The flags of six independent nations, we’ve all heard tell, have rippled in the breeze of a place called Texas. The New World treks of Spanish and French explorers brought the first sovereign standards, followed by those of the republics of Mexico and Texas, the Confederacy and the United States. But for much of the year 1840, citizens in Laredo and elsewhere along the great river that became the border between Texas and Mexico pledged allegiance to a seventh flag, the tri-starred ensign of a revolutionary movement enshrined in history books as the Republic of the Rio Grande. The republic was declared by Federalist leaders in three Mexican states who wanted to break away from the centralistic government of Mexico and form a new confederation with Laredo as its capital.
The problem with history, of course, is that it happened a long time ago. From the 1847 History of Mexico to the Handbook of Texas, historians have maintained that the Federalists gathered north of the great river in early 1840 to formally proclaim independence as the Republic of the Rio Grande. In recent years, however, beginning with a 1986 paper by Mexican historian Josefina Zoraida Vázquez, many scholars have questioned the republic’s formal existence.
Whether or not the republic was formalized, impassioned revolutionaries shed blood for the cause.
The conflict between the Federalists of northern Mexico, who believed in stronger local authority, and the Centralists, who advocated for a central government with greater power, dated to at least 1821, when Mexico won its independence from Spain. The revolt involved the northeastern Mexican states of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas. In the revolutionaries’ view, Tamaulipas extended north of the Rio Grande to the Nueces River, and the Medina River bound Coahuila on the north.
In November 1838, after the Mexican Congress abrogated the pro-Federalist Constitution of 1824, Tamaulipas legislator Antonio Canales issued a pronunciamento against the Centralist government in the town of Guerrero. Upriver, citizens of Laredo issued a similar proclamation in early 1839, with an eight-hour celebration of bells, cheers and gunfire.
According to local tradition, explains Webb County Heritage Foundation executive director Margarita Araiza, a small building of limestone and sandstone rubble caulked with adobe on the plaza served as the republic’s capitol. Today, the seven flags of Texas fly over the old capitol, which now houses the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum.
Military engagements between the Centralists and Federalists flared throughout Mexico’s northeastern frontier. The battles followed a pattern, in which the Federalists won early victories before their unsteady commander, Canales, balked and ordered retreat. At least twice, the Federalists retreated north of the Rio Grande, resting at Espantosa Lake and Fort Lipantitlán, recruiting Anglo-Texan adventurers and Carrizo Indians to join their forces.
In the spring of 1840, the rebellion received a blow from which it could not recover when its most storied fighter, Antonio Zapata, rode to the village of Santa Rita de Morelos, Coahuila, with about 25 men to repel a rumored attack by Comanches. A charismatic mulatto ranchero from Guerrero, Zapata had become legendary on the frontier for his daring and prowess as an Indian fighter.
As a Federalist colonel, Zapata vowed to “labor for a just cause until shedding the last drop of my blood.” In Morelos, he found an opportunity to fulfill that oath when pro-Centralist villagers tricked him into lingering until a large force led by Gen. Mariano Arista, commander of the Mexican Army of the North, besieged the rebels. His last bullet spent, Zapata surrendered.
Arista offered amnesty if Zapata would renounce the Federalist cause. But seeing that the freedoms for which he’d fought were now beyond this world, Zapata chose death. Hundreds of Centralists accompanied the decapitated head of Zapata, preserved in a cask of brandy, through Laredo and back to Guerrero where it was placed on a pole in the plaza. By the end of 1840, the last Federalists had surrendered and the Republic of the Rio Grande retreated into history.
The most extensively researched work on the subject, a 2005 University of Houston thesis by Juan José Gallegos, concludes that while an independent republic was not officially declared, “a provisional government was formed to provide the rebellion a veil of legitimacy, which would allow them to seek aid in Texas and the United States.”
Gene Fowler frequently writes for Texas Co-op Power.