Historical Articles

8. Santa Anna's Revenge

By Bill Neeley

Mexican General Rafael Vasquez, like all senior officers of that nation, was anguished to discover in 1836 that some of his countrymen were allied with those they considered to be heretic land pirates, Anglo-Celtic immigrants from the United States of the north who were fighting for independence from Mexico. One, a Tejano from San Antonio, had publicly condemned dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. His name was Juan N. Seguin, and he served as a captain in the Texas army and fought against the Mexican army in all battles on Texas soil and with special distinction at San Jacinto, where he observed the humiliating surrender and imprisonment of El Presidente. After losing Texas, Santa Anna asked the Mexican people to understand the reason for his defeat: "I succumbed to an imperious necessity of nature for which I do not believe a charge can be justly brought against any general, much less if such a rest is taken at the middle of the day, under a tree, and in the very camp itself." Santa Anna neglected to mention that he had divided his army against the advice of his generals and had scoffed at General Manuel Castrillon's objection to the camp site chosen by the Mexican dictator near the San Jacinto River. Regardless of Santa Anna's reason for losing Texas, the charismatic leader was back in power in time to exact his revenge on Seguin and Jose Antonio Navarro, who had signed the Texas Declaration of Independence.

Six years after the debacle at San Jacinto, General Rafael Vasquez rode into San Antonio at the head of seven hundred cavalry in a show of force against the undermanned garrison in the Texas town. Mayor Juan Seguin had left his home on Military Plaza for the safety of his ranch near the town named for him after advising his fellow citizens to vacate the city. Most, however, did not. The Mexican general did not hold the town for any length of time, but was there long enough to pillage and destroy property and to raise the Mexican flag over San Antonio, declaring the laws of Texas to be invalid. The primary purpose of the brief invasion, however, was to defame San Antonio's Tejano mayor, very likely on the orders of Santa Anna, to avenge Seguin's participation in the dictator's defeat and capture at San Jacinto. There, officers from Mexico's upper-class had been forced to endure the curses of Captain Seguin's Tejano soldiers in their own language. Pouring salt into the wound of their defeat, Seguin and his band of Tejanos shadowed the Mexican army from Southeast Texas to the Rio Grande.

To make matters even worse for the narcissistic Santa Anna, while the self-proclaimed "Napoleon of the West" languished in captivity on a Texas plantation, Seguin was promoted to Lt. Colonel in the Texas army and accepted the surrender of Mexican forces still in the Alamo after the epic battle had ended in a short-lived Mexican victory. While Seguin sat for his portrait, courtesy of his grateful commander, General Sam Houston, the Mexican dictator endured daily affronts to his person. If Texas soldiers could not "string up" the butcher of Goliad and the Alamo, they had the consolation of making his life a living hell. Santa Anna would not forget the Anglo-Celts who tormented him on a daily basis, but his ire was mostly reserved for the Tejano who, soon after his heroics at San Jacinto, was elected to the Texas Senate, deemed an illegitimate body by the Mexican government.

Santa Anna eventually returned to Mexico and to power, while Seguin served in the 2nd, 3rd, and most of the 4th Congresses before resigning his Senate seat in the spring of 1840 at the behest of President Mirabeau Lamar in favor of assisting Mexican Federalist General Antonio Canales in establishing the new Republic of the Rio Grande. Lamar wanted the proposed republic carved out of northern Mexico along the south bank of the Rio Grande River as a buffer against Santa Anna. It was a fateful decision for Seguin to leave the Senate where he had introduced legislation for aid to the widows and orphans of the Alamo, a bill that was enacted into law. He also was Chairman of the the Military Affairs Committee and was one of the Senators who chose the site of Waterloo, later named in honor of Stephen F. Austin, as the new Capital of Texas. Though he was unsuccessful in getting the laws of Texas translated into Spanish, Senator Seguin was held in high esteem by his fellow Senators.

So Seguin risked his fortune and political capital on the quixotic quest that placed him in the middle of the ongoing conflict within Mexico between Federalists, who wanted more power for the states, which they were granted in the Mexican Constitution of 1824, and Centralists, who clung to the Spanish philosophy of power residing in the church and the military. Yet Seguin did Lamar's bidding. He could not say "no" to President Lamar, successor to Sam Houston as chief executive of the Lone Star. Seguin had always stood out among Texas's junior officers by promptly obeying orders. Unlike many Anglo-Celtic captains serving under General Houston, who frequently put orders from the general to a vote among the men serving under them, Captain and later Lt. Colonel Juan Seguin did not question when given an order. And though Lamar was in no position to order a senator to do anything, he used his charm and powers of persuasion on Seguin. Wondering what he had to gain by trying to create a new state within a state, Seguin gave up his Senate seat and recruited vaqueros from area ranches to ride with him to assist Canales in his and Lamar's quixotic dream, one not shared by the Texas Congress, which had not authorized the venture. Though it was not clear to Seguin at the time, the new Texas President and the Federalist Mexican General had set Seguin on a path to political and financial ruin that would result in Seguin's falling into the clutches of Santa Anna.

