Wednesday, August 9, 2017


By Juan Montoya
Many of us have wondered why – being in the heart of the slave-owning Confederacy – there were few slaves record in the census of South Texas in the years preceding the Civil War.

Some people had them, as can be evidenced by the existence of slave quarters in Brownsville homes, but just a year before the outbreak of the internecine war the 1860 Census indicates that six slaves were registered in Cameron County and one in Hidalgo.

(If you look at the graphic closely, one of those slave owners is listed as Brownsville "founder" Charles Stillman, another is a Richard King, of King Ranch fame, and Stephen Powers, their legal adviser.)

But if there were few slaves, what there was, however, was an active Underground Railroad helping them escape to Mexico by crossing the Rio Grande.

Researchers have found that along the Rio Grande in Hidalgo County lay the Jackson Ranch once owned by Nathaniel Jackson, a loyal Unionist during the Civil War. 

They write that in the 1850’s,Jackson left Alabama with his African-American wife Matilda Hicks, his son Eli, and other adult children. They hoped to escape the intolerance of inter-racial marriage they had known in the South. Accompanying the Jacksons were eleven African-American freedmen. 

In 1857, Jackson founded his ranch on a former Spanish grant. His property is said to have become a refuge for runaway slaves from Texas and the Deep South. Today, many people know about the Underground Railroad that shepherded enslaved people to freedom in the northern states and Canada, but few know about the route to freedom in Mexico. 

The Jackson Ranch lay near the Military Highway between Fort Ringgold and Fort Brown, and would have been visited by Confederate and Union troops as they fought for control of the Lower Valley in 1863 and 1864. Jackson died in 1865, the same year that his son Eli established the family cemetery where members of the clan now rest. Nathaniel Jackson’s grave is unmarked.

Gilbert Salinas, writing in the Brownsville Herald in March 2000, detailed the research of  Aaron Mahr, then-regional coordinator for the National Parks Service in Brownsville. Mahr told Salinas that his research indicates that more than 5,000 black slaves made it alive to the country of the free in Mexico between 1820 and 1865, often risking life and limb in the desolate, rattlesnake-infested regions of South Texas.

Thousands of blacks who made Matamoros, Reynosa and Camargo their homes have blended into the general population and now go unnoticed. The (Rio Grande) Valley was a critical area. Matamoros was an important destination for a lot of slaves seeking freedom, Mahr said. All of the river towns had colonies of escaped slaves.

Mahr was a coordinator for the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program

In fact, just as slaves from the southern states sought freedom in Mexico, there was flow of Mexicans in debt peonage who sough refuge from the usurious bondage of the hacendados and ranchers who forced them to live in shacks until they paid their mounting debts to the company stores.

Often, when these Mexican workers lived in other parts of Texas away from the border, they themselves would be the object of bounty hunters from Mexico seeking to return them to their employers for pay.

On at least three documented occasions, Texans led expeditions to recover fugitive slaves in Mexican territory contrary to the laws of that country. One of those raised in Matamoros resulted in the kidnapping of a five-member family from Matamoros, another in Reynosa, and one more in Laredo.

In August 1855, an 200-man expedition from San Antonio rode to the Rio Grande across Piedras Negras, Coahuila and demanded that the officer in charge of defending that state negotiate a trade for fugitive black slaves in return for Mexican peons in Texas. The expedition had been formed under the pretense that it was chasing Lipan Indians who had attacks Texas settlements.

Emilio Lamberg, Mexican colonel who was in command of the Coahuila garrison, at first responded favorably to the Texans' advances and the Texans asked how much they would pay for each of the fugitives and how those payments would be made.

Lamberg offered to exchange the fugitives for the Mexican peons, and consulted with the Nuevo Leon state government. The government said such negotiations could not be made between particulars, but only between state governments. The state also warned the invaders that if the expedition invaded the state, they would be forced to repel the invaders "force for force."

