The first complete, annotated publication of the reminiscences of San Antonio native and Battle of San Jacinto veteran José Antonio Menchaca, with commentary that contextualizes and debates Menchaca’s claims while delivering a rich portrait of Tejano life in the nineteenth century.
San Antonio native, military veteran, merchant, and mayor pro tem José Antonio Menchaca (1800–1879) was one of only a few Tejano leaders to leave behind an extensive manuscript of recollections. Portions of the document were published in 1907, followed by a “corrected” edition in 1937, but the complete work could not be published without painstaking reconstruction. At last available in its entirety, Menchaca’s book of reminiscences captures the social life, people, and events that shaped the history of Texas’s tumultuous transformation during his lifetime. Highlighting not only Menchaca’s acclaimed military service but also his vigorous defense of Tejanos’ rights, dignity, and heritage, Recollections of a Tejano Life charts a remarkable legacy while incorporating scholarly commentary to separate fact from fiction.
Revealing how Tejanos perceived themselves and the revolutionary events that defined them, this wonderfully edited volume presents Menchaca’s remembrances of such diverse figures as Antonio López de Santa Anna, Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, General Adrián Woll, Comanche chief “Casamiro,” and Texas Ranger Jack Hays. Menchaca and his fellow Tejanos were actively engaged in local struggles as Mexico won her independence from Spain; later many joined the fight to establish the Republic of Texas, only to see it annexed to the United States nine years after the Battle of San Jacinto. This first-person account corrects important misconceptions and brings previously unspoken truths vividly to life.
TCU Texas Book Prize
- Introduction: Antonio Menchaca in Texas History
- Edited Reminiscences of José Antonio Menchaca, Part 1
- Edited Reminiscences of José Antonio Menchaca, Part 2
- The Memoirs of Captain Menchaca:Being an Unpublished Manuscript Detailing Events in San Antonio from 1807 to the Battle of San Jacinto
- The Unpublished Second Part of the Menchaca Manuscript
Antonio Menchaca in Texas History
A boisterous crowd paraded through the streets of San Antonio to the city’s Alamo Plaza on the morning of 2 March 1859. Led by a band of musicians and members of the Alamo Rifles volunteer militia, the entourage included military officers, the San Antonio Fire Association, the mayor and other local officials, teachers and schoolchildren, community members, and about twenty persons with badges identifying them as the “veterans of ’36,” all gathered to celebrate the twenty-third anniversary of Texas independence. Prominent on the speaker’s platform erected for the occasion were two San Antonio Tejanos: José Antonio Navarro, one of the two Texas-born signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence, and José Antonio Menchaca, a veteran of the Texas Revolution renowned for his valor at the decisive battle of San Jacinto. According to a local newspaper report of this event, the speaker for the occasion, I. L. Hewitt, “was repeatedly applauded in a very enthusiastic manner, and especially in his allusions to the two venerable patriots on the platform, Col. Navarro and Capt. Manchaca [sic].”
Hewitt extolled Navarro as a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a participant in the ill-fated 841 Texan Santa Fe Expedition, and subsequently a prisoner in Mexico who refused President Antonio López de Santa Anna’s offer of clemency if he would renounce his loyalty to Texas. Then the orator exalted “Capt. Antonio Manchaca, he who today bears the Lone Star flag,—Mexican born—’Twas he who fought shoulder to shoulder with the Texans at the battle of San Jacinto—True and faithful to our country then, may he long live to enjoy the fruition of his patriotism.”
Yet amazingly, in this same speech, with both Menchaca and Navarro seated behind him on the dais, Hewitt claimed Texas’s winning of independence from Mexico demonstrated that “no enemy however countless in their numbers can force the bold Anglo Saxon to yield to a tyrant’s decrees—independent in thought and action, his political freedom he claims as his birthright.” This seeming contradiction reflects a common contention in ceremonial rhetoric around the Alamo and celebrations of Texas independence: the fight for Texas independence inevitably transformed its participants from people of various nations and backgrounds into true Texans and true Americans.
Depictions of Menchaca focusing primarily on his military exploits and his “American” loyalties continued beyond his own lifetime. In the introduction to the partial publication of the reminiscences in the San Antonio weekly the Passing Show, Menchaca’s longtime acquaintance James P. Newcomb avowed that the Tejano’s “sympathies carried him into the ranks of the Americans.” Newcomb even went so far as to describe Menchaca’s physical characteristics as bearing “the marks of a long line of Castilian ancestors,” rhetorically severing Menchaca from both his Tejano loyalties and his Mexican heritage. Similarly, the obituary of Menchaca published in the San Antonio Express declared that he was “born a Mexican” but that “when the Texas war for independence came on, Don Antonio was found upon the side of our people, a contestant for that liberty and those privileges of citizenship which are bequeathed to the American.” Claims such as these reveal a larger pattern regarding some Tejanos and others deemed loyal to the Texas or U.S. causes. James Crisp notes similar rhetorical commentaries regarding nineteenth-century Tejanos like José Antonio Navarro, whose patriotism led Anglo-Americans to claim that he was “not of the abject race of Mexicans,” but was rather “a Corsican of good birth,” that is, a European. In more contemporary times, Edward Linenthal shows that public ceremonies at the Alamo continue to mediate a message of “patriotic conversion” whereby through courage in battle those of diverse backgrounds leave behind their ancestral heritage to become Texans and Americans.
Though Menchaca’s reminiscences contain a section on the Texas Revolution that is disproportionate in length to other subjects treated, the focus on his status as a veteran of the Texas Revolution is further amplified in Frederick C. Chabot’s 1937 publication. Like the Passing Show version, Chabot’s does not include the nonmilitary portion of the reminiscences (perhaps because he was unaware of them) and ends the narrative at the battle of San Jacinto. Whatever the reason for Chabot’s omission, of the four leading nineteenth-century San Antonio Tejano figures known to have left behind their recollections—Juan Seguín, José Antonio Navarro, José María Rodríguez, and Menchaca—the latter’s reminiscences were the only ones to remain unpublished in their entirety until now. Indeed, many researchers are unaware of the existence of the unpublished portion of Menchaca’s reminiscences and its recollections and musings on the events, social life, people, physical structures, and legends that shape San Antonio’s history.
Menchaca’s reminiscences reveal some essential considerations about nineteenth-century Tejano biography: how Tejanos like Menchaca perceived themselves and wanted to be remembered, their views of Tejano character, and their understanding of the Tejano legacy during the tumultuous century of change that in Menchaca’s own lifetime had seen them pass from being part of Spain to being part of Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the United States, the Confederate States of America, and then the United States again. A critical reading of the reminiscences shows that, unlike contemporaries such as Newcomb or the orator Hewitt, Menchaca saw neither his military service nor the Texas victory over Mexico as an eradication of the Tejano past and a transmogrification of Tejano patriots into Anglo-Texans or Anglo-Americans. Though the reminiscences encompass a number of hyperbolic statements and inaccurate details and as a historical record must be read with a hermeneutic of caution, they clearly illuminate that a critical study of Menchaca cannot be complete without careful attention to how he narrated his own life and times during his twilight years. Coupled with other available primary documents on Menchaca’s life, his reminiscences are not solely another source for the events they narrate, but, more importantly, a firsthand account of the perceptions, biases, and mind-set of nineteenth-century Tejanos like Menchaca as they looked back over the span of their lives.
