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Matamoros and the Texas Revolution
By Craig H. Roell
Texas State Historical AssociationCopyright © 2015 Texas State Historical Association
All rights reserved.
INTRODUCING MATAMOROS: PEARL OF GREAT PRICE
Lo que nada cuesta, nada vale (Whatever costs nothing is worth nothing). —Spanish proverb
"MATAMORAS LIES IN A PLAIN exposed to all winds; those most frequently prevailing are the North and South, which may be called prevalent." These words of Mexican physician Dr. Antonio Lafon, in an otherwise mundane nineteenth-century medical report concerning yellow fever in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, provide a tempting metaphor for the magnetism of this bustling city on the lower Rio Grande, which historically has drawn to itself the "prevailing winds" from north and south, figuratively speaking. As such, the city offers an exceptional view for the Texas Revolution, an understanding that is essentially unappreciated north of the river. Cosmopolitan and international, Matamoros was economically strategic as a commercial center and port by the late 1820s, not just to the local and upriver ranching settlements and towns—the Villas del Norte—but to the larger northeastern regions of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahuila, Chihuahua, and even beyond to Mexico's national economy, thanks to ever-increasing trade revenue for goods brought from Europe and the United States, particularly New Orleans. The merchants of Matamoros brought the northern region of Mexico into permanent contact with the market economy of the United States, often with dramatic and unintended consequences still relevant today.
Tossed about in the feverish political disputes blowing northward from Mexico City and blowing southward from Texas and the United States, Matamoros was certainly "exposed to all winds." Vital to the dwellers of Mexico's northeastern frontier communities upriver—the norteños—and to the many ranchos on the Rio Grande's banks, the port city was also important to Texas settlements served by the famous Matamoros-La Bahía Road. San Patricio, Refugio, La Bahía (Goliad) and Victoria were populated by Tejano and Irish colonists and increasingly by norteamericanos—Anglo Americans pouring into Texas from the United States—who routinely misspelled the city's heroic name, most commonly as "Matamoras" (as in Doctor Lafon's report, published in New Orleans). The prevailing "winds" converged especially violently at Matamoros during the first half of the nineteenth century in several guises. Destructive hurricanes and cyclones in 1835 and 1837 pounded the Matamoros area, punctuating the political upheavals and civil war between Mexican centralists and federalists, the recurring attacks from Comanche Indians, and—the focus of this book—the troubles in Texas that ultimately resulted in the 1835–36 revolution in which Matamoros played a pivotal but unappreciated role.
Following the Mexican defeat at San Jacinto and the creation of an independent republic by Texan rebels, Matamoros served as a launching point for Mexico's unsuccessful attempts to reclaim Texas. The ravages of another severe hurricane in 1844 were but a prelude to a terribly costly and controversial war with the United States. The first battles of that conflict, at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma in 1846, occurred near Matamoros. Both ended in disastrous defeat for the Mexican army, resulting in the humiliating occupation of the city by the contemptible "invasión Yanqui." But by the time Doctor Lafon wrote his medical report in 1853, Matamoros had redeemed the nation's reputation and elevated its own when it "heroically defended" against more revolutionaries—this time those attempting to establish an independent federalist Republic of the Sierra Madre (or Rio Grande), which the Mexican government feared was yet another episode in the decades-long menace of expansionist Manifest Destiny from the United States. The city's actions resulted in the state and federal congresses conferring the titles of "Unconquered" (Invicta), "Loyal" (Leal), and "Heroic" (Heróica), the latter signified by the letter "H" in city's formal name, "H. Matamoros."
