Patricia de la Garza de Leon

Patricia de la Garza de Leon

She Swapped Silks for Buckskins

(The following is an excerpt from The Immigrant Spirit: How Newcomers Enrich America by Sam Wyly. Available early 2015, where all books are sold.)

Back when Patricia de la Garza de León moved her family north across the Rio Bravo del Norte (Rio Grande), it was just a river, not a border between two nations.  The year was 1799, and Texas still was part of Mexico, and Mexico was still part of the Empire of Spain. Patricia and her husband, military hero Martín de León, had decided to leave their aristocratic Spanish heritage behind, along with a successful ranching business near Cruillas, Mexico, in search of land, freedom, and opportunity.

They traveled North with their two-year old son, Fernando, a small herd of cattle, goats, and horses, carts filled with supplies, and a dream of starting their own colony, of becoming empresarios. The journey took nearly two-years. In 1801, they built their first home, a small hut made of grass and mud, along the banks of the Aransas River. Patricia, who had grown up wearing the finest silk dresses found herself swapping those silks for new clothes made of buckskins. Pioneer life, however difficult, suited her strong and rebellious character well.  

Due to escalating violence with the Comanche tribe,  the family moved their home from the Aransas River to the Nueces River and eventually to San Antionio. By 1810, they’d built a successful ranching business out of the livestock they brought from Mexico. Yet for all of their success, and despite being loyal Spanish citizens at the time, both of their petitions to start a colony were denied. The Spanish-controlled government of Mexico favored Anglo-American colonization of Texas due to rising rebellion within their own borders.  

After more than a decade of fighting, Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821. A few years later, in 1824, Martin and Patricia were finally granted permission to start their own colony on the banks of the Guadelupe River. By then, Patricia de la Garza de León was forty-seven years old and the mother of ten children. She had lived through Comanche raids and had sacrificed much over the years, but she wasn’t afraid of starting over again. She used her family inheritance to finance the settlement of forty-one families, and soon she and Martin established Victoria Guadalupe—named after the first president of Mexico. It was the first and only Mexican colony in all of Texas.

Doña Patricia, as everyone called her, became the mother of both civilized and pioneer life. She and Martin knew how to anticipate and fight off attacks by the local Comanche tribes and hosted parties and dances at their ranch. They had dirt floors, but Doña Patricia decorated her home with fine furniture and textiles. She hired tutors for her ten children and raised them to be cultured citizens. She ordered a school and a Catholic church to be built nearby, and later she equipped the church with gold and silver altars. After Martin’s death in 1833 from Cholera, Doña Patricia’s ranch remained the economic and social heart of the colony.

Always the rebel, Doña Patricia ardently supported the Texas Revolution in 1835. Although she considered herself a pacifist, she hated the dictator Santa Ana even more than she despised violence. Many of her sons fought for the Texas army, while she smuggled guns and ammunition from New Orleans. Soon after the Republic of Texas was established in 1836, the entire León family was run out of their town by gangs of rowdy Anglo settlers, most of whom who had shown up too late for the war, were hungry for land, and feared anyone with ties to Mexico. Initially, Doña Patricia settled in New Orleans with her family, but she later returned to her childhood village in Mexico. Even though her property, fortune, and home had been confiscated, her beloved Texas kept calling her home. She returned to Victoria in 1844, where she lived a life dedicated to her family and church until her death five years later.  Her small property was donated to the church when she died. For years her immense contributions went unacknowledged, until 1972 when two historical markers were erected to celebrate the lives and accomplishments of her family.