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History of Duval County

By Alfredo E. Cardenas


To the lay reader Duval County evokes thoughts of political intrigue. The political history of Duval County is indeed a colorful one, but it is only a part of a very interesting story. It is a story of a frontier people with an indomitable spirit. Any treatment of Duval County must take special mention of its politics. But a complete history should include much more. This, however, is not a complete history. The history of a great and volatile people is not one that can be told dryly. It not only lends itself to color, it begs for life. This then is only a "brief" history of Duval County: One that treats primarily its genesis. It will be for another time or for another writer to do a true and complete history of Duval County. It is one that needs to be done.


Early History of Duval County

The area today known as Duval County was first the roaming ground for various Indian tribes. The early tribes included the Tejones in the western part of the county. They were a passive tribe who caused little concern to later settlers. In the northern parts of the county could be found the semi-nomadic and warlike Comanches. They would, until their disappearance, be a threat to peaceful settlement. Finally, the Karankawas also were early inhabitants of this area but would not be around
when the European settlements were to be founded.1

Early vegetation in the area was variously described as "delightfully rolling"2, a "vast sea of land covered with a think growth of brush"3, and the worst brush in the United States".4  The Spaniards termed the area between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers as "El Desierto Muerto", the Desert of Death.5 It was clearly a very inhospitable area, both in terms of terrain as well as inhabitants.  During the early years of European exploration in the New World, very little attention was given to
this area.  Early explorers that are said to have traversed through this area included Cabeza de Baca in 1533 and the Marquis de Rubi in 1767. Prior to 1721, this area served only as a path for caravans of cattle making their way from Mexico to east Texas.6 It would not be for another 100 years that the first trickling of settlers would begin to appear.

Duval County was in the center of the area between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers. This area was for a long time a no man's land, inhabited by unfriendly Indians and bandits from both the United States and Mexico. The wildlife was plentiful enough to keep these types well taken care of. There were plenty of wild cattle, horses and other game. Permanent settlement requiring families and stability for trade were not eager to enter this environment. In the latter 1700s, however, some Mexican ranchers from the Escandon settlements of Guerrero, Mier, Camargo and Agualeguas began to make forays into the area of present day Duval County.

In 1794, Julian and Ventura Flores were both granted eight leagues of land called "San Diego de Arriba" and "San Diego de Abajo". These grants were surveyed in 1806 by Jose Faustino Contreras, the Surveyor General of San Luis Potosi.7 As early as 1815 herdsmen for Julian Flores occupied the ranch San Diego. Juan Saenz testified in an 1860 court case that he was born in that ranch in that year. General Zachary Taylor is said to have made camp at the trading post of San Diego in 1845.8

In the year 1848, "Colonel Kinney" of Corpus Christi, Texas established an easy to follow route form Corpus Christi to Laredo, Texas by fastening a plow to the end of a wagon to turn the turf. The route closely followed the "San Diego Creek" from its mouth to the site of San Diego before turning southward. This route was preferred by travelers and early settlers because the San diego Creek provided water for them as well as for their stock.9  It was in the year of 1848 that the first settlement in present day Duval County was founded.


Early Settlements

Pablo Perez of Mier, Tamaulipas, Mexico brought in the first group of permanent settlers and founded the town of Perezville in the present site of San Diego. Included amongst his entourage were Jose Maria Garcia, Encarnacion Garcia Perez, Juan Bautista, Martin Perez, and Jesus Solis. The town was located on the banks of the San Diego Creek and was renamed San Diego in 1852. This is the year the community got its first Post Office. By 1860 the town had prospered and counted three to four stores, two hotels and a population of 500. It was primarily a roundup center for cattle and a trading post between Mexico and Texas.

