Name and location of repository
Level of description
Mercurio Martinez Papers
- 1910-1963 (Creation)
- 1767-1963 (Creation)
Name of creator
Mercurio Martinez, school teacher, rancher, legal researcher, public spirited citizen, and authority on the history and genealogy of Zapata County, Tex., was born in San Ygnacio, Zapata County, Tex. on October 27, 1876, and died in 1965. He descended from Spanish-Mexican pioneers who had settled on the banks of the Rio Grande Riverin the mid-eighteenth century.
Don Mercurio's great-great grandfather, Bartome Martinez was one of the original settlers of Revilla, Tamaulipas, Mexico in 1750. He served as Alcalde of this frontier ranching settlement for 30 years. Revilla, the town of origin for many Zapata County families, was renamed Guerrero in honor of General Vicente Guerrero after Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821.
Luis Uribe, another of Don Mercurio's great-great grandfathers, was one of the founding settlers of Laredo, Tex., but moved from there to Revilla about 1755. A third ancestor, Juan Jose Gutierrez, was the owner of San Jose Ranch, an extensive holding on the banks of the Rio Grande near Revilla. Don Juan Jose had three daughters, each of whom either married or mothered a successful south Texas pioneer. Mercurio Martinez was descended from the families established by all three of Don Juan Jose's daughters.
Viviana Gutierrez married Jesus Trevino, an ambitious young man who had migrated to Guerrero from Marin, Nuevo Leon. Between 1830 and 1832, Don Jesus Trevino purchased lands on the north bank of the Rio Grande from the heirs of Jose Vasquez Borrego. The Borrego Grant was made in 1750, but the area had remained sparsely settled partly because of Indian raids and the fact that Borrego and his heirs also had enormous holdings in Coahuila where they spent most of their time. Jesus Trevino became acquainted with Jose Maria Marfil Vidaurri, the grandson of Jose Vasquez Borrego, when Don Jose Maria came to Guerrero in 1828 in order to clear the title to the Borrego lands located in what was to become Zapata County, Texas. The titles to these lands had been lost or destroyed during the Mexican War for Independence, but the claim of the Borrego heirs was declared valid by the Guerrero city council, of which Trevino's father-in-law, Juan Jose Gutierrez, was a member.
Jesus Trevino moved his family to Texas and established the settlement of San Ygnacio in 1830. His holdings of approximately 125,000 acres included the entire San Ygnacio sub-division of the Borrego Grant.
Another of the Gutierrez daughters, Ignacia, married Jose Dionicio Uribe, the son of Luis Uribe. She was widowed early and moved across the river with her young sons. One of these sons, Blas Maria Uribe, married Juliana Trevino who was his third cousin and the daughter of Jesus Trevino and Viviana. Don Blas Maria eventually acquired more than half of his father-in-law's holdings and became a highly successful rancher and merchant. His daughter, Maria de Jesus Uribe, was Don Mercurio's mother.
The third daughter of Juan Jose Gutierrez married Antonio Martinez, son of Don Bartome, the original Alcade of Revilla. Their son, Cosme Martinez was born in Revilla in 1811. He married Magdalena Gonzales in 1829 and the couple remained in Tamaulipas while their children were growing up. However, in 1859, Don Cosme purchased one quarter of the Dolores subdivision of the Borrego Grant and, together with his children and their families, established the small settlement of Dolores. Rancho Dolores was located near the river a short distance from the ruins of the hacienda de Dolores which had been established by Jose Vasquez Borrego in 1750, but abandoned by 1814.
One of Cosme's seven children, Proceso Martinez, had moved to Nuevo Laredo as a young man. Proceso helped his father establish the settlement of Dolores in 1859, but moved to Laredo during the American Civil war. There he prospered while running a store and operating a ferry boat. In 1869, however, he married his distant cousin Maria de Jesus Uribe, and settled in San Ygnacio. He was a storekeeper there and was also active in long-distance trade along the border. Among his contributions were the introduction of the first steel plow, kerosene lanterns, corn planting machines and cotton cultivation to the San Ygnacio community. He was also active in local politics.
Mercurio Martinez was one of six children born to Don Proceso and Maria de Jesus. He grew up in San Ygnacio were he attended the local school, helped his father in the mercantile business, and assisted in tending the family crops and herds. His mother died when he was ten years old, and his father did not remarry.
At the age of twelve, Mercurio began to study guitar and violin. Within three years, he was frequently employed as a musician at dances, weddings, and other local fiestas. Music remained an avocation throughout his long life, and he wrote numerous "corridos" or ballads which were based on historically significant events in the Zapata County area.
