A History of Houston's Hispanic Community
By Thomas H. Kreneck
Texas A&M University Press Copyright © 2012 Thomas H. Kreneck
All rights reserved.
A Peripheral Spanish Imprint
ALTHOUGH TEXAS WAS A POSSESSION of Spain for three hundred years, the Spanish never founded lasting settlements in the immediate Houston area. Established after Spain lost its North American empire, Houston would not initially have the Hispanic traditions that marked Laredo, Nacogdoches, La Bahía (Goliad), San Antonio, and El Paso. Nonetheless, to guard East Texas against French incursion from Louisiana, the Spanish charted the region during the early 1700s, founded a short-lived presidio-mission complex approximately thirty-five miles east of modern Houston, and left their imprint by naming major rivers and other local geographic features.
After the Spanish claimed the Texas coast in 1519, their interest in East Texas lay dormant until the French threatened the region during the late 1600s. In the ensuing contest for empire, Spain dispatched expeditions as far as Louisiana to maintain its hold on the territory. One such effort against French traders led to the formal establishment of Presidio San Agustin de Ahumada on May 26, 1756, on the east bank of the Trinity River near its mouth. After months of delay, the Spaniards constructed Mission Nuestra Señora de la Luz del Orcoquisac not far from the garrison. Built to minister to the local Orcoquiza Indians, this mission was a simple log chapel with a four-arched porch coated with plaster.
The presidio-mission site with its thirty soldiers and two Franciscan friars came to be known as El Orcoquisac. Located in Chambers County near Wallisville, it was the only Spanish settlement in the modern-day Harris County vicinity. As at the other missions of East Texas, the Spanish suffered illnesses and deaths at El Orcoquisac from the unhealthy climate, insect bites, and polluted water supply. Such inhospitable circumstances contributed to the lack of any lasting Spanish influence in this northern reachof Nueva España. In 1766, a hurricane destroyed the mission and presidio, both of which Spanish authorities soon restored at great expense and difficulty.
Spain's New World possessions, stretching from Tierra del Fuego to Kansas, proved too extensive, its resources too limited, and the region's attractions too few to warrant permanent occupation of the Harris County area. A civilian settlement of fifty families from the Saltillo region proposed for Santa Rosa de Alcazán, at the point where Santa Rosa Spring flowed into the San Jacinto River, never materialized.
The Orcoquiza and other Indians were either apathetic or hostile to Spanish efforts to Christianize them. In addition, control over the Louisiana Territory passed to Spain after 1763 and, thus, the French no longer posed a threat.
Accordingly, both Presidio Ahumada and Mission El Orcoquisac were abandoned by 1772. The padres and soldiers pulled back to San Antonio, leaving behind wooden remains of the chapel, fort, and other buildings, which Gulf Coast storms soon swept away. Dense East Texas foliage rapidly overgrew the presidio-mission cemetery and plowed ground where the Spaniards had their reluctant Indian charges raise corn.
Although Spanish authorities sent soldiers to reoccupy the location after 1803, by the twentieth century El Orcoquisac and Presidio Ahumada were no more than archeological sites, emblematic of the lack of permanent influence the Spanish Empire had in the Houston area. In the 1990s, those who wanted to see the location where El Orcoquisac once stood faced a lengthy, difficult hike.
Spanish place names dating from that colonial period represent a more lasting imprint on the greater Houston vicinity. One can hardly enter the metropolitan region without crossing a river whose name is a perpetual reminder of the first European owners of the area. To the southwest is the Brazos River (Río de los Brazos de Dios), while to the north and east is the San Jacinto (Río San Jacinto). Both streams, like so many others in Tejas, were discovered, named, and explored by Spanish expeditions. The San Jacinto River supposedly received its name because explorers first saw it on the holy day of Saint Hyacinth. The Brazos de Dios (Arms of God) was so named when its fresh waters saved its discoverers from dying of thirst.
Southwest of Houston, Spanish explorers charted and named Galveston Bay (Bahía de Galveston) in 1785 in honor of Bernardo de Gálvez, the royal governor of New Orleans. The name was applied to the island, town, and county that are Houston's important neighbors. Also, probably the oldest place name in Harris County, Atascosito Crossing, on the San Jacinto River, formed part of the Atascosito Road, established by the Spaniards in 1757 as their military highway to East Texas.
Because of the peripheral nature of Spanish influence, people often fail to remember that Spain owned and explored the Harris County region even though it did not play a direct role in the development of the Houston Hispanic community as it did in other parts of Texas.
In the Shadow of San Jacinto
BETWEEN THE YEAR MEXICO gained its independence in 1821 and the establishment of Houston in late 1836, Anglo-American settlers from the United States came to out-populate Texas Hispanics. The Battle of San Jacinto, which ended the Texas Revolution in 1836, took place only a few miles from the future site of Houston, emblematic of how securely the province was in the hands of the newcomers. Houston was founded shortly after the Battle of San Jacinto and during the mid-1800s was largely devoid of Hispanic influence; however, its few Mexican residents saw the development of anti-Mexican sentiment that became the basis for prejudice against future generations of Hispanic Houstonians.
