Texas Claims the Last Land Battle of the American Civil War

More than a month after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox (April 9, 1865), the Last Land Battle of the American Civil War occurred at Pamito Ranch a few miles below Brownsville.

Bagdad Port on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande

Tensions ran high all along the lower Rio Grande because Confederates depended on hauling cotton from throughout Texas across the river to hundreds of European ships anchored offshore at the neutral Mexican port of Bagdad. The cotton was lightered in small vessels to awaiting ships in exchange for Winchester rifles, ammunition, and desperately needed medical supplies.

Cotton Roads to the Rio Grade

Union forces had briefly occupied Brownsville, which forced the cotton wagons to travel upriver to Laredo or Eagle Pass and then haul their valuable cargo back down the Mexican side to the port at the mouth of the Rio Grande. When the Confederates regained control of Brownsville, federal troops withdrew to Brazos Island on the United States side of the river where they continued to enforce the coastal embargo.

Cotton ferried from Brownsville to Matamoros waiting for shipment along the river to Bagdad.

In March 1865, believing the Union had won the war, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant gave permission for Maj. Gen. Lewis Wallace to meet Confederate commanders of the Brownsville area in hopes of securing a separate peace agreement. The Union terms offered at the meeting on March 11th required Confederates to take an oath of allegiance to the United States; stated that there would be no retaliation against the troops; and said those who wished to leave the country would be allowed to do so. When the Union’s proposal went up the Confederate chain of command, not only did Maj. Gen. John G. Walker denounce the terms, he wrote an angry letter to his subordinates for even agreeing to meet with the Union. As late as May 9th the commander of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith told a gathering of governors of the Confederate states west of the Mississippi that despite Lee’s surrender he proposed continuing the fight.

Meantime, a passenger on a steamer heading up the river to Brownsville tossed a copy of the New Orleans Times to Confederates along the Rio Grande. It was May 1st and the newspaper bought the news of Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination. In the next few days, several hundred rebels headed home, but those who remained were as determined as their leaders to continue the fight.

When the Union commander on Brazos Island received a false report that the Confederates were abandoning Brownsville, he sent 300 men to the mainland with instructions to occupy Brownsville. Confederates got word of the advance on May 12th and met the federals for a brief skirmish at Palmito Ranch twelve miles down the river from Brownsville. Both sides sent for reinforcements, but the following day the Confederates were supplied with mounted cavalry and a six-gun battery of field artillery. The federal increase in infantry to 500 was no match for the rebels. Within four hours the Union troops retreated seven miles back to Brazos Island.  At that point, Confederate Col. John Salmon “Rip” Ford commander of the southern division is quoted as saying, “Boys, we have done finely. We will let well enough alone and retire.” Ford wrote in his report of the battle that it had been “a run” and the clash showed “how fast demoralized men could get over ground.” The accounts differ on the number of loses, from a handful to a few dozen Confederates wounded, while the Union had from sixteen to thirty killed and wounded.

Diorama depicting Battle of Palmito Ranch
Texas Military Force Museum, Camp Mabry

At the same time the Battle of Palmito Ranch raged, governors of the Confederate States of Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas were instructing Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith to dismiss his armies and end the war. Within days, Federal officers from Brazos Island moved into Brownsville to arrange a truce with the Confederates.

Today the Palmito Ranch Battlefield National Historic Landmark is open for visitors.

 

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Pecos River Art

Rock Art Foundation White Shaman Preserve of the Witte Museum.

About 10,000 years ago, ancient peoples occupied rock shelters and deeply recessed caves tucked into canyons along the Pecos and Devils rivers. They left behind some of the most complex and diverse rock art sites in the world. Over 300 paintings, created between 3,000 and

Pecos River

4,000 years ago, sprawl across the limestone walls of these hidden rock shelters. Some of the multi-colored scenes spread more than 100 feet and depict characters twenty feet tall. The oldest images, known as Pecos River style, are the most common and often feature shaman rituals representing journeys to the spirit world. Some of the shamans are painted to look like they are ascending; others appear to be hovering with protective out-stretched arms. Panthers with great long tails leap across the limestone canvass and splay fierce claws among rabbit, snake, and crab-like shamans. In later work beginning about 500 B.C., fertility rituals, copulation, and birthing scenes are depicted.

