Gunfight at Tres Jacales

cropped-texas-star.jpgIt does not take much digging into the history of Mexico and Texas to discover how sorry their relationship has been since around 1800.  Life was never “good” in Mexico for anyone below the level of very wealthy landowners.  Mexico’s War of Independence (from Spain) lasted from 1810 to 1821.  If this upheaval wasn’t trying enough to the Mexican population, Comanche and Apache Indians made life on frontier haciendas stressful and traumatic.  Indian depredation was one of the reasons the Mexican government opened the door to white settlement in the province of Tejas.  Doing so wasn’t a matter of kindness; it was a decision taken out of self-interest.  Since New Spain and Mexico were never able to discourage Indian hostilities, perhaps the Anglo settlers could solve the problem.

By 1830, Mexico was involved in an internal conflict between republicans and centralists.  The conflict necessarily involved Texians, who were at the time citizens of Mexico and who aligned themselves with the republican cause opposing the totalitarian regime of centralist president Antonio López de Santa Anna.  The Texas Revolution erupted in 1836 resulting in a victory for the Texians, but hostilities between Mexico and Texas remained through 1842.  One could argue that these hostilities remain even today.  Between 1836 and late December 1845, Texas was an Independent republic.  It was in 1845 that Mexico realized its worst fear: statehood for Texas.  The result of Texas’ admission as the United States’ 28th state prompted the Mexican-American War (1846-48).  In the end, Mexico ceded the additional territories of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California.

Between 1857-61, political factions in Mexico successfully overthrew the government of Antonio López de Santa Anna and entered a new period of civil conflict involving conservatives, moderates, and liberals.  Over time, the so-called War of Reform grew increasingly bloody.  Liberal Benito Juárez became president in 1861.   Within a year, France, in seeking to collect debts incurred by Juárez, invaded Mexico.  With the support of Mexican conservatives and the Catholic Church, Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian[1] (a Hapsburg) became Emperor Maximillian I of Mexico, which re-established the Empire of Mexico.

Life was never a bed of roses for Anglo settlers in Texas.  Cheap land on favorable terms drew Anglo settlers to Texas as shards of metal to a magnet.  The first 300 families arrived between 1823-24.  The came with little more than bare necessities.  To survive in this wilderness, they had to work the land, defend against Indian hostilities, deal with water-borne diseases, and learn how to feed themselves.  Added to these hardships were increasingly frequent conflicts with Mexican authorities who sought to impose upon them a totalitarian form of government.  In addition to Indian depredations, Texians fought and died two major conflicts with Mexico.  They learned how to live and prosper in a land that was rapidly moving to Civil War.

It is hard to imagine living in Texas during its early settlement period.  The early settlers had to be self-sufficient, of course, but most of them were already that when they arrived in Texas.  These were strong people, willful, capable, with a wide range of skills.  If they needed furniture for their austere cabin, they made it themselves and the Texians had long engaged in subsistence farming.  Such conditions were business as usual, but the American Civil War made life even more difficult.  The war brought along with its unimaginable violence diminished markets, which handed everyone living in Texas even greater challenges.  No one had cash for purchases —the Texas economy had devolved into a barter system.  Conditions in Texas were bad in the early days, worse during the Civil War, but worse still during the post-war reconstruction period.  Yankee occupation of Texas had two effects: it made everyone in Texas angry, and it made nearly everyone in Texas a racialist.

When defeated Texan veterans returned home, they found economic ruin, starving or dead family members, and unemployment.  One focus of their anger were the freedmen, former slaves who now competed with them for jobs, but this was second to the hate they felt for the “blue belly” union soldier who governed them with a heavy hand.  In the main, it took Texas fifteen years to sort it all out.  Some will argue that this resentment continues to exist in some sectors of Texas, and I believe this is true.  Despite these unhappy circumstances, Texas officials encouraged migration to the Lone Star State by touting opportunities no longer available in the southeastern states; people flocked to Texas in droves.  The migration was significant, and it only made matters worse.

Some of these migrants relocated to Texas for the right reasons, others came to escape the law back home.  Tejano communities in South Texas did not welcome these migrants; life was tough enough without more Americans, who were frequently impolite, greedy, and dangerous.  Resentment takes many forms and among people used to moving back and forth between Texas and Mexico, it was easy for these disenchanted people to take up arms against those who they believed were the source of their frustrations.

