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Rapid Ethnographic Assessment of Brownsville-Matamoros Concerning the Development of a Palo Alto National Historic Battlefield Site

By Antonio Noe Zavaleta-Reid and Rodolfo R. Flores

This was the first war in which the United States took part outside the continental U.S.  It started on this side of the river at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma with a cannonade at Fort Brown.  This site is critical to our history for many reasons including the fact that these battles were the only three fought on U.S. soil.  — Bruce Ansel Aiken, United States

 The end of colonial rule in northeastern New Spain began 40 years of territorial dispute marked by military intervention, (1810-1850).  This tumultuous period culminated in the United States’ invasion of sovereign Mexico at the Nueces River followed by a provocation on the Mexican military fort at Matamoros today known as the Casa Mata.  By all accounts, what was touted as a simple and quick victory for the American armed forces turned into a protracted and bloody war culminating with the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848.

The Treaty established the international boundary with Mexico at the Rio Grande River where Fort Brown was established and the City of Brownsville, Texas was founded in 1850.

The Guerra con los Americanos was not unjust or otherwise, it was caused by self-interest.  The Americans pursued a way to increase their wealth. — Tomas De Leon Chavira, Mexico

Historians debate the rationale for the war, but both American and Mexican scholars agree that the growing giant to the north had by this time set its sights on a concept of Manifest Destiny.  The United States would not be denied the religio-political extension of its boundary to the Pacific Ocean on the west and to the Canadian border on the northwest.  The Treaty’s shifting of boundaries at the end of the war was so massive that it swept away approximately one-half of Mexico’s land mass.

It is important to study the war because the outcome could be the elimination of the bad impression left on a country that was dispossessed of much of its territory, ending the arrogant attitude of a country that caused it and by establishing sincere avenues of friendship.  — Father Monsignor Roberto Hernandez, Mexico

The Mexican border town of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, while not one of the original Escandon settlements, was founded shortly after 1750 (It first had several other names). By the time of the Mexican War, Matamoros had been established and had been steadily growing for approximately 100 years. Five generations of Spaniards, Mexicans, Anglos, French, Germans, and others occupied the town approximately 25 miles from the coast. At that time, Matamoros was a major seaport of entry as well as a hub for overland routes to the interior of Mexico and the capital. Simply stated, Matamoros and its principal families prospered, and their future looked bright.

It is important to study the war because without remembering our past we cannot see where we are going in the future. Part of this project is to see about the bicultural effect we are going to have with our friends and neighbors. We are going to hurt people’s feelings by bringing up old wounds.  ̶ Betty Pace Dodd, United States.

As the momentous 19th century closed, Matamoros and Brownsville had had a half century to nurture a prosperous symbiotic relationship bonded by family, blood, and trade. However, just beneath the surface of socio-cultural propriety laid the festering memory of a war that cast brother against brother and symbolized the loss of national and familial patrimony. The bitterness produced by the Mexican War could be set aside by the well-to-do who had mostly made up their losses of land and fortune, while the poor and landless knew no better.

My grandfather, Steven Powers, was an attorney for General Taylor and he ended up staying here and became Mayor of Brownsville. — Frances Powers Wagner, United States

The initial battles of the war were fought on the battlefields at Palo Alto and the Resaca de las Palma, both located in the northeastern quadrant of the City of Brownsville, in southern Cameron County, just two miles apart as the crow flies. At the time of the battle, the combat took place on the low prairies and salt flats between the Brazos Santiago Pass and the river. Today, both battlefields are located in urban Brownsville, Texas, and are, for the most part, still undisturbed.

