The Question of Santa Anna’s Leg

Display at Illinois State Military Museum, photo Sangamon County Historical Society

Display at Illinois State Military Museum, photo Sangamon County Historical Society

I usually try to tell the tale and let readers make up their own minds about the merits of the case. This time, I am admitting up front that I am siding with the state of Illinois against my own birthplace of Texas. Here’s the conundrum: The Illinois State Military Museum owns and proudly displays Santa Anna’s artificial leg and the San Jacinto Battle Monument and Museum wants it.

The story goes like this: In 1836, after General Santa Anna won the Battle of the Alamo and had the survivors slaughtered and then ordered the massacre of about 300 Texans at Goliad, he marched in glory toward San Jacinto where he expected to defeat those “land thieves,” once and for all. His hubris, his view of himself as the Napoleon of the West, caused him to leave the bulk of his army behind and rush to San Jacinto. He lost the battle at San Jacinto in eighteen minutes, which gave Texas its independence from Mexico. Actually, he didn’t lose; he ran off and was not discovered until the next day cowering among some marsh, dressed as a common soldier.

When the Mexican government heard of the fiasco, the officials promptly kicked him out of office as president of Mexico and commander of the Mexican Army. Consequently, Mexico claimed that Santa Anna did not have the authority to sign the peace treaty that declared Texas independence.

Santa Anna was not done. After a time of exile in the United States, he made his way back to his hacienda in Veracruz. In December 1838, the Mexican government had refused to compensate French citizens for their financial losses in Mexico, and the French Army landed in Veracruz demanding payment. Mexican officials called on none other than the disgraced Santa Anna to defeat the French, using any means necessary. The assault failed, and as the Mexican Army was retreating, cannon fire hit Santa Anna in the leg, shattering his ankle. His leg had to be amputated, and that was the vehicle Santa Anna rode on his return to Mexican politics. Despite Mexico having to meet the French demands, Santa Anna turned defeat in victory by having his amputated leg buried with full military honors. He never again allowed his countrymen to forget his great sacrifice.

Santa Anna turned to the only man in the United States that made artificial legs. Charles Bartlett, a former cabinetmaker from New York City, crafted for $1,300, a prosthetic leg of cork covered in leather.

Santa Anna's $1,300 cork leg with leather cover.

Santa Anna’s $1,300 cork leg with leather cover.

While serving as acting president of Mexico in 1841, he helped overthrow the government. After four years under his dictatorship, during which he sent military expeditions into the Republic of Texas, his autocratic rule caused so much resistance that he was forced into exile in Cuba. Santa Anna was not done. At the beginning of the Mexican-American War in 1846, Santa Anna made a deal with President James Polk to enter Mexico through the U.S. naval blockade in exchange for negotiating a reasonable price for the sale to the U.S of the disputed land. While dealing with President Polk, Santa Anna arranged with Mexico’s president to lead an army against the northern invaders (that is the United States). Both presidents agreed to Santa Anna’s deals, and as soon as he reached Mexico he declared himself president and began leading the Mexican Army in its unsuccessful fight against the United States.

On April 18, 1847, in the midst of the Mexican-American War, Santa Anna was sitting in his carriage enjoying a chicken lunch a safe distance from the fighting, when Company G, 4th Regiment of Illinois Volunteers surprised him. The General got away, but he left behind his cork leg and $18,000 in gold. The story is that the men finished off the chicken, turned the gold over to their commander, and took the leg with them back to Illinois at the end of the war. For years they charged the curious, ten cents a viewing of the leg. In 1922, it was donated to the state.

Today, Santa Anna’s leg is the central attraction in the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield. The challenge came in April 2014 when the San Jacinto Battle Monument and Museum launched a petition on the White House website seeking 100,000 signatures to get the leg moved to Texas. There were not enough takers to qualify for the White House to look into the cause, however, it is hard to imagine that a president from Illinois would step into a move to take a prize from his state and send it to Texas.

If I had been asked to vote, and I was not, I would say Santa Anna’s artificial leg belongs to Illinois. While Santa Anna was a bitter enemy of Texas and continues to be held in low esteem, he had both his good legs while he was in Texas. Those Illinois volunteers found that leg eleven years after Santa Anna foolishly led his men to defeat at San Jacinto.

