The Republic of the Rio Grande
As a child, I dreaded the occasions when my aunts would pack me off to visit my maternal grandmother, for as soon as she saw me, her bright blue eyes, which reminded me of playing marbles, would fill with tears, and she would clasp me tightly to her bosom. Her reaction disturbed me profoundly because I did not understand it, but now I know that my presence reminded her of the loss of her daughter—my mother. I also know now that I reminded her of herself as a child and that she realized that our lives—hers and mine—ran in sad parallels, a case of history repeating itself, but in a mirror.
When my grandmother, who was born in Zapata County, in South Texas, was orphaned at an early age, she went to live with her paternal aunts across the Rio Grande, in Guerrero (the former Revilla). There she grew into womanhood, married, and had her children. When I, born in northern Mexico, in Ciudad Guerrero, Tamaulipas (now Guerrero Viejo, or Old Guerrero), was left an orphan by age six, I moved with my paternal aunts to Laredo, in South Texas, where I grew up. What was perhaps the most remarkable feature of our two parallel lives was that, in crossing the Rio Grande in opposite directions, neither my grandmother nor I felt that we had moved to a foreign country. And, indeed, we had not, for we had remained within the confines of the old Republic of the Rio Grande.
Yes, there was such a place for a brief, if not altogether shining, moment (the years 1839 to 1840, more or less), when the people of the lower Rio Grande settlements and their neighbors struggled to assert their autonomy against two countries—the Republic of Mexico and the newly declared Republic of Texas. The insurgent areas encompassed the northern Mexican states of Tamaulipas (the former province of Nuevo Santander, which had included Texas, south of the Nueces River), Nuevo León, and Coahuila. The call for insurrection first sounded in Camargo, Tamaulipas, traveled up river to Guerrero, and was quickly taken up in Laredo, where the new government of the Frontera del Norte (Northern Frontier), later known as the Republic of the Rio Grande, established its capital and designated one of the principal houses on the main square, San Agustín Plaza, as the capitol.
It was natural that Laredo and the downriver settlements should link their destinies in this endeavor, as they had done in earlier days, since they owed their existence to a common impetus—the Spanish colonization of the banks of the lower Rio Grande by Don José de Escandón during the middle of the eighteenth century. For more than two hundred years after the Spaniards had first set foot on the shores of the mouth of the Rio Grande, the northern part of Nuevo Santander remained out of Spanish reach. The Spaniards had been more successful in colonizing the area around the source of the river (primarily in northern New Mexico) than where it emptied. Where the river met the sea and for some two hundred miles upstream remained a land populated by "tigers, leopards, wolves . . . and snakes . . . the last-named being abundant". The human inhabitants were no less hostile, among them the fierce Coahuiltecans, related to the cannibalistic Karankawas. Several times, beginning in the 1500s, the Spaniards had attempted to colonize this area, which they called el seno mexicano (in this instance, seno meaning a gulf or a cavity), and several times they had failed. Success did not come until the colonization project was entrusted to Don José de Escandón, the Count of Sierra Gorda, in 1746. Escandón had arrived in Yucatán from his native Spain as a fifteen-year-old and enlisted as a cavalry cadet. By 1740 he had been promoted to lieutenant general as a reward for having pacified the indigenous tribes of the Sierra Gorda, in the Sierra Madre Oriental of Mexico. It was from this campaign that he took the title of Count of Sierra Gorda when he was later ennobled by the Spanish sovereign.
According to Galen D. Greaser, in his excellent introduction to the New Guide to Spanish and Mexican Land Grants in South Texas, the successful colonization of Nuevo Santander was due, not only to Escandón's "tireless industry and resourcefulness," but also to the "loyal captains he selected for the new settlements." Ultimately, though, these settlements took hold because of the people who put down roots in the towns founded under Escandón's direction: "Escandón's reliance on frontier families rather than on missionaries and soldiers to carry forward the colonization venture was justified." Greaser adds: "The results confirmed Escandón's belief that towns were better vehicles of colonization than missions or presidios".
Escandón's plan called for multiple caravans, or entradas, of soldier-settlers to converge at the mouth of the Rio Grande from seven points on the frontier in early 1747, and, surprisingly, most did converge. Reconnoitering the south bank of the Rio Grande, Escandón noted also its tributaries—the Salado, the Alamo, and the San Juan rivers—for he hoped to establish settlements at their junctions with the Rio Grande, and he did. In all, Escandón founded some twenty settlements in what he called Nuevo Santander. Of these, some of his most successful were the four villages that he founded on the southern/western side of the Rio Grande—Camargo and Reynosa in 1749, Revilla in 1750, and Mier in 1752. The fifth village, Laredo, was the only one founded on the eastern/northern bank of the Rio Grande.
The five villages came to be known as Las Villas del Norte, and for their settlement Escandón attracted enterprising ranchers from the neighboring provinces of Nuevo León and Coahuila. These men, in turn, brought their own retainers and their families to populate the villages, as well as the flocks of sheep and herds of cattle and horses that were to form the economic basis of the new region. José María and Miguel de la Garza Falcón settled Camargo. Carlos Cantú founded Reynosa and, like his counterparts in the other settlements, took an oath to defend his village. Vicente Guerra, a prominent rancher from Coahuila, offered to settle twenty-six families at his own expense and did so in what became Revilla (named after the then viceroy of Mexico, the Count of Revillagigedo). José Florencio Chapa was in charge of the fifty-seven families that settled on the banks of the Alamo River, near the Rio Grande, in the place that came to be known as Mier. And Don Tomás Sánchez de la Barrera y Garza came from Coahuila and forded the Rio Grande at Paso de Jacinto with eleven families and founded the village of San Agustín de Laredo.
The bonds that held these five settlements together during the precarious years after their founding had their origins in a common conception and were strengthened by their shared experiences as frontier outposts where the settlers provided not only for their economic needs but also for their own defense. This requirement of self-sufficiency no doubt led to a strong, independent spirit among the inhabitants of the river settlements that also led them to embrace the struggle for Mexican independence from Spain that emerged in the first decade of the nineteenth century.
