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By Antonio N. Zavaleta1


The area north and south of the Rio Grande River, in the vicinity of Brownsville, Texas, is one of the most historically and culturally significant areas along the river, and yet its history has been poorly documented. Both Horgan in Great River (1) and Fehrenbach in Lone Star (2) described the importance of the historical events along the lower river and their significance in Brownsville’s history.

The Rio Grande River is more than 2000 miles long and traverses many diverse landforms, but the section of the river near Brownsville is the most historically unknown because the river has changed its course frequently over the centuries. As it flows southeastward, from the limestone escarpment near Rio Grande City to the west, the river spills into the Lower Rio Grande River Valley and meanders through an ancient fan-shaped delta system. The unique geography and geologic history of the Rio Grande River has produced features, which today play a major role in the discovery of Brownsville’s history. The earliest Spanish settlers called the numerous bodies of water they found esteros. Today we call these beautiful natural resources resacas. To the geographer, however they are ox-bow lakes typical of meandering rivers. A variation of resacas are those bodies of water and resulting landmasses most cutoff by the river’s meanders, called bancos, or banks of land. While resacas and bancos are valuable real estate, in contemporary urban Brownsville, they have an even greater value in that they hold the remains of both the pre-historic and early historic peoples of the lower river area.

This paper attempts to “scratch the surface” of the hidden information and cultural resource that lie beneath, our resacas representing the modern river delta system along with its major meander belt resacas.

The present geography of the lower Texas coast near Brownsville may be easily described as a river delta system. Its associated waterways meander through a coastal estuarine and empty into the Gulf of Mexico.

However, a more scientific description of the geomorphology and geology of the river and its associated waterways are appropriate for a complete understanding of the role the river has played in the historical and cultural significance of the area around Brownsville.

While the Rio Grande and Arroyo Colorado are the major fluvial features in the area, they are associated with both active and abandoned stream courses of the Rio Grande. These stream courses (waterways) are geologically called meander belts, and represent the changes in a river’s course over long periods. The evidence of channel changes in a river are meander cutoffs, which become oxbow lakes. Over thousands of years of alternating wet and dry periods, the older oxbow lakes have silted up with mud and plant debris, and can only be detected by advanced geologic techniques. In the Rio Grande Valley area, there is evidence of these ancient meander belts as far north as Willacy County and an approximately equal distance to the south in Mexico.

The Rio Grande River has been a very active river throughout the period covering the Pleistocene, Holocene, and up to the present, a period of more than 20,000 years. The northern meander belt system near Raymondville is the oldest and least detectable, while the meander belts below the Arroyo Colorado, in the area of San Benito, Los Fresnos, and Rancho Viejo, are younger geologically. The resacas in the Brownsville area, those closest to the present location of the river, are the most recently formed resacas in the geological features of the river delta and the meander belt systems in the Brownsville area.

Little is known about the geology of river activity in Northeastern Mexico. Some mapping does exist, and aerial photographs of the northeastern most quadrant of Tamaulipas are available, however, geological interpretation has not been conducted. We do know from studying the action of meandering rivers, that over the millennia, their movement is “whip” like. Therefore, the main river channel has undoubtedly moved alternatingly north and south and north again from its present location. Esteros and resacas, as far south as 30 miles into Mexico, were once part of the main channel of the Rio Grande River. The same can be said for meander belts, which are known to have existed as far north as Raymondville.

The area south of Los Fresnos to the current river channel is the most important for evidence of pre-historic human occupation. Within this area, there are at least four well-defined meander belts (resacas) with bands of delta sediment separating them. The bands are as much as five miles wide and as narrow as a few hundred yards wide. From north to south lie Resaca Los Fresnos, Resaca de los Cuates, Resaca del Rancho Viejo, and Resaca de Las Palmas. These meander belts were part of the active river channel in its modern period, as recently as 4,500 years B.P. (before the present). Resacas even more approximate to the river, such as those in urban Brownsville, like the Town Resaca and the Fort Brown resaca, and associated bancos, are of even more recent origin.

For thousands of years the Rio Grande has filled its estuarine systems with pebbles and sand from up-river, and today the historically identifiable river delta system is approximately 50 miles wide (counting Mexico). It is estimated that during the early Pleistocene inter-glacial period, the level of the Gulf of Mexico was approximately above the present level. This fact would have located the coastline and the mouth of the river somewhere in Starr County approximately one hundred miles to the west. During times of glacial advances, the shoreline was located on the present location of the continental shelf. Only after the end of the last glacial age did the sea attain its present level.

Geologists therefore believe that the present Rio Grande delta is not older than 4,500 years. As unbelievable as it may seem, human habitation in the river delta area 5,000 years ago was not only possible but also probable. Therefore, it is completely conceivable that Paleo-Indians, the ancestors of modern pre-historic Indians, witnessed the final rise of the level of the Gulf and the formation of the modern river delta.

The most recent system of meander belts, which form today’s resaca system today, have undergone much less alluvial development than past systems. Geologists estimate that in the last 5,000 years the river’s deposition of sand, silt and gravel pebbles by the river into the delta has been reduced dramatically. In fact, the same is true for the modern era.

More than 300 square miles of the area around Brownsville are dominated by well-preserved meander belt resacas. While most are inactive and filled in, only occasional hurricane activity reactivates the resaca systems outside of the urban areas. During dry spells, the resacas become filled with vegetation and remain inactive until the next tropical storm.

It is clear that the Rio Grande River and its associated waterways have played a major role in the drama of prehistoric and historic human occupation in the delta area. These riverine resacas and the estuarine marshes produce a massive biomass of both flora and fauna, which supported human occupation for the last several thousand years.

As will be described later, human occupation in the delta was believed to have been dense due to the availability of fresh water, food, and vegetation for construction materials. Early historic occupants also found similar natural resource available to them, and settlement was facilitated by resource accessibility.

Clearly, the present and former river channel and all associated bodies of water, including lakes, esteros, resacas, and bancos, are major cultural and historical resources, which must be protected. A complete understanding of the archaeology and history of the area around Brownsville cannot be completely understood without the recovery, preservation, and interpretation of material on the river and its associated waterways. (3)

From the time of the original European settlements, in the lower delta area in the 1750’s, the river was characterized by its elaborate system of ox-bow lakes, first called esteros by the Spaniards, and now called resacas. As described above, an oxbow lake is formed when the meander of a river is cutoff from the main channel during a flood stage. As the river rolls, it changes its course leaving behind isolated bodies of water and interconnected waterways, characteristic of the area south of the Arroyo Colorado to the Rio Grande River. These riverine and estuarine systems were the lifeblood of the people in the area. The water supported the coastal Indians with food, as they camped along the resaca banks, and in early historic times, these same bodies of water supported cattle ranching activities as the ranch complexes were built along the same banks. It was not until the middle of the 20th century that the river’s channel was permanently fixed by the construction of Falcon and Amistad dams’ up-river.

While fixed for the future, the river’s former course has left us a tremendously rich legacy of pre-historic and historic material to examine and interpret. In pre-historic times, the lower river was home to numerous bands of hunting and gathering people, collectively known as Coahuiltecans (4). Although the native cultures of the Rio Grande delta were known to have been prosperous and plentiful, anthropologists and historians have not studied them in detail, considering them to be insignificant in comparison to the high cultures of the American Southwest and Central Mexico.

Historical settlements in the area, on the other hand, began approximately two hundred and fifty years ago. The first permanent Spanish settlements in the lower river area came relatively late in the chronological scheme of things. The establishment of Nuevo Santander in the 1750s by Escandon was some 200 years after the initial discovery and exploration of the mouth of the river by Alonso de Pineda. (5)

The settlement of Matamoros, Tamaulipas came even later, since the original Spanish settlers considered the coast to be uninhabitable. Documented history indicates that activity along the river, since its settlement, has been continuous and intense since the early 17th century. In fact, the river was the primary means of transportation and movement in the development of the lower area from the beginning of the 19th century until after the turn of the 20th century, a period of approximately 100 years. During their evolution, all settlements were linked to and by the river and its waterways.

Clearly then, it is important to note that the river, in the area of Brownsville, has a record of pre-historic occupation, and 400 hundred years of historic interest, including more than 200 years of fairly active settlement, 100 years of major military activity, and approximately 100 years of intense farming and ranching, in which the past and present channels of the river have played a significant role. Given the well-documented pre-historic and historic activity along the lower river, the search for and the preservation of pre-historic cultural and historical resource material is established and warranted.


That part of coastal Texas which encompasses the mouth of the Grande River, and its present and former course, is the lower and westernmost section of the West Gulf Lowland Province.(6) This coastal lowland area, is approximately 50 miles wide, and serves as the demarcation of a major pre-historic geo-cultural resource area. The geo-cultural area, to which the pre-historic residents of Brownsville belonged, extended beyond the Rio Grande delta to as far north as the Nueces River, near present day Corpus Christi, and to as far south as San Fernando, Tamaulipas to the south. The Rio Grande River did not serve as a cultural barrier to pre-historic peoples as many rivers do, but was simply a geographical feature in their lives. Therefore, the cultural groups, to which the pre-historic peoples of the lower river system belonged, ranged both north and south of the present day location of the river.

Several noted archaeologists took interest in this cultural resource area in the 1950’s, and the work of T.N. Campbell (7) and Richard MacNeish (8) remain the definitive descriptions of coastal native peoples in the Lower Rio Grande River area. Along with the work of Newcomb (9) anthropologists sought to more clearly, define the cultural complex of the coastal Coahuiltecan people, who exploited the resaca system in the river delta area described above.

Newcomb described them as a nomadic people, who made their living by hunting, fishing, and food gathering. Associated with the southern section of the Texas coast were numerous small nomadic bands that were widely distributed over southern Texas and northeastern Mexico, several hundred band names are known and have been recorded for them.

Another anthropologist of the same era, Ruecking, (10) sought to synthesize these little known coastal bands into an identifiable cultural complex. He recognized three different clusters of Coahuiltecan bands along the Texas coast. In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, on both sides of the river, he identified the, “Carrizo Cluster” for which 51 band names are on record.

These scattered bands of nomadic hunters and gatherers were the second wave of pre-historic people to inhabit lower Texas coast. Sjoberg points out that by the middle of the 18th century, Lipan Apache groups had been pushed by the Comanche down into the southern tip of Texas, constituting the most recent wave. (11)

Evidence of substantial human occupation in the lower river area, is available in both the archaeological and the historical records. For example, the Spanish explorer, Alonso de Pineda, is believed to have been the first European to describe the area around the mouth of the river. He reported the frequency of Indian “villages” along the river and thought the natives to be friendly and receptive to the Spaniards (12).

The anthropologists who described the native peoples of the lower river delta in the 1950s indicated that there had been very little archaeological investigation in the southern section of the Texas coast, and that most of that which did exist, was confined to the extreme south, especially the delta of the Rio Grande. As Campbell states, “The fact that we know anything at all about the pre-historic peoples of the river is due to the personal interest of A.E. Anderson, a civil engineer and surveyor from Brownsville, who began in 1908 to collect and record specimens of artifacts from Indian sites he discovered on both sides of the Rio Grande. Over the years Anderson collected thousands of specimens from several hundred sites, and in 1945 his collection was deposited with the University of Texas”(13)

Anderson reported sites associated with clay dunes on the coast and with the abandoned channels of the Rio Grande. According to the data gathered by Anderson, the resacas and bancos of the river represent the most fruitful location for pre-historic artifact in the coastal Rio Grande Valley region.

In the 1930’s, the archaeologist Sayles (14) defined the cultural complex associated with the resacas and bancos around Brownsville, calling it the “Brownsville Phase.” He believed that the pre-historic people of Brownsville had grown out of a “Tamaulipecan root” and regarded this culture to be identifiable with the historic Tamaulipecan Indians.

This cultural comparison with northern Mexican natives stock is compatible with MacNeish’s work and findings in the 1950’s. MacNeish published his first report on the area in 1947, using materials from the Anderson collection. He assigned the principal types of artifacts in the collection to the “Brownsville Complex” which he believed to have remained the same from approximately A.D. 1000 to the 1820’s. Soon after 1820, the last native peoples of the Valley were pushed south and west into Mexico. The various investigators of the first half of this century described a Brownsville pre-historic culture as extending along the coast and inland for approximately 30 to 40 miles from the Arroyo Colorado in the north to the Rio San Fernando in the south. They were perfectly adapted to life and survival in the littoral environment.

It is archaeologically significant that the existence of the trade items in the Anderson collection led MacNeish to hypothesize the existence of a late pre-historic trade route between the Huastecan areas of southern Tamaulipas and northern San Luis Potosi/Vera Cruz, and the Caddoan area of East Texas. This trade route is believed to have passed through Brownsville in pre-historic times and would have been a major link between the Native American cultures of Meso-America and North America. (15)

The archaeological, and ethnohistoric, study of the lower river was generated by the existence of the Anderson collection. The interest subsided in the early 1960s, during which time a new generation of Texas archaeologists were developing interested in the archaeology of the Lower Rio Grande River Valley.

In the late 1960’s, Thomas Hester (16) excavated the Floyd Morris and Ayala sites in the river delta, bringing into play the first of several very significant burials to be discovered and excavated. These excavations yielded the first human remains of the Brownsville resaca culture.

In 1971, a four-month re-identification survey of the Anderson sites was undertaken. Many of these sites were located along resacas adjacent to the present course of the river. The idea was to ascertain if any of the original Anderson sites could still be located after years of weathering, disturbance, and heavy agricultural and urban development. The results of the survey pointed to the “vast archaeological potential” of the lower Rio Grande delta. Although previously identified Anderson sites were found to have “scanty material,” the actual number of pre-historic Indian sites in Brownsville and the surrounding area was greatly increased by the survey. Prewitt (17) located and recorded 75 Indian sites in this intensive survey of the eastern one-third of Cameron County, adding to the archives 38 new archaeological sites. By the middle 1970’s, information existed on at least 225 archaeological sites in Cameron County.

The artifacts from the Anderson Collection are of two basic types: (1) marine and lithic and pottery. By far, the marine artifacts are the most numerous. These include marine-shell tools; and ornaments manufactured from conch shell, handaxes, scrapers, tinklers, beads, disks, sockets, plugs for drills, fish hooks, pendants, gouges, and band ornaments. The wide range of marine artifacts indicates a broad usage, including subsistence, ornamentation, and possibly trade items. (18)

Much less common are flint projectile points, knives, scrapers, drills, hammerstones, and pumice stonepipes, rubbing stones, pottery (primarily Huastecan from Tamaulipas, and bone tools and ornaments. With the exception of the bone and shell, the raw material for stone and pottery items is lacking in the coastal region. There are no consolidated geologic sediments as a source for raw lithic material existing in Cameron County. In addition, the sandy soil does not provide a good temper for pottery, although a few shards containing sand have been found (19).

In summary, it is clear that the archaeology of the Brownsville, Texas, Lower Rio Grande River delta is of major significance to our understanding of its pre-historic peoples. All authors working in the area have agreed that little has been done and that much more needs to be done in order to, more fully understand the pre-historic cultures of the area. In addition, our knowledge of the Brownsville Focus, Complex, Phase, or whatever you wish to call it, is based almost entirely upon surface collections. That is, what we think we know about the pre-historic peoples of Brownsville is based on sketchy material, and hence, the archaeology of the area is in very rudimentary condition. However, enough is known about the area as a whole to suggest the main patterns of cultural development. Professor Campbell summed up the sentiment of the lower river by saying,

“We need systematic archaeological surveys in the more poorly known areas. We also need extensive excavation lit a large number of sites, followed by detailed publications. The current rapid industrial development of the coastal area makes it imperative that a program of research be implemented before the best archaeological sites are destroyed.”

These words were published by Dr. Campbell my anthropology professor in the late 1950’s, and to date they have not been heeded, scores of pre-historic sites continue to be lost every year, as they fall victim to the plow or the house foundation.


In his examination of the significance of historical remains in cultural interpretation, Campbell recognized that although some fieldwork has been done, there is relatively little publication on historic sites along the lower Texas coast. The lower river area, located just north of the present site of Brownsville to the mouth of the river, is one of the most historically significant along the lower Gulf coast.

As recently as the early 1970’s, late pre-historic and historic materials were readily located near resacas, bancos, and the clay dunes, characteristic of the salt flats to the east of Brownsville. The Prewitt survey mentioned above indicated the continued prehistoric-historic significance of many of the unusual landforms in the area associated with the coast and the Rio Grande River and its resacas. (20)

The movement and changes in the river’s course is of major significance in the understanding of the local history, which has evolved along its banks and waterways. In the early 1850’s, shortly after the southern boundary of the United States was established at the river, the federal government commissioned a land survey to be conducted along the entire length and breadth of the river (21). This historic survey is referred to as the Emory Survey of 1853, and is an invaluable resource to persons interested in researching historical and geographical features along the river. A copy of the two volumes Emory Survey publication is located in the Hunter Room of the Oliveira Library at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville, Texas. Of comparable value is an original set of International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) maps of the river dated, 1898, also found in the Hunter Room. (22)

Together with the Emory survey of 1853, the IBWC maps of 1898, contemporary USGS maps, and aerial photographs, it is possible to reconstruct the changes in the river’s course in the area of Brownsville from the early 1800’s to the present, a period of almost 200 years. (23) Therefore, the complete settlement and history of Brownsville, as well as a significant portion of the history of Matamoros may be plotted. When the location of Anderson’s pre-historic, sites are added to the picture, we have a holistic view of the movements and location of human activity in the Brownsville area encompassing the last 1000 years.

The historical activity along the river and its environs above and below the location of Brownsville generally pivots around what was called the Santa Cruz Bend. Reference to a map of the river indicates a major hairpin bend in the river exactly at the point where the Gateway Bridge is presently located. It was around this bend in the river that Fort Brown was established and subsequently, Brownsville was developed. While most of the land on the north bank was still brush land or monte at the end of the Mexican American War (1848), ranching, cattle grazing, and river docking were established activities along the bend. (24)

The original Spanish settlers in the area called the bodies of water esteros, and in fact, Matamoros’ original name was San Juan de los Esteros Hermosos. It was later changed to Congregacion de Nuestra Señora del Refugio de los Esteros or simply, Refugio; both names make reference to resacas. It was generally along the banks of the esteros that settlements were established. Therefore, the earliest maps of our area depict estero locations and their ranches, with many bearing the same name. (25)

Careful examination of the river’s course from above Brownsville and continuing down river to its mouth of the river reveals a tremendously rich history of ranching life that is virtually unknown in the historical literature. Right above Brownsville along the river, for example, approximately where Villa Nueva is located, we find the Los Dulces Nombres ranch. While the existence of the ranch is indicated on the 1898 IBWC map, there are no physical remains of it today. However, the map indicates that it was located right on the river channel. A “foot survey” of the area revealed a characteristic stand of dead, full grown, Washingtonian palms on the site confirming the former occupation of the area, which is today a cotton field. (26)

It should also be noted, that in his early 20th century land survey efforts, A.E. Anderson located the remains of countless Indian occupation sites throughout the river delta area. Just up-river from Brownsville, the “Limeño Estero,” (the label estero indicates its antiquity) is a very old section of the river, which Anderson identified as the location of a pre-historic Indian camp. A century and a half of heavy agricultural activity and urbanization has eliminated the surface evidence of pre-historic occupation sites, although sub-surface evidence of occupation is still present in many areas of undisturbed sub-soils. (27)

The Brownsville population is familiar with the “Las Prietas” area of town, located to the west along the Military Highway. It is presently called Garden Park. While numerous stories exist as to the origin of the name, the 1898 map indicates that there was a “Las Prietas” ranch in the area at the turn of the century. Examination of historic maps indicates that there was a shift in the river’s course in the Las Prietas area sometime between 1853 and 1898. By the turn of the century, the river had “cut out” the Phillips Banco in the Garden Park area, which did not exist in the middle of the 19th century. It would make sense that the field search for historical river related artifact in this area should be conducted along the banks of the Phillips Banco and not along the present riverbank. In 1850, the Phillips Banco was the main channel of the Rio Grande River (28).

Even more recent changes in the river’s course can be seen continuing down-river in the direction of Brownsville. The Morales Banco is located in the Riverside area of Brownsville south of the PUB pump station. The banco is not found on the 1898 map, implying that it must have been part of the main river channel at the turn of the century. Therefore, sometime between 1900 and the 1950’s, flooding and continued river channel change “cut out” the Morales Banco from the present day main river channel.(29)

The Trevino-Canales Banco is a major feature of urban Brownsville that we see as we enter the Amigoland area from Palm Blvd. It was an active part of the main river channel in 1853, as it can be identified on the Emory maps, but was “cut out” by 1898. River movement has been documentable in this area since at least 1800, and the fact that the Trevino-Canales Banco was part of the main river up until the later part of the 19th century makes it a living part of river movement and the location of possible historically significant material. This expansive banco, which extends over a mile in the present Riverside-Amigoland area of Brownsville, is an area marked for urban development in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Any proposed earth moving activity in the area of the banco should be accompanied by careful observation for historical elements. (30) The 1889 IBWC map indicates the location of the river channel in 1853, today the Trevino- Canales Banco.

The Santa Cruz Bend, as mentioned earlier, was a point of reference for the early development of Brownsville, and as such, the river channel above and below the bend are of major historical significance. From the location of the B&M Bridge, the first bridge built on the Rio Grande around 1900, to the location of the Fort Texas breastworks (1845) near the old golf course, several maps indicate the former location of numerous features. There were “jetties” located on both the Mexican and U.S. sides of the river. Several river ferries operated on the river including the “Freeport Ferry,” and at least three sunken riverboats are identified, with the remains of one still locatable. The maps also show numerous 19th century houses and buildings once directly located along the river. (31)

There are maps that compare the river and jetties indicating the variation in the river course during the 19th century as well as the location of sunken boats and riverbank buildings.

The remnants of a sunken gunboat at approximately the same location as the houses are of considerable historical significance. The bow of the gunboat is clearly visible above water. This vestige of the era of river transportation is probably the only physical boat wreck still in existence on the Rio Grande River. Although the debris has received little attention from the local populace, it should be regarded as a structure of major historical significance and representative of a former way of life along the river (32). There are photos of the remains of the sunken gunboat as it looked in March of 1987.

The Fort Brown Resaca complex is located in the same area as the Cruz Bend. The complex includes a main body of water and several disconnected bancos to the south of the present location of the IBWC levee, in the area of the Brownsville Compress and the R.E. Smith property now belonging the Texas Southmost College and The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. As can best be reconstructed, these resaca/banco complexes have not been part of the main river channel since the 1840’s.

The original Fort Texas pre-dates Fort Brown; the breastworks are set near the river as it makes a deep bend to the south directly across from the old fort at Casa Mata in Matamoros. This southward turn of the river creates the land for the old golf course. In the past, the river flowed through the Fort Brown Resaca, past the present location of the Brownsville Compress in the 1980s there were resaca beds behind the levee where the East Brownsville Little League field was formerly locate, continuing and past the Santa Rosalia Cemetery, a path that approximates the location of the present day IBWC levee. (33) A section of the Cameron County Precinct #2 map indicates the relative position of the major bancos discussed.

Historic maps indicate that as the river reached its northernmost point near the Fort Brown Complex, there were several buildings situated along the bank of the river, including houses, artillery barracks, and other unnamed structures. A change in the river’s course, southeast of Fort Brown, produced the Lozano Banco, in fact, careful examination and excavation of the north bank of the Lozano Banco reveals extensive Fort Brown refuse. It is likely that before the turn of the century, the U.S. Army dumped their garbage into the river southeast of Brownsville. (34) The location of the Lozano Banco may be seen on contemporary maps of Brownsville.

The Los Tomates and the Jeronimo bancos were also contiguous parts of the river channel along with the Lozano Banco in the early 1800’s. Interestingly, examination of the river channel on the Emory Survey map indicates a course similar to what exists today. Therefore, we have one example of the river changing its course to the north between 1853 and 1898. Between 1898 and the present, the river reversed its course to the south, cutting off the three bancos, which are clearly depicted on the 1898 maps. The area below the Santa Cruz Bend has seen major river transportation activity over the last 150 years. Since these three bancos have been part of the main course of the river as recently as 1850, their banks and beds are likely to contain the buried remains of life on the river in early Brownsville. (35) A section of the IBWC 1898 map indicates the river course; marked sections are today the Lozano, Los Tomates, and Geronimo bancos.

Historical ranch sites and associated resacas and bancos continue to be found south along the river, until the river’s rich agricultural land gives way to the salt flats and clay dunes adjoining the sands of the Gulf of Mexico near Boca Chica beach.

The Borregos Banco in Brownsville’s deep Southmost area was once a northern loop of the river though cut out sometime after 1900. A personal interview with longtime resident and historian of the Borregos area, Mrs. Julia Monsees, indicates that the old pump house was once located right along the river. Today the river is located approximately one-quarter of a mile to the south of the pump house location. (36)

The Southmost “dip” of the river is historically significant in that substantial agricultural and ranching efforts have dotted the area for over 150 years. In addition, the land southeast, along the river to the mouth, was known to have had a heavy concentration of pre-historic Indian sites. The English, and Piper farms, the Brulay, Rabb and Southmost plantations, and the Santo Tomas, El Arenal, and San Rafael ranches, were all located in the river’s southernmost dip. (37)

Beyond the location of the Longoreño Banco, the river once again turns northward before its last eastward bend to the Gulf of Mexico and its terminus. The San Joaquin ranch, the San Miguel ranch and banco, and the El Salado ranch and estero are all located in the upward swing of the river. Changes in the river channel since 1853 have produced both the San Miguel and the Las Comas bancos. The Las Comas banco is the former location of the Los Naranjos estero at the northward point near the present location of State Highway 4. From this point the river begins its final eastward turn toward Boca Chica beach. (38) A section of the IBWC 1898 map indicates the deep Southmost bend of the river and associated ranch sites.

The last few miles of river are among its most historically significant and yet least known. We believe, for example, that the Spanish explorer Alonso de Pineda sailed upriver through this area as early as 1519, briefly describing Indian life. In addition, we know and understand the historical significance of the military activity in the area over a period of 150 years. However, little or nothing is truly known about common every day ranch and river life in this significant section of the river. The last few miles of the river are no less significant than those closer to urban Brownsville. The Los Naranjos, El Sauce, San Martin, Old Palmito, Palmito, Old Tulosa, La Huasteca, and White’s Ranch were all located in the river’s last miles. Finally, this examination of the historic importance of resacas and bancos in Brownsville’s history is not intended to be exhaustive; in fact, it barely introduces the subject to the reader. What it intends to do is whet the appetite of the interested historian to think about the invaluable resource we have in our resacas and bancos, and to act. That is, to take action in the discovery and documentation of so much of Brownsville’s history which remains untapped.

We know about the famous battles and other familiar facts that make our area unique in Texas and U. S. history, but a whole world of ordinary day-to-day information about the lives of the prehistoric as well as historic people, who lived here, as well as our early family and ranching ancestry is yet to be described. The river has changed its course dramatically in the last 200 years, providing a natural resource for pre-historic Indian campsites and historic ranch sites, which beg to be discovered and preserved as a part of our history and cultural heritage in Brownsville and Cameron County, Texas history.


  1. Horgan, Paul, 1954, Great River, Holt Rinehart, Winston, New York.
  2. Fehrenbach, T.R., 1983, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, American Legacy Press, New York.
  3. Bureau of Economic Geology 1980, Environmental Geologic Atlas, Texas Coastal Zone, Brownsville-Harlingen, Texas Area, the University of Texas at Austin.
  4. Newcomb, W.W. 1961, the Indians of Texas, University of Texas Press, Austin.
  5. Mallouf, R.J., B. Baskin, and K. Killen, 1977, A Predictive Assessment of Cultural Resources in Hidalgo and Willacy Counties, Texas, Office of the State Archaeologist Survey Report 23, Texas Historical Commission, Austin.
  6. Campbell T. N. 1960, Archaeology of the Central and Southern Sections of the Texas Coast, Bulletin of the Texas Archaeological Association, Vol. 29.
  7. Campbell, 1960.
  8. MacNeish, Richard, 1958, Preliminary Archaeological Investigations in the Sierra de Tamaulipas, Mexico, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 48, part 6.

9- Newcomb, 1961

10- F. Ruecking, 1955 The Social Organization of the Coahuiltecan Indians of Southern Texas and Northeastern Mexico, TJS Vol. 7, No. 4

11- Sjoberg, A.F, 1953a Lipan Apache Culture in Historical Perspective, SJA. 9.

12- Mallouf, 1977.

13- Campbell, 1960

14- E.B. Sayles, 1935 An Archaeological Survey of Texas, M.P. No. 17.

15- Alex D. Krieger, 1948 Importance of the “Gilmore Corridor” in Cultural

Contacts between Middle America and the Eastern United States, B-

TAPS. vol. 19.

16- Thomas Hester, 1969a, The Floyd Morris and Ayala Sites: A Discussion

of Burial Practices in the Rio Grande Valley and the Lower Texas Coast,

Bulletin of the Texas Archaeological Society. Vol. 40.

17- Elton Prewitt, 1971 Preliminary Archaeological Investigations in the Rio

Grande Delta Area of Texas, Bulletin of the Texas Archaeological Society.

Vol. 45.

18- A.E. Anderson, 1932 Artifacts of the Rio Grande Delta Region, B-TAPS.

Vol. 4.

19- Gene J. Paul and A.N. Zavaleta 1983, Archaeology and Ethnohistory of

The Bosque de Palmas, The Borderlands Journal. Vol. 6, pp.111-150.

20- Prewitt, 1971

21- Emory, 1857 Report on the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey.

Wendell Publisher, Washington, D.C.

22- International Boundary and Water Commission, 1903 Proceedings of the

IBC United States and Mexican Treaties of 1884-1889. Vol. 1 and 2,

Washington, D.C.

23- United States Department of the Interior, Geological Survey, 1955 Series,

U.S. Coastal and Geodetic Survey Maps: West Brownsville. East

Brownsville. Southmost. Palmito Hill. and Mouth of the River.

24- Morgan, 1954.

25- A. N. Zavaleta, 1986 The Twin-Cities: A Historical Synthesis of the

Socio-Economic Interdependence of the Brownsville-Matamoros Border

Community Studies in Brownsville History, Edited by Milo Kearney, Pan

American University at Brownsville, Brownsville, Texas.

26- I.B.W.C. 1903 Map no. 15

27- I.B.W.C. 1903 Map no. 14

28- I.B.W.C. 1903 Map no. 14

29- U.S.G.S. 1970 West Brownsville Quadrangle.

30- I.B.W.C. 1903 Map no. 13

31- I.B.W.C. 1903 Map no.5 pp.29-30, Comparative map of River and jetties

in the vicinity of Brownsville, Fort Brown, and Santa Cruz point.

32- I.B.W.C. 1903 Map, pp. 29-30, Sketch Map of the Rio Grande between

Brownsville and Fort Brown. Texas and Matamoros, Tamaulipas showing

certain shore protection works in front, of the Administration Building and

of the Artillery of Fort Brown.

33- 1903 Map no. 12

34- U.S.G.S. 1970, East Brownsville Quadrangle.

35- I.B.W.C. 1903 Map Number 12.

36- I.B.W.C. 1903 Map Number 11.

37- I.B.W.C. 1903 Map Number 10.

38- I.B.W.C. 1903 Map Number 9.

39- I.B.W.C. 1903 Maps Number 8-5.

1 This article was originally published in More Studies in Brownsville History, Edited by Milo Kearney, 1989, see UTRGV digitized version for all maps and charts.

Dr. Tony Zavaleta grew up in Brownsville and is a member of one of the 13 founding families of northern Mexico. He is the nephew of Dr. Joe Zavaleta and Prax Orive, each of whom served on the TSC Board.

Dr. Zavaleta graduated from Saint Joseph Academy in 1964 and entered Texas Southmost College, graduating and transferring to The University of Texas at Austin in 1966, where he completed a Ph.D. in Anthropology in 1976. Moving back to Brownsville in 1976, Dr. Zavaleta began teaching sociology and anthropology at Texas Southmost College and at Pan American University at Brownsville. Dr. Zavaleta became the first Dean of the College of Liberal Arts for UTB/TSC, and also served as the Dean of the College of Mathematics and Science and Technology. He next served as Vice President for Partnership Affairs, where he coordinated all of the work between the TSC Board and UTB, and then became the Vice President for External Affairs, which included governmental relations and all external programs such as Workforce Training and Continuing Education. Dr. Zavaleta served as Interim Provost, the chief operating officer of UTB/TSC, and then as the Associate Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. In 2011 he retired from the administration to return to full-time teaching. Dr. Zavaleta retired in May 2016 after 40 years of service.

Dr. Zavaleta is regarded as one of the top experts on the US-Mexico Border, and frequently speaks throughout Mexico and the U.S. Dr. Zavaleta was appointed to two Federal commissions by Presidents Reagan and Obama, and he served two terms on the Brownsville City Commission, followed by a term on the City of Brownsville Civil Service Commission.

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