That modest bit of understatement was an advertising slogan of the Galveston Daily News in 1908 and this week’s entry is going to be heavily dependent upon the News for the stories that piece our narrative together. Between 1906 and 1913 we have a handful of postcards from Mexico – most of them from 1908 – and there is very little correspondence included with them because the obverse had room for a stamp and an address but no greeting. Galveston, Mexico and the world were both very different than they are today and pretty much the same. Lacking extensive correspondence we are going to use the reports from the News to paint a picture of what they were like in 1908 and will leave it to the reader to draw their own contemporary parallels.
Galveston, Texas and the United States all have long and complicated histories with Mexico and in some ways Galveston’s is the longest and most complicated. Her relationship may be stretched all the way back to 1528 when Cabezza de Vaca was shipwrecked there or when Bernardo de Gálvez, a Spanish colonial governor and general, sent Jose de Evia to chart the Gulf of Mexico from the Texas coast to New Orleans, and on July 23, 1786, de Evia charted an area near the mouth of a river and named it Galveston Bay but although those contacts are certainly Hispanic Galveston was never a Spanish colonial town, as opposed to San Antonio for instance, and neither suffers nor benefits from the experience.
The modern relationship between Galveston and Mexico may actually begin when Louis-Michel Aury, a French pirate, joined forces with the Mexican rebellion against Spain. Having captured a number of ships in the Gulf, off Belize, he sought refuge in the harbor that would become Galveston and saw most of his fleet lost or damaged in the effort. His Haitian sailors mutinied and sailed off with what was left of the booty and stranded him there. Within a few days José Manuel de Herrera, a Mexican rebel envoy, arrived with relief, proclaimed Galveston a port of the Mexican republic, made Aury resident commissioner, and raised the rebel flag on September 13, 1816. Aury’s pirates patrolled the Gulf seeking booty which was landed at Galveston. One captured ship carried a cargo of gold and silver and indigo worth nearly $800,000. Cargoes that changed ownership at Galveston went through New Orleans customs unlabeled or were smuggled into Louisiana and used to finance Mexico’s fight with Spain.
Aury quarrelled with the rebels, just as he had quarrelled with Bolivar at Aux Cayes, and when they dropped their plans for a seaborne invasion of Mexico they dismissed him. He struck up an alliance with Francisco Xavier Mina – at the suggestion of an armed group under the command of Henry Perry – and transported them to Santander River in Tamaulipas which is the province of Mexico immediately south of Brownsville. In his absence the Lafitte brothers took over the island and ran their pirate, smuggling and slaving operations from 1817 until the United States ran them out in May of 1820 having decided to push no further west than the Sabine River at that time – having purchased Florida from Spain for a pittance as part of the deal and having no further use for Lafitte in fighting the British.
There would be one last effort led by James Long that would bring Americans opposed to the treaty into collusion with Mexican independence advocates like José Félix Trespalacios but the first expedition would fail, thanks in part to the failure of Lafitte to support it, and the second – although it would see James Long capture and build a fort at Point Bolivar – would fail when Long captured LaBahia but was forced to surrender four days later and was sent to Mexico, as a prisoner, and was assassinated in 1822 by a guard allegedly in the pay of Trespalacios. The entire venture seemed doomed from the start, undermanned, underfinanced, sold out by the American government who seized their supply barge and saddled with Trespalacios who had been active in a number of rebel movements, always managed to escape imprisonment, and wound up as the Mexican governor of Texas from 1822 until 1823 where he divided the Stephen F. Austin colonies into the Colorado and Brazos districts in an effort to weaken them politically.
In 1825 Mexico declared Galveston a port of entry and established a customs house because of a request of Stephen F. Austin in November 1824 in support of his request to bring an additional 2,000 families to Texas. For the next ten years the majority of settlers would arrive at Galveston from New Orleans and lumber, wool and cotton would be sent back. In 1835 and 1836 after Texas had declared and won independence from Mexico Galveston became the home port for the Texas Navy. First as privateers operating under letters of marque but then as early as 1837 with commissioned vessels – including the Liberty, Invincible and Independence – and for the next ten years helped keep Texas free. New ships – including the Zavala [named for our first vice president], the San Jacinto, the San Bernard, the Wharton, the Archer and the Austin – aided the rebels of the Yucatan Revolt against Mexico [1841-1848] which along with the revolts in Zacatecas and Tamaulipas kept Santa Anna too busy to effectively recapture Texas.
