The Origins of “Los Dos Laredos”
The twin cities of Laredo, Texas and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico that are located along the United States-Mexico border are popularly referred to as “Los Dos Laredos”. Across the Rio Grande, the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo faces its Texas sister city Laredo. Los dos Laredos or “the two Laredos” (DaCamara 3) as translated are situated in a flat area in the Rio Grande Valley. Apart from sharing a name, the cities also share a rich history that begins with the expeditions of Jose de Escandon, its foundation by Tomas Sanchez, its struggles to survive during various wars and eventually to the division of one city into two with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The objective of this paper is to trace the origins of the city from the pre-Spanish settlement to the birth of “sister cities”. The aim is not to offer a comprehensive history but to cover the events that have had significant social, cultural, and political development to these cities.
In general, the Spanish are considered to have failed in its efforts to define, occupy, and defend the territories found on the north of the Rio Grande. However, because of Spain's expansionists aims, expeditions were sent as attempts to tame the harsh region. Laredo would be one of the earliest settlements founded on the north of Rio Grande to survive the colonial period, but its origin predates recorded history (Adams 3). Before Columbus arrived in the New World, what constitutes the whole of Mexico City and some parts of Laredo were part of the great Aztec imperial nation, “the grand seat of power … [that was] larger than any European city of that time” (Adams 3). An advanced civilization with superior culture and extensive economy, the Aztec dominion collapsed when Hernan Cortez and a small army of Spanish soldiers and 16 horses invaded the empire on November 19, 1519. What historians agree on was that the wealth of the Aztecs came from their merchant trading activities. Oral history suggests that trading during this period flourished in the north - “el paso de los Indios” - a water ford that would later emerge as a “gateway for international commerce” known as Laredo (Adams 7). Before the Europeans ever set foot on the regions bordering the Rio Grande, the great river was a settlement for thousands of nomadic Indian tribes such as the Coahuilteas, Tonkawas, Jumasnows, Kickapoos, Kesale-Terkodams, Carrizos, Tamaulipas, and the Apache Lipan, autonomous groups that belong to the Coahuilteca linguistic family (Adams 8).
Founding of Laredo
Attempts to penetrate the regions bordering the Rio Grande were fruitless. In 1526, a Spanish friar named Father Andres Olmos reached the north but he and his company were forced to flee because of Indian hostilities (Adams 7). In 1747, a ranking Spanish colonel from Queretaro, Mexico named Jose De Escandon was commissioned to explore and colonize the uncharted territories of Nuevo Santander (now Tamaulipas). Unlike other previous attempts, Escandon went there fully armed. Escandon's purposes were “to explore, pacify and settle the unknown lands that now form a sort of bay... the general point to be explored... lying in the vicinity of the mouth of the Rio Grande del Norte” (Adams 9). Evidently, Laredo was a product of Spain's efforts to expand worldwide trade and convert new peoples to Catholicism. Escandon was successful and built the first settlement at Camargo on March 5, 1749.
In the early part of 1750, Escandon's officer Tomas Sanchez was able to locate a crossing on the Rio Grande which would later be known as “El Paso de Jacinto” and “El Paso de los Indios ” (Stacy 35). Sanchez brought with him his herds and established a rancheria just toward the northern portion of the Hacienda de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe de los Dolores. Sanchez proposed to Escadon that a town be built, offering to shoulder all the expenses of bringing families who would occupy the town. Escadon approved and gave Sanchez fifteen sitios de ganada mayor equivalent to over 66,246 acres of land for grazing. The town was officially founded as Villa de San Agustin de Laredo in May 15, 1755 and became the capital of the province of Nuevo Santander (Stacy 13). The town's name “Villa de San Agustin de Laredo” was derived from a town in Cantabria, Spain called Laredo (Dacamara 16). Laredo became a ranching town located north of the Rio Grande. The town was built with only three families originally and because of Spain's parsimony was not established as a presidio or a town fortified by Spanish troops. There were also no missionaries as envisioned to Christianize the Indian savages. It was essentially an independent little town, in fact, the “oldest independent settlement in Texas” (Camara 15). Don Tomas Sanchez was authorized with the military and political administration with Laredo. According to accounts of an inspector from Nuevo Santander, Laredo had a population of 85 people in 1757. The towns property included 9000 heads of sheep, cattle, and goats. Their subsistence came from meat and fish from the Rio Grande (Camara 17). The inhabitants brought salt from Reynosa and engaged in trading skins, hides, and tallow to merchants of Santander, Hoyo, and Aguayo for food and clothing. They also crossed the river in chalanes (flat-bottomed boats) to trade with neighboring towns across the river front. Don Tomas Sanchez is credited for having set the course for Laredo's eventual prosperity while at the same time preserving it from marauding bandits and hostile Indians. Laredo was frequently attacked by Indian tribes, mainly the Lipan Apache, who during one instant, celebrated their victory with a war dance on the town plaza. The economic life of Laredo was severely affected by the harassment from Indians. Aggressive wars between Indians and Spanish troops resulted to hundreds of casualties. By 1831, Laredo's population decreased from over 2,168 to just 698. By 1835, there were 956 females compared to 123 males. Plans to esterminar al enemigos or to exterminate the Apaches proved fruitless. Don Tomas Sanchez died on January 20, 1976 at the age of 87 (Adams 29).