Occasional descendants, amateur historians, and “pot hunters” have walked over the site, pocketing surface artifacts. In the 1950s, when Dr. Longoria (one of the respondents in this study), purchased the grazing land of Palo Alto, as he revealed to us, his farm tractor surfaced dozens of cannon balls, which he gave away to his friends.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the first organized surface surveys were conducted by reputable archaeologists, documenting, for the first time in a little more than 100 years, where the battle-lines lay. Meanwhile, the City of Brownsville prospered, extending its boundaries to include the Resaca de la Palma battlefield, encompassing the circuitous boundary of the actual resaca, the Palo Verde subdivision, and the Yturria polo field, from east Price Road on the south to Texas State Highway 802 on the north and principally along Coffee Port Road in what is known as the Hudson property.

Our battlefields are important because the first battle was fought at Fort Brown that set the tone for the next day at Palo Alto and the following day at Resaca de la Palma. There was a tremendous loss of life and bloodshed by both United States and Mexican forces at these battles and those soldiers need to be honored and remembered. It is important for both countries. — Walter Edward Plitt III, United States

By the 1970s, when Brownsville developer Alton Gloor and others were constructing housing developments in the area of the battle, a notable mass grave of Mexican soldiers was uncovered near the railroad truss that runs north-south, traversing Price Road near the current Brownsville Independent School District Offices. A team of archaeologists from the University of Texas at Austin’s Archaeological Research Laboratories (TARL) excavated the site, which included numerous human remains and artifacts of the Mexican army. These remains were never returned to Mexico for military burial. Today they are stored in dusty boxes at the TARL labs at the Balcones Research Center in Austin, Texas.

This project will fail if the people of Matamoros are not included. – Yolanda Gonzalez de Gomez, United States

In the 1970s, as a result of the community reawakening sparked by the major archaeological find, a number of local historians including, notably, Yolanda Gonzalez de Gomez, Walter Plitt, and Brace Aiken began work on an application to the National Parks Service for the establishment and preservation of a National Historic Battlefield Site at Palo Alto.  The application was on the desk of newly elected Congressman Solomon Ortiz, who immediately recognized its significance as a site in the continued development and recognition of Brownsville history.

It is important, history is history, and we should let bygones be bygones. Let us think about the future and how we can grow and live together, be more united, and not look back to both of our country’s dark pages. ―Enrique Melguizo Sobrino, Mexico

More than 20 years would pass (1970-1990), before the Congress of the United States would pass, and the President of the United States would sign, the law establishing the National Historic Battlefield Site at Brownsville, and even longer before funding would be appropriated.

I think that the truth should be portrayed as loosely as possible  because sometimes there are two versions to history depending on whom it may benefit. General Taylor’s crossing the Nueces River into Mexico was a clear act of intervention and not the other way around. When the Republic of Texas separated, the border was established at the Nueces River and all of the land south was Mexico. — Clemente Rendon de la Garza, Mexico

In the early 1990s, in preparation for the establishment of the National Parks Service (NPS) site, the NPS commissioned a rapid ethnographic survey of the Brownsville-Matamoros community in order to assess the attitude, opinions and disposition of the bi-national community toward the creation of a site commemorating the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma.  Since the site would include an interpretive component, it was deemed important to assess the sentiments of the local population before the interpretation could be completed.

This project is important because there is no substitute for the truth and it should be as fair as possible as the facts are told. It should be a place where families can go and make something happy out of what was something tragic. — Mary Elizabeth Altman Yturria, United States

Working with the NPS, a bi-national list of significant community opinion leaders and scholars was established, and a bilingual survey instrument was created. The NPS approved both the list of community opinion leaders and the survey instrument questions before surveying commenced.

This project is important because it underscores the bicultural aspects of our area. Because we are neighbors, it is important to look at the past and learn ways to resolve territorial disputes other than by war. — State Senator Hector Uribe, United States

A community-based bilingual field investigator, Rodolfo R. Flores, who is familiar with the cross border international community, was first trained and subsequently conducted all surveys in the field. This author, Dr. Antonio Noé Zavaleta-Reid, served as the principal investigator, supervised all activity, and completed this analysis. The survey instrument contained a total of 35 questions, including basic demographic and opinion questions. For the purpose of this paper, the responses to approximately 20 of the responses to the question were analyzed. Survey instrument questions included both objective questions, requiring a yes-no response, and subjective questions, which required the respondent to offer an opinion. Most of the critically important information from the survey may be drawn from the responses to subjective questions.  The personal quotes sprinkled throughout this report are actual quotes made at the time of the survey by the respondents indicated.