There has always been a perceived antipathy between Texas and Mexico. In 1908 the Texas Heroes Monument was less than ten years old and was very much the center of the island although – and this may be the telling detail – I have never heard of it referred to as anything other than THE MONUMENT. As close by as La Grange there was the monument to the victims of the Dawson Massacre and the infamous Black Bean Lottery and as far away as San Antonio there was the Alamo with its cenotaph carrying the message of NEVER SURRENDER OR RETREAT and even rival Houston would become the home of the San Jacinto Monument which would celebrate that singular victory with an obelisk even larger than the one memorializing George Washington in the nation’s capital. What almost all of these have in common is that they praise the Texans and vilify Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón – or as we call him Santa Anna – who has become a very convenient historical scapegoat on whom all of the sufferings of the Anglo settlers of Texas have been heaped.
He is far too complicated of a character to investigate within the scope of this blog and although the keepers of the flame need him as a villain – or dismiss him as a short man who will finally be remembered as the inventor of Chiclets and not much else – he is more symbol than substance in Texas. The truth of the matter is that Mexico was the number two [behind Great Britain] trading partner with Galveston in the early 20th century in both imports and exports. There were continuing efforts – and controversies – over improving rail connections, nationalization and expropriation were still dark clouds on the horizon and there were massive amounts of American capital invested in Mexico. The peso was 3.5 to the dollar and the country was run by José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori who had come to fame fighting Santa Anna and whose domestic policy of “pan, o palo” [bread or a beating] had kept most of Mexico quiet for the best part of the past thirty years.
In a lengthy article published by the News on January 2, 1908 we find that, “The soundness of the banking system of Mexico, controlled by a conservative and carefully administered Federal banking law, has been fully demonstrated by the manner in which the financial institutions of the Republic have weathered the storm that recently swept over the money centers of the world. There has not been a single suspension among the banking, commercial or industrial establishments of the country, nor has the formation of syndicates or government assistance been necessary to keep any institution afloat.
“The situation was summed up by President Diaz in his recent message to Congress as follows: ‘Mexico has succeeded until four or five months ago in keeping out of the influence of these disturbing factors, but the scarcity of available funds to which I have just alluded has arrested the investment of foreign capital in our country, thus obliging the banks to strengthen their holdings in cash or at least not to permit their curtailment, and therefore to refuse aid to new undertakings with the exception of those of undeniable solidity.'” The crisis in the Yucatan in henequen production, the closing of the copper mines and the slowing of the expansion of the rail system are all accounted for and explained away in this optimistic News cable exclusive.
The ties to Mexico were not only financial. It was a reciprocal holiday destination and many Galvestonians had second homes there. Those that didn’t seemed to be on a constant round of visits. Then, as now, the sons and daughters of Mexico were sent to schools in the United States including the Ursuline Academy at Galveston. One of the most overlooked connections is the fact that winter baseball in Mexico was followed as closely as either Texas League or professional baseball in the United States. The first vice president of Texas had been a Texican and in the three-quarters of a century since any number of prominent Texas business and civic leaders had family ties to Mexico that made the state, like most of the southwest United States, a cultural hybrid.
Just as Aury had conspired with Bolivar and a half-dozen others in the various revolutions in the Caribbean basin and along the shores of the Gulf in the early 19th century the storms that had been brewed in other men’s worlds – like hurricanes – kept swirling through the area in the early 20th century. We find reported in the News of March 25th, “The shooting at Guatemala City, during which president Estrada Cabrera was wounded, was done by students of the Polytechnic Institute, according to a dispatch received here Tuesday from Guatemala. The cadets had been selected to act as guard of honor during the reception of the new American minister, Maj. William Heimke, and opened fire as the president entered the palace. The dispatch from Guatemala states that several members of the presidential party were wounded one or two fatally. The president himself received several wounds, none of them serious. One dispatch states eight of the cadets were executed immediately after the shooting.” Meanwhile in Gonzales, as almost everywhere else in Texas, on March 21, the anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto had been celebrated with an all day holiday but, when an after dinner speaker suggested, “This is the age of steel!” he was interrupted by the chairman, courteously, who said, “Permit me to suggest for the benefit of the reporters present you spell that last word.”