The cry for independence—el grito de Dolores—was first heard in the village of Dolores, in Guanajuato, on September 16, 1810. Father Miguel Hidalgo, the parish priest of Dolores, issued the proclamation that set in motion the War of Independence in New Spain (Mexico), but the impetus for the movement was not his alone. Hidalgo's sentiments were shared by a group of criollos, the Mexican-born children and grandchildren of Spaniards. The criollos had chafed for more than two hundred years, along with the mestizos, the Mexicans of mixed parentage (Indian and Spanish), under the domination of the Spaniards, the peninsulares, who controlled the highest civil, military, and ecclesiastical offices. Although criollos and mestizos together constituted roughly only one-third of the population of Mexico in the years around 1800, they—particularly the criollos—exercised a disproportionate influence in comparison with that of the indigenous majority, which was physically isolated and socially and economically marginalized. In addition, the criollos, often being wealthy, had the time and the leisure to think about political issues, something the others did not. Many criollos also became acquainted with the ideas of the Enlightenment and followed with great interest the French and American revolutions, which encouraged them to essay halfhearted and abortive attempts at rebellion. However, it was not until the mother country was thrown into turmoil by the Napoleonic invasion that the opportunity came for the criollos to stage a successful revolt, although the reason for their taking action was paradoxical.
Napoleon had invaded Spain in 1808 as part of his drive to achieve hegemony in Europe, imprisoning the Spanish king, Carlos IV, who abdicated in favor of his son, Fernando VII. Napoleon, however, disregarded Fernando VII and imposed his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, as king of Spain (whom the Spaniards promptly dubbed Pepe Botellas, to underscore his fondness for drink), to the consternation and outrage of the inhabitants of the Spanish colonies. Many of the criollos were moved to call for severing the ties with the mother country, refusing to acknowledge the right of Joseph Bonaparte to rule them. These loyal but misguided subjects wanted to preserve the Spanish possessions in trust until Fernando VII could claim them someday. Other criollos, realizing that Spain had too many problems of its own to look after them, thought that it was time to chart their own course but were uncertain as to what to do. Still others, like Father Hidalgo and his co-conspirators, Gens. Mariano Jiménez and Ignacio Allende, decided that it was now or never; and, gathering an impromptu army that some described as a mob, they called for independence and marched forward victoriously for a while.
The royalists regrouped after a few months, however, and pushed the rebels away from central Mexico and toward the north, where the insurgents found support. By early 1811 Allende and Jiménez found themselves in control of Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Nuevo Santander, winning the hearts and minds of many of the self-reliant norteños (northerners), among them the people of Revilla.
The proximity of the insurgents to the old Escandón settlements stirred the longings for freedom in two prominent natives of Revilla, the Gutiérrez de Lara brothers. They were Don Antonio, a priest, and Don Bernardo, a merchant. These two offered their services to Hidalgo and his generals, and their offers were accepted, each brother being given a specific task to carry out. Don Antonio was directed to use his influence as a priest to win over his parishioners to the cause of independence and to raise funds from among them. Don Antonio was happy to do so, and in addition, in a letter to General Allende, he volunteered to take up arms and to donate his possessions and his weapons for the cause. He related that he owned a carbine, a shotgun, a musket, a pistol, five pounds of gunpowder, and three hundred pesos that he had earned as headmaster of the local school for boys ("una carabina, una escopeta, una pistola, un gran fusil, cinco libras de pólvora, cuatro planchas de plomo"). He also had access to the collections from the daily Mass, a library worth two hundred pesos, and a house under construction.
Don Bernardo, for his part, was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the insurgent army and placed in command of the forces in the northern provinces, with orders to wage war in that area. He was also appointed envoy from the insurgent government to the United States and was directed to seek assistance from the neighboring nation, in particular loans of funds with which to buy weapons and ammunition. However, before Don Bernardo was able to depart on his mission, Hidalgo was betrayed, and he and his generals were defeated by the royalist forces, captured, and executed.
The Gutiérrez de Lara brothers now found themselves persecuted for their insurgent activities. Don Antonio went into hiding in the Sierra Madre, and Don Bernardo fled north, although he had to leave his mother, his wife, and his children behind in Revilla, where they suffered great privations because the royalists retaliated by confiscating the family properties. By December of 1811, after the many vicissitudes that accompanied an almost unimaginable overland journey from Revilla to the capital of the United States, Don Bernardo found himself conferring with the members of President James Madison's cabinet and with the president himself. Fortunately for us, Don Bernardo kept a diary of his journey to Washington in which he jotted down his observations and experiences during the trip. In it he noted his impressions, both of ordinary life, such as the people he met in the inns where he stayed, and of official Washington, such as his meeting with the president on December 16, 1811. Of the latter occasion Don Bernardo wrote succinctly that the meeting had been cordial but brief because the president did not speak Spanish: "[M]e recivio [sic] con mucha cortesía [pero] estube muy poco con el porque no entiende el ydioma español".
Presumably there had been no interpreter to facilitate communication between the Mexican envoy and the American president; however, an interpreter must have been found for the meeting between Don Bernardo and the secretary of war, William Eustis, on December 12. At this meeting, Secretary Eustis had announced to his Mexican visitor that the United States, after having purchased the western lands from France, was now prepared to send an army all the way to the Rio Grande and, in the process, offer aid to the Mexican insurgents: "Me dijo que había facilidad de enviar un ejército hasta la orilla del Rio Grande, diciendo que hiban [sic] a tomar posesión de las tierras que el francés [Napoleón] les vendió y que estando allá el ejército serviría para auxiliar a los criollos." Don Bernardo saw the trap and sidestepped it, refusing the help that came with such compromising strings. "Y yo les dije que no," he noted in his diary".
In spite of the sympathy that the Americans seemed to profess for the cause of the Mexican insurgents, the help that Don Bernardo received from them was more nominal and moral than material. Therefore, on the last day of 1811, he bid farewell to Washington and made ready to depart for New Orleans. From official Washington, Don Bernardo had received two hundred pesos for his expenses and letters of introduction to various persons, among them the governor of Louisiana.
