Giants of Texas History
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Of all of the patriots of the Texas Revolution, it was perhaps Juan Seguín who had the most troubled relationship with the land he helped to found. Over the course of a long lifetime, Seguín served as a political leader and as a soldier for both Texas and Mexico. And over the course of that lifetime, both Mexicans and Texans would call him a brave man -- and a traitor.
Juan Nepomuceno Seguín was born in Bexar (San Antonio) on October 27, 1806, the son of a prominent Tejano family. His birthplace, the only settlement of any size in Texas, stood at the crossroads of civil war and revolution. As Seguín was growing up, Bexar was a desperately poor place, shattered by decades of Indian raids and violent feuding. Seguín's father, Erasmo, became a key ally of Stephen F. Austin and his colonists in the area. Father and son had witnessed the inability of Spain and Mexico to bring stability and prosperity to the area, and believed that the best hope for the future of Bexar lay with the establishment of a strong Anglo-American colony.
In 1829, at the age of 22, young Seguín was elected to his first political office as a San Antonio alderman. Seguín's political coming of age coincided with a time of great struggle in Mexican politics, with the factions boiling down to those who favored a strong central government dominated by the military and the church, versus federalists (such Lorenzo de Zavala) who wanted a more democratic system. By the time Seguín became alcalde (mayor) of San Antonio in 1833, it was impossible to remain neutral.
Seguín took action in 1835, forming a militia group with the purpose of marching to the aid of the Mexican governor of Texas, a federalist, in his resistance to the military dictatorship of Antonio López de Santa Anna. Santa Anna and his generals were tired of the unrest in Texas and were using strong-arm tactics to put down both Mexican and Anglo resistance to their rule. Seguín and his men were put to the test closer to home, scouting for and supplied the Texas rebel army during the siege of Bexar in December 1835. A few months later, Seguín was among those holed up in the Alamo as Santa Anna came to take back control of the city from the rebels. He was sent out as a courier to go for help, thus escaping the fate of the Alamo defenders.
In Gonzales, Seguín organized a new company that functioned as the rear guard for Sam Houston's retreating army. Seguín's unit became the only Tejano unit to fight at the Battle of San Jacinto. Seguín and his company were singled out for their bravery by both Sam Houston and Edward Burleson. By the Mexicans, Seguín was considered a traitor.
After the battle, Seguín supervised the withdrawal of the Mexican army from Texas, then returned to San Antonio, where he oversaw the burial of the Alamo dead. As military commander of the city, he waged a months-long battle for control of the city. Seguín faced not only the continuing threat of Mexican cavalry, but also the indifference of his fellow Tejanos and hostility from Anglo land speculators, who resented taking orders from him.
In 1837, Seguín was elected to the Texas Senate, the only Tejano to serve in that body. Though he spoke primarily Spanish, Seguín managed to participate actively in the Senate, chairing the Committee on Military Affairs. It did not escape Seguín's notice that the Tejanos were being shut out of participation in, or even understanding of, the new government. He pushed for laws and other government documents to be printed in Spanish.
During this time, Seguín turned his attention to making money. Texas was cash-poor but land-rich, and the system of obtaining land grants was rife with abuse and swindles. Seguín became a small-scale but enthusiastic player in this and other questionable money-making ventures.
Seguín became an ally of General Antonio Canales, a rebellious Mexican federalist hoping to create another new country in the Rio Grande area. Seguín raised troops and thousands of dollars to aid Canales, only have the rug pulled out from under him when Canales signed an accord with the central government. He met with Canales' superior, General Mariano Arista, in Mexico. Arista offered Seguín no compensation for his expenditures, but tried convince him to switch sides and join an expedition from Mexico to retake Texas.
Seguín refused and returned to San Antonio, where he once again became mayor in 1840. He faced the problem of trying to contain increasing numbers of Anglo adventurers, as well as mounting financial difficulties of his own. He mortgaged his house and property to buy goods for a smuggling venture into Mexico. The venture failed, with Seguín losing everything. He returned to San Antonio in the wake of the Santa Fe expedition, in which a large number of Texans were captured and taken on a humiliating march to Mexico City. Whispers began that Seguín had betrayed the expedition.
It was the beginning of the end for Seguín. In early 1842, he notified President Houston of his suspicions that the Mexicans were planning a raid into San Antonio. The Texan government refused to send any aid to the city, and Seguín and most of the Tejano inhabitants evacuated the city during the Mexican invasion. Though the Mexicans occupied the city for only two days being forced to retreat, Seguín's reputation was in tatters. Most Anglos now believed that he had turned traitor. Seguín was forced to resign as mayor and flee to Mexico with his family, in fear of his life.
Seguín would later say that he had no choice but to join the Mexican army. Under the command of Adrián Woll, he returned to Texas in September 1842 -- this time as part of Mexico's invading army. The sense of betrayal among Anglo Texans was complete. While some of his old friends, including Sam Houston and Anson Jones, had compassion for Seguín's situation, the newspapers and the general public did not. They held Seguín up as a Texas version of Benedict Arnold, responsible for every excess and tragedy that came out of the short-lived invasion. For the next six years, he would remain in the service of the Mexican army, seeing action in the Mexican War against U.S. troops.
After the war was over, Seguín became determined to return home to Texas, in spite of the hostility he would inevitably face. He settled in present-day Wilson County, where he ranched and became involved in local politics as a justice of the peace and an election precinct chairman. He helped found the Democratic party in San Antonio. In 1858, he published his memoirs.
In later years, he retired to Nuevo Laredo to be near one of his sons. His letters portray a man at peace with his life and his choices. He died there on August 27, 1890, at the age of 83. On July 4, 1976, his remains were returned to Texas to be buried in Seguin, the town named in his honor.