Fewer than a dozen remaining grave markers are toppled and broken in a cemetery that may date to the 1730s before Corpus Christi's documented history and the United States' establishment.
"It's a travesty this resting place is so neglected," Tom Grover, 49, said as he hacked through thorny overgrowth with a machete this week to reach Flinn Ranch Cemetery's overturned headstones. "There should be more respect for the dead."
Grover owns adjacent land and was drawn to a headstone he saw from his property, he said.
Historians have been drawn to the cemetery, too.
It has been the focus of debate for decades. Some suspect the nearly 30-square-yard cemetery on private property is the resting place of Spanish and Mexican missionaries who traveled along Petronila Creek three decades before known Corpus Christi history began in the 1760s.
"We have nothing that goes back that far," said Thomas Kreneck, associate director for special collections and archives at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. "This, however, is the kind of research that we would like to see pursued, anything that carries back further than our written record is very important."
Flinn Ranch was located within the original Santa Petronila Land Grant. The Mexican government issued the land grant to Jose Antonio Cavazos in 1835. Hand-carved tombstones found in the ranch cemetery may precede even the Santa Petronila Ranch, founded in 1764 by Captain Blas de la Garza Falcon and considered by local historians as the first settlement in Nueces County.
Larry D. Hollon, 73, a former Petronila history teacher, interviewed old-timers in Driscoll and learned about a woman's family Bible that documented twin boys buried in the cemetery in 1731 and 1733.
Hollon's history students found one twin's marker, photographed it and made a mold of it, said the retired teacher, who now lives in Illinois. His students contacted a federal museum in Mexico City and were told the graves could hold missionaries from the Canary Islands who left Mexico City in the late 1720s to colonize the upper Gulf Coast.
The photos and mold of the marker were at the school when Hollon left in 1968, he said. He doesn't know what happened to the evidence after the school closed.
The students' work inspired the late Dr. Clotilde Garcia to adopt the cemetery in 1986 as a state sesquicentennial project. She wanted the county to maintain it under a state law allowing county funds to be used for historic preservation of cemeteries with graves more than 50 years old.
Nueces County Historical Commission Chairman Anita Eisenhauer said she presented Garcia's research to the Texas Historical Commission, but nothing happened and the cemetery continued to fall apart.
The cemetery has 21 graves registered in county records, and an unknown number that some historians suspect were the area's earliest colonists.
"The intrigue is truly incredible," Eisenhauer said, "and if someone could prove it with research, the cemetery could be marked as historical. But with it being on private land, hard to get to, and no surviving documentation, it's all supposition."
Contact Mike Baird at 886-3774 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Recorded graves: 21 graves registered in Nueces County death records beginning in 1918
1730s: Canary Island missionaries came through Mexico City to the upper Gulf Coast
1746: Col. José de Escandón, commissioned in Spain to colonize Seno Mejicano, a 200-mile coastal strip, dubbed Colonia del Nuevo Santander
1764: Captain Blas de la Garza Falcon established Santa Petronila Ranch, considered the first settlement in Nueces County
1835: Jose Antonio Cavazos received Santa Petronila Land Grant issued by Mexican government
1914: Edward A. Flinn purchased the land, and the cemetery was used for ranch workers
1918: First person buried there according to Nueces County Death Records was Felice Villarreal, 12.
1938: Last person buried was Maria Ines Costilla, 8 months
Source: Dr. Clotilde P. Garcia's 1986 Texas sesquicentennial research project for Nueces County