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Texas History: José Francisco Ruiz is the ‘Tejano Patriot’ you don’t know

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman

  • José Francisco Ruiz was one of two native Texans to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence
  • Born into a well-connected if not wealthy San Antonio family, Ruiz became an attorney, teacher, author, public servant, diplomat, trader and military leader.
  • Art Martínez de Vara’s new biography fills in a big gap in Texas history.

Tell me what you know about José Francisco Ruiz.

Until recently, I could only, with help, identify him as one of two native Texans, along with his nephew José Antonio Navarro, to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence in March 1836.

Thanks to Art Martínez de Vara’s new biography, “Tejano Patriot: The Revolutionary Life of José Francisco Ruiz, 1783-1840,” I now know a lot more. Tightly structured and fluently told, it is easily one of the best books about Texas to come out in 2020.

Ruiz was the offspring of an educated family of criollos (Spaniards born in the New World) who arrived in San Antonio in the late 18th century with marketable skills — his father, who became a political and business leader, was among those artisans. Remote and sparsely populated, San Antonio was a frontier town of mixed-race people who paid less attention to the Spanish sistema de castas (caste system) than elsewhere in New Spain.

“The Ruiz family, though not among the wealthiest families in Béxar, was certainly considered among the ruling elites,” writes Martínez de Varas.

They owned a ranch on the Medina River and a house in town on Plaza de Armas. Through the years, they became accomplished at providing supplies to Spanish military and government officials in a logistically tricky part of far northern New Spain.

Young José became a schoolteacher and an attorney, but he really excelled in the roles of merchant, trader and quartermaster, which made him a natural candidate for public service. 

Later, while in exile inside the neutral zone between Texas and American Louisiana, he got to know various Native American players well and learned how to speak Comanche and Cherokee fluently. He also spoke without an interpreter to other Native Americans. He eventually wrote what scholars consider the most reliable book about the Native Americans of Texas of the early 19th century. 

Because of this background, Ruiz often served as an emissary to various Texas tribes. A widely respected military leader and politician, he learned to distrust centralized authority and, although briefly a strategic royalist, he revolted against a series of leaderships in Mexico City, long before the newcomer Anglo American colonists did so. A federalist after Mexican independence, he believed that Texas should at least be an independent state within Mexico, and eventually he backed the War of Texas Independence with vigor.

“His revolutionary activities included participating in three rebellions, suppressing two others, and enduring extreme personal sacrifice for the republican cause,” writes Martínez de Vara. “As a diplomat, he negotiated nearly a dozen peace treaties for Spain, Mexico and the Republic of Texas, and he traveled to the imperial court of Mexico as an agent of the Comanches to secure peace on the northern frontier.”

Perhaps the pinnacle of his personal leadership came when he was assigned by ambitious Gen. Manuel de Mier y Terán to command a new fort on the Brazos River. It was named Tenoxtitlán, after the Aztec predecessor to Mexico City. Some intended it to be the next capital of Texas. Poorly supplied and supported, despite its vital function in deterring unregulated American immigration, it would not have lasted a week without Ruiz’s long personal relationships with the Anglos, Tejanos and Native Americans of the area.

This half-forgotten chapter in Texas history is dripping with drama. Two state markers are all that remind most Texans of this history.

Along the way, Ruiz backed the losing side often enough, including the republican forces against royalists in a series of conflicts that ended in the Battle of Medina in August 1813, the bloodiest in Texas history. That defeat led to years in exile, which he put to good use extending his personal trading network. Even at a distance, he was so valuable to Texas military and political leaders, he was pardoned and welcomed back to San Antonio.

Although recognized as an honest broker among the always tense and land-hungry residents of Texas, ultimately Ruiz was unable to stop the escalating ethnic cleansing of both native and immigrant American Indians. The former group included the Karankawa, Tonkawa, Caddo, Tawakoni, Waco, Wichita, Kiowa, Comanche and Apache; the latter consisted mostly of Cherokee, Creek, Shawnee, Pawnee, Delaware, Alabama, Coushatta and Kickapoo, who had been driven from the U.S. and lived in Texas in greater numbers than standard histories record. (The book to read on the subject is “The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land, 1820-1875” by Gary Clayton Anderson.)

What served Ruiz through all these years were the tightly grained relationships among San Antonio’s landowning Tejano families. Especially critical in the author’s telling were the ties that were bound by godparenting — the term “compadre” means something closer to “co-parent” — and it was also a way to bring Native Americans and mixed-race mestizos into the realm of the family. So even though Ruiz was 14 when his father died, and later he was often separated from his wife and children, there was a social network to look after interconnected relatives of blood and honor.

A lawyer, teacher, author and former mayor of Von Ormy, southwest of San Antonio, Martínez de Vara is an extraordinary researcher. He dug deeply not only into the essential Bexar Archives housed at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas, but also into memoirs, letters, legal papers, church documents and much more.

Beyond that, Martínez de Vara is an adept storyteller. The reader will go from knowing virtually nothing about this Tejano patriot to fervently wishing there had been more Texans like him.