José Antonio Menchaca was a fourth-generation Tejano, the son of Juan Mariano Menchaca and María de la Luz Guerra. According to the parish baptismal register, Father Gavino Valdéz baptized the eight-day-old José Antonio on 17 January 1800. Although in the years before his death in 1879 he would claim descent from the wrong first settlers of San Antonio, he was nevertheless correct that his ancestors were among the town’s founders.
It is a shame that Antonio apparently was unaware of his family’s colorful roots in his beloved San Antonio. Both of his maternal great-grandfathers were soldiers in the city’s earliest days. Antonio Guerra was one of the men Governor Martín de Alarcón recruited in Monclova for his 1718 expedition to found a settlement on the San Antonio River, and between 1718 and sometime in the 1740s Guerra served in the presidio company there. Whether he was married before or after he came to San Antonio is not clear, but he and his wife, Catarina Jiménez Menchaca, had at least four children during his enlistment. Having made his life in San Antonio, Guerra lived out his retirement among his children and grandchildren, passing away in the spring of 1759.
Among Antonio and Catarina’s children was Antonio’s grandfather, José Joaquín Guerra, who was baptized in San Antonio on 19 February 1735 and buried there on 19 April 1790. Little is known of Joaquín, who for at least part of his adult life made a living as one of the civilian assistants at Mission San Antonio de Valero. On the few occasions that he appears in the town’s and mission’s sacramental records, he is listed as a “mestizo,” a “mulatto,” or, as in his burial record, a “coyote.” Likewise, his wife, María Guadalupe de Ávila, who had at least twelve children with him between 1763 and 1781, is recorded as a “mestiza” or a “mulata” in the sacramental records. That the children of soldiers who appear in the records as españoles (Spaniards) were later identified as being of mixed blood is not surprising, for in the eastern frontier provinces of New Spain, of which Texas was a part, there was a tendency to equate military service with pure Spanish blood. The magic that an officer could perform with a pen on behalf of his soldiers, improving their calidad (quality) to that of Spaniards, generally did not extend to their children after they moved out on their own or even to themselves following their retirement.
Antonio’s grandmother, María Guadalupe de Ávila, was the daughter of Antonio’s other great-grandfather, Felipe de Ávila, who came from Saltillo, Mexico, and entered military service in San Antonio in 1722. An enlisted man, Ávila has the distinction of having been involved in a 1730 homicide that led to the oldest recorded criminal investigation in San Antonio’s history. According to the testimony, Ávila found his wife, Ildefonsa (or Aldonza) Rincón, naked in bed with Nicolás Pasqual, and there was an altercation during which Pasqual stabbed Ávila, who was saved by his brother-in-law and next-door neighbor, Sebastián Rincón. A few weeks later there was a second confrontation during which Ávila shot Pasqual dead. Found not guilty of murder, he was nevertheless ordered transferred to Presidio del Río Grande, and he then disappears from the record. His family remained in San Antonio, where his sons went on to serve in the presidio and acquire property and his daughter María Guadalupe married Joaquín Guerra.
Among the dozen children born to María Guadalupe Ávila and Joaquín Guerra between 1763 and 1785 was María de la Luz Guerra, Antonio’s mother. Luz’s marriage to Mariano Menchaca produced ten children, of whom Antonio was the sixth. Like the other children of early soldiers, Luz appears in the documents as being of mixed blood. Baptismal and census records list her variously as a “mestiza,” “mulata,” “loba,” or “coyote,” and all but the last two of her children are similarly identified in the baptismal registers as “mestizos,” “coyotes,” “lobos,” or “tresalvas.” Sometime between 1820 and 1830 she became widowed, and, as Antonio relates, she lived into the 1840s.
At the time of his death sometime in the 1820s, when he was in his mid- to late sixties, Antonio’s father, Mariano Menchaca, had achieved a measure of prosperity. Having opted not to follow his father into military service as other Bexareños (residents of the San Antonio de Béxar area) did in the last decades of Spanish rule, Mariano rounded up horses and cattle as opportunities arose and otherwise hired out for agricultural work. The last Spanish colonial census of San Antonio, taken in 1820, lists Mariano as a resident of the barrio del sur, that is, the town’s south ward, which extended south from what are today Dolorosa and Market Streets between San Pedro Creek and the San Antonio River. It also indicates that he was a labrador, or landholding farmer. Taking Antonio at his word that the family was in San Antonio in 1813 when Joaquín Arredondo entered the city following the battle of Medina, Mariano appears to have been one of the many residents of the city who avoided becoming entangled in the bloody rebellion against Spanish rule. Mariano was also one of those individuals who experienced gradual “whitening” over time, early records recording his status as a “coyote” or “mestizo,” but later records referring to him as an “español.”
Mariano had come to San Antonio in 1759 with his family after his father’s retirement from the military. Antonio’s paternal grandfather, Marcos Menchaca, kept his family moving during his military career, when he was stationed at the presidios of Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Río Grande, San Xavier, and San Sabá. As his petition for land in San Antonio listed the San Xavier and San Sabá presidios as his last postings before retirement, it is almost certain that he was present at the Norteños’ destruction of Mission San Sabá—and may have participated in the failed campaign against them in 1759. As someone with a large family, veteran status, and an interest in stock raising, he obtained in 1762 a grant for land west of San Pedro Creek, where he lived out his remaining years. By the time he passed away sometime in the early to mid-1770s, he had secured his family’s well-being for years to come. Governor Domingo Cabello’s comprehensive census of 1778 included María Josefa Cadena, Marcos’s widow, as the head of a household that still included four of their children as well as a servant. The family’s property included a jacal (shack) and three market-garden plots, along with three mares, two horses, three yoke of oxen, and sixty head of cattle. Josefa, who also worked as a midwife, outlived her husband by about thirty years, long enough to be present at the birth of her grandson José Antonio, future hero of Texas independence, in 1800.
Little is known about Antonio’s early years and his family life in general, save for his recollections of the battles for Mexican independence from Spain fought in or near San Antonio during his youth, which will be treated below. In 1826 he married Teresa Ramón, a descendant of a military leader stationed at San Antonio during the early eighteenth century. As in the case of other prominent San Antonio families, the Menchacas’ social circle was not limited to their fellow Tejanos. One of their daughters, Antonia Manuela, married French émigré Jean Batiste Ducuron LaCoste, while another, María Antonia, married Maximilian Neuendorff. The very proper Neuendorff’s letter seeking “Antoñita’s” hand in marriage is preserved at the Daughters of the Republic of Texas research library. It is addressed to “Don Antonio” and is one of the few pieces, if not the only piece, of personal correspondence involving Menchaca to have survived. Menchaca’s oldest daughter, Joaquina, married Texas Revolution veteran John Glanton, though by at least one account Glanton gained the hand of his reportedly beautiful bride at gunpoint. Shortly after their marriage, Glanton headed west, leaving Joaquina and their infant daughter behind. A few years later, Yuma Indians in Sonora, Mexico, killed Glanton in retribution for atrocities he had committed as a “soldier of fortune, outlaw, and notorious bounty-hunter and murderer.”
