Juan Cortina’s War
Considered a bandit by the U.S. government, Cortina was a champion of justice to Tejanos living along the border.
By Penelope Warren
Juan Nepomuceno Cortina holds an unrivaled claim as the most romantic figure in the history of the Texas-Mexico border. Long before Disney made Davy Crockett King of the Wild Frontier, Cortina held the title, with a difference — King of the Whole Frontier. From El Paso to Port Isabel, he did more than one man’s fair share of hell-raising. To Anglo Texans and the United States Government, Cortina was a bandit, a rustler, a murderer. To Mexican Texans he was a champion of justice who fought to defend “the Mexican name in Texas.” During the civil wars that beset both the United States and Mexico in the 1860s, he managed to support the Union and the Confederacy, Juarez’s liberals and Maximilian’s Imperialists. For most of his life, at least one government — frequently more — urgently wanted to hang him.
Cortina was born into blood and smoke. Apaches and Comanches raided the Mexican settlements of the Río Grande in the 1820s and ’30s, driving off cattle and leaving the bodies of the defenders to burn with their ranchos. When he was 24, the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican War, pushing the Texas border south from the Nueces to the Río Grande. Under American law, unscrupulous Anglos cheated many Mexican property owners out of their lands and homes. Poor Mexican Texans fared even worse. Vilified as lazy, brutish and dishonest, these pelados could be robbed or killed with impunity by anyone with a white skin.
The incident that sparked the Cortina War grew out of that freedom of the privileged to abuse the oppressed. On July 13, 1859, Juan Cortina rode into Brownsville for a meal with friends at Castel’s saloon. He came armed, under indictment in Cameron County for rustling and murder. He shrugged off such inconveniences, shared by many of the area’s prominent citizens, including his accusers. The few minutes after he arrived at Castel’s, though, changed Cortina’s life and set a wildfire that blazed for years along the border.
It was a curiously Biblical scene. Alerted by sounds of fighting, Cortina emerged from the saloon to find Brownsville marshal Robert Shears beating a 60-year-old Mexican vaquero who had worked at his mother’s Rancho del Carmen. Cortina claimed later that he first attempted to intervene peaceably. Whatever the case, “insolent” words followed, and Cortina ended the argument by putting a bullet through the marshal’s shoulder. He swung the elderly vaquero up behind him and galloped off, leaving the man he called “the squinting sheriff” bleeding into the dusty street. Like Moses, Prince of Egypt, Cortina had abruptly transformed himself into the champion of an oppressed people.
Cortina fled across the river to Matamoros, where the people received him as a hero and celebrated his exploits with corridos. Unlike Moses’ Egyptian overseer, Shears survived, and Cortina offered cash in an attempt to squeeze out of yet another indictment. Unsuccessful, he moved his family and belongings into Mexico. He also received a commission as a captain in the federal army and orders to raise 100 men and report to Tampico following the annual Diez y Seis de Septiembre celebration of Mexico’s independence from Spain.
Raising a company proved no difficulty. His men proudly called themselves Cortinistas, and their presence in and around Matamoros made American authorities increasingly ner-vous. To the respectable folk of Brownsville, the Cortin-istas looked less like an army unit than the following of a warlord. They were right.
Two hours before dawn on September 28, Cortina and 70 followers forded the river and blocked the roads leading north. The Cortinistas stormed into Brownsville, firing their guns and bellowing “¡Viva Cheno Cortina!” “¡Viva México!” and “Death to the gringos!” But terrorizing the entire city wasn’t on Cortina’s agenda. He had come for a list of men against whom he held specific grievances. Among them were Adolphus Glavecke, a cattle-rustling colleague turned informer, men who had murdered Mexicans, members of the posse that pursued Cortina on the wild ride out of town the afternoon he shot Robert Shears, and the “squinting sheriff” himself.
Many of the intended victims escaped. Glavecke and several others successfully barricaded themselves in Samuel Belden’s store. Robert Johnson, Brownsville’s jailer, also fled to a friend’s business. Both he and Viviano Garcia, though, died in a gunfight with the Cortinista brothers and accused horse thieves Juan and Alejo Vela. William Peter Neale, son of a former Brownsville mayor, took a bullet when he woke suddenly to the sound of gunfire and sat bolt upright in his bed. Blacksmith George Morris hid beneath his house, but Cortinistas spotted him, and he was cut down as he fled across the parade ground. Cortina himself descended on Alexander Werbiski’s pawnshop. When Werbiski’s terrified Hispanic wife answered the door, Cortina reassured her that he meant her husband no harm. It was, he said, “no night for Mexican tears.” Alexander eventually emerged, and Cortina appropriated all his guns and ammunition. Then he calmly paid for them. The incident illustrates two recurring themes of the Cortina saga. Like other legendary social bandits, Cortina had a chivalrous soft spot for women, sparing more than one enemy for the sake of the man’s weeping wife. The other is a strong, if selective, sense of honor. Because he was not Cortina’s personal enemy, Werbiski suffered no more than a fright and a harrowing business deal. Of those who encountered Cortina that night, the pawnbroker perhaps came off best.
