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Life in Laredo

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Based on documents from the Laredo Archives, Life in Laredo shows the evolution and development of daily life in a town under the flags of Spain, Mexico, and the United States. Isolated on the northern frontier of New Spain and often forgotten by authorities far away, the people of Laredo became as grand as the river that flowed by their town and left an enduring legacy in a world of challenges and changes. Because of its documentary nature, Life in Laredo offers insights into the nitty-gritty of the comings and goings of its early citizens not to be found elsewhere. Robert D. Wood, S.M., presents the first one hundred years of history and culture in Laredo up to the mid-nineteenth century, illuminating--with primary source evidence--the citizens' beliefs, cultural values, efforts to make a living, political seesawing, petty quarreling, and constant struggles against local Indians. He also details rebellious military and invading foreigners among the early settlers and later townspeople. Scholars and students of Texas and Mexican American history, as well as the Laredoans celebrating the 250th anniversary (in 2005) of Laredo's founding, will welcome this volume. "Although there have been a number of books on the history of Laredo, this particular study is far more thorough than any previous work. Life in Laredo is imaginatively organized, exceptionally well researched, and well written. No individual knows the Laredo Archives as well as Robert Wood, and his knowledge and understanding are readily evident. This book will be of interest to anyone studying the history of the Texas-Mexico border, Texas colonial history, or just Texas history in general."--Jerry D. Thompson, author of A Wild and Vivid Land: An Illustrated History of the South Texas Border and Laredo: A Pictorial History

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I. Background Factors: The Source, the Laredo Archives

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I

n singing “The Cowboy’s Lament” (“As I walked out on the streets of Laredo . . .”) one could easily forget that this intriguing city was once a part of Spain. In a way this was fortunate because the preservation of papers and records dealing with national, municipal, legal, commercial, religious and social affairs was one of the ongoing and important requirements of Spain from her colonies. Each town was expected to report regularly to the higher echelons of authority. It was likewise expected to preserve copies of all of the decrees, ordinances, and legislation from the Crown and the viceregal, regional, and local governments, as well as the active and passive correspondence, copies of reports, and such things as the census. The accumulation of all of this material is what constitutes an archives. The preservation of all of these documents is another matter and depends very much on how succeeding generations appreciate their historical value. All too often they are relegated to some out-of-the-way spot with an agglomeration of boxes and bundles considered too important to throw away but never really referred to. And then, for some, there comes a time when they seem to be an encumbrance, when they are no longer a vital link to the past but a present nuisance, and they face the fate of all unwanted things.

 

1. Beginnings and Consolidation: 1747–1767

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1. Beginnings and Consolidation:

1747–1767

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he Six Flags entertainment parks in various states that were once part of the Louisiana Territory remind us of the “ownership” of these lands by various governments, and while it was never part of the Louisiana Territory, the history of Laredo has to begin with the desire of

Spain to protect the possessions it had had in America for over two centuries.1 Ambitious, adventurous, and courageous explorers had extended Spain’s territory in North America far beyond what it was really able to control effectively. This did not really matter all that much until

France and England also laid claims to territory in North America and began systematically colonizing. English expansion toward Florida and the Mississippi was worrisome. The second flag, that of France, flew somewhat tenuously over the Gulf Coast and eastern Texas, but never anywhere near Laredo even though the French had been permanently in the area since 1699 when Biloxi was established. New Orleans became a French crown colony in 1731 despite protests from Spain, which claimed all of the territory along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.2

 

2. Laredo’s Leaders

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2. Laredo’s Leaders

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olitics and the weather are probably the most talked about topics everywhere. While we can not do much about the second, we consistently try not to let the first interfere with our lives too much, or else we try to figure out ways in which we can use the current political situation to our advantage. A civilized society can not really exist without government, but in the long run the government can be successful only insofar as the citizens themselves have something to say about it.

How did all of this affect the local situation in Laredo?