Curly Tail Panther
Rock Art Foundation

Hundreds of petroglyphs (images carved, pecked, or cut into stone) have been discovered on gently sloping bedrock on private property in this area and are mostly geometric and abstract designs created about A.D. 1000. Work continues to remove sediment revealing older, more graceful techniques, including motifs of atlatls (spear throwers that pre-date the bow-and-arrow) as well as animal tracks and human footprints.

The artistic styles evolved slowly over time among these isolated people living in a small region near the Rio Grande. From 1600 to 1800 Spanish explorers and Plains Indians began to make forays into the region, bringing disease and warfare. Researchers know of the intrusion because of changes in the art, which depicts the novelty of domestic livestock and the impressions of a people who wore little clothing upon seeing hats, boots, weapons, and the armored horse. Although no missions were established in the Lower Pecos, structures appear similar to missions topped with a Christian cross. Then the destructive consequences of disease, warfare, and starvation brought by the outside invasion appear in scenes of soldiers, horsemen, and destroyed churches.

The introduction of the horse culture seems to explain the appearance of more recent art in lower canyon levels near water supplies and access to grazing areas away from the steep cliffs of earlier pictographs. The scenes depict hand-to-hand combat, horse theft, thunderbirds and sun symbols.

Since the 1920s researchers ranging across all the disciplines have been studying the art and the lifestyle of the ancient canyon-dwellers who for thousands of years did not cultivate crops, but sustained their livelihood by hunting and gathering. Although more than 250 sites in Texas are known for prehistoric pictographs, only the Lower Pecos Canyonlands exhibit a rock-art tradition of a single group of people over an extended period of time.

For centuries, the arid environment preserved the wall art as well as the grass beds, baskets, mats, string bags, and sandals made from fibers of native plants such as lechuguilla, sotol, and agave—priceless evidence of the culture of the prehistoric era. Modern treasure hunters began destroying and defacing the art, and it was not until the 1930s that archeological expeditions began collecting the materials primarily for display in museums. Serious research and efforts to protect the sites began in the late 1950s when Mexico and the United States made plans to construct the huge Amistad Dam at the confluence of the Devils River and the Rio Grande in the core of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. When the dam was completed in 1969, its reservoir spread over 69,000 acres, covering much of the prehistoric treasures.

Witte Museum Exhibit

Study and preservation have continued, and today visitors enjoy guided tours to the Fate Bell Shelter conducted by the Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site. Every Saturday through May, San Antonio’s Witte Museum Rock Art Foundation leads White Shaman Tours. Or visit the Witte Museum’s second floor to see life-size exhibits of the Pecos River culture and more than 20,000 artifacts from the ancient sites.

A Way Station on the Rio Grande

The Chihuahuan Desert hugging the Rio Grande in far West Texas was a killing field for Spanish explorers, Apaches, Comanches, white scalp hunters, and freighters daring to travel between San Antonio and Ciudad Chihuahua. Apache and Comanche raids into Mexico—killing

Fort Leaton State Historic Site

hundreds, stealing thousands of livestock and capturing women and children—resulted by 1835 in the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora offering a bounty for scalps. The prices ranged from $100 for braves to $50 for squaws and $25 for children under fourteen. Once the scalp dried, it was difficult to tell whether it had belonged to an Indian, a Mexican, or a white person, which encouraged the wholesale slaughter of anyone caught in the region. The financial panic of 1837 left miners in Northern Mexico and pioneers moving west in need of money. Scalp hunting brought in more cash than most men could make in a year.

The Indian raids decreased during the Mexican-American War (1846-48) as U.S. soldiers chased Indians when the army wasn’t busy fighting the Mexicans. However, after the war, the Indian attacks increased and the price per scalp inflated to $200—a quicker profit than heading to the California gold fields.