The city's connection to the Texas Revolution—notably the Matamoros expedition of 1835–36—is not generally well known; moreover, the story is customarily enveloped in a traditional interpretation that this book seeks to redress. In the traditional story, insurgents in Texas resisting Mexican dictatorial president Santa Anna conspired to invade Matamoros in hopes of confiscating the port's considerable revenues for the Texas provisional government, fund their revolution, and occupy the city. By securing this lucrative jewel, the rebels hoped to negotiate a peace advantageous to Texas. The plan, initially launched with the support of Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, and the Texas provisional government, involved allying with Mexican federalist forces also distraught over Santa Anna's centralist policies in order to take the rebellion deeper into the Mexican interior and out of Texas altogether. The expedition is usually credited to (or blamed on) Dr. James Grant and Francis W. Johnson, who organized the trek in San Antonio after defeating Gen. Martín Perfecto de Cos's centralist force in the siege of Béxar. Such an action, they contended, would motivate the Texan forces, which consisted mainly of armed volunteers from the United States, and keep them engaged—especially with the potential of spoils. Nevertheless, the expedition quickly led to controversy and division. Historically lost amid the great dramas of the Alamo, Goliad, and San Jacinto, the Matamoros expedition's complexity and controversy have made it difficult to summarize—"there has always been in the minds of many, a confusion of ideas about what has been known as the Johnson and Grant expedition," wrote John Henry Brown in his 1892 classic History of Texas. As the story goes, Johnson and Grant "stripped" the Alamo of men, equipment, and provisions for their ill-conceived expedition, then proceeded to Goliad, Refugio, and San Patricio en route to Matamoros. Houston became convinced that the expedition was a recipe for disaster. Failing in his attempt take command of the expedition, he at least convinced many of Johnson and Grant's men to remain at Refugio. Meanwhile, James W. Fannin recruited his own force (including a large contingent of volunteers from his home state of Georgia), which would also converge at Refugio. Houston's prediction proved true: the remnant of Johnson and Grant's expedition met defeat at the hands of the "invading" centralist Mexican army commanded by Gen. José de Urrea—Johnson at San Patricio and Grant at Agua Dulce Creek—in part due to their betrayal by "deceitful" Mexican federalists and Tejanos. Upon learning of Johnson and Grant's fate, Fannin abandoned Refugio to make a stand at Goliad in its old presidio (La Bahía), which he renamed Fort Defiance. After an aborted attempt to relieve William B. Travis at the Alamo, Fannin's own army met defeat against General Urrea in the battle of Coleto (Encinal del Perdido) while engaged in an ill-prepared retreat to Victoria that Houston had ordered. Fannin and his captured men were then executed under Santa Anna's orders and the "treachery" of Urrea in the infamous Goliad Massacre. Traditionally, the Matamoros expedition is dismissed as folly, a doomed venture from the outset—a view primarily informed by Houston's own interpretation.
Readers already familiar with the Matamoros expedition may presume this story is old news. Yet, as this book shows, the story is more complex in reality, comprising several different and even conflicting expeditions rather than simply one. Taken together, the Texan attempt to occupy the river city must be regarded as one of the most disastrous components of the Texas Revolution. It paralyzed the Texas provisional government. It left Texas forces divided of purpose. It revealed the disadvantages of asserting independence for Texas instead of remaining loyal to the Mexican federalist Constitution of 1824. It exposed the lack of realism in the thinking of Texans, who on the one hand discounted reports warning of Santa Anna's approaching army, while on the other they relied on rumors of great numbers of volunteers arriving from the United States and massive support by federalists in the Mexican interior. Thus, the Matamoros expedition proved foremost in the tragic events leading to the defeat of Texas forces at the battles of the Alamo, San Patricio, Agua Dulce Creek, Refugio, and Coleto—disasters that led to the Goliad Massacre.
By contrast, this book approaches these issues from a Mexican viewpoint and explains the crucial geographic and economic context that made control of Matamoros truly advantageous and desirable. Moreover, the traditional Texas view neither recognizes nor appreciates the centrality of Matamoros in Mexican strategy or that the Mexican government and army had their own Matamoros campaign, which contrasted sharply in its success compared to the Texan failure. Such a focus on Matamoros reveals a double paradox. This successful Mexican Matamoros campaign, which resulted in a profound Texan defeat, required temporary cooperation between otherwise belligerent Mexican federalists and centralists against an even greater foe—Anglo Texan rebellion aided by an influx of volunteers from the United States. However, this victory occurred even as the predominantly federalist matamorenses committed acts of revolt against their own government's army. How matamorenses courageously sought to remain loyal Mexicans standing against foreign invaders while also being politically and economically devoted to their locality and region as federalists in the face of Santa Anna's centralist policies is a poignant story unappreciated in traditional interpretations.
For most readers, Matamoros's role in the Texas Revolution will likely be novel. Traditional Texas history books, which informed generations of school-age readers from the late nineteenth century until at least the 1960s, typically oversimplified the story of the Texan Matamoros expedition, reflected Sam Houston's interpretation, or simply omitted the connection altogether. Matamoros just does not resonate in the familiar mythos of the Texas Revolution as do San Antonio, Goliad, or San Jacinto—it had no legendary "line in the sand," no dreadful "fight to the death," no infamous "massacre," no battle cry to "remember." Neither does it yowl controversy like "How did Davy die?" nor "To whom was this sacrifice useful?" It may seem marginal, distant, even inconsequential. After all, isn't Matamoros in Mexico? (Well remember, so was Texas!) So it might be surprising that the central theme of this book is that Matamoros was not simply important, but pivotal, being an essential link in the divisive, muddled, audacious, reckless, infuriating, controversial, and yes, heroic story of the Texas Revolution. In addition, this book shows how Matamoros was also central to Mexico's own strategies to preserve Texas, to suppress the rebellion, to retake Texas after San Jacinto, and then to defend the homeland in the war with the United States following the annexation of Texas.