The Mexican dictator was keenly aware of Federalist sentiment in the north of the country. If any Tejanos interfered in the affairs of Mexico, Santa Anna would exact his revenge. Lamar had set in motion a series of events that would provide the Mexican dictator with an opportunity to avenge himself on the Tejano patriot, considered by Santa Anna and his fellow Centralists to be a traitor to Mexico. As events unfolded, Santa Anna, with the assistance of General Vasquez, would make Seguin a traitor in Texas as well as Mexico. Though unsuccessful in assisting Lamar and Canales with their failed venture after Canales switched sides in Mexico's ongoing civil conflict, Seguin had been in Mexico for much of 1840-41, and that would bring him under suspicion from his enemies.

Yet many in San Antonio applauded Seguin for attempting to bring democracy to northern Mexico and chose him as their mayor. Meanwhile Lamar hatched up another foray into Mexican territory, this time to Santa Fe, again without approval from the Texas Congress. Seguin, though he was not a member of the Santa Fe Expedition, was profoundly affected by its failure. The many low class Americans descending on San Antonio were looking for an excuse to get rid of the Tejano mayor. One such person was blacksmith James Goodman, who saw all Mexicans as inferiors, if not outright enemies. In exchange for shoeing horses for the fighting men of Texas, Goodman felt entitled to take property from Tejano residents for payment. Mayor Seguin found himself caught between low-class Americans who preyed on Seguin's life-long friends and neighbors and Centralists officers who wanted him dead. Foremost among these were Santa Anna himself and General Rafael Vasquez. They would have help in avenging themselves on Juan Seguin from an unexpected source: the newly arrived American squatters and two new officers in the Texas army, Felix Huston and Thomas Green, who wanted Seguin removed from power so that they could more easily bully the native Tejanos and take from them what they had spent generations in accumulating. Shortly after the Battle of San Jacinto, General Felix Huston had ordered Lt. Colonel Juan Seguin to abandon San Antonio. Stunned by the order, Seguin appealed to Sam Houston for redress, and the order was promptly rescinded. But Felix Huston never forgot or forgave either Houston or Seguin. As for the low-lives harassing the citizens of San Antonio, Seguin wrote in his Memoirs, "At every hour of the day and night my countrymen ran to me for protection against the assaults of these adventurers. Sometimes by persuasions I prevailed on them to desist; sometimes also force had to be resorted to. How could I have done otherwise? Could I leave them defenseless, exposed to the assaults of foreigners who, on the pretext that they were Mexicans, treated them worse than brutes? Sound reason and the dictates of humanity precluded any different conduct on my part."

Sound reason, however, did not prevail among the "foreigners"" of all classes. Only American immigrants who had known Juan Seguin before and during the fight for Texas remained true to him. One was Samuel Maverick, who had been inside the Alamo with Seguin before being elected to represent the garrison at the signing of the Declaration of Independence at Washington-on-the Brazos. Maverick waved to Seguin as he rode toward the Brazos River. The bride brought by Sam Maverick to San Antonio from a plantation in Alabama, however, saw Juan Seguin as proud and vain and unworthy of a position of leadership. She was shocked by the brown Catholics whose culture and language were dominant and alien to an Episcopalian girl from the highly stratified planter society of Alabama. While Juan Seguin was dealing with colliding cultures and lawlessness in his town, President Lamar's latest scheme to extend the influence of Texas into Mexican territory was put into motion. This time Santa Fe was the target. Fortunately for Maverick, who preceded Seguin as mayor, he did not join Jose Antonio Navarro and the 321 soldiers, 12 merchants, with their twenty-one wagons of merchandise, and adventurers whose siren call from Lamar they could not resist. The Santa Fe Expedition left Brushy Creek north of Austin on June 20, 1841 into the great unknown.

After using his considerable charisma to induce the members of the Expedition to undertake the dangerous mission, Lamar saw to it through his letters to New Mexico Governor Manuel Armijo that the men he had sent on a "trading" mission would be viewed in New Mexico as aggressive Anglo-Celtic heretics bent on conquest, not trade. Lamar wrote to New Mexico's Governor Manuel Armijo on April 14, 1840, just over a year before the Expedition departed from central Texas, a letter that began with "Citizens of Santa Fe, Friends and Compatriots." After implying that the citizens of the northern New Mexico city were "compatriots," the Texas President said, "You have doubtless heard of the glorious Revolution by which the late Province of Texas has been emancipated from the thralldom of Mexican domination." Armijo surely felt offended to his core. As the Mexican governor of New Mexico, he would not forget Lamar's arrogant and insulting tone. And he would have been sure to keep Santa Anna informed about Lamar's latest scheme.

