I Would Rather Sleep in Texas: A History of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the People of the Santa Anita Land Grant

I Would Rather Sleep in Texas: A History of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the People of the Santa Anita Land Grant

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I Would Rather Sleep in Texas: A History of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the People of the Santa Anita Land Grant by Mary Amberson, James A. McAllen, Margaret H. McAllen

This superb work of history tells the story of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the people who struggled to make this daunting land their home. Spanish conquistadors and Mexican revolutionaries, cowboys and ranchers, Texas Rangers and Civil War generals, entrepreneurs and empire builders are all a part of this centuries-long saga, thoroughly researched and skillfully presented here.

Steamboats used the inland waterway as a major transport route, and fortunes were made when the river served as the Confederacy’s only outlet for money and munitions. Mexican presidents and revolutionaries, European empires and investors, American cattle kings and entrepreneurs all considered this river frontier crucial. Men, women, and beasts braved the unforgiving climate of this land, and its cattle and cowboys gave rise to the great cattle drives up the Chisholm Trail to Kansas. It was and remains a crossroads of international cultures.

In this moving account of the history of the families of the Santa Anita land grant, almost two hundred years of the history of the lower Rio Grande Valley (1748–1940) are revealed. An important addition to any collection of Texas history, I Would Rather Sleep in Texas is one of the most complete studies of the lower Rio Grande, abundantly illustrated with maps and photographs, many never before published.

In 1790 the Santa Anita, a Spanish land grant, was awarded to merchant José Manuel Gómez. After the land passed to Gómez’s widow, part of the grant was acquired by María Salomé Ballí, the daughter of a powerful Spanish clan. Salomé Ballí married Scotsman John Young, and her family connections combined with his business acumen helped to further assemble the Santa Anita under one owner.

In 1859, after Young’s death, Salomé struggled to hold onto her properties amid bandit raids and the siege of violence waged in the region by borderland caudillo Juan Nepomuceno Cortina. Soon after the beginning of the Civil War, she married Scotch- Irish immigrant John McAllen. They participated in the rapid wartime cotton trade through Matamoros and had business associations with a group of men—Mifflin Kenedy, Richard King, Charles Stillman, and Francisco Yturria—who made fortunes that influenced businesses nationwide. Rare firsthand accounts by Salomé Ballí Young de McAllen, John McAllen, and their son, James Ballí McAllen, add to a deeper understanding of the blending of the region’s frontier cultures, rowdy politics, and periodic violence.

All the while, the Santa Anita remained the cornerstone of the business and stability of this family. As the lower Rio Grande Valley moved into the modern era, land speculation led economic activity from 1890 through 1910. The construction of railroads brought improved means for transportation and new towns, including McAllen, Texas, in 1905. The book’s ending reveals how, in 1915, Mexican warfare again spilled over the banks of the Rio Grande with deadly results, tragically affecting this family for the next twenty-five years. I Would Rather Sleep in Texas tells a remarkable story that covers a broad sweep of Texas and borderlands history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781625110220
Publisher: Texas State Historical Assn Press
Publication date: 02/17/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 665
File size: 39 MB
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About the Author

MARY MARGARET McALLEN AMBERSON is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and a student of history and anthropology.

JAMES A. McALLEN, Amberson’s father, compiled extensive notes, research, and data on South Texas and Valley history.

MARGARET H. McALLEN, McAllen’s grandmother, is a former member of the TSHA and the Texas Historical Commission. She began the book project in 1978.

Read an Excerpt

I Would Rather Sleep in Texas

A History of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the People of the Santa Anita Land Grant

By Mary Margaret McAllen Amberson, James A. McAllen, Margaret H. McAllen

Texas State Historical Association

Copyright © 2003 Texas State Historical Association
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62511-022-0


"Pulled Grass, Broke Sticks, Threw Stones"

DON JOSÉ MANUEL GÓMEZ WAITED ON THE PLAINS of the Santa Anita beside the Camino de la Sal, the main road leading easterly to the royal salt lake. It was December 30, 1801, and after eleven years of delays and strenuous work, the day had finally come for him to take possession of his land—the Santa Anita. The survey and legal formalities were complete. On November 27, 1801, Gómez had submitted his final petition for possession of Santa Anita to the royal Spanish authorities at Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Reynosa. Though the land had been his own to work, the previous years had only been a test of his merit as a colonist. He shouldered the expense of improvements and weathered the threat of Indian attack and the harsh, isolated environment. Now, the representatives of the Spanish Crown would ceremonially induct him as a grant holder.

He watched for Don José Francisco Ballí Villarreal, the chief justice of Reynosa, lieutenant of the cavalry, and a commissioned judge, who also happened to be his brother-in-law, to arrive to complete the transference of the property to him. They had delayed the ceremony until this day, possibly to time it during the Christian holy days.