The Spanish ambassador, who, not surprisingly, viewed Don Bernardo's visit to Washington with a jaundiced eye, communicated his observations to the viceroy in Mexico, elaborating on the meager results of Don Bernardo's negotiations with the Americans. In his letter to Viceroy Venegas, the Spanish ambassador claimed that Secretary of State James Monroe had offered help to the Mexican insurgents to the tune of 27,000 troops, in addition to arms and ammunition, if Mexico agreed to adopt a constitution similar or identical to that of the United States in order to facilitate its annexation to the United States, once its independence from Spain was assured. According to the ambassador, Don Bernardo had been outraged at the proposal and had broken off talks with Monroe.
Once in New Orleans, Don Bernardo learned the discouraging news that the insurgency had been suppressed across the border in Texas. Clearly, then, he could not stop in San Antonio de Béjar on his way home, much less return to Revilla, which was also in royalist hands. All was not lost in Mexico, though, for he also learned that Hidalgo's place at the head of the independence movement had been taken by another priest, José María Morelos. There was nothing for Don Bernardo to do but bide his time in New Orleans, and while he waited, he conferred with the Louisiana governor and with numerous other Anglo-Americans and even French agents, all claiming to be eager to help the insurgents, in exchange for favorable treatment by Mexico when it achieved its independence.
Don Bernardo eventually left New Orleans and traveled by riverboat to Natchitoches, where he was close to the Neutral Ground separating Spanish territory from the United States, a place teeming with mercenaries and foreign agents, all eager to take part in revolutions and military expeditions that would bring them riches and power. War fever was rampant in this no-man's-land that summer of 1812 as hostilities escalated between the United States and Great Britain. It seemed like a good time to invade the Mexican province of Texas.
Don Bernardo, having made the acquaintance of a soldier of fortune named Augustus Magee, late of the U.S. Army, organized with him the Republican Army of the North out of the multitude of adventurers in the Neutral Ground and marched into Texas. The Republican Army of the North, with Don Bernardo at its head, scored significant victories in Texas, taking first the settlement of Nacogdoches and later the Presidio La Bahía before marching to San Antonio de Béjar, which fell to the insurgents in April of 1813. However, this victory was marred by the conduct of the insurgents toward the royalist prisoners, including Texas governor Manuel María de Salcedo. The governor was executed by members of the Béjar militia, who may have been acting with Don Bernardo's tacit approval. The Bejareños had ample reasons to hate Salcedo for the cruel treatment he had meted out to them, according to Garrett, while Gutiérrez de Lara "had his own reasons for revenge," since Salcedo had been instrumental in the "capture and execution of Hidalgo, Allende, Jiménez, and other insurgent leaders"..
The royalists were not yet vanquished, however, and made ready to counterattack. The Republican Army, under Don Bernardo's command, went out to meet the enemy on June 20 at a spot outside Béjar called El Alazán. Lorenzo de la Garza relates a particularly poignant incident that occurred before this battle: Don Bernardo's wife and children had traveled from Revilla to be reunited with him and met him at an oak grove outside Béjar, as he marched on his way to battle. After an undoubtedly emotional encounter, he had to leave them in the cover of the oaks while he departed to meet the enemy.
The insurgents were victorious on this occasion, but dissension was rife within the ranks of the Republican Army of the North due to the presence of a number of spies who had been planted among them by Spain and the United States. Among these were José Alvarez de Toledo, variously described as Cuban or Dominican, who turned out to be in the pay of Spain, and his allies, the American agents Henry Bullard and William Shaler. These two pressured the Junta de Gobierno that ruled Béjar to remove Don Bernardo as commander of the Republican Army (Schwartz 43). This action could not have come at a worse time, for the royalist troops were again on the march to engage the insurgents. On August 4, 1813, Alvarez de Toledo assumed the command of the Republican Army of the North, and Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara was exiled to the United States.
On August 18, 1813, the royalists, under General Joaquín Arredondo, defeated the rebels at a spot east of the Medina River known as El Encinar de Medina. At the end of the battle, the few hundred survivors were either captured and executed by Arredondo or managed to straggle to Louisiana. Among the latter was Alvarez de Toledo, who subsequently made his way to Spain, married well there, and was rewarded with a pension and eventually named by Fernando VII as ambassador to the court of Naples, where his wife had wealth and titles.
Don Bernardo, with his family, returned to Natchitoches, and he remained there until 1824, earning his living as a blacksmith. He followed closely the sporadic uprisings of insurgents in Mexico until 1821, when Agustín de Iturbide, the commander of the royalist forces, made peace with the insurgents and sent the viceroy packing back to Spain. Ironically, this final act of insurrection came about for a reason similar to that of 1810—instability in the mother country—where Fernando VII had been forced by an armed uprising to swear allegiance to the liberal constitution drafted by the Spanish cortes, or parliament, in 1812.
Don Antonio Gutiérrez de Lara, the priest, had returned to Revilla in 1814, after receiving amnesty from the religious, civil, and military authorities. In 1821, following the conclusion of the War of Independence, he wrote to his brother in Louisiana, pleading with him to return home. Don Bernardo, however, was justifiably skeptical, for no sooner had Mexico thrown off the king of Spain than Agustín de Iturbide engineered a coup to have himself crowned emperor. The Mexican Empire lasted less than one year, when Agustín I abdicated under pressure from disappointed former supporters and staunch antimonarchists alike. He was allowed to go into exile, with the proviso that he not return to Mexico. A national congress then met and adopted a constitution in 1824 that established a federal and republican form of government. Now Don Bernardo was ready to come home.