In July, 1894, young Mercurio left home to work as the assistant foreman of a group of three hundred cotton pickers employed in the fields near Hearne, Texas. He returned home in December and assisted in his father's various enterprises until August, 1895. He then enrolled at St. Edward's College in Austin, Texas where he studied business and telegraphy. In addition, he continued his study of music during his college years (1895-1898). While in college, Mercurio received some financial aid from A. M. Bruni, an Italian immigrant who had achieved wealth and power in Laredo.
Mercurio graduated from St. Edwards in June, 1898, with a degree of Master of Accounts which is equivalent to a B. S. degree in Business Administration. At the age of 22, he returned to Zapata County where he passed the examination for a teaching certificate. Between 1898 and 1907, Mercurio taught school in the Dolores settlement where many of his paternal kinsmen lived. According to autobiographical accounts, he moved to the county seat of Zapata in 1908 in response to a written petition from local parents that he come there as a teacher.
Before this move, however, tragedy entered his life. Although not mentioned in any of Mercurio's accounts of his own life, some of the genealogical records he compiled show that his first wife, Maria Christina Uribe, died about 1907 and that an infant daughter soon followed her mother to the grave. Nearly 30 years were to pass before Mercurio Martinez was blessed with the two children who brought joy to his old age.
Upon moving to the town of Zapata in 1908, Martinez was appointed principal of the local schools by County Judge A. P. Spohn. He served as principal and teacher from 1908 until 1911 when he resigned to become Zapata County treasurer and the administrator of the County School Depository. Martinez held this position through 1916. By this time he had married his second wife, Guadalupe Uribe, a sister of his first wife, she was nearly 15 years his senior. No children were born of this marriage.
In 1917, Martinez was appointed Sanitary Inspector of Zapata County by the State Health Department. During his two years term, he actively attempted to reduce conditions which led to the spread of contagious diseases. From 1919 until 1921, he devoted his time to farming and ranching. Although he continued to supervise his lands and rental properties throughout his life, Martinez accepted a position with the Laredo law firm of Hicks, Hicks, Dickson and Bobbitt in 1921, and moved to Laredo.
This firm changed names several times during Martinez's tenure as the active partners changed. Martinez's duties included work as bookkeeper, cashier, auditor, translator, interpreter, abstracter, and investigator. His knowledge of kinship networks and histories of land ownership in Zapata County was an especially valuable asset to the firm. He also served as a Notary Public and remained active in politics, primarily as a supporter for various candidates among the Zapata County electorate.
The second Mrs. Martinez died in 1935. Two years later, Mercurio married Cristina Trevino, originally of Guerrero, Tamulipas. His only son, Mercurio Martinez, Jr., was born to this marriage in 1937. A daughter, Rosa, was born a few years later.
Mercurio Martinez retired from the Laredo law firm in 1942 at the age of 66 but continued to work with local lawyers on occasional cases having to do with land ownership. Interests in the history of the region his forebearers had pioneered led him to cooperate with Virgil Lott of Roma, Texas, in writing a county history, The Kingdom of Zapata, which was published in 1953. Active participation in the work of the Laredo Historical Society and the Texas State Historical Association occupied some of his time.
One of the great achievements of Mercurio's long and vigorous life was his role in the salvation of the community of San Ygnacio. The decision to build the great Falcon Dam in 1949 marked the doom of the ancient towns along the river south of Laredo. Guerrero in Mexico and Zapata, Lopeno, Falcon and other communities in Zapata County, Texas, were to be lost forever under the waters of a reservoir which would bring life to dry soils farther down the valley. The lands, the old stone homes, the churches, the places familiar to six generations of men and women, and even the cemetaries where the ancestors lay buried were to be inundated by the waters of the river which had beckoned the first pioneers. Men fought this fate and were accused of blocking progress. In the long-run "progress" won, and the dam was built. What this meant to the people of the region is clear in their words which describe the filling of the reservoir. Among them it is known as the Great Flood.
San Ygnacio, then a community of about one thousand, was far enough upstream from the dam to be spared submersion in a watery grave; however, the town-site had been condemned as part of the federally administered area around the new lake. Bull-dozers rather than water were destined to destroy the last remnants of an ancient heritage. The community united, and in April, 1951, the 75-year-old Don Mercurio Martinez was appointed chairman of the "Committee for the Preservation of San Ygnacio." He communicated the passion of his people to the lawyers who worked with him and the other committee members. A petition was drafted in eloquent language befitting the circumstances and signed by the people of San Ygnacio. Through the good will of men like Congressmen Lloyd Bentsen and Senators Tom Connally and Lyndon B. Johnson, the order to destroy San Ygnacio was rescended.
