first ranch.
In the economic boom that followed the
end of the U.S.-Mexican War in 1848,
steamboats gave the river towns and adjacent
areas access to international trade. Shallow
water made passage to Laredo impractical,
and Roma evolved as the head of navigation
on the river, developing a vibrant economy.
Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century,
Roma prospered as goods bound for Mexico
from the Eastern U.S. and Europe passed
through its dock. By the end of the century,
railroads connected Laredo and large areas of
Northern Mexico to direct trade, making
steamboats unnecessary to transport goods to
the remote region.
Roma had the first post office west of
Brownsville and the Oblates of Mary
Immaculate, a French-Catholic order, chose
Roma as the site of one of their first churches in
the Rio Grande Valley. Our Lady of Refuge
Church was designed by Father Pierre Keralum,
a French architect-turned-priest, and built
under his supervision between 1854 and 1858.
It was one of several Valley churches designed
or influenced by Father Keralum. Though a
new church was constructed at the site in 1966,
the spire and entrances were preserved from the
original Gothic style church.
The layout of Roma reflects the Hispanic
tradition of a plaza, lined with continuous
structures with a church as a focal point. The
plaza is the traditional economic and social
center of Mexican villages, towns and cities.
In general, the structures are fronted by stone
or brick sidewalks and form walled compounds
with large courtyards in the
Hispanic/Moorish tradition. Nearly all of the
“merchant princes” of Roma, whose wealth
was generated from the steamboat trade, lived
on or near the plaza. This great public space
was originally unpaved and without vegetation,
providing a sweeping view of the lands
across the river.
In their variety, the structures of Roma
offer a mixture of architectural styles. Oneroom
native sandstone or caliche block
dwellings recall building traditions familiar to
the original Spanish settlers. Two-story sandstone
homes and businesses of molded brick
exhibit the sophistication of design and construction
techniques brought to the area during
Roma’s mid-to-late nineteenth century
prosperity. Exteriors are painted or plastered
in vibrant colors and roofs are lined with
brick, reflecting the Mexican tradition.
In 1971, the nine-square block area
around the Roma Plaza was designated a
National Historic Landmark District, the
highest designation for historic properties in
the United States.
The district contains over thirty-five
structures built before 1900. Each is a
monument to the courageous, pioneering spirit
Above: Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Church
presides over the renovated plaza in Roma’s
National Historic Landmark District. The
church tower is the only remaining portion
of the church built in Roma in 1854 by the
Below: The Roma Plaza is the heart of the
city’s National Historic Landmark District.
A Walking Tour Guide pinpoints their
locations and gives historical and
architectural information about 35 buildings
in the nine square block area.
Above: This Old Roma Convent near the
plaza was built in the 1880s to serve as the
only convent between Brownsville and
Laredo. The Sisters of Mercy occupied the
property when it was closed in the late
1930s. It has been renovated and preserved
for use as a parish hall.
Below: The John Vale-Noah Cox House was
built by John Vale, a Swedish immigrant, in
1853. The building was later purchased by
Noah Cox, a lawyer from Ohio, and was
used as his residence and headquarters for
his extensive business and ranching interests
during the steamboat era.
of its early settlers and the decades of subsequent
prosperity as an important commercial center for
this area of the Texas/Mexico borderlands.
Historic-minded Roma citizens have
organized The Conservation Fund to preserve
and share the historical reminders of over two
centuries of Texas/Mexico borderlands heritage.
They have developed a walking guide for Roma’s
National Historical Landmark District. It gives
the location, a brief history and description of
thirty-five historic buildings, some of which are
described and pictured herein.
Many of these buildings bear the
distinctive mark of German-born Heinrich
“Enrique” Portscheller, who arrived in Mexico
about 1865 and settled in Roma in 1883,
where he established a brickyard and began
designing and building residential and
commercial structures. Known for his
intricate molded brick detailing and the use of
iron grillwork, Portscheller emerged as one of
the foremost builders in the borderlands. He
left Roma in 1894, spending the remainder of
his life in Laredo. Other examples of his work
can be seen in Monterrey, Laredo, Rio Grande
City, and Mier. One of the streets by the plaza
is appropriately named “Portscheller Street.”
The elegant Parish Hall built in the 1880s
originally housed the convent of the Sisters of
the Incarnate Word (1880s-1913) and the
Sisters of Mercy (1913-1940). A low wall
once surrounded the convent and parking
area. This building was the first of many
designed by Portscheller, whose architecture
dominates historic Roma.
The Roma Restoration Project in the
National Historic Landmark District currently
includes nine structures that reflect a crosssection
of the historic fabric of the community.
The project is intended to become a model
for other preservation projects along Los
Caminos del Rio (Roads of the River) Heritage
Corridor. This binational program for visitors
and residents is designed to bolster economic
activity through promotion and preservation
of the history and culture shared by Mexico
and the U.S. along the lower Rio Grande.
The two-story John Vale-Noah Cox House
was built in 1853 by Swedish immigrant John
Vale. Originally it had a flat roof, with the
hipped roof added in the 1880s. Noah Cox
purchased the property in 1856 and operated
a mercantile establishment on the first floor,
while living upstairs. The front elevation has
finely carved sandstone classical details in the
cornice. Portions of the stone walls that
enclosed the property may still be seen.
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
One of the distinctive buildings by the plaza
that has been restored was built for Manuel
Guerra. Born in Mier, Guerra was educated in
Monterrey and Corpus Christi and returned
briefly to Mier in 1876 to engage in a
mercantile business. Mier was a thriving town
at that time, but Guerra decided to move across
the river to Roma to establish his business.
People came from miles around to trade with
Guerra for goods he personally secured in
Corpus Christi. In 1884 Guerra contracted
with Portscheller to build him a new store. The
store was on the first floor and the Guerra
residence was on the second floor. It was
vacant for many years before its was restored as
part of the Roma Restoration Project.
The Lino Ramirez Residence and Store was
also designed and built by Portscheller in the
1880s. A continuous wrought-iron balcony
once surrounded the second story. The faded
signs for “Cantina” and “Beer” were painted
on the building for the 1953 movie, Viva
Zapata, which was filmed on the Roma Plaza.
Many other buildings around the plaza are
of great interest for their architecture and
history. These include the first mission church
built in Roma about 1829 by priests from Mier,
later used as a dwelling, a library and a
museum; attorney Edward Hord’s 1853 twostory
sandstone office, later the Ramirez
Hospital, and the striking Pablo Ramirez House
that is now the Knights of Columbus Hall.
Along the river at the base of the bluff, the
busy Roma wharf received goods shipped
upriver from Brownsville and Matamoros on
steamboats and barges. The arriving goods
originated as far away as New Orleans, the
Eastern U.S. seaboard, and Europe. The docks
were at the foot of Juarez Street, which was
lined with warehouses and stores.
Another legacy is the Roma-Ciudad Miguel
Alemán suspension bridge across the river to
Miguel Alemán, built in 1928 and the last
remaining of five such bridges that spanned the
Above: The Manuel Guerra Store was built
in 1884 by architect-builder Heinrich
Portscheller. The lower floor was used for
Guerra’s mercantile business and the second
story was the family’s residence. It stood
empty for many years before its exterior
was renovated as part of the Roma
Below: The Lino Ramírez Building, an
example of the highly developed brick
architecture attributed to Heinrich
Portscheller, was built in the 1880s. It was
used as “Rosita’s Cantina” when the movie
Viva Zapata was filmed in Roma in the
1950s with Marlon Brando.
Right: The Roma-Ciudad Miguel Alemán
suspension bridge, which stretches seven
hundred feet across the Rio Grande, was
built in 1928 and is the last remaining of
five such bridges that spanned the river in
the region. It is now a pedestrian only
crossing, standing alongside a newer span
now used for vehicles.
Below: The two hundred-mile stretch of the
Rio Grande from Laredo to Brownsville is
named Los Caminos del Rio (The Roads of
the River). The heritage corridor is rich in
natural and cultural legacies along the
Lower Rio Grande of Texas and Mexico. It
encompasses more than 230 historic sites
along its stretch of the Texas/Mexico border,
many of them in Roma, Rio Grande City,
COURTESY OF THE LOS CAMINOS DEL RIO PROJECT AND
THE TEXAS HISTORICAL COMMISSION.
Rio Grande in this region. It is to be restored
and used as a pedestrian crossing, while the
modern highway bridge that spans the river
nearby is now used for vehicular traffic.
Roma walking tour organizers also invite visitors
to explore the charming plazas, cobblestone
streets and beautiful churches across the
Rio Grande in Roma’s parent city, Mier. Located
on Mexico’s Highway 2, six miles upriver, Mier
is one of the best preserved historic towns along
the entire U.S.-Mexico border. Roma and the
nearby Mexican border towns share a distinct
heritage expressed through stunning architecture,
rich cultural traditions, and family ties that
extend two and one-half centuries into the past.
Today, Roma is still an important port of
entry for trade and tourism. Its bridge takes
eighteen-wheelers filled with merchandise, as
well as sightseeing travelers through Miguel
Alemán to Monterrey over excellent highways in
about two hours. Along with appreciation of its
past, citizens look to the future with targeted
business development, improved infrastructure,
and an invitation to visitors to enjoy dining,
shopping, and the international atmosphere that
is uniquely Roma, Texas.
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE CITY
Rio Grande City brings a storied past filled
with tales of adventure. It was first known as
Carnestolendas Ranch when established in
1753 on a Spanish land grant awarded to
Captain José de la Garza Falcón. A
descendant, Francisco de la Garza Martínez,
was owner in the 1830s when a young man,
Henry Clay Davis of Kentucky, came to the
area as a volunteer with Texan forces in 1842.
In Camargo he met Maria Hilaria de la Garza,
Francisco’s granddaughter, and courted her
“in proper Spanish form.” They married in
1846, with the understanding that Henry
Clay would settle down across the river on
what was then known as the Garza Ranch.
First called Davis Landing, it became a
major trade center along the winding river
route. The distance by steamboat from
Brownsville to Davis Landing was 350 miles;
overland it was only 125 miles, but at that time
the steamboats provided the best means of
moving merchandise and people to and from
the area. In 1848, soon after Starr County was
created, Davis and Captain Forbes Britton laid
out the town to begin the selling of lots, named
it “Rio Grande,” which became “Rio Grande
City” in 1926. Soon it became the county seat.
The town did not boom as expected and
Captain Britton moved on, but the plaza in the
center of the town bears his name.
Also in 1848, Fort Ringgold, first known as
Ringgold Barracks, was established as an army
post following the Treaty of Guadalupe
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
Hidalgo for protection of U.S. citizens from
Indian forays and border bandits. Named
after Major Samuel Ringgold, Fourth Artillery,
who was killed early in the U.S.-Mexican War
at Palo Alto, it was one of the chain of forts of
the system of defense adopted on the western
frontier. Robert E. Lee spent a month at the
fort on court-martial duties in 1856,
remembered by the Lee House in the fort
complex. The fort was rebuilt after the Civil
War and figured greatly in the history of the
area for a hundred years. It was deactivated in
1944 and is now part of the Rio Grande City
Independent School District, which has
renovated several of the buildings for use by
the school system.
Between the Mexican and Civil Wars, Rio
Grande City was the base from which several
revolutionary activities were launched in
Mexico as the people of Northeastern Mexico
did not hold their Central Government in
high esteem. Along the border were gathered
many adventurers lately discharged from the
army that had invaded Mexico and others that
had simply “gone to Texas.” All had a
profound lack of interest in wrestling a plow
or any sweat-producing effort. They were a
picturesque, irresponsible crew ready for a
filibustering expedition, cattle rustling, or a
bit of smuggling.
In March of 1861, with the beginning of
the Civil War, Federal troops withdrew from
Fort Ringgold and it remained in Confederate
hands until near the end of the war. When
hostilities ended, the U.S. government moved
large forces to the border to discourage the
army of Emperor Maximilian in Mexico and
offer aid to the Juarista government. A small
but very decisive battle was fought across the
border near Camargo at a point called Santa
Gertrudis, about ten miles southeast of Rio
Grande City on June 16, 1866. Quite a
number of Americans fought on both sides,
the ex-Confederates favoring Maximilian,
whose troops were soundly defeated. The
battle marked the beginning of the end of his
short reign. A small obelisk on top of one of
the highest hills around Camargo marks the
site of the battle.
Rio Grande City has many interesting
buildings dating from the mid to late 1800s.
Some have been restored and are in use today;
others bear the ravages of time. The most
striking restoration project is the La Borde
House on Main Street. The unusual hotel
owes its origin to an event remote from the
Valley—the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
Francois Laborde (the original family
spelling) was one of several Frenchmen who
came to this country following the fall of
Alsace and Lorraine to the Prussians. They
fled their homelands to avoid serving in the
army of the victors.
By the time Laborde arrived in Rio Grande
City, other French families had already
settled, including Ernest Marks and his
daughter Eva. Francois and Eva married and
he established a bustling trade importing
kidskins and other goods from Mexico.
Top: Fort Ringgold was established in 1848,
rebuilt after the Civil War, and deactivated
in 1944. It is now utilized by the Rio
Grande City Independent School District,
which has modernized many of its buildings.
This entrance is now used by Rio Grande
Above: The Robert E. Lee House is where
Lee stayed when troubleshooting in the
border area prior to the Civil War. In
poor condition, it still stands in the Fort
Above: From its beginning and into the
1900s until the railroad came, ox carts were
an important mode of transportation in Rio
Grande City, as well as all parts of the Rio
COURTESY OF THE HCHC ARCHIVES.
Below: The Silverio de la Peña building,
built in 1886, is typical of the late 1800s
architecture found in the area. Owners
included druggist Silverio de la Peña and
Juan H. Hinojosa, who served as county
tax assessor, U.S. customs officer, and
bank director. It once served as the city’s
During their frequent trips into Mexico, they
admired the brilliantly colored bougainvillea
bush and brought some back to plant around
their home. Friends took cuttings, and soon
the colorful shrubs were growing up and
down the Valley.
A French architect was hired to design a
home for the Labordes, which was completed
in 1899. The architecture is said to be “a mixture
of French, Spanish, and Victorian
Gingerbread.” Later they added a second story
and converted it into a hotel. In 1978, the
aging landmark was purchased by Larry
Sheerin of San Antonio, who farmed extensively
in Starr County. In a magnificent
restoration, he had the hotel completely renovated
and brought up to date, but retained the
original balconies, trim and color. Listed in
the National Register of Historic Places, the La
Borde House now provides distinctive hotel
accommodations plus offices for the Starr
County Industrial Foundation, the Rio
Grande City Chamber of Commerce, and
other community organizations.
The Immaculate Conception School and
Church have served the citizens of Rio Grande
City for well over a century. A replica of the
Grotto of Lourdes in France was built on the
church grounds in the 1920s by Father Gustavo
Goldback, using rocks and petrified wood found
in the county. Dedicated in 1928, two of its statues
came from the Loomis Studio in Paris.
When banker Emory Owen Scott brought
his young wife Florence to Rio Grande City in
1919, she protested that, “I don’t like this
little old town,” but he assured her it was only
for a year. She lived there for over sixty years,
becoming a school superintendent for thirty
years. She brought in teachers for the growing
schools and encouraged them to continue
their education, as she did herself.
She also became a writer. Her first and
best-known book, Historical Heritage of the
Lower Rio Grande, first published in 1937, was
based on her University of Texas master’s thesis
on the Spanish colonization of the area.
This book became required reading in the
area of mineral and water rights at many law
schools. In her later years, scholars came from
near and far to get historical information,
often at her home on Sunday afternoons, and
she was widely sought as a speaker for both
men’s and women’s organizations.
Florence Johnson Scott’s legacy, in addition
to the many lives she touched, includes her
books about the heritage of the Rio Grande
Valley and Northern Mexico. Her Historical
Heritage of the Lower Rio Grande was expanded
and reprinted in 1966. Old Rough and Ready
(1935 and 1969) is a story of General Zachary
Taylor, and Royal Land Grants North of the Rio
Grande: 1777-1821 was published in 1969.
From the Civil War until the railroad finally
came in 1925 and oil was discovered in 1929,
Rio Grande City remained a quiet ranching
town with an occasional political feud. In the
decades since, its isolation has ended and its
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
economy has diversified. Irrigated farms add
vegetables and melons to the agricultural
economy, and industrial activity is increasing.
Descendants of some of the early Spanish
settlers have lived on their land in Starr
County for many generations, and their
names can be found in business, education,
the professions, and political offices throughout
the Valley and beyond.
Rio Grande City’s future, as its past, is
consigned to the river and the promise of
commerce that it holds, linking families,
friendships and economics with a special kind
of friendly hospitality and cultural continuity.
THE BORDER CITY OF HIDALGO
The earliest settlement in what is now
Hidalgo County, and the only town in the
county until the railroad roared into the Valley
in 1904, dates back to the early Spanish
settlers. A mission was established by the José
de Escandón colonists in 1749 on the site
where Hidalgo now stands. It soon grew into a
town called La Habitación, with a ferry
operating across the river. After Hidalgo
County was established in 1852, the town was
designated the county seat and given the name
of Edinburgh (with an “h”) by John Young, a
Scotsman who operated a trading post in the
county with E. D. Smith and John McAllen.
The name was changed to Hidalgo in 1876.
The flooding waters of the Rio Grande swept
away the town more than once. Each time the
residents returned and rebuilt it. To replace two
smaller, earlier structures, a new courthouse and
jail built of brick were completed in December
1886 at a cost of $20,000. In 1893, Lieutenant
W. H. Chatfield, after completing a tour of duty
at Fort Brown, wrote in his Twin Cities of the
Border and the Country of the Rio Grande:
and everything about it is complete and tasty.
(The second floor and cupola were later
destroyed by fire and were not replaced.)
Census figures of 1890 showed Hidalgo
with 389 people. In addition to the fanfare of
county business from small settlements and
ranches, Hidalgo had two churches, at least
one general store, and more than one private
school. There was a U.S. Customs Service
station on this side of the Reynosa ferry,
which served the neighboring villages. Also,
the U.S. Army kept a small staff of soldiers to
help maintain a telegraph line that connected
Fort Brown and Fort Ringgold. The county’s
first telephone system was installed in
Above: The La Borde House was completed
in 1899 as a home for the Laborde family
and later was enlarged and converted into a
hotel. Carefully restored in 1978, it serves
as a hotel and provides offices for several
Below: The Grotto of Lourdes by the
Immaculate Conception Church that faces
the plaza is a replica of the Grotto of
Lourdes in France. It was built in the 1920s
using rocks and petrified wood found in
The county courthouse is a handsome
brick building. A neat iron fence extends
around the grounds, which embrace two
acres, seeded with grass, trees and shrubs. The
interior of the courthouse is handsomely finished
in hardwoods; the spacious rooms and
very high ceilings are thoroughly lighted and
ventilated by large windows and doors. A
symmetrical cupola surmounts the building
Above: Transportation between Reynosa and
Hidalgo was by canoe, boat or ferry until
the first bridge was built in 1926. In this
photo a launcha or rowboat brings visitors
to Hidalgo from Reynosa.
COURTESY OF THE CITY OF HIDALGO.
Below: People wait their turn to do business
at the Customs House in Hidalgo about
1915. Note the activity on river bank
on the left.
COURTESY OF THE CITY OF HIDALGO.
Hidalgo, connecting the county seat with
neighboring ranches and plantations. Hidalgo
County census totals showed 4,437 in 1880
and 6,534 in 1890.
Many events of historic significance
happened in the fifty-six years that Hidalgo
was the government center: lawlessness,
Indian raids and at least one hanging in the
jail. One year the office of sheriff was held by
seven different men. However, times were
more peaceful and the area had a more
progressive outlook by 1908.
Concerned that continued flooding would
destroy county records and needing a more
central location for the county seat, a special
election was held on October 10, 1908, to
decide whether to move the county seat to the
new town of Chapin. Despite the fact that
there were no buildings in Chapin, only tents
with wooden sides, it was chosen as the new
Many county residents were upset by the
election and talk soon grew violent. By dawn
the next day, the county records had been
hurriedly packed up and loaded into a wagon
train. Armed guards escorted the train, which
also carried bricks to build a vault. Chapin
soon changed its name to Edinburg “(without
the “h”), which grew very fast and continues
to serve as the seat of county government.
The old brick jail and courthouse fell into
disrepair. In 1963, when the first historical
medallion placed by the Hidalgo County
Historical Commission was put on the old
courthouse, it was being used to store hay. The
adjacent Border Bank, now the Texas State Bank,
acquired the buildings and launched restoration
plans. The buildings were beautifully restored
and official Texas Historical Markers dedicated
in 1983. The hardwoods mentioned by
Chatfield are there again, and the handmade
bricks that were dirty and/or broken were
scraped and cleaned or replaced by others made
in the same factory as the originals in Reynosa.
The bank utilizes some of the space and the
restored courthouse serves as headquarters for
the Hidalgo County Historical Commission and
the Hidalgo County Historical Society.
Of special historical interest is the Hidalgo
Pumphouse Heritage and Discovery Park. This
first-class museum in the restored pumphouse,
the only one remaining of some thirty such
installations, shows how the Valley was turned
from brushland to lush farmland by irrigation.
The Louisiana-Rio Grande Canal Company
installed the first steam-powered pump in
1909, and by 1912 four steam pumps were in
operation distributing water to the McAllen,
Pharr, San Juan, and Alamo areas through a
well-designed canal system providing water
both for irrigation and domestic use.
The first steam boilers were fired with
mesquite wood from newly cleared land,
requiring up to two hundred laborers to
provide wood and operate the system. By
the early 1920s, crude oil, and later,
natural gas, became the fuel. Originally
constructed to irrigate forty thousand acres,
the system is now operated by Hidalgo
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
County Irrigation District No. 2 to supply
water to seventy-two thousand acres. The
plant was abandoned in 1983 in favor of an
all electric unit a mile downstream and was
partially dismantled. Then, heeding the pleas
of preservationists, it was donated to the City
of Hidalgo for renovation as a museum and
agricultural heritage park.
