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The Republic of the Rio Grande

Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Texans of the 19th century were audacious gamblers, putting their lives and all they had at risk while settling their frontier and securing their borders. Enemies were everywhere, often outnumbering them. Texans had the Alamo to remember, and a lot more, too. The new Republic of Texas was experiencing plenty of growing pains.Texas had gained its hard-earned independence from Mexico by winning the Battle of San Jacinto in April 1836, and Sam Houston, the victorious general who was elected president of the Republic of Texas that fall, gained American recognition for the republic in 1837. Still, relations with politically unstable Mexico were hardly rosy. Border conflicts were inevitable, especially when it wasn't certain where that border was.

During the winter of 1839, the second president of the Republic of Texas, Mirabeau Lamar, had a meeting with a Mexican border lawyer, Antonio Canales, about the possibility of creating a buffer nation between Texas and Mexico. But to carve a second nation out of Mexican territory, Canales and his followers in the river towns of the Rio Grande needed Texas' help.

For more than two years, Texas had been engulfed in Indian warfare. The so-called Great Comanche Raid into the very heart of Texas had forced the republic to put together a string of outposts in its wake. The outposts resulted in new grasslands opening up on the frontier for settlement, and these attracted footloose young Americans looking for adventure and a fight. Many Texans were surprised that the loser at San Jacinto, Antonio López de Santa Anna, and his Mexican army had not tried to reconquer Texas during this time. But the Mexican dictator was kept busy suppressing a revolt in northeast Mexico, just south of Texas.

The foot soldiers of that revolt included Mexican peasants and vaqueros along the Rio Grande; Cane Indians, who were the original natives of the Rio Grande Valley; and Texans and Americans still full of fight after the Comanche conflict. Santa Anna sent General Mariano Arista to crush the revolt in northeast Mexico, and by the fall of 1839, Canales and other rebels had no choice but to flee into Texas.

At that time, Texas encompassed the lands between the Red River to the north and the Nueces River to the south and as far west as the 100th meridian line. The Rio Grande was thought of as a source of life-giving water and a means of transportation through endless desert and mesquite. But the river was not generally considered the boundary between Texas and Mexico until after the Lamar presidency.

Canales did not consider himself in Texas until he stepped onto the north bank of the Nueces and rode into San Antonio. There, he promised any Texan who would fight for his cause $25 a month, a half league of land in a new republic being formed and equal shares in any loot taken. Signing up some men, he headed north for the capital, Austin, in order to enlist others into his small army and to meet in secret with Texas President Lamar.

The land around the Rio Grande is webbed with ravines cut deep by centuries of short downpours. It is otherwise a flat land of mesquite, rattlesnakes and small groves of trees under a constant glaring sun. Near its waters were the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Coahuila, along with the Nueces Strip (that section of land south of the Nueces River and north of the Rio Grande). Canales proposed to Lamar that Texans assist in the transformation of this land into a Republic of the Rio Grande. Such a river republic could act as a buffer if Mexico ever decided to march north to reclaim its former Texas province.

Britain and France had already recognized Texas' independence, and Lamar was officially trying to win Santa Anna's recognition through the offices of the British Foreign Ministry. Secretly, though, Texas was also offering to assume Mexico's debt to Britain in exchange for the Nueces Strip and public recognition of the Rio Grande as Texas' southern border.

It is not known if Canales was aware of Lamar's negotiations with Mexico through the British. He was aware that the Texan Congress had already declared that the Rio Grande marked the southern and western borders of Texas, thus cutting away half of his proposed river republic.

Lamar was certainly a gambler and an aggressive one. As Texas' president, he would send the Texas navy to the Yucatan to assist the rebellion there against Mexico, and he would also send a military expedition across the barren Staked Plains in an attempt to seize Santa Fe and all New Mexico. For Lamar, a Republic of the Rio Grande offered a fallback plan against possible Mexican aggression. For Texas' long-term benefit, the river republic could be absorbed later. Lamar officially declared Texan neutrality in the enterprise while privately either giving an approving word or turning a blind eye to Texans joining Canales' cause. In less than a month, two officers from the Texas army, Colonels Reuben Ross and Samuel Jordan, resigned their positions and enlisted in the Army of the Rio Grande as commanding officers.

The two officers found Canales' army camped south of the Nueces under the command of the colorful vaquero Antonio Zapata from the Rio Grande community of Guerrero. Zapata had a well-earned reputation as an Indian fighter along the border. Once when returning from a punitive raid, he and his 40 men ran into 200 Comanche warriors along the Nueces River. Zapata charged the Comanche war chief, who shot an arrow that struck the vaquero in the thigh, pinning him to his saddle. Zapata pulled the arrow out, chased down the chief and, overtaking him, pulled him off his mount by the hair. He then kicked the war chief to death using his spurs.

