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daily life in Laredo, 1840

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Life in Laredo during 1840 was tumultuous.  It was a small community of fewer than 2,000 residents where most lived on the north bank of the Rio Grande River but some were on the south bank.  There was a constant fear of skirmishes and challenges.  Most of these fears came from threats from the Republic of Mexico’s Army—they fiercely opposed the Republic of the Rio Grande’s independence.  Adding to this fear were constant threats from Native Americans who launched frequent raids.


Life in 1840 was also very centered around The Rio Grande River.  Like lifeblood, the water it brought enabled plants to grow on the banks and these became materials that were gathered for building construction. Drinking water was often gathered here and many other activities were centered around it. 


Families were large, death frequent, and daily work difficult. Nonetheless, the settlers defended the newly formed republic and settled into routines to tackle daily tasks, establishing a life in Laredo.

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 Construction of homes and buildings in Laredo was varied. Some people were living in very rudimentary structures and others, more sophisticated buildings made with fortification.  Those who secured a lot in town were required to build a structure that offered protection—or fortification—from potential raids. 

Listen to an architectural preservationist describe what the buildings were like in town. 

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The construction of fortified structures was made from local materials.  Freshwater mussels found in the Rio Grande River offered hard shells that could be crushed to make roofs. Today these mussels are in great decline, threatened by human impact.  Sandstone was collected locally and used to build walls.  Cypress wood, also now largely gone, was gathered from trees along the river’s edge, and mesquite, also seen previously in abundance, was used for structural integrity. 

Listen to an architectural preservationist describe what local materials were used for building construction during 1840.

Homes and Structures


Water is part of every life, every day, on every part of our planet.  In 1840 in Laredo water was generally gathered from the Rio Grande River. At that time the river ran clear and pure.  For some people, they were able to gather water and bring it to town by horse or donkey. Entrepreneurs sold water to those of means while others transported themselves water for their own personal use. Residents with no horse or donkey had to take a daily walk to the river and carry it back.  The lucky few had a well or a cistern.

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Where does the Rio Grande River

come from?

Where does it flow to? 

The River begins at its headwaters in the San Juan Range of the Colorado Rockies and flows to the Gulf of Mexico at Brownsville, Texas. Along the way it passes through many communities and is subject to pollution if we don’t  treat it right. It is up to each of us to treat the watershed region of the river with great care.

The water quality of the river water is very poor today.  However, it is improved from twenty years ago but it remains polluted and with a high bacteria count.


To learn more visit:

Climate change &

a troubled future

Increasingly frequent droughts in the face of climate change and growing human demands on the River are challenging its future. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation estimates the upper Rio Grande watershed will collect 30 percent less water by the end of the century as annual snowpacks shrink and evaporation rates increase.  During the time of the Republic of the Rio Grande flooding was a frequent occurrence.  Things are very different today largely due to human impact on the river and its watershed.

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You may not walk to the river to get your daily drinking water, but does your daily behavior impact the river? Every action you make on the environment can impact the water cycle and the local watershed. One way you can protect your drinking water is to dispose of harmful materials properly.  

Don't dump hazardous waste on the ground. It can contaminate the soil, which could also contaminate the groundwater or nearby surface water.

A number of products used at home contain hazardous or toxic substances that can contaminate ground or surface waters, such as:

Motor oil

Leftover paints or paint cans








Photo of women washing clothes in the Rio Grande River, c. 1900; source: [Railroad bridge over the Rio Grande River, Laredo, Texas], photograph, 1900~; accessed March 30, 2022), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting Laredo Public Library.

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gardening & growing food
then and now

Settlers had to make, hunt, gather or grow almost everything they needed to survive during the time of the Republic of the Rio Grande in 1840.  This meant gardening was not a hobby but an essential task and most people had small gardens. 


People tended to their gardens with the water they hauled from the river.  As you can imagine, growing food from a garden in the desert was nothing short of difficult to maintain. Everyone in the family generally had some responsibility to take care of the garden.

Listen to Dr. Thompson speak about what kind of animals and gardens people in Laredo had and where the water came from:

Do you want to learn to garden at home?



Laredo in 1840 looked very different than it does today. Horses and donkeys were the major forms of transportation for people. 


Horses could travel fast and at a great distance, but were more expensive than a donkey.  They were introduced to the region by the Spanish many years before. Donkeys were a bit less expensive but were very slow.  Whether you had a fast horse or a slow donkey you really needed one or the other to go very far. Traveling by foot was hard in a desert. 


Today a child's life in Laredo is largely about school.  In the classroom they see friends, learn about new ideas, and prepare for the future.  Children who lived in Laredo in 1840 had a very different life.  Few children went to school and those who received an education were probably taught the fundamentals at home.  Only the very lucky went on to higher education, and even then, they had to travel a great distance to find a college. 


Life was rugged and demanded work from every family member.  Children in almost every family were expected to do chores. There were no after-school clubs, sports teams, television or video games. Boys and girls did not have equality in their chores: boys often worked alongside their fathers as girls did with their mothers. While today we encourage equality in chores, at the time of the Republic of the Rio Grande boys would have cared for sheep and cattle, made rope, and helped build fires.  Girls helped milk cows, make butter, or scrub floors.  


Sickness was common and the doctors were hard to find and those who were available had no knowledge of what we now know as modern medicine.  As a result, child mortality was very high.

The daily life of a child

Listen to Dr. Thompson speak on the lives of children

Average life span in 1840: 37

Average life span in 2022: 77


Contextualizing 1840:

What else was going on in the United States in 1840?

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Same Water, Different Cycle

All the water on the planet is part of the water cycle.  That means it just keeps circulating through a cycle of evaporation to form clouds, precipitation to form rain or snow, and runoff through the land and rivers.  

It is possible that the water you are drinking today has been re-circulating around Laredo since 1840. It is also possible it has circulated around Canada or in Mexico because our water cycle has a global connection.  When we think of water this way it is easy to see why we need to be so careful to protect it from contamination.  It is also easy to see that contaminated water from another time—like 1840—can be a problem for years to come. 

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The Water Cycle




Art/Social Studies

ELA/Social Justice



Art/Social Studies

ELA/Social Justice



Art/Social Studies

ELA/Social Justice

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