Several African-American and bi-racially mixed families settled in South Texas including the Webber family. John F. Webber was an Anglo who lived south of Austin, Texas.  Webber was born in Vermont around 1786 and served in the War of 1812.

He was in Austin's colony as early as 1826 and received a headright on June 22, 1832. Webber purchased a slave, Silvia Hector, and her son. They fell in love and married, causing an uproar in their community. After their son was barred from school, and the tutor Webber had hired to teach the boy had been threatened, the Webber family moved near Donna, Texas. 

In 1853 Webber purchased nearly 9,000 acres of land near Donna and established the Webber Ranch with his wife and 11 children.

Webber's story has been documented by his numerous progeny and speak of a man who remained loyal to his black wife and children who in turn intermarried with local Mexican-Americans. The Webber clan is numerous and a recent family reunion included descendants from throughout the country.

Mahr told Salinas that a common method slaves used as a means of escape was getting hired as wagon laborers by cotton traders. The cotton was hauled down the road to Brownsville, where it would then be loaded onto steamboats in the Rio Grande.

Once they were down here, they would cross the river to freedom, Mahr said. Historically, there are at least 10 spots in Brownsville along the Rio Grande used by travelers and immigrants. Its believed that Matamoros had one of the largest slave colonies on the border, perhaps numbering in the thousands, he said. Matamoros archives have nothing on an influx of runaway black slaves.

In her excellent paper on the underground railroad, Georgia Redonet, a teacher at Long Middle School, in Houston, states that "When Stephen F. Austin brought American settlers to Mexico in 1822, Mexican law stated that there could be – neither sale nor purchase of slaves who are brought to the empire; their children born in the empire shall be free at the age of 14.

"From 1830 to 1860 there was a continual movement of runaway slaves into Mexico and although not as publicized, it was just as common as the movement of runaways into free northern territory and Canada. While there are no reliable estimates as to the number of fugitive slaves escaping to Mexico during this time period, it is safe to say – that the movement was considerable enough to have caused great irritation and financial hardships on Texas slave-owners...

"In early 1846 Texas was formally admitted to the Union as a slave state. According to the first official Texas state census in 1847, the state‘s population counted 38,753 slaves and 102,961 whites. The plantations along the lower Colorado and Brazos rivers and those scattered throughout East Texas held the largest concentrations of enslaved persons. Runaway slaves had been a continual problem throughout the duration of the Republic and the new state sought to write laws aimed at curbing the exodus.

"In 1848 laws were passed by the state legislature aimed at punishing those who might help escaping slaves. Anyone helping slaves plan a rebellion would be punished with death. Ship captains assisting runaways would receive from two to ten years in the penitentiary. Anyone who would steal or entice away a slave from his or her owner would receive three to fifteen years of hard labor. Free persons of color who aided a slave in escaping would receive from three to five years in the penitentiary."


Anonymous said...

Interesting part of our history. Unfortunately being "politically correct" means that part of our history will also be destroyed or hidden away...out of sight. As we learn more about our community history we will uncover more things that we don't like. We should learn from it, not destroy or hide it.

Diego Lee Rot said...

They should rename Palm Blvd. Martin Luther King Drive

KBRO said...

Good historical report regardless of "typos" -- keep these coming

Diego Lee Rot said...

How much do slaves get paid?

Anonymous said...

The slaves ran away to Mexico where they could live as dirt poor Mexican peons. Not a real big change in status. Lets don't for get that the Mexican hate Mayates just as bad at the Gringos hated Negros. Reality makes these kinds of stories hollow and without any real meaning.

If you are trying to make Mexico a paradigm of freedom, tolerance and racial equality, that bull shit won't fly. None of that, plus the "rule of law" doesn't mean jack shit in Mexico. Certainly they sing about it and talk about it, but reality conflicts with that load of bull shit as well.

Every poor Mexican want out of there and into the US of A except the Ricos. Wait, the Ricos want out as well because the drug thugs are preying on them like hawks on mice.