The most often remembered—and one could add controversial—aspect of Menchaca’s life is his military service during the Texas Revolution, particularly his exploits at the battle of San Jacinto. Historian Stephen L. Hardin avows that “Menchaca had no intention of enlisting in the rebel [Texas] army.” He cites the recollections of Enrique Esparza, the son of Alamo defender Gregorio Esparza. At the time of the Alamo battle, on 6 March 1836, Enrique Esparza was eight years old and survived the battle inside the fortress walls with his mother and siblings. Some seven decades later the aging Esparza attested that Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna offered the Alamo defenders a period of amnesty before the battle and that “among the surnames of those I remember to have left during the time of this armistice were Menchaca, Flores, Rodriguez, Ramirez, Arocha, Silvero.” Although Esparza is the only known source who mentions the armistice and departure of these Tejanos, Hardin correctly notes that the most convincing evidence comes from the testimony of Menchaca himself; in his reminiscences he states that he left San Antonio just before the Alamo battle and entered the Texan army afterward only when forced to do so. One key passage appears to be an apologetic about why he did not join his friend Jim Bowie and others in defending the Alamo; Menchaca states that Bowie and Tejano military leader Juan Seguín “made a motion to have Antonio Menchaca and his family sent away from here, knowing that they would receive no good treatment at Santa Anna’s hands” . But it is not clear why Menchaca and his family would have been in greater danger at Santa Anna’s hands than anyone else who had chosen to join the Alamo defenders. After he headed east with his family, Menchaca explains, General Edward Burleson conscripted him into the Texas army.
Though long esteemed for his courage in the battle of San Jacinto on 21 April 1836, Menchaca mentions nothing about these exploits in his reminiscences, only that he fought in the battle and that the Texan commanders “made me take my men who were Mexicans and put large pieces of white paste board on their hats and breasts lest they should be mistaken for Santa Annas men and killed”. José María Rodríguez, a native San Antonian whose father, Ambrosio, was Menchaca’s comrade in the battle, avers in his memoir that an unspecified “Mexican history of the battle” relates that “an officer of tremendous size, speaking Spanish, urged his men forward in a voice of thunder to give no quarter and that they slaughtered the Mexicans like sheep. . . . The man he referred to is supposed to have been Don Antonio.” Hardin cites Henry Stuart Foote’s 1841 account based on eyewitness interviews about the battle. Foote asserts that Texas soldier and statesman Thomas Jefferson Rusk claimed Menchaca refused to help a Mexican officer who begged him for mercy. Surrounded by Anglo-Americans apparently eager to hear how he would respond to the man’s pleas, Menchaca reportedly retorted, “I’m no Mexican—I’m an American,” and told his fellow Texan soldiers to shoot him. Hardin concludes that “such incidents indicate that Tejanos killed [Mexican] centralists with every bit as much relish as did vengeful Texians.”
Yet Hardin’s conclusion and the single incident and primary source on which it is based are not corroborated in other primary documentation. Menchaca’s alleged claim that he was no longer Mexican but American sounds more like the rhetoric of the aforementioned Newcomb or Hewitt than any known Tejano source; given that the battle of San Jacinto won Texas independence and was nine years before U.S. annexation, it seems particularly odd that a native Tejano like Menchaca would have identified himself as an “American.” It is unlikely that, if such a dramatic incident occurred, Menchaca forgot it or thought it was too unimportant to record in his reminiscences, although he might have been too embarrassed or ashamed of such a brutal episode to recount it. But in the 1870s would Menchaca have been worried that associating himself with retribution on the Mexican army at San Jacinto could soil his reputation? Indeed, as we shall see, far from evidencing concern about a claim that he sought vengeance on the Mexican forces, Menchaca’s recollections include a subsequent event that seems even more likely to have drawn his name into ill repute among his contemporaries: his offering the detested prisoner Santa Anna every form of assistance at his disposal. The strongest conclusion one can draw from extant sources is that Menchaca’s reputation as a formidable adversary at San Jacinto is evident in Anglo-American, Tejano, and, according to Rodríguez, Mexican reports of the battle, even if not in Menchaca’s own reminiscences.
Menchaca continued to serve in the Texas army until the Mexican forces withdrew from Texas after the battle of San Jacinto, at which point he went with several other Tejanos to escort their families back to San Antonio from Nacogdoches, where they had fled during the wartime hostilities. According to Juan Seguín, nearly everyone on this return expedition became ill, “and for several days, Captain Menchaca, who was the only person able to stand up, had to drive the whole train, as well as attend to the sick.” After reestablishing his family at San Antonio, Menchaca engaged in further military service; the following March an order from Commander Seguín instructed Captain Thomas Pratt that “Capt. Manchaca accompanies you and is subject to your order although as he is acquainted with the Country and Language you may find it eligeable [sic] to consult with him on such points as may be necessary.”
Subsequently Menchaca provided intermittent service in military engagements with American Indians and in patrol duty to watch out for Mexican troops, although apparently he did not fulfill an 1842 mandate to raise a military company, as official correspondence ten months later indicates that Texas Congress appropriations included funds only for troops under the command of renowned Texas Ranger Jack Hays. In September 1842 Menchaca was part of a group that sought to defend San Antonio from Mexican troops under the command of General Adrián Woll, whose last name the manuscript mistakenly renders as “Bull,” but these Texan defenders quickly abandoned their effort when they discovered that the force aligned against them was a formidable contingent of the regular Mexican army. Menchaca’s leg was reportedly injured in this skirmish when a cannonball dislodged a stone that then struck him. The Mexican army took him prisoner but quickly released him. An Anglo-American prisoner wrote in his diary that “Antonio Menchaca’s release is likewise effected by the intercession of his family and that of his Mexican friends”; General Woll’s official reports of his expedition state that he freed five prisoners “on account of being Mexicans whose families and themselves have offered to be hereafter faithful to the Supreme Government.”
Menchaca’s recollection is consistent with Woll’s official report, as he attests that Woll freed him “on one condition & that is that you will give me your word of honor never again to Take up arms against Mexico”. Menchaca goes on to state that he faithfully fulfilled his “parole of honor never more to take up arms against Mexico” . Though in 1844 Texas president Sam Houston appointed him to serve as an Indian escort, Menchaca’s steadily advancing age and injured leg may have contributed to his decision about further military duty. Like many other Tejanos, he did not enlist for the war between the United States and Mexico that erupted in 1846; while at least 140 Tejanos applied for land grants as veterans of the Texas Revolution, in the War with Mexico only 20 soldiers with Spanish surnames were among the 6,000 Texas volunteers in the U.S. forces. In any event, whether his motive was one or a combination of these factors, his participation in the 1842 defense of San Antonio during the Woll expedition was Menchaca’s last military engagement mentioned in extant sources.
Menchaca’s military record earned him the acclaim of many contemporaries. Besides receiving public recognition at events such as Texas Independence Day celebrations, during the last years of his life he was a member of the Texas Veterans Association, a group of Texas Republic veterans founded in 1873. His renown also frequently drew him into the more elite Tejano circles of San Antonio. But his prominent status did not translate into economic luxury. Given the limited economic success of his parents and grandparents, it is not surprising that he was recorded as a jornalero (laborer) on 1830 census rolls, which listed two horses as his only noteworthy assets. By comparison, Juan Seguín, who was seven years his junior, was listed as a merchant head of a household that included two servants and as the owner of four cows, three bulls, six horses, a goat, and a mule. An 1838 joint resolution of the Texas Senate and House of Representatives granted Menchaca “one of the houses and lots in the city of San Antonio, which may be confiscated to the public use.” The 1840 census of the Republic of Texas recorded him as holding one town lot in San Antonio, presumably the location of his private residence, and two horses. He was also the agent of record for his widowed mother, who owned one town lot. After U.S. annexation of Texas, his level of prosperity remained relatively constant. In 1850, on the first U.S. census conducted in San Antonio, he was listed as a “merchant” who owned real estate valued at $2,000; a newspaper report from seven years later mentions Menchaca as one owner of transport carts loaded with goods that left San Antonio for the coast under armed guard during the infamous Cart War.