The Black Bean Episode

Despite the glorious story of Texas winning its independence from Mexico in that eighteen-minute battle at San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, the new republic remained embroiled in a series of political, economic, and military struggles.  The Black Bean Episode was the culmination of all those forces coming together for a grand failure.

Although Santa Anna lost the war for Texas Independence, he regained favor with the Mexican people in 1838 and won the presidency. (Watch this site next week for a review of Santa Anna and his amazing ability to return to power.) One of Santa Anna’s generals sent a warning to Texans in January 1842 of an impending attack if they continued insisting on their independence.  The following March, Mexican troops invaded Goliad, Refugio, and Victoria. By the time they reached San Antonio, the frightened populace had abandoned the city.  The Mexicans withdrew, but they left the settlements along the western edge of Texas in panic, demanding that President Sam Houston send an army into Mexico to halt the attacks.

Sam Houston, anxious to avoid another war and work instead toward building a strong republic, understood the political challenges and reluctantly made appeals to the United States for money and volunteers in preparation for an invasion of Mexico.  The needed assistance from the United States never arrived. On September 11, 1842, Gen. Adrián Woll, with 1,200 Mexican troops, captured San Antonio. Texans gathered at nearby Salado Creek to drive out the raiders, and while they were making headway in a pitched battle, less than two miles away a disaster was taking place.  When word had spread of the need for Texan support at San Antonio, Capt. Nicholas M. Dawson had raised a company of fifty-three men from the La Grange area.  On September 18, Dawson’s men rushed headlong into battle with Mexican cavalry patrols only to be overpowered by a column of 500, reinforced by two cannons.  When the cavalry pulled back and opened fire with the cannons, Dawson’s men were completely overpowered.  Despite trying to surrender, survivors claimed the Mexicans continued firing.  By the time the fight ended in late afternoon, thirty-six Texans were dead, fifteen were taken prisoner, and two escaped.  The dead were buried where they fell among the mesquite trees.  The survivors were marched to Perote Prison near Mexico City and only nine finally returned to Texas.

After what became known as the Dawson Massacre, Sam Houston finally called on Alexander Somervell, a customs officer from Matagorda Island, to organize a volunteer militia to punish the Mexican Army for the attacks.  Somerville raised a force of 700 young men who were eager for revenge, for adventure, and for plunder.  The expedition left San Antonio at the end of November 1842 and captured Laredo on December 7.  Finding a town with little wealth to plunder, the men ransacked Laredo.  Somerville, who had not been especially eager for the expedition, realized he was losing control of his command, and that they would be facing a much better trained and stronger Mexican Army as they marched south.  On December 19, he ordered his men to disband and head home.  A group of 308 Texans, including five captains, ignored Somerville’s command and under the leadership of William S. Fisher, continued their march down the Rio Grande.

Crossing the river to Ciudad Mier, the Texans battled all Christmas Day and into the night against a much larger Mexican force before finally surrendering. As captives, the Texans began the long march south toward prison in Mexico City. On February 11, 1843, the Texans overpowered their guards and in an effort to avoid capture fled into the arid mountains of Mexico, only to suffer for six days without food and water. When the Mexican troops rounded up the starving Texans, orders came from an infuriated Santa Anna to execute each of the 176 captives. It is unclear how Santa Anna was convinced to change his mind and decree instead that one in every ten should be executed.

Seventeen black beans were placed in a pot of white beans.  Some accounts say that the black beans were added last, and that the

The Drawing of the Black Beans

“The Drawing of the Black Bean” by Frederic Remington.

officers were required to be the first to draw, then the selection proceeded in

Those who drew Black Beans faced a firing squad.

Those who drew Black Beans faced a firing squad.

alphabetical order.  The seventeen men who held black beans were executed before a firing squad.  The other prisoners eventually reached Perote Prison outside Mexico City.  Over time, some escaped, others had family and friends who arranged their release, and some died of illness and starvation.  Finally, on September 16, 1844, Santa Anna ordered the release of the remaining 104 Texas prisoners.