With Mexican independence in 1821, ownership of the Harris County region passed from Spain to Mexico. But Mexico's tenuous political condition, its limited resources, and the distance between Mexico City and East Texas continued to stymie Hispanic influence there. The French challenge to the region had been replaced after 1803 by a more serious threat from the expanding United States. The fledgling Mexican nation tried to buttress already established frontier settlements in Texas, positioned new military garrisons where it could, and simultaneously tried to introduce fresh settlers. The Harris County area became part of the Mexican state of Coahuila-Tejas in 1824 and received its first permanent settlement under the auspices of Mexico. These early residents were not, however, native Mexicans.
Developing a plan that had germinated with Spanish officials during the final days of the empire, Mexican authorities by 1822 allowed Anglo-American newcomers into Texas as a buffer against U.S. expansion. Although this plan would later result in detriment to Mexico, these initial settlers were loyal citizens to their adopted Mexico and relations between the Anglos and Mexican officials seemed relatively tranquil. As part of the colony of the empresario Stephen F. Austin, by 1822 between fifteen and twenty Anglo-American families made their homes along the San Jacinto River and Buffalo Bayou in present-day Harris County. Some thirty-two more people received grants from the Mexican government in 1824 on Cedar and Buffalo Bayous and the San Jacinto River. After 1833, under Mexican rule, this general area came to be the District of Harrisburg, so named for the first town laid out in the region.
Harrisburg was established at the confluence of Buffalo and Braes Bayous around 1826, followed after 1830 by Lynchburg, Stafford's Prairie House, and New Kentucky. This area came solidly under Anglo influence by the early 1830s when conflict developed between Mexican officials and the Texas colonists. Native Mexican presence, ascendant further to the southwest in the San Antonio region, was nonexistent in the Harrisburg District. So rapidly had Anglo-American settlers entered Tejas during the Mexican period that by 1836 they outnumbered native Mexicans ten to one. The Texas War for Independence, concluded at the Battle of San Jacinto near present-day Houston on April 21, 1836, culminated in the domination of Texas by Anglo-Americans—a process that had begun in 1822.
By the time of the Texas Revolution, Anglo settlers not only had established their position of numerical superiority, but they also had developed a complex set of biases against Mexicans and Mexican Texans. In the Harrisburg District, these feelings became entrenched during the nineteenth century and would become the basis of Anglo-American views in the region for generations that followed. Generally negative, these attitudes contained a measure of ambivalence best illustrated by the roles of—and Anglo-Texan views toward—Lorenzo de Zavala and Juan Seguín.
Manuel Lorenzo Justiniano de Zavala was originally from Mérida, Yucatán. Well educated, widely traveled, a political author, and a liberal, Zavala was deeply involved in politics during the 1820s in the Mexican Constituent Congress, in the Mexican Senate, in the State of Mexico as governor, and as Minister of the Treasury under Vicente Guerrero. His interest in Texas dated at least from March 1829, when he was awarded an empresario contract to settle five hundred families there.
An ardent supporter of the Federalist Constitution of 1824, Zavala quarreled with General Antonio López de Santa Anna, then President of Mexico. Zavala relocated to Texas in July 1835, where he purchased a home for his family on Buffalo Bayou in the Harrisburg District and became active in the events of the Texas Revolution.
An orator in both English and Spanish, Zavala represented Harrisburg at the 1835 Consultation and at the Convention of 1836 at Washington-on-the-Brazos, where he signed the Texas Declaration of Independence. He was elected by the convention to be ad interim vice president of the Republic of Texas. He served in that capacity until mid-1836. Zavala died of pneumonia on November 15, 1836 and was buried in his family cemetery, which later became part of San Jacinto State Park. This leading Mexican statesman of the Harris County area has since been revered as a Texas hero and as a symbol of the Texas Mexican participation in the Texas struggle for independence. Some of Zavala's descendants still live in Harris County.
Occurring within sight of Zavala's home, the Battle of San Jacinto was perhaps the most important event of the revolution and certainly of major significance to the future of Mexican Texans. Tejanos, led by Captain Juan Seguín, played a key role in the San Jacinto campaign and the battle itself.
The story of Juan Seguín introduces the other, more prevalent side of Anglo-American attitudes toward Mexicans in Texas that would set the stage for the conditions of Mexican Americans in Houston.