As the years passed more and more trappings of civilization began to come to the small hamlet. The first priest, Father Claude Jaillet, came in 1866. Immediately after the Civil War the first common school was opened. The first doctor arrived in the 1860's. "Henry Holmes Croft, a distinguished English Chemist, was a member of the first science faculty at the University of Toronto. In search of a hot, dry climate for reasons of Croft's health, the family moved to Las Hermanitas Ranch in the
1860's"10

The first group of European settlers came in 1867 in pursuit of sheep raising which was becoming a great boost to the local economy. Among the first group included, N.G. Collins, Captain E.N. Gray, Frank C. Gravis, Charles Roach, Charles Hoffman, William Hubbard, Frank W. Shaeffer and James O. Luby.11 By 1870 the community had grown to a population of over 1,000. The economy began to diversify, although the primary industry continued to be agriculture and stock raising. Cotton was a leading staple but onions and early winter vegetables were also bountiful in certain parts of the county.12

Sheep raising, however, continued to be the most profitable. Land was cheap, selling for as little as twelve cents an acre. A buyer could occasionally get several thousand acres as "pilon" or bonus. There were over a million sheep in the two counties of Nueces and Duval. Unlike other sections of the country, there was no friction between the cattlemen and the sheepherders.13 "Prominent sheepmen included Manuel Vela (12,000), E.G. Perez (10,000), C. Hoffman (10,000), Rios Cayetano (10,000), and Hubbard and Company (8,000). Jacinto Guerra was said to have 100,000 pounds of wool in storage in his store in San Diego."14

Every merchant in the country bought wool. But the men who bought millions of pounds were ... N.G. Collins and James Luby of San Diego. Other prominent buyers ... included E. Garcia Saenz, M.C. Spahn & Co., Croft & Co., and Jacinto Guerra of San Diego ... (and) R. Schuber, Concepcion ...15 Concepcion, Realitos and Piedras Pintas were other small settlements that had sprung up. It was difficult, however, to sustain too many outposts because of the threat of Indian and bandit raids. In 1873 a band of bandits from Mexico under the leadership of Alberto Garza, known as "El Caballo Blanco", were killing cattle for hides in the vicinity of Piedras Pintas. In December of that year, 32 persons were said to have been killed in the Piedras Pintas area.16 Two years later: In March 1875 a well-organized band of 150 Mexicans crossed into Texas near Eagle Pass. On this side they separated into four divisions bent on plunder. Three of the divisions were intercepted by United States Cavalry stationed in San Diego.17

Yet three years later, in 1878, a final Indian raid was occasioned in the area. They killed several area people, including several sheepherders and young boys. They were chased back to Mexico by a posse led by Frank Gravis.18 After these series of raids, the country began to settle down. The last "Caballada" (mustang roundup) occurred in 1878 and the railroad arrived a year after. It was time for the area to take on a more formal structure and talk turned into organizing the county.


County Organization

Although Duval County was created by the State Legislature in 1858, it was attached to Nueces County until 1876 when a group of citizens petitioned for an organizational election. On February 1, 1858 the legislature passed an act creating: The county of Duval, (named in honor of Captain Bur H. Duval, who fell in Fannin's massacre), the county seat thereof shall bear the same name, and may be located by a majority vote anywhere within ten miles of its center...19  The act provided for the county to be organized by a petition of 75 citizens. It was not until 1876 that the petition would come forward. On April 22, 1876 N.G. Collins, F.C. Gravis, J.H. Moses and other citizens petitioned the Nueces County Commissioner Court for recognition. The Court denied their request because; 1) they were unsure if San Diego, from where most signatures were from, was in Duval or Nueces County: and 2) the petition was not verified by a law officer.20 A month later, on May 21, 1876, the group petitioned again through Gravis who was a County Commissioner in Nueces County. The court rejected them again until the boundaries could be reviewed. On September 22, 1876 a third petition was presented which was tabled to allow the County Attorney more time to review and analyze the situation. Finally, on September 28, 1876 the Court accepted the petition and called for an election on November 7, 1876.