Now visitors can stroll along catwalks to
the recorded roar of the old steam engines and
gaze thirty-five feet down at monstrous
engines that could draw 350,000 gallons of
water per minute from the Rio Grande at full
capacity. Its Robert E. Norton Visitor Center
has a model steam engine among its many
The center’s grand opening on April 18, 1999
culminated seventeen years of work by
volunteers and the cooperation of many
organizations. Bob Norton, president of the
Heritage Foundation of Hidalgo County, said,
“The thirty or so pumphouses built along the
river in the early 1900s were instrumental in
changing the Rio Grande Valley from arid
brushland where cattle grazed to a lush
agricultural hub. The early enterprises with fruit
and vegetables and the shipping industry laid the
foundation for the Valley as we know it today.”
As an important gateway to Mexico
through the busy McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa
International Bridge, customs houses and
cambios (currency exchanges) are major
businesses in Hidalgo today. Several produce
companies have packing sheds there, and some
large Reynosa maquiladoras (manufacturers)
have their U.S. headquarters in the growing
city of Hidalgo.
THE STORIED CITY BY
THE SEA: PORT ISABEL
The attractions of sun and sea drew early
Spanish colonists to what is now Port Isabel in
the late 1700s for recreation and travel to the
outside world. In 1828 a ranch settlement was
formed on the narrow peninsula extending
into the Laguna Madre on a Mexican land
grant awarded to Don Rafael García. The thirty
thousand acres of land was called El Frontón
de Santa Isabel (bluff of Saint Isabel) and
included the present site of Port Isabel.
Legend has it that many French, English
and Portugese pirates used the serene harbor
and its inlets as a safe refuge to hold their
rendezvous and divide their spoils from their
forays on Spanish shipping. Though they left
no written records, a rich fund of legendary
lore has been handed down, embellished by
After they were forced out of New Orleans
in 1817 and then booted out of Galveston in
1821, the swashbuckling pirate Jean Lafitte
and his brother Pierre used the port as a base
to raid Spanish commerce sailing out of
Veracruz. Port Isabel was ideal for their
purpose. The Laguna Madre made a perfect
refuge for the shallow-draft pirate vessels
while fleeing the larger men-of-war, for they
could slip through the Brazos Santiago Pass
Top: The old two-story Hidalgo County Jail
was carefully restored by Border Bank, now
Texas State Bank, in 1983 and is used by
the bank for special purposes.
Above: The 1886 Hidalgo County
Courthouse, which lost its second story in a
storm and was never replaced, was also
restored by the bank in 1983. It now
serves as headquarters for the Hidalgo
County Historical Commission.
COURTESY OF CHUCK SNYDER.
Above: The Hidalgo Pumphouse Heritage
and Discovery Park owned and operated by
the City of Hidalgo is a first-class museum,
complete with the recorded roar of old
steam engines. The restored pumphouse is
the only one remaining of around thirty
such installations built in the Valley by
COURTESY OF CHUCK SNYDER.
Below: The new Hidalgo City Hall
provides additional space for this growing
border city, just a bridge away from big,
and drop anchor off what is now Laguna
Vista. There they dug a well and found fresh
water, still known as “Lafitte’s Well.”
Under Spanish rule, citizens were
permitted to trade only with Spain through
the Port of Veracruz, but under Mexican rule
Matamoros commerce began to utilize the
excellent harbor of the Port of Matamoros in
1824. A Mexican Customs Station was located
there in 1844, a year before General Zachary
Taylor and his men marched down from
Corpus Christi. There were some substantial
buildings, which the Mexicans attempted to
burn before deserting the town, but the
troops arrived in time to save most of them.
Taylor established Fort Polk, named in
honor of the U.S. president, as his supply port
to receive soldiers and supplies. Since the
civilians were not allowed to remain close to
the port, they established their village around
the fort and adopted the name of Point Isabel.
The little seaport town played an important
role in the history of the Southwest since it
was the key to the army’s whole campaign
during the Mexican War as the port of entry
for replacements of men and material.
Among those who settled in the new
village after the war were five brothers of the
Champion family, who came from the
seacoast village of Rovigno in the Italian
province of Istria. They were in New Orleans
in 1846 when that city became the
embarkation point for a tremendous
movement of troops and war materials being
shipped across the Gulf to Fort Polk.
Experienced through their years at sea, the
brothers aided in operating a great fleet of
chartered transports. After the war, the
Champions purchased lots, married, and
entered various businesses in the area. There
are many Champions in the Valley who can
trace their roots to these seamen from Italy.
Commerce through the port continued
after the U.S.-Mexican War ended in 1848.
Because of the heavy shipping traffic through
Brazos Santiago Pass, a navigational light was
needed, and a lighthouse was authorized by
Congress during the Taylor presidency. The
brick tower, begun in 1851 and completed
two years later, was topped by a stationary
white light that could be seen for almost
sixteen miles. In 1859 an estimated $10
million in export and import goods passed
through Point Isabel, and customs records
show that from fifty to a hundred vessels were
anchored at a time in Brazos Pass off the
sandbar that often impeded shipping, or tied
up at Point Isabel on the mainland.
The Civil War period was a difficult one for
the area, with a federal garrison on Brazos
Island to try to enforce the blockade on the
South’s cotton and the Confederates in control
on the mainland until 1863, when the area
fell to Union troops. Confederate Colonel
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
“Rip” Ford hid the lamp lenses from the
lighthouse for the rest of the war so it could
not guide Union ships into the harbor.
Though the Confederates regained control of
the mainland in 1864, the blockade of the
port and occupation of Brazos Island
continued until peace finally came in 1865.
In 1866, the lighthouse was repaired and
relit, and its beacon guided large numbers of
commercial vessels to the port. Until 1904 the
Port of Brazos de Santiago was the only avenue
of commerce to the Rio Grande country except
the stage line from Brownsville to Alice. The
Morgan Line steamships made regular runs
down from New Orleans and Galveston. They
delivered their goods to lighters, open barges
that could move through the shallow waters,
for transport across the sandbar and the bay to
Port Isabel. For a time goods moved upriver
on steamboats to Brownsville, and then freight
teams of oxen and mules delivered the goods
to interior Texas and Mexico. Then Simon
Celaya, Joseph Kleiber, and other investors
from Brownsville built the narrow-gauge Rio
Grande Railroad from Port Isabel to
Brownsville in 1872 in response to public
demand. It did a thriving business, chugging
back and forth every day.
In 1975, Ramona Valente Barrientos, then
ninety-two, reminisced about her youth in Point
Isabel with Teresa Chapa Alamia of Edinburg, in
“Queen of the Waterfront” in Valley Byliners’
Roots by the River. Ramona’s father, Antonio
Valente, came from Palermo, Italy in 1884,
married Ramona Dominguez of Corpus Christi,
and Ramona was the oldest of their six children.
Everything had to be brought from
Brownsville on the famous little train that
everyone knows about. So, the most
important events of every day were the arrival
of the train at 10 a.m. and its departure at 3
p.m. Everybody would gather around to wait
for fresh bread, the mail, workers, visitors,
supplies, everything. The supplies that came
for the Champion Store, the one and only
store, were certainly the most important.
In 1899 Charles Champion built the
Champion Building and operated a large
mercantile store that he named “The Key to
the Gulf.” It faced the terminus of the Rio
Grande Railroad and was adjacent to the
depot. “It had every kind of merchandise
from baby nipples to stoves, food, kerosene
lamps, yard goods and lace,” recalled
Ramona. “The long, long counter extended
the length of the store, and I remember
walking up and down until somebody waited
on me. Don Carlos Champion, whose family
also came from Italy, was the tall, handsome
owner of the two-story structure.”
Champion commissioned a mural showing
area marine life on the storefront. Artist, José
Moreles García, who had lost his left arm
entirely and had only four fingers on his right
hand, painted the mural directly onto the
brick. The renovated Champion Building,
complete with the restored mural, is now the
excellent Port Isabel Historical Museum with
outstanding exhibits of the history of Port
Isabel and the entire Rio Grande Valley. In May
2000 the Treasures of the Gulf Museum
opened in an adjacent building to form the
Museums of Port Isabel.
During the 1890s and early years of the
twentieth century, the Brownsville-to-Point
Isabel train continued to run, but with
decreasing success. It transported less and less
cargo, although it was a very popular
excursion train for vacationers and summer
visitors from Brownsville. In 1904, however,
Brownsville was linked by rail to Corpus
Christi, and Point Isabel was almost
completely bypassed by the maritime trade.
Above: Legends abound about early
day pirates who slipped through the
Brazos Santiago Pass and preyed on
Below: The Port Isabel Lighthouse guided
ships to the coast for many years after it
was built in 1852. It was abandoned in
1903, then restored and opened as a state
park in 1952 and closed again in 1997.
After a $1-million restoration by Parks and
Wildlife and the Texas Department of
Transportation, it reopened with a grand
celebration in October 2000. Its light again
glows at night and the popular landmark
now serves as a beacon for visitors.
Above: Charles Champion, whose sailing
ancestors came from Italy during the U.S.-
Mexican War, established The Key to the
Gulf General Store in 1894. Together with
his friend, Judge James B. Wells of
Brownsville, Champion purchased the
townsite of Port Isabel and refused to zone
or to collect rent from poor fishermen.
Champion lived with his wife and six
children above the Champion Store, long the
focal point of the community.
COURTESY OF THE PORT ISABEL HISTORICAL MUSEUM.
Modern development began in 1926 when
the Port Isabel Townsite Company acquired
the townsite, leveled the bluff, and made
elaborate plans for “Building a city where a
city belongs,” but the depression came along
and disrupted their plans. The name was
changed officially from Point Isabel to Port
Isabel on March 13, 1928. Then came paved
streets, modern utilities, a yacht basin, and a
The lighthouse, which was abandoned in
1903 after shipping traffic declined, was
renovated and opened as a state park in 1952.
Completely restored to its 1880s appearance
in 2000, it is now a beacon for visitors.
Traditionally, Port Isabel has held to its
seafaring heritage. Shrimping continues to be
an important industry, with the catch of its
shrimp fleet sold fresh and through its freezer
plants. It also has a reputation for excellent
sports fishing. Dr. J. A. Hockaday initiated the
Texas International Fishing Tournament in
1934 to draw attention to the area’s great
fishing, and the annual mid-summer T.I.F.T.
continues to draw fishing enthusiasts from
across the nation to Port Isabel and South
A factor that has contributed much to the
importance of both Port Isabel and Port
Brownsville is their connection with the
Intracoastal Waterway, the inland water route
that gave the coast of Texas direct water
transportation to Chicago and the Great Lakes
region. It also connects with the Mississippi River
and all of its tributaries and continues through to
the Atlantic Seaboard to form over thirty
thousand miles of navigable inland waterways.
Only private boats and ferry service
provided access to Padre Island until 1952,
when the first causeway was built by Cameron
County and development of the island as a
vacation destination began. The first
causeway was replaced in 1974 with the new
Queen Isabella Causeway. The longest bridge
in Texas, it soars 88 feet into the sky and
spans 12,510 feet across the blue Laguna
Madre and the Intracoastal Waterway to
Right: The little Rio Grande Railroad
chugged back and forth between Port Isabel
and Brownsville for three decades until the
St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railroad
arrived at Brownsville on July 4, 1904.
COURTESY OF MARION MOYER.
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
connect Port Isabel to the world-class resort
of South Padre Island.
Port Isabel’s excellent port facilities,
extensive shrimping fleet, splendid recreational
fishing, outstanding schools, and its citizens’
pride in its historical sites highlight the “Storied
City by the Sea” of today.
EARLY FOOTSTEPS ON
PADRE’ S SANDS
Many people left their footprints on the
sands of South Padre Island for a brief time
before the shifting dunes and onrushing tides
erased them. Its first known inhabitants were
the fierce Karankawa Indians, who roamed
the dunes and beaches of Padre and fished
along its shores long before Columbus discovered
the New World. The tragic shipwreck of
twenty Spanish galleons in 1553 is described
earlier in this book in “The Great Shipwreck
off Padre Island.”
It was about 1829 that the island was
granted to Padre Nicolás Ballí by Mexico.
With his nephew, he established a ranch
known as Santa Cruz about twenty-six miles
north of the mile-long granite jetties that now
border historic Brazos Santiago Pass. Their
cattle thrived on the sea oats and varied plant
life of the rugged dunes for a time before the
ranch was abandoned, and it was from Padre
Ballí that the island got its name.
Another shipwreck brought a couple of
wealth and influence from the East to become
one of Padre’s most famous families. John
Singer and his wife Johanna were headed for
Port Isabel to establish a shipping business
when a storm wrecked their schooner on a
stretch of the island near the old Padre Ballí
ranch. After living for two weeks in a tent they
made from one of the schooner sails, they
decided to stay on the island. They built their
first home from driftwood, acquired cattle,
and engaged in various enterprises. The
Singers worked hard, as did their children
when they were old enough.
The Singers’ island empire ended with the
Civil War and the approach of Union troops.
The family departed hurriedly at night, planning
to return after hostilities ceased to
retrieve their fortune. They left their cattle
behind, providing an easy answer to the food
supply problem for the Union forces. For over
a year after the war, they looked for the treasure
they had buried but could never find it.
Johanna died in 1866, and John Singer left
Padre, never to return. Many treasure hunters
have searched for the Singer fortune since,
but it has never been found.
Other adventurers trod the sands after the
Civil War. Among them was Pat Dunn of the
Corpus Christi area, who emerged in 1879 to
claim it for his own and to run cattle on its
dunes until 1926. Among the first to envision
Padre as a playground was San Benito founder
Colonel Sam Robertson, who turned his
attention to the island in 1926. He operated
ferries at both the northern and southern
ends, together with picturesque wooden
Top: The Key to the Gulf store in the early
1900s, showing its distinctive marine life
murals painted by one-armed artist José
Moreles García in the early 1900s.
COURTESY OF THE PORT ISABEL HISTORICAL MUSEUM.
Above: The Port Isabel Historical Museum
is housed in the carefully renovated
Champion Store with its marine murals
restored. Inside, exhibits present the history
of the Rio Grande Valley and the coastal
area in paintings, photographs and exhibits.
A walk through the courtyard takes visitors
to the Treasures of the Gulf Museum,
opened in mid-2000.
Below: A statue of Padre Nicolás Ballí, for
whom the island is named, welcomes
visitors to South Padre Island.
hotels at each landing. When a hurricane
destroyed the hotel on South Padre in the
depression year of 1933, dreams of developing
the island as a resort were shelved. It was
not until 1952 that the long-awaited causeway
brought its dunes and beaches within
easy reach of motorists. Hotels and motels
were built, private lots were sold, and the
island soon became a favorite vacation spot.
The Town of South Padre Island was
formally established at the southern tip in
1973, and the island now has a growing
community of permanent residents who have
put down roots in the shifting sands. Its
hotels and motels, restaurants, natural and
man-made attractions, and specialized
businesses rival those of any resort in the
country. They welcome a constant stream of
visitors who come to enjoy the sun, sand, sea
and legends, as well as the modern facilities.
TWO LEADERS DURING
Hero or villain? Patriot or bandit? Violent
times breed violent men, and the unsettled
times along the border from the 1830s to the
1870s were filled with violence that bred heroes
and villains, and some who were both heroes
and villains. Sometimes they fought against
each other—and sometimes they befriended
each other. In examining the history of the Rio
Grande Valley, two such men reappear over
several decades: John Salmon “Rip” Ford and
Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, both products of
their times. Several books have been written
about each of them, and Ford wrote his own
version of his life and times in Rip Ford’s Texas.
A South Carolina native, Ford moved to
Texas in 1836 at age twenty-one and served in
the Texas army until 1838, then settled in San
Augustine. He had “read medicine” and
practiced medicine there until 1844, when he
was elected to the House of the Ninth Texas
Congress, where he introduced the resolution
to accept the terms of annexation to the
United States. His next move was to Austin as
editor of the Austin Texas Democrat, a career
he returned to from time to time in later years.
During the Mexican War, Ford was in
command of a spy company, during which he
acquired the lasting nickname of “Rip.” When
officially sending out notices of deaths, he kindly
included at the first of the message, “Rest in
Peace.” Later, under the press of battle
conditions, this message was shortened to “R.I.P.”
Later he became a captain in the Texas
Rangers, where he had numerous Indian fights.
He was sent to the Rio Grande in 1859 to
match wits with Cortina and his followers, who
had terrorized the Brownsville area for several
months and kept eluding local authorities.
With the help of another Ranger company and
troops from the U.S. Army, Cortina and his
men were driven across the river at Rio Grande
City and they stayed in Mexico—for a while.
In 1861 Ford served as a member of the
Secession Convention, was elected colonel of
the Second Texas Cavalry, and placed in
command of the Rio Grande District. It was
his suggestion that led to the registration of
steamboats under the Mexican flag so they
could transport Confederate cotton to the
port of Bagdad and onto ships headed for the
cotton mills of Europe. In 1862 Ford was
moved to Austin as commandant of new
recruits, still keeping an eye on border
operations protecting Confederate-Mexican
trade. He led a group of Confederates to take
Brownsville back from Union forces in 1864,
and in 1865 led Confederate forces in the
battle of Palmito Ranch, the last battle of the
After the war, he made his peace with the
U.S. forces and was placed as commissioner of
paroles for the Confederate troops in the area.
He was a great aid in establishing peaceable
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
elations between the beaten Confederates and
the victorious Yankee forces.
Ford was in and out of Brownsville for many
years, as editor of the Brownsville Sentinel, as a
cattle and hide inspector in 1873, and, in 1874,
he was mayor of Brownsville. He served in the
Texas Senate from 1876-79, where he urged the
promotion of immigration to Texas and popular
education, supported in part from the sale of
public lands. He spent his later years writing
reminiscences and historical articles, and lived
to be a charter member of the Texas State
Historical Association before his eventful life
ended at age 82 in San Antonio in 1897.
Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, nicknamed
“Cheno,” was one of the most colorful and
controversial figures of the Rio Grande Valley.
He was from a respected, established family
which had held high offices in Camargo under
Spanish and Mexican rule. His mother, Dona
Refugio Cavazos, was the grandchild of José
Salvador de la Garza, the original grantee of the
Espíritu Santo grant, which included
Brownsville. Cortina served in the Mexican
army during the U.S.- Mexican War, after which
his mother moved the family to her ranch about
seven miles north of Brownsville. All members
of the family became U.S. citizens.
Cortina preferred the outdoor life and did
not become educated like others in his family.
Though he did not learn to read and write, he
was a natural leader and became a champion
of the tejanos, who often felt powerless and
disenfranchised under their new rulers. He
resented the way some of the newcomers to
Brownsville acquired their land and the legal
entanglements that resulted, and he felt that
the courts and politics favored the newcomers.
His anger grew and, as the result of an incident
involving a former employee, Cortina and a
large mob of tejanos and mexicanos raided
Brownsville on September 28, 1859. “Viva
Cheno Cortina! Mueran los Gringos! Viva la
Republica de Mexico!” the mob shouted. They
held the city for three days and five citizens
Thus began the “Cortina War on the Rio
Grande.” Many of the economically deprived
and politically disenfranchised from both
Brownsville and Matamoros hastened to join
the rebel leader until he had a force of five to
six hundred. Two companies of Texas Rangers
came, the first headed by Captain W. G. Tobin,
and then Captain Rip Ford and his Rangers
arrived. Raids and skirmishes continued for
five months until the U.S. Army was called in.
Upon arriving in Brownsville, Major Samuel
Heintzelman reported, “The whole country from
Brownsville to Rio Grande City, 120 miles, and
back to the Arroyo Colorado has been laid waste,
the citizens driven out, their horses and cattle
driven across the Rio Grande into Mexico.”
Finally, after a series of battles along the
Military Road and back and forth across the
river, the hostilities ended with Cortina’s
expulsion from Texas at Rio Grande City by
the Texas Rangers and U.S. Army forces. In the
lull following the fight at Rio Grande City, the
steamboat Ranchero tried to make its way from
Rio Grande City to the mouth of the river with
a valuable cargo, including $60,000 in gold
and silver coins.
La Bolsa Bend, which lies about thirty-five
miles above Brownsville, was a great loop in
the river, with the open part facing Mexico. On
the Mexican side was the rancheria of La Bolsa,
and there Cortina established himself with an
estimated two to four hundred men to attack
and raid the Ranchero. Ford and his Texas
Rangers arrived, along with another group of
Rangers under Captain Tobin. A violent, noisy
skirmish ensued. The Ranchero managed to
escape intact, the Rangers won the battle, and
Cortina and his men fled into the mountains.
As Cortina was in retreat, Colonel Robert
E. Lee assumed command of the military
Department of Texas and set out for the Rio
Grande, arriving at Ringgold Barracks in
April 1860. He witnessed the damage done to
the people and the countryside, noting that
many ranches had been destroyed or
abandoned. He sent letters to officials in
Reynosa and Tamaulipas with ominous
overtones of what would happen if the
“banditry” along the river continued. As
peace came to the Rio Grande frontier, Lee
rode north to San Antonio, soon to be
engulfed in events of greater importance.
Cortina took refuge in the Burgos Mountains
near Ciudad Victoria and became active in the
military and political life of Mexico. He actively
supported the Juarista government, which was
Top: John Salmon “Rip” Ford.
COURTESY OF THE BARKER TEXAS HISTORY CENTER,
THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS, AUSTIN, TEXAS.
Above: Juan Nepomuceno Cortina.
COURTESY OF THE BROWNSVILLE
Above: During the Civil War, Juan Cortina
became governor and military commandant
of Tamaulipas. This drawing depicts a fight
between the forces of Cortina and Manuel
Ruiz in the streets of Matamoros. This
illustration was taken from Leslie’s
Illustrated Newspaper, February 20, 1864.
