RGV History: Starr, Willacy county historical markers honor farmworkers, local heritage

Hispanic Heritage Month

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, Texas (ValleyCentral) — Each corner of the RGV has portals to the past.

Even if you venture west into Starr County or north into Willacy County, you’ll find plenty of areas deemed historical.

While Starr and Willacy counties do not have populations as high or business districts as busy as Cameron or Hidalgo counties, they still offer a wealth of information for people interested in local history.

The Texas Historical Commission has more than 40 places designated as historical markers in Starr and Willacy counties.

Starr County

Fort Ringgold (Rio Grande City)

Entrance to Fort Ringgold (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Housed at Rio Grande City’s school district administration building are remnants of Fort Ringgold, a military base that operated for nearly a century from 1848 to 1944.

The fort was constructed shortly after the Mexican-American War ended in 1848 in an attempt to ward off any conflicts between Mexico.

Fort Ringgold was used as a lookout base for about 10 years before it was first closed in March 1859. Later that year, though, it was reopened to fight off the Cortina Wars, a series of skirmishes orchestrated by Mexican rancher Juan N. Cortina.

The fort was under control by the Confederacy during the start of the Civil War in 1861 but Union forces later took over the area in 1863 before going back in Confederate possession toward the end of the war in 1865.

Following the civil war, more skirmishes Juan Cortina ensued. In the early 1870s, Cortina operated cattle raids in the Rio Grande Valley.

Former post hospital, now an administrative building (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

The fort was largely unused after the 1870s until the 1910s when conflicts concerning the Mexican Revolution spilled over the Rio Grande. Soldiers were kept on Fort Ringgold to protect citizens from raids and other issues of violence.

These soldiers were sent off to fight in World War I in 1917. After this global conflict, the fort operated normally until 1944, when the base was deactivated.

In 1947, the property was transferred to the Rio Grande City school district, who still operates and preserves the location to this day.

Unlike Fort Brown, many of the buildings at Fort Ringgold are unmarked, however, the base still contains many of the buildings around from its days as a military base, including a hospital, barracks, and administrative buildings.

Silverio de la Peña drug store and Post Office (Rio Grande City)

(photo: Nathaniel Puente)

This two-story building was constructed in 1886 and served as the only wholesale and retail store between Brownsville and Laredo for a portion of its usage.

The store operated until 1914, at which point it became used as a post office for Rio Grande City.

The building existed as a post office until 1950. Later on, it was used as a bookstore and church.

Architect Heinrich Portscheller designed this building. It’s one of the dozens of buildings Portscheller designed in the Rio Grande Valley as he revolutionized architecture in the area in the late 19th century with many of his structures still existing today.

Farm Workers Movement (Rio Grande City)

(photo: Nathaniel Puente)

A series of farmworker strikes is honored at a THC plaque on the South Texas College Starr County campus.

In 1966, several hundred farmworkers went on strike in Rio Grande City against their employers demanding better wages, work contracts, water breaks, and access to bathrooms.

Law enforcement arrested many of the protesters in collaboration with farm owners that effectively ended the strikes. The Supreme Court later ruled most of these arrests unconstitutional.

However, later in the year, farmworker advocate groups and union leaders, including Cesar Chavez, marched to Austin to demand their requests be met.

In total, 10 thousand people marched in support of the farmworkers on Labor Day 1966 at the Texas Capitol.

The workers would not see most of their demands met for many years, but the joint efforts of Hispanic advocacy groups helped launch the Chicano movement in Texas toward the end of the 1960s.

José de Escandón (Rio Grande City)

Marker honoring Jose de Escandon (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Just in front of the Starr County Courthouse is a marker honoring José de Escandón, a Spanish explorer who helped colonize the Rio Grande Valley and its surrounding areas.

Escandón traveled to the areas around the Rio Grande on a mission from the Spanish government in the 1740s.

He established the colony of Nuevo Santander, a large territory extending from the Guadalupe River near San Antonio to the Pánuco River near Tampico in Mexico.

In 1748, Escandón was named the first governor of Nuevo Santander, a position he held for nearly 20 years.

During his time as governor, Escandón helped establish more than 20 cities in the colony, including Laredo, Mier, Carmago, Reynosa, and Revilla.

Before Escandón’s colonization, very few citizens of New Spain lived in the areas around the Rio Grande. Once Nuevo Santander was established, more people began settling in the area.

For this reason, Escandón is sometimes dubbed “the father of the lower Rio Grande Valley.”

Roma-San Pedro International Bridge (Roma)

The Roma-San Pedro International Bridge is no longer in operation but still remains in place (photo: Nathaniel Puente)

The last surviving suspension bridge on the Rio Grande links Roma to Ciudad Miguel Aleman in Tamaulipas.

This bridge opened in 1928 as the first international crossway between Starr County and Mexico.

While the bridge did not boost the Roma economy as locals hoped, it did act as a wonderful piece of architecture for visitors to witness.

The international bridge was built by the Starr County Bridge Company on the U.S. side and the Compania del Puente de San Pedro de Roma on the Mexico side.

