I first read about the Battle of Medina while researching a story about the March unveiling of the Tejano Monument at the state Capitol. The battle is mentioned on a plaque attached to the monument. I’m ashamed to say that until I read about Texas’ bloodiest battle, and the ensuing torture and murder of hundreds of Tejano people, I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that my ancestors aren’t typically included in the Texas story.
An estimated 185 Texian soldiers died at the Alamo fighting for Texas freedom. Its chapel has become an official state shrine and our most popular tourist site. The Alamo has been immortalized in books, movies and television. But few remember the Battle of Medina, which happened 23 years earlier, less than 20 miles south of the San Antonio mission. On Aug. 18, 1813, more than 800 soldiers died near Pleasanton defending Texas from Spain—more than all the men killed in battles leading up to Texas independence in 1836, according to Robert H. Thonhoff, former president of the Texas Historical Association.
Yet, until recently, there was little recognition of these heroes—organized as the Republican Army of the North—of this early war for Texas independence. Many of the men were drawn and quartered by the Spanish Army, their bodies left to rot in the field for nine years as a warning to would-be rebels. Why these patriots have been forgotten seems a mystery, until you consider that the vast majority were Tejanos—Texans of Mexican or Spanish descent.
As this state becomes increasingly Hispanic, Tejanos are demanding that their stories be told. And thanks to the contributions of historians and average citizens like Dan Arellano, the story of Texas is now changing with its demographics.
Arellano, a 65-year-old Realtor from South Austin, doesn’t have a degree in history—he never attended college—but he has become an expert on the subject. He’s been obsessed with the Battle of Medina ever since his great uncle told him it occurred about five miles from his family ranch in Losoya, near Pleasanton. Arellano, who was researching his own genealogy at the time, was floored to learn that the battle had happened so close to this place where he spent much of his childhood—and that one of his ancestors fought in it for Spain.
Since that day in 1989, Arellano has made it his mission to educate people about the battle. “A lot of the story my uncle told me was from family legend,” he says. “So I went out to prove it.”
After corroborating his uncle’s stories in state historical archives and reading every book he could find about the Battle of Medina, Arellano conducted several archeological digs to locate the battle site. He spent 10 years compiling his findings in a book, Tejano Roots.
“[The Battle of Medina] was so disastrous that one-third of the population would be dead, one-third would be in exile and one-third would live in fear,” says Arellano, noting that about 1,400 of the 4,500 Tejanos in the area at the time died during the battle and its aftermath.
“This is important for our children and our grandchildren,” he explains. “So they know and understand the sacrifices our ancestors made for wanting to be free.”
In Lone Star: The Story of Texas, the 7th grade Texas history textbook, roughly 60 words are devoted to the Battle of Medina. The members of the Republican Army of the North are described as filibusters, defined in the book’s glossary as “a person who wages an unofficial war on a country.” In historic terms, the word filibuster is synonymous with opportunist—far from the heroic language used to describe the men of the Alamo.
Which stories get told—and how—has always been debated among scholars. All historians make choices about which “documents and other sources to emphasize, which to de-emphasize, and which to omit altogether,” says Frank de la Teja, chair of the department of history at Texas State University-San Marcos and Texas’ first state historian.
Even with original sources, or historical and governmental documents, a historian must constantly ask who created the document or the source of an account of events, says Cinthia Salinas, department associate chair for the Social Studies MA+ and Curriculum Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “You’re constantly asking yourself, ‘What is this source? What is the context? What is the date? What is the sense of agency? What was the power this person had or didn’t have?”’
Despite this scrutiny, scholars acknowledge that history is often told from the point of view of the dominant culture.
“Texas history has been written by historians who focused on their own nationalistic perspectives for a public that demanded a rationale for taking Texas and for exploiting Tejano lands, resources and labor,” says Andres Tijerina, professor of history at Austin Community College and the keynote speaker at the unveiling of the Tejano Monument.
In an email exchange with me, Tijerina, who was part of the effort to create the Tejano Monument, wrote that the Battle of Medina not only predates the Alamo, it also conflicts with Anglos’ “dominant role in their historical accounts.” He says the Alamo and San Jacinto are presented as “the greatest battles in Texas history. Politically correct for Anglophiles but not historically accurate.”
Like the American colonists and their relationship with their British monarch, Tejanos felt no allegiance to the king, having lived on the outskirts of the Spanish Empire for so long.
To Spain, Texas was simply a buffer zone between Mexico and French-settled Louisiana. Into the late 1770’s, Spain didn’t allow San Antonians to sell their produce in the interior of Mexico, in Louisiana or at trade fairs in neighboring provinces. They were forced to depend on the local economy, and even prevented from trading with the military base, where soldiers purchased goods from the commissary.
So when Mexico called for revolution in the first war of independence, Tejanos didn’t need much convincing to join the fight.
The Americans were simultaneously eyeing Texas for different reasons: land and opportunity. The official position of President James Madison’s administration was to let Spain and Mexico work out their differences and remain friendly with the victor. In 1812, however, a group called the Gutierrez-Magee expedition, led by Mexican revolutionary Jose Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara and U.S. Army Lt. Augustus Magee, organized a force of about 300 men—130 of them Americans—to liberate Texas from Spain.
The expedition was the seed of the Republican Army of the North. The army drew enough recruits from the local Tejano population to force the surrender of Spanish Mexican Gov. Manuel María de Salcedo after their third fight, the Battle of Rosilla. There, a declaration of independence for the State of Texas (under the anticipated Republic of Mexico) was proclaimed on April 6, 1813. The declaration made Gutierrez president and established a Junta de Gobierno and a Constitution. The Emerald Flag flew over Texas for four months.