Below: The Battle of La Bolsa occurred at
La Bolsa Bend about thirty-five miles
upriver from Brownsville. The fight occurred
around the steamer Ranchero, which was
carrying a valuable cargo, including gold
COURTESY OF GLENN HOUSLEY.
involved in a civil war of its own with the
supporters of Emperor Maximilian.
Through a series of revolts, imprisonments,
and shootings, Cortina proclaimed himself
governor and military commandant of
Tamaulipas in 1864. Because of his loyalty and
his control of the Matamoros customs house,
the Juárez government recognized him and
promoted him to general. For a time, he
controlled all roads in and out of Matamoros,
which was deeply involved in the cotton trade.
In a presentation, “The Civil War Years in the
Valley” made to the Lower Rio Grande Valley
Historical Society in January 1960, Brownsville
historian John H. Hunter said:
All agree that Juan N. Cortina was a
remarkable man both physically and mentally,
although he was completely without formal
education. He was a man who loved Mexico
and who came to hate most Americans. He
was a very practical man in his day-to-day
operations and had a shrewd eye for a chance
to turn a profit. In the summer of 1864, Ford
appraised Cortina as follows:
“We were receiving supplies through
Matamoros, where General Cortina was in
command. He was known to be friendly to the
Union men; yet, he was not averse to allowing
his friends to make an honest living by
supplying Confederates. He did, however,
object to delivering supplies any nearer to
Matamoros than Reynosa.”
After the Civil War ended, Cortina
continued to live in Mexico. Trouble surfaced
again in the early 1870s, when a series of
cattle raids upset area ranchers and farmers.
At the time there was a heavy demand for beef
by the Cuban market, so Mexican cattle
rustlers rounded up thousands of cattle and
drove them across the river to ship to Cuba.
At the center of the controversy was none
other than Juan N. Cortina, who was accused
of being the mastermind of the raids, some of
which struck as far north as Corpus Christi. It
was not until July 1875, after Cortina’s arrest
by presidential order, that the raids subsided.
Under guard near Mexico City, Cortina was
imprisoned until his escape and triumphal
return to Matamoros in 1876. However, an
old enemy, Servando Canales, was then
military governor of Tamaulipas. He arrested
Cortina and condemned him to be shot, but
Cortina’s old opponent, “Rip” Ford, went to
Canales and persuaded him to spare his life.
Cortina was turned over to the new president,
Porfirio Díaz, and kept under house arrest in
Mexico City, where he died in 1892 and was
buried with military honors.
There were many other heroes and patriots,
villains, and bandits during those violent times,
but few of them lasted as long, fought as hard
for their beliefs, or have been the subject of as
many stories as Colonel John Salmon Ford and
General Juan Nepomuceno Cortina. May they
Rest In Peace!
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
THE CIVIL WAR TO 1900
THE CIVIL WAR ON THE RIO GRANDE
By the end of 1860, the rumblings of a much broader war than the one sparked by Cortina
reached the Rio Grande. Though only fourteen slaves were reported in all of the Rio Grande Valley
in the 1860 census, the people of the area favored the South. The Texas Secession Convention met
in Austin on January 28, 1861 and voted to secede from the Federal Union. A secessionist ordinance
presented to the voters of Texas a few weeks later was approved by a statewide vote of
46,129 to 14,697. Along the Rio Grande, the measure was approved overwhelmingly by a vote of
600 to 37 in Cameron County. In Hidalgo County, still sparsely populated, the vote was 62 to 10
for secession, and in Starr County the vote was 180 to 2. Willacy County was still a part of
Cameron County at that time.
So, only a dozen years after Texas became a part of the United States, it chose a new mother
country—the Confederacy. After the secessionist ordinance was passed, Fort Brown and other U.S.
military posts in Texas were surrendered to agents of Texas and, within fifteen days, the Federal
troops on the border had furled their flags and marched for the coast. Texas volunteers then took
possession of all garrisons along the Rio Grande and were placed under the command of Colonel
John S. “Rip” Ford and Colonel P. N. Puckett.
The border area was in a strategic position during the Civil War from 1861 to 1865, resulting
in a period of both turbulence and prosperity for both Brownsville and Matamoros. The Union
army had blockaded most of the Atlantic and Gulf Coast ports of the Confederacy, but they had no
control over the Rio Grande, an international stream with free access to the vessels and citizens of
both the United States and Mexico.
The Confederacy looked to this area for a neutral port from which they could ship cotton to
Europe and receive from them ammunition, guns, medicine, and other supplies of war. Cotton was
Union troops moved in and out of the coastal
area during the Civil War, trying to enforce
the blockade, but they had no control over
the Rio Grande, an international stream.
Here, the Daniel Webster departs from
Point Isabel with U.S. troops on board. This
illustration was taken from Harper’s
Weekly, April 13, 1861.
Above: At the mouth of the Rio Grande, the
port of Bagdad was on the Mexican side and
Clarksville was on the U.S. side. Here,
Clarksville is seen in the background as
European ships wait to be loaded with
COURTESY OF GLENN HOUSLEY.
Below: The interior of Matamoros as seen
from the church tower during the Civil War
era. This illustration was taken from
Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, December
transported from the Southern states in huge
wagons and carried across the Rio Grande by
ferry to Bagdad, Mexico for shipment to
Europe. At first, cotton flowed freely to
Brownsville and on to Bagdad until the blockade
became effective at Brazos Island in
February 1862. In a move that greatly frustrated
the Union, the King and Kenedy ships
were transferred to Mexican registry, and the
cotton trade continued.
When the war began, cotton could be
bought for six to ten cents per pound
Confederate currency all over the growing
regions of Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. As
early as August 1862, it was bringing 16 cents,
and late in 1862 in went to 25 cents. In 1863,
the going price was thirty-six cents per pound,
and the price escalated to almost a dollar a
pound at its peak. European mills needed the
cotton, and the Confederacy needed the
supplies that could be bought with its sale.
Before the war, Bagdad was a small fishing
village that served as a customs house port of
entry for all goods destined for Mexico through
Matamoros. From 1862 to 1865 it grew from a
collection of a few fishermen’s huts to a sandy
townsite of fifteen thousand people. It had
dwellings of every description, as were its
citizens, all attracted there by the lure of gold.
From 100 to 200 vessels were constantly
anchored there, receiving or discharging cargo.
The ships brought supplies desperately
needed by the Confederacy: arms and ammunition,
coffee, foodstuffs, even silks and linens
and European wines. Initially, supplies were
unloaded and cargo transported to Point
Isabel, then carried by wagon to Brownsville.
After Union forces arrived to try to enforce the
blockade, the traffic moved to Bagdad, and
incoming goods were carried to Brownsville
on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.
A few hundred yards away, on the other
side of the Rio Grande, was the little town of
Clarksville, which had a pilot’s station,
wharves, repair shops and warehouses, and a
customs house. It also had one hotel, general
stores and other businesses, and a few homes.
The little town led a precarious existence
during the war as Federal and Confederate
forces surged back and forth, advancing and
retreating along the north bank of the Rio
Grande with Clarksville in between.
In January 1863, General H. P. Bee took
command of the Confederacy along the border,
including Fort Brown and other garrisons that
had been taken over by Texas volunteers. In
November 1863 General Bee received word that
Federal gunboats and transports had anchored
near Brazos Santiago Pass, and the next day
Federal troops started toward Brownsville to
capture Fort Brown. Outnumbered a hundred to
one, General Bee evacuated Fort Brown, but
prior to his departure he set fire to all of the
government buildings and to 200 bales of cotton
stored in the garrison. He dumped the
remaining bales into the river, along with his
siege guns, and then fled.
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
To make matters worse, eight thousand
pounds of gunpowder stored in Fort Brown
exploded in a great roar, spreading the flames
to the town. Before the fires were brought
under control, Fort Brown had been
completely destroyed, and extensive damage
done to Brownsville. The small Confederate
force moved northward, leaving the citizens
to fend for themselves. But that didn’t end the
cotton trade. Bales were delivered to Rio
Grande City and Roma, and sent downriver to
Bagdad by the steamboats plying the river
under international registry.
Colonel Ford, who had been moved to San
Antonio with the Confederacy in 1862,
started a drive to recapture the border forts.
He gathered troops and marched south, first
occupying Ringgold Barracks at Rio Grande
City. From there he gathered information on
the size of the Union Army at Brownsville.
Though the Federals were estimated at seven
thousand, Ford was determined to force a
confrontation with his fifteen thousand
Texans. On July 30, 1864, a Rebel patrol
under Colonel Ford rode into Brownsville to
find that the Federals had evacuated the city
two days earlier, retreating toward the coast.
Ford attacked their rear guard and Rebel
forces later drove the Federals from Point
Isabel to their fortifications on Brazos Island,
where they stayed until the end of the war.
Ford occupied Brownsville in July 1864, and
it remained in Confederate hands until the
end of the war.
The cotton trade returned to Brownsville
after the Union evacuation, but the volume was
smaller, partly because of unsettled conditions
in Matamoros. Merchants became overstocked
with supplies and cotton prices fell with the
impending end of the Civil War. The great days
of wheeling and dealing along the border were
coming to an end.
THE LAST BATTLE OF
THE CIVIL WAR
The Civil War ended when General Lee
surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865,
but it was May 18 before word reached the
Union troops at Brazos Island, which had a
garrison of twelve hundred men. There,
Colonel Theodore H. Barrett, who had failed
to see much active duty during the war, was
determined to make one last effort to end the
On the evening of May 11, 1865, in a
blinding rainstorm, Colonel Barrett and a force
of three hundred soldiers from the Union
garrison on Brazos Island moved to the
mainland and began marching on Brownsville.
Early the next morning, they clashed with
Confederates at Palmito Ranch and, after an
exchange of fire, the Federals drove the Rebels
back and set fire to the ranch.
On the afternoon of May 13, Colonel Ford
arrived from Brownsville with Rebel
reinforcements. Though the indomitable Ford
had heard of the surrender, he was not about to
let the Yankees get his friends’ cotton. He
ordered his infantry to assault the Federal left
flank while his artillery shelled the main
Federal line. Three times the Federal forces
tried to make a stand against the advancing
Rebels, but were unsuccessful. Ford’s pursuit
continued until the Federal forces were driven
back to Brazos Island. Thus, Palmito Ranch
became the last battle of the Civil War on May
13, 1865, five weeks after Lee’s surrender.
Only one Confederate soldier was killed at
Palmito Ranch and another died five weeks later.
They were John Jefferson William from
Company B of the Thirty-fourth Infantry, and Bill
In November 1863 word came that Federal
troops were on their way to Brownsville.
Here, the Confederates are shown
evacuating Brownsville in advance of the
troops. Many Brownsville citizens took
refuge in Matamoros until Colonel Rip Ford
recaptured the city for the Confederates in
July 1864. This illustration appeared in the
January 9, 1864, issue of The Illustrated
Above: Though most of the Civil War
activity centered around Brownsville, Fort
Ringgold at the other end of the Valley also
played an important role.
Below: The old Cavalry Building was among
Fort Brown buildings rebuilt after the Civil
War. Now it houses classrooms and offices
for UT-Brownsville/Texas Southmost College.
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
Redman, a nineteen-year-old black soldier,
who died five weeks later from his wounds.
Early Confederate writers wanted only to
glorify the victory and claimed there were many
The victory gave Ford and the Confederate
officials time to put their affairs in order. A
Matamoros merchant had a large amount of
Confederate silver on deposit. In return for his
services in protecting the cotton clean-out, Ford
convinced the merchant to give him $20,000 in
gold. He then took the money and paid off the
men in his command before formally
disbanding them. They are said to be the only
Confederate forces to be paid off in hard money.
Ford and his associates crossed into
Mexico to await developments. Soon, Federal
forces under General Phil Sheridan took
control of Brownsville, and the reconstruction
began. King and Kenedy reorganized as an
American company and took contracts to
supply U.S. troops and transport supplies up
the river. Ford made his peace with General
Sheridan on the basis of one old soldier to
another and became commissioner of paroles
for the Confederate troops of the area. The
Civil War was over and it was time for the
healing to begin.
The great hurricane of 1867 almost washed
away the once-bustling Port of Bagdad and
Clarksville on the U.S. side at the mouth of
the river. A hurricane in 1874 completed
destruction of both Clarksville and Bagdad. In
a few years, the ever-blowing sands left little
trace of where these towns had stood, and
nothing remains at the sites today as a
reminder of the part they played in the cotton
trade during the Civil War.
AFTER THE CIVIL WAR
The South was devastated by the Civil War,
and Texas was no exception. In addition to
the adjustments of reconstruction, a series of
disasters and misfortunes struck the region,
beginning with a deadly cholera epidemic in
1866. The winter of 1866-67 was the worst
on record, with snow falling for the first time
since 1835. The summer of 1867 brought
an outbreak of yellow fever, which took the
lives of an estimated one-third of the citizens
of the area.
During the war, many of the merchants
and speculators in Brownsville had made
fortunes. However, the losses of the
readjustment years cost them dearly. The
Confederate quartermaster corps ceased to
operate in May of 1865, leaving many
merchants with huge inventories for which
there was no market. Some dealers in cotton
lost thousands of dollars because of failure to
receive delivery or to resell before the price
dropped, which was almost overnight.
The occupation of Brownsville under
General Sheridan was difficult for the civilians.
The homes of many who had taken
refuge in Matamoros during the war period
were appropriated by the military as abandoned
property, and Sheridan’s commanders
were reluctant to release the residences, even
after officials had cleared their owners for
return. Colonel Rip Ford, respected by the
Unionists as a military officer, was appointed
Commissioner of Paroles for the Confederate
troops still in the area, and his contact with
the Union officers helped many of his
Confederate friends get resettled.
As if these were not enough problems, a
major hurricane hit South Texas on October
8, 1867, destroying Bagdad and Clarksville
and doing great damage to the Brownsville/
Matamoros area. The Incarnate Word Convent
and other church buildings were damaged or
destroyed, and most of the Mexican jacales
were flattened. In the countryside the damage
was just as great. Ranch buildings went down,
crops were destroyed, and cattle scattered.
In October and November 1870, there was a
yellow fever scare all along the Gulf Coast,
and the area was quarantined, with no one
allowed to enter Cameron County for a time.
As a result of the fire of 1863 and the
hurricane of 1867, Fort Brown had to be
reconstructed. Seventy buildings were built
and the Quartermaster’s Fence was rebuilt of
brick. Construction was finished in 1869, and
the post served infantry, cavalry, and artillery
units, continuing its role in the community
well into the next century. As they did after
the U.S.-Mexican War, some of those stationed
on the border during the Civil War
stayed or returned to make their lives in the
Rio Grande Valley.
These buildings are now part of the campus
of the University of Texas-Brownsville/
Texas Southmost College. It was at the Fort
Brown post hospital in 1882 that Major
William C. Gorgas performed autopsies on
yellow fever victims and eventually traced the
cause to a mosquito, which led to the ultimate
conquest of the disease.
Contact with the outside world was still
limited to transportation supplied by horses
or horse-drawn vehicles and steamboats.
Determined to improve transportation to and
from the area, a contract was made between a
group of Brownsville merchants and the
Celaya brothers to build the Rio Grande
Railroad from Point Isabel to Brownsville. By
1872 it was operating with two locomotives;
twelve boxcars and twelve flat cars, one
service car; two lighters (barges for unloading
merchandise from the ships), two terminal
depots, a roundhouse and shop at
Brownsville, and a wharf that extended into
Laguna Madre at Point Isabel. The narrow
gauge road carried freight and sometimes
people back and forth until after the turn of
Though King and Kenedy transferred their
main interests from steamboats to ranching,
King still often plunged into other lines of
endeavor. He built and put into operation the
first really modern ice plant to be installed in
Brownsville. He bought the mail and stage
line which ran from Corpus Christi to Laredo
and from Brownsville to San Antonio,
purchased new equipment and fast horses,
and saw that a dependable schedule was
maintained. The new coaches, built in
Concord, New Hampshire, were roomy,
carrying eighteen passengers, with room for
trunks and other heavy luggage. In spite of its
fine equipment, the stage line never made a
profit and soon the railroads made the
Steamship service to the Valley was
established shortly after the Civil War ended,
first by the Morgan Line from New Orleans to
Brazos by way of Indianola or Galveston. It
carried passengers, mail, silver and gold
coins, and general cargo on a regular
schedule. American vessels entering Brazos
came mostly from Mexico and Cuba, with
most of the foreign vessels coming directly
from Europe, especially from English and
French ports. This commerce gradually
increased, and soon all of it was moving
through Brazos, encouraged by the new
facilities which the Rio Grande Railroad
offered for the transportation of cargoes to
Brownsville and on to Matamoros.
In 1882 the completion of a narrow gauge
railroad from Corpus Christi to Laredo, the
standard gauge International and Great
Northern from San Antonio to Laredo soon
after, and of the Nuevo Laredo to Monterrey
section of the Mexican National Railway in 1883
ended the northern Mexico trade for Cameron
County. The carts and wagons traveling over the
old road to Monterrey could not compete with
the iron horse, and the Valley once again became
The Army Post Hospital at Fort Brown was
built in 1868 with a floor area of 16,500
square feet at a cost of $27,820, and used
more than one million bricks, which were
purchased up and down both sides of the Rio
Grande. It has been carefully maintained
and renovated to house the UT-
Brownsville/Texas Southmost College
Ranch family in a typical jacale. The walls
were made of upright mesquite posts, held
together by interwoven poles of willow. The
roofs were made of grass and the floors were
COURTESY OF HCHC ARCHIVES.
an isolated region. The area’s population
dwindled by 1890, but the hardy ones remained
to lay the groundwork for the changes to come.
Early ventures in farming and irrigation began,
which will be explored in a later chapter.
The most serious threat to international peace
along the border during the decade following the
Civil War came from the raids made by armed
bands of Mexicans who crossed the Rio Grande
to drive large numbers of cattle and horses from
the ranching country into Tamaulipas. In
Mexico, the stolen cattle were sold in the hide
markets of Matamoros and also in the markets of
Monterrey and Saltillo, where both hides and
meat were used. Some groups moved about the
country killing stock on the range, skinned
them, and hauled the hides off to market.
These depredations all along the river got
so bad that the Texas Rangers were called in
again in 1875, when as many as 200,000 head
of cattle were being siphoned across the Rio
Grande each year. Isolated ranches were
raided, the people shot and often tortured,
their homes burned.
CAPTAIN MCNELLY’ S RANGERS
A topnotch young officer named L. H.
McNelly, a former Confederate, was named
captain of the re-established Texas Rangers and
given the task of enlisting a company of men
for duty along the lower Rio Grande. In May
1875 he led his rangers into Brownsville. A
brilliant leader, he had the respect of the fifty
men who served with him, who met his
requirements of unflinching bravery, disregard
of hardship, and skill with firearms and horses.
The McNelly rangers brought a quick change
to the outlawry on the border, and the formerly
attractive pursuit of stealing cattle from Texas
lost its appeal. His most famous clash with the
bandits came at Las Cuevas Ranch, near today’s
Los Ebanos Ferry crossing, on November 19,
1875. After violent clashes between the rangers
and the bandits’ supporters in Mexico, and
threats from both sides, some of the cattle were
returned across the river to Rio Grande City. For
a time conditions were quieter in the Valley.
In less than a year McNelly broke the back of
the brigand forces that had been terrorizing the
border for years, but in his dedication to the task
he exhausted himself completely. Sick with
tuberculosis, the legendary Texas Ranger Captain
spent his declining months in Washington
County and died in 1877 at thirty-four.
A STABLE RANCHING ECONOMY
Despite the bandit troubles and the area’s
isolation, a stable ranching economy
developed in the area during the last half of
the century. Although some of the ranches
were still owned by descendants of the
original Spanish and Mexican grantees, much
of the land had been acquired by others. The
prosperity of the ranchers was affected by the
bandit raids, droughts, wars, the lack of
adequate transportation, and other obstacles.
Still, stock raising was for many years the
region’s most important occupation—and is
still of great importance in parts of all four
Valley counties. In addition to cattle and
horses, essential for transportation as well as
for working the cattle, sheep were important
as their wool provided an important cash
crop. Hogs also were grown, though not in
In Ranch Life in Hidalgo County After 1850,
Emilia Schunior Ramírez of Edinburg described
how the people lived and worked on the
county’s 40 to 45 scattered ranches:
The ranches were of two types. Along the
river they were villages, or little towns. Most
of the inhabitants of these villages were the
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
owners of plots of land short distances from
the village. The others worked on the farms of
the landowners. Farther into the interior of
the county, where the pasturelands were, the
ranches were of a different sort. The family of
the landowner had the ‘Big House’ on the
ranch. There were small dwellings where the
workers lived. On these ranches, the activities
centered around the interests of the owner of
the ranch. In the villages near the river there
was greater independence of pursuit.
Nevertheless, among the families in both
types of ranches the ties of friendship and of
family were close, so that the home life was
about the same in all the ranches. Everyone
knew everyone else, and though the means of
communication and transportation were
scarce, there was a feeling of kinship and
unity among the early settlers.
The home consisted of at least two
structures, one forming the bedrooms, the other
the kitchen-dining room. Between these there
was usually a portal or roof, which served to
provide shade which also protected the family
against rain and sun when they went back and
forth from one part of the home to the other.
The houses, called jacales or huts, were
constructed very substantially. The walls were
made of upright mesquite posts, held together
by interwoven poles of willow–quite long and
flexible–and made solid by a filling of mud and
small gravel. The surface was smoothed and
whitewashed. The roofs were made of grass,
tied neatly into bundles of uniform size with the
fiber of the yucca leaf. The floors were of hardtamped
earth, the smooth surface sprinkled
with water and then swept. Later they were
made of tipichil, a concrete-like composition of
cement and small gravel. Usually there were two
windows and one door in each building.
