The date was 12 June 1901. Karnes County, Texas Sheriff W. T. Morris (whom everyone called Brack) and a deputy were investigating the theft of a horse. The sheriff’s inquiry led him to the Thulemeyer Ranch outside Kenedy, Texas. Arriving at the ranch, Morris encountered two Mexican tenant farmers —brothers named Gregorio and Romaldo Cortez. Not being able to converse in Spanish, Morris depended on his deputy to act as an interpreter. The sheriff, having learned that Gregorio had recently obtained a horse, sought to question him about it. Gregorio was asked (by the deputy) if he had recently acquired a caballo (stallion). Cortez replied no, but he had a yegua (mare) … a word that the deputy did not understand. Morris and his deputy conferred for a few moments. After this short conversation, Morris suddenly drew out his revolver; Romaldo immediately went for his gun. Morris shot Romaldo, wounding him. Within a split second, Gregorio drew his weapon (in self-defense) and shot Morris, mortally wounding him. The deputy pushed Morris into their buckboard wagon and made a quick withdrawal back to town.
Gregorio took his brother inside their small cottage and turned him over to his woman for care, and then, realizing that nothing good would follow this encounter, he decided to getaway. Gregorio initially stopped at the home of Martín and Refugia Robledo, which was situated on the property of one Mr. Schnabel. Over the next several hours, Gonzales County Sheriff Glover and his posse discovered Gregorio at the Robledo home. An exchange of gunfire ensued, resulting in the death of both Glover and Schnabel. The posse withdrew.
Cortez escaped again, this time on foot, walking nearly 100 miles to the home of his friend, Ceferino Flores. Flores provided Cortez with a horse and saddle and sent him on his way. Gregoria now headed for Laredo.
Gregorio Cortez was now a wanted man in the State of Texas. In spite of a manhunt involving hundreds of local and county lawmen, and a special train requisitioned to transport men and horses to Laredo, Cortez successfully evaded authorities for another ten days.
Texas newspapers were at first critical of Cortez, some even lamenting that he hadn’t been lynched. The hatred that some Texans had toward Mexicans spilled over into Tejano communities in the counties of Gonzalez, Refugio, Hays, and others. In time, however, the animosity initially directed toward Cortez was transformed into admiration for the man’s ability to evade a rather substantial force of lawmen. The San Antonio Express even glorified his remarkable powers of endurance and skill in eluding pursuit.
Throughout his ordeal, Cortez received aid and comfort from his friends; one of these, however, turned him in and Cortez was subsequently apprehended by a Texas Ranger on 22 June 1901. Within those ten days, Cortez traveled nearly 400 miles on horseback, and another 100 miles on foot. The story, when carefully considered, appears symbolic of the struggles between Texans, Mexicans, and Tejanos .
Immediately following Cortez’ capture, supporters began forming organizations to help publicize the case and raise money for a legal defense. In all, Gregorio endured four separate trials. In Gonzalez County, Cortez was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison. His lawyers appealed the judgment, but while that was going on, a lynch mob of several hundred Texans appeared in front of the jail and attempted to lynch him. The effort was thwarted by good law enforcement.
Gregorio was also tried and convicted in Karnes City, and Pleasanton. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals eventually overturned these verdicts and ordered a new trial with a change in venue to Corpus Christi, Texas. The trial was held in 1904; by this time, Cortez had been incarcerated for three years. Again convicted, Cortez began a life sentence in the state penitentiary. Nevertheless, considering the circumstances of these shootings, which everyone acknowledged were in self-defense, efforts to obtain a governor’s pardon finally succeeded in 1913. Texas governor Oscar Colquitt issued him a conditional pardon —the condition being that he must, upon release, return to Mexico.
When he was released, Cortez thanked everyone who had worked for his freedom and then promptly returned to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. It was there that he joined the forces of Victoriano Huerta during the Mexican Revolution. Shortly after marrying —some say for the fourth time, Gregorio Cortez died of pneumonia on 28 February 1916. Family members claimed that Gregorio had been poisoned and died in the family barn shortly after his release from prison, but this does not appear to have been the case. What is true is that Senor Cortez died at the age of 41-years.
Like most Mexicans, Gregorio Cortez had a humble beginning. His parents were itinerant laborers who took their family to Manor, Texas in 1887. In that same year, Romaldo was charged with stealing a horse, but charges were later dropped due to insufficient evidence against him. Another brother, Tomas, was charged with a similar but separate offense. Tomas, while convicted, was eventually pardoned by Texas Governor Sul Ross. Some historians today speculate that the family was involved in horse thievery throughout the 1880s.
In spite of the activities of his brothers, Gregorio Cortez worked as a farmhand in various Texas counties —which made him familiar with much of the area of his ordeal. His marriage in 1890 produced four children, but he was divorced in 1903 —while in state custody. Of his early years, he was known to speak good English and to have been the owner of legitimately acquired horses. I have often wondered, if Gregorio spoke good English, why he would have needed the deputy to translate the sheriff’s questions. In any case, Gregorio Cortez Lira became a folk hero within South Texas Tejano communities —and remains so today.
The Robert Young film, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, staring James Edward Olmos (1982), was both excellent and thought-provoking.
 On a personal level, almost every Texan had a Mexican or Tejano friend. Generally, however, these groups developed and nurtured a fair amount of contempt for one another, the foundation of which was the history of South Texas and their suspicious nature. To a Texan’s face, a Tejano called him amigo, but when among his own kind, he would refer to a Texan as gringo. To a Mexican’s face, the Texan would call him by a first name, behind his back, a Texan often used the term “a” or “the” Mexican.