Texas Heritage, Volume 19, Number 1, Winter 2001 Page: 36
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MAPPING DE CORDOVAS DIASPORA
By Juliet George Wells
:,;he peripatetic genius Jacob De Cordova began his life of
journeys in Jamaica as the son of Sephardic Jews in exile
from Iberia. He lived in Kingston, Philadelphia, and New
Orleans; traveled at least once to England; and migrated to
Texas. Here, he sampled life in Galveston, Houston, Austin, and
Seguin before coming to a stop in Bosque County. Jacob De
Cordova sought and found a life in Kimball Bend, a town he
helped establish a short distance from a river the Spanish explorers
had named Los Brazos de Di6s - The Arms of God.
Considering his life of journey, it is not
surprising that De Cordova's most enduring
legacy would be - what else? - a map.
De Cordova obtained backing from
two New Yorkers and two Houston businessmen
to open a land agency in 1845
and began traveling through Texas as a
land locator. He applied for, and
received, two Republic of Texas land certificates
to 640 acres, qualifying as an
early settler of the upstart nation. Should
Texas join the United States, he anticipated
that many more immigrants would
come looking for land. Jubilant at the
eventual annexation news, he took part in
the carving-up, colonization, gover- Jacob De
nance, and promotion of a new state. Courtesy ofInsti
Writing and printing, traditional De
Cordova family occupations, had sustained him in Jamaica and
in Philadelphia; land location and speculation drove him in the
late 1840s. By the 1850s he had merged the two callings. While
Jacob De Cordova traversed unclaimed Texas fields and
researched the status of old Spanish land grants, an Austin
newspaper he founded with his half-brother Phineas ensured
publicity for the enterprise. Handbills, also originating from their
press, reportedly circulated to most crossroads trading centers
in the Midwest. Where he could not travel, De Cordova sent the
monthly "De Cordova's Herald and Immigrant's Guide" and several
self-published pamphlets to represent him.
With surveyors and assistants, the agent prepared a map of
Texas that drew praise and endorsement from Sam Houston and
other Texas dignitaries. De Cordova's Map of Texas charted for
Easterners and Europeans, as well as for Texans, the vastness
and detail of the state. Other mapmakers used it as a basis for
their own work. Lippincott, the Philadelphia publisher, picked up
De Cordova's 1858 book, "Texas: Her Resources and Her Public
Men" after its initial printing and reissued it as an almanac, encyclopedia,
and immigrant-recruiting tool. The book was sold as a
companion to De Cordova's map, which as a lure for settlers,
He knew that images helped would-be immigrants visualize
their destinations. According to one account of the rise and fall
of the City of Kent (an ill-fated utopian venture in Bosque
County), De Cordova toured England in 1850, taking with him an
exhibition of George Catlin's romantic North American paintings
to show as he lectured on Texas' attractions.
What remains of De Cordova's legacy? Engineers changed the
course of the Brazos and other rivers that
he knew. Urban and suburban sprawl, new
infrastructures, erosion, and deforestation
render territories familiar to De Cordova
strange lands. His map documents an earlier
Texas. Among De Cordova's other contributions,
too numerous to detail, are fraternal
lodges in Texas; the city of Waco,
which he helped found; and what Texas
author John Graves lyrically called "stone
ghost buildings" - the limestone ruins of
Bosque County's Kimball Bend.
More elusive is the full story of the man's
life and faith. In true maverick fashion,
Jacob De Cordova strayed from stereotordova
type as a Jewish immigrant, though out)f
Texan Cultures, siders sometimes called attention to his
y of Texas
Jewish identity with subtle and not-so-subtle
prejudice. He married outside his religion in Philadelphia and
migrated far from Jewish communities, while retaining links with
observant Jews. His children and grandchildren, raised as
Christians, dispersed into a gentile world knowing little or nothing
of Sephardic orthodoxy. When De Cordova's body was
exhumed and reburied in the Texas State Cemetery during
Centennial preparations in the 1930s, those in charge denied his
Judaism as they commissioned a prominent memorial marker
with a bas-relief cross.
Fugitive strains of Judaism seem to have followed De Cordova
to the limestone and scrub brush of Bosque County, where he
died in 1868. Just as one of De Cordova's early biographers, the
Texas rabbi Henry Cohen, could detect Iberian folk melodies in
the intonations of a Sephardic cantor in Jamaica, those attuned
to Jewish culture and tradition may yet find what De Cordova
himself and nearly two centuries have obscured. They chase a
lion through a mesquite thicket.
Juliet George Wells holds a bachelor's degree from The University of
Texas at Austin and a master's degree in history from Texas Christian
University; she teaches in Fort Worth.
HERITAGE * 36 * WINTER 2001
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Texas Historical Foundation. Texas Heritage, Volume 19, Number 1, Winter 2001, periodical, Winter 2001; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45384/m1/36/: accessed April 29, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.