There were also houses made of limestone
blocks, obtained locally and cut in the
primitive manner. These were built on the
same plan as the jacales. Later, frame houses
were built with front and back porches. All
three types of houses were very sturdy.
She told how the women managed the
cooking and other household chores and
described the ranch work of the men. The
religious holidays of Easter and Christmas
were celebrated, as were weddings and other
family events, all observed with the same
In his introduction to the booklet in 1971,
her son, Alfonso R. Ramírez wrote, “It was my
mother’s wish that we would not forget this part
of our heritage and that an authentic record
could be preserved for other generations.”
The rugged ranch life of the late 1800s
would soon fade into the past as the twentieth
century pioneers began to transform much of
the dry brushland into productive farms
through the magic of irrigation.
A tejano family is shown grinding corn,
then and now a staple in their diet. Most
every ranch had small patches of corn for
COURTESY OF HCHC ARCHIVES.
Above: Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian from
Oaxaca who became a lawyer and president
of Mexico, was the dominant figure in
Mexican history from 1855 to 1872. He
was responsible for many reforms and is
honored as one of the country’s major
heroes. This portrait appeared in Historia
Below: After the French defeat at Puebla,
Napoleon III sent twenty-eight thousand
troops to Mexico. Shown is an encampment
of French troops on the main plaza at
Tampico in November 1862. This
illustration is from L’Illustration, January
DÍAZ IN M EXICO
Throughout the Civil War in the United
States, opposing forces fought each other in
Mexico, with much of the action just across the
border. Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian from
Oaxaca who became a lawyer, was the dominant
figure in Mexican history from 1855 to 1872. He
joined Juan Álvarez and Ignacio Comonfort,
who shared his liberal political and economic
ideas, to oust Santa Anna from power in 1855.
They proposed to establish constitutional
government, abolish the privileges of the clergy
and the military, and stimulate economic
progress by putting the property of the church
in circulation. As minister of justice under
Álvarez, Juárez inaugurated the Reform with the
Juárez Law to put an end to the judicial
immunities enjoyed by the clergy and the
military in purely civil cases.
Opposition to this and other reforms was so
intense that the stage was set for the bitter civil
war of 1856-61. By 1861 the conservatives had
been defeated and Juárez was elected president.
However, the War of the Reform had wrecked
the economy. The government was completely
without funds and owed a huge foreign debt.
Juárez saw no way to pay the debts and sought
to defer payments for two years. His major
creditors, Spain, England, and France,
attempted to force payment by landing troops
at Veracruz. Their goal was the customs house,
which they knew had export/import monies
that could provide partial payment on Mexico’s
debts to them.
France was then ruled by Napoleon III and
the Empress Eugenie, who had plans to add
Mexico to their empire. They had been led to
believe by influential Mexican conservatives,
who were enjoying exile in Europe, that the
Mexicans would welcome a foreign monarch
and expected an easy victory. Soon after learning
of this plan, Spain and England withdrew
from the scene, leaving the French in control.
The United States was too embroiled in its
own internal problems to do anything except
gnash its teeth in Washington about European
forces on the North American continent.
The French infantry, six thousand strong
and feeling very superior to the Mexicans,
marched inland with little opposition until
they got to Puebla on May 5, 1862. There the
Mexicans under General Ignacio Zaragosa
made their stand, defeating the French
soldiers, who were caught in a crossfire and
then a downpour. After their bugles sounded
retreat, they withdrew to stand together and
softly sing La Marseillaise.
In Puebla, Mexican bands blared and men
rejoiced. Young General Porfirio Díaz
ventured out onto the plain that night, not
believing it possible that Mexico had defeated
France. The victory is still celebrated as Cinco
de Mayo, a national holiday.
Angry at the defeat, Napoleon III sent
twenty-eight thousand troops to Mexico and
soon captured the Mexican capital. President
Juárez fled north with his cabinet and a band
of loyal followers.
Meanwhile, the emperor of France was
busy choosing a ruler for the addition to his
empire. Of several young European princes
who were “unemployed,” he and Princess
Eugenie settled on Ferdinand Maximilian,
brother of the emperor of Austria, Francis
Joseph, House of Hapsburg. He had a pleasing
personality and many interests, none too
serious, with a dream of helping, leading,
serving, and being at the heart of events.
He had married young Belgian Princess
Carlota, the daughter of King Leopold I, at the
Royal Palace of Brussels in July 1857. At first
he reigned over the Austrian provinces of
Italy, but in 1859 France took the provinces
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
from Austria, and Maximilian found himself
with no position and no prospects. He then
took his bride to his home beside the sea, the
beautiful castle of Miramar on the shore at
Trieste, Italy. Though Max had some
misgivings when approached by a delegation
of Mexican émigrés to become emperor of
Mexico, he felt the offer to be his destiny and
soon accepted. The new emperor was 31, his
empress 24, both elegant, untrained, and
accustomed to wealth. The happy young
monarchs practiced their Spanish on the trip
over and Max wrote many pages of
regulations for his court, such as lists of
liquors to be served at the Imperial dinners.
Veracruz was in the midst of a yellow fever
epidemic when they arrived, and nobody was
there to meet them. They journeyed on to the
capital, dismayed at the conditions and
inconveniences they found everywhere. France
supplied them with soldiers under the
command of General Francois Achille Bazaine, a
seasoned officer of the French army, and money
for their expenses. Max’s sweet smile and loving
manner brought hope for peace to the Mexicans
so starved for it, including General Tomás Mejía,
newly allied with the French.
Longing for the luxury left behind at
Miramar, they discovered Chapultepec Palace,
built by the Spaniards not far from the Zócalo
and the National Palace in Mexico City. Soon
every available construction worker was
employed creating a home for Max and Carlota.
In October 1865 Napoleon III and Bazaine
maneuvered Maximilian into signing a decree
which was the death warrant for anyone
opposed to the empire. Mexico ran with blood.
The Juaristas moved ever northward, into
Chihuahua and what is now Ciudad Juárez.
Though a representative of the Pope visited
Mexico City with orders to return all the
Juárez-confiscated church property and to
cease any government control of the Church,
Maximilian decreed that the Church lands not
be returned, but remain in the possession of
those who had purchased them, thereby
hoping to gain support among the rising
middle class and intellectuals of Mexico.
But his regime was getting shaky as
opposition by Juárez forces continued. The
Imperialist troops were soundly defeated at the
Battle of Santa Gertrudis near Camargo and Rio
Grande City on June 16, 1866, which began
his downward spiral. In Paris, Napoleon and
his ministers grew restless. The anticipated
profit from the Mexican venture seemed very
long in coming. Carlota and Maximilian,
ignoring France’s involvement in European
upheavals, wrote for yet more troops and
financial support. Finally, Napoleon lost all
patience and ordered Bazaine and the French
army out of Mexico without even informing
Maximilian. Bazaine felt compelled to inform
him about France’s abandonment. Those who
were there wrote that Maximilian took the
news calmly, but Carlota flew into a frenzy.
Top: Juárez had taken his government to
Querétaro during the French occupation.
The city's main plaza today is a busy
gathering place, as it has been for more
than three centuries.
Above: Querértaro’s plaza is surrounded by
Spanish Colonial buildings and those built
during later regimes, with little evidence of
the intrigue and violence that has occupied
the city at intervals.
Above: After his defeat by Juárez, Maximilian
was tried and condemned to death. His
execution took place on the Hill of Bells
outside Querétaro on June 19, 1867. This
painting appeared in Historia de México.
Below: General Porfirio Díaz was Mexico’s
president for three decades, beginning in
1877. He brought political stability and
economic growth to Mexico, but he did so
at the expense of individual freedom and
independence. This portrait appeared in
Historia de México.
Determined to save the collapsing empire, she
left at once for France to plead with Napoleon,
then with Empress Eugenie and finally with the
Pope, becoming more erratic each day. She
became totally insane and believed everyone was
trying to poison her. Convinced she was close to
death, she wrote a touching farewell note to
Maximilian, whom she called her “dearly
beloved treasure.” Finally, her brother Phillipe,
the count of Flanders, came and took her to
Miramar, where she was confined to a barred
room in the garden pavilion.
The wonder of the age, the new interoceanic
cable, brought the news of Carlota’s illness to
Maximilian in Mexico City. He packed his
personal treasures, planning to abdicate as
advised by the French, but others persuaded him
to stay and fight. All over Mexico, French citizens
packed and fled, as did Bazaine and the French
army, departing en masse on February 5, 1867.
Gathering an irregular army of nine thousand
men, he left the capital city one week after the
French army sailed for France. They marched to
Quéretaro, and the emperor set up his
headquarters on the small Hill of the Bells on the
city’s edge. The Liberal army of Benito Juárez,
forty thousand strong, surrounded the town.
Maximilian and his troops held out until May 15,
1867, when Liberal forces broke through a wall
and captured Maximilian’s army. After a military
trial, Maximilian was sentenced to death by a
firing squad. He folded his hands over his heart
and in a clear, ringing voice said, “I forgive
everybody. I pray that everyone may also forgive
me, and I wish that my blood, which is now to be
shed, may be for the good of the country. Long
live Mexico, long live independence!” The Empire
was no more. Carlota remained in her insane
world until 1927, dying at age eighty-seven.
Juárez returned to Mexico City in July 1867
and was re-elected president. As he undertook
the difficult task of reconstruction, his rule was
handicapped by uprisings and factional
opposition. Juárez died on July 18, 1872. He
tried to make Mexico into a democratic federal
republic and to save the nation from its internal
and foreign enemies. While he did not
completely achieve his objectives, he is respected
and honored as one of Mexico’s greatest leaders.
Revolution again swept Mexico in early
1876. An uprising against the government of
Sebastián Lerdo de Tejado was led by an
astute and tough young general, Porfirio Díaz,
who plotted his revolution while living in
exile in Brownsville. While he was plotting in
Brownsville, the town’s citizens raised funds
for his cause in return for his promise to rid
the border of the infamous General Cortina.
When he came into power, Díaz fulfilled his
promise by forcing Cortina to live in the capital,
under surveillance, for the rest of his life.
The years that followed brought great change
to Mexico, much of which had a bearing on the
Rio Grande Valley. A Mixtec Indian from a poor
agrarian family in Oaxaca, Díaz had been a law
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
student of Juárez. When he came to power, he
attempted to bring his country into the
company of modern world powers. His
economic policies were strikingly successful. He
built hundreds of miles of railroads, encouraged
foreign investments, and American investors
increased their stake in Mexico’s economy.
In return for cooperation along the border
and mildness in protesting United States pursuit
of bandits and Indians across the frontier, he
gained recognition for his regime. To appease
domestic enemies he distributed economic
benefits and public offices to the various political
and military factions. For the old conservatives
and Catholics he did not strictly enforce the
anticlerical legislation of the Juárez years.
Díaz brought political stability and economic
growth to Mexico, but he did so at the expense
of individual freedom and independence.
During his time, Mexico’s natural wealth was in
the hands of some three percent of the
population. The lower classes benefited only
slightly, and when they protested they were
brutally suppressed. Toward the end of the
regime, political and economic opportunities
were closed off for some upper and middle-class
groups as well.
At the end of the century, relations between
the U.S. and Mexico were excellent, but the
Mexican people were hungering for more
control of their land, more freedom, and greater
economic opportunities. This would lead to
another revolution in the next century, which
again would greatly affect the borderlands.
EARLY PLANTATIONS &
EXPERIMENTS IN IRRIGATION
Closner’s San Juan Plantation south of Pharr, the
daughter of its foreman, W. L. Lipscomb and Ada
Dougherty, who had come from Brownsville to
teach school on the plantation.
THE SANTA ANITA GRANT &
In the northwest corner of Hidalgo County
northwest of Edinburg, the McAllen Ranch,
part of the Santa Anita grant, has been in the
same family since 1790. In 1980, when it was
awarded membership in the Texas Department
of Agriculture’s Family Land Heritage
Program, which honors those families that
have owned and continuously operated a farm
or ranch for one hundred years or more, the
McAllen Ranch was the oldest in the Family
Land Heritage Registry.
Awarded to José Manuel Gómez in 1790, the
ranch of about ninety-five thousand acres raised
herds of cattle, sheep, goats and horses. He
married Gregoria Ballí Dominguez, a widow
with two sons; they had no more children.
Salomé Ballí, great-granddaughter of Gregoria
Ballí, inherited all of Santa Anita. She married
John Young in 1848, who helped her manage
and expand the ranch, and they had a son, also
named John. The senior Young died in 1859,
leaving half of his estate to his wife and half to
his son. She asked his young business associate,
John McAllen, to help manage her holdings.
They married in 1861 and had a son, James.
Above: John McAllen around 1900.
Below: Though he spent time on the ranch,
John McAllen lived mostly in Brownsville in
his later years. A hunting group is shown
around 1915 in front of the ranch house he
built, which has been home to five
generations of McAllens. His grandson
Argyle and wife Margaret made their home
there and were prime movers in establishing
and supporting the Hidalgo County
Historical Museum. His great-grandson,
James McAllen, now operates the ranch.
COURTESY OF ROBERT A. MCALLEN.
Though José de Escandón’s early dream for
the region had included the magic of water
transported to grow crops, irrigation efforts of
the Spanish colonists were unsuccessful.
Through the years, many people recognized the
fertility of the soil—if only irrigation were
available. While ranching continued as the main
agricultural activity, the late 1800s saw
movement toward a more diversified agriculture.
Some of the major enterprises are described by
Hidalgo County educator-historian Anne L.
Magee in “Old Plantations in the Rio Grande
Valley” in Gift of the Rio. She was born on John
Above: When Our Lady of Visitation Chapel
was dedicated on June 29, 1882, Santa
María was the only town between
Brownsville and Hidalgo. The quiet chapel is
one of the few visible reminders of early
Catholic horseback missionaries who rode the
river trail between Brownsville and Roma.
Below: La Casa Blanca at Rancho de Santa
María was built in 1870 by Judge L. J.
Hynes and has been through several
owners, names, and renovations. A stop on
the steamboat line in its early days, the
home was always kept in readiness for
friends or wayfarers who traveled that way.
This is how it looked in 1970.
When Salomé McAllen died in 1898, the
ranch was divided between her sons and her
husband. The Santa Anita was partitioned, and
the western half became the San Juanito, later
named the McAllen Ranch. The McAllens
upgraded the livestock from Longhorn to
Hereford cattle and experimented with several
species of exotic plants, including many
varieties of grapes, citrus fruits, figs, olives,
date palms and ornamentals. John McAllen
lived until 1913 to see a new city built on part
of his ranch and named for him. The ranch
passed on to James McAllen’s descendants,
who have pursued wild game management and
conservation along with raising Beefmaster
cattle. Various exotic species of game animals
are bred and managed on the ranch, and there
is an effective program to breed and improve
SANTA MARÍA WAS A
Though the river is now quite a distance
south of Santa María, during the steamboat
era the Rio Grande flowed by Rancho de Santa
María, one of the few early settlements north
of the Rio Grande. General Taylor had a
headquarters building just west of the ranch
during the U.S.-Mexican War, and in 1850 the
U.S. Cavalry established a substation of Fort
Brown and Fort Ringgold there.
In 1870, Judge L. J. Hynes acquired the
ranch and built a large compound, including
a spacious white ranch-type home that faced
the riverboat landing and shipping wharf.
The home was always kept in readiness for
any friends or wayfarers who traveled that way.
In addition to stables and dairy buildings,
there were a small barracks, an ammunition
building, and a stage depot. Crops included
vegetables, cotton, corn and other grains. In
1880 Hynes donated land for a chapel named
Our Lady of Visitation Catholic Church across
the Military Road, a miniature copy of the
Gothic-style Immaculate Conception Church
in Brownsville that was designed by Father
At the beginning of the 1890s, Santa María
had a population of 300 and was the third
largest town in Cameron County after
Brownsville, with 7,000 people, and Port
Isabel, with 500, according to Lieutenant W.
H. Chatfield in his remarkable 1893
publication, The Twin Cities of the Border and
the Country of the Rio Grande, published after
he completed a tour of duty at Fort Brown.
Here is his description of Santa María:
There are two small collections of
buildings about half a mile apart. The upper
village contains the residence of Col. J. G.
Tucker, which is delightfully situated amid a
grove of spreading trees and has a beautiful
green lawn. Across the way are the
customhouse and two general stores,
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
elonging to Dr. Smith and Mr. Champion,
who have been engaged in various pursuits on
this border for many years. The post office is
located in Smith’s store. A number of jacales
glistening with whitewash line the single
street and make a pleasant picture.
Col. Tucker has inaugurated a development
of the resources of this section which will
undoubtedly revolutionize the present methods
of agriculture, and open up possibilities for the
future which are simply grand in their scope
and will prove as profitable as they are
extensive. He is endeavoring to form syndicates
for the culture of Havana tobacco, sea-island
cotton and sugar cane on a large scale, all of
which products he is raising on his ranch.
In the lower village there is another general
store, which was owned for many years by
Judge L. J. Hynes, but was recently sold to
Messrs. Frank Rabb and Fred Starck of
Brownsville, together with a large tract of land.
The steamboat landing is at the foot of a
splendidly cultivated cornfield, stretching
away from the house to the river. The sub-post
of Santa María, which is situated just outside of
the ranch, is garrisoned by a small detachment
of United States troops from Fort Brown. The
troops are changed every month, their military
duties consisting of scouting up and down the
river and repairing the military telegraph line
connecting Fort Brown and Fort Ringgold.
1870 he purchased a thousand acres from the
Agostadero del Espíritu grant near
Brownsville for $2,000. He dug canals and
experimented with simple irrigation techniques.
First he planted cotton, soon changing
to sugarcane. Using the techniques of the
Louisiana sugar industry, he began with a
small mill using open kettles. In 1876 he
installed a small pump for irrigating the cane
and made the sugar into that best loved of
Mexican confections—piloncillos, which he
sold for ten cents a pound.
Above: The old sugar mill at the Brulay
Plantation near Brownsville. George Brulay,
who came from France, obtained the first
permit for irrigation from the Rio Grande
and began to produce sugar in 1876. His
sugarcane industry flourished until 1905.
COURTESY OF LEE LANGFORD.
Below: A remnant of the dense native Sabal
Texana palm groves that once lined the Rio
Grande is preserved by the National
Audubon Society at its Sabal Palm Refuge
adjacent to the old Palm Grove Plantation.
After the steamboats stopped plying the
river and other towns were settled, Santa
María declined. La Casa Blanca fell into
disrepair and was severely damaged by the
1933 hurricane. It was lovingly restored by
Mr. and Mrs. K. L. Tanner in the 1950s, who
made it their home for many years. Still
beautiful, it can be seen from U.S. 281 amidst
level fields, well cultivated by the present
owners. Both the ranch and chapel have Texas
THE BRULAY PLANTATION
The first real success in irrigation can be
traced to a Valley pioneer from France, George
Brulay, who obtained the first permit for irrigation
from the Rio Grande. In February of
This elegant two-story mansion at the Palm
Grove Plantation seven miles east of
Brownsville was built in the late 1800s by
Frank Rabb, who cultivated cotton, corn
and all types of vegetables on 3,000 acres
by the river. The home was a center for
entertaining by Rabb and his wife Lillian.
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
Brulay went to New Orleans to buy newer
and better equipment. The machinery was
brought to Brazos Santiago by boat, lightered
to Port Isabel, and then shipped on the Rio
Grande Railroad to Brownsville. Brown sugar
was in great demand at the time, and the business
became very profitable. Brulay’s first mill,
of frame construction, was built in 1873.
After it burned down, he built a large new
mill from bricks made on the plantation and
installed the very latest machinery for refining
sugar. Hundreds of laborers were employed in
the work of cutting, transporting the cane on
the string of small railcars that ran from the
fields, and processing the sugar through various
stages in the mill.
His sugarcane industry remained Brulay’s
chief interest, and it flourished until his death
in 1905. Later, water was allowed to stand too
long in the fields and salt, which ravaged
lands in the coastal area, covered the ground
and the family sold the plantation in 1911.
The great brick building where “machinery
whirled and industry sang” long stood empty
and some of the walls and graceful arches still
stand as monuments to the energy, pluck and
industry of one of the Valley’s great pioneers.
THE PALM GROVE PLANTATION
The Palm Grove Plantation-Ranch seven
miles east of Brownsville was still in its wild
state with beautiful native palm groves lining
the river when Frank Rabb bought it in the
late 1800s. At one time he had about 3,000
acres, the soil rich and productive as a result
of the yearly overflow of the river. Rabb built
canals and cultivated cotton, corn, other
grains, and all types of vegetables. He was also
interested in building canals and railroads in
different parts of the Valley.
Rabb married Lillian M. Starck from a
prominent Brownsville family and built an
elegant two-story mansion in a beautiful
setting that was a center for entertaining in
the early days. In 1957 Ben F. Vaughan of
Corpus Christi bought the property from the
Rabb estate and did a magnificent historical
restoration. It can be seen today next to the
National Audubon Society’s Sabal Palm
Refuge, which acquired the remaining patch
of native Sabal Texana in the United States
and protects it as a bird sanctuary.
THE VELAS OF LAGUNA SECA
One of the Valley’s best-known ranches is
Laguna Seca, named for a dry lake on the land.
It was established by Macedonio and Mercedes
Vela of Reynosa in 1867 on a 4,428 acre tract
of brushland he bought from John and Salome
Ballí McAllen about twenty miles northwest of
Edinburg. Some of the first citrus trees in the
Valley were planted by daughter Carlota in
1871. A priest, making his periodic rounds of
the ranches, brought oranges as a gift to the
family and he helped plant the seeds in young
Carlota’s garden. Seven trees sprouted and
flourished for seventy years, a forerunner of
the citrus industry in the Valley.