Still, in comparison to other San Antonio Tejanos, Menchaca’s retention of his homestead and mercantile interests placed him ahead of many contemporaries. Although incomplete, the census of 1840 showed that Tejanos owned 85.1 percent of the town lots in San Antonio, along with 63.8 percent of all land acreage titled to local residents. According to the 1850 census, they owned only 9.1 percent of real estate values claimed. Similarly, in 1830, when Tejanos comprised nearly all the population of San Antonio, the census showed that most residents were farmers and only 14.8 percent were laborers. No employment listings were given in the 1840 census, but in 1850, 61.4 percent of the Tejano population was in labor positions. Menchaca was comparatively well off, but only in relation to a San Antonio Tejano population undergoing a significant downward trend in economic status from landowners to a working underclass.
Menchaca did not complacently accept the woes of his fellow Tejanos. He was a frequent witness for Tejano parties in court cases, particularly for veterans seeking the compensation due them by law for military service in the Texas Revolution. Convinced that the just claims of many Tejano veterans had been denied or unduly delayed as compared to the more prompt approvals their Anglo-American counterparts received, Menchaca was one of nineteen Tejano signers in 1875 of a letter to the Texas comptroller of public accounts that sought to “disabuse [Comptroller Stephen H. Darden’s] mind of any prejudice” against Tejano veterans and that demanded for themselves and their comrades “simply justice and nothing more.” His support of fellow Tejanos was so strong that apparently he did not even hold grudges against those who supported the Mexican side in the Texas Revolution. For example, he provided a deposition to support the legal claims of Francisco Esparza, a San Antonio native who, unlike his Alamo-defender brother Gregorio, had opted to fight in the Mexican army during the December 1835 Texan siege of San Antonio and was on reserve with the Mexican forces during Santa Anna’s Texas campaign. James Newcomb summed up Menchaca’s leading role as a legal advocate when he quipped that “in later years, when the titles to almost every foot of ground in the old city and county of Bexar were litigated in the courts, Captain Menchaca became a standing witness to prove up the genealogy of the old families.”
In his laudatory, and perhaps hyperbolic, recollections of his acquaintance with Menchaca several decades after Menchaca’s death, Newcomb also recalled the Tejano’s role as a leader in local social activities. Newcomb remembered “Captain Menchaca as the umpire at the Sunday cock fight. Amusements and entertainments in those days [the antebellum period] were limited to the Sunday cock fight—the fandango [dance]—the Saint’s [sic] days.” In sharp contrast to his claim that Menchaca had been received into the presumed-superior inner circle of Anglo-Americans, Newcomb went on to wistfully describe the era when Tejano festivities predominated as simpler and more serene than the bustling times of the early twentieth century in which he wrote. He also noted that Menchaca’s umpire duties “required a man of stern character and unbending dignity to decide the fine points of these tournaments.”
Menchaca’s political career and activism were another means through which he promoted Tejano interests. In the years after Texas independence he served several terms on the San Antonio City Council and as mayor pro tem from July 1838 to January 1839, completing the term of resigned mayor William Dangerfield. Like other Tejano elected officials, he sought with limited success to stem the tide of Anglo-American encroachment on local real estate, as in 1838, when as mayor pro tem he wrote the commissioner of the Texas General Land Office to alert him of Anglo-American attempts to take unlawful possession of land belonging to the City of San Antonio. He joined other San Antonio Tejano as well as Anglo-American leaders to press the national government of Texas for services such as local postal delivery and funding for military protection. A similar San Antonio coalition also offered financial and moral support for a federalist rebellion in the northern states of Mexico; this conflict potentially could have combined the population of that region with Texas to form a new nation in which the proportion of Mexican-descent to Anglo-American residents would have increased significantly.
After a two-year disruption of local elections following the Woll expedition, Menchaca was once again elected to the city council in 1844, but subsequently his career as an elected official subsided along with those of his Tejano contemporaries. During the period of the Texas Republic (1836–1845), Tejanos elected to the city council accounted for 73.2 percent of the total, but they were just 24.2 percent of the total during the first fifteen years after U.S. annexation; in 1860 not a single Tejano served on the council. Menchaca was elected to the council one final time in 1849, but for unknown reasons he resigned a month before completing his term. The year after the anti-foreigner, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party swept the 1854 San Antonio municipal elections, he ran for the city council again but lost. Nonetheless, he remained active in political events and causes; in 1860 he helped organize a San Antonio visit by Governor Sam Houston to promote pro-Union views. Earlier that year Houston had warmly endorsed Menchaca for a federal-government appointment, but it apparently never materialized; Menchaca’s only subsequent elected position was ditch commissioner, a position he filled just before the Civil War and once again during Reconstruction.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, Tejanos in San Antonio split with their Democratic allies from the mid-1850s Know-Nothing political controversies because the Democratic Party supported secession and bitterly opposed Menchaca’s friend and ally Governor Houston. But in the tumultuous decade following the war some Tejanos, particularly members of the older and more influential families like Menchaca’s, realigned with the Democrats and resisted Reconstruction efforts that granted African Americans greater equality. Other Tejanos joined the Radicals, who advocated for African American voting and citizenship rights. Each group of activists formed its own political club and had its own Spanish-language newspaper. Menchaca’s active involvement in the Democratic Party and platform was evident in his campaign efforts for Horace Greeley in his unsuccessful presidential bid against Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, as well as Menchaca’s selection in 1875 as a delegate to the Democratic state convention. At a local celebration of Mexican Independence Day in 1871, Menchaca even publicly compared the heroic efforts of Father Miguel Hidalgo, who led the struggle for Mexican independence from Spain, to contemporary initiatives to elect Democratic candidates and overthrow Radical rule. Yet Tejanos from both political parties, including Menchaca, were able to unite in support of an 1876 municipal effort that attracted the first railroad lines to the city. Apparently, while the question of rights for African Americans in an Anglo-American-dominated society did not elicit a unilateral response among Menchaca and his fellow Tejanos, advocacy for their own rights and self-interests remained a powerful force for inciting their collective action.
Menchaca died peacefully on 1 November 1879 after enduring a short illness. Earlier in the year he had been appointed a member of the local arrangements committee for the Texas Veterans Association, which was to meet in San Antonio in April 1880. Edward Miles, chair of the Bexar County chapter, reported Menchaca’s death to Moses Austin Bryan, the association’s secretary, on 2 November:
It again devolves upon me as a duty to perform to announce to you the death of Companion Capt. Antonio Menchaca who died yesterday (all Saints Day) at 6 O’clock P.M. and was buried this day (All Souls) at the hour of 5 P.M. in the 80th year of his age . . .
His funeral was largely attended and great numbers were already at the grave, not forgetting on this day long departed relatives & friends.
Our friend ever since the reunion at Galveston felt anxious to live long enough to meet his old companions in this “Historic City” on our next anniversary April 21, 1879 [sic].
The annual program did go on without him, but in attendance were his daughters Manuela and Antonia, “Mrs. J. B. Lacoste and Mrs. Antonio [sic] Neuendorf[f], daughters of Antonio Menchaca, soldier of San Jacinto,” and there to greet them on the left side of the stage in the meeting hall “was a large portrait of Antonio Menchaca.”
