Report of Martín de León, November 27, 1826

Law and Order in Mexican colonies

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The empresarios (businessmen) forging new settlements in Texas in the 1820s and 1830s were responsible for ensuring their colonists followed Mexican law. Through hand-written documents, empresarios received instructions on the law, punishments, and reporting procedures. This document shows how Martín de León (1765–1833), the only empresario of Mexican descent, faced an instance of smuggling in 1826, just two years after receiving his land grant in what is now modern-day Victoria. The case was against a member of another colony under the auspices of Anglo-American empresario, Green DeWitt. The situation was all the more intense because de León and DeWitt had disagreements in the past, primarily over the boundaries between their assigned lands.

The Mexican government had a monopoly on tobacco and by law, expected incoming settlers to purchase it at government-operated tobacco shops located in La Bahía, Béxar, or Nacogdoches. DeWitt’s colonists (and those of empresario Stephen F. Austin), proclaimed ignorance of the law in 1825, bringing tobacco into Texas and even selling it to government officials. José Antonio Saucedo, the Mexican political chief at Béxar, warned the colonists that they could be arrested, imprisoned, and their contraband confiscated if they continued disobeying the law. It didn’t take long for his patience to be tested. On August 23, 1826, Thomas Powell, a colonist of DeWitt’s, returned from New Orleans on the small ship Escambia and docked at the port called Old Station, located near Victoria. The ship was loaded with a large quantity of illegal tobacco and other contraband. De León, the nearest government official trusted to enforce Mexican law, was summoned to arrest Powell.

De Leόn took the prisoner and the confiscated cargo to Victoria to await further instructions. Saucedo ordered that the Escambia’s cargo be seized by the garrison commander at La Bahía using “all the armed force at their disposal.” The commander, Rafael Manchola, happened to be de León’s son-in-law. The unit marched to Victoria, Powell was released to DeWitt's custody, and the two men returned to Gonzales, the base of operations for DeWitt’s Colony.  

DeWitt reluctantly admitted that he had failed in his responsibility to prevent the arrival of tobacco into his colony and sent a letter to Saucedo apologizing for his inaction. De León filed his report seen here, confirming that garrison commander Manchola arrived to transport “thirty-four thirds in tobacco plants and seven barrels of twisted tobacco (a twisted rope of tobacco leaves), which cargo of tobacco was presented to me and by my order he took it to Bahia del Espiritu Santo to hand it over to the Citizen Juan Jose Hernandez loyal of tobaccos of the other jurisdiction.” While the law was enforced and an immediate crisis averted, Anglo-American colonists would continue to chafe against the edicts set by the Mexican government. Their actions that began in 1826 continued for nine more years, culminating in the Texas Revolution.

Read the Spanish transcription and English translation of the letter.

See this and other artifacts on the Interactive Texas Map

Report of Martín de León, November 27, 1826 Artifact from Victoria/Goliad
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