When I first came to Brownsville, I did not know anything about the battle of Palo Alto. An elderly couple by the name of Martinez was my patients and lived on the battlefield site. When the old man died, the old lady asked me to buy the land which I did.  That is how I came to own the Palo Alto battlefield. – Dr. Vidal Longoria, United States

Results

A total of 73 original surveys were completed during the course of a total of 85 working days. Twenty-six surveys were conducted in Spanish, including 17 males and 9 females. A total of 47 surveys were conducted in English, of 35 males and 12 females. The survey instrument contained 24 questions and all original survey instruments are extant.  In addition, to the significance of the individuals questioned, many of those selected — very important community leaders — are no longer living, and, therefore, make the publication of this information even more significant. At the time that the survey was conducted, in the 1990s, several of those surveyed were the grandchildren of individuals who lived in Matamoros at the time of the battles, who were landowners and actual descendants of combatants. Their perceptions, opinions, and answers to the questions were based upon the recollection of their relatives alive at the time of the Mexican-American War, and reflect invaluable testimony in this survey.

Due to unforeseeable circumstances at the time the data were collected, a final rapid ethnographic survey report was never furnished to the NPS and the contract was terminated at the request of the author. No federal funds were ever requested or received for the data-collection phase of the study, even though the survey phase was successfully completed. All expenses for data collection were borne by the contractor.  Furthermore, it was always the intention of the contractor to analyze and publish the results in the future. Twenty years have passed, but the results are no less significant today at the time of this publication than they were in the 1990s.

After 20 years, the analysis was finalized, because the author was invited to participate in an archaeology conference to be held in Brownsville, Texas, in 2013, at which time the results of the study would be presented.

Unfortunately, the conference schedule coincided with the 2013 sequester of the Federal Government, in which the U.S. Parks Service was closed, forcing the cancellation of the Brownsville conference and re-scheduling it for a future date and location. Interest in the results of this ethnographic study remains high in the minds of scholars who study the aftermath of the Mexican American War.

This report contains the analysis of the original data, which have never been published or presented. It is important to note that the raw data were loaned to and used in support of a dissertation and book on the war by historian Dr. Michael Van Wagenen.

More than half (56.5 percent) of the 73 individuals surveyed indicated that they were members of the pioneer families of the binational region. Importantly, many of the Mexican interviewees were descendants of families who owned land on the U.S. side of the river at the time of the war.

Interestingly, while 100 percent of U.S. males and females interviewed knew of the battles and their significance to Brownsville, only half (50 percent) of Mexican males and females were aware of the battlefields’ locations and proximity to the border, in that they had either relocated to Matamoros as children or as adults and were not originally from the area.  While they were very much aware of the war and its significance to their nation, they did not know how close they lived to its inception.

This project is good because we need one correct version; each country has its version. – Marfa Ninfa Cisneros Ruiz, Mexico

Approximately 86 percent of American males surveyed and 67 percent of American females had ancestors who lived in the area at the time of the war or whom came to the area immediately after the war. On the Mexican side, the percentage of males was equivalent to Americans, indicating that they were sons of pioneer families of Matamoros. However, only 33 percent of the Mexican females were daughters of pioneer families who married and relocated into the region.

By comparison, only 24 percent of American males and 68 percent of American females were descendants of original land-grant families. Approximately 30 percent of the Mexican males were from land-grant families while none of the Mexican females were.

Once again, most Mexican female respondents were descendants of families who were not original landowners, even though, in many cases, they could trace their family heritage back to the war in Matamoros.

When asked if their families retained or maintained historical documents relative to the war era, approximately 50 percent of all respondents indicated that they did. Many families maintain some sort of physical artifact from the war between the U. S. and Mexico.