In June there was a wake up call for the Americans when the News reported on the 11th, “During the past few weeks the feeling against foreigners, particularly against Americans, has been most bitterly stated in the press and in specially prepared pamphlets which have been distributed gratis. Most of these attacks come from sources so ill-informed that they have attracted little serious comment, but the latest attack from the pen of an educated and well-known writer of this capital has awakened astonishment of all Americans residing in the Republic.” While the News did not associate the two items the following story relates what may have well been the efficient, if not the proximate, cause of the attacks. “It was learned today that the matter of legislation of the new proposed mining law, which contains a clause restricting operation of companies to those incorporated under the laws of Mexico, has been turned over to the chief executive with full power to act. The question has thus been voluntarily transferred from the legislative to the executive department of the government.” Diaz had run the country as a fiefdom for the best part of forty years and as his grasp was slipping his handhold became that much tighter. It is not for nothing that he is remembered primarily as the author of the quote, “¡Pobre Mexico! ¡Tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos!”
Proof of how tenuous Diaz’s hold on power was becoming began to filter in through the News. On June 13th they carried a report from Tuscon, “A dispatch from Hermosillo, Mexico says that four thousand Mexican soldiers under the personal command of General Lorenzo Torres are in the country in hot pursuit of Yaqui Indians. All negotiations looking toward signing of a peace treaty were suddenly broken off yesterday. The Yaquis insisted on retaining their arms and ammunition, after having acceded to every other stipulation of the Mexican government. Mexican officials stood steadfast and the Yaqui generals withdrew from the conference. Immediately orders were dispatched to Mexican troops in the field to resume hostilities.”
Nor was this only the age of revolution in Mexico. In the same issue the following story appears, “A dispatch from Reval [modern-day Tallinn the capital of Estonia] reports a tragic incident that recently occurred here. A schoolmistress committed suicide two days before the meeting of King Edward and Emperor Nicholas. She was formerly connected with the revolutionists who, finding that she would be admitted to the platform with the school children to welcome the emperor on his arrival, ordered her to commit a “terrorist act”. It is supposed she had long repented of her revolutionary ideas and that she committed suicide to escape the vengeance of the terrorists.”
There were illegal immigrants entering the country from Mexico even in 1908 – but not quite the way it is thought of today – as this report from June 26th outlines. “Thirty Chinamen are now being held at Marfa by the United States immigration department pending an investigation by the United States commissioner of immigration at that point. Of this number sixteen were taken from a boxcar at Sanderson several days ago, while the balance were found huddled together in a box car at Marfa. The investigation so far has revealed some startling facts and there is plenty of fact to show that the smuggling of Chinamen from Mexico into the United States is well-organized and is being successful. It is thought that the capture of these Chinamen will probably unravel the ringleaders in Mexico, who are believed to be located in some of the mining towns of Mexico. This is the largest number of Chinamen ever captured here.”
Due process was observed but it was not the long lingering due process that gives lie to the term today since we find reported on July 8th that, “Sixty-seven of the seventy-one Chinamen who recently slipped into Texas by way of Mexico and were captured in sealed box cars by the United States authorities started on their journey to their native home this morning via San Francisco accompanied by United States Deputy Marshal Thos. Holloman.”
Oddly enough the break in the case came not is box cars but in Pullman cars as the News reported on November 25th. “J. F. Yanner, a Pullman car conductor employed on the Illinois Central Railroad, was arrested today by government secret service officials on a charge of assisting in smuggling Chinese into the United States near El Paso, Texas. He was held in bonds of $3,000. The government officials assert that Pullman car conductors and other railroad men have aided many Chinese to enter the United States from Mexico by secreting them in Pullman cars.”