His homecoming at first appeared to be most auspicious, for the newly formed legislature of the "Free State of Las Tamaulipas" (the former province of Nuevo Santander), of which his brother, Antonio, was a member, offered Don Bernardo the office of governor, which he accepted. However, even before Don Bernardo had been sworn in as governor, he was faced with a political and moral crisis: Agustín de Iturbide had landed on the Tamaulipas coast, in defiance of the federal law that had decreed his death should he return to Mexico. Don Bernardo was bound by his office to carry out the law, and therefore, in accordance with the congressional decree, he had Iturbide put to death in a "Christian and military manner," as he explained in his Breve apología that he published later in life to refute his detractors: "Comencé . . . a ejercer las funciones . . . del empleo, y . . . me estrené con el gravísimo y notable acontecimiento del ex-Emperador Iturbide, a quien hice morir cristiana y militarmente con puntual arreglo a la ley . . . y a la sentencia . . . del H. Congreso que lo condenó a sufrir esta pena" (L. de la Garza, Dos hermanos, 135). His political enemies used the Iturbide execution as a pretext to harass Don Bernardo to the point that he resigned from his office less than a year after assuming it. He was then commissioned a colonel in the cavalry of the state militia in 1825 and remained a soldier until his death in May 1841.
My grandfather Lorenzo de la Garza, although not a native of Guerrero, undertook in the early years of the twentieth century the task of writing the dual biography of Revilla's most illustrious sons in Dos hermanos héroes. Many years after my grandfather's death, I found, among his papers collected in an old trunk, three letters from José Angel Gutiérrez de Lara, the eldest of Don Bernardo's children. The first, dated May 31, 1841, and addressed to his mother, Doña Josefa de Uribe, in Ciudad Guerrero, described the death and burial of Don Bernardo in Villa de Santiago, Nuevo León. In early 1841, Don Bernardo, already in bad health, had left Guerrero to visit Angel, who resided in Linares, Nuevo León. During his stay there, Don Bernardo's condition worsened, and he became determined to travel to Santiago, where his only daughter lived. Angel described to his mother how he had arranged for his father to be carried on a stretcher from Linares to Santiago ("mandando hacer de antemano una Litera para conducirlo, pues de otro modo hera imposible"), where he died on May 13, 1841, and was buried in the local church.
It is interesting to note that, in the midst of grieving for his father's death, Angel remembered the economic and legal consequences of a person's death. In his letter, he suggested to his mother that it would not be amiss for his brothers to round up the cattle—the drought permitting—and conduct an inventory of the herd ("No me parece fuera de propósito . . . que sería bueno, si la seca lo permitiese, que José Alejo y demás hermanos procediesen a juntar el ganado del rancho y formar un ymbentario completo") in preparation for the heirship proceedings that would, in due time, be held in Guerrero, Tamaulipas.
In the second letter, which Angel addressed to his brother Januario in Ciudad Guerrero, he acknowledges having received the sad news of their mother's death in December of the same year, 1841. In this and in the previous letter, Angel makes loving reference to his uncle, Antonio, whom the Gutiérrez de Lara children called Tata Padre and considered their second father, on whose wise guidance they all depended: "con la sabia dirección de nuestro segundo padre, que es Tata Padre." But Father Antonio Gutiérrez de Lara soon followed his brother and his sister-in-law. He died on November 14, 1843, in Ciudad Guerrero, and in the third letter, dated November 29, 1843, Angel relates to Januario that, on the last time that he had parted from Don Antonio, their uncle had lamented that they might not meet again: "A Dios, hijo, puede ser que ya no nos vuélvamos a ver." And, indeed, they never did.
In the years following Don Bernardo's return home, he had lived through the violent severing of Texas from Mexico in 1836, an outcome that had been prefigured by the invasion of the Republican Army of the North, which had been made up, to a large extent, of Anglo-Americans. He also lived through the federalist uprisings from 1838 to 1840 that resulted in the installation of a new government for the people of the Frontera del Norte that came to be known as the Republic of the Rio Grande. The reason for the rebellion of 1838 was the same as that which had ostensibly driven Texas to rebel, the desire to reinstate the federal constitution of 1824. This charter had been abrogated in 1836 and had been replaced by a centralist plan, known as the Siete Leyes (Seven Laws), at the instigation of the political weather-vane president, Antonio López de Santa Anna, infamous for losing Texas. The Texas colonists were not the only ones who had expressed their dissatisfaction with the change of constitutions, merely the most successful. For example, on his way to suppress the Texas rebellion, Santa Anna had paused to put down an uprising in Zacatecas. He was successful in Zacatecas but failed miserably in Texas.
The inhabitants of the old Escandón settlements, the Villas del Norte, were among those who felt aggrieved at the loss of autonomy that the repeal of the federal constitution represented. They had suffered chronically from the neglectful and overbearing attitude of the central government, which, while leaving them to defend themselves from the marauding Comanches, heaped insult on top of injury by demanding that the norteños support the government troops with horses and supplies when they passed through on their way to Texas. The norteños finally took action to remedy their situation and rebelled. In November of 1838 Antonio Canales, a lawyer from Camargo, Tamaulipas, issued a pronunciamiento, urging his countrymen to oppose the central government and to fight for the reinstatement of Federalism.
Antonio Canales was born in 1802 in Monterrey, Nuevo León, where he started school, but his family moved to Camargo when he was still a boy. His parents were José Antonio Canales Treviño and Josefa Rosillo. His mother was a niece of Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, the Dominican priest from Monterrey who had presented Mexico's claims before the Spanish cortes in 1812 but who was also one of the leading advocates of the centralist form of government. The Tamaulipas legislature granted Canales a license to practice law in 1829; however, he was no typical bookworm, since he also joined the local militia and took part in the frequent skirmishes against the marauding Comanches and Apaches. In addition, he practiced a most useful occupation: he was the official land surveyor of the state of Tamaulipas. As such, he surveyed many tracts in what later became Zapata County, Texas, among them the land grant awarded to his comrade-in-arms Col. Antonio Zapata, a tract known as Villa.
Canales's proclamation was soon echoed in the other Villas del Norte. In January of 1839, two months after Canales had issued his call to arms, the citizens of Laredo gathered at San Agustín Plaza and, with many demonstrations of joy and much ringing of church bells, passed a resolution stating that "this town will continue in the future to act under the Constitution of 1824" (Wilcox 99). Among the prominent Laredoans who supported the federalist cause were the alcalde, José María Ramón, and former alcalde Bacilio Benavides (1836–1837), uncle of the then sixteen-year-old Santos Benavides of American Civil War fame. Santos later recounted that he and his uncle "harassed the enemy [the Centralists] on their march, waylaid them in the defiles, and fired on them at night".