In 1847, while the United States Army occupied northeastern Mexico during the Mexican-American War, Captain John E. Dusenbury who had drawn a white bean, returned to the burial site of his comrades who had drawn black beans.  He exhumed the remains and carried them by ship to Galveston and then by wagon to La Grange. The citizens of La Grange retrieved the remains of those who had died in the Dawson Massacre and reinterred all the fallen in a common tomb housed in a cement vault on a high bluff overlooking La Grange.  Today, the gravesite is part of the Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery State Historic Sites.

Monument to the fallen in the Dawson Massacre and the Black Bean Episode.

Monument to the fallen in the Dawson Massacre and the Black Bean Episode.

Don Martin De Leon, Empresario

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 approximately thirty 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

Don Martin De Leon

Don Martin De Leon

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.

Map of Texas Colonies

Map of Texas Colonies

De León’s grant lay southwest of Stephen F. Austin’s, the first and most successful of the colonies.  De León named his settlement Guadalupe Victoria, after the first president of the Republic of Mexico.  The first twelve families arrived by October and the others, delayed by drought and floods in Northern Mexico, arrived the next spring.  Each family 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 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 town from 1824 to 1828.  Three of the ten friends were his sons-in-law and two were his sons.  From 1828 to 1835 alcaldes (mayors) governed the colony.  De León served as the first alcalde followed by two of his relatives.  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 the neighboring Austin colony.

Victoria quickly became a cultural center as the family maintained contact with friends who were kings, emperors, and both military and political leaders in the United States.  The children and grandchildren were sent to schools in the major cities of Europe and the business of the colony was considered among the most substantial.  Cattle, horses, and mules were the primary business and the family corralled wild Longhorns and mustangs by the thousands.10friends650x335

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.

De Leon Cattle Brand

De Leon Cattle Brand

From the beginning of his colony, 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 Mexican Dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna, the De Leóns sided with the Texans who supported independence.  The De León’s 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 so substantially to the war that when Gen. José de Urrea occupied Victoria after the massacre at Goliad, the De Leóns were arrested as traitors.

Despite their contributions, 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.

Map Legend:  De Leon’s Colony — Blue

Austin’s Colony — Yellow

DeWitt’s Colony — Orange

Irish Colonies — Green

Stephen F. Austin, “Father of Texas”

Stephen F. Austin fits the image of a reluctant father.  He came to Spanish Texas in response to his own father Moses Austin’s deathbed wish for Stephen to continue with Moses’ dream of settling 300 families in Texas.  Like many apprehensive fathers, Stephen F. Austin embraced his responsibilities and spent the remainder of his life lovingly guiding his colony and all of Texas toward the best opportunity for success.

Austin understood and admired the adventurous, hard-working settlers willing to move to a wilderness and carve out a new life because he grew up around the French Canadian, Spanish, and American mine workers in the primitive, lead mining towns his father founded in western Virginia and Spanish Louisiana (present Southeast Missouri).  Unlike Moses Austin whose quick temper and need to challenge those with whom he disagreed, Stephen embraced patience, tact, willingness to compromise, and the diplomacy necessary to work with the independent-minded settlers and the tangles of Spanish and Mexican government bureaucracy.

Stephen reached San Antonio in August 1821, secured authority to continue with Moses Austin’s colonization grant, and arranged for allocating 640 acres for each man, plus 320 acres for a wife, 160 acres for each child, and eighty acres for each slave at a cost of twelve and a half cents per acre to be paid to Austin for administering the surveys and expenses of establishing the colony.

Settlers eagerly grabbed the land offer as Austin scrambled to find financial partners.  From the beginning of his colony, Austin insisted all land grants be carefully recorded in bound volumes to preserve a permanent record—a wise decision in light of the news of Mexico finally winning its long battle for independence from Spain.

The first test of Austin’s diplomatic prowess came in December 1821—the first settlers were already arriving—when Mexican authorities refused to approve Austin’s Spanish land grant.

Austin left immediately for Mexico City, and after patient negotiation, the Mexican government established a new empresarial policy offering each married man a league of land (4,428 acres) and opened colonization to several more empresarios, agents like Austin who received permission to bring settlers into Texas.  The law denied empresarios the right to charge administrative fees, providing instead 67,000 acres for settling each 200 families. However, empresarios received their land only after settling all the families.  Selling the land proved difficult since colonists were getting free land.