The scion of an old Texas family, Juan Seguín was an implacable foe of General Santa Anna and the Centralists. Seguín was a political leader in San Antonio and always advocated good relations with the Anglo-Texans. He had an illustrious career in the revolution, where he sided with Jim Bowie, Stephen F. Austin, and William B. Travis. Raising a sizeable force of mounted men from the ranchos along the San Antonio River, Captain Seguín proved decisive in the rebel victory. The actions of Seguín and his men culminated at the Battle of San Jacinto, where most of the Ninth Company, Second Regiment Texas Volunteers, was made up of Texas-born Tejanos. This Mexicano unit represented the only company under General Sam Houston substantially composed of native Texans. In the thick of the fighting, Seguín's men helped ensure Santa Anna's defeat.
Like so many other Texans of Mexican heritage, however, Juan Seguín's sacrifices went underappreciated. As the population of the new Republic of Texas swelled with Anglo-American immigrants in the early 1840s, Seguín, back in his native San Antonio, faced unjust accusations of being a traitor to the cause of Texas. He was so ostracized by these newcomers that he fled the Republic to northern Mexico, where Mexican officials viewed him with suspicion. Scorned as treasonous by Mexico yet a victim of prejudice in Texas, Juan Seguín epitomized the unfortunate condition of many Mexican Texans during the latter nineteenth century.
The events of 1836 that so profoundly shaped the destiny of Mexican Texans also triggered the birth of the town of Houston and the inauspicious introduction of Houston's first Mexican residents.
In August 1836, a few months after the Battle of San Jacinto, John and Augustus Allen, two brothers from Brooklyn, New York, purchased several thousand acres of coastal prairie at the confluence of Buffalo and White Oak Bayous, eight miles from Harrisburg. They mapped the property as a speculative town that they called Houston, in honor of the hero of San Jacinto, and offered the real estate for sale to the general public. The success of their venture came when the Texas Congress designated the site as the temporary location of the capital of the Republic.
The Allen brothers needed laborers to clear the land and build the structures that would house the fledgling government. They found some of those workers among the Mexican prisoners from the Battle of San Jacinto. Many of the several hundred prisoners, in lieu of being held captive on Galveston Island, were contracted to planters and settlers to work at skilled and unskilled jobs. Apparently, the Allen brothers obtained several of these men to clear and drain their town site.
These earliest Mexican workers became objects of curiosity to the other residents. Some of these former San Jacinto prisoners chose to stay in Harris County rather than return to their native land after being released.
Far removed from the main Tejano settlements, the Anglos of Houston manifested negative feelings toward people of Mexican stock. While they seemed to appreciate the qualities of Zavala and others, the shadowy side of their attitudes had been shaped both by their own heritage and by recent events. The violence of the Texas Revolution (which included the burning of Harrisburg by the Mexican Army), continuing border warfare between Texas and Mexico, and the Anglo-Americans' ingrained prejudice toward people of darker complexion guided many of their actions. As historian Arnoldo De León pointed out in his classic They Called Them Greasers, the Texas frontiersmen possessed an acute racism against people with Indian blood as well as a traditional suspicion and distrust of Spain and Catholicism, which they derived from their Northern European, Protestant backgrounds.
Because most Mexicanos and Tejanos were mestizos (a mixture of the Spanish and Mesoamerican Indian peoples) and professed the Catholic faith, they almost naturally became the targets of negative stereotyping in early Houston. This attitudinal legacy of the first half of the nineteenth century would profoundly affect later generations of Mexicans in Houston.
These pervasive feelings caused many Houstonians by the late 1830s to view these first few Mexican residents of the town, isolated and far from their homeland, with ridicule and scorn. Moreover, Houston produced two of the more vociferous anti-Mexican newspapers in Texas during the 1840s. The Houston Telegraph and Texas Register, under its editor Francis Moore Jr., considered Mexicans a "mongrel race, inferior even to negroes." The newspaper consistently portrayed Mexicans as backward and degenerate. Moore, who served as Houston's mayor in 1838–39, reflected the bigotry and chauvinism of many of his fellow citizens when he speculated that people of Mexican heritage were incapable of being true Texans (he himself was originally from Massachusetts). For Moore, Mexicans were defective, while "the term Texian [was] synonymous with that of American."
The other important Houston newspaper, the Morning Star, likewise touted the supposed superiority of Anglo-Americans over Latins and envisioned the conquest of all of Mexico by Anglo-Texans. It displayed the streak of early Anglo-Houston racism toward Mexicanos and helped foster prejudice in the Houston vicinity.
The number of Mexican inhabitants of Houston and the surrounding area remained relatively few until the latter part of the nineteenth century. The tax records of 1840 and the census of 1850 each have approximately a half-dozen individuals in the county with recognizable Spanish surnames. These few included people who lived and worked at various jobs in town or who owned land in the outlying area. Doubtless others dwelled in Houston, where, like many people in the town's fluid and mobile society, they picked up employment where possible without establishing a permanent residence. But just like their more-settled fellow Houstonians of Mexican descent, they contributed as best they could to the development of the rapidly growing town on the banks of Buffalo Bayou. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Del Pueblo by Thomas H. Kreneck. Copyright © 2012 Thomas H. Kreneck. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
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