Nepomuceno (Cheno) Cortina was born in Camargo, Tamaulipas on May 16, 1824,
to a family of prominent cattle ranchers. His mother was also an heir to a vast
Mexican land grant in the lower Rio Grande valley, including the area surrounding
Matamoros and Brownsville,
where the family moved when Juan was still a young child. Cortina was 22 when
the Mexican-American war began in 1846, and he formed a band of local vaqueros
into an irregular cavalry regiment called the Tamaulipas. The regiment joined
the forces of General Mariano Arista at Matamoros and subsequently fought at the
battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma.
the signing of the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, and the ending
of the Mexican-American War, the official boundary between Texas and Mexico was
established at the Rio Grande, leaving a large portion of the Cortina land grant
on the United States side of the border. After the war Juan returned to the north
bank of the river to ensure that the Cortina land on the American side of the
Rio Grande remained in the hands of his family. In spite of his efforts, over
the next ten years, Texas authorities refused to validate many of the land claims
filed by citizens of Mexican descent, including several claims filed by Juan in
behalf of the Cortina family.
the poorer Mexicans in their disputes with authorities over the ownership of their
land brought Cortina into conflict with a clique of judges and Brownsville
attorneys whom he accused of using the unfamiliar American judicial system to
cheat his fellow Tejanos. “Flocks of vampires, in the guise of men,” he wrote,
stripped Tejanos “of their property, incarcerated, chased, murdered, and hunted
them like wild beasts.” Meanwhile, Cortina also had his own problems with the
law, twice being indicted on charges of cattle theft, but he had become too popular
among the poor to arrest. They perceived the indictments as nothing more than
the but harassment of a patriot by the Anglos. Eventually, Cortina assembled,
trained, and armed his own private militia to resist the evictions of his fellow
Tejanos from their land.
young Juan Cortina wearing the uniform of the Mexican Army |
with the Brownsville
authorities continued to mount until July 13, 1859, when Cortina witnessed one
of his former employees being brutalized by the Brownsville
sheriff, Robert Shears. Cortina demanded to know the reason for the beating, and
Shears is said to have yelled in reply, “What is it to you, you damned Mexican?”
Cortina drew his revolver and fired a warning shot, but when Shears refused to
stop the beating, he shot the sheriff and fled across the Rio Grande to Matamoros.
Feelings continued to intensify over the following weeks, until early on the morning
of September 28 when Cortina rode into Brownsville
at the head of several dozen men and seized control of the town. Several Texans
were killed in the shootout as Cortina and his men galloped through the streets
shouting “Death to the Americans” and “Viva Mexico.”
After most of Cortina’s
enemies fled town to escape his wrath, Juan returned to his family ranch at Santa
Rita in Cameron County, where on September 30, 1859, he issued a famous proclamation
in an attempt to justify his actions to both the Tejano and Anglo communities:
. . . There is no need of fear. Ordinary people and honest citizens are inviolable
to us in their persons and interests. Our object, as you have seen, has been to
chastise the villainy of our enemies, which heretofore has gone unpunished. These
have connived with each other, and form, so to speak, a perfidious inquisitorial
lodge to persecute and rob us, without any cause, and for no other crime on our
part than that of being of Mexican origin, considering us, doubtless, destitute
of those gifts which they themselves do not possess. . . Mexicans! Peace be with
you! Good inhabitants of the state of Texas, look on them as brothers, and keep
in mind that which the Holy Spirit saith: “Thou shalt not be the friend of the
passionate man; nor join thyself to the madman, lest thou learn his mode of work
and scandalize thy soul.
