The Webb County Heritage Foundation offers this resource as a companion to the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum. It is an online interpretation of an exhibition in the museum that features the history of the Republic of the Rio Grande which was an independent nation that sat between the Republic of Mexico and the Republic of Texas, for less than one calendar year in 1840.
Educational units on leadership, preserving the past, and life in Laredo then and now, are augmentations to the online exhibit. Curriculum, including worksheets and activities, are included for each of the three units for elementary, middle, and high school students.
Map showing the land claimed by the Republic of Texas, the Republic of the Rio Grande, and the Republic of Mexico. The illustration represents boundaries in 1840.
republic of the rio grande
The history of the Republic of the Rio Grande is a tumultuous one.
The Republic of the Rio Grande stood as an independent nation for only 283 days in 1840.
Independent from both the Republic of Mexico and the Republic of Texas, the Republic of the Rio Grande was a nation whose leaders valiantly attempted to offer military protection and border definition for the people in northern Mexico. It has been nearly two centuries since its short-lived existence, but it lives on as a symbol of the resilience and tenacity of the people in this border region.
If you visit Laredo, you can visit the Museum of the Republic of the Rio Grande. It is located in the former capital building of the Republic, which still stands today.
The sovereignty of the United States
was declared on January 14, 1784.
How many days has it stood as compared to the Republic of the Rio Grande?
What was the republic?
Beginning with Laredo’s founding in 1755, the citizens had a life of struggle and a nearly continuous need for protection against Indian raids. These were attacks from Indigenous groups whose lands were being taken throughout the region by European settlers. Then, came the Anglo-Americans who entered as colonists after Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821 and the fall of the Mexican Empire in 1823. These same people then rebelled and in turn, created the Republic of Texas (1836–1845).
After the Republic of Texas was formed the Mexican government refused to recognize it. At the same time, the Republic of Texas moved ahead and claimed jurisdiction up to the Rio Grande River. Stuck in the middle of this chaos was Laredo, a city claimed by both sides but protected by neither.
During the claims and counterclaims, serious grievances of border rancheros against the Centralist Mexican government boiled over and with it, the Republic of the Rio Grande emerged. Established in 1840, the founders were Mexican Federalists who believed in local control of resources and protections. They offered protection against the raiders and demands of the Centralists who supported the Mexican government.
Where was it?
Centered on Mexico’s northeastern frontier, Laredo served as the capital.
A depiction of vaqueros circa 1852.
when was it?
It was formed in 1840 and lasted 283 days.
Who were the
Who were the
What was the
Republic of Texas?
What was the
Click a date to learn more
Setting the Stage
Preceding the formation of the Republic of the Rio Grande, many events and long histories intersected to bring about explosive turmoil, battle, and boundary re-definition in the region around today’s Laredo.
New Spain, under the authority of the Spanish government, was in control of much of North America, including the region of what is known as Mexico. In 1819 the boundary between the United States and New Spain was established, but soon after, Spain lost control of this land, resulting in governmental turmoil and the emergence of the Republic of Mexico in 1824.
A political conflict touched off when Mexico’s Constitution of 1824 was abolished in 1835 and the government was replaced by one controlled by Centralists.
As part of the territory of Texas sought independence in 1836, the northern reaches of the Republic of Mexico saw uprisings. The Republic of Texas was formed in 1836 as Mexico lost control. The region between the two lands—the Republic of Mexico and that of Texas—became a firestorm with Laredo caught in the middle.
The Rise and Formation
In the late 1830s, continuous instability along the border between the Republic of Mexico and Texas brought individuals together to consider the development of a new nation. It would serve as a buffer between the two Republics and would be known as the Republic of the Rio Grande.
Mexican Federalists Antonio Canales and Antonio Zapata, in defiance of Mexican dictator and President Santa Anna, supported the development of this new and separate nation. Canales recognized the need for allies and called for delegates from three Mexican states along the Rio Grande: Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, and Coahuila y Tejas. Laredo was their meeting place.
