The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 84, July 1980 - April, 1981 Page: 270
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Southwestern Historical Quarterly
County, whose financial manipulations produced a public debt of
$315,000 for his underdeveloped county, and John Closner, who had to
resign as Hidalgo County treasurer after the exposure of his misap-
propriation of $160,000.1
This pattern of widespread criminal activity provides only a partial
explanation of the success and staying power of the South Texas bosses,
however. A careful examination of the Cameron County machine,
which operated under the direction of James B. Wells from 1882
through 1920, reveals that the Democrats prevailed, not so much be-
cause of corruption and the use of force, but because of their sensi-
tivity to the interests of their constituents. The downfall of the Wells
organization resulted from the transformation of its constituency with
the introduction of large-scale irrigation along the Rio Grande and the
influx of thousands of new settlers.
When James Wells arrived in Brownsville in 1878 to serve as the
junior law partner of the reigning Democratic chieftain, Stephen
Powers, the young attorney entered a volatile frontier environment
that had an ambiguous legacy of racial accommodation and conflict.
In the aftermath of the Mexican War, American businessmen orga-
nized the town of Brownsville near the mouth of the Rio Grande to
compete with the merchants of Matamoros for control of the foreign
trade with northeastern Mexico. With profits from legitimate trade,
smuggling, and the operation of steamboats along the Rio Grande, a
few enterprising Anglos, like Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy, se-
cured vast stretches of ranch land. Nevertheless, the Mexican gentry
retained possession of most of the land in the Lower Rio Grande Valley
until the post-Civil War period. They also continued to control their
1San Antonio Daily Express, Dec. 29, 1890; Daily Express (San Antonio), Nov. 8, 9, 1o,
11, 13, 14, 15, 1906, Dec. 22, 1907; San Antonio Express, May 19, 1912, June 17, 19, 20,
1914, Jan. 23, 1915; Brownsville Daily Herald, Aug. 22, 29, 1892, Apr. 13, 15, 16, May 6, 7,
Nov. 11, 12, 15, 19, 21, 1912, Feb 6, 1918; Corpus Christi Weekly Caller, Feb. 1, 1907;
Corpus Christi Caller and Daily Herald, Aug. io, 11, 1912, Jan. 11, 1916; Monta J. Moore
to T. M. Campbell, May 9, 1909, James B. Wells Papers (Archives, University of Texas
Library, Austin); T. B. Skidmore to John R. Hulen, Nov. 12, 1906; J. D. Dunway to J. 0.
Newton, Dec 21, 22, 1907; William M. Hanson to James A Halley, Feb 11, 1918, Adjutant
General Correspondence (Archives Division, Texas State Library, Austin); Noah Allen to
Lock McDaniel, Mar. 6, 19go7, U.S. Department of Justice, Record Group 60, File 100579
(National Archives. The National Archives are cited hereafter as NA and Record Groups
as RG.); Chester Terrell to the Department of Justice, June 24, 1915, ibid., File 177325;
Citizens of Duval County, "Remarkable Conditions in Duval County: Protest by Citizens
Against Proposed Division," petition to the 34th Legislature, 1915 (Barker Texas History
Center, University of Texas Library, Austin); Citizens of Duval County, "Has the Average
Citizen of Duval County a White Man's Chance?" petition to the 35th Legislature, 1917
(Texas State Library, Austin).
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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 84, July 1980 - April, 1981, periodical, 1980/1981; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101225/m1/318/: accessed September 22, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.