Antonio N. Zavaleta
Over great lengths of time, streams of snowmelt carved channels through limestone crags, always dutifully flowing toward the Gulf of Mexico. Constantly descending, the great river meandered, sparing no land, obeying no government; splitting and merging repeatedly. It spun off tributaries, arroyos, and streams, eventually becoming a cause célébre for war and delimiting nations. Approaching the final escarpment and flowing down to its valley terminus, the brave river snaked north, then south, like a whip, depositing fertile silt and river pebbles with a grand design.
Each of the remnant moon-shaped bodies of water, called resacas, has a cache of land, some of which are quite large and highly-coveted called bancos or banks of land. Where the river rushes to its insignificant mouth or Boca Chica, silt and sand-topped dunes are the last geographic land features before it enters the Gulf’ of Mexico. The dunes are unlike typical sand dunes, being capped with stands of ebony and mesquite, which serve as a refuge for man and beast. Once named El Rio Bravo, over time, this fertile river delta became the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The primary channel knows no ownership, no boundary — providing a life for all or for none. Life, suffering, and death are equally guaranteed along its banks.
Traveling westward on or along the river by ox-drawn wagon from the Gulf of Mexico, one encounters a series of small hills or clay dunes topped with soil, rich in vegetation and teeming with wildlife. The first of these clay dunes is only ten or fifteen feet above sea level at its highest point. Continuing west of Tarpon Bend, Palmito Hill is clearly visible, its elevation reaching full 30 Feet above the level of the Gulf. It has long provided a natural encampment site and vantage point for the surrounding area.
Prehistoric indigenous Coahuiltecans, sojourning groups from southern Mexico, and the earliest ranching families all recognized its strategic importance. Later, the hill was seen as a location from which to protect Matamoros (and, still later, Brownsville) from invasion by sea, and the War of the Rebellion would see its last gasp of a battle fought on and around the hill. With time, the ghosts of Palmito Hill became legendary, each connected with its own unique story. The hill has always been a place of spirits and of ghosts (their vestiges). The majority of the ghosts known from here died as they lived and they haunt the hill to this day.
The following nine short stories are true and are recounted from direct observations and communications with the spirits and ghosts of Palmito Hill.
The Indian Ghosts
The murmuring voices of the first inhabitants of Palmito Hill are still heard today. The spirits linger patiently where they fell and are buried, waiting for someone to speak to them. A UTB/TSC student and trance medium, a Huichol shaman, and other seers have all easily and distinctly communicated messages from the ghosts to the living.
We met Jacinto, a Huichol elder, in Real de Catorce, and the major pilgrimage site for his people, and subsequently invited him to visit us in Brownsville. While completing his life work and manda or obligatory duty high atop the Sierra Madre, Jacinto began making regular trips to south Texas and, eventually, to the historic Palmito Hill Ranch. For most of his adult life, Jacinto had served as a Huichol shaman and healer, directly responsible for bringing rain to his thirsty people. This job was so important that the Huichol nation entrusted it to only seven elders, of whom Jacinto was one. Unfortunately, Jacinto died a few years ago but I have the story that follows on video.
One day, Jacinto accompanied his Brownsville friends to the ancient Palmito Hill for a carne asada or south Texas barbeque. As he approached the ranch house, he intuitively knew that it was a special place. When he stepped onto the deck, he fell instantly into a trance, drawn deeper and deeper into the spirit world by the voices calling him. Emerging from his trance half-an-hour later, he said to us:
“I never expected what just happened here. There are spirits everywhere, and some are very old. There are indios like me and a prince of Mayan people. There are “negritos,” called buffalo soldiers, as well as many other people who lived and died here. They are all assembled around us and clamoring for a chance to be heard.”
The Indios sparsely clad weathered this harsh environment in life and their spirits live on here in death. Jacinto spoke cautiously, indicating that they did not know what to make of the living spirit communicator who had discovered them through space and time. A portal had been opened to the living after such a very long period of silence. “Brothers and sisters,” the Huichol’s spirit spoke, “why do you lament? You have been gone for so long!” They responded in unison:
“There came a wind from the east shortly after the summer solstice that blew away the living and uncovered the dead. On that day, the living converted to spirits in the span of one sunrise. Our shaman knew by the wind that a storm was approaching, and we prepared but never expected what befell us. Our village, our elders, our children were all swept away, blown away by the spirit of the eastern wind. Now we just wait to be released. We are not able to rightfully settle beyond the stars without our story being told. How else would you know that we were once here, that we once lived, and of what happened to us here that day the hurricane came? Now that you have heard us out, our spirits may rest. We may travel but we will always be connected to this spot where our world ended. We hope that you will return to us someday to hear our voices so that we may tell you of our sky travels and so that you may tell us of your earthly travels. We are the Indian ghosts of Palmito Hill.”
The Mayan Prince
The young UTB student had always known that she was somehow different. The disembodied often spoke to her and through her. Never threatening, she simply served as their materia, their spirit medium, a vessel to communicate with the living. Palmito Hill was the magical portal through which the veil between the past and present was lifted and through which communication could be facilitated.