The delegates declared a new nation: the Republic of the Rio Grande. A constitution was drafted and the newly born nation claimed the areas nearby. The headquarters was in a building that still stands in Laredo and now is home to the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum. Jesus Cardenas is elected President.
Today historians disagree as to whether or not a truly independent nation was the goal. Mexican historians say no. American historians say yes. Somewhere in between is the truth.
Decline and Fall
The armies of the new nation were led by Canales as Commander-in-Chief and Colonel Antonio Zapata. They were consistently challenged by Mexico’s President Santa Anna and his General, Mariano Arista.
In time, General Arista advanced on Laredo. Canales fled, seeking shelter while planning his next move. Colonel Zapata was at Santa Rita de Morelos, Coahuila, in preparation to join Canales. While at Morelos, Zapata was caught off-guard and found himself among Mexican Centralist sympathizers. They betrayed him, took his army’s horses, and opened fire.
Zapata was captured, tried, and found guilty of treason. His life was offered in exchange for pledging allegiance to Mexico. He refused. Zapata was soon beheaded and his death used to instill fear in the populace.
Canales continued to fight for the Republic, but local towns fell to Mexican Centralist advances. Although he tried for months to gain an advantage, he eventually surrendered to Mexico on the north bank of the Rio Grande, opposite of Camargo, on November 6, 1840. The Republic of the Rio Grande was over.
WHY SEPARATE FROM MEXICO?
Map of the Republic of Mexico. Red areas represent federalist states.
President Santa Anna
Many factors contributed to the desire of some to separate from Mexico and form a new nation; but perhaps it was the Mexican leadership’s lack of support for the Constitution of 1824 that was the most significant, single reason.
The Constitution had a few key characteristics: the president and vice president were elected for four-year terms, legislative bodies supported the government, and local governments had independence. The Catholic Church was the state faith and it was supported by the federal treasury. The Federalist party embraced the Constitution, but President Santa Anna, then a Centralist, opposed it and brought a dictatorship to Mexico through his rule.
By 1840, border rancheros had serious grievances against the Centralist Mexican government. One of the issues they had was the restriction on their commerce as the Mexican government prohibited them from selling their livestock to the Americans. At the same time, local elite families lost their political power, and military commanders required the local rancheros to provision their troops.
The northern realm of Mexico was populated with Federalists (who opposed the Centralists that were in control of the government) and revolutionaries. Santa Anna, the Centralist’s leader, sought to squash these resistors and pummeled their towns. Laredo suffered and was left open to Indian raids and economic decline. With the growing urgent need to provide military protection and clearly defined borders, the founders of the Republic of the Rio Grande had the catalyst necessary to seek separation.
Click to listen
Call for Constitutional Convention
Laredo Becomes the Capital City
and General Arista Arrives
Arista’s Troops capture Zapata at
Santa Rita de Morelos
Zapata is Executed
Battles Continue; Laredo is Taken Back and the Federalists Fall in Mexico
Why so short lived?
The Republic of the Rio Grande’s short life was due to many factors. Ambiguous planning and reticent leadership that failed to make decisive military decisions had a major impact. To add to these difficulties, there was a large stretch of land to manage with limited resources and difficult communication strategies. Ultimately, this was far too much, despite the valiant efforts of many.
Connecting the past to THE present
Learning about the past helps us gain a new perspective on how we live, the challenges we face, and opportunities for change. While the Republic of the Rio Grande was not a long-lasting nation and faced many hurdles that could not
be overcome, it is a part of the fabric of Laredo’s history.
Its people were valiant and bold enough to stand up for the protection they believed they needed and deserved.
If we explore this history and dig into some themes, you might find that you can relate to its history more than you would expect!
Want to learn more?
Download the podcast
New History of Old Texas
by Brandon Seale.
The latest season uncovers the story of the Republic of the Rio Grande.