Following the same trend, approximately 50 percent of all questioned in the U.S. and Mexico indicated that their families have continuously owned land in the area since the time of the war (1845-1848). Then respondents were asked if their family land holdings were affected as a result of the establishment of the international boundary at the Rio Grande River, as anticipated, U.S. respondents generally replied that they were not (16 percent males and 1 percent females). Conversely, approximately one-third (29 percent) of Mexican males indicated that their family’s land holdings were affected by the establishment of the international boundary.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo “guaranteed” the retention of ownership of Mexican land on the north side of the river.  Although this fact is evidenced in a major way through the family of this author, whose members were large land owners both above Matamoros-Brownsville on the river and below, the family did not lose its land due to their wealth and political activity (notably that of my great-great-grandfather General Juan Nepomuceno Cortina.

Interpretation, you say, keep it brief and truthful. ―Alfonso Gonzalez Garza, Mexico

Both the American and Mexican respondents indicated that they had actual ancestor combatants in the war. Three males and two females responded positively in this category. Interestingly, two of the three U.S. ancestors fought on the Mexican side while one fought on the U.S. side. Two female respondents had ancestors who fought on the U.S. side.

Moving the questioning to more contemporary themes, 86 percent of all respondents both U.S. and Mexican, were aware of the community/government efforts to establish a park site at Palo Alto.  The lowest percentage of awareness was the 67 percent of Mexican females.  This quadrant of the analysis was understandably not aware of the proximity of either battle or the community efforts to recognize it, since most were raised in the interior of Mexico — far from the border.

This pattern continued in the next set of questions as well. Approximately all of the U.S. and Mexican males were both aware and supportive of the project (above 90 percent approval). U.S. remains responded are a similar level while the positive response of Mexican females was only 66 percent.

This project is important because it would be a great benefit for the new generation to know their history.  — Salvador Castaneda, Mexico

When asked if the two governments should collaborate in the development of an appropriate interpretation of the two battles, the collective response was 90 percent positive.  Both Mexican males and females rated slightly above the positive responses of’ U.S. responses.  This is a very significant finding, indicating the Matamoros community’s desire for a fair and balanced interpretation of both battles and the outcome of the war.

Interestingly, when all respondents were asked about the need for more local educational emphasis on the battles, all four-quadrant responses scored in the high 80 percent. However, no one analytical quadrant reached 90 percent, the lowest response being Mexican females at 78 percent.

All respondents were asked if they thought a battle re-enactment was something good for the community. This question produced the most universally negative results in the survey. Only 27 percent of U.S. males and 50 percent of American females supported the idea out of fear that it would produce hard feelings within the bi-national community. It might be assumed, by examining the respondents in the male cohort, that they would tend to be more politically sensitive to dredging up old wounds and that was the case. A greater percentage of Mexican males, 67 percent were in fact supportive of some sort of re-enactment of the battles. While Mexican males were, in fact, supportive of limited and highly structured re-enactments, Mexican females were not.  Only one-in-three of the Mexican females thought that a re-enactment was a good idea.

Let the people’s imagination do the interpretation not the political correctness of the day.  Let the drawings and maps made at the time show what happened, point out things that the two official histories cannot agree on. ― William Hudson, United States

Finally, all respondents were asked about the upcoming sesquicentennial celebration of the battles and whether or not they should be recognized. Ninety-five and one hundred percent of Americans said yes, while the Mexican responses fell to 88 percent and 78 percent, respectively. Clearly, the historical significance of the outcome of the battles and the war were and are more significant to Brownsville than they are to Matamoros.

