Laredo was established in 1755, when Tomás Sánchez de la Barrera y Garza was granted permission by José de Escandón to form a new settlement about thirty miles upriver from Nuestra Señora de los Dolores Hacienda in what is now Zapata County. Laredo was the last town established under the authority of Escandón, who had been given responsibility for settling the province of Nuevo Santander. Altogether Escandón saw to the founding of twenty towns and eighteen missions in an attempt to thwart French incursion into Spanish territory and to propagate the Christian faith among the various Indian tribes of the region.
The initial settlement at Laredo was made by Sánchez and three families from Dolores. They soon found that lack of rain restricted farming to the riverbottoms; the rest of the land lay too high above the river for irrigation. The raising of livestock-chiefly goats, sheep, and cattle-thus became their principal livelihood.
Though no Indians lived at Laredo initially, bands of Carrizo, Borrado, and Lipan would occasionally come to trade after the community had become established. Allowing for the possibility that Indians might one day congregate there, the commissioners set aside a place for them on the right bank, across the river from the town. In 1767 or 1768 Father Gaspar José de Solís, while on a visit to the Texas missions, sent a group of Indians to Laredo for religious instruction.
In addition to seeing to the distribution of land, the commissioners raised Laredo to the status of a villa, a town with a governing body. The first election for local officials was held in 1768. Laredo grew steadily: its population rose from 85 in 1757, two years after its founding, to 185 in 1767 and 708 in 1789. The latter figure included 111 Carrizo Indians, who were enumerated in a separate census.
In the early years of the settlement, colonists reported no problems with either the Coahuiltecans of the region or with the Comanche and Apache Indians. As the surrounding ranchos became more prosperous, however, raids by Comanches and some Apaches became a concern. A military garrison was established at Laredo in 1775, though it is not clear if troops remained in the town continuously thereafter. Raiding increased in the last several decades of the 1700s, and Laredo implored authorities for more soldiers, especially the effective compañías volantes (cavalry), for protection.
The threat from Indian raids was compounded between 1810 and 1820, when troops from Laredo were called away to combat insurgents and filibusterers along the Rio Grande. Laredo itself remained one of the few islands of royalist sentiment in a sea of pro-independence activists on the northern frontier (see MEXICAN WAR OF INDEPENDENCE). The political alignment of the town has been attributed to the dependence of the propertied classes there upon the Laredo presidio, which remained loyal to the Spanish crown.
During the Texas Revolution Laredo served as a concentration point for the forces of Antonio López de Santa Anna. After the war, Texas leaders generally considered the Rio Grande to be the southern boundary of the new Republic of Texas, but they made no effort to extend jurisdiction over the border region. The residents of Laredo continued to consider themselves citizens of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.
No effort was made to place Laredo under the jurisdiction of Texas until the Mexican War. In March 1846 Texas Ranger captain Robert Addison Gillespie raised the United States flag over the city, and the next November an American garrison, under the command of former Republic of Texas president Mirabeau B. Lamar, occupied the town.
The establishment of the Rio Grande as the international boundary divided the town of Laredo, many of whose residents had homes and ranchos on the right bank (in Mexico). A number of other families who did not wish to live under the American flag chose to move across the river to what became the village of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas.
Laredo’s modern era began in 1881, a watershed year that saw the establishment of the Laredo Times, the arrival of the Texas Mexican Railroad from Corpus Christi, and the completion of Jay Gould‘s International and Great Northern Railroad from San Antonio to the border. In 1882 the Rio Grande and Pecos Railway was completed to the cannel coal fields along the Rio Grande above Laredo. Laredo was the first Texas border town below Eagle Pass to secure a rail connection, and it remained the only one until Brownsville, near the mouth of the Rio Grande, acquired rail service in 1904.
By 1887 the Mexican National railway linked Nuevo Laredo with Mexico City, creating a system that became vital to the growth and development of Laredo and instrumental in making it the gateway to Mexico that it is today.
The arrival of the railroads produced marked social as well as economic changes. Anglo Americans had settled in Laredo during and after the Mexican War and Civil War, but their numbers were small compared to the influx brought by the railroads. As the numbers of Anglo residents grew, intermarriage declined and a separate Anglo society developed alongside the original Mexican community.
In 1882 the principal streets were improved by grading and graveling and a city hall and courthouse were constructed. The first public school to be established there since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo also opened that year. It joined the Ursuline Academy, established in 1868, and the Laredo Seminary (1880), later known as the Holding Institute. In 1883 water mains were laid and telephone service inaugurated.
In spite of periodic economic instability, Laredo by the early 1990s had become one of the state’s most active centers for import and export trade with Mexico. The development of maquiladoras along the border during the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the North American Free Trade Agreement of the early 1990s, ensured that Laredo would continue to be at the forefront of social and economic activity along the border. (source)
One of only three water museums in Texas and one of only a handful in the country — the Laredo Water Museum is a tourist and cultural destination for the region to learn about the significance of the Rio Grande river as the region’s primary water source. The museum seeks to inform, educate, and engage a generation to respect and protect one of our most precious resources and encourage future water stewardship.
The Villa Antigua Border Heritage Museum is a restored two-story brick building was once home to two early Laredo merchant families. With its size and pivotal location on the banks of the Rio Grande, this Italianate-style residence is representative of the grand houses that populated the San Agustín District in the early 20th century. The home was abandoned for many years and survived numerous fires and initiatives aimed at demolishing it. In 2002, Webb County and its Heritage Foundation acquired the home and undertook its historic rehabilitation.
The Republic of the Río Grande® Museum is housed in one of Laredo’s oldest structures located on San Agustín Plaza in downtown Laredo. The museum is a Mexican vernacular structure, constructed in 1830 with an 1860 addition. It was once the home of Bartolomé García, prominent rancher and mayor of Laredo. According to tradition, in 1840, the structure served as the capitol of the Republic of the Río Grande. The Museum is considered a historic house museum which features displays recreating an authentic c.1830 home in Laredo.
The building is a Recorded Texas Historical Landmark and a Contributing Structure to the San Agustín National Register District. Along with its neighbors, San Agustín Cathedral and La Posada Hotel, the museum forms a triangle of the most visited historic landmarks in the city.
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