Much has been written about the early exploration of this great place we call Texas. Yet, inclusive details describing the composition of the Spanish Europeans who initially colonized this part of America is generally lacking.
Equally distressing, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) omits these pre-1836 learning facts from the Texas history curriculum they direct to be taught in the classroom.
With Hispanic Heritage Month 2020 fast approaching, it’s the perfect time to recognize pioneer women founders — the first European-descent women who willingly ventured out and helped establish the state’s first towns and rancho communities.
For instance, María Antonia Longoria, Antonia de la Cerda, Antonia Vidales, Ana María Ximénez de Valdez, María Antonio Ximénez, Juana de San Miguel, and Josefa Sánchez were most exceptional members of the 1716 Ramón-St. Denis expedition (Chipman/Joseph).
They co-equally ensured the success of the mission by resolutely performing many tasks at hand during the dangerous trip. No doubt, as prepared participants, they contributed greatly to early Spanish foundation of San Antonio, Los Adaes/Nacogdoches, La Bahia/Goliad, and Nuevo Santander’s Las Villas del Norte on the lower Rio Grande (today’s South Texas).
In their book, “Notable Men & Women of Spanish Texas”, Don Chipman and Harriet Joseph note that these women were key members of the first planned settlement of Texas. Though, they add that several French women in the ill-fated 1680s LaSalle expedition are recorded as the initial European-descent women to live in Texas. The reason? It was due to navigational blunders committed by their leader, Monsieur de LaSalle.
That is, they were aboard LaSalle’s ship La Belle that got lost in the Gulf of Mexico in 1684. When they dropped anchor, LaSalle believed he had landed in French Louisiana, but came ashore farther west in Matagorda Bay, part of New Spain since 1558. By the way, the error cost Monsieur de LaSalle his life. He was murdered in 1687 by disgruntled members of his own crew.
Sadly, the French women either died of illness or were killed by local indigenous inhabitants who considered the strangers as invaders in their land. In 1689, Alonso de León secured the release of the women’s children living among the natives and cared for them as if they were his own.
Another interesting aspect related to an earlier group of European women in Texas is the unfortunate fate of Spain-bound flotilla shipwreck survivors (including many women and children) that were able to swim onto the upper Texas coast in 1554. Approximately 200 survivors valiantly tried to walk south along the coastline to Santiesteban del Puerto (Pánuco, Veracruz).
Sadly, all perished on the trail, with the exception of one lay brother who lived to tell the tale. (Chipman/Joseph).
By the same token, very remarkable women in early Texas history made their mark, but (as mentioned above) their stories are ignored in mainstream Texas history. Short summaries follow below.
Manuela Sánchez (1697-1758) was a beautiful woman of strong body, mind, and spirit. Manuela was the granddaughter of Diego Ramón, commander, Presidio San Juan Bautista, on the Rio Grande, in today’s Guerrero, Coahuila. She’s the first European woman to travel across Texas. Married to Louis St. Denis (French-Canadian trader working for Spain), she accompanied him from Presidio San Juan Bautista across Texas to East Texas and Louisiana. They had several children and settled in Natchitoches, Louisiana. After her husband’s death, she continued running their business activities, becoming the richest woman in Louisiana at that time. She died in 1758.
Patricia de León (1775-1849) was an intelligent woman of faith, who with Martín, her husband, led the settlement of the Victoria region in the 1820s. Patricia and her husband set up large ranchos in the area and along the Guadalupe River. Sadly, mainstream Texas history credits the settlement of East Texas to Stephen F. Austin.
In truth, Martin and Patricia were Austin’s mentors in Texas. The de Leóns endured four separate governments (Spanish, Mexican, Texas Republic, and the U.S.) After Martin’s death, Doña Patricia suffered much. Under violent political and anti-Mexican hatred after the Texas Revolution, her lands were occupied by Anglo squatters.
Fearing harm to herself and her family, she was forced into exile in New Orleans and Mexico. Later returning to Texas, she fought in the courts, winning a partial victory, and was able to reclaim a portion of her land.
Ignacia Gutiérrez de Lara Uribe (b. 1783). My great, great, great Grandmother Ignacia symbolizes the strong stock of pioneer South Texas women settlers.
Doña Ignacia was born in Revilla, Nuevo Santander that today is part of the bi-national community of Zapata, Texas/Guerrero, Tamaulipas. She was a true pioneer woman. Becoming a widow when her husband, José Dionisio Uribe died, she decided to move across the Rio Grande to start life anew on property her husband owned in present-day San Ygnacio, Zapata County, Texas.
Taking her two surviving pre-teen sons with her, Blas Maria, and Juan Martin, she built a raft herself. After putting her two young children and a few belongings on it, she single-handedly steered through the Rio’s strong currents until landing on the other side.
She built her homestead in the middle of the South Texas brush country. Her extraordinary efforts paid off and built a productive enterprise, establishing the Uribe dynasty. Honorable mention is her sister Viviana Gutiérrez de Lara, married to trailblazer Jesús Treviño (my great, great, great grandparents) original builders of San Ygnacio’s historic Treviño Uribe Homestead.
Rosa Maria Hinojosa de Balli (1752-1803) was a strong woman of faith and a consummate community leader. It’s fitting to end the summaries with her story. In his book, “Tejano Legacy” (Rancheros and Settlers in South Texas, 1734-1900), Armando C. Alonzo writes that Rosa Maria applied to the Spanish crown in her own name for lands in what is today the Rio Grande Valley, or almost the entire southern tip of Texas. That includes an area that more or less includes parts of Starr, Hidalgo, Willacy, and Cameron counties, plus Padre Island. Indeed, she received title to lands that eventually totaled over 650,000 acres. She is officially considered as the first cattle baroness in Texas.
Last but not least, Chipman/Joseph include the following in their book, illustrating the power of Spanish Mexican-descent women in 1700s Texas: The top ten cattle owners at Béxar included Maria Ana Curbelo, who ranked second, and Leonor Delgado, tied for fifth with Felix Menchaca. In short, women were influential movers and shakers in their own right at the time of the founding of Texas.
My hope is that conventional Texas historians and the Texas SBOE recognize Rosa Maria, other Mexican-descent pioneer women in Texas history, and openly accept (dignify) pre-1836 Texas people, places, and events. Doing so would greatly diminish mainstream society’s long-standing overt and covert hostility toward Mexico and Mexican-descent Texans.
In summary, justice delayed is justice denied. Though quite belatedly, this article salutes our intrepid women pioneer ancestors whose key role in early Texas history helped make our state what it is today. In Maya Angelou’s words: “How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes”.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows the family of Rosa Maria Hinojosa de Balli.
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