Mark Davidson 0000-00-00 00:00:00
The Cortina Wars Being a judge in Texas has never been easy. Being a judge on the Texas frontier was substantially more difficult. Being a judge in the Rio Grande Valley in the mid-19th century brought challenges greater than most in our state’s history. The land had just been captured in a war from a population that knew little of the English language and less of Texas law. Lawsuits against Mexicans who found their inheritance on the wrong side of the river were common. Those suits often ended with Texans with dubious claims prevailing. Land disputes often led to violence, which occasionally led to criminal convictions, unless the parties took matters into their own hands, which happened frequently. Minute Book B of the Cameron County District Court tells the story of these times in a way no other historian ever has before. It details the cases that came before the district court sitting in Brownsville between April 26,1858, and Aug. 21, 1866,1 including the following: • An 1860 indictment of former Mexican President Antonio López de Santa Anna for murder; • An 1859 lawsuit brought by Richard King (a founder of the King Ranch) and Mifflin Kenedy against Joseph Moses; and • An 1865 suit brought by John McAllen against Francisco Saenz over title to Saenz’s Spanish Land Grant. The most significant entries in the volume involve the cases that gave rise to the “Cortina Wars” of 1859. Juan Cortina was born in Mexico but inherited his mother’s ranch north of the Rio Grande. The Cameron County Clerk’s files reflect that he was twice indicted for cattle theft but never arrested. Notwithstanding his indictments, Cortina became a leader in the Mexican community in Brownsville. On July 29, 1859, Cortina shot the Brownsville city marshal after the marshal brutalized one of Cortina’s Mexican- American ranch hands. Cortina had long held a grudge against the judiciary and law enforcement officers for what he saw as their complicity with the Texans’ efforts to steal the land of Mexican residents. Two months later, he rode into Brownsville commanding some 80 armed pistoleros , killing five townspeople, including the city jailer. They then rode out of town, shouting “Viva Mexico” and “Death to the Americans.” Eventually, the efforts of, successively, a locally recruited militia, the Texas Rangers, and the U.S. Army commanded by Col. Robert E. Lee persuaded Cortina and his men to retreat to Mexico. Cortina and men would eventually actively fight the French army in their occupation of Mexico in the 1860s and on behalf of the United States against the Confederacy. Cortina was indicted for murder and treason. The treason case came to trial in 1861, and he was acquitted. He never came to trial on the cattle theft or murder charges. Was Juan Cortina a civil rights leader or a bandit? How did the land barons of South Texas start their ranches? Were land titles inherited through Spanish Land Grants wrongfully taken? These questions, and many more, will be able to be comprehensively answered as more court records of South Texas are saved, restored, and preserved. Minute Books A and B from Cameron County are a good start.2 By Judge Mark Davidson Notes 1. The judge of the court during the 1850s, Edmund J. Davis, would go on to become governor of Texas. He left the bench after he was unwilling to take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. 2. Cameron County Minute Book A has also been preserved and restored through a donation by the Brownsville firm of Colvin, Chaney, Saenz, and Rodriguez. On July 29, 1859, Cortina shot the Brownsville city marshal after the arshal brutalized one of Cortina’s Mexican American ranch hands.
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