In lighter news in that same issue our good friends, the Knights of Pythias, were getting ready to hold their district meeting in Bryan and a story that could have only come from 1908 reported, “Because he barely avoided running down the president of the United States [Theodore Roosevelt] while the latter was walking to church last Sunday, Gilbert Boyer, a youth, was arrested on a charge of ‘not having a suitable bell on his bicycle’. Boyer was released upon putting up $5 collateral which he forfeited rather than stand trial yesterday on the charge.”
Returning to Mexico we find the revolution heating up. On June 26th there is a report that, “A band of armed and mounted bandits attacked the town of Viesca in Coahuila and sacked and robbed the government stamp office. Three special trains carrying the Fourth, Eighth and Twelfth battalions of rurales have left the capital for Viesca, it is reported that the Seventh Regiment of infantry, under command of Major Cervantes, left the city of Saltillo some hours ago. Unofficial advises say the town is now in the possession of some 200 armed men. Vice President Corral, who is also secretary of the interior, admitted that troops would be dispatched to the scene but added that this step was necessary in order to make an example of the bandits.” Trouble is reported in Venezuela with a possible invasion from Colombia and Brazil is still plotting to sell British warships to Japan and much of the area south of our border seems to be moving from simmer to boil.
Nor are problems limited even to our hemisphere. “Looting and disorder are not yet at an end in Teheran and the Shah has appointed the Russian colonel of the Cossacks to the position of governor. The Shah has issued orders that one house is to be bombarded each day. He is making use of a list of houses belonging to persons opposed to him. After a house has been bombarded it is subject to complete pillage. The members of the European colony are indignant over the atrocities occurring before their eyes, although they themselves remain unharmed. Representatives of the various legations have sent word to the commander of the bodyguard , expressing their condemnation of the continued plundering of private property and the murdering of innocent people. His majesty regretted that the state of affairs superinduced by the late constitutional government compelled him to resort to severe measures and he declared that his only object was to punish the enemies of the crown and the nation.”
Although most of the news was consigned to page 3 by June 28th the News was reporting, “The revolution in Mexico against the federal government has assumed a serious nature. The reports are to the effect that an armed force of 7,000 men is marching on Torreon, one of the richest cities in the state of Coahuila.” From San Antonio comes the report, “Fort Sam Houston is keeping an eye on the situation and at the first signs of serious trouble the maneuvers at Leon Springs will be abandoned and several thousand soldiers thrown along the Mexican border.” In what may come as a surprise to modern sensibilities we learn from Washington that, “The Mexican government has requested that the United States assist in preventing the violation of the neutrality laws.” It seems that the rebels were “escaping” north of the border to avoid pursuit and capture in a country that did not have an extradition treaty with Mexico – Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
All politics is local and all news is local and nothing gave the revolution in Mexico immediacy like the report published June 30th, “Carrying his arm in a sling Sam P. Harrison, for the last five years a resident of Blanco, a small town about thirty miles from Ciudad Diaz, on the line of the Mexican International Railroad, arrived today with his family en route east to visit relatives until the revolution in Mexico is over. Mr. Harrison got his wound from a shot fired through a window of his home after nightfall three days ago.”
“That is not a fake revolution,” said Mr. Harrison, “It is a dead earnest affair… It is my opinion that the Mexican army is honeycombed with revolutionists… When Diaz dies I look for a general uprising and the revolutionary element to take the lead in affairs. The history of far southern governments is that they are unstable. The climate seems to breed revolution and discontent. I think this uprising will soon be suppressed, but I am getting away until it is over with. I do not want this other arm broken!”
