Goliad, Texas:From “Remember the Alamo” to The Ox Cart Wars

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

Should your travels to Huatulco be by land, and should they take you through east Texas via the tiny town of Goliad, you will find some outsized Mex-Tex-Mex history.

Located a little over a hundred miles southeast of San Antonio on the San Antonio River as it flows to the Gulf of Mexico, Goliad (pop. 1,908 in 2010) is the site of Nuestra Señora de Loreto de la Bahía, a presidio, or fort, built to defend what was then the border between Mexico and the United States. Northerners don’t often think about this, but after the Mexican War of Independence (1810-21), Mexico included much of the southwest – nearly all of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Nevada, and Utah, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

The Texas Revolution

In the governmental chaos that followed independence, Mexico started out with a short-lived empire, followed by a republic that set off a struggle between conservatives (“centralists”) and liberals (“federalists”). The centralist President Antonio López de Santa Anna enacted policies that ticked off the folks living in what is now Texas; the settlers in this area were both Mexican and Americans; the latter had settled there when Mexico opened up land to immigrant settlers shortly after the War of Independence. On October 2, 1835, the settlers declared their independence from Mexico, and the Texas Revolution was on.

The Texas Revolution was only one of several armed insurrections against Santa Anna’s conservative government, but it was the most dramatic, the most deadly, and the only one that worked. Santa Anna – not without evidence – saw a U.S. plot to annex Texas, and decided this was his war. Following several months of skirmishes along the San Antonio River between San Antonio (then called Villa de Béxar) and Goliad, on February 23, 1836, Santa Anna led his troops to rebel headquarters in the Misión San Antonio de Valero, known as “The Alamo.” Thirteen days later, Davy Crockett, James Bowie, and nearly 200 other Texas fighters lay dead.

About a month later, down the river in Goliad, Mexican General José de Urrea and about 1,400 soldiers approached the La Bahía presidio. Although the head of the Texas army, General Sam Houston, had retreated and warned Colonel James W. Fannin to evacuate his forces from Goliad, Fannin failed to do so in time. Despite fighting Urrea’s advanced forces fiercely over a day, and regrouping overnight, Fannin’s men woke up to find that Urrea’s main army had arrived. The Texans surrendered and were marched back to La Bahía, where they expected to be treated as prisoners of war. Santa Anna was having none of that. All the Texans who could walk were marched out in different directions from the presidio, where they were shot or had their throats cut. Wounded Texans were lined up against the wall or left in their beds to be executed. Over 350 Texans were killed in the Goliad Massacre.

Santa Anna was in serious error if he thought the fate of those who died at the Alamo and Goliad would bring the Texas rebellion to an end. Men flocked to sign up with Sam Houston’s army; he led them out of retreat and towards Santa Anna’s army, which had made it to present-day La Porte, on the Gulf southeast of Houston.

This time it was Santa Anna’s forces who weren’t ready. They had backed themselves into a corner to achieve high ground behind Buffalo Bayou on the San Jacinto River. At 3:30 on a clear afternoon on April 21, 1836, Houston massed his forces and gave the order to advance in silence. It’s been suggested that Santa Anna had no lookouts and that many of his soldiers were taking their afternoon siesta. For whatever reason, the 910 Texans who attacked, raging in revenge and screaming “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” met little resistance. They gave no quarter, slaughtering Mexicans who were crying “Me no Alamo, me no Goliad!” The Battle of San Jacinto lasted about 18 minutes. Houston’s army lost 9 men and had about 30 wounded. They killed 630 Mexicans, wounded 208, and took 730 prisoners.

The Mexican-American War

The independent Republic of Texas was born, the United States annexed it in 1845, Mexico declared that an act of war and started skirmishing along the border, and President Polk got the U.S. Congress to declare war on Mexico on May 13, 1846. The mostly volunteer army handily vanquished the Mexicans, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed on February 2, 1848.

When the treaty was ratified on May 26, 1848, Mexico ceded nearly half its territory to America, handing over all the lands that now make up the “lower 48” states. The U.S. compensated Mexico to the tune of a little more than $18 million.

The repercussions of the Texas Revolution did not end with the Mexican-American War, at least not in east Texas. As a tremendous influx of northerners and immigrants arrived, east Texas quickly became majority Anglo and began rapid development – creating complicated social, economic, and racial tensions that frequently ended in murdered Mexicans, a long and tangled tale for some other time.

The Mexican-American War also kick-started the regional transportation system. Because there was neither rail transportation nor navigable water routes, the war effort was a huge headache for the military quartermasters who built military outposts and sent supplies to the troops. What there was, was a wagon “trace” – a vague idea of a road marked out by wagon tracks and word of mouth.

The Chihuahua Road ran about 140 miles from Indianola on the Gulf of Mexico to San Antonio; from there, it ran westward to the rich silver, copper, zinc, and lead mines of Chihuahua; a northern section would soon reach what is now San Diego. Different sections of the 1100-mile road had different names; one of them was the Goliad Cart Road.

Cargo offloaded in Indianola and Lavaca a little up the river included millions of dollars worth of construction materials – lumber, shingles, and rails, ties, and equipment to build railroads. Barrels of retail goods headed for the growing number of stores along the route. There were loads of “mixed freight” – barrels of essential and then luxury goods for retail sale, and German, Swiss and French immigrants, not to mention two shipments of camels ordered up by the U.S. Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, a mere four years before he became President of the Confederate States of America. Coming back to Indianola from the interior were pecans, cattle, hides and horns, cotton, wool, salt, leather, sugar, molasses, and silver bullion bound for the U.S. Mint in New Orleans.