The following election precincts and election judges were named:

Precinct 1 - San Diego, Theodore Lamberton, Judge
Precinct 2 - Piedras Pintas, E.A. glover, Judge
Precinct 3 - Concepcion, John Vining, Judge
Precinct 4 - Borjas Rancho, E.H. Caldwell, Judge21

The election proved successful and James O. Luby was elected the first County Judge. Other elected officials included: Frank C. Gravis, County Commissioner Precinct One, P.W. Fowler, County Commissioner Precinct Two, Rafael Salinas, County Commissioner Precinct Three, E.H. Caldwell, County Commissioner Precinct Four, R.P. Fly, Sheriff, P. W. Moses, County Attorney, Charles Hoffman, County Treasurer, Theo Lamberton, Hide Inspector and John Dix, Surveyor. San Diego, being the only community of substance, was selected as county seat. San Diego had been partitioned in 1875. The first courthouse was a two story stone building rented for $400 per year. In 1879 a two-story frame courthouse was built. It burned down in 1914 under mysterious circumstances. The present courthouse was built in 1916 and the annex in 1938.22
 

Duval County Courthouse

In the early 1900's there were two attempts to divide the county. Under one scheme the County of Lanham was to be created out of Duval. Under the second proposal Duval was to splinter off the County of Dunn. These efforts died after strong opposition from local citizens, charging that the moves were politically motivated and unwarranted.23
 

Economic and Political Development

Political activity such as described above was to play a prominent role in the development of Duval County. In the late 1800's and early 1900's, however, the county still had some economic growing pains. Shortly after the organization of the county in 1879, the Corpus Christi-San Diego, Rio Grande Narrow Gauge Railroad reached San Diego. This railroad was later converted to standard gauge and was renamed the Texas-Mexican Railway, becoming an important transportaton link between the inland port of Laredo and the coastal port of Corpus Christi. A year after reaching San Diego, the railroad reached Benavides, which was a new community founded by the railroad as a depot.

With the coming of the railroad, other new towns such as Benavides were founded, but old settlements died away as well. Shortly after the railroad reached Benavides, the communities of Piedras Pintas and La Mota died out as their inhabitants moved to the new thriving community of Benavides.24  Another import way of life also disappeared with the coming of the railroad. Duval County had always been an important roundup area. From this brush country many of the trail drives that ended up in Dodge City and other Kansas towns of yesteryear began. Cattle had always been a central player in South Texas economic life and it found much of its early development in Duval County. The Mexican Vaqueros were the forerunners of the romanticized cowboys of later years. The life of the Vaquero in the brush country was anything but romantic. It was a hard and lonely life. Although the railroad brought about the demise of the cattle drives, it did not kill the cattle industry in Duval County. It continues today as a vibrant part of the local economy.

Another major contributor of the local economy, as well as that of the overall South Texas region, is oil, gas, uranium and other energy related commodities. They too had their South Texas genesis in Duval County. The Piedras Pintas Oil Field was first founded in 1907, but development did not begin until the 1920's. Oil had been around Piedras Pintas since the early days when the local ranchers used it to grease the wheels of their oxen driven carts. They found no real use for it, however, and the land was considered ruined by it. It was not until later in the twentieth century with inventions such as the automobile that this land became valuable. As a result of the oil boom, the third significant community was founded in Duval County. Along with the Piedras Pintas Oil field came the community of Freer. Another community owing its development to oil was Seven Sisters,
just north of Freer.

It was primarily because of the development of oil and gas that Duval County withstood the harshest times that the Depression had to deal.25  It was, in fact, during this period that Duval County enjoyed its greatest growth. Eventually, however, oil and gas, cotton, and cattle had their gradual decline and most people were forced to move to the larger towns and become dependent on government employment or programs for subsistence.