I was on the original committee that began working on this and from the beginning, our concept was not that this was where American forces defeated Mexican forces. The historical significance of what took place there, I will not say changed history, but it did affect the direction of history for both the United States and Mexico and in the long term, the world. The U.S. gained such rich territory that allowed it to become a major player on the world scene and whatever we have done since. – Robert Vezzetti, United States

Analysis

The Rapid Ethnographic Survey of the Matamoros-Brownsville community produced significant but not surprising results. It was expected that the American men and women surveyed would be highly supportive of the establishment of a National Historic Battlefield Site at Palo Alto, Texas, and they were.  Additionally, the community and were, as such, very concerned about how their Mexican neighbors and family would react to the interpretation of the battles and the aftermath of the Mexican American War (1845-1848).

The Brownsville business and cultural community worked steadily, for more than 20 years, until the National Historic Battlefield Site was established by law, funded, and constructed. In the time since its grand opening, very little, if any, opposition has occurred. As hoped, the site is a welcomed addition to the historical and cultural venues available for tourism in the cross-border international region.

The survey results of the Mexican cohort unanimously requested that any interpretation at the park be just and fair and consider the feelings of  Mexicans. The Mexican respondents supported more education but less incrimination, and an overwhelming number opposed any sort of battle re-enactment. Many of the Mexican quotes are included in this report making it truly ethnographic. They indicate complete regard for their American friends, business partners, and families, and ask that Mexico be respected.

My maternal great-grandfather, Juan Nepomuceno “Cheno” Cortina Goseacochea, gathered up a group of his vaqueros and participated in both battles. Not being members of either army, they stayed off to the side and mostly watched the two armies slaughter one another.  His time would come in the decades after the battles. — Prax Orive, Jr., United States.

In the 1980s, my cousin Prax Orive, Jr. mentioned to me that we were related to Juan Nepomuceno Cortina Goseacochea, that he was in fact my grandmother’s grandfather.  I asked him why we do not know that. He responded that there was a time in the early 1900s that the family was so embarrassed by this knowledge and the reaction it caused in the community that it was better to forget him. Today the family remembers and honors him as a patriot. — Dr. Tony Zavaleta, United States

Appendix I: The Survey Instrument

  1. Name
  2. Place of Birth
  3. Age
  4. Are you related to a pioneer family?
  5. In what year did your family locate in the area?
  6. Have you heard of the battles and the war?
  7. Have you seen newspaper articles about the battles and the war?
  8. Do you know where the first battles of the war were fought?
  9. Do you know anything about the outcome of the war?
  10. Do you know if you had family in the area at the time of the war?
  11. Do you have other living descendants in the area?
  12. If your family came to the area after the war what was the purpose?
  13. Did your family come to the area as soldiers?
  14. Was your family a land grant family ?
  15. Does your family maintain any historical documents dating to 1848?
  16. Does your family retain any original land grant land in the area?
  17. Did your family loose or gain land as a result of the placement of the boundary at the river?
  18. Were any of  your ancestor’s actual combatants?
  19. Does your family have any mixed (American-Mexican) marriages?
  20. Are you aware of any families and or possessions that were divided as  a result of the war?
  21. Are you aware that the war established the Rio Grande River at the border?
  22. Have you heard of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo?
  23. Do you know what it established?
  24. Have you heard of government efforts to establish a national historic site at Palo Alto?
  25. Do you think this is an important project?
  26. Do you have any suggestions on how the government should interpret the outcome of the war?
  27. Do you think it would be beneficial for the U.S. and Mexican governments to cooperate for the purpose of historical interpretation?
  28. Do you think there should be more local educational emphasis in the war   and its outcome?
  29. Do you think there should be battle reenactments at the site?
  30. Do you remember hearing or reading about a mass grave of Mexican          soldiers at the site?
  31. Do you think there should be markers for both U.S. and Mexican soldiers who died at the site?
  32. Do you remember the names of pioneer families or others that should be    contacted?
  33. Do you have any personal opinions or emotions about the war?
  34. 1996 will the 150th anniversary of the battles do you think they should be commemorated?

