Historic Rio Grande Valley

ronlammert

An illustrated history of the Rio Grande Valley area, paired with the histories of companies, families and organizations that make the region great.

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.

First Edition

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.

ISBN: 1-893619-22-2

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

Eileen Mattei

Historical Publishing Network

president: Ron Lammert

vice president & project coordinator: Barry Black

project representatives: Roger Smith

Pat Steele

Rob Steidle

director of operations: Charles A. Newton, III

administration: Angela Lake

Donna Mata

Dee Steidle

graphic production: Colin Hart

John Barr

HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY

2


CONTENTS

4 FOREWORD

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

191 BIBLIOGRAPHY

193 ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

194 SHARING THE HERITAGE

387 INDEX

398 SPONSORS


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.

CHAPTER I

3


FOREWORD

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

and progress.

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

of today.

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.

Bill Summers,

President/CEO

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

4


EARLY HISTORY

THE

RIVER

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

and pictures.

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.

THE

LAND

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

CHAPTER I

5


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

COAHUILTECANS


The land was covered with a dense growth

of cactus, mesquite, and thorny shrubs.

For a long time it was considered unfit

for settlement.

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

6


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

into pulp.

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.

CHAPTER I

7


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

8


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.

EARLY EUROPEAN

EXPLORATIONS

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

de Mexico.

CHAPTER I

9



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

historical interest.

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.

ANOTHER FAILED

EXPEDITION

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

10


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

torturous journey.

ORDER COMES TO

NEW SPAIN

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.

CHAPTER I

11



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

precious cargo.

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

12


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.

THE ESCANDÓN

COLONIZATION


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;

CHAPTER I

13



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

excellent choice.

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

their findings.

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

14


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

hundred.

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

SETTLEMENT

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

surrounding mountains.

CHAPTER I

15



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

had occurred.

HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY

16

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

the citizenry.

CHAPTER I

17



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

circuit priest.

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

CARNESTOLENDAS

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

own expense.

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

18


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

personal note:

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

Excellency.

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

stone buildings.

CHAPTER I

19



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

ancestry.

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.

THE LARGER

LAND GRANTS

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

20


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

a century.

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

feet deep.

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

del Rey.

COURTESY OF GLENN HOUSLEY.

CHAPTER I

21



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

Pocket Park.

COURTESY OF GLENN HARDING.

cities used salt as a fixative agent in some of

their dyes.

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

22


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.

CHAPTER II

23



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

both sides.

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

become known.

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

24


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

were successful.

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.

CHAPTER II

25


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

26


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

without success.

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.

CHAPTER II

27



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

of Coahuila.

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

States customs.

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

28


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.

CHAPTER II

29



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

30


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,

turbulent days.

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.

MORE

HOSTILITIES

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

for treatment.

CHAPTER II

31



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

San Antonio.

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

Mexican army.

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

32


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.”

All escaped.

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.

CHAPTER II

33


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

Scotsman.

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.

ANNEXATION TO

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

United States.

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

34


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.

CHAPTER III

35


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

Nueces River.

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

36


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.”

CHAPTER III

37



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

38


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

thousand volunteers.

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.

CHAPTER III

39



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

perspectives.

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

America’s destiny.

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

40


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.

CHAPTER III

41



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

42


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.

CHAPTER III

43



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

was outgrown.

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

in 1908.

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

B ROWNSVILLE

Until Taylor’s forces established Fort Brown

across from Matamoros, there were only

scattered dwellings and small farms on the

HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY

44


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

were born.

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

HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION.

CHAPTER III

45



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

undesirables westward.

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

THE VALLEY

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

46


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.

CHAPTER III

47



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

was emerging.

STEAMBOATS ON

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

48


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

Confederate flag.

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

outside world.

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

Valley memorabilia.

CHAPTER III

49



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

into Brownsville.

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

50


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.

CHAPTER IV

51



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

about them.

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

52


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

television scripts.

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

of Texas.

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

the creek.

CHAPTER IV

53



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

54


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

Charles Stillman.

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

and management.

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.

CHAPTER IV

55


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.

FRANCISCO YTURRIA:

BANKER AND RANCHER


Francisco Yturria in his later years.

COURTESY OF THE BROWNSVILLE

HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION.

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

the administrator.

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.

ROMA:

A NATIONAL HISTORIC

LANDMARK DISTRICT

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

56


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

Oblate missionaries.