As if to punctuate Harrison’s comments we have a report in the July 8th edition that, “Revolutionary forces in Honduras have captured the town of Gracios… they are threatening Choluteca, about seven miles from Tegucigalpa and Amapala, a free port of Honduras on the Pacific coast… A prominent central American said today that he believed the revolution against President Davila of Honduras will be successful. The plan of the revolution is to have in Honduras a government in which Guatemala and Salvador will take part. After this government is established the present plan provides for an attack upon President Zelayn of Nicaragua, who is considered to be the sworn enemy of President Cabrera.“ As if there were not enough problems Venezuela continued to contribute to the instability of the region – as well as suffering an outbreak of the plague – however there was a little light on the horizon as Chile was beginning construction of harbor works at Valparaiso and building steamships for trade with Brazil as well as hosting the Pan-American Scientific Congress and an Olympic games.
Even though there was revolution fomenting in Mexico, and political instability throughout central and south America, there was something of a special relationship between the United States and Mexico as indicated in the report from the August 25th edition of the News, “The Mexican gunboat Bravo, which left the port of Vera Cruz two days ago under sealed orders, is proceeding to a port in the republic of Honduras where she will join the United States gunboat Marietta in a demonstration against the little central American republic. Just what developments have occurred in the central American situation to make this demonstration necessary can not be learned at this time. Those well-informed on central American affairs declare that information has reached Mexico City and Washington which has determined the two governments to be prepared to take action.” You have to remember that the White House was occupied by a man who had actually WON a Nobel Peace Prize for ending what could have become the first world war between Russia and Japan and practised diplomacy by heeding the old African proverb of carrying a big stick and walking softly. Honduras was not bombarded and things settled down again.
Of potentially greater difficulty for Mexico in the same issue is the report from New Orleans which states, “Dr. John N. Thomas, traveling inspector of the United States Public Health and Marine Hospital Service, arrived tonight from Mexico by steamer and reported that there is yellow fever at several points in that country. Dr. Thomas says that every precaution has already been taken by federal health authorities to prevent the spread of the disease to the United States…” By August 30th there was news of a market based solution to help limit contagion without the panic that might ensue from an actual boycott or embargo. In a report from Austin it was noted, “A year ago the Mexican Lines were offering cheap rates into Mexico. This matter was taken up recently by the San Antonio International Club with the state health officer and with the passenger departments of the railroads. After the conference and at the suggestion of the state health officer the low summer rates were not offered. At present the travel into Mexico is limited, especially into the eastern coast country.” The net result was that by November 15th the News was able to report, “Gov. T. M. Campbell this morning issued a proclamation declaring the quarantine maintained against ports south of 25 degrees north latitude [basically all ports south of Tamaulipas] raised on and after November 15.” Government in 1908 – at least the United States government – did not function by creating and then managing crisis. It functioned by avoiding them in the first place!
One of the most important places in Mexico is Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María, the oldest cathedral in the Americas and seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico and quite possibly the most impressive church building outside of St. Peter’s in Rome – Chartres and Rheims notwithstanding. As important as the Cathedral of the Annunciation of Mary is Mexico City also houses the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe – the most visited Catholic shrine in the world and while the Metropolitan church would have been on every list to visit Our Lady of Guadalupe would have taken precedence over even the Cathedral as a site to visit and a place to pray. Within two years Diaz would be gone – exiled and finally buried in France – and the predictions of revolution would come true making Mexico a collection of lawless roads to try to travel on and a dubious trading partner and absolutely unreliable as an ally. The fires that swept over the country this time had much more in common with the nihilism and sedition that would convulse Europe for the next twenty years – it was no accident that Trotsky sought refuge there – but the single greatest tragedy, and the least commented on, was the effort to destroy the Church.
Mexico has experimented with securlarizing its missions – which is why so few priests were left in Texas in 1836 – and even with outlawing the church which ultimately lead to the Cristero War. The one church that even the most violently anticlerical politician never dared to touch was Our Lady of Guadalupe. A number of years ago when I was in Merida I sat outside the cathedral one morning which was directly across the plaza from military barracks. Promptly, as the 8:15 Mass started, a platoon came out, raised the flag and gave an extended bugle serenade designed to interrupt the service. This has probably been a daily occurrence for over seventy-five years but as I watched the people pass in front of the cathedral, on their way to work or to school or where ever their day carried them, I noticed all of them making the Sign of the Cross. I defy any state to overcome that. VIVA CRISTO REY! Viva Mexico!