The four Vela sons helped their father
expand the ranch until it covered over 80,000
acres, and as many as fifty families once lived
there. One of the first Catholic churches in the
area was built on the ranch. A tiny post office
called Delfina was established at Laguna Seca,
and a school was built. A big bell that hung in
front of the schoolhouse was used to call in the
children from every part of the ranch. There
were many weddings, some uniting the Vela
family with other ranching families, including
the Chapas, who established San Manuel.
It had been the custom of the descendants
of Macedonio Vela to have a large family
eunion every five years when, in 1984, they
decided to go back a generation and invite
descendants of the other five children of
Macedonio’s parents, Salvador and Leonor
Vela. The preparations took nearly a year, and
about fifteen hundred registered. They came
from everywhere—Texas and California,
Arizona and Colorado, Pennsylvania and
Florida, West Germany and Australia. There
were many festivities during the celebration,
with the main event a huge barbecue at
Laguna Seca Ranch. Velas of all ages met for
the first time and studied their genealogy.
Skits were performed that portrayed stories of
the hard life on the ranch, cattle, and romance
of the land of the Rio Grande.
The ranch has a lake fed by an artesian well
that is stocked with fish, and there are deer,
turkey and quail as well as cattle.
THE WEBBER RANCH
John F. Webber came from Vermont to
Texas and received land in 1832 as one of
Stephen F. Austin’s colonists. He settled about
sixteen miles below present-day Austin. There
he built a fort as a protection against Indians
and the place developed into a sizeable
frontier village known as Webber’s Prairie. He
was married to a former slave, Silvia Hector,
who was emancipated, along with her three
children, by John Cryer in 1834. Webber took
Silvia’s children as his own and they had eight
more children. Beginning in the 1840s,
newcomers from the Deep South resented
Webber’s racially mixed marriage. The couple
was ostracized and their children barred from
public school. When they brought in a tutor
to teach their children, the citizens threatened
to kill the teacher.
In 1851, Webber moved his family to the
Rio Grande Valley to start a new life in this
rugged, but friendly, border country. In 1853
he purchased two leagues (8,856 acres) in the
Agostadero del Gato Grant and established his
ranch headquarters on the Rio Grande near
where the Donna pumps are now located. He
also purchased property in the La Blanca
Grant and operated a public ferry. Sympathetic
to the Union cause during the Civil War, he
took his family into Mexico to avoid trouble
during the Confederate occupation of the area.
Fondly called “Juan Fernando” by his
Mexican neighbors, he was known as a very
kind person, eager and willing to help any
passerby in need of food or shelter. Webber
sold the northern half of his ranch to Edward
Dougherty in 1877. Most of the property had
been sold by his heirs to the Alamo Land and
Sugar Company by 1918. Much of it has been
recombined and is now part of Krenmuller
Farms of San Juan.
THE TOLUCA RANCH
The Toluca Ranch, about a half-mile from
the Progreso International Bridge, was
established in 1880 by Don Florencio Saenz,
a Spaniard from Matamoros, on five thousand
acres that extended from the banks of the Rio
Grande to what is now the Edcouch-Elsa area.
His wife Sostenes was the daughter of Antonio
and Mauricia Cano, owners of Rancho
Tampacuas, present-day Mercedes, which was
sold in 1902 to the American Land and
Irrigation Company. The Saenz’ adopted
daughter, Manuela, married Amador
Fernández in 1908, and their children
inherited the ranch. Much smaller now, it has
Top, left: Relampago Ranch was near
Progreso. A sizeable community named
Relampago is still there today.
COURTESY OF GLENN HOUSLEY.
Top, right: Don Florencio Saenz of
Above: Don Florencio Saenz established
Toluca Ranch in 1880. In addition to this
spacious ranch house, there was a ranch
store, schoolhouse, and church.
Bottom, left: Toluca Ranch owner Florencio
Saenz built St. Joseph’s Church for those
who lived on his ranch, as was the custom
of the early dons. Dedicated July 30, 1899,
it was built in the architectural style of the
early Oblate churches.
Bottom, right: The widely admired interior
of St. Joseph’s Church on Toluca Ranch
COURTESY OF GLENN HOUSLEY.
been home to five generations and is still
farmed by Fernández family members.
The headquarters complex consists of the
Church of St. Joseph, the spacious ranch
house, ranch store and schoolhouse, all
constructed of yellow brick produced on the
ranch. The house and chapel can be seen by
looking east from FM 1015 as the international
bridge at Progreso is approached.
Saenz used one of the first hand-operated
pumps in the river to raise a bumper crop of
sugarcane and also brought the first herd of
domestic cattle to the area. The need for a
sweet water well was apparent as the crops,
cattle herd and ranch population grew. The
first building on the homestead was the
mission chapel of St. Joseph, a result of the
search for good water. Saenz promised that,
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
should he find water, he would build a church
beside the well. At sixty feet, good, sweet
water was struck and the well remains in use
today. The chapel, dedicated in 1899, was
built along the architectural style of Father
Peter Keralum, though constructed long after
he became lost and perished north of
Mercedes. The beautiful chapel with its white
walls and blue-veiled ceiling was carefully
restored in 1995 by family members.
THE SAN JUAN PLANTATION
Another pioneer who saw the land’s great
potential was John Closner, who came to
Texas from Wisconsin in 1871. He hauled
freight, sustained several illnesses and
personal tragedies, and worked in railroad
construction around Galveston and in
Mexico, but the company went broke and he
lost the money he had invested. He and his
family arrived in Rio Grande City with $15 in
their pockets, and in 1883 he signed with
López and Oxboro, who ran a two-horse stage
line, to drive the mail by stagecoach for $75 a
month. Soon he moved his family to Hidalgo.
He had saved up enough money to purchase a
tract of land, the quiet beginning of what
would become the San Juan Plantation.
Closner was once again out of a job when
the competing Brownsville-Alice Stage Line
started, and in 1884 he was named deputy
sheriff of Hidalgo County by Sheriff James L.
Dougherty. He would continue as deputy and
later as sheriff for many years during a lawless
time when people drew their guns and shot—
and asked questions later. Meanwhile, he
continued to acquire land, which ranged in
price from twenty-five cents to one dollar per
acre until his holdings came to forty-five
thousand acres in Hidalgo County.
Because annual rainfall was insufficient,
irrigation was a necessity. Closner installed a
river pumping plant and a system of canals
and laterals. In 1895 he got a centrifugal
pump and a portable steam engine from New
York with a capacity sufficient to irrigate 200
acres. In the early years he raised many kinds
of crops—corn, alfalfa, sorghum, melons,
onions, squash, tomatoes, beans, cabbage,
cotton and tobacco, along with fruits such as
peaches, plums, bananas, and grapes. But the
product that brought worldwide acclaim to
this area was sugarcane. In 1895 Closner
began experimenting with it, crossing hybrid
cane seed from Mexico with seed from topranking
plantations in Louisiana. He
developed a cane yielding far more tons per
acre than Louisiana cane fields. Like Brulay,
first he produced piloncillos, cones of hard,
brown, unrefined sugar for which there was a
local demand, but they were hard to ship and
Closner ordered sugar mill equipment and
began the production of refined sugar
processed by a 250-ton mill. Each January
and February he would hire experienced
sugar mill operators from Louisiana to do the
refining and mill work. For the Louisiana
Purchase Centennial Exposition at St. Louis in
1904, Closner entered a display of samples of
cane cut at random from his crop, some seventeen
feet tall. He won first prize over all
competitors, including Cuba and Hawaii. This
publicity spurred further interest in sugar in
the Valley, encouraging outside capital to
invest in that and other farming activities in
By 1908, the sugar industry developed
problems, requiring a lot of irrigation and
drainage. Salt buildup damaged the land,
making this crop unsuitable. In 1909 Closner
sold the San Juan Plantation, continuing
his other activities in community service and
Closner installed the county’s first telephone,
which connected the plantation with his office
Above: John Closner.
Below: The sugar mill on John Closner’s
San Juan Plantation. Closner began
experimenting with sugarcane in 1895 and
samples, some seventeen feet tall, won first
prize at the Louisiana Purchase Centennial
Exposition at St. Louis in 1904.
COURTESY OF THE HCHC ARCHIVES.
Above: The ranch house at La Coma Ranch,
bought by William F. Sprague of Rhode
Island from the King Ranch in 1883.
Sprague built the first cotton gin in Hidalgo
County in 1898 and was one of the
founders of Edinburg. La Coma is now
owned by Calvin Bentsen.
COURTESY OF THE HIDALGO COUNTY
Below: The Landrum Plantation south of
San Benito was established in 1893. James
Landrum built a kiln on the plantation and
made the bricks for the two-story brick
home. He devised a way of irrigating the
land and grew cotton, vegetables, hay,
COURTESY OF GLENN HOUSLEY.
in Hidalgo, and he provided financial backing
to build the railroad spur from Harlingen
west past Mission to Sam Fordyce in 1904.
He also founded the town of San Juan, which
was named for him, and was one of the
founders of Chapin, which became Edinburg.
After founding of the towns and retiring from
law enforcement, he turned full-time rancher
with headquarters in Brownsville, living there
LA COMA RANCH
Another famous ranch in Hidalgo County
is La Coma Ranch, better known as Red Gate
for its colorful entrance fifteen miles north of
Edinburg. It was twice owned by the King
Ranch, which first sold it to William
Frederick Sprague in 1883, bought it back in
1919, and then sold it to Elmer and Lloyd
Bentsen in 1943. Sprague, from a wealthy,
influential family in Rhode Island that
included governors and U.S. senators, fell in
love with the Wild West atmosphere of 1880s
South Texas and settled down to control land
holdings of 200,000 acres, a spread onefourth
the size of Rhode Island. He also fell in
love with Florence Kenedy, niece of Captain
Mifflin Kenedy, Richard King’s steamboating
partner, and they were married in Brownsville
in 1900. The bricks for their new home,
which has walls three bricks thick and
towering ceilings a dozen feet high, were
brought to La Coma by oxcart.
Sprague ranched his extensive properties,
raising horses, sheep (briefly), and cattle. He
also pioneered dryland cotton farming and
built the county’s first cotton gin at La Coma
Ranch in 1898. The cotton yield was good, but
he had a problem with getting it to market. As
late as 1900 he shipped one thousand bales of
cotton by mule wagons to Hebbronville’s
railroad in order to connect with outside
buyers. A major street is named for Sprague in
Edinburg, a city he helped to build.
Now owned by Elmer Bentsen’s son Calvin,
the ranch house has been renovated and La
Coma Ranch is famous for its rich history and
for the dozens of species of exotic animals that
have joined domestic animals on the ranch.
THE LANDRUM PLANTATION
Another notable Cameron County place
was the Landrum Plantation, El Rancho
Ciprés, south of San Benito. After the U.S.-
Mexican War ended, among those who settled
in Brownsville was Judge Stephen Powers, an
attorney who specialized in land matters. He
was employed by descendants of brothers
Eugenio and Bartolo Fernández, Spanish
noblemen who had been awarded the
seventy-five-thousand-acre Concepción de
Carricitos grant by Spain in 1793, to confirm
their title. Judge Powers secured confirmation
of the title from the Texas Supreme Court and
the legislature, and received about one-half of
the grant for his services. At that time the land
was worth about ten cents an acre.
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
Powers’ daughter Frances married James L.
Landrum in 1893 and went to live on the ranch
in a rambling seven-room adobe dwelling.
They immediately started to make plans for the
fine two-story brick home that still stands.
Landrum built a kiln on the plantation and
made the bricks for the house. All the lumber
used inside and out was cypress shipped by
boat from New Orleans and landed at the
plantation river dock behind the house.
Meantime, in order to be able to have
income off the land, he planted crops and
devised a way of irrigating the land. He built
cypress-wood flumes and a crosswise canvas
device with a canvas sail. With a little wind and
some priming, the water flowed into the small
ditches he had dug. Thus his early crops of
cotton, vegetables and hay were grown; later he
also raised grain. Landrum contributed much
to progress with his plantation.
Years later, Colonel Sam Robertson, founder
of San Benito, told about visiting the Landrums:
In 1904 it was my good fortune and
privilege to be a guest at the Landrum home
on the Military Road. This was the most
delightful, hospitable home it was ever my
privilege to enter.
In forty years he never had a lock on his
home or storehouse. No traveler ever passed
Rancho Cypress who was not invited to rest,
feed his horse in the corral, and dine with the
family. There were flowers, good music,
splendid food, soft beds, and a royal welcome
Some forty miles from Ciudad Mante in
southern Tamaulipas are the ruins of
Castillo de la Nueva Apolonia, of which a
portion is shown (above). The original
hacienda built during Spanish Colonial
times was greatly enlarged and decorated
during the Díaz years by its wealthy owner
from Spain. The huge castle has long been
abandoned. Now a cactus grows from one of
the turrets (left).
These are just a few of the large ranches
that were active at the end of the nineteenth
century, but great changes would soon transform
the Rio Grande Valley.
MEXICO EXPLODES IN
In 1900 the Rio Grande region was still a
wind-swept, border frontier. Its ranching
economy and its society of Hispanic and non-
Hispanic people lived in relative peace and
tolerance. Some two hundred miles of arid
country to the north, south and west reinforced
the centuries-old isolation of this
region. Within two decades, however, the
people and their way of life would be changed
forever. On the U.S. side, this change would
come with the advent of the railroads, irrigation
of the land, and Anglo-American
colonists from the North. On the Mexican
side, the change would come through a tenyear
Though relations between the U.S. and
Mexico had been stable under the Díaz regime,
thirty-six years of his iron-fisted rule ended in
the revolution of 1910, which disrupted the
country until 1920. While many grievances
helped ignite the Mexican Revolution, the key
factor was land. By 1910, ninety percent of the
country’s land and resources was controlled by
some three percent of the people—Mexican
aristocrats and, particularly, foreigners. Threefourths
of the population were rural peasants—
Indians and mestizos, looked upon as subhuman
by many in the ruling class. Most were
bound to plantations or haciendas, where they
worked in perpetual, inherited debt.
The feudal-like estates ranged in size from
20,000 to over 250,000 acres. Activities included
agriculture, mining, timber, and livestock. The
growth of these plantations deprived thousands
of peasant farmers of their ancestral lands. Most
became hacienda laborers, earning very low
wages. Others, deprived of their land and way of
life, drifted to cities in search of work.
Similarly, many villages lost their age-old
public lands or ejidos, previously set aside for
communal farming and grazing, to the
haciendas. Thus, over one-half of Mexico’s
rural populace became displaced, trapped in
uneducated poverty at the bottom of the
country’s economic and social ladder. By
1910, their anger was ready to erupt like a
volcano, and from their ranks would come the
bulk of the revolutionary armies.
In 1910 years of rumblings and mounting
anger boiled over. Francisco Madero, a
northern idealist, led a successful grass-roots
movement against the government. Díaz was
exiled, and Madero became president in 1911.
The revolution seemed over. But later, a general
named Victoriano Huerta, a Díaz supporter,
staged a counter-revolt and installed himself as
dictator. Madero was shot—at the order, many
believed, of Huerta himself. Fearing a return to
the old regime, Mexicans began to rally behind
“strong men” who opposed Huerta. A rebellion
against him in early 1913 marked the
beginning of civil war.
Many leaders rose and fell during the
revolution, but four principal figures emerged to
dominate it. They were: Venustiano Carranza,
Francisco Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Álvaro
Obregón. Their roots lay in different regions,
and a power struggle ensued. Marching on
Mexico City in mid-1914, they drove Huerta
out. Carranza, by general agreement, became
“First Chief”—in effect, the president. But his
administration proved unable to deliver its
promises of reform.
Bloody civil warfare wracked Mexico for
the rest of the decade to 1920. The population
was decimated; the area was devastated.
This poster was part of the Pancho Villa
exhibit at the Hidalgo County Historical
Museum in 1999.
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
Most fighting occurred in the north, including
the border regions. Battles in border cities sent
bullets and shells flying into Brownsville, El
Paso, and other places. The turmoil in the far
northeast also unleashed the “bandit raids” into
the Rio Grande Valley, putting further strain on
relations with the United States.
Basically, there were three types of bandits.
First, there were Mexicans who had been
forced from their homes by the revolution,
were penniless and homeless, and stole simply
to stay alive, killing only when necessary.
Second were those who took part in savage
bandit raids to avenge private grudges, more
interested in killing than stealing. The third
category of bandits, unlike the others, were
well organized and well armed, some with
German rifles and ammunition. Some of the
attacks were said to be part of a German plot
to incite a war between Mexico and the United
States to keep American forces from entering
the war in Europe.
Meanwhile, the Wilson administration,
through diplomacy, intrigue, and arms sales,
sought to influence the revolution’s outcome.
The idealistic President Wilson, determined to
see democracy established in Mexico, had
opposed Huerta, and for a time backed Villa as
the likely winner. But after several disastrous
defeats, “Pancho” no longer seemed invincible,
and U.S. support swung cautiously to
Carranza. An angry Villa then attacked
Columbus, New Mexico. His raid in March
1916 prompted the U.S. Army’s “Punitive
Expedition” under General John J. Pershing,
with the aim of dispersing Villa’s forces.
Tension mounted between Washington
and Mexico City. War seemed possible, and by
mid-1916, thousands of Army and state
troops were sent to protect the border and to
be available if it became necessary to invade
Mexico. But, slowly, Carranza and Obregón
gained control, and by early 1917 tensions
eased. When Obregón became president in
1920, the civil warfare largely ended, and
Mexico began to stabilize.
Above: Four future military geniuses met
under friendly circumstances in El Paso in
1914: From left, Alvaro Obregón, who
defeated Villa and became president of
Mexico in 1920; Pancho Villa, leader of the
feared division of the North; John “Black
Jack” Pershing, sent to the border to
disperse Villa’s forces in 1916 and who later
became Commanding General of the
American Expeditionary Forces in France in
World War I 1917-1918, and Pershing’s
aide, a very young George “Blood and Guts”
Patton, who led the Third Army in World
War II, 1941-1945.
COURTESY OF GLENN HOUSLEY.
Below: The Mexican bridge guard at the
Brownsville-Matamoros Bridge in 1916.
COURTESY OF THE HCHC ARCHIVES.
Above: Troops were stationed over the Valley
from Mission to Brownsville. Shown in
review are thirteen thousand troops
stationed at Camp Llano Grande in 1916
on the site now occupied by the Texas A&M
Research Center between Mercedes and
Weslaco. National Guard units from
Indiana, Nebraska, Minnesota, and North
Dakota were among those at the camp.
COURTESY OF GLENN HOUSLEY.
Below: The hospital at Camp Llano Grande
was converted from the former Casa Blanca
Hotel built to house potential buyers of
farmland. About 30 Red Cross nurses from
the Midwest treated the soldiers. Heat,
insects, contaminated water, and diseases
such as pneumonia and measles caused
much illness among the guardsmen.
COURTESY OF GLENN HOUSLEY.
The years-long process of implementing the
revolution’s reforms began a process that many
in Mexico feel still goes on today. The reforms
were spelled out in the new Constitution
adopted in February 1917 by a constitutional
convention that included representatives of all
major revolutionary factions. It called for
protection of men and women in the labor
force; improved education, the creation of
small land-holdings, thus breaking up the
large haciendas; placing of all waters, rivers,
lakes, and subsoil resources, including
petroleum, under national control, and
imposing restrictions on foreign economic
operations in the country.
Since 1920 disputes between the two
countries have been approached through
diplomatic channels rather than military
intervention. As the new millennium begins,
Mexico and the United States are vitally
important friends and trading partners.
Meanwhile, on the U.S. side the railroads
had finally come, massive irrigation systems
were being established, and land developers
had discovered a new frontier they called the
“Magic Valley of the Rio Grande.”
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY DAWNS
AT LAST! CONNECTED BY RAIL TO THE WORLD
When the twentieth century dawned on the Rio Grande Valley, it was still cut off from the rest
of Texas and the world.
From 1850 to 1900, numerous attempts were made to construct a railroad to connect the Valley
to Corpus Christi and/or San Antonio. Firms were chartered, investors found, and some lines
begun with great promise. Then the money would run out. The Rio Grande Railroad Company did
succeed in building a narrow gauge road twenty-two miles from Brownsville to Port Isabel in 1872,
which moved freight back and forth from Brazos Santiago to Brownsville. However, all attempts to
build a railroad to connect the Valley with the outside world had failed.
Brownsville was sitting isolated near the mouth of the river. Goods reached the city by sea or
by overland hauling. Passengers bound for other parts of the state were ferried across the river to
Matamoros, took the Mexican National Railway up the river to Laredo, then crossed back into
Texas to take another train.
Though some railroad people were not convinced there was a profit to be made in running a line
across the Wild Horse Desert, a railroad builder named Uriah Lott finally got things moving. He had
succeeded in building a line from Corpus Christi to Laredo in 1876 after raising money from Richard
King, Mifflin Kenedy, and many others for the necessary investment. In 1899 he came up with a new plan
to bring a railroad into the Rio Grande Valley. He got the attention of B. F. Yoakum, chairman of the board
of the Rock Island-Frisco Lines. Yoakum liked the fact that Lott was working to secure a land bonus of
more than 100,000 acres, free right-of-way and terminal grounds, plus at least $75,000 in cash.
Hundreds of men were employed to lay
railroad tracks to Brownsville, then west
from Harlingen to Sam Fordyce. The San
Juan to Edinburg line came a few years
later after Edinburg was established as the
Hidalgo County seat.
COURTESY OF THE HIDALGO COUNTY HISTORICAL MUSEUM.
The first train arrived in Brownsville on July
4, 1904, in a heavy rain and was met with
great fanfare, floats, banners, and fireworks
as every conveyance in town brought
residents to greet the railroad officials.
COURTESY OF THE BROWNSVILLE
Lots of money was needed to build
railroads, and Lott was clever at coaxing
money out of people’s pockets for his ventures.