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.

CHAPTER IV

57



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

58


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

Restoration Project.

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.

CHAPTER IV

59



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,

and Brownsville.

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

60


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

City’s schoolchildren.

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

Ringgold area.

CHAPTER IV

61



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

Grande Valley.

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

post office.

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

62


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

community organizations.

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.

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

CHAPTER IV

63



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

county seat.

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

64


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

interactive exhibits.

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

each narrator.

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.

CHAPTER IV

65



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

the 1920s.

COURTESY OF CHUCK SNYDER.

Below: The new Hidalgo City Hall

provides additional space for this growing

border city, just a bridge away from big,

bustling Reynosa.

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

66


“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

Spanish shipping.

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.

CHAPTER IV

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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

deepwater port.

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

Padre Island.

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

68


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.

CHAPTER IV

69



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

VIOLENT TIMES

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

Civil War.

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

70


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

were killed.

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

HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION.

CHAPTER IV

71



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

and silver.

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

72


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.

CHAPTER V

73



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

cotton.

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

5, 1863.

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

74


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

cotton trade.

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

London News.

CHAPTER V

75



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

76

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

more fatalities.

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

the century.

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

stagecoach obsolete.

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

administrative offices.

CHAPTER V

77



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

hard-tamped earth.

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

great numbers.

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

78


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

wholehearted abandon.

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

family use.

COURTESY OF HCHC ARCHIVES.

CHAPTER V

79



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

de Mexico.

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

10, 1863.

JUÁREZ, MAXIMILIAN

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

80


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.

CHAPTER V

81



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

82


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 &

MCALLEN RANCH

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

CHAPTER V

83



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

white-tailed deer.

SANTA MARÍA WAS A

RIVER PORT

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

Pierre Keralum.

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

84


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

historical makers.

THE BRULAY PLANTATION

AT BROWNSVILLE

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

CHAPTER V

85



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

86

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

AT PROGRESO

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

Toluca Ranch.

CHAPTER V

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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

near Progreso.

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

88


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

keep commercially.

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

the area.

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

land development

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.

CHAPTER V

89



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

HISTORICAL MUSEUM.

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,

and grain.

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

until 1934.

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

90


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

for all.


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

REVOLUTION

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

revolution.

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

CHAPTER V

91


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

92


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.

CHAPTER V

93



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

94


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.

CHAPTER VI

95



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

HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION.

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

96


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

Brownsville.

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

into disrepair.

CHAPTER VI

97



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

Brownsville Museum.

HISTORIC RIO GRANDE VALLEY

98

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.

IRRIGATION COLORS

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

of use.

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.

CHAPTER VI

99



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

domestic needs.

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

Discovery Park.

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.

and Mexico.

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

100


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.

LAND DEVELOPERS

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

prospective buyers.

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

the railroad.

COURTESY OF THE HIDALGO COUNTY HISTORICAL MUSEUM.

CHAPTER VI

101



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

awaited them.

COURTESY OF THE HIDALGO COUNTY HISTORICAL

COMMISSION ARCHIVES.

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

102


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.

CHAPTER VII

103



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

104


Sebastian, third vice-president of the Rock

Island Lines. Neither William Lyford nor John

Sebastian ever lived in the Valley.

PORT

MANSFIELD

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

JAMES DISHMAN

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.

CHAPTER VII

105


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

wilderness.

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

106


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

incorporated.

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

free economy.”

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.

CHAPTER VII

107



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

the community.

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

related businesses.

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

cotton gins.

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

108


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

been searching.

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

Jeffrey Jackson.

CHAPTER VII

109


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

reminisced that,


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

Grande country.

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

110


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.

CHAPTER VII

111


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.

LOS FRESNOS:

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

space flights.

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

112


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

and appealing.

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.

CHAPTER VII

113


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

Tandy family.

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

Museum complex.

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

114


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

REVISITED

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

used earlier.

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

in 1978.

COURTESY OF THE WIEGAND FAMILY.

CHAPTER VII

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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

national prominence.

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

116


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.

CHAPTER VII

117


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-

American culture.

THE FIRST STOP WEST:

STUART P LACE


Top: The former Fort Brown hospital now

serves as the UTB/TSC Gorgas

Administration Building.

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

118


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,

disc,” etc.

“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.

LA FERIA:

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.

CHAPTER VII

119



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,