Heritage, Volume 18, Number 2, Spring 2000 Page: 20
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HERO OR BRUTAL BANDIT, JUAN
NEPOMUCENO CORTINA DOMINATED
MUCH OF THE 19th-CENTURY HISTORY
OF THE TEXAS-MEXICAN BORDER.
As a result of his real and alleged activities,
the mere mention of Juan
Cortina's name in Texas today brings instant
recognition from librarians, archivists,
and historians. Middle school students
read of his daring 1859 Brownsville
Raid and his defiance of Texas Rangers and
the United States Army. Even today in
smoke-filled, Budweiser-cluttered cantinas
along the border, lively corridos recall his
daring deeds. But in Mexico, with the exception
of the cities of Camargo,
Matamoros, and Ciudad Victoria, he has
largely been forgotten. His name was Juan
Nepomuceno Cortina, and he dominated
a large part of the 19th-century history of
the Texas-Mexican frontier.
4 uch of what we know about
Cortina, especially his early life, has come
from that old frontiersman John Salmon
Ford. In fact, one of the few physical descriptions
of Cortina comes from "Old
Rip," who described Cortina as being of
"medium size, with regular features and a
rather pleasing countenance. He was rather
fairer than most men of his nationality. He
was fearless, self-possessed, and cunning. In
some cases he ... acted towards personal
and political enemies with a clemency
worthy of imitation .... In native
intellect [he] ranked high."
(Stephen B. Oates, ed., John
Salmon Ford, Rip Ford's Texas
Austin: University of Texas
Press, 1963, 261-62.) Ford, who
spent six months in 1859 and
1860 and much of 1861 battling
Cortina, also referred to the border
raider as the "black sheep of
the family ... [who] was bad in
school," a bully who would
rather fight than learn to read
and write, a "marauding chief.
.frontier pirate, notorious
champion . . . [and] the Red
Robber of the Rio Grande." To
Ford, Cortina instigated a
"predator war . . . [and wrote]
his name in blood and fire."
Consequently, much of
Cortina's negative image has come line for
line from Ford's memoirs. A close reading
of the historical record, however, shows
that Ford, throughout his life, had a kind
of love-hate attitude toward Cortina.
Ford's ambiguous feelings probably stem
from the friendship Cortina professed toward
Ford's wife Addie in Matamoros during
the Civil War. In turn, Addie's sympathetic
treatment may have been a response
to Ford's insistence that Cortina's
mother not be molested by the Rangers
during the First Cortina War. Also of importance
is the fact that Ford took credit
for saving Cortina's life in 1876 when President
Porfirio Diaz ordered Servando
Canales, one of Cortina's bitterest enemies,
to court-martial Cortina. Ford, however,
maintained that Diaz was motivated by a
substantial loan from several Brownsville
businessmen who wanted Cortina removed
from the border; Ford asserted that one of
the men who gave Diaz $50,000 to have
Cortina arrested was Sabas Cavazos,
Cortina's older half-brother. Subsequently,
Canales, acting under Diaz's orders,
had Cortina tried, and when
Cortina was found guilty, Canales ordered
him shot. Ford claimed that he
personally rushed across the Rio Grande
and persuaded Canales to send Cortina
to Mexico City where President Diaz
could decide his fate. But in addition to
Left, the battles led by Juan Cortina on
the Texas-Mexico border; map by John V.
Cotter, from "The Wild and Vivid Land."
Above, this page: a photograph of Cortina
in the 1880s. Image courtesy of the
archives at the University of Oklahoma.
HERITAGE * 20 * SPRING 2000
Cortina War, 1859-60
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 18, Number 2, Spring 2000, periodical, Spring 2000; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45390/m1/20/: accessed August 22, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.