“The County Commissioners Court of Zapata County, Texas, on March 12, 1951, met in regular session and voted unanimously to employ Mercurio Martínez and Virgil N. Lott, to compile a history of the county…due to the inevitable inundation of a part of the county from the waters of Falcon Dam which will destroy many of the historic landmarks of the county…”
With those words, the preface of the book, “The Kingdom of Zapata,” written by my uncle, Mercurio Martínez, and Mr. Virgil N. Lott, begins an educational journey of our homeland’s history.
Most certainly, Zapata County leaders in 1951 were men and women of vision. Having been advised of the decision to build Falcón Dam, they set in motion a plan to prepare for the inevitable. Thankfully for us descendants, one of the first orders of business was to officially record Zapata’s history.
How significant was the news to Old Zapata residents? Devastating. The place that generations of New Spain’s Las Villas del Norte descendants had called home was disappearing forever. Imagine for a moment if English colonists of Jamestown, Virginia had been told they would have to relocate because their New England historic town would soon disappear under the waters of a new dam being built nearby.
Nevertheless, Falcón Dam was indeed built. It was the first of two Rio Grande reservoirs on the Texas border. Amistad Dam, upriver near Del Rio, was officially dedicated 15 years later in 1969. Regrettably, as with Falcón’s huge historical heritage loss, Amistad’s waters forever inundated untold Native American rock art and archeological sites that were thousands of years old.
In retrospect, Falcón Dam has delivered its promise of better flood control, power production, improved irrigation, recreational fishing industry, and tourism. Yet, some people suspect that it was clearly driven by politics, further believing that large land owners benefitted the most, by having taxpayers pay for the reservoir. Another viewpoint suggests that Zapata residents were forced to sell their homes and ranches at extremely low prices. Sufficient to say that the topic remains contentious to this day.
Appropriately, The Kingdom of Zapata starts with a detailed description of the Escandón era. Truly, it is a gold mine for those seeking specifics of our how Zapata came to be. Of significance is the fact that when Colonel José de Escandón established over 20 Villas del Norte in Nuevo Santander, he approved only two to be built on the east side of the Rio Grande. One is in what’s now Zapata County (Dolores, 1749), and the other one in Webb County (Laredo, 1755), about 30 miles upstream.
The book also describes Porción family history (i.e., Ramírez, Gutiérrez, de la Garza Falcón) of old Falcón, the first community to be inundated and the source of the name “Falcón” Lake.
Among dozens of ranchos, featured are the Bustamante (Comitas) Ranch (22,000 acres) and Randado. Recorded is the fact that Randado encompassed over 45,000 acres. For all intents, it was a self-sustaining community. Its ample stock of cattle, horses, and mules were extensively marketed in Mexico and as far north as San Antonio. Randado was the place to buy local hand-made ropes and lassos said to be unequalled in quality.
As for Zapata itself, it was a settlement officially established with its own post office as Carrizo on January 16, 1854. Though, nearby San Ygnacio was settled in 1830. Then, Carrizo was changed to San Bartolo in 1871. Shortly however, it was reestablished as Carrizo in 1874. Finally, on May 2, 1901, its name was changed to Zapata, honoring local rancher, community leader, and independence warrior, Colonel José Antonio Zapata.
One of the first county judges in Zapata County (inaugurated in 1858) was José Antonio G. Navarro, son of José Antonio Navarro, signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence. How did San Antonio’s famous Navarro family end up in Zapata?
After the 1836 Texas Revolution, the Anglos betrayed their Tejano allies and drove many of the leading families south, such as Seguín, Leal, Músquiz, and Navarro. Most crossed the border in exile into Mexico. However, Judge Navarro and his extended family settled in with my ancestors in Zapata on this side of the border.
On a personal note, my mother, Maria de la Luz Sánchez Uribe de López, born and raised in San Ygnacio, told me she named me José Antonio in honor of Judge Navarro at the request of my grandfather, Zapata County Sheriff Ignacio Sánchez.
The book then describes in great and vivid detail the various communities of Uribeño, San Ygnacio, Falcón, Ramireño, Lopeño, and Zapata. San Ygnacio is special to me because our ancestral home (the Treviño-Uribe Homestead) is located there.
While San Ygnacio today has a population of about 700, the small town has seen its share of historical events. For example, plans for the short-lived Republic of the Rio Grande were formulated here.
Also, it is recorded that when Porfirio Diaz was in the U.S. collecting funds and supplies for his revolution, he bought 40 mules from my great, great Grandfather, Blas Maria Uribe to carry the war materiel to Mexico. By the same token, it was from San Ygnacio, Texas that Catarino Garza, who later rebelled against President Diaz, carried out an armed attack against Diaz military forces across the Rio Grande in San Ygnacio, Mexico.
As well, San Ygnacio saw its share of gunfire resulting from several liberty and independence movements acting out on its streets. Coincidentally, one of the wooden beams (vigas) in the Treviño-Uribe Home is inscribed by the words “En paz y libertad, obremos” (In peace and liberty, let us work together), attributed to great Grandpa Blas Maria Uribe.
While this article focuses on the book, “Kingdom of Zapata”, discussion of Falcón Dam’s impact on the region would be incomplete without mentioning cousin Maria Eva Uribe de Ramírez’ book, “60 Years Ago – Zapata County under Waters of Falcón Dam, (Including Guerrero, Tamaulipas, Mexico (1953-2013).”
The book’s dedication page cleverly entitled “Trail of Fears,” describes the outcome: “Heartwarmly dedicated to all the families who, in the name of progress, lost their cherished possessions and spirits of being forever submerged in the depths of the waters of Falcón Dam. Prayers to All!”
She goes on to describe her inspiration for writing about the devastating events on local families. As a ten-year-old caught up in the emotion of the historic event, she witnessed the first day of flooding of her ancestral and historical town of Falcón Viejo.
In my view, Maria Eva Ramírez’ book’s aim is three-fold. (l) To present detailed background of Falcón Dam’s official planning and construction; (2) Contain several historical documents; and (3) Offer a large compilation of interesting pictures, displaying how the dam affected the daily lives of local families.
Indeed, it is a visual 60-year tour of the region. Prima Maria Eva hopes her work inspires the young generation of Zapata descendants to learn about and never forget the importance of preserving our ancestors’ pioneer history.
In summary, it’s fitting to finish this article with wisdom and hope for tomorrow as expressed at the end of “The Kingdom of Zapata”: “Zapata County was wild once… It flames no more. Its tale is told. It lives with its memories, and its ghosts. Peace is now its portion. It was once an Indian village. Soon it will be a modern city.”
Editor’s Note: Click here to watch a video of the opening of Falcón Dam, courtesy of the Texas Archive of the Moving Picture.