In 1848, after the Rio Grande was officially marked as the international boundary between Texas and Mexico, Ben Leaton, a freighter who had been augmenting his income by working as a scalp hunter, realized that a trading post on the Rio Grande would be a prime location on the Chihuahua Trail. Jefferson Morgenthaler, author of The River Has Never Divided Us writes that Ben Leaton selected a site for a trading post three miles downriver from Presidio del Norte (present Presidio) and by bribing local officials, he produced forged deeds to the land where Mexican peasants had farmed for generations.

Fort Leaton

Interior, Fort Leaton

Leaton, at the point of a gun, ran the Mexican farmers off of a tract of farmland that was five miles long and over a mile wide. Their protests to Mexican authorities went unheeded because the land was no longer part of Mexico. Then Leaton set about building a fortification that would serve as his home, trading post, and corral. He constructed his forty-room fortress with eighteen-inch thick adobe walls that paralleled the river for 200 feet and formed an L-shaped stockade. Walls and parapets, topped by a small cannon, enclosed the structure. Giant wooden doors opened to admit teams and wagons to the fortress that became known as Fort Leaton, the only fortification between Eagle Pass and El Paso. While Fort Davis was being built eighty miles to the north, the U.S. Army used Fort Leaton as its headquarters and continued over the years to use the site as an outpost for its military patrols.

Morgenthaler writes that the first group of Texans to reach the new trading post was a seventy-man expedition in October 1848, under the leadership of the famed Texas Ranger Jack Hays. The group was charged with opening a trading route between San Antonio and Chihuahua. Depending on an inaccurate map and an incompetent guide, the entourage had gotten lost and arrived half-starved. Leaton welcomed them while they regained their strength, and he sold them horses and supplies for the remainder of their journey. Although they returned to San Antonio without completing the expedition, the Chihuahua Trail soon opened to a steady stream of freighters passing Fort Leaton.

No record survives of any Indian attacks on Fort Leaton. Ben Leaton’s critics claimed he avoided attacks because he traded rifles, bullets, swords, tobacco, and whiskey with the Indians in exchange for stolen livestock, church ornaments, housewares, and Mexican captives. Leaton also served as a welcoming host, for a hefty price, to traders heading to Mexico and forty-niners on their way to the gold fields of California.

Leaton died in 1851 before charges could be brought by the Inspector of the Military Colonies of Chihuahua of “a thousand abuses, and of so hurtful a nature, that he keeps an open treaty with the Apache Indians . . . .” His widow married Edward Hall who continued operating the trading post. Hall borrowed money in 1864 from Leaton’s scalp hunting partner John Burgess. When Hall defaulted on the debt, he was murdered, and the Burgess’ family moved into the fort. Then, Leaton’s son murdered Burgess in 1875. The Burgess family remained at Fort Leaton until 1926.

A private citizen bought the fort and donated it to Presidio County; however, inadequate funding kept the old structure from being properly maintained. Eventually, the structure was donated it to the state, and it was restored and designated in 1968 as Fort Leaton State Historic Site.

Sitting among the lechuguilla, ocotillo, creosote bush, and candelilla of the Chihuahuan Desert, the old fort welcomes visitors seven days a week, except Christmas.

Last Hand-Operated Ferry on U.S. Border

Named for the ebony trees in the area and for the tiny town hugging Texas’ southern border, this ancient crossing on the Rio Grande serves as the only government-licensed, hand-operated ferry between the U.S. and either its Mexican or its Canadian neighbor.

Los Ebanos Ferry

For years before Spain began issuing land grants on the Texas side of the Rio Grande, colonists in Northern Mexico crossed this old river ford on their way to La Sal del Rey, a massive salt lake where they loaded blocks of the precious mineral in wooden carts for the trip back to Mexico.

In the 1740s José de Escandón, an appointee of the Viceroy of New Spain, led his men across this old ford on an expedition to locate the most favorable sites for Spanish colonization and Christianization of the Indians.

In 1875 an incident at this crossing resulted in the naming of a Mexican national hero. Despite Texas Ranger Captain L.H. McNelly’s efforts to drive Juan Cortina and his bandits across the border and out of Texas, cattle thefts increased. A rancher reported Cortina’s men driving seventy-five head of stolen cattle toward this crossing. The destination was Las Cuevas Ranch on the opposite bank. Word spread that the ranch headquartered the great bandit operation, and 18,000 cattle waited there to be delivered to Monterrey.