After a rebellious Republican Army captain executed the Spanish governor and his officers and left their corpses unburied, Gutierrez was ousted and replaced by Gen. Jose Alvarez de Toledo y Dubois, a Cuban-born revolutionary. Meanwhile, the murders of Salcedo and his men earned the Tejano community the ire of Spanish commandant-general of the Provincias Internas, Jose Joaquín de Arredondo y Mioño. Arredondo headed to San Antonio with 1,800 men, including a young Lt. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. They were supported by a volunteer regime of criollos, Spaniards born in the New World.
To prevent San Antonio from becoming a battlefield, the rebels marched south to meet the Spanish. The more than 1,400 men included more than 800 Tejanos and about 300 Anglos; there were also a handful of Native Americans and one African slave. The majority of rebels were not “filibusters,” but residents of the place for which they were fighting. They were willing to die to defend their families from Spanish oppression, and die they did.
After they were defeated on the battlefield, their bones were left to bleach in the sun until the remains were eventually gathered and interred in a common grave in 1822. Only 100 men survived the battle, 90 were Americans. We know the names of only about 20 of them.
Arredondo pursued the rebels as far as Nacogdoches, determined to shoot or hang every one of them, particularly the Tejanos and Mexican deserters. He showed no mercy, even to the women and children, as he marched into San Antonio.
In his book History of Texas From Its First Settlement in 1685 to Its Annexation to the United States in 1846, H. Yoakum writes: “Seven hundred of the peaceable citizens were seized and imprisoned. Three hundred of them were confined during the night of the 20th of August in one house, and during the night 18 of them died of suffocation. From day to day the others were shot, without any form of trial!’’
A San Antonio prison called La Quinta held 500 wives, daughters and other female relatives of the patriots. They were forced to convert 24 bushels of corn a day into tortillas for Arredondo’s army. Outside the walls of the prison, children begged and searched for food and shelter.
In early May, Arellano tells me, he addressed the San Antonio City Council about establishing historical markers at the sites of La Quinta and Plaza de Armas (now City Hall), where Arredondo executed 327 Tejanos. Arellano carried letters of support from historians de la Teja and Thonhoff.
“I told them it’s the 200th anniversary in 2013 and there are no historical markers,” Arellano says. “Half of the council members were on the phone.”
In 2005, the Texas Historical Commission erected a marker between three farms near Losoya recognizing the Battle of Medina. Arellano brought me to see the marker, which reads: “Texas’ bloodiest military engagement— the Battle of Medina—may have taken place in this general vicinity in 1813.” You’d never know it to look out on the peaceful fields where butterflies flitter about the wildflowers in bloom.
Arellano’s passion for the Battle of Medina has made him a fixture in this part of the state. “I have a much bigger following of people here than I do in Austin,” he tells me.
This could be because he does things like show up at an annual fundraiser for the Southside Independent School District dressed in early 19th-century Tejano attire, as he did two years ago.
“I kept asking folks, ‘Point out the superintendent to me.’ I finally got to meet him and I pointed to that sign,” he says referring to another marker located at U.S. 281 and Martinez Losoya Road in front of the school district building. It was dedicated in 1936 and lost for 20 years in a highway department warehouse after a road repair.
“That’s the monument to the Battle of Medina,” he told Superintendent Juan Jasso.
Jasso knew nothing about the battle, but agreed to let Arellano take his history teachers, who knew nothing about it either, on a tour.
“I told him I wanted to hold a reenactment on his school grounds because it sat on hallowed ground,” says Arellano. “It was part of the killing field.”
Jasso not only agreed—he took part in the reenactment in 2011.
This April, Arellano founded the Battle of Medina Society to, among other things, find the actual battle site and push the state to recognize April 6, the day the Tejano Declaration of Independence was signed by Gutierrez, as a possible state holiday. The society has 20 paid members, according to Arellano. They search fields with metal detectors and sometimes sift through the dirt and sand with homemade sifters, basically a wooden square with a screen to separate sand from potential artifacts.
Recently the society held a dig on the Schutz ranch on Bruce Road after a previous search yielded a shoe and boot repair item that Arellano believes fell from a Mexican cart.
Even if the precise battle site is never confirmed, there is hope for future Texans to begin incorporating the Battle of Medina into Texas history courses. The State Board of Education has agreed to include the battle in the 7th grade curriculum, thanks in great part to Arellano’s testimony before the board in 2010.
Board member Michael Soto, whose district includes San Antonio and Losoya, says textbooks that include the new social studies curriculum will be in use by the fall of 2015.
Arellano, along with those who spent a decade working toward the Tejano Monument at the Capitol, are busy sharing their story with Texas schoolchildren. The Walmart Foundation donated $100,000 to the University of Texas at Austin to develop bilingual materials for Texas 4th grade teachers as part of the Tejano Monument Curriculum Project. UT-Austin history professor Emilio Zamora, who is working on the project, introduced Arellano and Noreen Rodriguez, a teacher at Austin’s Brentwood Elementary School. He recently lectured her students on the Battle of Medina.
“I have been speaking to students for seven years,” Arellano tells me via email. “Now it is different and I believe we have broken down barriers that prevented us from doing so in the past. Somehow being in the curriculum legitimizes what we have known all along: The history of our ancestors is much too important to leave out.”
Cindy Casares is a columnist and blogger for The Texas Observer.