As my readers may have already discerned, I enjoy recounting stories about the American west. Some would say, the Old American West. It may not have been so long ago, but make no mistake, it was a much different time. In the telling of these stories, I will not apologize for the way people were back in the day; they were who they were. We may not agree with all of their attitudes today, but that has nothing whatever to do with the trials of living in a hostile land and what they endured transforming the west into civilized communities. Beyond this, we should recognize that comparing who we are today with who they were back then does provide a measure of accomplishments in our ever-complex society.
Many of the people living in Texas (and beyond) scraped out a living in a hard and mostly unforgiving environment. South Texas, in particular, has always been a challenge. There were, or so it seemed, hardships at every turn: hot weather, limited rainfall, depredations levied upon hard-working pioneers by homegrown outlaws, Mexican bandits, and Indians. Life-expectancy was short: fewer than 22% of male pioneers lived to age 50; women lived a bit longer, but not by much.
I’ve previously written about Leander H. McNelly; you can review his story here. Now I want to take you back to when McNelly was sent to South Texas to interdict the horrific crimes perpetrated against white settlers by Mexican criminals. One thing that seems to stand out in these accounts is the fact that a majority of Mexican-Americans living on the US side of the Rio Grande sided with and gave succor to Mexican bandits. By 1875, a serious cultural rift was already apparent between white and Hispanic communities. Cultural divide continues to exist today and in many cases throughout South Texas, it has grown worse over the years. Few “Hispanic” citizens living in South Texas regard themselves as Americans; in their minds, they are Mexicans.
In the spring of 1875, Captain Leander H. McNelly was tasked to recruit and field a company of Texas Rangers. They were to perform “special duty” in the southwest where cattle rustling was massive in its scale and effects. South Texas crime was out of control and there was not much that local authorities could do about it. Sheriff John McClure of Nueces County sent a telegram to the Adjutant General of Texas, William H. Steele, demanding:
“Is Captain McNelly coming? We are in serious trouble. Five ranches burned by disguised men near La Parralast week. Answer.”
McNelly was indeed coming.
As McNelly approached the border area, he found that the country was over-run by bands of armed men. They claimed that they were armed for their own protection, but McNelly found it impossible to differentiate between groups of men who were seeking self-defense, and those who were perpetrating heinous crimes upon their neighbors. McNelly ordered all “militia” type organizations disbanded immediately, whether composed of Mexicans or Americans. He reported back to Austin:
“The acts committed by Americans are horrible to relate; many ranches have been plundered and burned, and the people murdered or driven away. One of these parties confessed to me in Corpus Christi as having killed eleven men on their last raid. I immediately issued an order disbanding these minute companies and all armed bands acting without the authority of the state. Had I not disbanded these companies, it is possible—and very probable—that civil war would have ensued, as the Mexicans are very much exasperated.”
At Edinburg, Texas, McNelly met with Captain Neal Coldwell of the Texas Ranger Frontier Battalion. For his part, Coldwell was disinclined to participate in forays across the Rio Grande into Mexico. Apparently, the Mexican Bandit Juan Cortinahad made a brief appearance before McNelly’s arrival and toward intimidating locals further, hanged an alcaldeand a citizen of Mexico for having killed one of his cow thieves.
According to Walter Prescott Webb, Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense, Captain McNelly then rode to Brownsville, where he found local citizens quite alarmed about their safety. Even the US Army officer commanding Fort Brown was concerned. General Potter admitted to McNelly that Mexican bandits had been crossing the river above and below Brownsville with some regularity. Potter, having only one-hundred fifty men at his disposal, and those being negroes, was inadequately prepared to defend Fort Brown. Cattle rustling increased substantially, carried on by well-mounted and well-armed men.
The increase in the theft of cattle was due to the fact that Juan Cortina had received large contracts to deliver beef to the island of Cuba. Juan Cortina was nothing if he was not bold in his plan to transfer wealth in cattle from Texas to Mexico. When McNelly arrived at Port Isabel, he learned that there was a steamer standing three miles offshore to receive up to 400 head of cattle; animals being held in Bagdad, Mexico. Two-thirds of these animals bore American brands, but how McNelly learned this, I don’t know.
Captain McNelly’s official report on the Palo Alto Prairie Warfollows:
General William Steele:
I have the honor to report that on Saturday the fifth, I received information of a party of Mexicans, fifteen in number, who had crossed the river eight miles below Brownsville for the purpose of stealing cattle. I immediately ordered Lieutenant Robinson with eighteen men to proceed to the crossing of the Arroyo Colorado and send out scouts to learn their whereabouts and report to me.
On the morning of the eighth, the lieutenant reported that he had captured one of the raiders. I at once went to the company and learned from the prisoner, Rafael Salinas, that he party consisted of sixteen men under command of Camillo Lerma and Jose Maria Olguin, alias the Aboja, and that they had been sent by General Cortina to La Parra to get a drove of cattle for the Cuban market. He further stated that he had been left behind to remount and act as rear guard. I then sent a spy on their trail with instructions to follow them until they returned, at the same time keeping my men concealed and secretly guarding all the passes of Arroyo Colorado for twenty miles on my front.
