Go about as far south as you can on U.S. Highway 83 and you come to the town of Rio Grande City, one of the state's oldest settlements. It used to be part of Mexican soldier and public official Jose Antonio de le Garza Falcon's Carnestolenda Ranch, which spanned the Rio Grande when the United States was just a gleam in the founding fathers' collective eye.
Henry Clay Davis, a fighting Kentuckian and survivor of the Muir Expedition, married into a prominent local family, bought the property and planned the town — the first colonial venture north of the Rio Grande — in 1847. Rio Grande City has existed ever since as a border town in a land where the border is as real as the river, but also a mirage, an abstraction.
The U.S. Army built Fort Ringgold there in 1848, at the end of the Mexican War, to provide a buffer between the city and various smugglers, rustlers, insurrectionists and reprobates from both sides of the border. Named in honor of Maj. Samuel Ringgold, the first U.S. Army officer to die from wounds in the battle of Palo Alto in the Mexican War, the fort provided the town a measure of protection and security along with commerce and a sense of permanence.
Located on the banks of the Rio Grande River, a quick glance away from Mexico and miles from any major town, the city is still remote, even by today's standards. Rio Grande City is the county seat of Starr County and home to 13,834 people, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. It was and is just a dot on the geography of South Texas, but whatever conflicts America or Mexico have at any given time always seem to play out there.
When Mexican soldier and folk hero Juan Cortina and his volunteer army briefly captured Brownsville in 1859 with cries of “Viva Mexico” and “Death to the gringos!” the ensuing undeclared war rumbled into Rio Grande City in December of that year. Sixty of Cortina's men died in battle there, and Cortina lost all of his equipment. Colonel Robert E. Lee showed up for a while at Fort Ringgold to keep an eye on things and invade Mexico if he deemed it necessary. Cortina stayed out of sight for the better part of a year, and Robert E. Lee went on his legendary way into history.
In 1888, Starr County Sheriff W.W. Sheley, accompanied by United States Inspector of Customs Victor Sebree, arrested a Mexican-American resident of the city, Abraham Recendez, for robbery. At some point, Sebree found it necessary to kill Recendez, claiming the prisoner tried to escape.
Residents didn't believe him. They cited a long list of suspected lynchings of Mexican-Americans, particularly by Sheley, as evidence that the killing was nothing less than cold-blooded murder. Journalist Catarono Erasmo Garza wrote an editorial in the "El Comercio Mexicano" that accused Sebree of murdering an unnamed Mexican prisoner. The next time Garza was in Rio Grande City, Sebree shot him.
Loyal readers and other concerned Rio Grande City residents, about 200 in all, decided to lynch Sebree. To that end they chased him with a rope him all the way to Fort Ringgold, where the post commander told the people to cease and desist, and they did.
However, news of anarchy in the streets of Rio Grande City spread as far away as Great Falls, Montana. Texas Gov. Lawrence Sullivan (Sul) Ross responded by sending Texas Rangers, part of the Third Cavalry, along with sheriffs from surrounding counties — some 250 soldiers and law enforcement officers in all —to Rio Grande City, where nothing much else happened.
Fort Ringgold benefitted the city, but African-American troops stationed there didn't perceive a reciprocal benefit. In 1899, when the black “Buffalo Soldiers” of the Ninth U.S. Cavalry returned to the fort in triumph after a successful campaign in Cuba, they might have felt like returning heroes, but they felt the city treated them as something considerably less than that. Tensions flared. On the night of Nov. 20 the post commander, 2nd Lt. E.H. Rubottom, sensing an impending attack on the fort, ordered a Gatling gun to pepper bullets all across the area separating the fort and the town. The result was one injury, no deaths, and a lot of hurt feelings.
We don't knowWhether Rubottom's action quelled the riot, or whether a riot was even in the works, but we do know that no riot ever took place. An investigation into the incident concluded that Rubottom did a stupid thing but didn't charge him with anything. The Ninth moved out of Fort Ringgold soon afterwards. The fort lasted until 1944, when the government closed it and disposed of most of the property.
In 1966, Rio Grande City, along with the rest of Starr County, was ground zero for a farm worker strike. Workers who made 50 cents an hour for 10-hour days went on strike to demand a statewide minimum wage of $1.25 an hour and the right to negotiate their own contracts with growers. The strikers ended up marching 500 miles to Austin, but state officials refused to act. Nor did it hurt the growers — the melon harvest that year was one of the largest on record. The strike petered out after Hurricane Beulah, the third-largest hurricane of the 20th century, swept across South Texas in September of 1967, spawning . 115 tornadoes, killing 18 people, injuring hundreds more and making the strike more or less superfluous.
Today Rio Grande City still straddles a fine line between two cultures and two governments. The woes of the border are still Rio Grande City's woes, but the town hangs on. According to recent reports, the city plans to open a shopping mall there soon.
You can find a few remnants of the town's history today, including the Robert E. Lee House, which the city restored to look much like it did when Lee visited in the wake of the Cortina war. If Lee could visit Rio Grande City now, he would no doubt marvel at how much the place has changed, but also at a border that still exists but really doesn't.