Besides lauding his Texas patriotism and military service, Menchaca’s obituary in the San Antonio Express noted that one of his “most remarkable characteristics . . . was his retentiveness of memory. His stories of the war with Mexico, and of the thrilling scenes that marked the history of this city in her virginity, have ever won the listener.” Employing a frequent misspelling of his name during his lifetime, the town of Manchaca in Travis County, south of Austin, is named for him; the genesis of this honor is that Menchaca had reportedly once camped at the nearby springs that also bear his name. After two previous post offices founded on the site had closed and two years after Menchaca’s death, the arrival of the railroad in the area led to the establishment of the town on a more permanent footing and its formal naming as Manchaca.
Menchaca’s long-standing activism on behalf of his fellow Tejanos continued into the last decade of his life, when he worked to resolve issues like pension discrimination against Tejano veterans and to provide a Tejano viewpoint on questions such as the advisability of expending municipal funds to attract railroads to the city. In this context, then, the mid-1870s reminiscences are part of a wider effort by the aging Menchaca to promote what he perceived to be Tejanos’ interests as well as their legacy. The narrative opens with the observation “I was born in 1800, was baptized in the church of San Fernando de Austria on the 12th of January same year” . Menchaca proceeds to narrate his life and key events in San Antonio history during the first half of the nineteenth century. The manuscript is presented in eighteen chapters, though the original draft of the first nine chapters is lost and the full delineation for these chapters is not labeled on the published copies; in the extant versions, the first half has subtitles, but no chapter numbers or chapter titles. Menchaca’s reminiscences of San Antonio can be roughly divided into four major sections, in the following order: the period of struggle for Mexican independence from Spain; the fight for Texas independence and its aftermath; local events during the period of the Texas Republic; and some final remarks on the history of San Antonio before 1800. Three of the four sections are roughly equal in length, with the exception being the section on the Texas Revolution, which is three times longer than the others and comprises nearly half the manuscript.
It is apparent from the text that Menchaca dictated his recollections and someone else wrote them down by hand, but it is unclear when that person employed his own editorial touches and when he merely took dictation. We cannot be sure when Menchaca began dictating his recollections, but from internal evidence in the reminiscences it appears to have been sometime in the mid-1870s. It was during this time that Menchaca met newspaperman James Newcomb, who showed an interest in the Tejano’s recollections. Arriving at a convenient stopping point, Menchaca handed Newcomb the first part of the manuscript, which covers his recollections through Santa Anna’s capture after the battle of San Jacinto in April 1836. Menchaca then continued working with his collaborator, who Frederick C. Chabot tells us was Charles Merritt Barnes, backtracking some to flesh out the story of the aftermath of the battle of San Jacinto, including giving a much more detailed account of his encounter with Santa Anna. Unfortunately, the abrupt end of what Newcomb published in the Passing Show along with the mid-sentence beginning of the unpublished second half make impossible a definitive conclusion regarding the integrity of the whole of the reminiscences.
What we do know is what Newcomb tells us in his introduction to the portion of the reminiscences that he contributed to the Passing Show in 1907. Newcomb claims to have obtained the manuscript from Menchaca over a quarter century earlier; it would have had to be a few years before that, since Menchaca was dictating the last portion of his recollections around 1876. Newcomb never mentions who took down Menchaca’s recollections or why he took so long to do anything with them. In his introduction, he explains:
In accordance with his [Menchaca’s] promise he handed me a plainly written history of events from the date of his birth to the battle of San Jacinto. I have never used the story and have had little opportunity to examine it critically. It is evident the amanuensis who took down the old Captain’s story put it down without coloring, and one regrets that he did not enlarge more fully upon details that are so full of historic and romantic interest.
For some reason, Menchaca apparently never attempted to recover the first part of the manuscript from Newcomb, who likewise apparently never attempted to follow up with Menchaca regarding any additional material. James Newcomb’s son Pearson said in 1951 that either he or his father had passed their manuscript, that is, what was published in the Passing Show, to the San Antonio Public Library, which has no record of the accession.
Mention of Barnes as Menchaca’s collaborator first appears in Chabot’s foreword to what he styled Menchaca’s Memoirs, following James Newcomb, who had titled what he published in the Passing Show “The Memoirs of Captain Menchaca: Being an Unpublished Manuscript Detailing Events in San Antonio from 1807 to the Battle of San Jacinto.” Chabot avers that “Antonio Menchaca dictated his narrative to Barnes, in whose handwriting they are preserved.” This assertion by Chabot is problematic in that Barnes, who became a reporter for the San Antonio Express and an increasingly prominent journalist in San Antonio, would certainly have known Newcomb, who at one time had owned the Express. Yet Newcomb’s failure to name the “amanuensis” in 1907, while Barnes was still alive, argues against his being Menchaca’s scribe, although it is possible that the aging Newcomb simply failed to mention this detail. Unfortunately no extant document containing Barnes’s handwriting is available for comparison to determine whether it matches that of the second half of Menchaca’s reminiscences, which is in handwritten draft form. However, there is evidence of some connection between Barnes and Menchaca. In his own published work on San Antonio, Barnes claims that “it was old Don Antonio Menchaca, the venerable seer of San Antonio, who in 1875, told me the legend depicting the origin of the San Antonio river,” a legend recounted in the second part of Menchaca’s reminiscences. Barnes does not, however, credit Menchaca with any of the other numerous stories that appear in his book.
Chabot further asserts that he is publishing the document that appeared in the Passing Show thirty years earlier: “The Yanaguana society is grateful to Mr. Newcomb for his kindness in permitting the publication of these memoirs, with the Introduction by James P. Newcomb (his father) published in the Passing Show, San Antonio, Texas, in weekly installments, from June 22 to July 27, 1907.” A comparison of the text as it appears in the Passing Show and in the 1937 Yanaguana Society edition indicates that Chabot made relatively significant changes to Newcomb’s version but also that Newcomb and/or the Passing Show staff did a very poor job of proofreading the typesetting. The inclusion of two full paragraphs in the Yanaguana Society version that would have come at the point where the Passing Show version moves from 6 July to 12 July 1907 (as well as numerous other insertions) suggests that Chabot had access to the original manuscript and compared it to the printed version. Whether the differences represent Chabot’s correction of what appeared in the Passing Show or his taking liberties with the text, we cannot know in the absence of the manuscript. Without the original manuscript we have decided to follow Newcomb’s version as the one closer in date to the original and the one that is not otherwise readily available. It is the one presented here as “The Memoirs of Captain Menchaca” with some of Chabot’s insertions incorporated where appropriate and clearly identified as such with brackets and underlining.
If Barnes was responsible for taking down all of Menchaca’s recollections, then he did it over the course of some period of time, thus allowing the first and second parts to become disconnected. However they became separated, it is clear from internal evidence that the published and unpublished portions are part of a whole, since in various passages from the unpublished second half of the recollections Menchaca makes reference to material already mentioned in the published first half. What is here styled as “The Unpublished Second Part of the Menchaca Manuscript” remained in family hands until the middle of the twentieth century. In 1950 Elizabeth Coogan, Menchaca’s great-granddaughter, not realizing that the manuscript in her possession was not complete, explained to University of Texas archivist Winnie Allen, “My father [Lucien LaCoste] kept these handwritten papers for many years, believing that this original account would be valuable for me to have, and hoping I would have an occasion to sell them to the right party. While my family and I have kept them safely these many years, I do believe that a library is the best place for these, and I should be glad to sell them to you.” When Allen asked her about the published part, Coogan was unable to explain to Allen how the two parts had become separated and recommended that Allen contact Amelie LaCoste, her aunt, who still lived in San Antonio. There is no record of Allen’s having made contact with LaCoste and uncovering any other information on the provenance of Menchaca’s reminiscences. We are left, then, knowing that Chabot asserted that Barnes was the amanuensis of whom James Newcomb spoke and that after its transfer to the San Antonio Public Library, sometime in the first half of the twentieth century, the manuscript of the first, published, part of Menchaca’s reminiscences became lost, while the second part remained in the hands of the LaCoste branch of the family.