To suggest that every Tejano living in south Texas was a bandit or a cattle rustler would be a ludicrous assertion and one devoid of fact, but it is fair to say that Tejanos aided and abetted border bandits, either through offering them aid and comfort, their fear of them, and/or by never knowing anything about them.  No hablo inglese, SeñorNo se nada, Señor.

The border bandits were ruthless in their dealings with anyone who stood up to them, white or brown.  For many Tejanos, it was a matter of survival.  It was easy for whites living in the Rio Grande Valley to abhor these bandits, and anyone who looked like them.  The white outlaws in south Texas were no better.  Over time, Mexican bandits and South Texans developed a palpable contempt for one another.

Texas was a seriously dangerous place in the late 19th Century.  Hostile Indians remained a serious problem through the late1880s.  In the post-Civil War period, former Union and Confederate soldiers turned outlaw literally infested the region of the Rio Grande Valley from Brownsville to El Paso.  Mexican bandits were a third source of terror to the inhabitants of south and west Texas.  To deal with these problems, the state commissioned Texas Rangers —and deal with them, they did.

Outside El Paso, in the Rio Grande, lay a large island consisting of around 15,000-acres nearest the present-day town of Fabens.  The island formed as a result of a shift in the river’s course.  By the Treaty of Hidalgo, half of this island belongs to the United States, the other half belongs to Mexico.  Its location presented difficulty policing criminal activity, which was precisely why outlaw elements from both countries utilized it.  Whether Mexican or an American, it was a simple matter to flee across the dry riverbed into Mexico, which made Mexico a sanctuary for murderers, thugs, rapists, arsonists, and thieves.

Pirate Island was the location of a gallery forest[2].  One band of outlaws living on Pirate Island called themselves the Bosque Gang.  The gang’s leader was a fellow named Jesus[3] Maria Olguin, who along with his three sons, developed a particularly nasty reputation after Texas Rangers killed one of Olguin’s relatives during the San Elizario Salt War.  By 1893, the Bosque Gang was doing whatever it wanted and to whomever got in their way.  Mostly what they wanted was stealing cattle and horses and moving them into Mexico.  Influential ranchers and county lawmen in south Texas began to demand help from the state capital, prompting the governor to send Texas Rangers to El Paso under the command of Captain Frank Jones.  After assessing the situation, and owing to the size of the Bosque Gang, Jones telegraphed the governor requesting additional men but Texas was always a miserly state and owing to the cost of additional lawmen, the governor refused Captain Jones’ request and ordered him to move against Olguin with the men at his disposal.  Jones had six men, besides himself.  According to Texas Ranger Sergeant John R. Hughes in 1893, “… the gang grew stronger and stronger —they laughed the Gringos[4] to scorn.”

In June 1893, El Paso County officials issued a warrant for the arrest of Jesus Maria and his son Severio for stealing horse and cattle, and with assault with intent to commit murder.  To serve these warrants, Captain Jones formed a detachment consisting of himself, El Paso Deputies Robert Edwards, and Ed Bryant, and four other Texas Rangers: Corporal Carl Kirchner, Privates T. F. Tucker, J. W. “Wood” Saunders, and Edwin Dunlap Aten.  A young Mexican rancher named Lujan accompanied Jones to help search for some of his stolen livestock.

On the morning of 30 June, Jones and his detachment departed from El Paso and headed southwest along the Rio Grande toward Pirate Island.  The Rangers had searched several houses in the area and were returning to El Paso when they spotted two Mexican men on horseback coming down the road toward them.  As soon as the Mexicans became aware of the posse, they turned their horses around and began galloping back toward the small village named Tres Jacales.  The Jones posse gave chase.  When Corporal Kirchner called out demanding surrender, the Mexicans answered with a volley of fire that came from within a small jacal along the road, and from several positions in surround brush.  On the first volley, a bullet ripped into Captain Jones’ thigh, knocking him off his horse.  Another bullet struck the magazine in Kirchner’s Winchester.  The Americans immediately dismounted and returned fire, forcing the Mexicans to seek better protection from inside the jacal.  According to the later testimony of the Rangers, there were at least five Mexican attackers; some were gang members, others were the residents of the town.