Spain was a monarchy and as such had established a highly centralized system that was used throughout the Spanish empire. The chain of command was clear and authority unquestioned. Leaders at various levels considered themselves little kings and they often used their positions to influence events or situations and some of them were not above fattening their bankrolls in whatever way possible. There are archival documents forbidding the sale of vacant positions.1

 

3. Changing Allegiances

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3. Changing Allegiances

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y the very fact that a person is born in a given place, that individual knowingly or unknowingly assumes an obligation of loyalty to the government and of responsibility to observe its laws, which are meant to protect the people and keep things functioning smoothly. How people view a government is often based on how effectively they think it is serving them. Sometimes citizens will feel that the government is incompetent or uncooperative, or worse, oppressive, and this can lead to rebellion or the desire to change the system or those who are exercising authority. The story of Mexico, particularly in the first half of the nineteenth century, is one of political turbulence, and even the most remote areas eventually became involved in the constantly changing situation. Political authority went from “I, the King” to “The Honorable Congress,” with various personalities taking the leadership or being deprived of it according to the acceptability of their actions. Some survived the storms better than others. Antonio López de Santa Anna managed to take over the presidency eleven times by changing from conservative to liberal as circumstances warranted. No one really ever knew what he stood for except desire for power. In that, he was not alone. Much of Mexico’s history revolves precisely around the fact that local leaders, caudillos, wanted to extend their authority and territory

 

4. A World of Enemies

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4. A World of Enemies

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aredo had been in existence for twenty-eight years before the rebellion of the English colonies in North America resulted in the Treaty of Paris and the recognition of the new nation of the United States of

America. Even before this, however, the English colonists had begun to look westward for land, impervious to the fact that this “wilderness” had been claimed by others long before. All kinds of arguments were used to justify the incursion into Indian lands. When the Indians resisted, the bow and arrow were no match for the rifle, and little by little the various Indian groups were displaced and pushed farther west and south. Within half a century the lands claimed by Spain had been infiltrated by new tribes which in turn were often enemies of one another. Having lost their agricultural and hunting grounds the Indians logically turned to raiding the pioneer settlements to exterminate the invaders when possible, but especially to steal animals for food and transportation.

 

5. Sociological Aspects

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5. Sociological Aspects

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very October 12 when the United States is commemorating Columbus Day, Mexico is celebrating “Día de la Raza,” the day on which a new “race” was born, a new people created from a mixture of those who came from Europe and those who were native to America. The term used to define this mixture is mestizo. Spain was extremely class conscious, and this was only one of a whole catalogue of new terms that were used to define the blood mixtures of the Spanish colonial people. Even second-generation Spaniards born in America were a separate class and known as Creoles. The colonists who came directly from

Spain were generally known as “peninsulars,” but there were distinctions here, too.

There is a wonderful quotation from Shakespeare that sums up the whole situation: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”1 The “born greats” who came to America were few and for the first century at least were generally viceroys and bishops or persons of high rank. Those who achieved greatness were the conquerors and explorers who more often than not came from the lower classes in Spain but received a certain status because of their exploits and became hidalgos (hijos de algo, literally “sons of something”).2 In America many of them were like the feudal lords

 

6. Faith and Culture

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6. Faith and Culture

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ven in the most primitive of cultures, religious belief has always been central to the way of life. The major feasts and celebrations were times of petition and appeasement to the god or gods who were believed to control things. Prayer and ritual accompanied the most mundane of activities, changes in status, sowing and harvesting, healing and health. Often, ways of doing things, the components of culture, were determined by belief. Faith and culture have always been closely combined.1

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, all of western Europe was Catholic. When some of the nations broke away, Spain remained staunchly firm in the faith and thereafter assumed as its right and responsibility the preservation and spread of Catholicism, especially in its colonies in the New World. At the same time, Spain saw itself as an instrument of bringing civilization to the native peoples whom it qualified with such terms as barbarian, savage, and pagan. Spain was absolutely convinced that these people would be far better off learning the ways of the western world and the truths of the Catholic faith than they could possibly have been otherwise. Much has been written about the mixed motivations of glory, God, and gold, but the fact is that religious ideas continued to permeate practices and policies even into the nineteenth century.

 

7. Making a Living

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7. Making a Living

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ordsworth wrote, “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” Most people have no trouble with spending. Getting is another matter. According to the reports from city officials over the years, it would seem that the Laredoans had a hard time earning a living and

“wealth” was not a word applicable to most of them. Like anywhere else in the world, there were the few who were well off and had even abundant possessions, and the majority who struggled in various ways to survive and provide for themselves and their families. This was true from the beginning of Laredo. Tomás Sánchez started his settlement owning more horses and mules than all of the other residents put together.2 This wealth was eventually shared by his descendants who were the “nobles” of the town. In a sense, everyone started out equally when the distribution of land was made in 1767, receiving sections of the same size, except that Sánchez received a section on each side of the river.3 The common pasture lands were also open to everyone. As time went on and the colony expanded, more land became available, but not simply for the taking. The Spanish Crown and later the national and state (provincial, departmental) governments were always concerned about land. There are numerous decrees about ownership, registry, and payment for lands.