On the day that the sun reached the spring equinox, the time around the Christian Easter, the student aimlessly collected spring flowers on the hill, never expecting to hear a princely voice. It was the stuff of fairy tales. She would be the first to document the burial of a Mayan prince on Palmito Hill and to sketch a drawing of the young prince, (My student went on to receive a Ph.D. from UT Austin). Through several conversations, the prince told her his story about his journey, sickness, and death on Palmito Hill. Years later, the Huichol shaman confirmed the student’s initial contact with the prince and his story continued.
The prince told her:
“So many years ago my canoe train drummed its way northward from the Petén route to the great Mississippi and the mound-building kingdom located in the valleys up the great river. As it had often happened before, we camped on this hill, Palmito Hill, the halfway point between the beginning of our journey far to the south in the land of the Maya and the mouth of the great river, which lies to the northeast. We were restocking our supplies when I was taken ill with the black vomit or yellow fever. Resting to no avail, my spirit was called home to my ancestors, my earthly remains buried in the sandy soil on the hill. I was laid to rest with all of the ceremony due my station and I have longed to speak, spirit to spirit, so that my grave and my human remains might be properly honored with the burning of sacred copal. I reach out to you, earthly spirit, so that I may communicate my request to the mortals who visit here. Unlike you, they mostly do not hear me. I simply ask that you know that I am here, and that you ask them to honor, from time to time, my eternal presence on this hill with sacred smoke. For this kindness you show my spirit I will bless you and benefit those who do this, knowing that you have pleased the spirit of Kal-Balam of Palmito Hill.” Therefore, it has been done, copal incense is routinely burned at the ranch in his honor.
The Buffalo Soldiers
After having told us of the indios and corroborating the student’s story of the Mayan prince, the Huichol shaman spoke again. “I can see that there was once a time when great armies roamed this place. It was a violent time. For years, they observed one another, circling and avoiding. Then a great battle ensued — white against black — while a third army observed the carnage from the southern bank of the river but did not engage, the French Imperial Army of Maximillian.
Today, the ghosts of the dead of all three armies lie on the battlefield, buried where they fell. These sentinels rise up to greet unsuspecting visitors to Palmito Hill. At times, the sound of cannon fire can be heard here, as can the wails of the dying following rifle shots. The Huicholito told us that many of the ghost soldiers are still here with us. They walk the battlefield of their agony and long to be set free. Their horses are heard pulling heavy caissons.
Along the south bank of the river, across from the hill, one can occasionally hear French being spoken — the chattering soldiers of Napoleon III, long gone from this earth, continuing their conversations as they long for their homes. They approach anyone who looks for them and is willing to talk to them because it is only through this communication that they may rest.
The 1865 Penney
This story is hard to believe but it is true? Several years ago in May by son, Tony Jr. who lives in Austin was in town to visit. Having not been out to the ranch in several years he asked if we could take a ride out to Palmito Hill, I was delighted. We entered the ranch road on a beautiful spring day and as I opened the main door. Tony walked around the deck, which surrounds the house. Now standing on the back deck, Tony comes around the corner saying, Dad, what is this, did you put this out here for me to find? I was stunned to see an 1865 penny that he says was simply lying on a pick-nick table. He was holding an 1865 U.S. Penny. How could that have gotten there? He said come on Dad I know you put it there for me to find but I did not. A soldier who died that day placed it there for us to find.
Even more interesting was the fact that we were on the battlefield exactly on the 150th anniversary of the battle, May 12, 1865-May 12 2015. You hear about these ghastly apparitions are happening on Southern battlefields all the time but never on Palmito Hill until that day. Even stranger, the following week I once again visited Palmito Hill Ranch and once again, there was an 1865 Penny on the pick-nick table, not the same one. Stranger than true, but true. Just as the Huichol shaman had said so many years earlier, the ghosts of the U.S. and Confederate soldiers roam the hill and sometimes they want us to know they are there. My son Tony is in possession of both coins.
From the earliest settlement of Europeans along this river on Palmito Hill, the crying woman, or La Llorona, has been a permanent presence as she searches endlessly for her children. I am a member of one of the many ranching families who has lived here for more than 200 years, and my uncle, Prax Orive Jr. grew up here. He told me that La Llorona is so common that, when he was a young boy, they were not frightened of her. Doomed to search eternally as punishment for her deeds, she is viewed more as a pathetic figure. Parents tell their children, “Listen! The crying woman is passing by the river.” All chatter ceases as the children strain to listen for her wail. Easily confused with the screech of an owl or a hawk night fishing along the riverbank, La Llorona cry is more of an extended but always faint siren. The spirit/ghost of La Llorona has been documented at Palmito Hill and her story has been passed down to all generations who have lived there for more than two centuries.