This atmosphere of government dependence gave rise to the colorful political history of Duval County. While the Mexican-American population founded the initial settlements, much of the commerce and political life of the county was dominated by the "Anglo" citizenry. To be sure, from early times, the Hispanic community had seen some success in both areas. Nonetheless, in 1914 a shootout took place in downtown San Diego in which three Anglo residents killed three Mexican-Americans as a result of a political feud. This was to be the beginning of a long history of political intrigue centered primarily on the Parr family. As a result of the shooting in 1914, Archer Parr, then a County Commissioner, took the side of the Mexican-American community and molded them into an unbeatable political development. It would be half a century before other South Texas counties saw the political influence of the Hispanic community, but Duval County led the way. Archer Parr went on to become a State Senator and contributed greatly to the development of South Texas. He was born in Matagorda County on Christmas Day 1860. He taught school in Rockport and then became a cowboy for the Coleman-Fulton Pasture Company. He moved to Duval County to become foreman of the Sweden Ranch. Senator Parr passed much legislation and is credited with setting up Texas A&I College.26
 

Conclusion

This is a brief history of a county with a long past. As such, it cannot approach to tell the whole story. It highlights all the important points of its early history and legal organization. It provides insights into important economic and political developments. It does not, however, go into great detail about these developments. Nor does it pass judgment over any of the happenings that have been categorized by many as being quite controversial.

There is, of course, the need to do a more complete history of Duval County. The early cattle and sheep industries provide much insight into the development of the whole area. They also provide good information as to the way of life in this frontier area. The impact of the railroad is certainly one that needs deeper probing. The oil and energy related industry offers much for extensive research. Not mentioned in this report, but of importance, is the contraband era during Prohibition. Of course, one can always do much more than was done here with the political history of Duval County.

While not the ultimate word on this subject, this report should provide an outline for further research in the area. Hopefully, a complete history will follow.


Footnotes

1  Bilbao, Elena and Gallart, Maria Antonieta. Los Chicanos: Segragacion y Educacion (The Chicanos: Segregation and Education). Mexico City. Editorial Nueva Imagen, 1981. p. 100.
2  Inglis, Jack M. A History of Vegetation on the Rio Grande Plain. Austin: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Bulletin #45, 1964. p. 29.
3  Lehman, V.W. Forgotten Legion, Sheep in the Rio Grande Plain of Texas. El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1969. p. 162.
4  Dobie, J. Frank. A Vaquero of the Brush Country. Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1929. p. 190
5  Lea, Tom. Randado. El Paso: Hertzog Press, 1941. pp. 17-18.
6  Bilbao. op. cit., p. 100.
7  The New Encyclopedia of Texas, p. 122.
8  Lea. op. cit., p. 76.
9  "San Diego Early History."Handwritten manuscript obtained from Mrs. Adela Bazan in San Diego, Texas. p.5
10  Lehman, op. cit., p. 169.
11  The New Encyclopedia of Texas, p. 122.
12  Op. cit., p. 122.
13  Lehman, op. cit., p. 57-58
14  Ibid., pp. 27-29.
15  Ibid., p. 57.
16  Dobie, op. cit., p. 58.
17  Ibid., p. 59.
18  Ibid., pp. 212-251.
19  Gamel, H.P.N. Gamel's Laws of Texas, 1822-1905. Austin: 1906. pp. 963-964.
20  Nueces County. Minutes of the Commissioners Court, 1876. Corpus Christi: Nueces County Clerk's       Office. p. 3.
21  Ibid. p. 46.
22  Welch, June Rayfield and Nance, J. Larry. The Texas Courthouse. Waco: BLS Press, 1971.
23  Remarkable Conditions in Duval County: Protest By Citizens Against Proposed Division, Privately printed
pamphlet can be found in the Eugene C. Barker Texas History Center, Circa 1915. pp. 1-40.
24  Garza, Aida. "A Brief Account of the Development of Benavides, Texas." Master Theses, Antioch College,
Lincoln-Juarez Center, Undated. (Typescript). p. 9.
25  Bibao, op. cit. p. 102.
26  Texas Almanac. 1947. s. v. "Parr".


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