He was full of vigor and enthusiasm for the
project. Area ranchers and other citizens of the
Valley were anxious to help, providing the
land and cash required. Lott had to go to St.
Louis for financial backing, as his eastern
connections were not interested in the far-off
tip of Texas. On January 12, 1903, a state
charter was issued to the St. Louis,
Brownsville, and Mexico Railroad to construct
a rail line from Sinton to Brownsville.
The incorporators included Robert Driscoll,
Sr., Robert Driscoll, Jr., Robert J. Kleberg,
Caesar Kleberg, A. E. Spohn, Richard King II,
John G. Kenedy, James B. Wells, Francisco
Yturria, John B. Armstrong, and Uriah Lott as
president. A contract was signed with the
Johnson Brothers of St. Elmo, Illinois, successful
railroad builders, on July 1, 1903. The cost
was set at $12,500 per mile. Additional
expenses of $2,000 per mile would go to pay
for the line’s equipment, which included locomotives
as well as freight and passenger cars.
Work began on July 28, 1903, near
Robstown, named for Robert Driscoll, owner of
the Driscoll Ranch. Sam A. Robertson, a civil
engineer from Missouri who was known for
taking on dangerous assignments and
completing them, was given the subcontract for
laying the track, surfacing, and building the
trestle bridges. Robertson was interested in the
Valley beyond his work on the railroad. He was
a strong believer in the possibilities of irrigation,
and he saw an opportunity to look for land that
could be purchased to raise crops.
Robertson formed the Southern Contracting
Company and employed able assistants. His
crew of four hundred men worked with
astonishing speed. Since he was operating on
borrowed money, he had to buy the cheapest
work locomotives he could get. This explains
why two wrecks on the same day in 1904
nearly brought his struggle to build the railroad
to an abrupt end.
The first train wreck dumped nine cars of
bridge timbers and tie rails in the bottom of a
creek bed at Santa Gertrudis. The sixteen-car
train was hauling supplies to his camp at the
end of the line. Robertson received word
through a telephone call to the Kleberg Ranch
from Corpus Christi and immediately started
north to the wreck scene with Engine Four,
accompanied by engineer F. P. Read. Near
Kingsville their engine ran into a cocked
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
switch which derailed the engine, tender and
two cars and catapulted Robertson to the
ground with a compound leg fracture and
several broken ribs.
Robertson’s physical condition was bad,
but his financial condition was worse. Doctors
said he couldn’t work for months, but after a
few days in a Corpus Christi hospital he was
back, overseeing the job as he lay on a
stretcher on a moving flatcar. He spent
months on crutches and soon became expert
in their use. He was able to catch a train
moving eight to ten miles an hour and, once
aboard, he would hop from car to car. He
trained his white cow pony to lie down so he
could mount and fasten his crutches to the
saddlehorn. Robertson was still on crutches
when the railroad was completed.
The line reached the area of Raymondville
on April 3, 1904. The tracks moved toward
what would become Harlingen, then San
Benito as the workers continued toward
The first train, with many dignitaries and
railroad officials, reached Brownsville on July
4, 1904. It arrived during a heavy rain after an
eleven hour and forty minute run from
Corpus Christi, and virtually the whole town
turned out for the occasion. Every conveyance
in town came out through the mud and rain
with floats, banners and fireworks to meet the
train and escort Lott and the visitors into
town. On that day, the Rio Grande Valley
joined the world!
Meanwhile, work had begun on the
extension westward through Mission to Sam
Fordyce, named for the chairman of the
executive committee of the St. Louis,
Brownsville, and Mexico Railroad. It moved
across land that would later be developed as
townsites. It reached what is now Mission in
August 1904, and then Sam Fordyce on
December 19, 1904. Now little more than a
signpost on busy U.S. 83, Sam Fordyce began
with great fanfare. There were several brick
business buildings, a hotel and post office,
but it failed to develop as a town.
The railroad ended at Sam Fordyce until
1925 when construction was resumed to Rio
Grande City, arriving there in August of 1925
about the same time a state highway was
completed. An excursion train packed with
cheering, yelling passengers moved from
Brownsville through Sam Fordyce and on to
Rio Grande City, where a huge celebration
was held to welcome the long-awaited
railroad and highway.
The railroad started a chain reaction that
brought the Rio Grande Valley to the attention
of investors, land developers, and others who
The Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in
Brownsville in October 1927, and its
handsome station was a center of activity
until service was discontinued and it fell
With the support of the Brownsville
Historical Association and others, the
Southern Pacific Railroad Station was
carefully renovated in the 1980s and
converted into the excellent Historic
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
wanted to explore the nation’s last frontier.
Dozens of new communities sprang up all
along its route.
Other branch lines were built, including
what became known as the “Spiderweb” line
to connect the smaller communities with the
main line, until about 210 miles of railroad
tracks were in service. There were no farm to
market roads in the early days, so the
railroads were essential to haul the everincreasing
loads of produce out of the Valley.
All of the various branch lines, including the
St. Louis, Brownsville, and Mexico, were
absorbed by the Missouri Pacific System in 1925.
The other major line to build into the
Valley was the Southern Pacific, which had
first eyed the territory before Yoakum and
Lott started their construction. They began
work south out of Alice in September of 1903,
but ran into problems with the Texas Railroad
Commission and stopped construction at
Falfurrias. They took no further action until
May 1925, when they received permission to
extend their railroad into the Valley. The line
reached Edinburg on January 11, 1927,
McAllen on January 22, Harlingen on
February 8 via a route along present state
highway 107, and arrived in Brownsville on
October 22, 1927.
An estimated four hundred miles of rail
lines crisscrossed the Valley during their
heyday. As cities developed, a network of
paved highways followed to accommodate the
increasing number of private automobiles. By
the 1960s, trucks were hauling much of the
produce and the use of rail freight declined.
Passenger service was discontinued in the
1960s, and train depots were closed.
Some of those beautiful railroad depots are
now restored for other uses. The Historic
Brownsville Museum occupies the renovated
Southern Pacific depot in Brownsville, and in
Edinburg the Chamber of Commerce and
Economic Development Corporation have
found a home in the carefully restored
Southern Pacific Depot. In McAllen the law
firm of Cardenas, Whitis & Stephen restored
the old Southern Pacific Depot for their offices.
The Union Pacific Railroad acquired both
the Missouri Pacific and Southern Pacific lines
and now serves the railroad needs of the
Valley with service to Mexico through
Brownsville. Rail service often takes longer
than trucks but is cheaper, and is seeing a
resurgence, largely due to the North American
Free Trade Agreement. The Valley-owned
Border Pacific Railroad provides shuttle service
at the rail yards and freight service from
Mission to Rio Grande City.
THE VALLEY GREEN
The prospect of fast transportation to
markets by railroad stimulated great interest in
entrepreneurs from other parts of Texas and the
United States. They could envision year-round
agricultural production in the subtropical
climate, since the river water was available for
irrigation. Once an irrigation system was
assured, the land could be sold in small blocks
to prospective growers at a great profit.
The land was flat and sloped gently to the
northeast away from the river. The riverbanks
were at a higher elevation than the land and,
once the water was pumped out of the river, it
could be distributed by gravity through open
canals to the point of use. Some of the terrain
would require a second pumping of the water
about ten miles north of the river for delivery
of the water to the outermost limits of the area.
Landowners along the river readily
irrigated their fields using private pumps, but
it took huge investments and complex
systems of pumping stations and canals to
move the water inland.
Beginning in 1904, irrigation companies
were formed by land developers. Generally,
investors purchased a large tract of land with
river frontage. Water filings were made in the
county clerk’s office, an engineer was employed,
and the canals, laterals and pumping plants
were constructed. The cost of the construction
and operation of these irrigation systems was
paid by the developers through the sale of land
and a charge for delivering water to the land.
The first irrigation system for community use
was built by Donna pioneers A. F. Hester and
T. J. Hooks through their La Blanca Agricultural
Company. They first farmed by the river and
then moved to higher land around Donna.
The largest irrigation district was the
American Rio Grande Land and Irrigation
Company formed in 1905 by a group of St.
Louis investors for development of the
“barren Valley land” to turn the area into one
productive in sugarcane, winter vegetables
and other crops. While building the plant
they ran into a problem.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that
ended the U.S.-Mexican War (1846-48)
designated the main channel of the Rio Grande
as the U.S.-Mexico boundary. Disputes arising
from frequent changes in the river’s course led
to the Treaty of 1884, which recognized only
those river diversions resulting from natural
occurrences. The International Boundary and
Water Commission was established in 1889 to
administer the Treaty of 1884.
When the river started to change its course
in 1906, the irrigation company gave nature a
hand by digging their own cutoff to make sure
the river would continue to flow by the
pumping station. This left a 413-acre banco
called El Horcón (crooked stick). Had this
been a natural cutoff, the tract would have
gone to Mexico. But since it was not a natural
flow, it was U.S. land. Although still U.S.
territory, the tract and the popular gambling
and resort community of Rio Rico, which
flourished there during the 1920s and 1930s,
became increasingly subject to Mexican
administration and jurisdiction.
After the U.S. granted Mexico territorial
rights over El Horcón Tract and Rio Rico in
1970, a native of Rio Rico sued the U.S.
government to guarantee his U.S. citizenship.
This lawsuit began an eight-year legal battle that
Above: Water in the Rio Grande was
plentiful when the developers began to build
the early irrigation systems. The land was
flat and sloped gently to the northeast away
from the river, allowing water to flow by
gravity through open canals to the point
Below: In 1906 the river started to change
its channel south of Mercedes and cut off a
loop on which the American Land and
Irrigation Company was building a large
pumping station south of Mercedes. They
gave nature a hand by digging their own
cutoff to make sure the river would continue
to flow by the pumping station.
COURTESY OF THE HCHC ARCHIVES.
Above: Workers prepare to deliver water to
a field being readied for planting around
1980. Research is ongoing to find ways to
stretch water supplies to meet farm and
Below: The complexity of irrigation systems
and the size of the huge pumps required to
deliver water from the Rio Grande to the
newly cleared farms can be seen in the
restored Hidalgo Pumphouse Heritage and
COURTESY OF CHUCK SNYDER.
eventually led to U.S. citizenship for about two
hundred people born in Rio Rico prior to 1970.
Meanwhile, the Mercedes pumping station
was completed and operated effectively,
channeling water to area farms. Purchased by
farmers served by the system in 1929, it still
operates from its longtime Mercedes
headquarters as Hidalgo and Cameron County
Water Control and Improvement District No. 9.
It serves seventy-two thousand acres and
provides the irrigation and domestic needs of
the Mercedes-Weslaco area.
Other irrigation systems were established up
and down the river. Some developers soon
encountered financial difficulties, and their
irrigation systems were not properly maintained.
To secure an adequate supply of water, farmers
organized irrigation districts and purchased the
systems from the developers. By 1920 only four
privately owned systems remained.
Today, the irrigated lands of the Valley are
divided into local water districts, each with taxing
authority and administered by boards of
directors with managers and necessary
employees at convenient locations. In 2000
there were twenty-six water districts in the four
Valley counties. Among the staff members are
“ditch riders” who check the canals and open
“gates” to let water into the distribution system
for individual farmers.
The system of irrigation and allocation of
the water changed greatly over the years,
especially after Falcon Dam was completed in
1953 and Amistad Dam upriver several years
later. A watermaster was established by the
Texas Water Rights Commission in 1971 after
many years of litigation of water rights.
Headquartered in Harlingen, the watermaster
has overall jurisdiction over the water
allocated to the U.S. from Falcon and Amistad
Dams and works with each of the water
districts to see that supplies are available as
needed. Landowners pay a tax per acre for
water rights, plus a fixed amount per acre-foot
when irrigation water is used. An acre-foot is
the quantity of water that covers an area of
one acre one foot deep.
Approximately 1.4 million acres of land are
being farmed in the Valley, about half of which
has irrigation rights. Through the years the
irrigation districts have changed many canals to
either concrete lined or concrete pipes
underground. Though land was uneven in the
early days, most land has now been leveled with
a “fall” of an inch per one hundred feet to aid
the water flow. New methods of irrigation are
constantly being studied and implemented
where they would conserve water. The water
supply will continue to be one of the Valley’s
major concerns as more and more demands are
made on the waters of the Rio Grande for
irrigation and domestic use by both the U.S.
Preserving the history of irrigation in the
Valley is the Hidalgo Pumphouse Heritage and
Discovery Park near the river at Hidalgo.
Carefully restored and opened as an interactive
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
museum in April 1999, the pumphouse was
built in 1909 by the Louisiana-Rio Grande
Canal Company to irrigate forty thousand acres.
The pumphouse, initially steam-powered by
mesquite wood from the newly cleared land, is
typical of about thirty pumping stations in the
Valley whose waters transformed the arid
territory to a garden paradise.
SPREAD THE WORD
With the railroad in operation and irrigation
a reality, the Valley was ready for its second
major colonization, which lasted about two
decades until around 1930. A pattern soon
developed that was followed in varying degrees.
The developer was a man of great vision and
optimism, sold on the land and its possibilities,
and with his eye on the profits that could be
made from the virgin soil. He purchased land at
the going price, around one to three dollars per
acre, usually in plots running into thousands of
acres. After clearing the native brush he built
irrigation systems with the help of wellqualified
engineers and then planted
“showplace” plots of farm crops and later of
citrus groves. Some built large guesthouses for
the land parties they would bring to the area.
Salesmen would be dispatched over the
nation, especially the farming areas and towns
of the North and Midwest, and prospective
buyers were brought in by excursion trains. On
the southward trip, the salesman’s enthusiastic
forecasts of the glowing future helped to
further prepare the traveler-prospects for
signatures on land contracts. Then, on arrival,
the “Homeseekers” as they were called, found
mild, sunny winters with fields of fresh
vegetables growing, and later the intoxicating
scents of citrus blossoms.
After roads were built, a caravan of luxurytype
automobiles greeted the visitors when the
train arrived at its Valley destination. Usually,
the drivers were prosperous farmers who had
come earlier on similar trips and now were
ready to share the blessings of their new life.
Busy days followed as the prospects were
driven to see thriving farms where beautiful
new homes were further evidence of success.
The developers were careful that their
prospects saw only the successful examples,
and there are many tales of how they kept
prospective buyers from seeing lands that were
temporarily flooded or that could discourage
These prospects were usually successful
farmers and others who wanted to start a new
life in a new frontier, educated for their time
and with enough money to invest in the land,
much of it still in brush. Though many of the
homeseekers experienced great hardships in
their early years, for the most part the new
farmers did prosper. Demands for their
A trainload of homeseekers is met by an
automobile caravan for a tour of the land
that the developer has for sale. This tactic
was repeated throughout the Valley as
new communities were established along
COURTESY OF THE HIDALGO COUNTY HISTORICAL MUSEUM.
Above: After citrus orchards became
successful in the 1920s, homeseekers would
be taken to a producing orchard and told
of the money-making possibilities that
COURTESY OF THE HIDALGO COUNTY HISTORICAL
Right: Lillian Weems Baldridge arrived at
Combes in 1905 as a teenager with her
engineer father before the clearing began.
She taught school, observed, and wrote
about the Valley's metamorphosis with
affection and humor for seven decades.
Excerpts from her writings that were
published in the Valley Chamber’s Tip-O-
Texan magazine in the late 1960s and early
1970s enliven this book.
agricultural products grew as the nation’s
economy and population grew. As each tract of
land was cleared and settled, nearby
communities sprang up to provide schools,
churches, trade, and local governments.
One of the engineers who worked on
building canals was W. Z. Weems, who settled
in Combes in 1905. His daughter, educatorwriter
Lillian Weems Baldridge, told about
those early days in October 1967 in “Before the
Clearing Began” in the Tip-O-Texan magazine:
It was soon after the railroad came that my
mother and dad joined the early ‘Homeseekers’
to settle near Combes, my sister, brother and I,
all lively teenagers, with them.
Driving up the Valley to Edinburg this past
summer in an air-conditioned car over a
beautiful network of highways, landscaped
with stately palms, bougainvillea, oleander,
bananas and other tropical flowers, the citrus
orchards and cotton fields, grain field after
grain field, made me think of the land before
the clearing began.
There was nothing but brush, senderos, and
later one narrow road cut through the deep
sand, with pockets far apart for a passing car or
cart to draw into while the other fellow passed.
It was hard labor and the sweat of the brow
that made the dreams come true. At night the
camps of the Mexican clearers reminded one of
a scene from some opera with gypsy camps.
Burning trees, dogs barking, women cooking,
sending up odors of boiling coffee, tortillas and
beans; songs, twanging guitars and maybe an
accordion filled the air. Looking at the reddened
skies we could tell when a new townsite
or homesite was being cleared, and many times
we would turn our horses towards the new
development. It was a full and satisfying life.
Our Anglo pioneers brought with them their
axe, hoes, adze and other implements. Here
were found the hacha, asadón, talache, and
ever-useful machete, that wicked-looking cane
knife that serves so many purposes even today.
The Homeseekers who settled among us
are now welcoming our thousands of winter
visitors. Many of them are buying homes and
learning to enjoy the relaxed way of life of our
sunny climate. Sure, the rains come…but the
sun always returns, the palms sway in our
Gulf breezes and, even as we reminisce, we’re
glad so many now share our Magic Land.
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
CITIES GROW ALONG THE RAILROAD
RAYMONDVILLE & NEARBY TOWNS
The completion of the railroad meant the establishment of new towns, and no time was lost in
preparing townsites and railroad stations for the long-awaited trains. On April 3, 1904, the rails
completed their long stretch through the King Ranch to what would become Raymondville in the
present Willacy County.
Edward B. Raymond was one of those already on the scene when the railroads brought
opportunities for new development. Raised in Austin, he became acquainted in the early 1870s with
the ranching people of the Valley when he drove cattle to market in Dodge City, Kansas. He was
broke and disillusioned when he met L. H. McNelly, the famous Texas Ranger. McNelly was
instrumental in getting Raymond hired by Captain Richard King to open the El Sauz division of the
King Ranch, which he managed for thirty-seven years. A small community of ranch employees
developed at El Sauz ranch headquarters where Raymond served as postmaster and telegraph
operator. The little settlement also had a school and commissary.
Raymond acquired about twenty-four thousand acres of his own, which he called Las Majadas
(Sheepfold) Ranch, on which he raised cattle and sheep and experimented with all types of
vegetables and oranges. Joining other ranchers in deeding right of way for the railway, he also
donated a station site near his ranch. Railway officials named the station Raymondville in his honor.
He organized the Raymondville Town and Improvement Company in 1904 and lost no time in
getting the new townsite platted. He also established the area’s first cotton gin in 1904, became
president of the Raymondville State Bank in 1907, and set up a telephone exchange.
The farming was good and the area prospered as families moved down to clear the land and
establish homes. Raymondville was incorporated in 1912, but it was not until 1921 that what is
A road grader is shown in front of the
Raymondville railroad station in the town’s
early days. At the right is the Davidson
(later named Lundberg) Hotel, completed in
1907, which soon became the center of the
area’s social life.
COURTESY OF GLENN HARDING.
Above: Edward B. Raymond, for whom
Raymondville was named.
Below: The Willacy County Courthouse
was completed in 1922 and is still in use.
Citizens gather in front of the Veterans
Memorial shown in the foreground for July
Fourth and Memorial Day services.
now Willacy County was formed from parts of
Cameron and Hidalgo Counties, and
Raymondville was named county seat. During
the depression, Raymondville was the only
town in the Valley with no bank failures, with
two banks operating since 1925, when the
First National Bank opened its doors.
When the old Davidson Hotel (later the
Lundberg Hotel) was completed in 1907, a twoand-a-half-story
building with eighteen rooms,
fancy Oriental rugs, and brass beds, it was called
an “oasis of luxury in a desert of brush,” and
soon became the center of the area’s social life.
The Willacy County Courthouse, completed
in 1922, is still in use, remodeled and airconditioned.
The Reber Memorial Library was
built in 1951 as a gift to the people of Willacy
County from the Reber family, John O. and his
sisters, Winnie and Lou Emma Reber, who
came in 1914 from Illinois.
Raymondville, the center of a large farm
and ranching area, is the gateway to the Rio
Grande Valley from the north on Highway 77.
Its citizens are proud of their city today and
their heritage, which is preserved in the
Raymondville Historical Center, housed in the
old red brick high school built in 1924.
“When they were going to tear the old
school down in 1967, we begged them to let
us make it a museum,” said Stanley
Addington, a member of the old school’s first
graduating class, who worked with others to
establish the center. It opened in 1969, and he
served as its volunteer curator and
enthusiastic supporter for the rest of his life.
W. A. Harding and A. A. Lindahl organized
the Harding-Lindahl Land Company and sold
land near Raymondville. Later the company
cleared and sold land in the Las Mesteñas
tract west of Raymondville. These companies
brought excursion parties from other states,
housing their guests at the Delta Orchard
Clubhouse located at the reservoir that is now
called Delta Lake.
Other Willacy County townsites were
platted. San Perlita was developed by Charles R.
Johnson, taking in Santa Margarita, an earlier
community. Willamar was named for William
A. Harding and S. Lamar Gill, developers. New
towns established later on the Edinburg rail
extension were Lasara, named for Mrs. W. A.
Harding (Laura) and Mrs. Lamar Gill (Sarah);
and Hargill for both Harding and Gill. The
community named for the Hardings’ son, Rollo,
was later renamed Monte Alto.
After Raymondville, the next railroad stop
was Lyford, named for William Lyford,
general counsel of the Chicago and Illinois
Railroad. The new town of Lyford had the
honor of receiving the first commercial load of
freight run on the St. Louis, Brownsville and
Mexico line—sugar mill machinery for John
Closner’s mill on the San Juan Plantation. The
machinery was hauled the remainder of the
distance in wagons drawn by oxen.