Although considered a memoir by Newcomb and Chabot, the recollections as recorded might properly be deemed a testimonio in the way Rosaura Sánchez uses that term to connote a genre entailing a “mediated text” shaped by “uneven power relations between the oral producer of the testimonial and the transcribing interviewer.” On the other hand, as Sánchez notes in her study of the sixty-two Californio testimonios produced under the directorship of book dealer and publisher Hubert Howe Bancroft during the 1870s, “The autobiographical element [of the testimonios] is evident in the narrators’ interest in representing their own participation as public figures within the larger historical scheme.” Sánchez also observes that the marked tendency of the Californio testimonios to focus on the public domain is correlative with a relatively scant treatment of their private lives. The texts produced thus reflect a strategic retelling of historical events, but this does not necessarily mean their rendering of the past is without veracity. Rather, they are an attempt of residents from the former territories of northern Mexico to create historical narratives in which they and other Mexican-descent residents play a prominent and meritorious role. All these insights are consistent with nineteenth-century Tejano narratives of the past, including that of Menchaca. We have found it helpful to bear in mind the similarities of Menchaca’s recollections in genre and intent to other nineteenth-century Tejano and Californio self-narratives.
Whoever Menchaca’s scribe was, his influence in his role as transcriber is a primary issue for a critical study of the narrative. The manuscript is in English, but Menchaca’s native language was Spanish. At one point in the reminiscences Menchaca states that he gave a public speech through an interpreter because “I did not like to Speak English for fear of making them laugh at my pronunciation” . The text of the manuscript is not polished and contains an occasional Spanish loan word. Does the mode of expression reflect the scribe’s attempt to literally transcribe Menchaca’s statements as he made them, his own shorthand rendering of them, or, most probably, some combination of the two? Moreover, did the scribe record Menchaca’s words with little or no prompting, or are some of the major topics treated in the recollections a response to the scribe’s queries and interests? There is no evidence that leads to indisputable answers to these questions. Suffice it to say the critical reader must bear in mind that not only is the manuscript the recollections of a septuagenarian Tejano looking back over a life in times of rapid political and social change, but it is also a record made through the pen of a scribe, possibly a young Anglo-American collaborator, Barnes, who in his subsequent journalism career displayed a marked interest in colorful stories about local events and characters. With this in mind, in what follows we will focus primarily on the broad themes of the reminiscences, especially two major concerns most likely to reflect Menchaca’s own perspectives: his portrayals of the Tejano legacy and the Tejano character.
“A History of the Settlement and Inhabitants of San Antonio”
While the bulk of the reminiscences consist of personal recollections from the first half century of Menchaca’s life, the final section implicitly reveals a prideful conviction that Menchaca’s ancestors and other Spanish-speaking residents founded and developed San Antonio. Entitled “A History of the Settlement and Inhabitants of San Antonio,” this section begins with the observation that “Mexican & Canary [Islander] Settlers” carried out the original development around San Antonio’s Military and Main Plazas and, despite the obstacle of American Indians who “were very troublesome and continually harassed them” , built homes and established what came to be the city of San Antonio. Menchaca then presents a somewhat lengthy description of the various homes and buildings constructed on the town’s central plazas and adjoining streets during the Spanish colonial era. In this narration, the aging Menchaca sets forth a mental map of how he remembers the city in his early days and how he perceives it in his memory, relating the names of Hispanic inhabitants of various properties that by the 1870s were owned by Anglo-Americans. For example, he recalls, “On Main Street where the Banking house of John Twohig Esq Stands—was the residence of Old Antonio Baccha [Baca] who died of a sunstroke while on the rode [sic] to Labahia [La Bahía] during the time of the difficulties & hostilities which were going on” during the struggle for Mexican independence .
As in other sections of the reminiscences, Menchaca here incorrectly presents some dates and details, such as his false claim that “my Great Grand Father Don Pedro Acon y Frillo and Old Captain Manchaca and his wife” were among the original Canary Islander settlers. In light of the attempts to “Americanize” Tejano patriots like Menchaca in print and in public speech, his self-identification with the Canary Islander elite is no mere passing reference. Three other passages in the manuscript mention the Canary Islanders, all in a positive light. Other Tejanos, such as José María Rodríguez, went so far as to make the exaggerated claim that into the nineteenth century there were Canary Islanders, “people of pure Spanish descent,” living in segregated isolation on the west side of the San Antonio River and that they “took great pride in preventing any inter-marriage with mixed races and when one did mix he lost his caste with the rest.”48 In a racially conscious and stratified society like nineteenth-century Texas, Menchaca’s claim of a European bloodline must be seen in part as a claim for legitimacy. At the same time, in connecting his family and community to the founders of San Antonio—note that Menchaca asserts that “Mexican & Canary [Islander] Settlers” (000, emphasis added) established the city around its two main plazas—Menchaca is showing his pride that San Antonio’s origins are rooted not in Anglo-American or U.S. initiatives, but in the eighteenth-century efforts of Spanish-speaking pioneers.
Evidence of San Antonio’s Mexican and Spanish origins was noteworthy in the “prominen [sic] historical land marks” that Menchaca’s reminiscences then proceed to highlight: the parish church of San Fernando; the Spanish missions, including the Alamo in its initial foundation as Mission San Antonio de Valero; and Alameda Street, which Spanish subjects had cleared through cottonwood trees as a promenade leading to a park area used for dances and other festivities. Expanding his treatment of the accomplishments in San Antonio during the Spanish colonial era enshrined in these historical sites, Menchaca adds a claim that a Canary Islander there sent as a gift to the king of Spain the first buffaloes ever transported to Europe. Though the name of the giver is not mentioned, Menchaca’s recollection reveals his esteem for the exploits and the formative role of Hispanics in San Antonio.
Menchaca’s commentaries on early Hispanic settlers reveal his racial bias against their frequent adversaries, the American Indians who lived in the region before these newcomers arrived. Regarding the work of the Franciscan friars in the local missions, he states that “like in almost all other instances the Efforts to Christanize [sic] and civilize `Lo the poor Indian’ was a complete failure” . Yet he does admit that the missions were “all made in a mavelously [sic] solid and substantial manner when you consider the qualifications of the builders who were Indians” . His explanation for the noteworthy building campaign is that the Franciscans initially attracted some natives to the missions when they “succeeded in convert[ing] a very powerful chief,” who “made them [the natives] very useful” to the friars .
Menchaca’s reminiscences end rather abruptly with two legends that further accentuate the legacy of the early Spanish Franciscans in Texas. In the first a band of Franciscans is beset by a large and hostile group of American Indians, until the renowned missionary Antonio Margil de Jesús lifts up his eyes and “in the twinkling of a bed post the savages were transmogrified into deer” . The second recounts a traveling group of friars who, thirsty after passing several days without water, come upon a grapevine, pray over it, pull it out, and to their delight see water come bursting forth. According to Menchaca’s recounting of the legend, this incident marks the origins of the San Marcos River, though other versions claim it was the San Antonio River. These legends of miraculous assistance for Spanish friars, which Menchaca suggests were established tales among his Tejano contemporaries, further enhance his laudatory account of Spanish-speaking residents’ efforts in San Antonio’s early history with the implication that divine Providence accompanied them in their endeavors.
