Two hundred and sixty-three years ago on May 15, 1755, Don Tomás Sánchez and a small group of extended family members from Nuevo León crossed the Rio Grande at “El Paso de Jacinto”.
(The location had originally been indicated by explorer Jacinto de León in 1746, hence the name.)
As the first European-descent people, their arrival at this site gave birth to Laredo, Nuevo Santander (renamed Tamaulipas). A reminder that at that time, South Texas, north to the Nueces River, was not in Texas, but in Tamaulipas).
The crossing at this particular spot is significant because Laredo and nearby Dolores (1750) were the only two Villas del Norte that Colonel José de Escandón approved on the east side of the Rio Grande. The question is how did Nuevo León’s Sánchez party become part of the Escandón Expedition that began in Queretaro? It’s a good question.
As a descendant of early South Texas pioneers, writing about our inspirational pre-1836 Texas history involves answering such key questions. Thus, I’ve chosen to write about Tomás Sánchez de la Barrera y de la Garza, the founder of my hometown of Laredo. Born in 1709 in Ciénega de Flores, Nuevo León, his parents came from influential and respected families; both making their mark here in America and Spain.
Don Tomás married my great (3) aunt, Catarina Uribe de Sánchez, a genuine early South Texas pioneer woman. The marriage produced nine children; (one source lists 10). After Catarina died, Don Tomás married Teodora Yzaguirre and two more children were born.
By the time the villas were being settled, Don Tomás was already the head of a large family and a successful rancher. In fact, it was in searching for new grazing lands that Don Tomás became familiar with the area that would become Laredo.
That he became part of José de Escandón’s inner circle of advisors is in itself very revealing. In their book, “Notable Men and Women of Spanish Texas”, historians Don Chipman and Harriett Denise Joseph call Escandón one of Spain’s ablest, most powerful men on northern New Spain’s frontier; serving the Spanish Crown for over fifty years. Surely, Colonel Escandón must have noticed that Don Tomás possessed very desirable qualities — great faith and intellect, a problem solver, and a visionary man of courage.
So how did Don Tomás and José de Escandón, Father of South Texas, actually meet? In approving the villas, Viceroy Revillagigedo (Juan Francisco de Güemes y Horcasitas) put at Colonel Escandón’s disposal all resources in Coahuila, Texas, and Nuevo León. Among the best of local leaders: José Vásquez-Borrego, Carlos Cantú, the Guerra Cañamar family, José Chapa, Blas Maria de la Garza Falcón, Don Tomás, and many others.
Thus, Escandón quickly recruited these men into service. His plan was brilliant. Seven simultaneous, separate excursions from Coahuila, Nuevo León, Texas and other sites were tasked to meet at the mouth of the Rio Grande on the Gulf of Mexico. The multiple entradas into the lower Rio Grande consisted of Escandón starting from Queretaro on January 7, 1747. Miguel de la Garza Falcón began from Coahuila. Likewise, Texas cadres from La Bahia and Los Adaes travelled southwest along the coastline. Once completed, Colonel Escandón reviewed the reports and made final decisions accordingly.
Subsequently, when Colonel Escandón was in Revilla during an inspection tour, Don Tomás asked for approval to settle at his own expense on Escandón’s new province of Nuevo Santander. Instead, Escandón commissioned Don Tomás as a captain and assigned him to explore an area farther north toward the Nueces River.
As a good soldier, Don Tomás completed his task, filing a report identifying serious problems with the terrain and submitting it to Colonel Escandón. The result? Villa de San Agustín de Laredo was deemed a better location.
(Note: Incidentally, what was happening in the U.S. on May 15, 1755, the day Laredo was founded? Well, it was not called the U.S. yet. Twenty-three-year old George Washington was a loyal British citizen, and a volunteer in Braddock’s Campaign, a British expedition against the French near today’s Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.)
As for his venture, Don Tomás had initially planned for twelve families. However, he began with three. Albeit, five years later, a capilla (chapel) was opened to serve its population on both sides of the Rio. In 1767, the chapel became Iglesia San Agustín, and eventually elevated to Catedral de San Agustín in 2000. Thus, Catholic masses in Spanish have been celebrated in Laredo since 1760!
After devoting his later life to lead Laredo and put it on solid footing, Don Tomás Sánchez died in 1796 at the age of 86. It’s been a long march from 1755 to 2018 for Laredo. Much has happened. Therefore, what follows is only a very brief profile:
Laredo, as the most successful of Colonel Escandón’s villas on the Rio Grande, has exceeded expectations. Taking root with only three families, the metro Laredo-Nuevo Laredo population now surpasses 500 thousand. Anchoring the southern end of the I-35 commercial highway, Laredo is the busiest land port on the U.S. Mexico border.
Additionally, Laredo’s strategic location between San Antonio and Monterrey has seen its share of history-making events. Of note is the fact that the first push-back steps against blatant anti-Mexican discrimination in Texas began in Laredo with Jovita Idar, the mutualista movement, and La Liga Femenil Mexicanista.
Too, Laredo’s military past is distinguished, as are its native sons and daughters who have more than ably served in all military branches. Also, Laredo is the hometown of WW I Medal of Honor recipient, Pvt. David Barkley Cantú.
In summary, Laredo’s history is second to none. Yet, metro residents are unaware of their inspiring heritage, simply because it’s not reinforced in their daily lives as well it should. For that reason, I recommend the following to Los Dos Laredos:
A. To my family and friends in Laredo: First, whether in k-12 or college/university, our children must no longer have to explain to others that they are not recent immigrants. That goal can only be achieved through a dedicated pre-1836 Texas history educational process at all levels.
Second, you can help restore our ancestors to their deserved place in Texas history. If you belong to local civic, social, and/or philanthropic organizations, strongly encourage group leaders/membership to help:
(1) Sponsor and elevate Founders Day beyond the annual luncheon by designating May as Laredo Founding History Month (parade, reenactments, history seminars at local colleges & universities, k-12 school participation, essay contests, lectures, tertulias, etc.), and
(2) Organize a Society honoring Laredo’s own pioneer women of distinction: (a) Catarina Uribe de Sánchez, (b) Maria Josefa de Llera de Escandón, and (3) Maria Josefa Uribe de Gutiérrez de Lara, the “first” First Lady of Independent Texas; born and raised in today’s bi-national community of Guerrero, Tamaulipas and Zapata, Texas.
(Note: Kudos to Martin High School and the Webb County Heritage Foundation for working in partnership to include pre-1836 Laredo history lessons in the curricula. Also, as this article goes to press, the Texas SBOE has approved a Mexican American Studies (MAS) curriculum that will allow students to learn a seamless history of Texas.)
B. With all due respect, to Nuevo Laredo officials, and the Consulate General of Mexico, Mexican Cultural Institute of Laredo: The next time you meet Laredo’s George Washington’s Birthday delegation for the ceremonial Abrazo, you can make the greeting more historically significant. How?
By including a group of Nuevo Laredo dignitaries dressed in New Spain colonial period attire representing Count José de Escandón, Captain Tomás Sánchez, and their spouses. In welcoming New England’s George and Martha Washington, their greeting would simply be: “Presidente Washington, bienvenidos a la Villa de San Agustín de Laredo en Nuevo Santander, Nueva España.”
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows a monument in Nuevo Laredo dedicated to Tomás Sánchez (1709-1796).