Despite the loss of administrative fees and personal debts mounting as he bore more and more of the unforeseen costs of establishing the Austin Colony, by late 1825, Austin’s colony reached 300 families—known today as the “Old Three Hundred.”  Between 1825 and 1829, Austin settled an additional 900 families.

Dealing with the Mexican government required constant compromise.  The slavery issue presented a continuing challenge since most settlers came from slave-holding states and the original colonization law allowed them to bring their chattel into Texas.  When the new constitution of the state of Coahuila and Texas prohibited slave importation, an uproar spread through the colony.  Austin’s personal beliefs (he owned a slave woman he described as old and not worth anything) seemed to shift.  As with other issues he felt represented the best interest of the colonists, he negotiated a scheme allowing settlers to free their slaves at the Texas border and make them indentured servants for an indefinite time.

Recognizing the plight of many colonists who came to Texas without paying their debts in the United State, Austin secured a law closing the courts for twelve years to debt collectors and permanently exempting land, tools, and implements used in business and farming from creditors—an early version of the homestead exemption law.

Austin located his colony in fertile farmlands with access to transportation along the Colorado and Brazos rivers, and then lobbied the Mexican congress to legalize the port of Galveston and to allow trade through ports at the mouth of the Brazos and other rivers.

Despite Austin’s efforts to ease tensions between the differing cultures and remain aloof from Mexican government intrigues by encouraging the colonists to “play the turtle, head and feet within our own shells,” outside forces kept Mexican officials on the defensive.  Several offers from President Andrew Jackson for the United States to buy Texas resulted in an 1830 law halting further colonization by settlers from the United States.  Austin wrangled an exemption for his and for Green DeWitt’s colony, and by the next year succeeded in getting the law repealed.

However, when Haden Edwards, in an effort to win Texas independence from Mexico tried to drag Austin’s beloved colonists into the Fredonian Rebellion, Austin sent a militia to put down the revolt to save his settlers from the wrath of the Mexican government.

The colonists’ dissatisfaction with Mexican President Anastacio Bustamente’s heavy-handed immigration controls and introduction of tariffs finally led to Austin joining the colonists in supporting Antonio López de Santa Anna in Mexican presidential elections.  Santa Anna soon proved not to be the liberal leader of his campaign, but a dictator who clamped down on the increasingly independent-minded colonists.

Austin did not favor the conventions held in 1832 and 1833 to express Texan grievances, and believed they would not serve the colonists’ best interests, but he attended each event hoping to moderate the actions of the increasingly dissatisfied settlers.  Despite his efforts to temper the resolutions, the delegates, even those who disagreed with Austin, recognized his influence with the Mexican authorities, and elected him to present their petitions to the government in Mexico City.

Austin’s negotiations resulted in important reforms, but as he headed back to Texas, Santa Anna ordered him arrested and held until July 1835—an absence from Texas of twenty-eight months.  Without Austin’s calming presence, the war clouds in Texas grew beyond his control; strong factions organized a consultation to begin the process of declaring independence.  The consultation delegates selected Austin and two other men as emissaries to the United States to solicit loans and volunteers and arrange credit for munitions and other equipment, including warships.  They also charged the men with getting a commitment of recognition of Texas independence and eventual annexation to the United States.

By the time Austin returned to Texas in June 1836, the celebrated Battle of San Jacinto on April 21 had decisively won Texas war for independence from Mexico.

Sam Houston

Austin “offered his services” as president of the republic in the September election, but it was not to be.  Sam Houston, the man who marched across Texas with the army, the flamboyant general who led the troops in the winning Battle of San Jacinto, won the contest.  President Houston appointed the quiet and unassuming Austin to the office for which he was well suited—Secretary of State.  Despite failing health and no money to heat his tiny office and living quarters, Austin worked diligently to set up the state department of the new Republic of Texas.

As he lay near death with pneumonia on December 27, 1836, he roused from a dream with these last words:  “The independence of Texas is recognized.  Didn’t you see it in the papers?”

Austin died at age 43 without knowing his beloved Texas, which he nurtured and guided with such patience, would become the twenty-eighth state to enter the Union, and that annexation would trigger the Mexican War (1846-48).  Like dominoes falling across the historic landscape, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending that conflict stretched the United States borders to the Pacific Ocean, adding nearly a million square miles and increasing the size of the nation by almost one third.

Land acquired after the Mexican War