The Ox Cart Wars

And how did all that stuff get to and from San Antonio and points west? Overland freight drawn by horses, mules, and oxen. There were military wagons, commercial freight wagons, Wells Fargo wagons, stagecoaches, and the classic covered wagons called “prairie schooners,” drawn variously by horses, mules, and oxen. The Chihuahua Road made for a tough and dangerous trek. Wagons had to ford swollen streams and rivers during torrential rains, and were sometimes swept away. There were mountainous hills on the routes; teams and drivers sometimes died when carts slipped, overturned, and crashed over the side.

The star of them all in coping with the trip was the Mexican ox-cart driver, the carretero, whose teams of two, four, six, or eight oxen drew different-sized carretas. The smallest ox-carts were two-wheeled, drawn by a team of two oxen. The largest ox carts were about 6 feet wide and 15 feet long, with thick, 7-foot-high wooden wheels; these carts could carry up to three tons of freight.

Travelers at the time counted anywhere from 160 to 1,000 Mexican-driven ox carts during a day on Goliad Cart Road. The merchants of San Antonio were unsparing in their praise of Mexican carters, preferring them to Anglo teamsters. They were considered efficient, honest, and skilled at handling and caring for their oxen. America’s most famous landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, traveled widely – and wrote about it. In A Journey through Texas: Or a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier (1857), Olmsted’s impression that Mexicans “with oxen and two-wheeled carts” carried “almost all the transportation of the country.” He noted that they cut travel expenses by living off the land, had their families working as assistants, and passed their businesses on to family members, increasing skills and efficiency as time went by, enabling them to charge less than the Anglo teamsters.

Mexican carreteros provided about two-thirds of the cartage services and comprised the largest occupational group in Bexar county, of which San Antonio was the county seat. Most carters lived in San Antonio, where the folks with Spanish surnames made up half the population. Few people of Mexican heritage lived in the towns along the Chihuahua Road between San Antonio and Indianola; for the Anglos who did, the carreteros’ success was galling – they “remembered Goliad” all too well. They went to war again, this time against the Mexican ox-cart drivers. The “cart-cutters” from Goliad betook themselves to ambushing the carreteros, cutting the axles and destroying the wheels of the carts, stealing or destroying the cargo, and escalating into shooting the drivers down.

From July through November of 1857, there were five documented attacks. On July 3, men in disguise attacked a train of six carts, wounding all six drivers. On July 14, about 20 cart-cutters attacked another train, cutting up the wheels of the carts. On July 31, three carreteros were wounded and an Anglo named C.G. Edwards, whose freight was being carried, was shot as he lay sleeping under one of the carts; he later died of his wounds. On September 12, about 40 men, most in masks, opened fire on a cart train carrying military supplies. Antonio Delgado, a prominent Tejano from San Antonio, was shot dead by 14 bullets. Finally, on November 20, cart-cutters opened fire on a cart train as the carreteros were “getting up” their oxen to start the day’s trek, killing either two or five of them.

The documented attacks account for four to seven dead. Several sources, including two letters from Manuel Robles Pezuela, the Mexican Ambassador to the United States, to Lewis Cass, the U.S. Secretary of State, put the number of Mexicans killed in the Ox Cart Wars at 70 to 75.

On the north side of the Goliad County Courthouse stands a huge southern live oak tree called either the “Cart War Oak” or the “Hanging Tree.” The missing Mexicans in the Cart War body count? Apparently, they were lynched on this tree. A Texas Historical Marker for the tree points out that when the court handed out a death sentence, the defendant was marched outside and strung up immediately. However, in a masterpiece of euphemism for “lynching,” the marker also says, “Hangings not called for by regular courts occurred here during the 1857 ‘Cart War.’ … About 70 men were killed, some of them on this tree.”

The Ox Cart Wars came to an end when Secretary of State Cass called on Texas governor Elishu Pease – who had received several letters about the attacks – to take care of business. On November 30, 1857, ten days after the last major attack, Pease said, “It is now very evident that there is no security for the lives of citizens of Mexican origin engaged in the business of transportation along the road from San Antonio to the Gulf, unless they are escorted by a military force. … It will require an appropriation of about fourteen thousand and five hundred dollars.”

The legislature forked over the money, the Texas Rangers took over, and the Ox Cart Wars came to an end. The Cart War Oak wasn’t done with its hanging duties, however; local citizens were suddenly outraged, and turned the cart cutters in. They were speedily tried, condemned to death, and hung from the limbs of the tree.

Remember all that freight with steel and wood to build railroads? The railroad from Indianola to San Antonio did get started, continuing in fits, starts, and foreclosures until it was bought by Charles Morgan, a New York shipping magnate who had been landing his steamships at Indianola since 1848, and railroad entrepreneur Henry S. McComb. They consolidated six rail lines into one company by 1871; in 1875, Indianola was wiped out by a massive hurricane. Morgan and McComb moved their railyards upstream and soldiered on. Other railways connected with San Antonio. The turbulent days of the Chihuahua Road and its Mexican ox carts were over.

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