Saturday, January 14, 2017


By Juan Montoya
Sometime back, our good friend Joseph Linck wrote in the letters section of the Brownsville Herald that the papers of Charles Stillman have been donated by his estate to Harvard University.
Whether you are on the side that considers Stillman the founder of Brownsville or merely someone who stole people's land and made his fortune as a war profiteer during the Civil War, the fact of the matter is that those archives could well reveal to us parts of Brownsville's history heretofore unknown.

Stillman started his commercial activities when his family sent him to northern Mexico to oversee their commercial enterprises which included shipping in goods and even ownership of a silver mine. When the U.S. invaded the area between the Nueces river and the Rio Grande in 1846, Stillman jumped over to this side of the Rio Grande and made his money supplying the American forces.
He is then credited with laying out the original Brownsville townsite. Disputes over the ownership of the land dragged on for decades after he left. Nonetheless, local historians credit him with establishing the city and donating (legally releasing) many public spaces.

He, Richard King Mifflin Kenedy, and Robert Kleberg cleaned up running Confederate cotton past the U.S. blockade at Puerto Bagdad during the Civil War under the Mexican flag procured for them by Francisco Yturria.

Years ago, during a previous lifetime, I was a reporter for the Brownsville Herald and wrote some pieces dealing with local history. It amazed me that local historical associations at the city and county level tended to ignore some truly unique events and characters of the area's past.

One Thanksgiving ago as we drove through Cuero, Texas, we saw a museum dedicated to the Chisholm Trail when great herds of "wild" cattle from South Texas were marched off to slaughter to the rail heads in Wichita, Kansas. Did you know that the start of the trial is right here in Brownsville and that a marker is all but forgotten in Hope Park?
Why is there a museum in Cuero and nothing in Brownsville?

I ran into the late Delbert Runyon when I was a reporter and did a feature on his dad, Robert Runyon, the photographer, botanist and former mayor of the City of Brownsville. 

When I visited the old homestead at 808 E. St. Charles, glass photographic plates were strewn about in a wooden utility shed that had seen its better days. Some of the plates and post cards lying around the ramshackle building showed some damage from leaks in the rotten shingle roof. On the alley side of the house, a tall tree stood behind the house. Delbert Runyon said it was a tree that his dad had been given credit for discovering as a new species of the citrus family.

Time has since passed and now we know that the Runyon family donated the entire collection now called the Robert Runyon Photograph Collection of the South Texas Border Area made up of a collection of over 8,000 items.
It is designated as "a unique visual resource documenting the Lower Rio Grande Valley during the early 1900s."

The Runyons donated the collection to the Center for American History in the University of Texas-Austin 1986 and it includes glass negatives, lantern slides, nitrate negatives, prints, and postcards, representing Robert Runyon's life's work. The photographs document the history and development of South Texas and the border, including the Mexican Revolution, the U.S. military presence at Fort Brown along the border prior to and during World War I, and the growth and development of the Rio Grande Valley.

The UT-Austin page says that some 350 unique images in the Runyon Collection document one chapter of the revolution which Runyon witnessed in Matamoros, Monterrey, Ciudad Victoria, and the Texas border and surrounding area.

"As various political and social factions within Mexico fought to topple a 30-year dictatorship to establish a constitutional republic, the struggle quickly spread to the northern border with the United States," the narrative continues.

"In the north, rebel leaders such as Pancho Villa mobilized armies and began to raid the Federal government garrisons of then dictator Porfirio Díaz to aid in the cause of the 'constitutionalists'. Nervous U.S. officials along the border stood by and watched the conflict take shape."

In Matamoros, Runyon photographed the Constitutionalist armies as well as the major military figures of the campaign. On June 4, 1913, the day after General Lucio Blanco and his rebel forces captured the Federal garrison at Matamoros, Runyon moved throughout the city photographing the victorious soldiers, Federal casualties, and political executions.

Later reports indicate that the Runyon Collection at the Center for American History at the University of Texas was selected by the Library of Congress as one of 10 collections in the United States to become a part of the American Memory project.This means that it will be digitized, and available on the Internet.

Runyon was also known as an avid botanist, and some of his work has preserved the knowledge of Lower Rio Grande Valley flora.
He is credited with discovering several cacti, but the crowning achievement would have to be the plant named Esenbeckia runyonii, a species of flowering tree in the citrus family, the same that is growing by the alley on St Charles.

The plant is native to northeastern Mexico, with a small, distinct population in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in the United States. Common names include Limoncillo and Runyon's Esenbeckia.
The specific epithet honors Runyon who collected the type specimen from a stand of four trees discovered by Harvey Stiles on the banks of the Resaca del Rancho Viejo, Texas, in 1929.
Conrad Vernon Morton of the Smithsonian Institution received the plant material and formally described the species in 1930.

An entry under the name in Wikipedia states that "the fruit is a thick-skinned, woody capsule roughly 1 in (2.5 cm) in length that has five carpels. When mature, carpels dehisce (break apart) to eject black, up to 1⁄3 in (0.85 cm) long seeds. Green capsules are distinctively orange scented, while leaves smell like lemons."