Duendes or nature elves — a common spirit/ghost motif — are believed to have always lived on Palmito Hill. On Palmito Hill, the duendes are forever vigilant, protecting the hill and its animals as they watch the living convert to spirit. The forest elves are pleased when the living happen by. Duendes love to taunt and play tricks on the living by moving and removing personal items, only to return them later to their puzzled owners. Sometimes, personal belongings are returned much later and, other times, not at all. At Palmito Hill, duendes cavort in our night dreams, pulling our toes and holding the sleeping down to their sheets. Harmless pranksters of Palmito, the duendes have seen all the earthly inhabitants come and go. They are also the rightful caretakers of the ghosts of Palmito Hill.
In recent times, a Palmito Hill ranch hand Santiago reported continual encounters with duendes during both day and night. The duendes would tug on his toes at night and hold him down to the bed or lift him high above his bed and remove his personal objects. He was told to propitiate them with an offering of food or drink, and, after that, they seemed to leave him alone.
In 2008, a group of kayakers, making their way from Brownsville to the mouth of the river, camped overnight at the historic ranch at Palmito Hill and while they were not personally bothered, many of their personal items, including a cell phone and a digital camera, disappeared during the night. They left the next morning without these important things, continuing on their trek to the mouth of the river but very distressed by their loss. Two months later, all of the items appeared in a brown paper bag stuffed in the rear the ranch house refrigerator and were returned to the owners, who were elated to get them back. One a Catholic priest friend of mine accused me of sneaking into the ranch house at night to take their things. Of course, that was not true. The experience converted them into respectful believers in the playful elves, duendes of Palmito Hill.
The Peasant Girl
More than ten consecutive generations of our family (Trevino-Garcia-Gomez-Chapa-Cisneros-Orive-and now Zavaleta) have lived out their lives on Palmito Hill, along with the many others born and buried on the ranches at Palmito. As a result, at one time, Palmito Hill maintained its own birth and death records recorded in Cameron County Court House and buried in the Palmito Ranch cemetery.
The many generations who have lived on the hill have seen their cultural identity change over time from Spanish to Mexican to Tejano and, most recently, to American. Their sweat has fertilized the earth, and their bones and spirits stand guard over the current residents of Palmito Hill Ranch.
So many years have passed that the location of the family cemetery is forgotten to all but the informed. Every once in a while, a wayward tourist stops by wanting to know where it is situated. It is still marked on many United States Geodesic Survey (USGS) maps. Ghostly spirits arise at night from this cemetery to roam the hill, appearing lovingly to their descendants, but menacingly to those who do not heed their warnings or who seek to defile their resting places.
The Peasant Girl
One of the most frequently seen ghosts of Palmito Hill is a young peasant girl dressed in handmade clothing of the 19th century who appears in ranch houses, only to disappear through the walls when spoken to. My Uncle Prax once told me the story of a little ghost girl who appeared in his grandmother’s living room on the ranch, only to dematerialize through a wall when asked to identify her. So common is her appearance that she is now greeted when she appears. Satisfied by a simple salutation, she turns into mist until the next time she comes to remind us that the ghosts of Palmito Hill are indeed real.
The Milk Maid
Palmito Hill’s rarest ghost is referred to as the milkmaid or wagon maid. This ghost dates back to the mid-19th century. Apparently, she was the daughter of one of the farm hands assigned to carry milk jugs from the ranch dairy to area ranches and always on Wednesdays. One day, while traveling along her route, the horses pulling the wagon were startled by a rattlesnake. The wagon flipped over, crushing the milkmaid to death. To this day, she can be seen on Palmito Hill driving her horse-drawn wagon.
I have seen her myself. No matter how determined a modern driver is to catch up to her, her wagon can never be reached. Speeding ever so quickly down the road, the driver becomes frustrated that the girl in the wagon simply disappears from sight. Most people who witness her apparition are not aware they are seeing a ghost wagon. They simply think that the wagon turned off without knowing exactly where. However, those who know the legends of Palmito Hill realize that they have seen the ghost of the milkmaid.
The Chimney Ghost
For several years, I had a loyal ranch-hand and friend, Santiago Blackmore. Santiago was a native of Cuidad Victoria who emigrated to the Valley and became an American citizen. I met him at a garage sale he was hosting and soon he was helping at the ranch on Palmito hill.
Santiago loved to stay overnight at the ranch house and every morning he would tell me stories about what happened the night before. Santiago was a sentient being and could easily sense all sorts of paranormal activity, and the duendes loved to play with him. For example, they would knock thinks over during the night and he could hear them talking. One time when he was out cutting mesquite on the ranch road, he returned to the house for lunch. He had left both doors locked for protection, but when he returned he found the two main doors open with the locks thrown on the ground. He said he was terrified, thinking the worst, but found no one around.
I remember the first time he told me that there was an old farmer dressed in overalls standing by the old Orive chimney. Santiago said that he waved at him and thought little of him when he did not return the gesture. The farmer in overalls appeared repeatedly to Santiago who now was trying to get his attention by yelling and waving at him. The old Orive chimney where the man appeared was about 200 yards from my fence line on the west side of my property. Santiago’s next attempt would be to walk over to the old farmer who simply was not friendly. As Santiago set out across the pasture toward the ruins of an old Orive ranch house, the apparition of the old man in the overalls simply faded away and was gone. This is just another and a most recent ghost story from The Historic Palmito Hill Ranch.