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  • "Where the Cult is in the Hands of the People"Enlightened Catholicism and Colonization on the Texas Frontier
  • Brian Stauffer (bio)

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Catholic diocese map of Mexico, early nineteenth century. Courtesy of the Mapoteca "Manuel Orozco y Berra" del Servicio de Información Agroalimentaria y Pesquera.

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In November 1828, Father Miguel Ramos Arizpe, precentor in the cathedral of Puebla, wrote to the vice president of Mexico requesting permission to colonize a strip of vacant land on the Rio Grande in the state of Coahuila y Texas. Ramos Arizpe proposed to settle two hundred families, which he hoped would be mostly Mexican nationals, "since it is my aim to encourage retired and injured soldiers and so many poor families from [Coahuila y Texas], Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas to leave behind their misery while also preventing our best lands from being taken by foreigners." This was far from the first time the enlightened priest involved himself in the matter of northern colonization. Ramos Arizpe had called for the planting of colonies in the frontier provinces as Coahuila's delegate at the Cortes of Cádiz (1810–12), where the native of Saltillo served on the colonization committee; he also authored New Spain's colonization law of 1821, under auspices of which Moses Austin received his empresario contract.1 [End Page 243]

Ramos Arizpe was neither the first nor last Catholic clergyman to take an interest in northern colonization. The bishop of Linares, Primo Feliciano Marín de Porras, whose diocese included Coahuila and Texas, had pitched his own colonization scheme to royal officials in 1806.2 Father José Antonio Gutiérrez de Lara, a Tamaulipas native and brother of the insurgent Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, sat on the colonization committee of Emperor Iturbide's Junta Instituyente, helping draft the Imperial Colonization Law of 1823. Later, he played a key role in designing Tamaulipas's state colonization program.3 San Antonio's parish priest, Refugio de la Garza, made his own plea for colonization of Texas as a delegate to the Constituent Congress of 1822, where he served on the colonization committee.4 In his efforts, he received vocal support from the Monterreybased Dominican insurgent, Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, who served on the same committee and proved an ardent colonization booster.5

What explains the decisive influence of Catholic clergymen in the advent of the colonization programs that reshaped Mexican Texas and ultimately the U.S.–Mexico borderlands? The question becomes more significant when one considers the common historiographical charge that the Mexican Church essentially abandoned Texas to the Protestant masses that came after 1820. Indeed, in the works of historians such as William Stuart Red, David Weber, and Howard Miller, Mexican Texas appears as a spiritual wilderness—an unchurched frontier forgotten by the diocesan hierarchy and mostly aloof from the crippling debates about Catholicism and nationhood then taking place in Mexico City.6 Even Carlos [End Page 244] E. Castañeda, whose monumental, Knights of Columbus-sponsored work Our Catholic Heritage in Texas concerns itself principally with writing the Catholic Church back into the familiar Texas narrative of "civilizing" conquerors taming a "savage" land, imagines the Mexican period as a garden of Gethsemane, where the Church "agonized" before rising again (albeit in frenchified form) under the Texas and U.S. flags.7

More recent scholars of Texas, when they are not actively reproducing this image of decline, tend to minimize the role of Catholicism in shaping the region's nineteenth-century trajectory.8 In the far northeast of Mexico, these accounts argue, regional priorities of shoring up the Comanche frontier and developing a cotton economy relegated spiritual concerns to the backseat and Anglo colonization was an essentially secular business; legal provisions for Catholic exclusivity were ignored by winking Mexican alcaldes and scheming Protestant newcomers alike. When historians have paid attention to the religious ramifications of colonization in northeastern Mexico, moreover, they have tended to see the latter as roughly synonymous with Protestantization—the issuing of colonization contracts to Anglo empresarios appears as either an act of divine providence or a devil's bargain, depending...


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