On Friday evening the eleventh, we caught a Mexican called Encarnacion Garcia who was identified as one of the parties. He told the same story as Rafael Salinas, as far as number, name, and intention of the raiders, and said he was advance guard and that they had about 300 head of cattle and would cross the Arroyo that night and drive to the river the next day.
I stationed my men in a motte and remained there until two o’clock, when one of my scouts came in and reported that the thieves had passed four miles east of our post earlier in the night. I at once started to strike their trail or get in their front by taking a near cut to Laguna Madre. At seven o’clock the next morning, I came in sight of them about eight miles distant. They discovered my command about the same time and commenced running the cattle. They drove about three miles and finding that we were gaining on them, drove the herd onto a little island in a salt marsh and took their stand on the opposite side and they waited for our approach for a half hour before we reached the marsh.
On arriving, I found them drawn up in a line on the South side of a marsh about six hundred yards wide, filled with mud and water, eighteen or twenty-inches deep, and behind a bank four or five feet high. I formed my men as skirmishers and rode into the marsh, not allowing my men to unsling their carbines or draw their pistols. As soon as we struck the water, the raiders commenced firing on us with Spencer’s and Winchester carbines. We advanced at a walk (a more rapid gait being impossible) and not firing a shot or speaking a word and keeping our line well dressed.
On nearing the position they held, perhaps within seventy-five or one-hundred yards, they wheeled their horses round and galloped off at a slow gait. When we got out on hard ground we pressed forward and soon brought ourselves within shooting distance, fifty or sixty yards. The Mexicans then started at a full run, and I found that our horses could not overtake them. I ordered three of my best mounted men to pass to their right flank and press them so as to force a stand.
As I had anticipated, the Mexicans turned to drive my men off, but they held their ground and I got up with four or five men, when the riders broke. After that it was a succession of single hand fights for six miles before the got the last one. Not one escaped out of the twelve that were driving the cattle. They were all killed. (Note: Artwork by Joe Grandee titled Leander H. McNelly, Texas Ranger)
I have never seen men fight with such desperation. Many of them, after being shot from their horses and severely wounded three or four times, would rise on their elbows and fire at my men as they passed. I lost one man … L. B. Smith of Lee County. We captured twelve horses, guns, pistols, saddles, and two hundred and sixty-five head of cattle belonging in the neighborhood of King’s Ranch, Santa Gertrudis.
James J. Brown, Sheriff of Cameron County with a posse of Mexicans were with us, in sight of the whole affair. But their horses were too much jaded for them to get into the fight. When it was over, I reported to the sheriff that the enemy had cross the river on the night of the fourth and that they had gone to the La Parra and gathered these beeves, that I had found them in the marsh, they had fought, and I would now place him in charge of their bodies. He knew most of them, his posse identified all of them as Cortina’s men: Camillo Lerma, Jorge Jimenez alias the Cayote, Telesforo Dias, and Guadeloupe Espinosa are said to be Cortina’s favorite bravos and it is also said that he will be very indignant.
I find that the killing of those parties has developed a most alarming state of things on this frontier. The Mexicans on the other side of the river are very much infuriated and threaten to kill ten Americans for each of their Bravos. And then on this side the Mexican residents of Brownsville (that is the majority and lower class) are public in their denunciation of the killing and the attention given to my dead soldier seems to have exasperated them beyond measure. I really consider the place in danger as Cortina is known to have twelve or fifteen hundred men that he can muster in three or four days. The US forces here only amount to about two-hundred and fifty all told … officers, soldiers, and servants, and they are negroes at that.
Captain, Company A
Of course, this was Captain McNelly’s official report. It provides an interesting look at life in South Texas in 1875, but McNelly’s wasn’t the only version of these events. I will include the “second” version next week.
Given the shoddy treatment heaped upon Mexicans by their government since 1821, this fact confounds me.
Once a vaquero settlement and headquarters of the Kenedy Ranch, the La Parra property consisted of well over 23,000 acres.
Juan Cortina was a Mexican rancher, politician, military leader, outlaw, and folk hero in Mexico. He was an important caudillo, who effectively controlled the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. In borderland history he is known for leading a paramilitary mounted Mexican militia during the so-called Cortina Wars, able to field upward of 2,000 armed bandits. These wars were raids targeting Anglo-American civilians whose settlement Cortina opposed near the several leagues of land granted to his wealthy family on both sides of the Rio Grande.
Congress created six regiments of black soldiers on 28 July 1866: The Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Regiments, and four regiments of infantry (later combined into two regiments) and assigned white officers as their leaders. Many of these black troops, known as Buffalo Soldiers, were sent to the Texas frontier between 1867 and 1900. While historians have explored the contributions of these men, myths and misconceptions about their service in the Old West continue. Their combat record did not surpass that of white soldiers/units; their uniforms and equipage were no worse than those of white soldiers, and nothing about these men has been hidden or sequestered from public knowledge. Whether McNelly held the performance of negro soldiers in low regard is quite beside the point. The US Army, in its infinite wisdom, sent infantry units to safeguard the frontier against the depredations of the world’s most efficient and lethal mounted warrior: Comanche. US infantry stood no chance at all against these mounted warriors. Moreover, 150 men, no matter what their color, could not have long sustained an assault from Juan Cortina’s 2,000 or more mounted bandits.
Walter Prescott Webb, Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense…