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The Republic of the Río Grande

The Republic of the Río Grande

The story of an independent republic, declared and fought over during the span of ten months in 1840, begins years before that in the political and social turmoil that embroiled Mexico and its vast geographical domain. Repudiated by Mexican historians and validated in the writings of Texian and American journalists and travelers, the Republic of the Rio Grande’s very existence, like almost everything else in the border region, is a cause for contradictory opinions. Coming out of a valiant and victorious struggle for independence in 1821 against the 300-year rule of the great Spanish empire, Mexico eventually adopted the republican constitution of 1824, which favored a federalist form of government. Almost immediately, the young nation was set upon with attempts at reconquest by Spain, as well as by an independence movement in its northern province of Texas. Indeed, the Texan separatist faction based their secession on the change from the federalist form of government in Mexico to a centralist one in 1836. This move from a states’ rights government to one dictated and funded from the capital in Mexico City, led to numerous revolts in Yucatán , Zacatecas, and eventually the northern states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, and Coahuila. Seeing an opening for its won expansion, France also embarked on a blockade of Mexican seaports.
On November 5, 1838, Antonio Canales, a prominent lawyer born in Monterrey, issued a proclamation in Ciudad Guerrero calling for the re-adoption of the federalist constitution of 1824 and opposition to the centralist government. By February 1839, the citizens of Laredo had joined the cause. Helped by the French blockade of the Mexican ports, the Federalist were able to capture several towns. By March, 1839, however, the French had lifted their blockade and made peace with Mexico, allowing the Centralists to devote more resources to fight the Federalists. Between May and September of 1839, Centralists captured Saltillo, Tampico, Monclova, and Laredo. Antonio Canales and his chief Lieutenant, Antonio Zapata (For whom the South Texas county was named in 1858), retreated to the Nueces River and sought the support of Mirabeau B Lamar, President of the Republic of Texas, Counting on a buffer state between the newly independent Texas republic and its former government, Lamar officially remained neutral, hoping for Mexico’s eventual recognition of Texas as a sovereign nation. President Lamar, however, did allow the recruitment of Texians into the Federalist armies. The participation of these Texians, who had themselves chosen to separate from Mexico, caused outrage on the part of some Federalists who, still considering themselves loyal Mexicans, believed their rebellion to be one of a temporary nature, to last only until the official government returned to its former constitution. There serious philosophical differences eventually led to insurmountable and tragic military disarray for the Federalists.
Between September, 1839 and January, 1840, Guerrero, Mier, Laredo and other villas were taken by the Federalists. On January 7, 1840, the Republic of the Rio Grande was proclaimed by constitutional convention and Laredo was named its capital. A small structure across the square from San Agustin Church became its headquarters, that structure now houses the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum. On the 17th of that same month, officers and a general council were elected to the new republic, Jesus Cardenas, a Lawyer from Reynosa, was chosen President. Antonio Canales was named Commander-in-Chief of the army; Juan Nepomuceno Molano was selected as delegate for Tamaulipas; Francisco Vidaurri y Villaseñor, delegate for Coahuila; Manuel Maria de Llano; delegate for Nuevo Leon; and Jose Maria Jesus Carbajal was chosen to be secretary to the Council. Colonel Antonio Zapata served as commander of the cavalry. Almost immediately, the Republic’s forces embarked on a series of battles with Centralist forces taking, losing, and re-taking various villas along the Río Grande and further into Mexico. After a disastrous defeat at Santa Rita de Morelos in Coahuila in which Canales’ role is ambiguously described as either as either cowardly and militarily inept or as cautiously prudentdepending on the historian, Federalist survivors of the battle were court-martialed, found guilty, and shot. Antonio Zapata’s head was cut off and preserved in a cask of brandy until it was returned to his hometown of Guerrero where it was displayed on a pike for three days as a warning to others. The armed struggle for the border villas continued through the summer months and by the fall it was clear that the Federalists could not prevail. On November 6, 1840, Canales surrendered his troops on the north bank of the river at Camargo, and President Cárdenas and his forces stacked their rifles and arms in Laredo. The Republic of the Río Grande was no more. The Republic of the Río Grande Museum hosts guided tours for school age children and adults year-round and makes presentations to schools, detention facilities, civic groups, and travel writers on a regular basis.

Webb County Heritage Foundation

500 Flores Avenue, Laredo, Texas

Mailing Address:

Post Office Box 446

Laredo, TX 78042-0446

Phone: 956-727-0977 | Fax: 956-727-0577 | e-mail: heritage@webbheritage.org