Captain McNelly’s men pursued the Mexicans across the river after dark, attacked a ranch, and killed all the men only to discover that they had stopped at the wrong ranch. They returned to the river and posted guards in the brush waiting for a counterattack.

When General Juan Flores Salinas, who owned Las Cuevas Ranch, learned of the massacre, he led twenty-five mounted Mexicans to the river only to die along with some of his men in the surprise ambush.

The following day, the Mexicans agreed to turn over the thieves and return the stolen cattle. Incensed over the indiscriminate killing, Mexicans across the region proclaimed General Salinas a national hero. His statue dominates the plaza across the river in the little village of Ciudad Díaz Ordaz.

Over the years, bandits and illegals used the ford, and during Prohibition as many as six boatloads of liquor crossed here every night. In 1950, the U.S. Border Patrol opened the entry station here. It remains the smallest of eight official ports of entry into Texas from Mexico, and it offers a glimpse of an earlier time when residents on both sides of the border enjoyed casual visits between neighbors sharing a common river.

Men pull the ropes to propel Los Ebanos Ferry across the Rio Grande.

Depending on the swiftness of the river, it takes from two to five men pulling hand over hand on heavy ropes to propel the wooden ferry loaded with up to three cars and a maximum of a dozen foot passengers across the 70-yard expanse.

The anchor cable that keeps the vessel from drifting off down river has been tied, since 1950, to the massive Ebony tree on the Texas side of the river. The giant tree, thought to be 275 years old, is listed in Famous Trees in Texas.

Ebony Tree anchors the ferry to keep it from being swept down the Rio Grande.

Most travelers choose to park their cars and join walking passengers who ride the barge-like vessel on its round trip.

Talk persists that fence-building under Homeland Security may close the old waterway. The time may be short for travelers to experience the last hand-drawn ferry on a U.S. international border.

The Oblate Fathers of the Rio Grande

Oblate Cross

Oblate Cross

The Oblate Fathers arrived in Texas in 1849 to serve as missionaries, and soon became known to Mexican ranchers in the Rio Grande Valley as the “Cavalry of Christ.” The padres, young men from the big cities in France, wore an Oblate cross over their plain black, ankle-length, long-sleeved soutanes (cassocks). In addition to mastering Spanish and English, they faced the added challenge of learning to ride horses and burros on 100 to 150-mile circuits. They traveled over dusty, mesquite-choked trails to reach ranches scattered along the Mexican

Oblate "Cavalry of Christ"

Oblate “Cavalry of Christ”

border.

The Mexican-American War ended the year before the Oblates reached the Valley, throwing the new arrivals into a tumultuous period of cattle rustling and general lawlessness. Both the United States and Mexico became embroiled in civil wars and the region was plagued by natural disasters like yellow fever and periodic hurricanes.

Residents along both sides of the river loved their French padres, especially Father Pierre Yves Keralum, known to the Mexican people as Santo Padre Pedito for his humility, his obedience, and his kindness. He’s also remembered for the mystery surrounding his death.

Father Keralum, an architect and master builder, combined preaching, baptizing, and marrying people with designing and constructing Gothic Revival style churches all along the Rio Grande. In 1854, he was assigned to Roma, a new mission center covering a large area upriver about halfway between Brownsville and Laredo. As part of his ministry, Father Keralum designed and constructed of Our Lady of Refuge Church.

When an Oblate superior who had started the design of the massive church at Brownsville, drowned at sea, the Oblates called on Father Keralum to take charge of the building project. He modified the plans and in 1859 completed Brownsville’s massive Immaculate Conception Church (designated a Cathedral in 1874) with its beautiful vaulted ceiling. (In 1960, fire and smoke damaged the hand-polished mesquite alter and pulpit and some of the chandeliers.) In addition to the church he also designed the convent, priests’ house, and the college building.