An impressive and colorful parade of notables, dressed in their finest and most elaborate trappings, rose over the horizon and marched forward to meet Manuel Gómez. Chief Justice José Francisco Ballí Villarreal and Juan José Ballí Hinojosa, the adjoining landowner of the ranch of San Salvador del Tule, led the procession to the Santa Anita. With flags flying, the large entourage arrived at the boundary line dividing the lands of San Salvador del Tule and Santa Anita.

Initiating the ceremony of possession, Chief Justice Ballí awarded the land grant. He took "Don Manuel Gómez, by the hand, and both (hands) uncovered, in a loud voice and in the name of his Majesty—Whom May God Protect—I put him in possession of the said land and as a sign of right of property to them, the said Gómez pulled out grass, broke sticks, threw stones, sprinkled water, and made all the other demonstrations of true possession, and gave many and repeated thanks to His Majesty (the King of Spain) for the gift he had made him."

Over four years before, on November 5, 1797, Manuel Gómez had sent to the Spanish Viceroy, by way of the Governor of Nuevo Santander, who controlled the region now known as South Texas and Tamaulipas, a final application for the Santa Anita land grant. The grant was located on the north side of the Rio Grande, at that time known as the Rio Bravo, and just beyond the smaller grants or porciones lining the river.

In common practice, he applied for the lands by a denuncia, or public notice, stating that the land was only usable for livestock, was subject to Indian depredations, and lacked permanent watering places. He therefore laid claim to the grant promising to make required improvements and to make the land productive. The grant was far away from civilization. He had sacrificed. It had been expensive—but he had made his fortune as a merchant and could capitalize his investment. Gómez had possessed the lands of Santa Anita since 1790. His vaqueros worked the livestock beginning in 1791. Since then, according to what was expected of him as a grant candidate, he and his vaqueros had begun extensive improvements including fence building, digging water wells by hand, building permanent structures, and raising stock.

Gómez proved himself for seven years. When he was allowed to submit his formal application in 1797, a judge and an expert surveyor were sent to examine the land and the boundaries of the Santa Anita grant on June 25, 1798. They reported that they found a newly dug well named Santa Anita, a small house and a corral constructed by Gómez. The commissioned judge, who investigated the Santa Anita at a place called Las Agonias, on the main road to the salt lake called Salina Real de la Purificacion (El Sal del Rey), ordered that the land be surveyed. The judge ordered that a stout, well-twisted rope, the cordel (the cord, measuring fifty varus or 162-1/2 feet), with two stakes be brought and it was examined in the presence of the surveyor and expert witnesses.

The measuring of the land was done on horseback by stretching forth the waxed length of the cordel. The act of surveying was called "throwing the rope." The official surveys measured land in terms of the cordel. During the survey, the cord was remeasured often and adjusted for accuracy. The surveyors carved marks on mesquite trees or posts to delineate boundaries. Where trees were scarce, or instead of posts, they set large rocks of caliche at corners or at the property's edge. These stones, called linderos or mojoneras, weighed 500 to 1,000 pounds each and served as permanent boundary markers.

At the Santa Anita, surveyors found twelve small lakes or "lagunas: eight go dry, but four of them can retain water and these last four are known as Las Animas, Agua Verde, La Jara and San Vicente." They also found "dense mesquite groves, good pasturage, thick abundance of prickly pear, said land being inhabited towards the north part by wild horse stock known as mustangs; on the south side are found numerous wild animals such as tigers, lions, many snakes, but a scarcity of deer, wild boar, jack rabbits, rabbits and mice. The lands are altogether unfit for agricultural purposes, they are sandy loam and specially adapted for pasturage and stock raising."

During the following days, when all boundaries of the land were surveyed, the fifteen leagues of the Santa Anita were apportioned this way: fourteen sitios or leagues for large stock, one for small stock, thirteen and three-fourths caballerías, and another 58,585 square varas. Gómez was another step closer to outright possession of the Santa Anita.

According to the usual custom, the Santa Anita was placed at auction for thirty days in Reynosa, or until August 3, 1798. There were no other bidders. Then it was offered at auction in San Luis Potosí. On April 29, 1799, this was done through publication by a common crier for thirty days. Again, there were no other bidders. The agent of Manuel Gómez paid twenty-five pesos and the proceedings were signed on June 28, 1799. On August 3, the Royal Counselor of His Majesty approved the grant of Santa Anita.

The origin of the name for the grant of Santa Anita is not known, nor that of the western half of the grant called San Juanito. Other early names for hand-dug wells or pastures at the ranch were: Santillana, San Vicente, El Tasajillo, Los Comanchas, and El Rucio. Places also mentioned in the survey included: Las Aberias, Mogote de Buena Vista, El Rosario, San Ramón, Agua Negra, and Las Agonias. Officials often named the large Spanish land grants in honor of a saint, the home region of a conquistador, an historic event, a natural characteristic of the land such as a prairie, a mott of trees, a dry lake or an arroyo. The names have endured to modern times.

