The people of Brownsville, Texas awakened hours before the dawn of September 28, 1859 to the sound of gunshots, thundering hooves, and shouts of “Viva Cheno Cortina! Viva la República Mexicana! Viva Mexico! Mueran los gringos!”
A band of over 70 Mexicans following Juan Nepomuceno “Cheno” Cortina had crossed the Rio Grande on a well-planned raid to rid themselves of several specific enemies. The Cortinistas, as they came to be known, hunted a few specific individuals, Anglos who had committed acts of violence and thievery against Mexicans and Texans of Mexican descent. Topping the list were two men Cortina had tangled with perviously: the sheriff, Robert Shears, and a distant relative of Cortina’s by marriage and nemesis, Adolphus Glavecke.
Brownsville itself wasn’t yet 13 years old, but was booming, having sprung up around a fort on the north side of the river built at the start of the Mexican-American War. A part of the Kingdom of Spain until Mexico won independence in 1821, this area changed “ownership” again when Texas won independence in 1836. Mexico never recognized the Rio Grande as the border, though, so the annexation of Texas by the United States in 1845 inevitably led to the Mexican-American War — including the Siege of Fort Texas in May 1846, making one of the earliest casualties of the war the fort’s commander Major Jacob Brown. General Zachary Taylor renamed the fort Ft. Brown in his memory.
As soon as Texas had won its independence back in 1836, Anglos streamed in from the United States, eager to take advantage of this newly won land. After the Mexican-American War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the floodgates burst open and a wave of new arrivals swept over the inhabitants, Anglos and Mexicans alike. Tensions quickly rose despite the deep roots of many families in both Mexico and Texas.
Many Mexican families and Texan families of Mexican descent owned their ranches and farms through old Spanish land grants, including the Espiritu Santo land grant, including relatives of Cortina’s mother. As Anglos swarmed in, they would file specious claims on property, forcing the landowners into the new Anglo courts to assert their property rights. Invariably, the family would have to hire an Anglo lawyer to represent them, and, should they win, pay said lawyer with a chunk of the family land.
Most Mexicans and Texans of Mexican descent were poor and watching what little they had slipping away to the greedy newcomers, unable to resist without violent retaliation. Ill feelings and bad dealings seemed to climax the previous July when Cortina saw Sheriff Shears pistol-whipping 59-year old Tomas Cabrera in the streets. Cortina told the sheriff he knew the man, and asked him to stop, saying he would gladly take the troublesome fellow home. The sheriff responded with a racist retort, and Cortina fired a warning shot. When Shears continued to beat Cabrera, Cortina shot him in the shoulder and fled with Cabrera.
The next time he appeared in Brownsville was the night of the raid.
Sheriff Shears topped the list of intended targets, as well as Adolphus Glavecke, who had sworn our warrants for Cortina’s arrest for alleged cattle thievery. Others accused Glavecke of trading in stolen cattle as well, and in fact, the whole Brownsville area was known as a center for buying and selling stolen livestock. Cortina considered Glavecke an enemy out to destroy him and intended instead to kill him that night.
Breaking the band of men into smaller groups to hunt down his targets, Cortina kept strict discipline and there was no pillage or looting nor indiscriminate shootings. When he demanded guns and ammunition from storekeeper Alexander Werbiski, he paid for them before leaving the store and family unmolested, telling the weeping Mexican wife it was “no night for Mexican tears.”
The Cortinistas took over the recently abandoned Ft. Brown, but failed to blow it up when they could not batter down the magazine door to reach the powder kegs. Nor were they able to raise the Mexican flag at dawn as they had hoped — due to a lack of enough rope.
They did kill three Anglos and one Mexican, a jail guard, who tried but failed to save the Anglo jailer, his friend, as the invaders freed several prisoners. Another Mexican was accidentally shot in the confusion. Neither Shears nor Glavecke were killed, though it seems Cortina might have found them but refrained from attacking the homes of others who had hidden them. He commented later, “They concealed themselves and we were loath to attack them within the dwelling of others.”
In the morning, General Jose Maria de Jesús Carvajal and Colonel Miguel Tijerina of the Mexican forces in Matamoros rode into town to ask Cortina to leave. Citing the unfortunate killing of the Mexican jail guard, Cortina agreed to leave and the last occupation of an American city by a foreign army came to an end just hours after it started — at the behest of another foreign military officer!
Though Cortina retreated, he warned he was not through pursuing his enemies and defending the rights of Mexicans in Texas.
I stumbled across this hidden bit of Texas history years ago while reading famed Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb’s The Texas Rangers (1935). Intrigued, I read more about Cortina through the years and it has been interesting to read other versions of this event, including the more recent book by Carlos Larralde and Jose Rodolfo Jacobo, Juan N. Cortina and the Struggle for Justice in Texas (2000), as well as Jerry Thompson’s biography, Cortina: Defending the Mexican Name in Texas (2007).
The split in views of Cortina between the cultures is striking. History is written by the victors, they say, and the earlier accounts, written primarily by white American historians referenced Cortina with such derogatory nicknames as the “Rogue of the Rio Grande” and “The Red Robber,” (in reference to his red hair and beard). But, to Mexicans, he remains a folk hero, a defender of the Mexican people in their struggle for justice. Corridos such as this one celebrate his resistance to the Anglos.
Over there, across the Rio Bravo,
gringoes verus Mexicans:
laws and treaties only serve the Americans.
Cortina is from Tamaulpais
and he pays back offenses with a bullet in the gut.
The whites don’t like his fame any more!
They huddle together;
they just look at him and become frightened.
Juan Nepomuceno Cortina
Knows very well what’s going on.
He’s a man among men for defending his people.
The Brownsville Raid served as the opening salvo in the Cortina War — but that’s a whole other story. Juan Cortina, folk hero/rogue, would go on to bedevil Texas Rangers and armies on both sides of the river for years to come before eventually becoming the Governor of Tamaulpais.
Juan “Cheno” Cortina: rogue or folk hero? or both?