Canales's pronunciamiento was not the first incident of defiance against the centralist government. In March of 1838, Gen. José Urrea, who had fought with Santa Anna in Texas and had subsequently been appointed commandant general of Sonora, had rebelled against the government and declared in favor of the constitution of 1824. Urrea's rebellion was suppressed in October of the same year, but in that same month a fresh rebellion broke out in the port city of Tampico, Tamaulipas, which the fugitive Urrea was able to appropriate successfully. The rebellion in Tampico soon merged with Canales's pronunciamiento, which in turn prompted declarations in favor of the 1824 constitution in the state capital, Ciudad Victoria, and in lesser cities of the state, as well as in communities in Nuevo León and Coahuila.
In the last days of 1838 and the early part of 1839 it seemed as if the Federalists would topple the central government, taking important cities such as Monterrey and Saltillo and controlling foreign trade through the ports of Tampico and Matamoros. However, some of the Federalists' success was due to a major misfortune that afflicted Mexico at the time: the blockade of the Gulf of Mexico ports by the French navy and the threat of French occupation that arose out of the conflict that came to be known as La Guerra de los Pasteles (the Pastry War), which was the result of claims made by French merchants in Mexico for loss of property that had occurred during the many revolts of the 1820s. One of the claimants was a pastry cook whose pastries had been consumed without payment by a group of Mexican soldiers. The French king, Louis Philippe, demanded payment of $600,000 in reparation for the losses suffered by his countrymen in Mexico (surely not all for pastries!), and as payment was not forthcoming, he sent French ships to block the port of Veracruz and bombard the fortress of San Juan de Ulúa that guarded the harbor. When the French troops landed in Veracruz, Antonio López de Santa Anna came out of enforced retirement and led Mexican troops in a charge against the French and actually drove them back to their ships. The French then agreed to a settlement and sailed away.
One result of this episode in Veracruz was the temporary vindication of Santa Anna, especially as he was wounded in the affray and had to have his leg amputated; another was to free the centralist army to turn its attention to the federalist insurrection and to inflict serious losses on the rebels. The weakened Federalists, in turn, shifted their attention north and went to Texas to seek support, both from the government and from individuals. Francisco Vidaurri y Villaseñor, a former governor of the state of Coahuila y Texas and a leading Federalist, was in San Antonio in July of 1839, trying to convince Texans that they should make common cause with his party. On the military front, Cols. Antonio Canales and Antonio Zapata, the latter from Guerrero, moved their camp to Lipantitlán, on the Nueces River near San Patricio, to escape the reach of the centralist forces. (The area between the Nueces and the Rio Grande was claimed by the Republic of Texas but was not under its control, and Tamaulipas still exercised dominion over it.) From Lipantitlán, Canales issued a proclamation, exhorting Texans to join the federalist cause, and more than two hundred men responded, among them Cols. Reuben Ross and Samuel W. Jordan. On September 30, 1839, Canales and his men crossed the Rio Grande, after having met with Col. Antonio Zapata and two cavalry units near Carrizo (later renamed Zapata, in his honor). The Federalists then crossed the Salado River above its mouth and entered Guerrero early the next morning.
What followed resembled a page out of a novel by Alexandre Dumas. The centralist garrison in Guerrero was led by Don Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, the old warrior having been brought out of retirement and appointed its commander only a few days before, in spite of his poor health. It may seem surprising that Colonel Gutiérrez de Lara, having once rallied his fellow revillanos (residents of Revilla) to support the independence movement, now placed his services in the cause of the autocratic central government; however, according to Narrett, "[n]ational unity took precedence over all else" for Don Bernardo. He had learned to distrust foreign intervention in Mexican affairs after his experience with the Republican Army of the North, but now that early association came to his aid. After the garrison was overrun by the Federalists, Don Bernardo was captured as he tried to cross the Salado. One of the Texan soldiers recognized him and pointed him out, whereupon Don Bernardo demanded to be taken to the commanding officer, who turned out to be Col. Reuben Ross. Don Bernardo then asked him if he was related to Major Reuben Ross, who had fought with him in Texas in the Republican Army of the North. Colonel Ross replied that he was Major Ross's nephew, and Don Bernardo said that, in that case, he knew that he would be treated in a humane fashion. Antonio Canales, however, was not so inclined and fell upon the old hero, ripping off the gold epaulettes from his uniform, according to Lorenzo de la Garza's account. Then, not content with inflicting this humiliation on the hapless hero, Canales and his men also sacked his home. Don Bernardo was finally rescued by the appeals of his two sons, who were in the federalist army.
With a lesser man, the events relating to his capture by the Federalists would have engendered a desire for revenge, but three weeks later after the incident, Colonel Gutiérrez de Lara addressed a conciliatory letter to Antonio Zapata, with whom he had had business relations in the past. In this letter, Don Bernardo counseled Zapata to lay down his arms for the good of his country, as well as for his own well-being. Reminding Zapata that his countrymen were grateful to him for his protection from Indian attacks, Gutiérrez de Lara assured him: "Todos . . . deseamos ver a usted en su casa, con sus hijos, con sus amigos, con sus conciudadanos. . . . No puede olvidar este pueblo y parte de esta frontera los buenos servicios que le ha prestado, y por los cuales aún le conserva . . . gratitud y aprecio" (We all wish to see you in your own home, with your children, with your friends, with your fellow citizens. . . . This town and this part of the frontier cannot forget your good services, for which they appreciate you and are grateful). The letter, which was written in Guerrero and dated October 22, 1839, was quoted extensively in El Mañana, of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, on April 24, 2008, in a series that the newspaper ran from April 24 to April 27 on Guerrero Viejo titled "Estas ruinas que ves" (These Ruins That You See).