The statement may have appeared conciliatory
in nature to the Tejanos, but the majority of Anglos thought the “Red Robber of
the Rio Grande” was nothing more than a common Mexican bandit.
remained calm for the next few days until a Brownsville
posse captured Tomas Cabrera, one of Cortina’s men. Their confidence bolstered
by the posse’s actions, a group of around twenty citizens calling themselves the
Brownsville Tigers, and assisted by two cannon and a Matamoros militia company,
decided to attack the Cortina family ranch. Led by W. B. Thompson, the timid group
moved so cautiously that when they finally encountered a few of Cortina’s vaqueros
near Santa Rita, and
several shots were fired, the “Tigers” abandoned their cannons and beat a hasty
retreat back to Brownsville.
after the attack on his family’s ranch, Cortina threatened to burn Brownsville
unless the authorities released Cabrera from jail. However, Governor Hardin
Runnels had dispatched a company of Texas Rangers from San
Antonio, under the command of Captain William G. Tobin, and they arrived in
Brownsville before Cortina
had an opportunity to carry out his threat. Unfortunately, Tobin’s Rangers turned
out to be a sorry lot; the usual street sweepings that so often were the first
to join any expedition to the Rio Grande. Their first official act was to storm
the jail and lynch Cabrera. Cortina quickly retaliated by killing three of Tobin’s
Rangers in an ambush.
|Determined to seek
revenge for the murder of his men, Tobin procured another cannon, reorganized
the Tigers and led them and his Rangers against Cortina’s ranch at Santa
Rita. Once again the Brownsville
contingent was routed with little trouble, but this time they at least managed
to save their cannon. Alarmed by the continued chaos on the border, Governor Runnels
ordered John Salmon “Rip” Ford to take control of the situation. Without
waiting for the paperwork promoting him to the rank of Major and authorizing him
to raise a company of Rangers, Ford crossed the Colorado on the ferry at the foot
of Congress Avenue with only seven men and headed south.|
formal orders caught up with Ford on November 17. He was to assume overall command
of the Rangers on the border. According to Governor Runnels, “The service required
is to protect the western frontier against Cortina and his band and to arrest
them if possible.” As Ford and his small band made their way south, word of the
Rangers’ mission spread quickly, and they were soon joined by dozens of well-armed
volunteers. The generous citizens of Goliad
went one step further by raising sufficient funds to equip and provision the entire
company. While in Goliad,
Ford learned that 165 regular army troops had occupied old Fort Brown, under the
command of Major Samuel P. Heintzelman.
When Ford’s Rangers, now 53 hard men strong, reached the Valley in early December,
a combined force of army regulars and Tobin’s Rangers were already engaging Cortina’s
forces a few miles up the Rio Grande from Brownsville.
Ford heard the echo of gunfire as the company approached town and brought his
men to a gallop. A lookout perched in a church steeple spotted the Rangers and
spread the alarm when he thought at first that they were Cortina’s men launching
an attack on Brownsville.
The small force who quickly turned out to put up a defense cheered with relief
when they realized the men galloping into town were a company of Texas Rangers.
led his men toward the sound of the guns, but they arrived at the tail end of
the fighting in time to see Cortina’s mounted men escape across the river. The
bandits who were left afoot during the brief struggle remained on the Texas side
of the river, but moved further upstream. The Rangers spent the night camped with
the army near the scene of the day’s fighting, but a cold, steady rain kept them
from getting much sleep. Roused from his wet bedroll by the steely blare of Mexican
bugles, Ford was ready and willing to mount and lead his men in pursuit of the
bandits until he discovered that the rain had soaked his powder supply.
most of his Rangers were green when it came to combat, Ford had no doubt they
would hold up well when the fighting began, but they could not put up much resistance
with damp powder. With no other choice, Ford decided to abandon the idea of immediate
pursuit and led his company to Fort Brown, where they replenished their powder
while he met with Major Heintzelman and Captain Tobin. At the meeting, Heintzelman
and Ford, who took command of all the Rangers on the border, agreed to work together
with the Rangers acting as scouts to pinpoint Cortina’s location.
Cruel thorns tore at the flesh of both men and horses as the Rangers worked their
way slowly upriver through the torturous mesquite and chaparral brush that grew
thick along the Rio Grande. However, the tough going was made a little easier
when they came across a campsite that was only a day or so old. Not long after,
a string of burned out and smoldering ranches left a trail a blind man could follow;
as if Cortina was determined to destroy everything in his path. The Rangers found
the Neal ranch destroyed and the customs house and post office at Edinburg looted.
A pall of smoke hung over the lower Rio Grande valley.