In 1994, a Brownsville Herald report stated that "fewer than 10 of the trees survive in the wild in Texas, all along a resaca bank near Los Fresnos. Others were planted by Runyon in Brownsville."
(We went to look for the tree in preparing this post, but we could no longer find it. Does anyone know whether it was cut down?)

After Alton Gloor and other developers razed the vegetation along the resacas to build subdivisions, that part of our culture no longer exists. Runyon's work is about the only thing that can take us back to the days when the region was still "green" and the convulsions in northern Mexico – as they are now again – spilled over to the U.S. side.

Alas, there is now nothing locally that can give our local students and visitors a hands-on example of that glorious past. The UT Library website states that "Runyon published two books on native plants, Texas Cacti (1930) and Vernacular Names of Plants Indigenous to the Lower Rio Grande Valley (1938), and in the 1920s began a crusade to save the native Texas palm, Sabal texana."

In fact, his entire collection of botany pamphlets, books and specimen samples was also donated to the Runyon Botany Collection gift to Jernigan Library Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, in Austin.

Ever since I wrote the feature for the Herald in the early 1980s, I've wondered why a home in Brownsville couldn't be found for the two collections, even if they could be reproductions of the stuff the have in Austin. It is, after all, a crucial record of our area's historical and botanical story.

Likewise, why do we ignore the role that Juan Cortina played in the turbulent era following the inclusion of this area into the United States? After all, Cortina took over downtown Brownsville and held the city for three days seeking the enemies of his people who had taken their land.

Northfield, Minnesota was the scene of a bank robbery staged by the James brothers (Frank and Jesse) in 1876 while they were in the Midwest on the run. Do you now what the greatest cultural event is held there yearly which has become a source of tourism and from which the town derives its greatest great economic shot in the arm? Would you believe the James bank robbery?

We, in contrast, seem to be content to have our history carted off to collections in distant university data systems while we continue to ignore it. Outsourcing of our manufacturing base has not worked out well for our country. Outsourcing our past is an even worse idea. 


Anonymous said...

Perhaps, it is good our history is in the hands of others. Nobody down here seems capable of handling it well. The gringo types see things through one prism and the mexican types see it though a quite different prism. We seem unable to accept and respect each other for the positive contributions each one made. We seem to unable to assign blame for human failure to any of our local heros white or brown.

The early gringos were a mixed lot with some good and some bad. The same can be said for the early mexicans. Stillman was both a community leader and a thief. Cortina was both a champion for the mexican and a murdering thief. Neither side has virtue or sin cornered, there is plenty enough to go around. It is the unwillingness to accept this, that keeps us in perpetual conflict.

Anonymous said...

As a "hands on example of that glorious past" visit Sabal Palm Sanctuary. The largest remaining track of native palms in Texas.

Anonymous said...

Why is Brownsville content to outsource it's his amazing history? The answer is very simple, we don't have any visionary leaders, heck! we don't have any leaders at all! We led by people who just wait for stuff to happen; from the school board to the city commission, all the same. Brownsville a city with so much potential where "the blind are leading the blind"


Anonymous said...

Excellent piece, Mr Montoya. The local historical association is run by board members who know nothing about history. The few historians they use are old-timers who love the Confederacy. What do you expect? We need a museum that showcases the real history of South Texas.

KBRO said...

There are thousands of letters written to Stillman which he kept organized for most years he was in Texas. Most letters describe ships' manifests (cargo) and orders for goods traveling from gulf to various ports with ships destined for N.Y or England and Cuba etc. Stillman transported beef hides, sheep and deer skins, cotton and many other goods. The letters present more questions than answers but not a whole lot of the juicy gossip you would hope to find though there is some.... You can call him a crook all you want but he was a boon to this region at the right time. Notwithstanding Cortina's raids and theft of horses and cattle, crooked Customs agents that were frequently changed and had to be bribed to do business, harassment from privateers on the seas, harassment from U.S. government and backstabbing partners and a slew of other impediments, Matamoros and Brownsville greatly grew and prospered the years Stillman was here.
Most collections went elsewhere because Brownsville never had an adequate facility to house collections until the two vaults at Market Square were re-purposed for that. We can thank Robert Runyon's family that much of his legacy was preserved and wonder why his contemporary, Miguel Morales is unknown even though his photography studio business span was much longer than Runyon's. Here is the simple truth: White folks are a little better at saving their history for posterity than we are. If you don't believe me ask anyone working at any south Texas museum or library that holds special collections.
It may not be that historians are ignoring important events of the past but rather, there are scarcely adequate collections of historical records to tell a story. Most local historians probably scoff at the idea of Cortina being revered. Jerry Thompson in Laredo can write books on Cortina but how many of those books are read by common folk in Brownsville?
The reason Cortina has never had a school named after him is because only a few acknowledge his contribution to our local history whether they revere him or not. A memorial for Juan Cortina, the 1906 Buffalo Soldiers or singer Joe Lopez will probably never be proposed because these figures, while important to our local history, are just too controversial but then again, if schools can be named after living people nowadays, anything is possible.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Bolivar. A few young leaders (i.e. Jessica Tetreau and Trey Mendez) are following the same path as the previous inept and corrupt leaders. They started with a few good ideas but have nothing to show for it.