Zapata was building Canales' army with hard-riding vaqueros and Cane Indians armed with lances when Ross and Jordan led hundreds of Texans into his camp. The army was quickly divided into two divisions — one commanded by Zapata and Jordan (with Ross), and the other under Canales himself. It took the small army of 600 men 10 days (September 20-September 30, 1839) to march from the Nueces to the Rio Grande. Canales was hoping to catch the Mexican army in Revilla by surprise, but Jordan was spotted crossing the river, and the Mexican military withdrew downstream to Mier. Canales followed close behind.

At 11 a.m. on October 3, 12 miles outside Mier along Alcantro Creek, the small army found the Mexican military in battle formation. Canales ordered an officers' call to formulate a battle plan, but the Texans under Jordan and Ross were already attacking the Mexican army with effective rifle fire. Ross waited for Canales to reinforce the Texan line, but when it became obvious Canales and the rest of the small army were only going to be spectators, Ross ordered his men to charge the Mexicans. Twenty minutes of close hand-to-hand fighting followed, with the Mexican soldiers finally breaking and running. They regrouped five miles away within the walls of a hacienda, only to find that the Texans had surrounded them. Texan Major Joseph Dolan demanded a surrender. He was surprised when the young Mexican general, Pavlon, came out to give up his sword to the young Texan. When Dolan suggested Pavlon give his sword to Canales, the Mexican replied: 'No, sir. I surrender to the brave Texans. They are my conquerors!'

The Mexican army had suffered at least 150 casualties in the fight. Dolan took 350 prisoners, but they quickly enlisted in Canales' forces. But as Canales entered Mier, the local population was enraged to see Texan troops marching alongside his. Ross and Jordan were asked to take their men outside of town to make camp.

Canales stayed in Mier for 40 days, waiting for an omen that would inspire him to go downriver to attack Matamoros. He had evolved into a man who took no decisive action without a sign that he should, and he had failed to reveal this quirk to President Lamar. When Canales finally marched on the river port, it took his army 28 days to cross 165 miles with four cannons and 1,000 men in arms. The Mexican army under General Valentn Canalizo, with 1,500 regular troops and 18 cannons, was waiting for him.

Faced by a more formidable foe, Canales froze. Mathematics may have been the omen. The only fighting took place on December 15 when Zapata, with a force made up of Texans and vaqueros, raided a Mexican army outpost near the port city, killing 13 soldiers. The next day Canales held an officers' call and announced that since the Mexican army would not come out of Matamoros to fight, he was going to withdraw. Ross and Jordan were shocked by such logic, offering to lead a Texan attack on the city. When Canales turned the Texans down, Ross and 50 of his men left for Texas.

Canales had plans to go into the interior to take Monterrey. Jordan and the remaining Texans decided to stick to their commitment to the Republic of the Rio Grande. Monterrey was under the personal command of General Mariano Arista. The two opposing forces lined up their cannons 800 yards apart and slugged it out for a day without a casualty. The next day, Canales sent 300 cavalry out under Zapata as bait. Arista bit, leaving Monterrey unguarded as he chased after Zapata. Monterrey was Canales' for the taking. But instead of marching in, the Army of the Rio Grande took over a convent just outside of town.

The two armies stared at each other through Christmas. Then on December 27, Arista sent spies into the Army of the Rio Grande's camp, bribing 700 Mexicans into abandoning the river republic cause. Now faced with a vastly superior, well-trained Mexican army, Canales broke and ran for Mier. Arista saw his opportunity to destroy the rebel army, but rear-guard action by Zapata and Jordan saved the day for the rebels.

Canales reached the safety of Mier on January 7, 1840. He sent out riders carrying a call for delegates from the three Mexican states along the Rio Grande — Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Coahuila — to meet him at the Orevea Ranch on the east bank of the river, outside Laredo. On January 18, the delegates officially declared the three states the independent Republic of the Rio Grande, with its northern border the Nueces River, the former border between Texas and Mexico. A flag with three white stars on a red field with two stripes was raised over Laredo, the new national capital of the republic, and a constitution was formally ratified. Soldiers marched by the new flag, most of them pausing to kiss it as a sign of loyalty. Ceremony demanded a presidential guard, and one was hastily formed — made up of 60 Texans under Captain Jack Palmer — to escort the appointed officials of the new nation. A formal ball was held at Zapata's home that night.