Mexicans and Texas Rangers exchanged shots for the better part of an hour.  During this time, Private Tucker made several attempts to rescue Captain Jones, but Jones told him to save himself.  Just then, another Mexican bullet struck Jones in the chest, killing him.  Lujan made his way to Kirchner’s position and informed him that the Rangers had unknowingly crossed into Mexican territory.  It would be better to leave, he advised, before locals informed the Mexican Army of the presence of gringos.

Kirchner, unwilling to leave his dead captain, continued the fight for another hour.  It was then that Kirchner realized that the Mexicans were working to flank the Americans; if that happened, it was likely that they would all die.  Kirchner ordered a fighting withdrawal, back across the Rio Grande to the town of Clint.  From Clint, Kirchner sent a message outlining his situation to El Paso Sheriff Frank B. Simmons.

Captain Jones was the only American casualty.  Jesus Maria and Severio were both wounded in the fight.  Initially, Mexican authorities refused to return Captain Jones’ body to American authorities, but they eventually did return his body for a proper burial.  In a rare cooperative move, Mexican Army officials joined with Sheriff Simmons in capturing a few of the outlaws at Pirate Island.

Co D Texas Rangers 1894At first, Mexican authorities held the Olguin’s in the jail at Ciudad Juarez, but in a move designed to spite American lawmen, Mexican President Porfirio Diaz ordered the Olguin’s released and there was very likely much celebration at Tres Jacales.

In the aftermath of the gunfight at Tres Jacales, some folks living in south Texas observed that Texas Ranger Sergeant John R. Hughes was ‘spitting mad’ about the way President Diaz protected the Olguin’s.  Of course, there was never any evidence that Hughes or any other ranger embarked on a vengeance campaign into Mexico —it was only that over the next several weeks every one of the Olguin’s died under mysterious circumstances that prompted the citizens of El Paso into believing that the bandits perished due to an acute case of ranger-itis.  Note: Above photograph taken in 1894 of the members of Company D, Texas Ranger Frontier Battalion, Captain John R. Hughes, Commanding.  Kirchner and Hughes are seated on the far right.

End Notes:

[1] Unknown to conservatives and Catholic leaders when they installed him as Emperor, Maximillian was by his nature a liberal.  He favored the establishment of a limited monarchy that would share power with democratically elected legislators.  This was too much for Mexico’s conservatives, and liberals refused to accept a monarch and insisted on the reinstallation of Juárez as president.  In fact, throughout the French Intervention, Juárez remained head of the shadow Republican government and directed rebellious forces against the French armies through 1867.

[2] A forest that forms a corridor along a river or wetland area and projects into landscapes that are otherwise only sparsely trees, such as savannahs, grasslands, or deserts.

[3] Pronounced “Hay-soos” in Mexican.

[4] Spanish and Portuguese speakers use the word Gringo to denote a stranger or foreigner.  In Mexico, the term generally applies to Americans, a form of derision or mockery.

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
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6 Responses to Gunfight at Tres Jacales

  1. I learn something every time I come here.
    I’m beginning to think that it is no co-incidence.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mustang says:

      Thank you Ed. I don’t have a lot of interest in this blog, but I enjoy doing the research and I do appreciate your taking the time to comment.

      Like

  2. kidme37 says:

    Thank you for the education Sir. Always enjoyed an educational.

    Well, All I can say after living in the Phoenix, AZ area for 20 years is that I Love Mexican Food. Many Gourmet Mexican Food Places in the Phoenix Area when I was there 20 years From 1979 – 1999.

    Los Dos (South Central Phoenix). La Pinata(19 ave and just north of Indian School), La Parilla La Suiza (35th ave and Bethany Home), SO Many more. Damn I sure miss them. So good.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Andy says:

    It was about this time that my maternal great grandparents arrived in South Texas. Interesting to learned about the travails they faced.

    The lives of those along the border in Mexico and those in South Texas are, as you know, still very intertwined. And hostilities between the two groups, even in the 21st Century, still arise from time to time on both sides of the river.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      We may get to know Mexicans on a personal level and enjoy their company, but beyond that it is fair to say that the American people have never gotten along with Mexicans generally. I think you are correct to infer that this situation will continue long into the future.

      Like

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