SAN ANTONIO, Texas – On April 6, 1813, Maria Josefa Uribe Gutiérrez de Lara became First Lady of Independent Texas.
In gaining that distinction, she actually scored a “double” first. Not only was she the first to fill the position, but she was also the first Hispanic to serve in that capacity.
Indeed, hidden just beneath the sands of time, her narrative is unknown in mainstream Texas history. Married to José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, the first President of Texas; Maria Josefa Uribe’s story is truly exceptional. Her right to the honor is certain. Her husband was successful in organizing Mexico’s Army of the North (First Texas Army).Then he defeated the Spanish Army in five battles. He thus became the first President of the independent Texas province and has the credentials to prove it – first Texas Declaration of Independence and first Constitution.
However, because it doesn’t fit the Sam Houston model, his triumph is disparaged in mainstream Texas history as an “expedition,” rather than for the bona fide revolution that it represents. Albeit, how did these things happen and most of all, who was this courageous woman?
Maria Josefa was born in 1774 to Magdalena Gutiérrez de Lara Uribe (1737-1802) and Don José Luis Uribe (1735-?). They were from Revilla, now the Guerrero, Tamaulipas and Zapata, Texas bi-national community. Revilla was part of the vast close-knit family network known as the Villas del Norte of José de Escandón, located alongside the Lower Rio Grande. To be sure, the Uribe family was among the most influential in Nuevo Santander. For example, her aunt, Catalina Uribe, was married to Tomás Sánchez, founder of Laredo.
As with most early Texas pioneer women and men, few childhood details exist. However, what is known is that on April 21, 1800, Maria Josefa and José Bernardo were married in Revilla. Having inherited his father’s large estate, José Bernardo and his bride started a family. A son and a daughter were born in Revilla; the first two of what will eventually number six siblings.
As mentioned above, little is written about Maria Josefa’s story. However, four courageous points in her adult life should help to define her strong character and status as a leader in the story of early Texas independence.
First, Maria Josefa (affectionately called “Chepita” by her husband José Bernardo and family members) actively nourished her husband’s rebel efforts against unfair Spanish colonial policies. She supported his call for Texas as an independent province of Mexico. When he rode off to Chihuahua to volunteer in Father Miguel Hidalgo’s “Grito” revolt, Maria Josefa stayed home to lead battles of her own against the irate Spanish Army regional commandant and his soldiers.
In 1811, when Don Bernardo left for Washington, D.C., to seek help for the Mexican revolution, the Spanish authorities attacked the Gutiérrez de Lara homestead. They confiscated all property owned by Don Bernardo. Thus, Maria Josefa experienced the brunt of harsh treatment from Spanish authorities. Don Bernardo’s extended family and friends in Revilla were also specific targets. The family had been allowed to stay in their home, but most everything of value was stripped from them and worse, they had nothing to eat. Neighbors were threatened by death should they help in any way. Those who helped had to use the cover of night to do so. It was a bleak situation for everyone involved. Courageously, Maria Josefa endured the humiliation and constant harassment for many months.
This brings us to the second ordeal that Maria Josefa experienced. Anticipating victory, Don Bernardo had secretly contacted his close friend and compadre, Don José de Jesús Villarreal, to bring Maria Josefa and their children from Revilla to Béxar.
Don José de Jesús and his brother Petronillo escorted Maria Josefa and the two youngsters in secret to Béxar. They traveled mostly by night; staying in the brush, following narrow Indian trails. Had they ventured onto the popular Camino Real, they would have faced the threat of Spanish Army patrols. If stopped by a patrol and forced to reveal their identities, the party would have surely been killed on the spot. Maria Josefa was indeed lucky to have been guided by such loyal friends. Soon enough, they reached the safety of San Antonio. Sadly, the Spanish authorities eventually found out about the trip. When the Villarreal brothers returned to their home in Revilla, they were arrested and executed for their valiant act of courage.
Maria Josefa’s third act of bravery occurred when she accompanied her husband into exile in Natchitoches, Louisiana on August 4, 1813 for a period of 10 years. Don Bernardo remained active, especially in pacifying unfriendly tribes in the region. Expectedly, Maria Josefa continued to keep the family together. Also, she was on her own during 1814-1815 when at the request of General Andrew Jackson, Don Bernardo temporarily left Natchitoches because he and his exiled Tejanos assisted the U.S. general in defeating the British at the Battle of New Orleans.
Finally, Maria Josefa’s fourth ordeal began in 1824 when the Gutiérrez de Lara family returned to Mexico and welcomed as heroes. Shortly after, Don Bernardo was forced for health reasons to resign his position as the first Governor of Tamaulipas, Eastern Provinces Commander, and other positions. They eventually returned to their devastated home. Their pension denied, they struggled to survive for the last few years of their lives. Don Bernardo died on May 13, 1841 in Villa Santiago, Nuevo León, where although in very ill health, he had gone to see their daughter, Maria Eugenia. Too ill to travel, Maria Josefa had stayed home. Overcome with grief learning of her husband’s death, she died seven months later (December 15, 1841). Their souls eternally linked, theirs was truly a classic example of absolute love for each other.
In closing, it is convenient for those of us committed to unearthing our early Texas roots to feature mostly stories of brave men. However, for all the valiant male leaders in early Texas history, there were equally heroic, resourceful women whose courageous stories modern-day students must learn about in Texas school classrooms. Maria Josefa is one such candidate.
Actively contributing to her husband’s vision to set Texas free, Maria Josefa’s footprints are set alongside her husband’s in the founding of this great place we call Texas. In short, Maria Josefa personifies the many steadfast women who gave their all in building what became Texas. It is time that Maria Josefa Uribe Gutiérrez de Lara, the very First Lady of Independent Texas (1813) is honored with the dignity she earned and deserves. Mainstream Texas history can’t ignore her any longer. Justice delayed is justice denied.
José Antonio “Joe” López was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and is a USAF Veteran. He now lives in Universal City, Texas. He is the author of three books: “The Last Knight (Don Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara Uribe, A Texas Hero,”, “Nights of Wailing, Days of Pain (Life in 1920s South Texas)”, and “The First Texas Independence, 1813”. Lopez is also the founder of the Tejano Learning Center, LLC, and www.tejanosunidos.org, a web site dedicated to Spanish Mexican people and events in U.S. history that are mostly overlooked in mainstream history books.