Ranger John Salmon Ford
while serving as a Colonel in the Confederate 2nd Texas Cavalry during the War
Between the States. Original photograph circa 1860 to 1865; accessed 2010-07-31
at the Civil War Preservation Trust website."
cold and miserable Christmas day and the day after passed before word reached
the Rangers that Cortina and his men occupied Rio
Grande City. Most of the citizens fled and the bandits were free to plunder
the town. That night Ford met with Major Heintzelman and they decided to move
on Rio Grande City
during the early, pre-dawn hours. The army would advance straight up the road
along the river, and Ford’s Rangers would attempt to slip around the city, trapping
Cortina between the two forces. By late evening, the Rangers advanced to an area
not far from Ringgold Barracks, an old abandoned army post on the outskirts of
Rio Grande City.
Ford bedded the Rangers down for a few hours, sleeping on the ground with their
horses’ reins in their hands.
Well before sunup, Ford was awakened by the rumbling of Major Heintzelman’s artillery
caissons as they moved into position on the road to Rio
Grande City. A soupy, swirling fog had settled over the valley. Quickly mounting
his ninety Rangers, Ford moved them out toward the town at a trot. Cortina’s pickets
greeted the advance with scattered gunfire as the column reached Ringgold Barracks,
but a heavy volume of return fire from the Rangers Colt revolvers easily drove
the bandits back. Ford’s advance scouts soon reported that Cortina had pulled
his men back to a copse of ebony trees that stood on a small rise overlooking
Ford split his men into two columns, hoping to catch the bandits
in a deadly crossfire, but as the Rangers neared the rise, the Mexicans opened
fire with two cannons. Luckily, the grape shot fired from the guns sailed high
in the fog, shredding the tops of the trees above the Rangers’ heads. Ford led
a charge to within forty yards of the guns, before ordering the men to dismount
and engage the bandits on foot. The firing was hot and heavy from both sides,
but the swirling fog prevented either force from inflicting too many casualties.
Suddenly a Mexican bugle sounded the charge and a line of mounted bandits swept
out of the fog.
The Rangers broke the fury of the charge with the firepower
of their Colts and the bandits made a disorderly retreat. Seizing the moment,
Ford ordered his men to remount and the Rangers began an immediate pursuit. The
fight soon broke up into the kind of tangled, every-man-for-himself melee in which
the Rangers marksmanship with their Colts made them so deadly. By the time the
fighting ended, sixty Mexican bodies lay scattered between the rise where the
bandits had made their initial stand and the Rio Grande. The Rangers suffered
sixteen wounded. Cortina led the survivors across the river to the safety of Mexico.
Fierce skirmishing on both sides of the Rio Grande continued unabated
until early spring, with the Rangers crossing the border in pursuit of Cortina
whenever the opportunity presented itself. Both sides suffered casualties, and
property damage was extensive. However, the situation changed abruptly in April
1860. Texas elected a new governor, Sam
Houston, and with the possibility of a civil war looming on the horizon, Houston
ordered Ford to disband his Rangers and return to Austin.
The residents of the Valley looked to the border with a nervous eye, but Ford
had no choice but to comply with his orders. Reluctantly, he discharged his men,
wrapped up his paperwork and began the long ride back to Austin.
The first Cortina war had come to an end.
"A Glimpse of Texas
January 5, 2013 Column
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for "Trouble along the Rio Grande"
| Acuna, Rodolfo.
Occupied America: A History of Chicanos (2 ed., New York: Harper and
Mike. The Texas Rangers: Men of Action and Valor (Austin: Eakin Press,
1991). De Leon,
Arnoldo. They Called Them Greasers: Anglo Attitudes Toward Mexicans in Texas
1821-1900 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983).Fehrenbach,
T.R. Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans (New York: Macmillan
Publishing Company, 1968). Goldfinch,
Charles W. and Canales, Jose T. Juan N. Cortina: Two Interpretations
(New York: Arno Press, 1974) Rippy,
J. Fred. Border Troubles along the Rio Grande, 1848-1880. Southwestern
Historical Quarterly 23 (October 1919).Taylor,
Paul Schuster. An American-Mexican Frontier, Nueces County, Texas (Chapel
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1934).Thompson,
Jerry D. Juan Cortina and the Texas-Mexico Frontier 1859-1877 (Southwestern
Studies, 1994). |
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