Histories of the Texas Revolution abound. But as historian Jack Jackson once remarked, "The problem—as I learned after doing my book on the Alamo—is that many people prefer the myth to the truth." The traditional and still most widely familiar interpretations of the Texas Revolution tend to reflect (if not romanticize) an Anglo Texan point of view, focusing on the deteriorating relationship between Anglo and Mexican authorities, the differences (even incompatibilities) between American and Mexican culture and ethnicity, and the "collective memory" about the heroes and martyrs of Anglo nation-building. Remembering the Alamo and Goliad and celebrating San Jacinto are key components of this tradition. But as historian Andrés Reséndez observed, "This is only the last leg of a much longer saga of successive revolutions" that erupted in the northern Mexican states, not just in Texas.
Another school of thought popular among American, Mexican, and European historians puts the Texas Revolution in the larger context of Manifest Destiny as the United States expanded its dominion across the continent. Robert May, for example, called the Texas Revolution "the most successful filibuster in American history." Stuart Reid even more provocatively proposed that while the revolution was certainly "an offshoot to a much wider Mexican civil war," it ultimately was part of a twenty-year-long "secret war" between London and Washington "to secure mastery of the North American continent." Reid argued that a Matamoros expedition may have been part of the British government's "grand project" against American imperialism and asserted that the expedition and its supposedly disreputable leader, Dr. James Grant, are not so easily dismissed as historians—most taking their cue from Sam Houston's censuring judgment of the affair—have summarily done.
Other recent approaches, such as Reséndez's, build upon David J. Weber's outstanding contributions and venture a balanced Mexican point of view. These historians focus, for one example, on how independence movements in Texas and elsewhere on the northern frontier were fueled by Mexico's internal political strife and economic challenges as well as the pull of the United States' market economy. For another example, these scholars provide new avenues for exploring the complexities of colonial Texas, such as intermarriage between Anglos and Mexicans or how Mexican Texans believed they could be both proud mexicanos and loyal Tejanos. Still another approach explores the ambiguities of constructing a national identity that was not simply Mexican or Anglo American, as if either were somehow monolithic. Moreover, this more balanced approach has vividly demonstrated how preconceived notions, racism, bowdlerizing and mistranslation of sources, and misplaced idealism have contributed to mythmaking about the Texas Revolution, particularly the Alamo story. Not surprisingly, these recent writers have garnered deserved praise but also passionate criticism (notably on Amazon.com) for "destroying Texas history." Writing from Matamoros in 1836, the controversial Mexican "eye-witness to the Texas Revolution," Lt. Col. José Enrique de la Peña, well understood such risks. "I am well aware how difficult it is to write for the public and to fulfill the mission of a historian." It is my hope that this focus on Matamoros in the Texas Revolution will provide an innovative yet balanced perspective on what may seem like an old tale.
Matamoros was the flash point for six major movements by 1835: (1) Mexican centralists hoping to defend Mexico's territorial sovereignty; (2) federalists in Mexico (including Texas) hoping to establish Texas as a new federalist Mexican state, or more radically, even as part of an independent federalist republic of the Rio Grande; (3) Tejano, Irish, and Anglo Texans vying with each other and with incoming volunteers and filibusters from the United States over the identity and destiny of Texas; (4) U.S. expansionist strategies; (5) Mexican and perhaps British designs to thwart U.S. encroachment; (6) and not least, the changing identities and conflicting actions of matamorenses themselves. To return to the opening metaphor, the converging winds of the Texas Revolution swept Matamoros from both north and south precisely because of the city's centrality.
Matamoros could not have occupied this principal position, however, by being merely a strategic city swept up in Texas's revolutionary turmoil. Its reputation, closely allied to its crucial location near the mouth of the legendary Río Bravo (as the Spaniards called the lower Rio Grande), was built over a century of Spanish and then Mexican developments, particularly in trade, ranching, and the church. Award-winning writer Arturo Zárate-Ruiz does not exaggerate in describing Matamoros as "the historic and cultural center of the Rio Grande Valley or 'Bajo Bravo.'" It is why today the city of Matamoros calls itself La Gran Puerta de México (The Great Gateway of Mexico). In the city's Parque Cultural Olímpico (Olympic Cultural Park) in 2007, workers constructed a gigantic, towering metal sculpture, vividly painted red, in the shape of an abstract elongated letter M designed to represent the city and the nation as well as beams of celestial light. Affixed in the letter's apex is an intricate, multidimensional "starry" cube, representing "intrinsic strength" and "dynamism" of the city. World-renowned artist Sebastián (Enrique González Carbajal) designed the sculpture to celebrate the city's self-proclaimed historic place—its "ancient truth" (realidad ancestral), as the distinguished Mexican historian Octavio Herrera Pérez puts it—as the dual "opening toward Mexico and the world." The monumental sculpture dominates the skyline and is located on "the original site of Matamoros," which sits, not by chance, in "a privileged area because of its vicinity with two international bridges" crossing the legendary river.
Excerpted from Matamoros and the Texas Revolution by Craig H. Roell. Copyright © 2015 Texas State Historical Association. Excerpted by permission of Texas State Historical Association.
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