The town of Stillman, named for Charles
Stillman, founder of Brownsville, was
launched in April 1904. Its name was later
changed to Sebastian in honor of John
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
Sebastian, third vice-president of the Rock
Island Lines. Neither William Lyford nor John
Sebastian ever lived in the Valley.
A newer Willacy County community has
grown up around Port Mansfield on the coast
some twenty miles east of Raymondville. A
port and fishing community on the Laguna
Madre, it was formerly a small fishing camp
known as Red Fish Landing. The port was
opened in 1950 by the United States Army
Corps of Engineers, which wanted a harbor
between Corpus Christi and Brownsville. It
was named for U.S. Representative Joseph J.
Mansfield, who introduced the Mansfield Bill
authorizing the extension of the Gulf
Intracoastal Waterway from Corpus Christi to
the Rio Grande, completed in 1949.
The Port Mansfield “cut” was completed
across Padre Island in 1962. This brought a
tidal exchange between the Gulf of Mexico
and the Laguna Madre that produced an
abundant population of redfish, brown
shrimp, and flounder and greatly expanded
the sport and commercial fish economy of
Port Mansfield. Its claim to being “the best little
fishing spot on the Texas Coast” is borne
out at the Port Mansfield Annual Fishing
Tournament held in late July each year, a
highlight of the Valley’s summer season.
COMBES: SETTLED BY
In search of a new home, James Dishman
left Kaufman County, Texas in 1893. He
selected a section in northwestern Cameron
County, which he described as “a land of vast
richness.” At that time there was no highway
running north and south, nor even a town
closer than Brownsville—just good, rich land
covered with mesquite and cactus.
Dishman bought cattle to start his herd,
added another section, and leased a third. He
was one of the first settlers to irrigate his crops
of cotton, corn, vegetables, grain, and sugarcane
from wells. He took a great interest in the
development of the Valley and contributed two
hundred acres to the building of the railroad.
Living conditions were primitive. The
nearest post office was fifteen miles away and
often a week would pass before someone
could pick up the mail. Lists of supplies needed
were carefully kept for the monthly wagon
trip to Brownsville. The only bank in the area
was at Brownsville, as was the one newspaper,
the Brownsville Herald.
The lack of medical service always
concerned early settlers, the nearest facility
being a day’s journey to Brownsville. In the
spring of 1897, several thefts of stock had been
reported, and Dishman went with a young
deputy in search of the thieves. They were
attacked by the suspected thieves and Dishman
was severely wounded, a bullet penetrating his
left forearm and entering his left lung, with
another bullet wound in the back.
A rider was sent to Brownsville by
horseback for a doctor, and Dr. Fred Combes
arrived just thirty-six hours after the shooting.
Top: A land party is shown in front of the
Lamar Gill home in Raymondville. Standing
at far left are S. L. Gill, W. A. Harding, and
Ernest Pless. Seated eighth from left are Laura
Harding and Sarah Gill. Harding and Gill
developed several tracts around Raymondville
and Monte Alto, where they built the Delta
Orchard Clubhouse to house and entertain
land parties. In 1999 the Harding Foundation,
established by W. A. and Laura Harding,
celebrated its fiftieth anniversary of giving
donations to charities, local projects, and
tuition to ministerial students worldwide.
COURTESY OF GLENN HARDING.
Above: This Old Country Store near
Combes is typical of stores that existed in
the new communities that sprang up along
the railroad. Now residents do most of their
shopping in nearby cities.
Harlingen, with well-kept homes, churches, small
businesses, and a steadily increasing population.
HARLINGEN & ITS FOUNDER
Above: Harlingen founder Lon C. Hill beat
the railroad to the Valley the hard way,
moving his household in ten covered wagons
in 1903. He is shown at left with his driver
and the “Grey Ghost” after a fifteen-mile
trip in mud and rain. This automobile was
said to be the first one in Harlingen.
COURTESY OF RIO GRANDE VALLEY MUSEUM.
Below: The Hill family built Harlingen’s first
home, now preserved as part of the Rio
Grande Valley Museum complex near the
airport. Personal items from Lon Hill and
the era help add to the rustic authenticity of
days gone by.
He cleansed and dressed the wounds, then
returned to Brownsville and sent his brother,
Dr. Joe Combes, to care for the critically ill
man. After a month, the patient was taken in a
wagon converted into a makeshift ambulance
to the Army hospital in Brownsville, where
surgery was performed to remove the bullets,
and Dishman recovered from his wounds.
When the first passenger train came by his
land in 1904, Dishman laid out a new
community which he named “Combes” in
gratitude to the doctors who saved his life. He
donated land for a cemetery, three churches,
and the school that bears his name.
Combes was incorporated in the 1950s.
Nowadays, it is a bedroom community of
It was July 4, 1904 when the first train
reached what was known as “Lon C. Hill’s
Town.” Hill was among those who had helped
with the railroad by providing land and
money and convincing others to do the same.
He had started buying land in 1898, when a
court case brought him to Brownsville, and
had acquired several large holdings. In 1903
he left a thriving law practice in Beeville to
stake all on developing a parched, rattlesnakeinfested
Hill beat the railroad to the Valley the hard
way, moving his household and family of nine
children in ten covered wagons, with special
wide tires for desert sand. The caravan
included two other families. They had a
chuck wagon, a three-seated hack called the
ambulance where the girls rode, and a buggy
for Mrs. Hill and the baby, George.
It took them thirteen days to travel from
Beeville, a trip of two days and nights by the
only other land transportation, the stage from
Alice. The journey along wild land and
through the King, Kenedy, Yturria and
Armstrong Ranches was especially exciting to
the Hill children. The boys on horseback
drove sixty head of livestock, and a pack of
hounds followed. For the Hill family,
however, the first year and a half after their
big move brought hardship and tragedy. They
camped in a warehouse at Point Isabel, but
had to flee at the threat of a hurricane, and a
yellow fever rumor prompted them to vacate
their first headquarters in Brownsville.
Hill and his sons camped by the Arroyo
Colorado as they prepared their new home
and town. Hill envisioned a system of irrigation
canals and a barge canal connected to the
Arroyo Colorado. He chose the name
Harlingen because it suggested canals like
those in the City of Harlingen, Holland, the
home of his friend Uriah Lott’s grandmother.
While the rest of the family was living in
Brownsville, typhoid struck, and Lon Hill lost
his beloved wife Eustacia and baby George.
The oldest daughter, Miss Paul Hill, then
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
twenty-one, bravely took over the household
responsibilities and care of the younger
children. The family moved into their new
home, built by carpenters from Austin, in
January 1905. It is now preserved as
Harlingen’s first home in the Rio Grande
Valley Museum complex near the airport.
Hill’s greatest project at the time was a set
of irrigation canals, built with the help of a
partner, W. Z. Weems. Digging started in May
1907, and by November 26, miles of canals
were ready to operate, capable of irrigating
seventy-five thousand acres, all with only one
pump on the Rio Grande. With the assurance
of water, he began to sell land near cost to
encourage settlers. He built the first brick
building in town in 1908, which housed a
post office, bank and newspaper office. In
1910, when Harlingen had about three
hundred residents, the town was officially
Hill also planted crops on his land. Cotton,
alfalfa, corn and truck vegetables flourished,
as did sugarcane, but the sugar mill he built
was burned down by bandits in 1917. In his
later years, Hill worked for flood control and
other legislation, and a barge canal to Port
Harlingen on the Arroyo connected with the
Gulf Intracoastal Canal System, which finally
became a reality in 1952. A legend in his own
time, he was honored on his seventieth
birthday in 1932 at a Founders’ Day program.
“The Rio Grande Valley of Texas is a manmade
miracle,” said Hill. “Nature provided
the raw materials—fertile soil, water and
climate. Men of vision mixed these with
brains, energy, sweat and tears to create the
magic of our Magic Valley. I have watched the
Valley grow from small beginnings. I know
the people who have made it, and have faith
in their ability to achieve still greater things.
The future depends upon the efforts of all
the Valley people, their ability to make the
most of their abundant natural advantages,
and continued opportunity to prosper in a
A major change came to Harlingen in 1941
when the efforts of Harlingen business leaders to
secure an air base were successful. The city
provided 960 acres of land, the government
approved a training program for thirty thousand
troops a year, and construction began in July
1941 on Harlingen Air Gunnery School (HAGS).
Plans were expedited after the December 7, 1941
attack on Pearl Harbor and by January 1942 over
eighty truckloads of troops rolled through its
gates. It was only a short time before airplanes
were flying across the brilliant blue sky and the
acrid smells of gunsmoke and flight fuel were
mingled with the fragrance of citrus blossoms.
Air gunnery training continued until the end of
World War II.
The air base spawned Valley Transit
Company, which began with a converted milk
delivery truck, to transport workers and
service personnel to and from the base. Under
the guidance of co-founder Vance D. Raimond,
it grew into a full-fledged bus system
Above: Harlingen rapidly grew into a
business and retail center as shown on
Jackson Street in the late 1930s.
COURTESY OF THE RIO GRANDE VALLEY MUSEUM.
Below: The first Valley Transit Company bus
was a converted delivery wagon to transport
workers and service personnel to and from
the new military base. It soon grew to serve
the Valley and northern Mexico with its fleet
of modern buses, later expanding service to
Corpus Christi, San Antonio, and beyond.
COURTESY OF ROBERT FARRIS.
Right: The Rio Grande Valley Museum
complex occupies a part of the former air
base. Behind this showcase museum around
a landscaped courtyard are the Paso Real
Stagecoach Inn, the Historical Museum that
chronicles early Valley life and Texas
history, Harlingen’s first hospital, and the
Lon C. Hill home.
Below: The Iwo Jima Memorial on the
campus of Harlingen’s Marine Military
Academy was the original mold fashioned
from a photo of U.S. Marines planting the
flag on Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, on
February 23, 1945. It was used to cast the
famous monument in Arlington, Virginia.
One of those raising the flag was Harlon
Block, a young Weslaco Marine who was
killed in the Iwo Jima fighting six days after
the famed photo was taken. He is honored
in his hometown by a park that bears his
name and an exhibit at the Weslaco
Bicultural Museum. His remains now rest at
the base of this memorial.
operating through the Valley and beyond that
is still operated by family members.
The Harlingen Air Base was closed in 1946.
After extensive renovations it reopened as the
Harlingen Air Force Base in 1952 as an
observer-navigator school to train navigators
during the Korean War. By March 1960 over
ten thousand navigators had graduated from
this training program. Hundreds of civilian
workers were employed at the air base in
addition to an estimated four thousand service
personnel. The base buzzed with action.
Then there was stunned silence. In 1961
word came that the base was ordered closed.
The airmen were transferred and more than
700 civilian jobs ended. “For Sale” signs stood
in the yards of about 1,400 homes in
Harlingen. Harlingen residents were greatly
concerned about the economy. A plan evolved
to advertise the homes to retirees in the North
and Midwest, offering affordable homes in a
warm climate. Success was visible as, one by
one, the “For Sale” signs came down as new
residents moved in to become a vital part of
And what to do with the base itself? Mayor
Mike Hodes felt it should be used for
educational institutions. After much red tape,
the city acquired ownership of much of the
base. When the city’s money ran out, H. E.
Butt of Corpus Christi, founder of the H-E-B
stores, and Lewis Boggus and Art Hauseman
of Harlingen made large purchases at the
auction and then made these facilities
available for city development purposes.
The results can be seen today. The former
base is home to Valley International Airport,
Texas State Technical College, the Marine
Military Academy, the Iwo Jima Monument
and Visitor Center, the Rio Grande Valley
Museum complex, major industrial firms, and
Though agriculture does not dominate the
economy as it once did, cotton is still an
important factor in Harlingen’s economy. The
first bale harvested in the nation each year is
welcomed by the Harlingen Chamber and
business community with great fanfare and
prizes. Cotton buyers are centered here, as are
cottonseed processing firms, suppliers, and
Harlingen’s healthcare institutions spread
their influence over the area. Their
centerpiece is Valley Baptist Health System,
which celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary
in 2000. The new Regional Academic Health
Center (RAHC), approved by Texas
legislators, is being built near the huge Valley
Baptist complex, which is surrounded by
clinics and medical offices.
Harlingen also has built a strong tourism
industry. To its strong Winter Texan base it has
added a year-round emphasis on ecotourism.
The sixth Annual Rio Grande Valley Birding
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
Festival in November 2000 attracted thousands
of ecotourists. The city is linking parks with
walking and biking trails along the Arroyo
Colorado and a forty-acre thicket has been
acquired as a satellite of the World Birding
Center headquartered in Mission. The city’s
annual RioFest, a celebration of the arts that is
held in April, targets both residents and tourists.
Harlingen’s strategic location has helped it
grow into a trade and transportation hub. It
also is poised for increased international trade
through its Mexico connection, the Free Trade
Bridge at Los Indios, which it shares with San
Benito. In addition to its many fine modern
buildings and facilities for citizens and
tourists, some of its remarkable old buildings
have been restored to new life as homes and
offices, shops, banks and cafes in its
flourishing downtown section. Even its
founder would be amazed at what the town he
established has become.
SAN BENITO: THE RESACA CITY
In May 1904 the railroad crew reached
what would become San Benito, called “The
Resaca City” because of the beautiful resaca,
or oxbow, formed from a long-ago channel of
the Rio Grande, that winds through it. When
the railroad work party arrived there with
Colonel Sam Robertson heading the crew, he
knew he had found the land for which he had
Robertson was fully aware of the potential
of the alluvial soil under irrigation. He
borrowed money to buy thirteen thousand
acres from James F. Landrum and Oliver Hicks
of the Stephen Powers estate and platted the
town. First it was named “Bessie” in 1904 in
honor of railroad financier B. F. Yoakum’s
daughter, and the depot was known as “Bessie”
until 1907, when Robertson applied for a post
office and discovered that Gaines County
already had a post office named Bessie. Then
Robertson platted the town as “Diaz” for
Mexico’s longtime president and applied for a
post office in that name, which was approved
on April 2,1907 with Robertson as postmaster.
However, that name ran into trouble with
Mercedes, whose founders had first decided to
name that new town “Diaz.”
“San Benito” was suggested by a cook in
Robertson’s surveyors’ camp. Rafael Moreno,
who had been a cabin boy during the heyday of
steamboating on the Rio Grande, wanted to
honor his former benefactor, Benjamin Hicks.
The name of San Benito was approved by the
post office on May 11, 1907, and both the
railroad station and post office have used the
name since that time. The first baby born there
was named San Benito Montalvo in honor of
the new town. An election for incorporation
was held on June 27, 1911, and the City of San
Benito was duly incorporated on July 3, 1911.
Meanwhile, Robertson talked a group of
investors into organizing the San Benito Land
and Water Company with $500,000 capital
from several partners and a district embracing
sixty-eight thousand acres. Water pumped
from the Rio Grande flowed into the old
resaca, now San Benito’s main canal. Built
with a system of locks, it was up to 250 feet
wide and 37 miles long, including a short
man-made channel connecting with the river.
He worked on the canal system from 1906 to
1913, investing all the money he had made on
the railroad to Brownsville and other projects,
plus the proceeds of town lots and thousands of
acres of land, using every dollar of the money in
developing the San Benito project. A 1909
report of the company said, in part:
The town is well supplied with general
merchandise stores; it has a good bank with
deposits of about $100,000, churches, a
Above: Colonel Sam A. Robertson, founder
of San Benito, builder of railroads and
canals, and visionary of a world class resort
on South Padre Island.
COURTESY OF THE SAN BENITO HISTORICAL COMMISSION.
Below: In 1911, Robertson built his spacious
home on San Benito’s main street like a
fortress, and it has lasted well to this day. It
is now the home and office of attorney
difference, and landseekers flocked to the
area, sometimes chartering a train all the way
down from Chicago. Robertson’s agents once
signed up four thousand acres in small tracts
within a single two-week period.
In 1910 and 1911, to encourage land sales,
Robertson built what became known as the
Spiderweb Railroad to serve the smaller communities
so they could get their produce to
market. He later sold it at a profit, but lost it
all in the San Benito canal project.
The San Benito News for February 27, 1961
Above: The San Benito Land and Water
Company built an irrigation system to serve
sixty-eight thousand acres. Begun in 1906,
it still operates from this headquarters.
Below: The San Benito Irrigation District
office today. Though farming conditions and
the availability of water have changed
greatly since the system was built, the
district still works with area farmers to
supply their water needs.
schoolhouse and a cotton gin which ginned
something like 1,000 bales of cotton this year.
Several substantial buildings are now being
erected and the company will immediately
erect a desirable office building. In addition to
the present school facilities, funds have
been provided for the erection of a
commodious and modern structure to cost
not less than $20,000.
Provision has also been made for the
installation of suitable electric light and
waterworks plants, sidewalks and other
conveniences. In fact, the community has all
the appearances of progress and enterprise
and is destined to increase in size and
importance with the development of the Rio
By 1908 construction had reached a point
where water could be turned into the canal
and the resaca began to fill. Water made the
San Benito thrived and became a busy hub
of shipping and trading. The vegetable output
was higher than any other town in the Rio
Grande Valley, and postal receipts more than
doubled that first year from $249 in October
1909 to $530 in October 1910. Freight
receipts almost tripled, jumping from $3,314
to $8,751 in the same year’s time. The largest
sugar mill in South Texas had reached the last
planning stage and an ice factory was being
built. The electric plant had doubled its
capacity, and a canning factory had made
commitments for coming to San Benito.
From that same edition:
The first school in San Benito was a
traditional one-room schoolhouse. When
school convened on December 7, 1908, there
were forty-eight students representing five
nationalities: Americans, non-English speaking
Germans, Bohemians, Spaniards, and
Mexicans. The first teacher was Mrs. Scott
Brown, who was then Miss Kate Purvis.
From Charles Robinson III in A History of
San Benito: “The Escuela Guadalupe, a
parochial school, was opened in 1912. Many
Spanish-speaking residents received their only
education at the school under the direction of
Mrs. Carmen Martinez.”
San Benito developed quickly and became
the produce center of the area during its early
years, shipping more fruit and vegetable
tonnage than any other city. The Stonewall
Jackson Hotel, built by public subscription,
was called “one of the most up-to-date hotels
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
in South Texas” in 1928 and for many years
was a center of business and social activity.
From Robinson’s A History of San Benito:
In 1931 the San Benito Airport was
dedicated, accompanied by an air show that
would still be considered spectacular. There
were luncheons and banquets in the Stonewall
Jackson Hotel, air races and a formal ball.
Flying clubs came from as far away as Houston.
For regular entertainment, the city boasted any
number of activities. The Bohemian Club held
dances on the roof of the Aztec Building,
obtaining some of the best bands in Texas.
There were three movie houses, the Rivoli, the
Palace and the Ruenes, the latter particularly
noted for its lavish appointments.
Yet much of the glitter was superficial.
Underneath, the citizenry suffered from the
hardships of the Great Depression as much as
any other area of the country. While the San
Benito Bank and Trust managed to hold out,
the Farmer’s State and the Arroyo State failed.
The great heyday, the time of unlimited
optimism in San Benito was over. It remained
for nature to provide the final blow. On
September 3, 1933, a hurricane devastated the
Valley and marked the end of Old San Benito.
Sam Robertson had created it, and he had
lived to see it pass. He died in Brownsville on
August 22, 1938 at the age of 71.
The sugar mill that was begun with such
great promise never did manufacture sugar, but
the structure became the first large power plant
operated by Central Power and Light Company,
and the city served as CPL’s district headquarters
for many years. Agriculture continued as its
mainstay until diversification brought new
manufacturing and service industries.
The Dolly Vinsant Memorial Hospital, built
by community subscription in 1949, was named
for a San Benito nurse killed in World War II
while flying over Germany on a mercy mission.
It has been enlarged many times and continues
to serve the area under its present ownership.
In the 1930s, Narciso Martinez began to
bring attention to San Benito with his accordion.
He became known as El Huracán del Valle or the
Hurricane of the Valley and is regarded as the
father of Conjunto Music. San Benito’s Narciso
Martinez Cultural Arts Center promotes the
region’s Hispanic heritage through art, music,
theater, film, dance, and literary programs.
The Valley’s only celebrity to be honored with
a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is
western and Tejano singer Freddy Fender who
grew up in San Benito and has never forgotten
his roots. He visits his home city often and has
established a foundation to provide scholarships
for students across the Valley.
Other famous San Benitians include Elfego
Esparza, world famous opera singer born and
raised in El Ranchito, a 1948 San Benito High
School graduate, and Carlos D. Conde,
nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, a 1954
graduate who served in the Nixon White House.
T. R. Fehrenbach, author of eighteen nonfiction
books and past chairman of the Texas Historical
Commission, was born in San Benito in the Sam
Robertson house. Dr. James C. Dobson, founder
Above: The sugar mill begun by Sam
Robertson became the first large power
plant operated by Central Power and Light
Company in the area. This picture shows
the power plant around 1970.
Below: The Dolly Vinsant Memorial
Hospital was built by public subscription in
1949 and named in honor of a nurse killed
in World War II. The hospital has been
updated and enlarged several times and
continues to serve the San Benito area.
San Benito has always been a good place to
live, with beautiful homes built along its
winding resaca, friendly merchants and
townspeople, and an outstanding school system.
With its excellent Mexico connection
through the Free Trade Bridge at Los Indios, it
is primed for healthy growth.
NAMED FOR ASH TREES
Top: The Los Fresnos State Bank was
established in 1928 to serve the community.
It survived the crash of 1929 and the
ensuing depression, and continues to serve
the area as part of the Wells Fargo system.
Above: An early Los Fresnos settler, Harry
Whipple, funded a library in memory of his
wife, Ethel. The library is the centerpiece of
a city park.
and president of Focus on the Family, graduated
in 1954, as did Bobby Morrow, three-time
Olympic gold medallist.