Wars of Independence
The Mexico- and Texas- Wars of Independence resulted to drastic changes to Laredo. When Mexico became independent from Spain in 1821, the Mexican flag flew over the town of Laredo. However, some of the townsfolk remained loyal to the Spanish. On the other hand, Texas also sought independence from Mexico and wanted to claim Laredo for herself. Historians say that in 1836, when Texas became independent from the Republic of Mexico, Laredo was theoretically part of Texas but was a de facto territory of the Mexican government. During this period, Laredo became a militarized zone while the town served as headquarters for a Mexican military force and became a concentrating point for the Mexican troops. Prominent officers such as General Cos, Sesa, Ramirez, and Santa Ana frequently visited Laredo. During the independence wars, Laredo's economic life was affected. It endured attacks from Mexicans, Texans, brigands, fortune-seekers, and Indians. To fund the military campaign, additional levies were collected and food donated to feed the Mexican troops. Livestock from the ranches were reduced because of the Indian raids. Moreover, conflict made it almost impossible for the citizens of Laredo to look for food from other towns. Despite this, the town survived.
Republic of the Rio Grande
Even as Texas did eventually gain independence from Mexico in 1836, the people of Laredo were apprehensive of the capacity of both Texas and Mexico to protect them from bandits and hostile Indians. In 1839, when the Federalists rebelled against the Centralists in the republic of Mexico, the Republic of Rio Grande was established with Laredo as its capital. Laredo sided with the Federalists because their attempts to seek security from the Mexican government to protect them from their enemies were rebuked by the Mexican leaders. They created their own flag and elected their own officials (DaCamara 34). The rebellion, however was short-lived and Laredo was eventually put under Mexico by military force in November 7, 1840.
America at this period was invoking its “Manifest Destiny” doctrine to annex territories in Mexico. Laredo was caught in a crossfire during the Mexican-American War. In 1842, General Alexander Somervell and a small group of armed Texans marched toward the Rio Grande to invade Mexico and arrived in Laredo to find Mexicans soldiers withdrawing. After the town's food supply proved insufficient, the Texan soldiers grew weak and were eventually caught by Mexican forces in what is now called the Mier expedition. Laredo continued to be under Mexican rule and authority.
In 1846, General Zachary Taylor headed American forces to claim the territory between Nueces and the Rio Grande. A certain Captain Gillespie from San Antonio was able to capture the garrison in Laredo. After flying the American flag over the city, Gillespie returned the city to the alcalde and moved towards Mexico. A second attempt by the Americans to take over the city was made by General Taylor. He ordered Gen. Mirabeau Lamar, then president of the Texas Republic, to commission a company of armed men (Texas Rangers) to occupy and take charge of the administration of the city. At this time, Laredo lay in ruins. Lamar described it as,
Laredo is a very little more than a heap of ruins. There is scarcely a home that is comfortable in the place. The desolation was the effect of the most unprecedented rains which fell in 1842, and from it never revived. It is an isolated town, much exposed to the ravages of the Indians, and has suffered greatly from that source. Seven hundred of its inhabitants have been killed in the last twenty years. . . . Among the in- habitants an epidemic has prevailed to an alarming extent, attended with great mortality. I considered the circumstances as justifying the permission which I gave for the public medicines to be used among'st the citizens. I did this from a spirit of humanity as well as conciliation (qtd. in DaCamara 41).
Lamar brought the town under American control and in 1846, Laredo was occupied by Texas Rangers. Lamar instructed for the election of two justices of the peace, a county commissioner, and a constable to maintain stability in the city. At the end of the Mexican-American war, Laredo was ceded to the United States under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which designated the Rio Grande as the US-Mexican border. However, the citizens of Laredo undertook a referendum to petition for the American military government in control to return Laredo to Mexico. The petition was eventually rejected, hence, the people of Laredo who wished to remain Mexican citizens moved to Mexican territory across the river to establish “Nuevo Laredo.”
A shared history connects “Los Dos Laredos” - Laredo, Texas and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. The sister cities are a product of the political and social upheavals that can be traced to its existence since its foundation in 1755. From only three families originally, the town became a part of Mexico, rebelled against Mexico and became capital of the Republic of Rio Grande, was ceded by the United States, and broken down in two.
Stacy, Lee. Mexico and the United States. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish, 2002.
DaCamara, Katherine. Laredo on the Rio Grande. San Antonio, TX: Naylor Company, 1949.
Adams, John A. Conflict and commerce on the Rio Grande: Laredo, 1755-1955. San Antonio, TX: Texas A & M Univ Press, 2008.