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Was the Mexican fugitive really innocent?
The story of Gregorio Cortez

by Murray Montgomery
Murray Montgomery
He was considered a hero by the Mexican people; to the Anglos he was the "sheriff killer" and needed to be hung.

In the summer of 1901, Gregorio Cortez killed two sheriffs in south Texas and became one of the most hunted fugitives in the history of the Lone Star State. His hero status among the Mexican folks was mainly because of his ability to elude the formidable Texas Rangers.

According to information found in The Handbook of Texas, Gregorio Cortez was born on June 22, 1875, near Matamoros, Mexico. His family moved to Manor, Texas, in 1887 and it was there that the young man began to learn his trade as a vaquero and farmer.

Cortez worked in Gonzales, Karnes, and several other counties in this part of the state. Most people who were acquainted with him felt that he was a likable sort and many just couldn't understand how he happened to get on the bad side of the law.

It was on June 12, 1901, that Cortez's troubles began. It seems that the sheriff of Atascosa County requested help from Karnes County Sheriff, W.T. "Brack" Morris in locating a horse thief. The Handbook of Texas states that Sheriff Morris along with Deputies John Trimmell and Boone Choate started questioning residents in the Kenedy, Texas, area.

The horse thief was described as a "medium-sized Mexican." Unfortunately for Gregorio Cortez, he fit that description; but then so did many others in the area. One individual had told Sheriff Morris that he had recently traded a horse to Cortez for a mare. The officers suspected that the mare might have been stolen.

The lawmen confronted Cortez at his home on the W.A. Thulmeyer ranch about ten miles west of Kenedy. The young Cortez, along with his brother, Romaldo, rented land from Thulmeyer and raised corn. Most accounts indicate that Deputy Boone Choate was acting as interrupter and misunderstood Cortez's answers to Sheriff Morris' questions.

"No white man can arrest me."
Cortez' reply may have been misunderstood

When Cortez said they had no reason to arrest him, Choate told Morris that he (Cortez) said, "No white man can arrest me." After that response, the sheriff pulled his gun and wounded Gregorio's brother and barely missed hitting Cortez. It was then that Cortez shot and killed Morris. Cortez made his escape, but members of his family including his wife, children, and mother were taken into custody. Reports indicate that they were illegally detained.

Now on the run, Gregorio Cortez made his way into Gonzales County where he had friends near Belmont. It was at the home of Martin and Refugia Robledo that he hoped to hide out for a while. The Handbook of Texas reports that the Robledo home was located on land owned by a Mr. Schnabel.

It was at the Robledo home that a posse led by Sheriff Glover of Gonzales County found Gregorio Cortez. A gunfight ensued and as a result, Glover and Schnabel were killed. When it was all over, Cortez had escaped capture and was on the run again.

Cortez walked 100 miles to the home of another friend, Ceferino Flores. He was given a horse, saddle, and provisions. From here, the "sheriff killer" decided to head for Laredo, Texas.

By now, the young fugitive had a price on his head. The citizens of Karnes, Texas, put up a $1,000 reward for his capture. And it wasn't as easy for him to evade capture around Laredo because many of the law officers in the area were Tejanos. He was hunted by hundreds of men in posses; including Sheriff Ortiz of Webb County and assistant city marshall Gómez of Laredo.

It is interesting to note that while Cortez was on the run, many Anglo-Texans began to admire him; in fact one San Antonio newspaper was greatly impressed by his "remarkable powers of endurance and skill in eluding pursuit."

Gregorio Cortez was finally captured on June 22, 1901, after he was betrayed by one of his acquaintances. This man, Jesús González, led a posse to Cortez. According to The Handbook of Texas, Gregorio Cortez had been on the run ten days from the time he had killed Sheriff Morris. While he was in custody, Cortez faced numerous trials. A mob of 300 men threatened to lynch him before officers turned them away. Also during this time, his brother Romaldo Cortez died in the Karnes County Jail from the gunshot wound he received in the encounter with Morris.

A Gonzales County jury found Cortez guilty of killing Mr. Schnabel. He was given a fifty-year sentence. But on January 15, 1902, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the Gonzales verdict. He was then given life in prison for the murder of Sheriff Glover.

The Handbook of Texas reports that Gregorio Cortez had spent time in eleven jails in eleven counties. It also states that while he was in prison, he worked as a barber. Cortez was evidently a model prisoner. He was well liked by his jailers and he had a lot of support on the outside from both Anglo and Mexican groups.

Attempts to obtain a pardon for Cortez began soon after he went to prison. Governor Oscar B. Colquitt finally granted him a conditional pardon in 1913. After his release from prison, Cortez went to Nuevo Laredo to join up with Victoriano Huerta and fight in the Mexican Revolution.

On February 28, 1916, Gregorio Cortez died of pneumonia.

After his death, many people were interviewed about Cortez. Some said that he really was a horse thief; as were his father and brothers. Others declared that he was just the victim of racism which was so prevalent at the time.

One thing we do know, for ten days, Gregorio Cortez was a very resourceful man and until the time he was betrayed; he outwitted and eluded many a good lawman.

* * * * Note: A movie was produced about Gregorio Cortez in 1982. As I understand it, some of the scenes for that movie were shot in Gonzales at the Old Jail Museum. The movie, "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez" is on video and you can probably borrow a copy from your local library.

© Murray Montgomery

Lone Star Diary July 2003 column

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