Jesús de Cárdenas, a lawyer, was selected as the republic's president, while Canales was picked as commander in chief of the army. Canales had only 75 Texans under his command when word arrived in February that the Mexican army under General Arista had entered the Rio Grande Valley. Jordan wanted to retreat to the Nueces River and recruit more Texans into the fighting force. When Canales rejected his suggestion, Jordan left for Texas, taking 60 Texans with him.

The citizens of the Rio Grande Republic failed to rally en masse around the new flag as Arista marched on Laredo. President Cárdenas and his new government quickly fled to Victoria, Texas. But Canales, Zapata and their army — still made up of vaqueros, American adventurers and Cane Indians — decided to make a fight of it.

On March 3, the Army of the Republic of the Rio Grande arrived at Presidio del Rio Grande, ready to take on Arista's Centralist forces. Needing provisions, Canales sent Zapata and 30 men into Santa Rita de Morelos, only a few miles from where the army made camp. Zapata and his men stayed in Morelos overnight, but as he was leaving the next morning, citizens surrounded him and asked him to stay. Zapata agreed, ordering his men to dismount. He was not aware that a large number of Arista's men were encircling his small band. Suddenly, the men were fired upon by close to 200 Mexican soldiers. Zapata immediately took refuge in the nearest house, and for three hours the two sides exchanged fire. Zapata lost seven men. He was out of ammunition when Arista himself entered the town with 1,800 soldiers. Zapata felt he had no choice but to surrender, but he managed to send out a Texan who made it back to the main army.

Arista told Zapata that he would be pardoned if he swore allegiance to Santa Anna. Zapata refused. The Texan who escaped informed Canales of what happened, but Canales already knew. He had heard the shooting. Late that evening, after Zapata was already in chains, Canales rode in with a small party, fired a few artillery shells into the village and left the vaquero to his fate.

For five days Zapata was asked to swear loyalty to Santa Anna. On the fifth day, March 29, 1840, the order came for his execution. A small tear rolled down from the corner of his eye as the blindfold was put in place. After the prisoner was shot, Arista had him decapitated and the head taken to Guerrero under guard. There, Zapata's head was stuck on top of a pole set up in front of his house so that his wife and children and other Federalists would not forget his fate.

While Zapata was being held prisoner in late March, Canales had engaged Arista in a second battle, at San Fernando. It had been a disastrous defeat. From his 400-man army, Canales had lost 250 men, mostly Cane Indians. The dream of a new nation was becoming a death song for the Canes. Still, the Republic of the Rio Grande refused to wither. Canales set up a new capital at Lake Espantosa, between Carrizo Springs and Crystal City, before going into Texas again for help.

Canales made his way to Austin in late April 1840 for a private discussion with President Lamar. By now Lamar was having grave doubts about the wisdom of supporting the Rio Grande Republic, and the British had failed to convince Mexico to recognize Texan independence, let alone an extension of the Texan border to the Rio Grande. Lamar made a public declaration of no support for the river republic while privately encouraging a second round of Texan involvement.

Canales went on to Houston, where he raised money thanks to leading citizens of the Republic of Texas holding formal dinners in his honor. He arrived on June 1 at San Patricio, along the Gulf Coast. There, the Army of the Republic of the Rio Grande was being refitted, rearmed and reorganized, this time under the eye of Colonel Samuel W. Jordan. More than 300 Mexicans from both sides of the Rio Grande and 80 Cane Indians were already assembled, along with 410 Texans.

The first military action of this new army was a raid on Laredo in mid-July. Jordan, with 110 Texans, and Colonel Luis Lopez, with 150 vaqueros, wanted to recover 6,000 pounds of lead that was hidden in the town. The former river republic capital was defended by 150 Mexican soldiers. Jordan and Lopez agreed to enter the city an hour before sunrise in a pincer movement. Jordan did so and caught the garrison asleep. Three Mexican soldiers were killed, and 20 were taken prisoner. The rest fled. After the shooting was over, Lopez finally entered the city, but the delay caused hard feelings between his men and Jordan's Texans.

Still, the citizens were jubilant. The Mexican flag was pulled down from the town square and the three-star flag of the republic hoisted once again. Soon the river towns of Revilla, Mier and Camargo also were flying the Rio Grande flag as the Mexican army retreated into the rough high country to the south.

Jordan was then ordered to team up with Canales' brother-in-law, Colonel Juan Molano, and lead a mixed force of Texan, Mexican and Cane warriors totaling 350 men to steal horses for future operations. What Jordan did not know was that his second in command, Molano, had secretly changed sides.

The raiding party crossed the Rio Grande and struck off for the interior, capturing Ciudad Victoria without a fight. There, the Texans looted the businesses and robbed the prominent citizens. It is not certain if Jordan approved the sacking of Ciudad Victoria or if he could have stopped his men if he wanted to. Molano later claimed it was the sacking of that city that caused him to turn on his Texan allies. The Republic of the Rio Grande installed a new state government for Tamaulipas in Ciudad Victoria while its army marched deeper into Mexico.