 

8. Communications

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8. Communications

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he history of Laredo found in the archives exists first of all because there were continuous efforts to preserve the documents, including those mentioned at the beginning of this book. Secondly, it exists because there was reasonably good communication between the various towns and particularly with the capital of the department or province, which transmitted its own official documents and those that came from

Mexico City. The local officials filed away the various contracts, deeds, wills, and other legal documents and each mayor passed these on to his successor. The vast majority of the documents, however, and especially in the earlier years, came from the Crown, federal, or state officials who also disseminated the decrees of the legislatures. The fact that they are still extant says something about the way in which they got from one place to another. People went from place to place, too, which is another kind of communication.

The Laredoans themselves did not live in a totally isolated world though they consistently complained of being neglected and forgotten. No one, of course, could move about freely in colonial times without permission. Those who came from Spain had to have permission to leave the country and the passenger lists provide wonderful genealogical information. But even in the American colonies it was necessary

 

photo gallery

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1. 1789

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2. 1819

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2. 18192

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ote: Of the forty-four ranches mentioned, thirty-seven of them are deserted because of the devastating war that the barbarian nations to the north wage on us, and the seven remaining have people only at great cost and risk at the times of sowing, cleaning, and harvesting, which are unpredictable since the fields are on the banks of the Rio

Grande whose unforeseen and excessive floods can ruin them, and this is one of the main occupations of most of the inhabitants who live here, even though before the revolution in the Kingdom and the barbarian Indians began their hostilities which they carry out so frequently, they were employed in taking care of their animals of all kinds. Since these have been exterminated many have no other means of livelihood than to join the troops which guard this place since their presence here brings some money. While the corral for horses has 150 tame harness mules which are not organized since they belong to many owners, they are useful for bringing seeds from the Province of Coahuila, which is done in convoys guarded by the troops and to which the inhabitants here owe their subsistence; nevertheless the hunger the troops and people have experienced has been severe, obliging me to call this to the attention of the Governor of this Province in a communication of

 

3. 1824

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1824

195

bearing cows, and for sheep and goats for wool and skins 700 heads all belonging to one individual. There are 150 wild mares, 55 offspring of all ages, 115 tame horses and 60 mares. There are no mines of any kind in this jurisdiction since none have been found up to now.

The rest of the inhabitants live from their work serving those who employ them in these tasks. All of the day laborers at determined times such as the sowing, trips as muleteers, roundups of cattle are paid for their work as well as during the times that there are roundups of wild horses.

The war that these inhabitants have suffered from the Indians for more than ten years has despoiled them of goods of all kinds which they had previously and in which all of their capital was invested, leaving them in the greatest indigence that only one who has experienced it at first hand could believe. The few goods that are recorded in the previous notes are from just the past year to this date and for that reason haven’t increased.

 

4. 1828

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4. 18285

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he town of San Agustín de Laredo belongs to the State of

Tamaulipas in the Mexican federation. It was founded the 25th of August, 1755 and in the twelfth year of its existence it was given the land for six leagues around it from the center in all directions, recognizing at the same time as its jurisdictional limit the open territory of some 20 leagues: to the North, up to the Nueces river; to the south, along the banks of the Rio Grande to the 75 sections granted to the deceased

Citizen José Vásquez Borrego who at the time had three thriving ranches which today are deserted because of the devastation of the War. It

[Laredo] is located on the north bank of the Rio Grande, distant from the capital to the south by some 150 leagues, and from the closest town Ciudad Guerrero, also to the south, by some 20 leagues. Going southwest it is 30 leagues to the town of Vallecillo; to the west there are 35 leagues to Lampasos in the state of Nuevo León. To the northwest it is 40 leagues to the town of Guerrero in the state of Coahuila.

 

Appendix I Names of the original settlers of the town of Laredo

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Appendix II Land grants (sections) allotted during the Visit of 1767

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