When he took final possession of the land, Manuel Gómez agreed with the Spanish officials to settle at the Santa Anita, despite potential Indian depredations. A nation of "heathen" Indians called Los Cotanames were known to inhabit the lands of the neighboring San Salvador del Tule, and other tribes roamed the lands adjoining the Santa Anita. The tribes of the Cotanames, Come Crudos, Tejanos, Como Se Llama, Carrizos and others ranged over the lower Rio Grande region. Gómez also agreed to the following: "In the jurisdiction of the town of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Reynosa, in the colony of Nuevo Santander, Manuel Gómez, his heirs, etc., are forbidden from disposing or selling any part of said land to a house of religious retirement or Church."

The land was his and for his heirs. This act of taking possession of a land grant was the fruition of forty years of promises made by the Crown of Spain to the colonists of Nuevo Santander. To understand how this one small act culminated over 250 years of history, and opened the door to the present Lower Rio Grande Valley, historians go back to the start of European exploration in Nuevo Santander.

The stretch of country between the Pánuco River at Tampico, north to the San Antonio River and inland from the Gulf of Mexico, was known to Spanish explorers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the Seno Mexicano or literally "the bosom of Mexico." It lay directly in the path of conquest of the coastal plains. Both the French and the Spanish authorities knew that the occupation of this neglected area was key to the control of not only the Gulf coast, but the entire region. Dividing this mighty stretch of terrain was the Rio Grande, flowing from southeastern Colorado, west and then south through New Mexico and Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. The river was known as the Rio del Norte in the sixteenth century and reportedly, the Lipan first called it the Rio Bravo, especially at times of flooding.

As it flowed southeastward to the Boca del Rio, east of present-day Brownsville, the Rio Grande dictated exploration and settlement along its banks. A vast alluvial flood plain formed the northern bank of the river. The south bank later became northern Mexico, mostly the state of Tamaulipas and Coahuila. With flooding, the boundaries of the Rio Grande changed nearly every year. The remaining ox-bow lakes became fresh water resacas. After floods, ranchers on the one bank of the river often found their lands situated on the other bank.

Wild animals ranging the plain included bison, antelope, and wild mustangs, contributing to its moniker "Wild Horse Desert." Aside from domestic animals, the brushland and river were populated by whitetail deer, javelina, turkey, bobcat, oscelot, jackrabbits, cottontail rabbits, tortoise, hawks of many varieties, whitewing, mourning and inca doves, bobwhite quail, blue quail, rattlesnakes, coral snakes, other nonpoisonous snakes, horned toads, and lizards. The brushlands were comprised of mesquite, prickly pear or nopal cactus, cenizo, uña degatoj'ara china, huisache, brazil, coma, anacahuita, and granjeno.

Ranch lands located north of the farmlands along the river, including the Santa Anita, are today populated by the same flora and fauna as hundreds of years ago. The entire area is defined by its long, hot summers, frequent droughts, the occasional hurricane, and mild winters punctuated by roaring northers. Arroyos, creeks, and canals interlacing the region drain the floodwaters toward the Rio Grande and the Gulf of Mexico.

After Spain laid claim to territories in the New World in the beginning of the sixteenth century, expeditions set out to investigate them. Spain was eager to explore and claim as much of the New World territories as possible and pushed on to find resources around the Gulf of Mexico. It was an exciting time in Europe. Common scientific beliefs in astrology and geography had been shattered as Spanish explorers to America sent home stories of new lands and people.

One of the first Spanish explorers to acknowledge the existence of the Rio Grande was Alonzo Álvarez de Pineda, who in 1519 with four navíos armados (war ships) and his crew of 270 men mapped river outlets around the Gulf of Mexico. Though he did not set up a colony there, his observations marked for the first time the river's proximity and significance. This encouraged further exploration. However, subsequent explorations did not come much closer to the Rio Grande for some time. In 1520, Diego de Camargo, with 150 infantry, seven cavalrymen, and artillery sailed from Jamaica to the Rio Pánuco, about three hundred miles south of the Rio Grande. The Indians at first welcomed Camargo and his men but after they unloaded their building materials and supplies, the Indians drove them out of the area.

Throughout the sixteenth century, each subsequent exploration through the Seno Mexicano filed widely varying reports regarding the Rio Grande area. Some explorers found Indians, others found none; some found the Indians hostile and "barbarous," others found them accepting, passive, or even accommodating; some reported numerous settlements, others found utter desolation.

Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca explored the coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico beginning in the year 1527. His story of landing in 1535 at "la isla de Mai Hado" or Island of Bad Luck, thought by many to be Galveston Island, remains one of the most spectacular exploration stories of the Seno Mexicano. Cabeza deVaca and the three remaining men of his expeditionary force, Andrés Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and Estévanico, a black slave, were stranded on the coast and captured by the Karankawa tribe. The men survived by showing understanding for the native culture and by Cabeza deVacas ability to convince the Indians of his power as a healer, his success at healing determined by his tendency to accept only cases he knew he could cure. They endured enslavement and the harsh life of the Karankawa. Knowing civilization lay somewhere to the south, their travels brought them into the region of Nuevo Santander to the coastal area of present-day Padre Island.

Cabeza deVacas description of the lifeways of the Karankawa Indians and challenges of survival at the time remain a valuable illustration of the harshness of the region. The coastal Karankawa were one of the longest enduring bands and remained along the coast until the end of Spanish Texas. The men were tall, wore little or no clothing, and pierced their lower lips and nipples with pieces of cane. Women wore skirts of animal skin or Spanish moss. They hunted small game and collected the seasonal produce of the landscape: nopal cactus and its fruit, the tuna, roots, fish, and shellfish. To protect themselves from the intensity of the coast environment, they covered themselves with alligator or shark grease, which also repelled mosquitoes. For warmth, they built fires.

The region's other tribes, also known by the amalgam "Coahuiltecan," appear to have been, by European standards, equally savage at times, though reportedly docile and welcoming to the Spanish at other times. Many of the Indians kept slaves from other tribes, whom they treated cruelly. The women and children gathered food for most of the day. Weak, elderly, or ill members of the band were left behind to die in the harsh climate.

Although it would be nearly 150 years before Spain organized the first official exploration along the lower Rio Grande, there were individual explorers who crossed the region. For example, Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva may have been the first, in 1573, to cross northward as he sought hostile Indians to pacify, chastise, or eradicate. Until France raised the stakes by pushing into the Seno Mexicano, Spain did virtually nothing.

The Spanish had long known the French wanted to enlarge their holdings through Louisiana into Texas, and possession of the vacant Texas coastal area was critical. Rumors of a French settlement on the lower Gulf coast continued to worry the Spanish. These rumors were confirmed when in 1687 Capt. Alonso de León, the commandant of the presidio of Cerralvo, exploredthe Rio Grande and beyond to find French settlements. His was the firstentrada, or expedition, northward beyond the Nueces River. Prior to De León, four small excursions and five marine envoys failed to find La Salle's fort or any French colony

De León found the ruins of the French fort, St. Louis, built by René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle in 1685 on Matagorda Bay. Members of his own scouting party had finally murdered La Salle on January 20, 1687, as they tried to find a way out of the hostile Indian country. The Karankawa tribe ravaged Fort St. Louis after they learned of La Salle's death and killed all but six settlers. Fort St. Louis was nothing more than a little wooden fort with six small buildings made of poles, mud, and hides. Among the ruins, De León's men found over two hundred French books, torn apart. In addition, they found approximately one hundred harquebus butts, stocks, and hammers. They buried the remains of the settlers and collected the books. Since they could do no more, the large party moved on, wearing armor and chainmail against an encounter with the French, who they thought might still be in the area. Making its way through the countryside with only a broken astrolabe as guide, the De León expedition found Indian nations and herds of bison, but no French soldiers.


Excerpted from I Would Rather Sleep in Texas by Mary Margaret McAllen Amberson, James A. McAllen, Margaret H. McAllen. Copyright © 2003 Texas State Historical Association. Excerpted by permission of Texas State Historical Association.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1 "Pulled Grass, Broke Sticks, Threw Stones",
Chapter 2 "They Only Aspire To Independence",
Chapter 3 "I Am To Comply with Privations, Hardships",
Chapter 4 "Annexation and War with Mexico Are Identical",
Chapter 5 "A Prosperous and Beautiful Place",
Chapter 6 "I Was A Slave",
Chapter 7 "I Promise To Work at the Hacienda de Santa Anita",
Chapter 8 "The Cotton of the People",
Chapter 9 "One of the Most Cowardly and Scandalous Affairs",
Chapter 10 "Don't Let Them Leave Without Some Demonstration Against Them",
Chapter 11 "Renounce Fidelity to Every Foreign Prince",
Chapter 12 "I Expect Good Times on This Frontier",
Chapter 13 "Ganado de Nanita",
Chapter 14 "A Little Tammany",
Chapter 15 "I Would Rather Sleep in Texas",
Chapter 16 "They Will Grow with the Country",
Chapter 17 "Tensions on the Border Never So High",
Epilogue: Holding On,
Spanish and Mexican Land Measurement Equivalents,
Cattle Brands,
Regional Ranching Terms from Rancho San Juanito, by James A. McAllen, edited by Félix D. Almaráz,
Selected Bibliography,

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