Home > About > Conferences > Galway 2007 > List of Papers > Abstract: O'Connor

Adventurers, Emissaries and Settlers: Ireland and Latin America
27-30 June 2007, National University of Ireland, Galway

Overview  - List of Papers - Schedule - Gallery


False Claims and Sacred Lands: Irish Colonies in Mexican Texas

Louise O'Connor (Texas)

In the 1820s the newly independent Republic of Mexico realised that it needed a bulwark of Catholic families to hold its northern province of Texas against the tidal wave of land-hungry norteamericanos crossing over from the United States of America. Failing for the most part to persuade its own citizens to leave the interior and settle the wilderness, the national government in Mexico invited foreign-born Catholics to apply for land grants. Two Irishmen who had recently become Mexican citizens set about negotiating the bureaucratic maze and eventually, in 1830, signed the papers for land grants. Thus, James Power and James Hewetson became empresarios with the authority to recruit Irish Catholic families - with an emphasis on Catholic - to settle thousands of acres near the Texas Gulf Coast.

Ironically, the Mexican settlers already living in Texas (or Tejas as they called it) were receiving little aid or support from their government. Despairing letters written by citizens of Goliad, San Antonio de Bexar and Victoria that requested promised armaments, surveys of land or schools - articles and institutions they needed to succeed in building a society - were ignored by officials. Schools were not operating, missions were closing, and indigenous people regularly stole livestock and sometimes attacked. In the midst of this struggle, these Tejanos discovered that the government had given out land grants that seemed to impinge upon their own, including acreage that provided important access to the coast and, most galling of all, former church lands that Tejanos considered their birthright.

Families from County Wexford were probably unaware of this when they were recruited by James Power and made the dangerous crossing in 1834. Those who managed to survive the cholera that decimated their numbers and the shipwrecks that cost them most of their supplies found themselves settling land with uncertain borders and facing neighbours who were suspicious of them or even openly hostile.

Some modern historians have put forward the idea that the leaders of the Power-Hewetson colony as well as those of the McMullen-McGloin colony flagrantly broke laws and regulations and took land not legally theirs. However, recently translated documents present instead a picture of near-anarchy in terms of overlapping grants, as well as some evidence of deliberate deception on the part of certain Mexican officials eager to shift blame for mistakes away from the regional or national agents in charge of the empresario system and onto the emigrant Irish. The recently translated letters of José Maria Letona, political officer in Saltillo, for example, contain statements showing his outrage over the fact that the Commander General of the Army was deliberately trying to block Power and Hewetson from taking possession of their land grant. In other letters, Letona rebuked the Mayor of Goliad for working with the Commander General to misrepresent the actions of Power and Hewetson. The minutes of the town council or ayunatmiento of Goliad during this same time period, also recently translated, contain examples of those misrepresentations. Various entries show the mayor and others attempting to demonise the Irish leaders as dishonest, defiant characters who caused a ‘conflagration.’

It is helpful to view this situation in the context of the preceding thirty years. According to its last royal governor, Antonio Martínez, Tejas had ‘advanced at an amazing rate toward ruin and destruction’ during the final two decades of Spanish rule. Governor Martínez went on to say that the king’s soldiers had ‘drained the resources of the country and laid their hands on everything that could sustain human life.’[1]

The new independent Republic of Mexico did not improve on that model in the 1820s. Beset by internecine struggles for power and desperate pleas for reform and resources from its frontier provinces, the national government flailed about while corrupt officials extracted as much money as they could from the small population of Texas, in much the same fashion as their royal predecessors had.

My paper will explore the ways in which prejudices and a poorly-run government shaped perceptions of the Irish immigrants in Texas. By analysing primary documents such as the correspondence between Mexican officials ca. 1830 to 1835, the minutes of the Goliad ayuntamiento and letters from James Power, as well as secondary histories of the period, I hope to present a more accurate portrait of the situation than is gained by taking problematic accusations at face value.

[1] Chipman, Donald E., Spanish Texas, 1519-1821, University of Texas Press, Austin: 1994.

Online published: 24 April 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

The Society for Irish Latin American Studies

 Copyright Information