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American Latino Heritage
A fort that began its existence in 1846 as a scene of conflict between the United States and Mexico has evolved to become an important fixture in a modern Mexican-American community. In the years in between, Fort Brown played a major role in U.S.-Mexican relations, in the development of the South Texas border region, and in the lives of citizens of the border region.
The post was founded in the spring of 1846 during a period of rising tensions between the United States and Mexico. The United States completed the annexation of the Republic of Texas in December of 1845, making the region the 28th U.S. state. U.S. President James Polk also drew a generous boundary for Texas, declaring that the new state extended to the Rio Grande—a river that ran almost 2,000 miles from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico.
Mexican leaders disputed these claims. Mexico had lost control of Texas in 1836 but never formally surrendered its rights to that territory. Of greater importance, Mexicans challenged the boundary drawn by the United States. They viewed Texas as a much smaller territory and believed that Polk was trying to claim lands that belonged to other Mexican states and territories. Many Mexicans expressed a willingness to fight for their land.
Polk sent an army under the command of General Zachary Taylor to help decide the issue. In late March of 1846, the general and 4000 troops arrived on a bend in the Rio Grande across from the Mexican city of Matamoros. Over the next month, his troops began to build a large, six-sided structure out of packed earth that was unofficially known as Fort Texas. The structure would serve as the primary shelter for Taylor’s troops in the event of an attack.
That attack began in late April, as Mexican forces under the command of General Mariano Arista crossed the Rio Grande in a campaign to remove the U.S. forces. Fort Texas quickly became a focal point of this maneuver. When Taylor and the majority of his army left the post to collect needed supplies at the nearby Gulf coast, Arista initiated a siege. On May 3, he began a bombardment of the site and the 500 men left inside. This shower of cannon fire continued day and night for six days, prompting General Taylor to march to the rescue and engage the Mexicans at Palo Alto on May 8 and Resaca de la Palma, on May 9. U.S. victory in the latter clash drove the Mexican army back across the Rio Grande and lifted the siege of the fort.
The fierce bombardment produced limited damage to the fort, but left a lasting mark nonetheless. Of the two U.S. soldiers who died during the bombardment one was the man who had commanded the post—Major Jacob Brown. In the aftermath of the siege, General Taylor named the site Fort Brown to honor the fallen defender.
The original Fort Brown had a limited life. On May 18, U.S. troops crossed the Rio Grande and entered Matamoros, making that city their base of operations. No longer vital for defense, the Fort Brown earthworks were abandoned. By the end of the war with Mexico, almost two years later, the structure had fallen into disrepair.
But the Fort Brown name survived. The war between the United States and Mexico firmly established the Rio Grande as the boundary for the two nations, and a new, expanded Fort Brown sprang up several hundred yards away from the original. This post would endure for a century and lend its name to the town that grew around it—Brownsville, Texas.
Although the mission of the fort changed over time, it remained an important fixture on the border. In the 1850s, the troops of the post devoted much effort to halting smuggling and incursions across the Rio Grande. During the Civil War, the fort became a strategic target as Confederates attempted to maintain a lucrative cotton trade into Mexico and Union forces attempted to halt it. The ongoing Union/Confederate contest for control of the fort also resulted in the last battle of the Civil War at Palmito Ranch on May 13, 1865. The post once again gained significance in 1916 when violence from the Mexican Revolution threatened to spill across the border. Thousands of National Guard troops poured into the area, overwhelming the post and Brownsville, Texas before they left, several months later, without facing any danger. Although the post served as a training ground for soldiers who fought in World Wars I and II, the post was closed toward the end of World War II.
During its life, Fort Brown transformed from a site designed for a confrontation with Mexicans to a post that served to protect the growing Mexican-American population of the region. That service to the local population continues. Today, many of the buildings constructed on the Fort Brown Reservation in the 1860s and 1870s have been refashioned to serve as offices and classroom buildings for the University of Texas at Brownsville, an institution that serves the Mexican and Mexican-American population of the Rio Grande Valley. The University offers tours and exhibits about these buildings and their history.
The original earthwork has fared less well. Left untended for more than 100 year, the site has been affected by flood control projects on the Rio Grande, development, and even construction of a border wall. Today, a small section of the ramparts survives near the Fort Brown Golf Course in Brownsville. The National Park Service, at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park, is working to document and protect these remains. The park also provides information about this site in the park visitor center while striving to develop on-site programs and displays to preserve the memory of this significant historic site.