Along the Rio Grande, many tiny chapels survive on former ranches and at mission stations where the Oblates stayed during their long circuit rides. One of the mission centers, La Lomita, which served about sixty-five area ranches, sits on land the Oblates inherited from René Guyard, a fellow Frenchman. The reconstructed chapel is south of Mission, a citrus-growing center that was named for La Lomita and spreads over much of the Oblates’ original ranch.

San Agustin Cathedral, Laredo

San Agustin Cathedral, Laredo

The Villa de San Agustín de Laredo (city of Laredo) was established in 1755 around the present plaza. A small stone church served until 1872 when Father Keralum designed and the diocesan priests built the present Cathedral of San Agustín with its 141-foot bell and clock tower.

After twenty years of traveling at least three times annually on horseback, visiting seventy to 120 widely scattered ranches along the Gulf coast and the interior, Father Keralum––age fifty-five––was frail and nearly blind. On November 9, 1872, despite the misgivings of his fellow Oblates, he mounted his horse and rode away from Brownsville. He stopped about forty miles away at a ranch northwest of present Mercedes before he disappeared. His horse was found contentedly grazing. For a time people suspected murder. Over ten years later, some cowhands found his remains, which were identified by his Oblate belongings. Perhaps he followed a cattle trail by mistake, became entangled in a thicket, and dismounted to rest. Speculation suggests a rattlesnake bit him or he simply became lost and died of weariness and starvation.

His legacy, and that of his fellow missionaries, survived in the lives of those they touched and in the handsome churches that dot the landscape of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Millions in Silver Hauled Across Texas

Hundreds of freight wagons, each drawn by six to eight mules, and brightly colored Mexican carretas, each pulled by four to six oxen, formed dusty weaving trains on the Chihuahua Road from the silver mines of

Mexican Carreta in El Paso, c. 1885  Photo courtesy SMU

Mexican Carreta in El Paso, c. 1885
Photo courtesy SMU

northern Mexico to the port town of Indianola on the central Texas coast. The trail across Texas opened in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War when the U.S. laid claim to Texas and the entire southwest all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The following year, the California Gold Rush set the get-rich-quickers into a frenzy looking for a shorter route across the country than the old Santa Fe Trail that ran from Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Port of Indianola

Port of Indianola

The new port of Indianola on Matagorda Bay offered dockage for U.S. military personnel and equipment bound for the western settlements of Texas as far as El Paso (future Fort Bliss), and it provided the perfect jumping-off place for settlers and gold-hungry Americans heading west. The ships, anchored at piers stretching out into the shallow bay, took on the Mexican silver and transported it to the mint in New Orleans. The vessels returned with trade goods destined for the interior of Texas and the towns developing in the west and the villages of Mexico.

The Chihuahuan Road headed northwest from Indianola, made quick stops in San Antonio and Del Rio, twisted north along the Devils River, forded the steep ledges along the Pecos River, and then plunged southwest through the Chihuahuan Desert to cross the Rio Grande at Presidio, entering the mineral-rich state of Chihuahua, Mexico.

The Spanish, as early as 1567, had discovered northern Mexico’s mineral wealth—gold, copper, zinc and lead—but silver was overwhelmingly the richest lode. By the time Mexico opened its commerce with the U.S. after the Mexican-American War, there were six mines in the area near Ciudad Chihuahua, capital of the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

The raw outcroppings of the richest mine, Santa Eulalia, had been discovered in 1652, but persistent Indian troubles chased away the Spanish explorer who had found the site. Fifty years later, three men who were fugitives from the law, hide in a deep ravine tucked into Santa Eulalia’s steep hills. They stacked some boulders to create a fireplace, and as the flames grew hotter, the boulders began leaking a shiny white metal, which they recognized as silver. Knowing their fortune awaited, they sent word via a friendly Indian to the padre in the nearby mission community of Chihuahua, offering to build the grandest cathedral in New Spain if the padre would absolve their sins and pardon them of their crimes. It worked. The fugitives received absolution and pardon; they became fabulously wealthy; and they built the Church of the Holy Cross,

Church of the Holy Cross, Our Lady of Regla, Ciudad Chihuahua

Church of the Holy Cross, Our Lady of Regla, Ciudad Chihuahua

Our Lady of Regla, the finest example of colonial architecture in northern Mexico. Miners flocked to the Santa Eulalia mine and Ciudad Chihuahua grew into a large and wealthy city.

