SAN ANTONIO, Texas – This past November 24th, UTPA (UTRGV) unveiled on its campus a statue honoring Count José de Escandón y Helguera.
It was a most fitting tribute, since he has earned the title of Father of the Rio Grande Valley. Yet, for all he did to lead the highly successful pioneer settlements in what is now South Texas from Laredo to Brownsville to Goliad, he is little known outside the region. The following summarizes his extraordinary story that is missing in mainstream Texas history.
As Spain looked for ways to protect its families living in early Texas between the years 1718 through the 1730s, the need for a better system to sustain them became crucial. Three problems surfaced almost immediately. One, the great distance between San Juan Bautista Presidio “The Gateway to Texas” and settlements to the northeast; Two, persistent rumors that the French were ready to march from Louisiana to claim territory west of the Sabine River; and Three: the constant threat of hostile natives who disapproved of any European settlements in their lands. The Spanish King tasked the New Spain Viceroy for answers. The viceroy then sought ideas from his advisers. A brilliant citizen answered the call; his name was José de Escandón.
José de Escandón was born on May 19, 1700, in Soto La Marina, Santander, Spain. His family was fairly well-to-do. He received a good education, and while still a young man of fifteen, the youth’s wish for adventure came true. He sailed to America. His military prowess was proven numerous times in Yucatán where he began his worthy reputation as a proven military leader, friend of the court, and explorer. Due to favorable reports from his superiors, the King of Spain was truly impressed by the dashing cavalryman. He quickly rose through the ranks.
Soon, the young soldier returned to Spain; got married in 1727, but lost his wife shortly after. He sailed back to New Spain and was posted in Queretaro. He married for the second time and he and his wife, Josefa de Llera y Bayas, had seven children. Soon, he became interested in the region of Sierra Gorda, today’s Northern Mexico and Texas.
Since Cabeza de Vaca’s travels in the early 1500s and the sad fate of 200 shipwreck survivors on the Texas coast in 1554, the region was thought to be inhabited by unfriendly natives. Out of many recommendations to settle the unfamiliar region, José de Escandón’s idea was accepted. The massive enterprise became known as Las Villas del Norte, the largest and most complicated settlements in what is now Texas. His was the only major effort that was all-civilian. Also unique was that rather than one large body of people traveling together, Escandón used a multi-route approach and each successfully reached its destination.
With families he recruited in Querétaro, José de Escandón established over 20 communities on both sides of the Rio Grande during the years 1749-1755. The first of these along the Rio was Camargo, established in 1749. Quickly in succession came Reynosa (1749), Refugio (1749), Dolores (1750), Revilla (1750), Mier (1753), and Laredo (1755). For the record, Camargo families came from the state of Nuevo León, mainly from the towns of Cadereyta, Cerralvo, Monterrey, and Pesquería Grande. Families in Reynosa came from Monterrey, Cadereyta, Cerralvo, and Montemorelos (Rio Pilón area). In 1749, some Camargo and Reynosa families united and settled Refugio (today’s Matamoros/Brownsville) and initiated the vaquero cattle raising industry in the area.
Dolores was established by Captain José Vásquez Borrego, a wealthy rancher from Coahuila who had expanded his ranching enterprise to include the Lower Rio Grande region. Revilla was established with over 50 families from the state of Nuevo León. The growth-from-within approach continued with a number of Camargo families settling the town of Mier. Don Tomás Sánchez brought his brothers, their families, and other families from Nuevo León to his new Villa de San Agustín de Laredo. Of note is the fact that many of our families were of Sephardic Jewish ancestry.
For 100 years, the Villas stretched like a “String of Pearls” along the lower Rio Grande radiating faith in God and family unity. The Spanish Mexican pioneer settlers built a system of roadways (Caminos del Rio) connecting the Villas. In fact, parts of highway U.S. 83 are built on caminos our Villas ancestors built with their bare hands. As a midpoint from Monclova to points north in Texas, Dolores and Laredo served as much welcomed stopping points on the Camino Real.
A significant detail that is lost in today’s discussion of the Villas is that when Escandón’s group arrived in the lower Rio Grande, they were the first European-descent inhabitants there. For example, when the residents of Laredo and Dolores began building their homes, they were the only Europeans living in permanent buildings on this side of the Rio Grande from the Gulf of Mexico to El Paso and Santa Fe, New Mexico!
When completed, the total number of families involved in what collectively became known as Las Villas del Norte was nearly 1,500 with a combined population of over 6,000, plus nearly 3,000 Christian Native Americans. It must be said that the Villas are the source of many Texas families that settled vital early communities “deep in the heart of Texas”: San Antonio, Los Adaes (Nacogdoches), and La Bahia (Goliad).
The Crown was pleased and awarded Escandón the title of Count of Sierra Gorda and first governor of the newly named territory of Nuevo Santander that included the southern portion of Texas. Not everyone was happy, especially those settlers who wanted deeds to their lands. Don José was unwilling to grant them because he was convinced that once the ranchers got deeds, they would abandon the towns. After an inspection directed by the viceroy, Don José was summoned to Mexico City to defend himself against his accusers. The embarrassing hearing took its toll. Don José died in 1770 before the end of his trial. His son, Manuel, taking up the case, defended his father’s name and his selfless service to the king. In the end, Don José’s name was cleared. Like many other pre-1836 Spanish heroes, Governor Escandón is greatly under-appreciated in Texas history.
Despite their birthright, life in the Villas abruptly changed in 1848. As a result of the U.S. Mexico War of 1846-1848, the close-knit communities were broken in two. Residents living west and south of the new border remained Mexican citizens. Those living east and north first became Texas citizens and shortly after, U.S. citizens. Notwithstanding the split that continues to this day, many Borderlands families still have close contact with each other, proving that the agua del Rio Grande doesn’t separate, but rather unites them.
Finally, the 36th Texas State Hispanic Genealogy and History Conference will be held in Laredo, Texas, October 8-11, 2015. Hopefully, if you’re a Villas descendant, you’re making plans to attend. If you aren’t a descendant, but wish to learn more of José de Escandón; want to begin your own genealogy search; or want to know about other vital pieces of the Spanish Mexican founding roots of Texas, such as (l) the origins of the unique vaquero (cowboy) way of life in Texas; (2) Captain José Vázquez Borrego; (3) Colonel José Antonio Zapata (Zapata County); plus many other fascinating stories, come join your primas & primos at this impromptu extended family reunion. Above all, please come to see why the welcome words of “Mi casa es su casa” have made Laredo the home of hospitality.
José “Joe” Antonio 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.