Consciously or not, Menchaca’s eclectic rendering of San Antonio’s early history contests Anglo-Americans’ tendency to perceive their presence in Texas as initiating an era of progress for benighted Mexican-descent residents. Even Anglo-American defenders of Tejanos ascribed to a view of Tejanos as inferior. One San Antonio editorialist who objected to a fellow journalist’s attack on the Tejano character in 1852 noted:
It is lamentably true that our Mexican population, generally, do not occupy as high a position in the scale of morality and intelligence as is desirable; yet every one who knows their former condition, and will take into consideration their former mode of life, as well as the demoralizing effect of the Government under which they lived previous to the establishment of the Texas Republic, must admit that they are reforming as rapidly as could have been expected.
Seen in this light, Menchaca’s emphasis on the Tejano contribution to San Antonio and Texas history before Anglo-Americans ever arrived serves as a corrective to demeaning views of the Tejano past and integrity.
In this regard Menchaca’s recollections parallel the extant memoirs of other nineteenth-century San Antonio Tejanos. José María Rodríguez dedicates nearly half of his recollections to reminiscences about his and other leading Spanish-surnamed families in San Antonio, and he points out, “I intend this [memoir] mostly for my children and their descendants as the recollections of one of their ancestors at the time when the government of this country was in a period of formation.” Juan Seguín, who claimed that persecution by violent, anti-Mexican “adventurers” compelled him to leave Texas in 1842, returned to his hometown and published his memoirs in 1858 to vindicate his name. Seguín outlines Tejano contributions to the Republic of Texas and, in an often-quoted passage, opines that the growing Anglo-American population after Texas independence was not a pure boon of progress for Tejanos, but in fact made him (and others) “a foreigner in my native land.” José Antonio Navarro explains in his historical writings that his first intention in writing them was “to correct some substantial errors” in an 1853 article on San Antonio history published in the San Antonio Ledger. His account goes on to describe Mexico’s struggle for independence from Spain, particularly the valor of local Tejanos during battles between insurgent and royalist forces; his contention is that San Antonio had an honorable citizenry with aspirations for a free system of government long before Anglo-Americans arrived and that these “noble citizens of [San Antonio de] Béxar sacrificed their lives and property, performing heroic deeds of valor” in the cause of Mexican independence.
Friendships, Struggle, and Survival
Menchaca’s rendering of early San Antonio history—which in terms of its location in his reminiscences functions as an appendix to his own life recollections—is consistent with his accentuation of Tejano struggle and heroism beginning with Tejanos’ initiatives to win Mexican independence from Spain when he was a young boy. Like the writings of his contemporary José Antonio Navarro, just mentioned, here Menchaca recounts the events of the insurgency and counterinsurgency in San Antonio from 1811 to 1813, the most turbulent years of the Mexican struggle for independence from Spain. In the latter year, Mexican insurgents wrested control of San Antonio, brutally killing Governor Manuel Salcedo and other crown officials, only to lose the town again and endure similarly harsh reprisals from the Spanish royalist forces under the command of General Joaquín de Arredondo. Menchaca’s version of these events reflects the native San Antonian perspective of being caught in the violence and bloodshed, as he chronicles the names and the fates of various local families and individuals. Arredondo ordered that a number of women accused of insurgent loyalties be crowded into cramped quarters and coerced to prepare food for his troops. Many of their male counterparts suffocated to death in a crowded house used as a prison, were led before firing squads, or were forced into hard labor.
Menchaca suggests that his sympathies and those of his fellow San Antonio residents were with the cause of independence, even making the exaggerated claim that local officials appointed to run the town after insurgents under José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara took it were “all gentlemen of the city of San Antonio, and descendants of the first families who migrated from the Canary Islands” . He describes the period between the Spanish commander Arredondo’s reconquest of the city and the winning of Mexican independence eight years later as a time of economic distress, weak leadership, and frequent American Indian depredations. Conversely, he maintains that San Antonio “underwent a great change for the better” in the years immediately following Mexican independence .
One of the most striking features of Menchaca’s personal anecdotes is his narration of his honorable and charitable interactions with friend and foe alike, people of varied backgrounds and political persuasions. For example, he relates that, during the Arredondo occupation of San Antonio, a fellow San Antonian accused Menchaca’s father of a minor infraction. When the Spanish authorities arrested Menchaca’s parents and ordered that his father be publicly flogged and that his mother be placed in confinement and servitude of the royalist army, the thirteen-year-old Antonio reportedly rushed to plead their case with a Spanish officer he had befriended. He persisted until his parents were released.
Whether true in every detail or not, this self-narration as a person who could overcome difficulties with others, even befriend leaders of occupying armies, illumines Menchaca’s self-perception of Tejanos like himself as people of honor, ingenuity, dedication to their families and communities, and resourceful ability to survive through a lifetime of turmoil and social change. These qualities are further evidenced in Menchaca’s exposition of his relations during the struggle for Texas independence with key leaders such as James Bowie, Sam Houston, Antonio López de Santa Anna, and a Comanche chief whom Menchaca identifies as Casimiro.
It must be recalled that Menchaca dictated his recollections in the 1870s, by which time Bowie’s fame was legendary and still growing. Menchaca relates Bowie’s arrival in San Antonio, marriage to Ursula María de Veramendi, and heartfelt loss at her death in a cholera epidemic. The first contact mentioned between Bowie and Menchaca is a confidential and urgent letter Bowie wrote him just before the December 1835 Texan siege and takeover of San Antonio from Mexican forces. After the Texan victory, Bowie and Menchaca reportedly were reunited for the first time since the death of Bowie’s wife. Menchaca describes their encounter as a touching reunion:
When Bowie saw me he threw his arms around my neck and wept to think that he had not seen his wife die. He said, “My father, my brother, my companion, and all my protection has gone! Are you still my companion-in-arms?”
And I answered him:
“I shall be your companion, Jim Bowie, until I die.”
“Then come this evening,” Bowie said, “and I’ll take you to meet Travis at the Alamo.”
Menchaca goes on to narrate his leading role in organizing a ball in honor of Davy Crockett, at which Menchaca states he was present when Bowie, Crockett, and William B. Travis first received the news that Mexican forces under General Santa Anna were marching toward San Antonio.
After he fled San Antonio with his family and was conscripted into the Texas army, Menchaca was among the forces under General Sam Houston that retreated eastward. He asserts that he personally confronted Houston when he learned that the Tejano troops under Juan Seguín’s command had been ordered to guard horses rather than engage the Mexican army in the battle of San Jacinto. According to the reminiscences, Houston said that Menchaca impressed him because the Tejano “spoke like a man” . Consequently Houston allowed the Tejano soldiers to join in the fighting.
Once the battle of San Jacinto was won and General Santa Anna was taken prisoner in the Texas camp, Menchaca reportedly served as interpreter between him and General Houston. In contrast to his depiction of Santa Anna as an unsavory character when he provided some recollections for the historical research of former Texas president Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar in 1857, in his own reminiscences Menchaca recounts no derogatory anecdotes about or descriptions of Santa Anna. Rather, Menchaca tells about how he secured a hot meal for the ravenously hungry Santa Anna, protested a Texan guard’s refusal to let him see the Mexican general with this meal until Houston interceded, conversed with Santa Anna about the general’s previous military service in San Antonio during the Mexican War of Independence, and even offered him financial support to assist with his needs while he was in captivity. Unlike the many Texas soldiers who wanted to execute Santa Anna in retribution for the killing of their comrades at the Alamo and Goliad, Menchaca states that he treated Santa Anna with the respect of a prisoner of war, a depiction of his actions that is consistent with the account in José María Rodríguez’s memoirs. Menchaca notes that Santa Anna was so moved by this kindness that “tears [came] to his eyes and he cried like a child” .
