Sedition in Texas —1915

Wells JB 001

James Babbage Wells Jr.

The boss of all white bosses in South Texas was a thoroughly corrupt Brownsville attorney by the name of James Babbage Wells, Jr.  Wells controlled South Texas from about 1880 until 1920.  Along with wealthy merchants, bankers, and large land-owners, Wells created a political machine much on the order of the Old Mexican patron: he gave jobs, protection, and support to the Tejano [1] poor —in exchange for their political support, of course.  While Wells was the boss of bosses in South Texas, the majority of the population remained Tejano —and, for the most part, Tejanos lived in harmony with the white minority because they were materially rewarded for supporting the Wells machine.

This harmonious relationship between Anglos and Tejanos changed after 1898, however, when the introduction of irrigation farming transformed the Rio Grande Valley from dry scrub desert into the epicenter of a vast agricultural network. Six years later, the railroad came to the Rio Grande Valley.  Combined, these improvements pulled in huge numbers of laborers from Mexico and farmers from the American midwest.  The Tejano labor pool was suddenly competing with Mexican migrants.  Worse, however, Anglo farmers from the Midwest brought with them their prejudices toward Mexicans and Tejanos.  Beyond this, the new immigrants caused a shift in South Texas politics —which was the beginning of the end to the Wells political machine.

Added to this paradigm, Mexico’s revolution sparked civil unrest throughout the Rio Grande Valley, which extended from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico —the most populated area in this span being the one-hundred miles inland from Brownsville, which included the counties of Starr, Cameron, Hidalgo, and Willacy.

Diaz P 001

Porfirio Diaz

Mexico’s president was the dictator Porfirio Diaz, a man who had exercised brutal power in Mexico since 1876.  His administration was rife with corruption—today, a long-standing Mexican political tradition.  Under Diaz, however, armed thugs known as Ruralesterrorized the population.  A frequent refrain in Mexico, in the aftermath of wanton murders perpetrated these rural police, was that the victims were killed while trying to escape.  The Mexican phrase for this policy was ley de fuga (law of flight).  In 1910, Diaz was challenged by an aristocratic reformer named Francisco Madero.  Fearing Madero’s appeal to the masses, Diaz had Madero arrested and then defeated him through massive voter fraud.  After Diaz’ was reelected, Madero was released from jail and (perhaps wisely) fled to Texas.  In Texas, he began to call for a popular uprising against Diaz.  In essence, then, Madero helped to ignite the Mexican Revolution. He was joined in this endeavor by the revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco.  In 1911, Diaz’s army was defeated at the Battle of Juarez, a city adjacent to El Paso.  Diaz subsequently resigned his presidency and fled to Spain.

Huerta V 001

Victoriano Huerta

Mexico had no fewer than ten presidents over the same number of years.  Diaz immediate successor was Madero, who proved himself a weak leader; rather than taking advantage of the strengths Villa and Orozco gave his presidency, he alienated them by refusing to appoint either man to a position in his government.  In the next year, General Victoriano Huerta led a bloody coup-d’état against Madero, who was assassinated.  Huerta, although succeeding Madero as president, was almost immediately opposed by Venustiano Carranza, a Mexican politician and rancher.  Then, in 1914, the United States seized the port city of Vera Cruz in an effort to cut off the flow of arms and munitions flowing to Huerta’s junta from Germany.  After a crucial defeat by Pancho Villa [2] two months later, Huerta resigned his office and went into exile.  A civil war then erupted between Carranza, Villa, and Alvaro Obregon for control of power in Mexico.  None of these men developed any good feelings toward the United States, not because of the Vera Cruz incident, but because President Woodrow Wilson refused to recognize them as legitimate rulers.

As the revolution degenerated into an armed struggle between rival criminals, thousands of Mexican refugees flooded into Texas seeking shelter and safety.  In spite of reaching safety, the immigrants began to support various civil war factions in Mexico.  Tejanos (most of whom had close family ties to Mexico) also began to support either Huerta, Villa, Obregon, or Carranza.

