- A Failed Venture in the Nueces Strip: Misconceptions and Mismanagement of the Beales Rio Grande Colony, 1832–1836
Click for larger view
View full resolution
[End Page 420]
In late October 1833, Dr. John Charles Beales of Norfolk, England, hustled around New York City recruiting colonists to join him on his mission to settle his contracted land grant in northern Mexico, an area of land of about eight million acres in the Nueces Strip, between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. Beales carried with him a contract he signed with the state of Coahuila y Texas that described the land the colonists would settle and stated that the Mexican government would regulate it as a colony.1 He also held $4,000 he received in New York from a recently formed land company and promised as much funding as the colony needed to succeed.2 Beales offered huge swaths of land to prospective colonists in a region that he described as a paradise for agricultural development.3 [End Page 421]
The prospective colonists took Beales at his word because of the evidence he produced in the forms of contracts and cash. The entire project seemed like it would be a successful enterprise. Finding the most success among European immigrants who sought land for agricultural development or had landed in the city in a pitiable state, Beales pieced together a motley group of fifty-nine English, Irish, and German travelers willing to attempt an expedition that would take them another two thousand miles by sea and then more than two hundred miles overland in the wet, cold winter.4
When the English doctor and his troupe of migrants from Europe entered northern Mexico, they found themselves wholly unprepared for the rigors of life in the borderlands. The big, bulky carts the colonists used to transport their meager belongings proved ill-fitted to the terrain and much of what they brought was lost on the road. The colonists were also surprised to learn of the threat Native peoples posed to their venture. The colonists did not know they were entering Comanche lands until they actually arrived. Fear of attack constantly worried Beales’s recruits. Though they built limited defenses and hired what few Mexican soldiers were willing to tag along, a catastrophic Indian raid remained both a real and imagined threat that undermined the settlers’ morale. Furthermore, the fortunes of the venture rested on Beales’s ability to lead the construction of a brand new settlement in the arid wilderness of northern Mexico. Poorly managed, with limited supplies and defenses, it is little surprise the colony failed. Afterward, the colonists dispersed, and the settlement they built disappeared.5
Historians of Mexican Texas rarely study the empresario grants that failed.6 Scholars generally relegate the unfulfilled contracts that Mexico awarded to land agents to populate its northern territories to footnotes or brief paragraphs, while the success stories continue to produce books and articles.7 Only a few publications focus on the Beales Rio Grande [End Page 422] colony.8 This is likely because scholars view failures like Beales’s as the insignificant results of incompetence. The successful grants leave a clearly tangible significance while the failures do not. What valuable takeaways can we glean from a deep analysis of the Beales venture’s demise?
This article takes Beales’s failure seriously for several reasons. It provides valuable insight into the conditions and contingencies of settling the lower Rio Grande Valley during the Mexican period by contrasting it with other empresarios who established and maintained settlements in Texas. Beales had everything an empresario could ask for in undertaking his contract. Mexico gave him three grants to choose from, and he had the backing of a wealthy American investment group. Neither Mexico nor the United States was responsible for his colony’s disintegration. A comparison with successful empresarios shows how the importance of leadership...