the Mexican fugitive really innocent? by
The story of Gregorio
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,
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.
white man can arrest me." 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.
Cortez' reply may have been misunderstood
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,
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.
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.
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
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
Star Diary July 2003 column
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