Manuel Lorenzo Justiniano de Zavala y Sáenz was the first vice president of the Republic of Texas, serving under interim President David G. Burnet. He was born October 3, 1788 in the Yucatán area of Mexico and died November 15, 1836 at the age of 48 in Channelview, Texas. His family heritage was Spanish and he was in the third generation of his family to be born on the American continent.
His first wife was Teresa Correa y Corres. They married in 1807 and had three children. Teresa died in 1831 and Zavala met and married Emily West in November of the same year. They also had three children. Emily West is one of three individuals sometimes associated with the legend of the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
Zavala was educated in Mexico and first founded and operated several newspapers, where he was able to express his strong convictions regarding democracy. His first experience in politics came when he served secretary of the city council of Mérida. His expression of his beliefs led to his imprisonment from 1812 to 1814 where he used the time to study medicine and taught himself to read English. He served as secretary of the provincial assembly of Yucatán in 1820 before going to Madrid in 1821 where he served as a deputy to the Spanish Cortes. After returning to Mexico, he remained active in politics serving as a deputy in the First and Second Mexican Constituent congresses of 1822 and 1824. The newly independent Mexico struggled with the conflicting desires of the Federalists and Centralists for control of its national and state governments during this period. Zavala served as secretary of the treasury under President Vicente Ramón Guerrero and as governor of the state of Mexico. The Centralist party ousted Guerrero in 1829 and Zavala, a Federalist, left Mexico for America after a brief term in which he was under house arrest in Mexico.
For a while, he resided in New York, endeavoring to find investors for his empresario grants, authorizing him to settle as man as 500 families in what is now Southeast Texas. It is not known whether he was successful but eventually he transferred his interest to the Galveston Bay and Texas Land Company in 1830. He remained abroad for a short time before returning to Mexico in 1832, again serving as governor of the state of Mexico and later as deputy for his home state of Yucatán. He was appointed by President Antonio López de Santa Anna in 1833 to the legation in Paris, only to resign in 1834 after learning that Santa Anna had assumed the role of dictator of Mexico. Zavala was ordered to return to Mexico, but he instead returned to Texas. By 1835 he had become active in the cause to return Mexico to a Federalist government and was drawn to the independence movement in Texas.
Zavala became active in the movement for Texas independence. His education and long experience in politics was useful in the movement and he played a strong role in drafting the Constitution of the State of Texas. He and his family settled on Buffalo Bayou until Santa Anna and his army sought to capture him and other cabinet members. He escaped to Galveston and remained active in the movement following the Treaties of Velasco, trying to influence the Mexican leadership to recognize the Republic of Texas. It was not to be, in no small part aggravated by the failed Texas military encroachments into Mexico. Zavala’s health and begun to decline. He resigned his vice presidency in October 1836 and returned home.
Shortly after his resignation, Zavala’s rowboat sank in a norther in Buffalo Bayou. As a result of this event, he developed pneumonia and died in November 1836 and was buried at his home. He was recognized at the time by the Texas Telegraph and Register. An editorial published a few days after his demise read “Texas has lost one of her most valuable citizens, the cause of liberal principles one of its most untiring advocates, and society one of its brightest ornaments.” It is believed that Zavala’s original burial site has sunk into the bayou but a granite marker was erected near Channelview in 1931, across the bay from the San Jacinto Monument.
Zavala is well known for his written works in support of the Federalist movement in Mexico and for his work in drafting the Constitution of the Republic of Texas. It was written that his work was “characterized by quick, enthusiastic energy and dependable judgement.” He was well educated, becoming fluent in Spanish, French, English and Latin. He learned medicine, though it is unknown whether he ever practiced as a physician. It is thought that he designed the familiar “Zavala” Texas flag characterized by a white star in the center of a blue field, with the letters of the word Texas in the V between each star point. It is attributed to Zavala, but there is no clear historical evidence to document his role in creating it.
Although he was only in Texas a relatively short time, he made a significant impact. Zavala has been honored by having Zavala County and the town of Zavala named after him. Numerous roads, public buildings and schools across Texas also bear his name. This writer attended one such school. Zavala’s granddaughter, Adina Emilia de Zavala, was instrumental in the effort to preserve the Alamo.
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