Juan Cortina, patriot or bandit?

The Cortina Wars is a name given to armed conflicts precipitated by a Mexican rancher named Juan Cortina.  Juan Nepomuceno Cortina was born in 1824 in Tamaulipas, Mexico into a cattle ranching family.  His mother, Trinidad Cortina inherited some property in the late 1820s that was in the general area of what we know as Brownsville and Matamoros, located on both sides of the Rio Grande.  At this time, the Rio Grande geographically divided the two areas, but it was all part of Mexico until after the Mexican-American War, which essentially moved the Mexican border from the Nueces River to the Rio Grande.


(Image credit: latinamericanstudies.org)

Cortina had joined the Mexican Army in 1846 in the conflict.  Afterward, while some existing land grants in Texas were affirmed by local judges, others involving land owners of Mexican descent were not, including some of those belonging to Cortina.  Cortina began to criticize the legal system for attempting to take the land of poor Tejano owners and others.  Cortina, on the other hand, was accused by his opposition of having committed cattle theft, though he dismissed these accusations as being politically motivated.

Cortina put together an armed militia force to combat the Tejano evictions.  In July, 1859, he got involved in the Brownsville beating of a former vaquero of his mother’s involving a local sheriff (also sometimes called a marshall) by the name of Robert Shears.  In the incident, after warning Shears to stop the beating, Cortina fired a warning shot and then wounded Shears and fled to his property in Matamoros, Mexico.  A few months later in late September 1859, Cortina issued a proclamation justifying his actions and rode into town with his militia, effectively taking control of the town of Brownsville for a number of days.  The opposition retaliated by capturing one of his men and attacking the Cortina ranch in Matamoros.  In the months that followed, there were several more skirmishes in the Brownsville-Matamoros area between and Cortina’s men and Texas Rangers supported by a quasi military group of residents known as the Brownsville Tigers.

One of the Texas Ranger groups was led by John S. “Rip” Ford, under the authority of Governor Runnels of Texas.  They pursued Cortina’s forces to a stronghold at Rio Grande City and skirmished with them for months.  Cortina’s forces were decimated and the war ended following the Battles of La Bolsa and La Mesa in the first few months of 1860.  The Rangers were recalled by incoming governor Sam Houston.  This effectively ended the first Cortina War and there was relative peace in the area for over a year.

The second Cortina War coincided with the outbreak of the Civil War.  Texas was aligned with the Confederacy and Cortina aligned himelf with the Union.  Cortina and a smaller group of men attacked the town of Zapata in Zapata County in May 1861.  Cortina was unable to prevail Confederate colonel Santos Benavides, the highest ranking Tejano in the Confederate Army, and after a short time, Cortina retreated back to Mexico.

Mexican President Porfirio Diaz, whom Cortina had once supported, had Cortina arrested in 1875, reportedly at the request of Brownsville residents.  He was never tried, but the once notorious leader was removed to Mexico City, where he remained until his death at the age of 70 in 1894.  Though he is considered an outlaw from an Anglo point of view, for his efforts Juan Cortina remains a popular folk hero in Mexican culture.

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