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Defending the Mexican Name in Texas

By Jerry Thompson

Publication Year: 2007

At a time when the U.S.-Mexican border was still not clearly defined and when the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and land hunger impelled the Anglo presence ever deeper and more intrusively into South Texas, Juan Nepomucino Cortina cut a violent swath across the region in a conflict that came to be known as The Cortina War. Did this border caudillo fight to defend the rights, honor, and legal claims of the Mexicans of South Texas, as he claimed? Or was his a quest for personal vengeance against the newcomers who had married into his family, threatened his mother’s land holdings, and insulted his honor? Historian Jerry Thompson mines the archival record and considers it in light of recent revisionist history of the region. As a result, he produces not only a carefully nuanced work on Cortina—the most comprehensive to date for this pivotal borderlands figure—but also a balanced interpretation of the violence that racked South Texas from the 1840s through the 1860s. Cortina’s influence in the region made him a force to be reckoned with during the American Civil War. He influenced Mexican politics from the 1840s to the 1870s and fought in the Mexican Army for more than forty-five years. His daring cross-border cattle raids, carried out for more than two decades, made his exploits the stuff of sensational journalism in the newspapers of New York, Boston, and other American cities. By the time of his imprisonment in 1877, Cortina and his followers had so roiled South Texas that Anglo reprisals were being taken against Mexicans and Tejanos throughout the region, ironically worsening the racism that had infuriated Cortina in the beginning. The effects of this troubled period continue to resonate in Anglo-Mexican and Anglo-Tejano relations, down to this very day. Students of regional and borderlands history will find this premier biography to be a rich source of new perspectives. Its transnational focus and balanced approach will reward scholarly and general readers alike.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Series: Fronteras Series, sponsored by Texas A&M International University


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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p. vii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. 1-6

More than a century after his death in 1894, the legacy of Juan Nepomuceno Cortina remains one of considerable confusion and debate. Through the years, scholars have attempted to place his life into historical context and thereby to understand what motivated him to lead a rebellion. Whether taken as hero or villain, Cortina seems one of those historical...

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Chapter One: The Making of a Revolutionary

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pp. 7-33

Brownsville was strikingly hot and sultry on July 13, 1859--the usual summer condition in South Texas--as Juan Nepomuceno Cortina spurred his pinto horse into the dung- peppered streets of the bustling community. Under indictment in Cameron County for murder and stealing livestock, Cortina came to town heavily armed. Cautiously, he rode to Gabriel Catsel's small restaurant and saloon on the east side of a busy Market Plaza, a place...

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Chapter Two: No Night for Mexican Tears

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pp. 34-66

The decade following the Mexican War brought suffering and sorrow to many Mexican Texans in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and throughout the Lone Star State. In 1849, an outbreak of cholera in Brownsville took more than one hundred lives, mostly those of the poor. The cholera was followed four years later by a terrible yellow fever epidemic that took even more lives. In October 1857,...

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Chapter Three: Flocks of Vampires in the Guise of Men

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pp. 67-95

With a passionate sense of survival and a thundering voice, Cortina realized he had unleashed a rebellion that stirred the conscience of all Tejanos and Mexicanos and challenged the assumption of Anglo Texan supremacy. Encouraged by his military successes, he issued a second pronunciamiento from Rancho del Carmen on November 23, 1859. Similar to the...

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Chapter Four: A Frontier in Flames

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pp. 96-127

Restless and resistless, Cortina returned to the border in early 1861 with a determination to continue his revolution and create a new sense of social justice. Although leading armed men in rebellion against the government had long been a way of life on the Rio Grande, he realized the righteous forces of indignation he had unleashed were different and could not easily be suppressed. Being harshly judged...

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Chapter Five: Republic in the Balance

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pp. 128-147

In fewer than five years, through sheer bravado, cunning determination, and a lot of luck, Juan Cortina had risen from a near illiterate Cameron County ranchero to the pinnacle of power in Tamaulipas. Power had its price, however, and, a few months after proclaiming himself governor, two Frenchmen tried to assassinate him. Although both would-be assassins were...

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Chapter Six: Tiger in the Chaparral

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pp. 148-174

On April 1, 1865, at San Fernando on the coastal plain, some eighty-five miles south of Matamoros, Cortina reasserted his loyalty to Juárez and the Mexican republic.1 Consistently plotting to deliver Matamoros to the Liberals, his heart had never been with the Empire. Besides, he had never been given the money Mejía had promised when he originally gave up...

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Chapter Seven: Border Caudillo

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pp. 175-199

With Cortina at the center of the vortex, the struggle for power in Tamaulipas between the Empire and the republic raged throughout 1866 and into 1867. After occupying Bagdad, the Imperialistas began constructing a "splendid little redoubt" they christened Fort Carlota. On March 23, 1866, however, the Imperial garrison was battered by a storm that swept over the town from the gulf and...

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Chapter Eight: Predator War

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pp. 200-218

Although Cortina would never again return to Texas, he never kept his eyes off the state. Realizing the inability of the U.S. Army and local law enforcement officials to secure the vast reaches of the border, he would once again strike at the landholding elite and the forces of oppression. In the process, the reactionary forces of racism, oppression, and fear that had been simmering since 1859 would again come to the forefront of the history of the...

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Chapter Nine: Caudillo Vanquished

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pp. 219-247

Although no longer in command of the military on the Rio Grande, Cortina remained a general in the army, and he set his sights on obtaining political power in Matamoros. He had always been popular in the city, and, in November 1873, he began campaigning for the office of president of the ayuntamiento, or alcalde. From the beginning, he faced two formidable...

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pp. 249-252

Every Sunday, for years, María de Jesús López would make her way to the Panteón de Dolores to place fresh flowers on the grave of her husband. But in the decades that followed, many of the realities and events that had shaped and molded Cortina's incredible life were already fading to memory. Despite his grave being only a stone's throw from the immaculate...


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pp. 253-300


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pp. 301-318


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pp. 319-332

E-ISBN-13: 9781603444514
E-ISBN-10: 1603444513
Print-ISBN-13: 9781585445929
Print-ISBN-10: 1585445924

Page Count: 344
Illustrations: 21 b&w photos. 23 line art. 3 maps. Notes.
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: Fronteras Series, sponsored by Texas A&M International University
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OCLC Number: 609948143
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Cortina

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Subject Headings

  • Texas -- History -- 1846-1950.
  • Cortina, Juan N. (Juan Nepomuceno), 1824-1894.
  • Texas -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865.
  • Outlaws -- Mexican-American Border Region -- Biography.
  • Revolutionaries -- Mexican-American Border Region -- Biography.
  • Mexican Americans -- Civil rights -- Texas -- History -- 19th century.
  • Lower Rio Grande Valley (Tex.) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Mexican-American Border Region -- History -- 19th century.
  • Mexican-American Border Region -- History, Military -- 19th century.
  • Texas -- Ethnic relations -- History -- 19th century.
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