Soon after winning independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico began issuing empresarial grants, contracts allowing men to bring settlers into Mexico’s northernmost state of Texas. Ironically, of the forty-one empresarial grants issued between 1821 and 1832, only one went to a
Mexican. Don Martín De León and his wife Doña Patricia De León were wealthy descendants of aristocratic Spanish families who had immigrated to New Spain in 1750. De León received his empresarial grant in April 1824 to settle forty-one Mexican families “of good moral character” on the lower Guadalupe River. He had been in Texas since 1805, operating ranches along and south of the Nueces River and driving huge herds of cattle to market in New Orleans.
De León’s land lay southwest of Stephen F. Austin’s grant, the first and most successful of the colonies. De León named his settlement Nuestra Señora Guadalupe de Jesús Victoria, after the first president of the Republic of Mexico. The families began arriving in 1824 and received a town lot, one league (4,228 acres) of land for grazing, and a labor (177 acres) for farming. Upon completion of the colonization, the empresario received five leagues.
One of De León’s sons-in-law platted the town of Victoria, and the empresario designated the main street “La Calle de los Diez Amigos” (The Street of Ten Friends) for the ten homes of citizens who were charged with the welfare of the settlement. Three of the ten friends were his sons-in-law and two were his sons. Not all the colonists were Mexicans; sixteen families, primarily Irish immigrants, also settled in the colony.
A devout Catholic, De León brought in priests from La Bahía (present Goliad), Nacogdoches, and San Antonio until the founding in late 1824 of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The colonists built a school and a fort, organized a militia, and started a courier service with its Austin Colony neighbor.
De León’s five-league ranch, which spread along Garcitas Creek in present southeastern Victoria County, probably included the land where the Frenchman La Salle built Fort St. Louis in 1685. Many claim DeLeón’s cattle brand, which he had
registered in 1807, was the first in Texas. It consisted of a connected E and J meaning “Espiritu de Jesús, the brand used by Jesuits for hundreds of years and adopted by the De León family in Spain.
From the beginning, De León, a wealthy and cultured man, looked with disdain at the Americans in surrounding colonies. His attitude and the preferential treatment he received as a Mexican citizen added to tensions among the neighboring settlements. The boundaries of his colony were not clearly drawn and in disputes with other colonies, the Mexican courts usually sided with De León. The ensuing squabbles led to hatred and mistrust between De León and Green DeWitt whose colony at Gonzales lay just to the north. And De León tried unsuccessfully to have the government annul the grant for an Irish colony to the south.
De León died at age 68 in the 1833 cholera epidemic, leaving his wife and ten children an estate of about a half million dollars. His sons completed the settlement, which made the De León and the Austin colonies the only two in Texas to fulfill their empresarial agreement.
The family members were strong Federalists and as troubles brewed with the Centralists government under the dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna, the De Leóns sided with the Texans who supported independence. The De Leóns took part in all the plans for the revolution; they served in the army or helped in other ways to aid the Texas cause. They contributed enough to the war that when Gen. José de Urrea occupied Victoria after the massacre at Goliad, the De Leóns were treated as traitors.
Despite their support, after Texas won independence, Anglo-Americans began coming into Texas looking for land and charging the De Leóns as Mexican sympathizers. After the murder of one son and the severe injury of another, the family, one of the wealthiest in Texas, left all behind and fled to safety in New Orleans. Three years later, the oldest son Don Fernando De León returned to Victoria and spent the remainder of his life in unsuccessful litigation for the return of the family’s property.
In 1972 a Texas historical marker was placed in Victoria’s Evergreen Cemetery honoring the De León family. Attendees at the dedication included Patricia De León, great-granddaughter of the empresario, and Dr. Ricardo Victoria, great-grandson of President Guadalupe Victoria for whom the town is named.