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  • "A Glimpse of Texas Past"

    Trouble along the Rio Grande:
    The First Cortina War

    by Jeffery Robenalt
    Jeffery Robenalt

    Juan 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.

    With 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.

    Representing 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.

    Juan Cortina
    A young Juan Cortina wearing the uniform of the Mexican Army
    Wikimedia Commons

    Tensions 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.

    The situation 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.

    Shortly 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.

    Hardin Runnels
    Hardin Runnels
    Wikimedia Commons
    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.

    The 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.

    Ford 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.

    Although 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.

    John Salmon Ford

    Texas Ranger John Salmon Ford
    "Photographed 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."
    - Wikimedia Commons

    A 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 the town.

    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.


    © Jeffery Robenalt
    "A Glimpse of Texas Past"
    January 5, 2013 Column
    jeffrobenalt@yahoo.com
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    References for "Trouble along the Rio Grande"

  • Acuna, Rodolfo. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos (2 ed., New York: Harper and Row, 1981).
  • Cox, 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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