At dawn, General José Carvajal, commanding the Mexican army in Matamoros, led a group of his officers across the river. He summoned Cortina and informed him that he would receive no support from the Mexican government. Indeed, he might be prosecuted. Cortina expressed regret over the shooting of Viviano Garcia, a good man who had died attempting to protect a friend, but none for the deaths of his enemies. In the early light of a fall morning, he and his band of raiders, joined now by a contingent of Brownsville’s outcast pelados, made their way out of town, upriver to Rancho del Carmen.
At his mother’s ranch, Cortina gathered a force of over 200 men from both sides of the river. He also issued the first of his pronunciamientos, defiantly justifying his raid on Brownsville. The people of Cameron County, he said, should not fear him. He would, nevertheless, continue to pursue those who had offended him, including a “multitude of lawyers ... despoiling the Mexicans of their lands.” The worst of them, he proclaimed, was Glavecke, who “spread terror among the unwary, making them believe that he will hang the Mexicans and burn their ranchos.” “Our personal enemies,” he thundered, “shall not possess our lands until they have fattened it with their own gore.”
In the course of a private vendetta, Cortina had made himself an improbable champion against the racism and injustice that pervaded relations between Anglo and Mexican Tex-ans. Brownsville went into siege mode. Carvajal sent a company of Mexican soldiers to help protect the city. Some days later, a posse led by the ubiquitous Glavecke arrested Tomás Cabrera, Cortina’s chief lieutenant during the Diez y Seis raid. A militia company, the bombastic Brownsville Tigers, rode out into the brush to confront Cortina in camp. Almost comically inept, they returned home with useless guns and wet powder. Cortina demanded Cabrera’s release and threatened to put Brownsville to the torch.
Then the city called in the Texas Rangers. The Rangers lynched Cabrera, and the Cortina War took fire in earnest.
Since the siege of Brownsville, Cortina’s men had raided up and down the lower Valley, burning the ranchos of their leader’s enemies and rustling enthusiastically. Later claims are certainly exaggerated, but several thousand head of cattle, sheep, goats, horses, pigs and other animals certainly went to feed the insurgents or to market in Mexico. One of the first to be hit was the “squinting sheriff,” who, besides his hoofstock, claimed the loss of 17 ducks and 48 “grown chickens.” Fierce retaliation by the Rangers — los rinches — followed. Under Captain William Tobin, they burned out Tejanos suspected of sympathy toward Cortina and drove off their livestock. Panicked editorials in Texas and Louisiana newspapers trumpeted a virulent race war along the Río Grande. A San Antonio paper claimed that “We are being warred upon by atrocious savages who would as soon beat out the brains of an infant as shoot an undoubted spy. It is a war upon the American race.”
It could not go on. In December, Cortina suffered a decisive defeat at the hands of Texas Rangers under John Ford and a company of Army regulars. Alarmed, Washington dispatched Colonel Robert E. Lee to pacify the area and pursue Cortina into Mexico if necessary. Lee set up his headquarters at Fort Ringgold in Río Grande City but withdrew to take command of the Confederate Army when the union fractured and plunged into the Civil War.
Cortina emerged from his fastness in the Burgos Mountains to invade Texas again in 1861, attacking the Zapata County seat of Carrizo. When Mexican conservatives rebelled against President Benito Juárez and proclaimed an Empire under Maximilian Hapsburg, though, Cortina turned his attention to the second struggle for Mexican independence. He made himself military governor of Tamaulipas, fought with Juárez’s forces at the decisive battle of Querétaro and was present at Maximilian’s court-martial and execution. It fell to President Porfiorio Díaz to bring Cortina to heel, imprisoning him for a time, then sending him into internal exile at a villa outside Mexico City. There the old lion of the border died quietly in 1894, still ferociously independent and still longing for the wild lands along the Río Grande.
PLACES TO VISIT
Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site
Site of first battle of Mexican War in 1846. Cortina fought on Mexican side.
On University of Texas at Brownsville campus. Includes remains of original earthen star fort. Abandoned due to Cortina’s raids, later housed Union and Confederate troops.
Oldest frame house in Brownsville, now incorporated into Brownsville Museum of Fine Arts. William Neale shot through window in Cortina’s raid, reportedly still haunts the house.
Brownsville Heritage Complex
Special collection includes several Cortina-related items, notably a sword and scabbard, newspaper articles and scholarly material.
Rio Grande City
Ringgold Barracks and Robert E. Lee House
Site of Cortina raid and residence of Lee while stationed on the border during the Cortina War.
School grounds 1/4 mile SE of junction of US 83 and TX 755