It got worse. Lamar went on to welcome the New Mexicans to "a full participation in all our blessings," that the Rio Grande was the boundary between Texas and Mexico and that "we shall take great pleasure in hailing you as fellow citizens, members of our young republic." The problem for members of the Santa Fe Expedition was that Mexico did not recognize Texas as an independent country and certainly did not see the Rio Grande as the border. Santa Fe was situated on the east side of the great river, and Armijo was not about to "participate" in Lamar's "blessings" or to become a "fellow citizen." On the 5th of June, 1841, fifteen days before the Expedition left for Santa Fe, the Texas President penned another letter to Armijo assuring the New Mexicans that they could not be "taxed for life support of ecclesiastical establishments." It was a direct insult to residents of a Catholic nation whose fealty Lamar was soliciting. It set up Brevet General Hugh McLeod, Lamar's fellow Georgian and commander of the ill-fated Expedition, for a hostile reception in New Mexico. Unknown to McLeod, Kiowa Indians waited to ambush the Texans along the way, imperiling every member of the group. The men suffered from hunger as they struggled to reach New Mexico, and Jose Antonio Navarro was destined to bear the brunt of Santa Anna's vengeance.

McLeod could have fared much better if, as Navarro pointed out, an Indian guide who knew the way to Santa Fe could be found to lead the Expedition. But McLeod was seen as an enemy by all tribes friendly with the Cherokees whom McLeod had just helped to destroy or run out of Texas. And Delaware guides who knew the way to Santa Fe would not lead the Expedition because of Lamar's and McLeod's anti-Indian policy. Those same guides had served under Houston, but did not even consider leading McLeod to New Mexico. One Delaware loyal to Houston observed from a distance when the Expedition made a turn to the west at the Wichita, not the Red River, as planned. It would result in the wagons and horsemen being stranded in Quitaque Canyon, blocked by the towering cliffs of the Caprock, from which spring waters poured down to the creek below. The Texans had water, but little food, and the whole Kiowa tribe was camped on the same stream. After killing five members of the Expedition out hunting for game, the Kiowas stole close to half of the stranded men's horses.

After much suffering from hunger, the Texans, Americans, and Europeans reached New Mexico and were promptly arrested. Weak from near starvation and exhaustion, the Texans surrendered without a fight and came within one vote among Armijo's officers of being executed. Instead the prisoners were marched to central Mexico and imprisoned. Santa Anna had his revenge on Navarro, courtesy of Lamar, and the Tejano patriot remained imprisoned long after all other members of the Santa Fe Expedition had been released. After close to three years behind bars, Navarro was aided by a kindly jailor in Vera Cruz who looked the other way as Navarro left the prison and boarded a ship for Texas. The Tejano patriot had suffered greatly at the hands of Santa Anna.

Unfortunately for Mayor Juan Seguin, Mary Maverick, James Goodman, Felix Huston, Thomas Green and other enemies of the "Mexican" mayor circulated throughout San Antonio the rumor that Seguin had tipped off the Mexicans that the Texans were on the way to Santa Fe. There was no truth to the lie, of course, as Lamar himself had made it quite public to the New Mexicans that the Expedition was on the way to the New Mexico capital. Yet the unfounded rumor perfectly complemented the one told by Mexican General Vasquez when he occupied San Antonio in the spring of 1842. Before unleashing his soldiers on the property of the town's citizens, Vasquez assured the populace that he had come in peace. He produced a letter purportedly from Mayor Juan Seguin and proceeded to read a brief excerpt to the people of San Antonio in which Seguin allegedly offered to help Vasquez return Texas to Mexican rule. One of Seguin's closest friends asked to see the letter, saying that he knew the mayor's handwriting, but Vasquez put the letter back in his pocket. When Seguin returned to his home in San Antonio after the Mexican troops had left town, he was warned by friends that a mob led by the blacksmith Goodman was gathering to do him harm. Seguin's supporters turned the mob away, and Goodman had to retreat. But he threatened Seguin with further violence.

After only a few weeks of surrounding himself with loyal supporters for security, Seguin realized he could no longer live in Texas. He resigned as mayor and fled with his wife and nine children to Mexico in hopes of staying with relatives in Saltillo, Coahuila. Shortly after crossing the Rio Grande, however, Seguin was arrested and jailed. Santa Anna gave him the choice of fighting the Texans or rotting in prison. Seguin chose to fight. The delighted Mexican dictator had every reason to believe that the Texans would kill him. They did not, but it was not because they didn't try. Seguin was forced to fight in a Mexican uniform under the command of Santa Anna in the war between Mexico and the United States. Like Navarro, the former mayor of San Antonio eventually returned home.

But with the unwitting assistance of Mirabeau Lamar, Santa Anna had exacted his revenge on both Tejano patriots: Juan Seguin and Jose Antonio Navarro.

The above is excerpted from A Tejano Knight: The Quest of Don Juan Seguin by Bill Neeley. Copyright © 2017 Bill Neeley. All rights reserved.

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