After prevailing in Guerrero, Canales challenged the centralist army under Col. Francisco González Pavón at nearby Mier and engaged them in the battle of El Cántaro, defeating them decisively and taking González Pavón prisoner, as well as capturing their artillery pieces. Canales then decided to march on to Matamoros with approximately one thousand men; however, Matamoros was well defended, and the Centralists had superior manpower and firepower. Therefore, after a two-week siege of the city, Canales decided to try his luck elsewhere. Ross and fifty of his men then left the federalist army in disgust, and Canales set his sights on Monterrey. In Monterrey, Canales ran into Gen. Mariano Arista and a sizeable contingent of the centralist army and was defeated by them. Canales then returned to Texas in January of 1840 with a dwindling number of followers.
Antonio Canales, whatever his shortcomings and vagaries as a military leader, had a finely honed sense of political strategy. He sensed that the restoration of Federalism, by itself, no longer inspired men to follow him into battle. He needed a more proactive cause to rally people to fight. He therefore called a convention to bring forth an independent government for the Frontera del Norte.
Lorenzo de la Garza, in La antigua Revilla, relates that high-ranking persons in Guerrero and nearby towns decided, in the last days of 1839, to form a new government regime composed of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, and Coahuila and held a convention in Guerrero for that purpose. They did this on January 18, 1840. According to Juan José Gallegos, in his master's thesis on Antonio Zapata, the representatives to the Guerrero convention then adjourned to Casa Blanca, on the Nueces River, possibly to remain outside the reach of the centralist troops.
At Casa Blanca the delegates organized a provisional government and called for a subsequent convention to include delegates from all the Mexican states. Jesús Cárdenas, a lawyer from Reynosa and a former political chief of Tamaulipas, was chosen president, and Francisco Vidaurri y Villaseñor, the former governor of Coahuila y Texas was named vice president. José Antonio Canales was appointed commander in chief of the army, and Juan Francisco Farías, who had served on the Laredo municipal council, was named secretary. A legislative council of five members was also chosen. This council consisted of the president, the vice president, and a representative from each of the three participating states: Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, and Coahuila. Juan Nepomuceno Molano, former alcalde of Matamoros (and a kinsman of Canales's wife, whose name was Refugio Molano), represented Tamaulipas, while Manuel María de Llano, former governor of Nuevo León, represented his state, and Francisco Vidaurri represented Coahuila. José María Carbajal was named secretary of the general council.
Laredo was chosen as the capital of the new government. During January and February of 1840, however, the seat of government remained in Guerrero because that town possessed a printing press, which allowed the Federalists to establish their official newspaper, the Correo del Río Bravo del Norte. On Sunday, February 16, 1840, the Correo, in its first (and only) issue, published the convention results mentioned above and announced that the motto of the new government was Dios, libertad y convención—God, Liberty and Convention.
When the delegates finished their work at Casa Blanca, they returned to Guerrero, where the president and the vice president of the new government were sworn into office. After the inauguration, a ball was held at Col. Antonio Zapata's house, which overlooked the plaza, to celebrate the event, "and all were welcome who chose to attend"; but many of the soldiers did not do so, because their clothes were practically in rags. To alleviate their destitute state, each soldier then received two dollars in partial payment for past services.
One of the first things that the new government of the Frontera del Norte undertook was a diplomatic overture toward the Texas government, much as the leaders of the War of Independence had done regarding the United States when they sent Col. Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara to Washington. Although Canales had written to President Mirabeau B. Lamar of Texas soon after his pronunciamiento of 1838 and had sent federalist general Juan Pablo Anaya to solicit material help and volunteers in San Antonio, Austin, and Houston, the first official approach was made by Jesús Cárdenas, president of the government of the Frontera del Norte, in February of 1840. Cárdenas wrote to José Antonio Navarro, one of the founders of the Republic of Texas, offering him an appointment as agent in Texas for the new government. Navarro declined the appointment. Neither Navarro nor President Lamar was willing to be seen as aiding the Federalists in Mexico, since Texas was still trying to receive formal recognition of its independence from the Mexican government, and the Mexican government, whether the Texans liked it or not, was the centralist government.
On the other hand, the first approach that Canales made after the installation of the new government was to General Arista, the centralist commander, asking for an armistice. This action may have been the product of pragmatism, rather than cowardice or treachery. After all, why continue to fight if your enemy is willing to call it quits? Arista, however, wanted nothing to do with an armistice and mobilized his troops to go in pursuit of Canales.
Canales remained in Guerrero until February 18, 1840, when he decamped ahead of Arista's army. Arista reached Guerrero on March 6, 1840, and found a deserted town. The townspeople, afraid of bloody reprisals, had fled into the brush. The opposite of their fears happened. Arista issued a general amnesty to all the inhabitants who would acknowledge the centralist government and encouraged all to return to their homes. Arista then resumed his pursuit of Canales, who continued his own flight up the river to Coahuila, where he established his camp at the Presidio del Río Grande. According to Gallegos, Canales and Zapata had a disagreement at this point, and Zapata took his squadron to the nearby settlement of Santa Rita de Morelos while Canales moved to San Fernando—present-day Zaragoza, Coahuila.
When Canales abandoned Guerrero, President Cárdenas left the town as well, and, escorted by one hundred Mexican rancheros and a few Texans, he moved the seat of government to Laredo. Today the house that is known as the Capitol of the Republic of the Rio Grande is a museum in Laredo. Like the other houses of the leading citizens of the day, it faced the main square, San Agustín Plaza, and was located on what is now Zaragoza Street. When the house was placed at the disposal of President Cárdenas in 1840, it was relatively new, having been built about 1834 for Bartolomé García, a fourth-generation descendant of the founder of Laredo, Don Tomás Sánchez. Architects describe it as a "one-story, stuccoed, sandstone vernacular structure" in the shape of an L and consisting of four rooms built around a courtyard.
From Laredo, Cárdenas sent Capt. John T. Price to Texas to recruit volunteers for the weakened federalist army, promising those enlisting a pay of twenty-five dollars per month for privates, plus the booty that might be taken from the Centralists. President Lamar of Texas, fearing that Price's offer might induce desertions from the Texas army, issued a proclamation declaring that future deserters would receive the death penalty but past ones would be pardoned if they returned to their posts. After occupying Guerrero, General Arista headed for Laredo, and President Jesús Cárdenas deemed it prudent to abandon the town and seek refuge in the brush country of the Nueces Strip, the disputed land between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, setting up camp at Laguna Espantosa on the Nueces, later moving east, still on the Nueces, to Casa Blanca.
