Giants of Texas History
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José Antonio Navarro
Image: Prints and Photographs Collection, 1979/181-24.
José Antonio Navarro was the most influential Tejano of his generation. He championed Texas independence from Mexico, then fought for the rights of Tejanos as citizens of the Republic of Texas and the United States.
Navarro was born in Bexar (San Antonio) on February 27, 1795. His mother was of aristocratic descent; his father was a self-made man who had made the journey from runaway and servant to successful merchant and alcalde (mayor) of San Antonio. Navarro came of age during a time in which San Antonio was a hotbed of revolution against Spanish rule, and the scene of continuing bloody clashes between the Spanish army and Mexican rebels. Young Navarro supported the Gutiérrez-Magee expedition, an effort by a combined force of Mexican rebels and American adventurers to seize Texas. After a year of fighting, the insurgents were defeated and the Spanish took harsh revenge on San Antonio, executing 327 rebel supporters. Navarro was forced to flee to the United States to avoid the same fate.
Navarro returned three years later at the age of 21. Like many other Tejanos, Navarro had come to believe that the best hope for Texas lay with Anglo-American colonization, both to combat the continuously raiding Indians and to bring prosperity and stability to the region. He became friends with Stephen F. Austin, the young empresario who arrived in 1821 to settle 300 families in Texas. As he began his political career, winning election first to the state legislature of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas and later to the national congress in Mexico City, Navarro advocated policies that would benefit the colonization effort, and promoted the idea of Texas statehood within the Mexican federation.
In 1836, Navarro made the final break with Mexico. He and his uncle, José Francisco Ruiz, were elected to represent San Antonio at the Convention for Texas Independence. He, Ruiz, and Lorenzo de Zavala became the three Mexican signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence. Navarro's contemporaries later said that he "trembled at the thought" of the enormity of the step he had taken, but he plunged into a leadership role nonetheless, helping to draft the Constitution of the Republic of Texas.
In the Republic of Texas era, Navarro served as Bexar's representative in the Texas Congress. From the beginning, he saw that Tejanos were being shut out of the legal process by Anglos, and he tried to protect their land claims and other rights. Throughout his life, Navarro would assume the responsibility for giving voice to the concerns of Tejanos. Politically, he was a supporter of Mirabeau B. Lamar and a critic of Sam Houston.
In 1841, Navarro was chosen as one of President Lamar's commissioners to accompany the Texan Santa Fe expedition. Acting without congressional approval, Lamar envisioned the creation of a trade route that would allow Texas part of the revenue from the Santa Fe trail, plus the opportunity to persuade the New Mexicans to join the Republic of Texas. Over 300 "Santa Fe Pioneers" -- merchants, teamsters, and army troops -- set out from Kenney's Fort on Brushy Creek north of Austin with over $200,000 worth of merchandise.
The expedition was a disaster almost from the start. Traveling in the heat of the summer, they became lost near present-day Wichita Falls, mistaking the Wichita River for the Red River. Their Mexican guides deserted them, Indians began to harass the wagon train, and everyone was suffering from insufficient water and provisions. When the Texans finally arrived in New Mexico, they did not receive the heroes' welcome they had expected. Instead, they were all arrested and marched under arms to Mexico City, with many sufferings and indignities along the way.
While most of the American prisoners were released in 1842 and allowed to return home, Navarro was instead tried and convicted of treason and imprisoned under brutal conditions at Vera Cruz. Expecting to be executed, he finally managed to escape and make his way back to Texas.
Navarro favored annexation of Texas to the United States. He was the only Tejano delegate to the Convention of 1845 which met to vote on the annexation question. At the convention, Navarro helped write the first state constitution and successfully protected Tejano citizenship rights, including preventing a move to deny voting rights to Hispanics. After statehood, he served two terms in the Texas Senate before retiring from politics.
In his later years, Navarro continued to be an outspoken advocate for Tejano rights, condemning Sam Houston for his association with the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing party in the 1850s and urging Hispanics to defend their heritage "inch by inch" by participation in the political system. To his dismay, he lived to see his people lose most of their land holdings and political influence and become a working underclass to the Anglo Americans. Navarro wrote articles and a book in which he set the record straight about the contributions of the Tejanos to Texas independence, pointing out that the citizens of Bexar and elsewhere were fighting for Texas freedom 25 years before the Alamo.
A Texas patriot to the end, Navarro supported secession from the United States in 1861, and his four sons served in the Confederate army. He died in 1871.