Ferguson JE 001

James E. (Pa) Ferguson

In Texas, James E. Ferguson [3] was elected governor in 1915.  Ferguson’s base of support was rural tenant farmers, white laborers, and pro-liquor interests throughout the state.  One of his first acts as governor was to re-shape the Texas Rangers to suit his own (corrupt) agenda.  He did this by firing the existing leadership and bringing in his own henchmen and political supporters.

It was also in 1915 that the so-called Plan of San Diego was discovered.  This was a radical manifesto drawn up in the seat of Duval County, which called for a full-scale race war in the Southwest United States.  It demanded that all Mexicans rise up against American tyranny on 20 February 1915.  The goal was to return all territory Mexico lost to the United States to Mexico.  The land in question included Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and California.  The manifesto additionally demanded the summary execution of every Anglo male over the age of sixteen years.  Six additional states would be ceded to African-Americans as an independent nation, land that would act as a buffer zone between the United States and Mexico. It was an invitation to a race war because it pitted Hispanics, Negroes, and Japanese against white Americans.  Their battle standard would be a white flag with a red fringe.

It was an absurd proposition, of course, but when the Plan of San Diego (henceforth, The Plan) was made public knowledge, many Texans took it seriously.  They were joined by Texas lawmen, who realized that they and the general public were being targeted for treasonable murder.  Tejanos took it seriously, as well.  Many impoverished Hispanics in the Rio Grande Valley suffered from ethnic, economic, and political discrimination; Mexicans and Tejanos alike were willing to join any movement that gave them hope for a better future.

The Plan took on a life of its own when in July 1915, a band of rebels led by Luis de la Rosa suddenly made their presence known in Brownsville, Texas.  De la Rosa was a former shopkeeper, a former deputy-sheriff, and a suspected cattle rustler. Beginning on 4 July 1915 (America’s Independence Day), De la Rosa and his bandits began a series of attacks against the white population:

  • A ranch near Raymondville (50-miles north of Brownsville)
  • Two Anglo workers were shot and killed near Lyford
  • An attempt to rustle cattle from the King Ranch, which resulted in the death of one bandit and gunshot injury to another.
  • Robbery of a store in Lyford
  • The murder of a youth in a pasture eighteen miles from Raymondville
  • The destruction of a railroad bridge near Sebastian, and
  • The raid of a ranch near Los Indios, Texas, killing a Mexican worker

(Continued Next Week)

Sources:

  1. Texas Monthly, Rivers of Blood, (January 1986)
  2. Boessenecker, J: Texas Ranger, The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, the Man Who Killed Bonnie and Clyde(2016)
  3. Webb, Walter P: The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense, (1935)
  4. Texas State Historical Association, The Handbook of Texas

Notes:

[1] The wordTejanodenotes a person of Mexican ancestry born in Texas.

[2] In spite of the fact that Pancho Villa was a life-long criminal, he enjoyed the support of the United States up until he decided to launch an ill-advised raid into Columbus, New Mexico in 1916.

[3] Variously referred to as “Farmer Jim” or “Pa Ferguson” he was the most corrupt Texas governor in the twentieth century.

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6 Responses to Sedition in Texas —1915

  1. bunkerville says:

    Thanks for a great read…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jersey Jack says:

    Man I love this stuff….but I’m wondering after this read…who’s been more violent of a country during the late 19th to early 20th century?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Texas was a rough place in its first 100 years, Jack. There were hard times and dangerous places in other states as well. I’ll probably get to those other places eventually. Take a gander at some of my earlier posts in this series and you’ll begin to form some conclusions about the genesis of violence in Texas. It’s history is what makes Texas unique among all other states, but this is just my opinion. Thank you for stopping by … this post will “continue” next week. Semper Fi.

      Like

  3. Andy says:

    Excellent history lesson. My great grandfather was one of the first five Anglo settlers in Duval County. So, this story was of particular interest to me. I look for to the continuation.

    Liked by 1 person

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