Menchaca further attests that he turned down a military promotion in order to be part of the lead forces that took the risk of closely monitoring the Mexican army’s departure from Texas, which Santa Anna had ordered. Upon his return to San Antonio after completing this task, Menchaca found a nearly deserted city and a small band of Comanches under the leadership of one Chief Casimiro. According to the reminiscences, Menchaca and Casimiro were already acquainted, and the Tejano fed and supplied the natives at Casimiro’s request. Apparently out of gratitude for this and similar kindnesses in the past, Casimiro reportedly forewarned Menchaca “that the Indians intended to come into San Antonio burn the town and kill all of the people” . He even offered to take Menchaca away and share with him all he had, shocking Menchaca when he stated that his offer included his four wives. Menchaca declined the offer, explaining that he preferred to remain in his own hometown and that in any event he had to go get his family members, who had been at Nacogdoches during the course of the war. He also requested that Casimiro not attack the inhabitants of San Antonio, telling him to “think of my kindness to you and do not harm them” .
Menchaca goes on to state that Comanches did descend on the town during his absence, but at Casimiro’s order they desisted from their violence after killing a few residents. Though no other sources mention this specific episode, conflicts with the Comanches were frequent in and around San Antonio in the wake of the Texas Revolution. Menchaca’s portrayal of tenuous but mutual respect between himself and this Comanche leader contrasts sharply with the conditions in other incidents, such as the Council House Fight, to which he subsequently alludes. In that conflict at San Antonio on 19 March 1840, representatives of the Comanches and Anglo-American leaders of the Texas government disagreed on an exchange of prisoners, and a violent confrontation erupted, leaving thirty-five Comanches, six Anglo-Americans, and one Tejano dead.
Menchaca’s diverse friendships and alliances reveal the Tejanos’ dilemma of choosing sides as they were caught between opposing forces in the crucible of violence that was San Antonio. As he notes with regard to San Antonio during the Texas Revolution, “A great many families who sympathized with the Texas cause moved East and a great many Mexican families who either from choice or compulsion aspoused [sic] the Mexican cause went to Mexico” . His brief commentaries on Mexican and Texan expeditions into the other’s territory, such as the March 1842 raid on San Antonio by Mexican forces under General Rafael Vásquez, as well as the eventual full-scale war between the United States and Mexico (1846–1848), reflect the ongoing tensions in which Tejanos at San Antonio and elsewhere lived after the political separation of Texas from Mexico.
Nowhere is the dilemma Tejanos faced more clearly expressed in the reminiscences than in Menchaca’s narration of the September 1842 Mexican occupation of San Antonio under the forces of General Adrián Woll. Menchaca relates that Woll had him arrested along with a number of Anglo-Americans who had pledged to defend the city and then accused the Tejano of being “the greatest traitor to your flag unhung and you deserve to be shot 25 times through the head but General Santa Anna who thanks you for the kindness you did him asked me if I captured you to spare your life” . General Woll reportedly did so with the condition that Menchaca promise never to take up arms against Mexico again. Menchaca agreed, but then immediately began to advocate for his Anglo-American friends, asking Woll that those to be taken away as prisoners to Mexico be allowed to travel via wagon or horseback rather than on foot. He also describes himself as a mediating force between Woll and Texas Ranger Jack Hays, the commander of the Texas troops that were amassing to retake San Antonio. Menchaca reportedly warned Woll that he had better leave town peaceably as Hays was about to attack, but to no avail. After the two forces fought, Woll prepared to withdraw. Menchaca reiterated his plea that the Mexican general show respect for his Anglo-American prisoners and not force them to walk all the way to Mexico, a request that went unheeded. Then he purportedly delivered a letter from those prisoners to Hays stating that Woll had treated them well and that no undue harshness should be shown Woll and his men if they were taken captive, though an account written at the time of this incident states instead that the prisoners’ communiqué requested that Hays treat San Antonio Tejanos respectfully, not Woll, out of gratitude for their kindness to the prisoners in doing all that they could to alleviate their suffering. As he does with other noteworthy leaders, Menchaca implies that he had a close relationship with Hays, describing how Hays “was much rejoiced to see me alive and well” .
Next, Menchaca maintains that after Woll’s retreat he and some Anglo-American allies successfully subverted a proposal to burn San Antonio. Though Menchaca’s recollection of this proposal is not corroborated in any other primary source, similar propositions had been proffered as early as 1836. After the battle of San Jacinto, General Felix Huston had commanded Juan Seguín to destroy the city, an order that Seguín convinced President Sam Houston to rescind. Anglo-Americans who advocated the town’s destruction after Woll retreated in 1842 argued that San Antonio’s isolation had enabled the Mexican army to plant spies there and easily capture it. Through an interpreter, Menchaca reportedly responded to such arguments with a speech “bitterly opposing the sacrifice of San Antonio to the flames” . He reminded his hearers that his aging mother and other residents “would be left destitute by the burning of the town” . Menchaca’s recollection of defending his hometown against both Mexican attack and Anglo-American destruction, all within the space of a few short weeks, reflects Tejanos’ commitment to their homeland. It also epitomizes Menchaca’s self-narration of his Tejano capacity to survive by cultivating relations of respect, even friendship, among the leaders of the various groups that came into the nexus of San Antonio life.
Narrating a Tejano Life
What emerges from the pages of Menchaca’s reminiscences is the story of a man who prided himself on his heritage, his personal and family honor, and his capacity as a survivor. Like other Tejanos, Menchaca had many opportunities to succumb to bitterness and despair. His friends and neighbors lost their lives in the insurgencies of the Mexican War of Independence and the Texas Revolution, regardless of which side they chose in the conflicts, or even if they attempted to remain neutral. Living in the city with more battles fought in or around it than any other in what is now the United States, he witnessed many atrocities. In his early years, perennial tensions with American Indians also led to attacks and counterattacks. As successive national governments claimed sovereignty over San Antonio, he was among the population caught in between, on one occasion having to defend his hometown from both the Mexican and the Texan armies. Like his Tejano contemporaries, his political career and activism had relatively limited influence on the new Anglo-American regime that gained ascendancy in his hometown.
Menchaca’s life narration, however embellished or erroneous in detail, reveals a vision of the Tejano character and legacy that he undoubtedly held in common with many other nineteenth-century Tejanos who endured the tumult of that century in his homeland. Proudly accentuating his encounters with such diverse figures as James Bowie and Spanish military commanders, Comanche chiefs and Antonio López de Santa Anna, Sam Houston and Davy Crockett, General Adrián Woll and Texas Ranger Jack Hays, his fellow Tejanos and San Antonio’s growing Anglo-American population, Menchaca displays a remarkable capacity to remember both friends and supposed enemies with similar respect. His narrative adds to historical studies of nineteenth-century Tejanos an insightful portfolio of the characteristics Tejanos valued and sought to deem their own: an unwillingness to forget that their ancestors were the original founders of places like San Antonio, an ability to maintain internal equilibrium amidst the many changes they faced throughout their lives, and the aguante (unyielding endurance) without which they would not have lived to tell their tale.