In 1979, a new bridge was built just west of the Roma-San Pedro bridge to be used as the crossing point, but the original structure was left in place, where it remains today as a marker on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Mier Expedition (Roma)

(photo: Nathaniel Puente)

When the Republic of Texas gained independence from Mexico in 1836, many disputes ensued over what territory belonged to the newly established republic.

Mexican forces continuously charged into modern-day south Texas in an effort to regain the land.

Following a number of battles near San Antonio between the two sides in 1842, one Texas general ambushed the cities of Laredo and Guerrero, taking the land for Texas. However, facing low cavalry numbers and tough odds, he ordered his troops to return to the San Antonio region.

However, many of the men disobeyed this order and continued to press on, creating the Mier Expedition.

In December 1842, more than 300 Texas soldiers charged into Mier, a Mexican town just over the Rio Grande, and captured the city. Unbeknownst to these soldiers was that three thousand Mexican soldiers were nearby and began attacking the small battalion.

The Texans were largely outmatched and forced to surrender. Mexican generals marched the captured Texans to Mexico City.

During the trip to Mexico City, several of the captured soldiers escaped the entanglement, but the lack of food and water in the Mexican mountains brought them back to the group.

Mexican leader Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna originally ordered all of the men who attempted to escape to be executed, however, other officials convinced him to only have one in ten of the men executed.

To decide who would be killed, a Mexican colonel had the men draw beans from a pot. There were 176 beans placed in the pot, one for each of the men who attempted to escape. Those who drew one of the 17 black beans placed in the pot would be executed.

Ewen Cameron, who orchestrated the escape, drew a white bean but was still selected by Santa Anna to be executed. Cameron County is named in his honor.

All of the imprisoned men were released by 1844.

Willacy County

The Onion Strike of 1979 (Raymondville)

Farm workers are seen harvesting an onion field on April 15, 2020, in Pharr, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Another case of farmworkers taking action for better conditions took place in Raymondville in the late 1970s.

Raymondville once acted as the “Onion Capital of the World” due to its high production of onions.

But when the largest onion farm’s owner, Charles Wetegrove, cut wages for farm workers in half, Raymondville’s history was shifted away from that title.

For seven days, the workers demanded their wages be raised. They slowly gained steam for their demonstration, but their plans were shattered when McAllen mayor Othal Brand purchased the land and repurposed the land.

The onion strike remains a slightly forgone story in Mexican-American history, however, its events and aftermath are covered in the 2003 film Valley of Tears.

Edward Burleson Raymond (Raymondville)

(photo: Nathaniel Puente)

A marker honoring the founder of Raymondville sits in front of the Willacy County Historical Museum, which is housed in the old Raymondville High School.

Edward B. Raymond first arrived in South Texas in 1870 and later served as a manager for the El Sauz division of the King Ranch and as Cameron County Commissioner.

In 1904, Raymond established a town at what is now Raymondville.

Raymond died in 1914 when the town’s population was in the hundreds, but the city has since grown to be home to more than 10 thousand people and remains Willacy County’s most active area.

Old Lyford High School building (Lyford)

(photo: Nathaniel Puente)

The first high school building in Willacy County is honored with a historical marker.

Built in 1923, the Old Lyford High School served as a high school until 1959, when a new building was constructed. This building then served as a middle school for Lyford until 1983.

The Lyford school district planned to demolish the building in the mid-1980s, but public outcry helped earn the marker a historical marker.

The one-story building still remains today, surrounded by Lyford Elementary School.

Port Mansfield

port mansfield pier.jpg
Photo: Sandra Garcia/CBS 4 News

Willacy County’s claim to the coast is centered around Port Mansfield, a sparsely populated fishing destination that opened in 1950.

The port was set up by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which wanted a harbor between Corpus Christi and Brownsville.

The area has remained a popular fishing spot.

San Perlita

(Photo: Nathaniel Puente)

The land that is now San Perlita was granted to Don Jose Narciso Cavazos in 1792 by the King of Spain as part of the San Juan de Carracitos land grant. The grant gave Cavazos control of one-half million acres in south Texas.

However, Richard King, when cultivating land for the King Ranch in the 1880s, argued that the land around San Perlita was never permanently settled by the Spanish, making the grant null in the area. After winning a lawsuit, the King Ranch incorporated the area.

The ranch later sold the land and some of the buyers created the San Perlita Development Company to establish the town of San Perlita in 1926.

Businesses, schools, and administrative buildings were soon built throughout the town. However, San Perlita’s population never grew over 700 and today the town has about 550 residents.

Sebastian

(photo: Nathaniel Puente)

Isolated at the border of Willacy and Cameron counties is the town of Sebastian, where a tattered THC marker sits in front of the Post Office.

Like San Perlita, Sebastian sits on land once part of the San Juan de Carracitos land grant.

The town was established in 1912 and named in honor of the vice president of the Rock Island Railroad Company, which helped to develop the area.

Early town developers hoped the town would become a major agricultural center. The town’s population has since grown to 1,900 and is the third-largest place in Willacy County.

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