Meanwhile, in his pursuit of Canales in Coahuila, General Arista came upon the detachment led by Col. Antonio Zapata. In his official report, Arista describes how the force that he commanded, the División Auxiliar del Norte, caught Zapata and his thirty men by surprise at Santa Rita de Morelos and took the leader and twenty-three men as prisoners, killing the remainder. After some delay, Canales attacked the Centralists in an effort to rescue Zapata, but he was completely repelled. According to Arista's report, some 200 Federalists were killed and 176 were taken as prisoners. In addition, the Federalists lost their artillery pieces, ammunition, and flags. In the same report, Arista mentions that Zapata would be tried by a military court, which would determine his fate. We know that Col. Antonio Zapata was killed by a firing squad, after refusing to recant his political beliefs and loyalties.
After his defeat at Santa Rita de Morelos, Canales took refuge at Laguna Espantosa, but he soon left his headquarters there to seek support in Texas. He first went to San Antonio to confer with Juan N. Seguín, who was a senator at the time. Seguín sent him to Austin to meet with President Lamar. Lamar was cordial but offered only moral support, much as President Madison had done with Col. Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara some twenty-eight years earlier. However, Lamar must have turned a blind eye to the recruiting efforts in Texas, because Canales was successful in raising troops and supplies.
While Canales was negotiating in Austin, President Jesús Cárdenas had established himself around Victoria, Texas, where he was warmly received. The local population, particularly the merchants, was eager to trade, not only with the soldiers, but also with the inhabitants of the Villas del Norte. Joseph M. Nance recounts in After San Jacinto that eighteen persons who described themselves as merchants of Victoria and who carried on extensive trade through Lavaca Bay had petitioned President Lamar in the spring of 1840 to consider "the propriety of affording protection to the Mexican Trade" from the depredations of armed Anglo-American bandits who "rob and otherwise molest the traders" (290). The population of Victoria took so well to Cárdenas and his government that a dinner was held in his honor on April 10 "under the shade of the venerable post oaks on Diamond Hill".
By June, Antonio Canales had established his headquarters in San Patricio on the Nueces and had gathered additional forces. These included Juan Seguín, who, having resigned his Texas senate seat, had raised one hundred men, together with his fellow Bejareños Antonio Pérez and Leandro Arreola, who brought in another hundred. By July, the reconstituted federalist army was on the march again. Canales sent Colonel Jordan with fifty Anglo-Texans and Col. Luis López with one hundred Mexican rancheros to retake Laredo and to collect the six to eight thousand pounds of lead that the Federalists had hidden in Laredo, according to a letter from José María Carbajal to President Lamar.
The march through the brush country at the height of the summer heat must have taken a toll on the troops. One thing in their favor was that they rode at night, to escape both the heat and centralist patrols. By July 25 they were in the outskirts of Laredo. It was not yet dawn, and they left their horses in a corral and silently entered the town on foot, hiding in the bushes lining the riverbank, within a hundred yards or less of San Agustín Plaza. Just before daylight, an old woman, on her way to draw water from the river, discovered the hidden men and sounded the alarm. The Federalists then rushed out of the bushes and charged the troops garrisoned in the square Taken by complete surprise, the troops opted for fleeing. There is no mention of any harm having come to the old woman who revealed the intruders' presence. As a matter of fact, although Lamar's adjutant general, Hugh McLeod, commented that the "Federalists plundered Laredo when they took it—friends and foes", contemporaneous reports, including the understandably self-serving one from Colonel López, make reference to amicable relations between the townspeople and the occupying forces.
The Federalists remained for a few days in Laredo before rejoining Canales at his camp at Lipantitlán on the Nueces. After the success of the Laredo expedition, Canales made plans to return to the Rio Grande. He ordered one of his Texas lieutenants, Col. Samuel Jordan, to go ahead of the main body of the troops to clear the stretch between Guerrero and Camargo of Centralists. While en route to his objective, Jordan met Col. Juan Molano, the representative from Tamaulipas on the governing council, who delivered a change of orders. Their combined forces of Anglo-Texans and rancheros were to proceed south of the Rio Grande, toward Ciudad Victoria, the capital of Tamaulipas.
Along the way to Ciudad Victoria, Molano would declare "federal constitutional order restored" in the towns where they stopped, such as Linares, Nuevo León, and then would appropriate tobacco taxes, stamp taxes, and even tithes to support their expedition. Jordan and Molano's troops took Ciudad Victoria by surprise on September 29, 1840, put in place a federalist government, collected the available taxes, and withdrew on October 6. This sudden withdrawal underscored the different purposes pursued by each of the two groups—the Anglos and the Mexican Federalists—in their joint adventure. The first had engaged to fight in the pursuit of "the spoils of war," as Colonel Molano described it in a letter to the editor of El Ancla, a newspaper from Matamoros. The Federalists, according to Molano in the same letter, could not afford to alienate their countrymen by engaging in pillage, since such depredations could become "an insuperable barrier to the progress of the revolution." This letter from Molano to El Ancla came almost six months after the occupation of Ciudad Victoria, and it was clearly in the nature of an apologia, in view of the intervening events. An opposing version of the occupation came from Anson G. Neal, who later recounted that the local people had received the troops with open arms; the merchants in particular "threw open their stores to the credit of our men." Nance has the grace to add: "They could scarcely afford to do otherwise".