Appendix II: Respondents

Mexican Males and Their Date of Birth

  1. Tomas De Leon Chavira 12/29/190
  2. Roberto Ramirez Hernandez 8/19/1922
  3. Victor Hugo Olivares 9/13/1931
  4. Jose Francisco Islas Gomez 7/28/1937
  5. Andres Cuellar 6/6/1940
  6. Antonio Rivera Yzaguirre 3/27/1943
  7. Juan Jose de la Garza 11/27/1943
  8. Jose Antonio Aguirre 1/18/1945
  9. Salvador Castaneda 9/9/1946
  10. Enrique Melguizo Sobrino 1/10/1946
  11. Ramiro Gonzalez 12/10/1946
  12. Alfonso Gonzalez Garza 1/11/1947
  13. Manuel Robledo Trevino 6/12/1948
  14. Alfonso Lee Guerra 2/10/1948
  15. Ernesto Cardenas Garza 2/18/1948
  16. Clemente Rendon de la Garza 9/14/1951
  17. Eduardo Vasquez 5/14/1958

Mexican Females and Their Date of Birth

  1. Celia Sobrino de Santiso 12/20/1905
  2. Ofelia Lee Mancha 9/23/1909
  3. Maria Cisneros Ruiz 10/19/1918
  4. Marta Rita Prince 1/30/1925
  5. Magdalena Rios Ledezma 2/27/1926
  6. Rosalia Sanchez Cardenas 5/27/1929
  7. Georgina Rocha Putegnat 3/18/1954
  8. Susana Reynoso 1/28/1955
  9. Flor Castillo 11/24/1970

 

  1. S. Males and Their Date of Birth

 

  1. Vidal Longoria 12/3/1911
  2. Antonio Marquez 3/4/1918
  3. Bruce Ansel Aiken 9/5/1921
  4. Praxedes Orive, Jr. 11/25/1929
  5. Lino Juarez 9/23/1931
  6. Donald Clifford 10/11/1932
  7. Robert Vezzetti 3/25/1933
  8. Jose Tamez 2/6/1939
  9. Rodolfo Ruiz Cardenas 7/21/1940
  10. Hector Garcia 12/21/1940
  11. Larry Holtzman 1/30/1941
  12. Joe Guerra 9/13/1941
  13. Walter Plitt 2/22/1941
  14. James John 10/11/1942
  15. Robert Lackner 11/8/1942
  16. Oscar Garcia 7/31/1943
  17. Miguel Lopez 5/10/1944
  18. Michael Puckett 4/19/1944
  19. Antonio Flores 10/31/1944
  20. Luke Fruia 1/15/1955
  21. Larry Jokl 2/11/1945
  22. Hector Uribe 1/17/1946
  23. Ralph Cohen 1/5/1947
  24. Cipriano Cardenas 1/11/1947
  25. Dr. Tony Zavaleta 4/30/1947
  26. Larry Brown 10/23/1948
  27. David Garza 8/15/1948
  28. Oscar Tullos, Jr. 1/1/1948
  29. Boyd MacManus 8/17/1949
  30. Alberto Herrera 12/6/1951
  31. Carlos Cascos 9/18/1952
  32. William Hudson 1954
  33. Pat Lehman 9/14/1954
  34. John Gloor 7/1955
  35. Ben Neece 4/1/1955
  36. Harry McNair 7/27/1955
  37. Lesley Gloor 3/29/1958

 

  1. S. Females and Their Date of Birth

 

  1. Ethel Smith Junco 1908
  2. Frances Wagner 1/10/1918
  3. Maria Champion H. 12/18/1922
  4. Mary Altman Yturria 5/9/1925
  5. Sunshine Van Holsbeke 3/10/1926
  6. Betty Pace Dodd 2/17/1928
  7. Yolanda Gonzalez Gomez 11/20/1929
  8. Belia Ferraez 12/28/1931
  9. Violet Springman 3/5/1934
  10. Shirley Dee Green 3/23/1944
  11. Evelon Dale 5/13/1951
  12. Denise Saenz Blanchard 7/3/1957
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