San Benito leaders received good news in
December 1999 when they landed the
Challenger Learning Center, a multi-million
dollar facility packed with space-science educational
tools billed as the latest vehicle in the
teaching of math, science, engineering and
technology for students in South Texas and
northern Mexico. It includes a space shuttle
simulator for students to conduct simulated
The new millennium is bringing many
changes to San Benito. Two new hotels were
announced early in 2000. The state’s largest
RV park is located in San Benito, adding more
than three thousand residents during the
winter season. A large transportation and
warehouse facility opened in 2000 to serve
nearby maquiladoras in Mexico.
Ten years after the railroad opened the
Valley to the world, towns had been established
alongside its route as it was extended
west. Clearing had begun in the new settlements
and irrigation systems were pumping
water from the Rio Grande to fields of vegetables.
However, much of the land was still covered
with cactus and thorny brush, including
what was to become Los Fresnos, roughly ten
miles north of Brownsville and ten miles
southeast of San Benito. A ranch had existed
there since 1770, where open range grazing,
especially of sheep, was conducted until after
the Mexican War.
There were four settlements in the area: Las
Yescas, for the yesca plant that burns freely
and was used as a lighter for cigarettes; Agua
Negra for “Black Water;” Charco Hondo,
which means a large dry resaca bed with one
deep waterhole, and Tres Norias, “Three
Wells.” Residents grew corn and beans for
their own use but did not grow crops for sale.
These communities became part of the new
settlement and the people found jobs on the
new irrigated farms, so they no longer had to
travel by horse and wagon to Corpus Christi
each year to pick cotton.
Harlingen developer Lon C. Hill had
purchased the Los Fresnos tract from Mexican
owners of the Espíritu Santo grant. Lon C.
“Mose” Hill, Jr., and others formed a
development company to sell the land. They
established a townsite on the old Alice
stagecoach road, first calling it “Moseville,”
then Los Fresnos, Spanish for “The Ash” for the
many ash trees that grew there. Work began on
an irrigation system, and partner Thomas Lee
of St. Louis contacted prospective buyers.
Among early arrivals was the Swann family,
E. C. and his wife Susie, and their children,
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
Frances, Eunice, James, and Miriam, who
came on October 20, 1915, from Centralia,
Missouri. He was a Methodist minister who
had been bitten by the Valley land bug on an
earlier trip with the developers, and the
family augmented its income by providing
meals for the homeseekers. Daughter Miriam
became Miriam Chattelle and spent most of
her life living, teaching, and raising her two
sons in the Rio Grande Valley. In 1948 she
wrote about the early days of Los Fresnos in a
delightful book, For We Love Our Valley Home:
Sightseeing trips were made by train to the
Valley when a sizeable number of buyers were
ready to see first-hand this veritable land of
Eden. The waiting list was long for many
people desired to visit the land on the Rio
Grande; the very name sounded romantic
Men feel a deep urge to pioneer, exulting
in hardships in the creating of new homes and
creating towns from brushland. Especially did
the description of the fertility of this land and
tropical climate beckon to many.
Purchases were made by several families as
quickly as houses could be built and land
cleared…the Smiths, Donaldsons, Luptons,
Whipples and Palmers, to name just a few. As
more land was cleared, other people came.
First a Community House was built and used
for all religions and civic purposes. When it
was damaged beyond repair by the 1933
hurricane, four churches were established in
as many years. In 1920 the Woman’s Service
Club was organized to provide a social service
club for the women of the community.
The land yielded wonderful crops of vegetables
and cane, and later potatoes were grown
on a large scale. In response to a request for
crop yield information by the new Chamber of
Commerce, Harry Whipple wrote in 1929:
My average returns from year to year are
good, and so far ahead of anything ever heard
of in the state where I lived before moving to
the Valley that it is hard for my friends back
there to believe. I have had potato crops which
ran over $1,000 per acre. I had three acres of
cabbage which made $2,600, or an average of
$866.66 per acre. One year, I had one acre of
beans which came up volunteer from the
season before, which brought me $500.
Many years later, he helped establish a city
library, the Whipple Memorial Library named
in memory of his wife.
When the Southern Pacific Railroad built
its new line to Brownsville in 1927 through
Los Fresnos, the townsite began to grow
around the depot. A new school building was
built, its bond issue having passed by vote of
27 for and 26 against. The “aginners” vowed
the community would never grow enough to
fill such a large school. But it did and was
bursting at the seams by the 1950s, when
another bond issue passed to build a modern
elementary school, soon followed by a new
high school plant. More new schools have
been added in recent years to make room for
students in the large school district, recognized
over the state for its excellent schools.
Businesses came and went with the times
as agriculture experienced its ups and downs.
The new Los Fresnos High School spreads
over a large campus by a picturesque
resaca. It is one of several new facilities in
the school district.
development program, including new
businesses and attractive residential
subdivisions. The brush is gone, the streets
are paved, the palms sway in the sunshine,
and the soil still yields a good harvest for
those who farm wisely. Though Brownsville’s
city limits keep moving closer, Los Fresnos
maintains its own personality and identity as
it heads into the new century.
Above: The old Paso Real Ferry crossing on
the Arroyo Colorado near Rio Hondo was
on the main stagecoach route between
Brownsville and Corpus Christi. The Inn is
shown atop the hill in the background.
COURTESY OF GLENN HOUSLEY.
Below: The Paso Real Stagecoach Inn
originally on the banks of the Arroyo
Colorado is now part of the Rio Grande
Valley Museum complex at Harlingen. It
gives a view of life about 1870, when travel
was by horse and wagon, and it took three
days to journey eighty miles.
Its businesses and citizens were served
through more than six decades by the Los
Fresnos State Bank, established in 1928 by
A. N. Tandy and his sons, Cleve and Clyde
Tandy. Later, Ura Breedlove headed the bank
for many years, and in 1975 his son Cleve
became its president. The bank still serves Los
Fresnos and its active farming community as
part of the Wells Fargo system. Tandy Hall on
the campus of UT-Brownsville/Texas
Southmost College was named in honor of the
The community works together to produce
the Los Fresnos PRCA Rodeo in early
February each year which draws cowboys
from the national circuit, plus a youth show
and arts and crafts exhibition. The event
attracts a wide audience from area residents
and Winter Texans.
Recent years have brought positive changes
to Los Fresnos through its active economic
RIO HONDO MEANS
“ DEEP RIVER”
Rio Hondo was part of the thorny jungle in
1911 when W. H. Smith and the Reverend
William H. Morrison bought a thousand acres
of land from Sam A. Robertson, developer of
the San Benito tract. Engineer Alfred Tamm
made the survey for the townsite northeast of
Harlingen on the east bank of the Arroyo
Colorado, a former channel of the Rio
Grande. J. R. George was the first settler, and
his wife is credited with naming the new town
Rio Hondo (Deep River). George operated a
general store and served as the first
postmaster when the post office was
established in 1911. The San Benito and Rio
Grande Valley Railroad was completed past
Rio Hondo in June 1911.
Before Rio Hondo was founded, the nearby
ferry crossing at Paso Real played an
important part in Valley history. It was known
for years as “General Taylor’s Crossing on the
Arroyo Colorado” as his army marched
through there on its way to Brownsville and
Port Isabel. Later it was a way station on the
Alice-Brownsville stagecoach route. The
village of Arroyo formed around it and
became the mail distribution point for north
Cameron County for two decades until
Harlingen got its own post office. The old
Paso Real Stagecoach Inn was moved from its
original site to Harlingen and completely
reconstructed as part of the Rio Grande Valley
A year after its founding, a sales brochure
emphasized the potential of “RIO HONDO—
The New Resort Town and Playground of the
Rio Grande Valley.” In addition to its farming
potential, it was called a “Sportsman’s
Paradise” with its good hunting, fishing, and
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
favorable location by the Arroyo. Though
some of those early dreams may not have
materialized, it did become a friendly and
prosperous agricultural community near the
Port of Harlingen, located on the Gulf
Intracoastal Waterway. As in other parts of the
Valley, farming activity started with vegetables
and now has mostly grain, cotton and cattle.
The Arroyo, wide, deep, and free from
pollution, was perfect for water sports in the
early days. Outing parties came from miles
around, traveling by buggy, horseback, and
automobile, and the Fourth of July picnic was
a gala all-day affair. Now many Valley residents
have getaway homes along the Arroyo, and it
has become a popular fishing and boating
area. The Arroyo has been dredged and is
navigable to barges from the Gulf Intracoastal
Waterway to the Port of Harlingen. Nature
lovers enjoy its rugged bankside vegetation,
thorn forests and marshes that shelter many
native birds and animals. The final reaches of
the Arroyo pass through Laguna Atascosa
National Wildlife Refuge.
The Texas Air Museum, located one mile
east of Rio Hondo, shows the history of
aviation from World War I through the
Vietnam War. Their display of aircraft
includes foreign as well as U.S. planes. There
is also a library that is available for research
on many aviation-related subjects.
Brownsville, the Valley’s oldest and largest
city, entered the twentieth century with less
than ten thousand people. Its friendship and
commerce with Matamoros were intact, and
its public buildings were conveniently
located. Its cosmopolitan population enjoyed
social refinements and educational
opportunities that were established in
wealthier times. However, the outside world
was still limited to steamships serving Point
Isabel, the narrow gauge Rio Grande Railroad,
the stagecoach line to Alice and Corpus
Christi, and telegraphic connections.
This all changed on July 4, 1904 when the
first passenger train of the St. Louis,
Brownsville, and Mexico Railroad arrived in
Brownsville, and the relaxing afternoon siesta
became a thing of the past. By 1909 the first
Brownsville-Matamoros International Bridge
was under construction, with new stores and
businesses being built.
Its economy was still based on agriculture
and trade with Mexico, but now products
could be shipped to other parts of the country
by rail. The railroad and its access to national
markets gave Brownsville the incentive to
further explore the agricultural possibilities of
this fertile delta region.
Brownsville participated in the agricultural
bonanza that changed the area from brushland
to irrigated farms, first with the growing of
rice, which soon salted up the land, then
sugarcane, which did the same. Vegetables
and citrus were more productive, but there
was no way to get the area’s products into
world markets. Again, Brownsville looked to
Above: The International Bridge between
Brownsville and Matamoros, shown around
1916, was a great improvement over
the ferries and rowboats that had been
COURTESY OF THE HCHC ARCHIVES.
Below: The 1912 Cameron County
Courthouse was the second built for that
purpose. The brown brick and terra cotta
building occupied an entire city block. The
building has a Texas state historic marker
and is listed in the National Register of
Historic Places. It was replaced by the
present Cameron County Hall of Justice
COURTESY OF THE WIEGAND FAMILY.
Above: Louis Cobolini, known as the
“Father of Deep Water.”
Below: People from over the Valley joined
Brownsville in 1936 to celebrate the opening
of the port, making it the largest gathering
the city had ever entertained to that time.
the sea. Without water transportation, export
commerce was limited.
The Rio Grande Valley needed deepwater
transportation to develop its potential.
Commodore Louis Cobolini, a native of Trieste,
Italy, established a fleet of fishing boats at Point
Isabel and became one of the largest shippers
of marine products on the Texas coast. He saw
the need for a deep water port for the Valley,
and labored for twenty years to make it
happen, providing technical expertise and
working with army engineers and local leaders.
His labors earned for him the name “Father of
Deep Water” for the Rio Grande Valley.
When Cobolini died at age eighty-four in
1928, others took up the challenge. The
Brownsville Navigation District was formed on
December 22, 1928. It contained 201,668
acres in Cameron County and was empowered
to levy taxes and develop port facilities. In
1930 attorney R. B. Rentfro was sent to
Washington to present a petition to Congress
asking them to authorize the Navigation
District. While in the capital pushing his
proposal through the legislative bodies,
Rentfro was elected mayor of Brownsville, a
post he held for the next ten years.
President Hoover signed the Rivers and
Harbors Bill that formally authorized the
Brownsville Deepwater Project on July 4, 1930.
Judge H. L. Yates had been sent to Washington
in early September 1933 to negotiate with the
Public Works Administration for funds to help
pay for the project. An expenditure of $2.6
million was approved, and the channel was
dug from Brazos Santiago Pass to the new
Brownsville turning basin. Seventeen miles
long, the Brownsville ship channel is an almost
straight, unobstructed channel connecting the
harbor with the Gulf of Mexico, where the
entrance is protected by rock jetties. By its
opening date, $5.6 million had been spent to
bring the port into being.
At the port’s opening celebration on May
16, 1936, Brownsville played host to the
largest gathering the city had ever entertained.
When the festivities closed that day, the deepwater
port was open for business. F. W. “Fritz”
Hofmokel directed operations at the port during
its first three decades, bringing it to
At the Port of Brownsville today, ships move
cargo from the U.S. and Mexico to all parts of
the world. It is also the southern terminus of
the Gulf Intracoastal Canal through which
cargo moves by barges to the great river ports
of the Mississippi-Ohio-Illinois System and
even into Canada. The port is a major center of
industrial development with some 250
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
companies doing business there. These
businesses range from offshore drilling rigs and
ship dismantling to grain handling and storage.
At Fort Brown in 1900, soldiers came and
went, taking part in the city’s social and civic
life. In the spring of 1906, the First Battalion,
Twenty-fifth Infantry (black) replaced the
Twenty-sixth Infantry (white). Most of the
170 men in Companies B, C and D were
career regulars, and discipline was generally
excellent, but local residents resented the idea
of black troops and tensions developed.
After a shooting incident on August 13,
1906 that resulted in the death and wounding
of several Brownsville residents, irate citizens
wired President Theodore Roosevelt
demanding the withdrawal of the troops. He
withdrew the soldiers from Fort Brown and
dismissed all three companies from the service
without honor. Controversy about the incident
continued for many years, and in 1973 the
two surviving troopers of the ill-fated battalion
were given honorable discharges.
Following this 1906 incident, Fort Brown
was closed until 1913, when bandit troubles
erupted again and troops were stationed there
once more to protect the border. The fort
remained active as a Cavalry post until 1944,
after which it was declared surplus. It is now
the campus of University of Texas-
Brownsville/Texas Southmost College. While
many new buildings have been added, some
of the old buildings are quite unique and are
used extensively for administrative purposes
for the rapidly growing university. The former
base hospital, where Dr. William Gorgas discovered
the cause of yellow fever, is now the
Gorgas Administration Building.
Brownsville honored its 150th birthday in
1998 with a yearlong celebration that
included parades, concerts, reenactments of
historic events and other activities. One
reenactment recalled Pan American pilot
Charles Lindbergh carrying the first airmail
between Mexico City and the U.S. The new
Brownsville Municipal Airport, the first
aviation facility in South Texas, was dedicated
on March 10, 1929. Famed aviatrix Amelia
Earhart was also on hand for the dedication.
With modern progress coming to
Brownsville, its people saw many of the
customs and much of the color of the Old
Border disappearing, so they decided to revive
and perpetuate them in a gay fiesta. Charro
Days was the result. This extravaganza began
in 1938, a four-day pre-Lenten festival held
the last weekend of February that has grown
to a mammoth celebration for the twin cities
of Brownsville and Matamoros.
The spirit of Charro Days, when the
Mexican cowboy rode into town to spend his
earnings and see his sweetheart prevails.
Colorful traditional costumes typical of Latin
America are worn, and activities include three
Above: F. W. “Fritz” Hofmokel directed
operations at the port its first three decades.
Below: By the 1980s the Port of Brownsville
had become a major center of industrial
development as it welcomed ships from all
over the world. It continues to grow and
expand its facilities and services.
COURTESY OF THE PORT OF BROWNSVILLE.
The nation’s first Hispanic district judge,
Judge Reynaldo Garza, is a Brownsville
resident, whose son, Ygnacio Garza, served as
mayor of Brownsville from 1987 to 1991.
Brownsville, the Valley’s oldest and largest
city, enters the new millennium with around
140,000 people. In both 1999 and 2000 it had
unprecedented residential and commercial
building activity. It is a port of entry by rail, sea,
air, and highway over three international
bridges. Its port is of major importance to
industry and international trade, enhanced by
its Foreign Trade Zone on the U.S./Mexico
border. Its manufacturing sector works in
conjunction with more than a hundred
maquiladoras (manufacturing, processing and
assembly plants) across the border in
Matamoros. Its malls and other retail businesses
draw many customers from both sides of the
border, and it is a major tourist area with its
proximity to Mexico and South Padre Island.
Out of its historic past Brownsville has
assumed its present role of international
commercial center without loss of the
tradition and charm of its mingled Latin-
THE FIRST STOP WEST:
STUART P LACE
Top: The former Fort Brown hospital now
serves as the UTB/TSC Gorgas
Above: Built in 1867 adjacent to the
hospital, the Fort Brown medical lab has
been restored and named Champion Hall in
honor of A. A. Champion, longtime
Brownsville resident and historian.
parades, roving mariachis, Mexican dancing,
and much fun and frolic. Because it shows
how different cultures can exist side by side on
such a friendly basis, Charro Days has been
the subject of many documentary movies,
magazine articles, radio, and TV programs.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Brownsville
residents saw a wide range of construction
and civic projects, many of them funded
through the Earl C. Sams Foundation. A
partner and chairman of the board of the
JCPenney Company, Sams used his fortune to
establish the foundation bearing his name.
His daughters, Gladys Sams Porter and
Camille Sams Lightner lived in Brownsville,
and their love for the area resulted in the
foundation’s gifts of facilities for Dean Porter
Park, Camille Playhouse, Lula Sams Girl
Scout Camp, Sams Stadium, and the Gladys
Porter Zoo. Established in 1971, the zoo is
one of the Valley’s major attractions.
As the railroad tracks moved westward out
of Harlingen, some towns were developed
immediately and others would wait a few
years. In mid-1904, the railroad reached what
would become Stuart Place, named for
developers Robert and C. E. Stuart. Several
years later, Mose Hill (Lon C. Jr.) and Thomas
F. Lee built the white-columned Leeland-
Stuart Place Clubhouse just west of Harlingen
for the hundreds of homeseekers brought in
by trainloads by Lee and the Stuart Brothers.
“If the clubhouse could talk, it would tell
delightful tales of the community entertainments
and get-togethers of those landseekers,”
remembered Lillian Weems Baldridge in “A
Salute to the Leeland-Stuart Place Clubhouse” in
Tip-O-Texan magazine in September 1967.
“Later, there were many events through its years
as a community center—romances, weddings,
and friendships formed that have withstood the
test of almost a half-century.”
HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY
She was a young educator who taught
Spanish in public schools at the time, and Lee
asked her to teach a Spanish class in “Farm
Spanish-Mexican” to the homeseekers. They
wanted to know how to say, “farming
implements, water the mules, harness and
unharness the mules, irrigate, plow, rake,
“My vocabulary was non-existent along
those lines, so I visited Mr. Santos Lozano, Sr.,
at his mercantile establishment in Harlingen.
He painstakingly and patiently wrote out
what I had to teach, and I worked with the
new farmers until they could give instructions
to their Mexican workers.”
After the land development days, the large
clubhouse was home to a variety of
commercial firms and private owners. Still an
attractive landmark on Business Highway 83
just west of Harlingen, it is a reminder of the
free-wheeling days of the early 1900s when
Midwestern farmers were lured to the Valley
by land developers with promises of a
fabulous future in a virgin land.
AN INDIAN FAIRGROUND
When the railroad reached the site of La Feria
near the Hidalgo County line in 1904, no
provision had been made for a town. Today’s La
Feria had its beginnings in 1909, though
tradition says that centuries earlier Spanish
explorers wandered up the Rio Grande and
heard music coming from a celebration. What
they found was a group of friendly Indians
having a party. The explorers, according to
popular history, joined the celebration and the
following day left the newly named Los Llanos de
la Feria—The Plains of the Fairgrounds without
incident or trouble. Like the efficient explorers
that they were, the Spaniards charted the area
and sent the maps to Mexico City where they
were officially recorded. The name stuck.
In 1790 the La Feria Grant was conveyed
by Spain to Doña Rosa María Hinojosa de
Ballí, matriarch of a pioneer Reynosa family,
which was awarded several large grants. In
1841 Yrineo Longoria bought twenty-four
square leagues of land from the Ballí family,
and he and his descendants ranched in the
area. One of his descendants, Rosalio Ponce
Longoria, built the first house in La Feria in
1909, which was dedicated with a Texas
Historical Building Medallion in 1974. The
Longoria land included what is now Santa
Rosa, La Feria, and Bluetown.
Ranches dotted the area, and it is said that
horse racing and fiestas were held in September
of each year until about 1900. There were no
palm trees, flowering shrubs, vegetables,
cotton, grain and citrus orchards as there are
today. There were cacti, mesquite, and grass
enough for goats, sheep, and Longhorn cattle.
All of that changed when a group of
developers from Minneapolis, Minnesota, led
Above: The Leeland-Stuart Place
Clubhouse, pictured in 1967, has been
through many reincarnations and owners
since early homeseekers were entertained
there. It is still an impressive landmark.
Below: The La Feria Hotel built in 1910 by
pioneer developer S. J. Schnorenberg
became a community gathering place.
COURTESY OF THE DUNLAP FAMILY.
Right: Standing in front of La Feria’s first
bank in 1920 are (from left to right) Bailey
H. Dunlap, Sr., president; Laura Wehmeyer,
bookkeeper; Freda Wehmeyer, secretary, and
Dave W. Sigler, cashier.
COURTESY OF THE DUNLAP FAMILY.
Below: A. F. “Al” Parker established the Al
Parker Securities Company and sold many
thousands of acres of land and citrus groves,
entertaining land parties at his clubhouse on
La Feria’s Parker Road. It was purchased in
1946 by McHenry Tichenor, who lived there
for fifty years. While he lived there,
Tichenor established KGBT Radio and TV.
He also saw the Tichenor Media System,