After Ciudad Victoria, Molano and Jordan marched toward Saltillo, the capital of Coahuila. On the way there, depending on which point of view the reader prefers, either Molano had an epiphany that revealed to him that bringing armed foreigners into his homeland was wrong and that his cause was hopeless, or he was bribed by intermediaries from General Arista into surrendering. In either case, Jordan's men were left to their fate after an armed encounter near Saltillo caused Molano and his men to lay down their arms. Some of the norteños were caught in the middle, refusing to follow either Jordan or Molano. Such was the case of Col. José María González of Laredo, who, with his men, left the affray outside Saltillo and headed for home. Later González met up with Jordan's band at Candela, Coahuila, and accompanied them to Laredo. At Laredo they encountered Juan Seguín, who had information relating to the agreement that Antonio Canales had made with the Centralists for ending the war. This agreement gave the Federalists, both Mexican and Anglo-Texan, the option of joining the centralist army at the military ranks previously conferred by Canales and of collecting the back pay owed to them. Seguín and Jordan wanted to hunt down Canales, apprehend him, and hang him as a traitor; however, they soon learned that their quarry had already disbanded his army and was in the process of negotiating with centralist general Isidro Reyes in Mier. It was time for all parties to call it quits and go home.
In capitulating to General Arista's forces, Colonel Molano had negotiated surprisingly favorable treatment for himself and Canales and the troops who likewise surrendered. In addition to a general amnesty for the former members of the federalist army, the Mexican government also guaranteed their property and their safety. The government also assumed the debts contracted by what was termed the "provisional government". This generosity—which seemed remarkable, and even a sign of weakness, to foreigners—was part of the usual rules of engagement, an attitude necessary for survival in a land plagued by frequent strife, since the winners today might be the losers tomorrow.
The conclusion of what is usually termed the Federalist Wars at the end of 1840 came at a crucial time, for by 1845, when the United States moved to annex Texas and thereby precipitated war with Mexico, Mexico did not need to be at war with itself. In those circumstances, it needed all the military talent it could muster, and Antonio Canales, a seasoned frontier fighter, acquitted himself well in the forlorn attempt to repel the invasion from the north. Canales reached the rank of brigadier and took part in the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de Guerrero (Resaca de la Palma), losses that resulted in the fall of Matamoros and the Villas del Norte to the invaders. He was also with Gen. Pedro de Ampudia in the brutal defense of Monterrey and with Santa Anna in the grueling battle of Buena Vista near Saltillo.
After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, General Canales continued his military career, putting down an 1852 uprising near Camargo known as La Rebelión de la Loba, where he defeated his old comrade-in-arms from the days of the Federalist Wars, José María Carbajal, and served briefly as governor of Tamaulipas. His two sons, Antonio and Servando Canales Molano, were also governors of their native state and exerted great influence in the area, especially Servando, who distinguished himself in the War of the French Intervention, particularly in the battle of Santa Gertrudis, which was fought successfully near Camargo in June 1866.
Contemporary historians writing on this subject have raised the question of whether there was ever such a thing as the Republic of the Rio Grande. Josefina Z. Vázquez, in La supuesta República del Río Grande, asserts that "the so-called Republic" was a creation of the propaganda arm of Gen. Zachary Taylor's invading army, which published a bilingual weekly called La República del Río Grande in Matamoros in 1846 in an attempt to rekindle separatist feelings along the river settlements. However, George Fisher, a Serbian adventurer passing himself as a businessman and a journalist, had already used the term "Republic of the Rio Grande" to refer to the Frontera del Norte in 1840. In a letter to the editor of the Morning Star of Houston (March 3, 1840), Fisher had advocated for improved commercial relations between Texas and the incipient neighboring republic: "Therefore, the success of the independence and the final establishment of the Republic of the Rio Grande, is much to be desired by every friend of Texas". As a good propagandist, Fisher knew how to coin a catchy name, even for a republic that had not yet come into being. Vázquez claims that the term was never used by the Federalists, and she may well be correct, because Spanish speakers referred to the river—then and now—as the Río Bravo. The name of the official publication of the putative republic was Correo del Río Bravo del Norte. It was published in Guerrero, and in its first and only issue it carried a presidential address to the citizens of the area that began: "JESUS CARDENAS, Presidente de la frontera del norte de la república mejicana a sus habitantes." It is clear that at the time of this publication—February 16, 1840—a name had not yet been coined beyond the descriptive term used by Cárdenas, "the northern frontier of the Mexican republic." Two weeks later, George Fisher apparently remedied this omission with his reference to the "Republic of the Rio Grande."
Juan José Gallegos also questions the existence of the Republic of the Rio Grande, pointing out the lack of documentary evidence, such as a declaration of independence, to prove its existence. Gallegos adds that Lorenzo de la Garza, in La antigua Revilla en la leyenda de los tiempos, refers only to a "new governmental regime" (un nuevo régimen gubernamental) composed of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, and Coahuila. However, de la Garza also mentions the motto of the new government: Dios, Libertad y Convención, implying that some kind of constitutional convention had been held or was in the planning stages.
And we must not forget that there was a flag with the three bands and the three stars, representing the three states—a flag that the warriors of the Republic of the Rio Grande (by whatever name) insisted on flying in the disputed territory between the Nueces and the Rio Grande. Ultimately, whether the Republic of the Rio Grande was a political reality or the fabrication of foreign propagandists is not the most important issue. What is important is to recognize that the people of the area encompassed by the three stars—and this included the disputed Nueces Strip—thought of themselves as belonging together. In 1848, after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, when the residents of Laredo learned that henceforth they were to be part of the United States, they petitioned to be allowed to remain part of Mexico. Three of their most prominent members, former mayors José María Ramón and Bacilio Benavides and Col. José María González, all supporters of the Republic of the Rio Grande, wrote a letter to Mirabeau B. Lamar, the former president of the Republic of Texas and now the United States general in charge of the occupation army, asking to be allowed to continue their union with Mexico. Perhaps the Laredoans felt that a known devil was better than an unknown angel. Most likely, it was their desire to remain united to the other Villas del Norte, their sister settlements, and not to be divided by the Rio Grande. The request was not granted.
Yet, in 1906, more than fifty years after the political severing of Laredo from the other Villas del Norte and from Mexico, the idea of a common union was still evident in the people of the area. Among old family papers, I came across a yellowed newspaper dated November 30, 1906. Someone had saved it long ago because it contained a notice regarding the probate proceedings related to the death of my maternal great-grandfather. It was a tabloid of only four pages, published in Ciudad Guerrero, and it was called La Unión Fronteriza (The Border Union).