Molano now persuaded Jordan to march to San Luis Potosi, where a Mexican army was waiting in ambush. Suspicious, Jordan changed direction, marching his men to Saltillo, where Mexican General Montoya was stationed. Molano raced ahead to meet with Montoya. If the Texans could be wiped out, the river republic would die quickly, Molano told the Mexican commander — for a price.

On October 25, 1840, the Mexican army filed into trenches on a hilltop south of Saltillo. The Rio Grande forces occupied an opposing hill under the command of Colonel Lopez, who had also sold out secretly to Montoya. As soon as the regulars advanced toward the Rio Grande line at around noon, Lopez ordered Jordan to take his Texans into a mountain gorge, supposedly to flank the Mexican regulars. Jordan obeyed the order blindly. But one of the Texan officers saw that it was a trap and quickly rode up alongside Jordan during the march. 'In the name of God, sir, where are we going?' shouted the officer. 'If you take us to that gorge over there, the enemy will not leave a man to tell what became of us!'

Jordan saw the light. He ordered his men to wheel around and take cover in an abandoned hacienda across from the Mexican trenches. A number of Rio Grande vaqueros who had been with Zapata quickly rode in to support Jordan. For more than two hours, the Mexican army bombarded the Texans and vaqueros dug in behind the walls of the hacienda. Then at 4 p.m. the Mexican army charged the position. Jordan waited until the enemy was within 30 yards before ordering three savage volleys in rapid succession. In short order, 400 Mexican troops dropped out of the formation — dead or dying — while the rest panicked and fled back into Saltillo. Jordan lost five dead.He then ordered a retreat for Texas. Montoya set off after them the next day, but Jordan's Texans and vaqueros successfully fought a series of rear-guard actions until they were able to cross the Rio Grande.

Canales now believed the Republic of the Rio Grande was doomed and entered into secret negotiations with General Arista. On November 6, 1840, Canales crossed the Rio Grande and surrendered at Camargo. At the same time, he accepted an officer's commission in Santa Anna's army. Shortly afterward, President Cárdenas and his men marched into Laredo under the three-star flag and surrendered it to Santa Anna officials. The Republic of the Rio Grande came to an abrupt end.

Canales would maintain afterward that he joined Santa Anna because it had become obvious that Texas was using the Republic of the Rio Grande to seize more of his native country, Mexico. President Lamar had no idea what was taking place in the Nueces Strip and along the Rio Grande. He wasn't sure if there was anything left of the Republic of the Rio Grande or if Santa Anna was massing an army there for an invasion of Texas.

Lamar ordered Captain Jack Hays of the Texas Rangers to take 13 men from San Antonio to Laredo in March 1841.

Officially, they were looking for horse thieves. Unofficially, they were to spy out the countryside. Captain Antonio Prez apparently commanded another small Ranger detachment as a second'spy brigade.' Hays, possibly with the Tejano leader Prez riding with him, was quickly met by 42 Mexican regulars led by the alcalde (similar to the position of mayor) of Laredo. The Texans took cover while Hays and a young recruit rode out to talk with the man.

The alcalde told Hays that the Mexicans were only an advance guard and that soon a large formation of soldiers would be riding up. The wise thing to do, he insisted, was for the Texans to surrender to him first. Instead, Hays ordered his young recruit to shoot down the alcalde, which he did, causing the Mexicans and Texans to charge each other back and forth for an hour. Finally, Hays and his men charged without reloading, catching the Mexicans off guard. The Mexican soldiers broke and ran. Hays seized their horses. Soon 32 Mexican regulars came out of the mesquite to surrender,while eight of their comrades lay dead or mortally wounded in the sun. The Texans had only two wounded.

Hays had answered Lamar's questions. There was no massive Mexican army preparing for an invasion of Texas. There was also no remnant of the Republic of the Rio Grande.

When Canales surrendered in November, he made no terms for the Canes. Although these natives were Catholic, their properties and ranches were seized by Santa Anna officials. Cholera then struck what remained of their nation, and the Canes became extinct. Canales himself would later lead campaigns against Texans, help stop a Texan filibuster to Mier in 1842 and fight against U.S. troops in the Mexican War. After the war, he served Tamaulipas in various capacities, including interim governor, and on July 22, 1852, received an award for his conduct. It is believed he died later that same year. As for the late Antonio Zapata, one of the new Texas counties carved out of the Nueces Strip was named for him in 1901 by Texans who remembered his courage.



This article was written by Mike Coppock and originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of Wild West.

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