Millions of dollars in silver and trade goods were hauled over the road between Indianola and Chihuahua, except for the years of the Civil War. The road served as the corridor for western settlement until 1883 when the Texas and Pacific Railroad from the east met the Southern Pacific from California. The new southern transcontinental railroad opened a direct route between New Orleans and California. The final blow to the Chihuahua Road arrived with the devastating hurricane of 1886 that turned the thriving seaport of Indianola into a ghost town.

Route of the Southern Transcontinental Railroad

Route of the Southern Transcontinental Railroad

Politics and Salt Did Not Mix

Travelers driving east from El Paso may find it difficult to imagine the longtime controversies that took place in the shadow of the

Guadalupe Peak

Guadalupe Peak

majestic Guadalupe Peak rising from the desert floor. The tallest mountain in Texas soars 8,751 feet above its western flank where an ancient salt flat sprawled across 2,000 acres. The salt and gypsum formed dunes that flowed from three-

Dunes in the Salt Flat

Dunes in the Salt Flat

to sixty-feet above the desert landscape. This treasure, lying about 100 miles east of present El Paso, was so important for the region’s Native Americans that for centuries they viewed it as a sacred place where they secured salt for tanning hides, for use as a condiment, and as a preservative. Things began to change when the Spanish discovered the site in 1692 and the villages, such as San Elizario that developed along the Rio Grande near present El Paso, viewed the Salt Flats as common land to be used by all the peoples of the region. The Indians, especially the Apaches, did not welcome the intruders who defied Indian attack to gather the precious resource. Even after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended Mexican-American War and drew Mexico’s boundary with Texas at the Rio Grande, the Tejano farmers and ranchers supplemented their meager incomes by selling the salt as far away as the rich mining regions in Northern Mexico where it was used in smelting the silver.

More problems arose after the Civil War when El Paso came under the control of prominent Republicans who tried to claim the Salt Flat and charge a fee for Mexican Americans to gather the salt that had been free for many generations. Meantime, Charles H. Howard, a Democrat, arrived in El Paso in 1872 with the intention of turning the Republican stronghold into a Democratic electorate. Howard was successful for a time, got himself appointed district attorney and worked against the Republicans and the “Anti-Salt Ring.” Then, Howard changed course, filed on the salt deposits in the name of his father-in-law, which infuriated the El Paso area Hispanics who felt besieged by the Republicans and the Democrats. When Howard had the sheriff arrest local Tejano men to keep them from collecting the salt, a group of enraged local citizens held Howard prisoner until he agreed to relinquish all rights to the salt deposits.

Eventually in frustration over the attempted control of their community and their economic future, the Tejano people of San Elizario, closed all the county government and replaced it with committees (community juntas). The Anglos, who numbered less than 100 out of a population of 5,000, called on the governor who sent a detachment of Texas Rangers. When the Rangers arrived in the company of Howard, a two-day siege occurred ending with the surrender of the Texas Rangers, the first time in its history that a company of Rangers surrendered to a mob. Howard and the ranger sergeant and two others were executed. The disarmed Rangers were sent out of town, the Tejano leaders fled to Mexico, and residents looted the buildings. Twelve people were killed and fifty were wounded. No one was ever charged with a crime.

San Elizario paid a hefty price for its demands: the county seat was removed to El Paso, the 9th Cavalry of Buffalo Soldiers re-established Fort Bliss to patrol the border and watch the local Mexican population, the railroad bypassed San Elizario, the population declined, and the Mexican Americans lost their political influence in the area.

By the 1930s, floods had deposited silt across much of the flats and salt gathering came to a halt. Today the ghost town of Salt Flats, which consists of a scattering of mostly deserted buildings, edges the highway. Scattered vegetation grows where silt covered the old salt beds, but barren white stretches still offer a glimpse of the precious early-day resource.