With this victory behind him, Don Mercurio turned to the task of helping the stricken people of the towns whose doom remained sealed. He worked as a key agent of the International Boundary and Water Commission in contacting the many citizens of Zapata County who were resettled on higher ground. His notes reveal that he attempted to convey their requests to the authorities.
When this work was completed, Don Mercurio retired again to the maintenance of his scattered farms and ranches and the administration of his numerous rental properties in Laredo, San Ygnacio, and New Zapata. He corresponded frequently with those of his tenenats who worked part of the year as crop-pickers in the north, as well as, with his children who went away to college. He located Zapata County landmarks for his associates in historical societies and wrote accounts of family history so that these things would not be lost to time. Assisting friends and relatives in the preparation of wills and other legal documents and taking people on tours of San Ygnacio occupied many hours. During the tours he pointed with pride to the stone houses with ancient beams which had been floated down the Rio Grande from New Mexico so very long before when his grandparents were young.
At last he was in his late eighties and must not have had much energy left for his papers. Very few are dated past 1963, when he was 87 years old. Yet, even in 1965, the year of his death, he was still planning and dreaming. His last papers are the plans for the construction of a small dam on one of his ranches in Zapata County. They are dated 1965.
Mercurio Martinez, 1876-1965, as revealed in his papers, was a complex and fascinating man. His autobiographical accounts, written in stilted legal English, reveal only parts of the framework of his life. Since his prose in Spanish flows with great freedom it is regretable that he did not leave the story of his life in his mother tongue. He was a man of two worlds. That which is revealed about him in the papers written in English conveys primarily the legal mind, the businessman with expertise in accounting, the efficient face presented to the larger society in which he lived. In the relatively few documents preserved in Spanish, he is a different man. His "corridas" are songs of the heart as it wonders about man's destiny. It is hard to believe that the beautiful Spanish ballad of the doomed Zapata was written by the same man who wrote the official notes in English on the property holdings and expectations of Zapata residents for the International Boundary and Water Commission. With very few exceptions, it was only in the Spanish language that Mercurio Martinez revealed himself as the emotional, human person that he was.
As a man of two worlds, Mercurio Martinez has left scholars of the future a rich heritage for the understanding of a time and a place. There is a loss because he did not come to terms completely with his bilingual heritage. He tried to leave his written heritage primarily in English, but, in spite of his technical mastery of the language, he apparently did not accept it as a language for expressing the feelings and emotions which make history truely comprehensible. He left us too little in Spanish, possibly because he thought that he had to leave his record in English for it to count in his native land. His papers reflect this, and that is also an historical lesson.
Content and structure elements
Scope and content
The Mercurio Martinez Papers (1797-1963 (bulk: 1910-1963)) include correspondence, copies of legal documents such as wills, deeds, affidavits and courtroom briefs, maps, a few photographs, field notes for land surveys, genealogical charts, accounts of family and regional history by Mercurio Martinez, and historical accounts from other sources, principally newspapers. There are also financial records of various kinds including tax records, bills and receipts, books of check stubs and account sheets.
The vast majority of the papers relate to families, places and events in Zapata County. Webb County is also well represented, as is the region surrounding the town of Guerrero, Tamaulipas located on the south bank of the Rio Grande opposite Zapata County, Texas. A few papers deal with families, places and events in Starr County and further south in the Rio Grande Valley and a few files deal with Mexican, United States and world affairs. Unless otherwise noted in the inventory, files deal with Zapata or Webb County matters.
The oldest original papers date from the latter part of the nineteenth century and include such documents as Mercurio Martinez's Texas Teachers Certificate, 1898 (Series 1-3/4); a General Land Office map of Zapata County, 1885, (Series 3-14/25); and a certificate appointing Proceso Martinez, Sr., Mercurio's father, to the Zapata County Board of Appeals, 1870, (Series 3-25/23). There are also copies and translations of nineteenth-century documents including partition deeds, deeds of sale, birth records, and maps. Accounts of family and local history written by Martinez in the 1950s and early 1960s deal with events dating back to the Spanish settlements along the lower Rio Grande in the 1750s. Genealogies are generally traced back to the first colonists to arrive in the region. Family records, therefore, cover a time span of more than 200 years, from the settlers who arrived on the banks of the Rio Grande in about 1750 to their descendants in the early 1960s. Each decade from 1900 onward is represented in the papers. There are more files from the 1950s than any other single decade.
Among the most important files in the collection are those on the relocation of the town of Zapata due to the construction of Falcon Dam on the Rio Grande in the early 1950s, the salvation of the community of San Ygnacio from destruction during this period, the accounts of family history and genealogy from Zapata County, and the papers related to the division of lands between descendants of original holders of Spanish grants and sales of family lands. Maps, genealogies, and legal documents provide a clear picture of the rapidity with which even extensive landholdings can be reduced to tracts hardly adequate to support the families of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original owners. Reconsolidation of holdings through the purchase of interest from siblings and through cousin marriage are also documented. It is also possible to trace shifts in settlement and land-use patterns. For example, the original grantees of porciones along the Rio Grande held land in long narrow blocks extending inland from the river. Over the generations, these blocks were subdivided among heirs and parts of them were sold outside the families. Through separate inheritance from parents, through marriage, and through purchase, individuals came to own small pieces of land located in widely separated tracts. This pattern of dispersed holdings, each of economically inefficient size and too far apart to be worked as units, has been noted for many peasant societies. These papers clearly reveal the processes whereby such a land-holding pattern developed out of the more economically efficient block holdings within a few generations. The most completely documented tract of land is the vast Jose Vasquez Borrego Grant made in 1750. It was later divided into the Dolores, Corralitos, and San Ygnacio Subdivisions. The first settlement was made at the Hacienda de Dolores on August 22, 1750. This settlement was abandoned, apparently during Indian troubles in the early 19th century. A settlement or Rancho of Dolores was founded nearby in the Dolores subdivision of the Borrego Grant by Cosme Martinez in 1859. Meanwhile, the town of San Ygnacio had been founded in the San Ygnacio subdivision in 1830. Until the early 20th century, an hacienda in the Corralitos subdivision was occupied by members of the Vidaurri family, who were descendants of the original grantee's daughter, Alejandra Vasquez Borrego de Vidaurri.
Also of interest are the Corridos, or ballads, composed by Mercurio Martinez and dealing with dramatic events in Zapata County history such as an escape from prison, a contested election and the destruction of Zapata by the rising waters of Falcon Reservoir.
System of arrangement
Following the principle of provenance, the papers have been organized for the archives in accordance with the numerical filing system developed by Mercurio Martinez. This makes it possible for the researcher to use Martinez's inventories which cover the papers in boxes 6 through 28 (found in Series 2-3), as a supplement to this inventory. The Martinez inventories are found in three notebooks listed at the beginning of Series 2 in Box 6, folders 1-3.
The papers are arranged into five series which represent three general categories of materials:
- Series 1, Alphabetical Subject Files, 1848-1963 (Box 1-5). Papers related to financial and personal concerns of Mercurio Martinez and his immediate family including family history and genealogies, real estate transactions, matters related to farms and rental houses and correspondence.
- Series 2, Martinez vs. Vidaurri Materials, 1860-1962 (Box 6-12). Papers related to work done by Mercurio Martinez for the Laredo law firm of Hicks, Hicks, Dickson, and Bobbitt which was renamed several times through the years, and which consist of legal papers, genealogies and financial statements of various kinds. The first five boxes contain files which are arranged alphabetically.
- Series 3, Miscellaneous Papers, 1767-1963 (Box 13-54). Papers collected or written by Martinez which reflect his interests in local history, world affairs, Mexican history, and other matters. Several files are concerned with the preparation and publication of The Kingdom of Zapata, a Zapata county history co-authored by Martinez and Virgil N. Lott which was published by the Naylor Company of San Antonio, Texas in 1953. These files were apparently originally numbered in sequence by Martinez, but for which no corresponding inventory written by Martinez is available.
- Series 4, Papers concerning Dolores Settlement, Undated (Box 55).
- Series 5. Maps and Genealogical Charts, 1893-1963 (Box 56-84) Include large maps, plat maps, blueprints, and genealogical charts which provide a useful supplement to the material contained in the previously described files. Maps of land ownership in Zapata County at various time periods are of special interest. These maps are all contained in roll storage containers.
Conditions of access and use elements
Conditions governing access
The materials in boxes 1 through 54 are stored offsite and require additional time for retrieval.
Conditions governing reproduction
Copyright is retained by the authors of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law.
Languages of the material
Scripts of the material
Language and script notes
Approximately one-quarter of the papers are written in Spanish. The rest are in English. Notation on the language used is not ordinarily included in the inventory because many files include papers in both English and Spanish and because it is assumed that most scholars working with these materials will have some background in Spanish. In addition, many of the Spanish documents are accompanied with English translations.
Acquisition and appraisal elements
Immediate source of acquisition
Acquired during Fall 1971 and Spring 1972.
Related materials elements
Existence and location of originals
Existence and location of copies
Related archival materials
- Processing information: This collection is currently being updated and some boxes in the finding aid may not be listed, please refer to the guide in TARO (https://txarchives.org/tamucush/finding_aids/00083.xml) for a complete inventory, however, box and folder numbers do not match the updated aid. When requesting materials please provide an accurate folder title.
Description control element
Rules or conventions
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