Wednesday, December 8, 2021

The Murder of the Spanish Royalists

After the Republican Army of the North took San Antonio in April, 1813, fourteen royalist officers, including Governors Manuel Salcedo and Simon Herrera, were tried. Found guilty, they were sentenced by the court to death, but after vociferous complaints by the Anglo-American contingent of the army, the sentences were commuted to banishment. 

Nonetheless, in the early morning hours of April 4, the officers were marched out under heavy guard to the site of the recent Battle of Rosillo and executed. I take up the story with the account of Carlos Beltran, the Mexicanized American:

Beltrán, the American who had lived so long amongst the Mexicans, had been chilled by his fellow Bexareños’ stony silence upon hearing of the captives’ reprieve. On the evening of April 3, he left the city to go visit a friend and relative of his adoptive Tejano family, José Sánchez, just outside of town. The latter, who had been among the Tejano troops at Rosillo, was severely wounded in the battle. Beltrán and another friend, Pablo Rodríguez, spent the evening nursing their injured comrade. They returned just before dawn and were surprised to see a large body of Mexican cavalry waiting outside the Alamo. Out of curiosity, the two young men walked up to them and saw the prisoners being placed on horses for their journey. To their surprise, the men were bound securely with ropes to their horses. Ominously, the commander of the guard was the same Antonio Delgado who had threatened the royalists before.[1]

I knew Captain Delgado quite well – we had always been on the most friendly terms – and, observing me closely watching his movements, he brusquely asked what I was doing there, and who had sent me to spy on his actions. I answered by saying that I was there on my own volition and that considering the high station held by these prisoners, I thought it a shameful humiliation to their dignity and manhood to tie them on their horses when there was absolutely no occasion for such brutal treatment, and that I would immediately report the matter to Colonel Kemper. This seemed to nettle the captain, and he ordered us away.[2]

Beltrán and Sánchez rushed over the river and entered the town, where they tracked down Kemper and Ross. The American commanders were appalled at what they heard. They had known of the transport – indeed, Kemper had even signed a letter authorizing it. But they had expected humane treatment and certainly would not have agreed to the troop being led by Delgado. Upon discovery that Delgado’s party had already departed, Kemper and Ross “went straightway to the quarters of Gutiérrez and demanded the return of the prisoners without delay,” Beltrán wrote. “They told Gutiérrez that they had pledged their honor, as American soldiers, for the safety of those men...” Gutiérrez insisted that the Spaniards were safe, that Delgado was a reliable and honorable soldier, and if anything happened to the prisoners, Gutiérrez would have Delgado shot immediately upon his return.[3]

Delgado and his prisoners, with an escort of 100 men on foot, had left in the early morning hours of April 4, leading a group of 14 royalists, including nine native-born Spaniards and five Creoles. It had been four and a half years since Manuel Salcedo had trekked across the United States, dined with Natchitoches Indian Agent John Sibley, then entered Texas on the heels of the French revolutionary general Octaviano D’Alvimar. He had sought in that time to do his job dutiful to his king and country. His enemies, of course would counter with charges of cruelty. Nonetheless, he had weathered storm after storm with few resources, while enduring the many slights and petty tyrannies of his uncle. During the Casas revolt, he had pathetically attempted to demote himself to ordinary soldier rather than go into captivity. Then, there was imprisonment, liberation and the masterminding of the victory at the Wells of Bajan, where he no doubt felt he had helped save the empire he loved so much. Now, it seemed, this was the end.[4]

Simón de Herrera y Leyva was older than Salcedo by 20 years. He had been the governor of Nuevo León, fought bravely for his country in an expedition against the Portuguese in South America, helped besiege Gibraltar, then fought alongside Bernardo de Gálvez in the Spanish army in 1782-83. He even led a highly successful attack against a force of Apaches and Comanches. He had faced off with General Wilkinson in what had almost been an American-Spanish war in 1806, before the two had negotiated the Neutral Ground Agreement, preventing conflict, but ultimately fueling the insurgency that had now brought him to the very brink. Herrera’s fate was the most tragic. With his good command of English and friendly disposition, he had won over the sympathy first of Dr. Robinson, then Augustus Magee, and finally Samuel Kemper. There are hints that Herrera may have been a closet supporter of the revolution. If he had switched to the rebel cause, he could have brought much of his own state of Nuevo León into the rebel fold. But it was not to be.[5]

Riding alongside Herrera that day was his younger brother, Geronimo Herrera and six fellow Spaniards. Three native-born, but loyal, Mexicans accompanied them: Captain Miguel Arcos, who had been the judge who condemned Gutiérrez’s messengers Bergara and Grande, along with his two sons. A civilian from San Antonio who had assisted in the arrest of Colonel Delgado was also with them. Now this party was led by Colonel Delgado’s father Antonio, and they were not going to La Bahia or Matagorda, and certainly not to Cuba. It is doubtful that the ship Gutiérrez had conjured up in his speech in the plaza in San Antonio had ever existed.[6]

A few miles out of San Antonio, and not far from the Rosillo battlefield, was a place called La Tablita. It lay near where the Salado creek flowed into the San Antonio River, and here the party halted. The prisoners were untied from their horses and made to dismount. Their guards then proceeded to tie them to trees. The royalists, knowing what was about to happen, begged their captors to at least delay the execution until a priest could be brought down from the city to give them last rites, but this was refused. “You sent my father into eternity, denying him the consolation of religion in his last extremity,” Delgado allegedly sneered to Salcedo’s face. One of the governors, probably Salcedo, was the third man to be tied up, and in Beltran’s account called to one of the republicans, a Lieutenant Santos. He handed him his watch and his ring and asked that they be given to Dr. Orramel Johnston – the Anglo-American doctor and brother of their would-be lawyer – to be delivered on to his family.[7]

The rebels stripped the men of their clothing then finished tying their victims. Lieutenant Col. Herrera, according to Beltrán, “warned Delgado of the day of signal retribution and defied him to do his worst.” Another account says of him, “It is said Herrera prayed earnestly to be that shot instead of being butchered like a dog.” A third account says it was Salcedo who made the request. The sources differ on whether the request was granted, but given the level of brutality, one suspects it was not. According to one witness, the governor’s tongue was cut out, ending these requests. José Antonio Navarro, who was not a witness, but reported the event second-hand, said Delgado’s men had no swords, only the dull knives they kept on their belts for camp use. “With inhuman irony, some of the assassins sharpened their knives on the soles of their shoes in the presence of their defenseless victims.” They hurled insults upon the prisoners, then cut their throats. When this was done, Delgado’s men left them tied to the trees, where they drowned in their own frothing blood. After they expired, the bodies were taken down and tossed into the creek.[8]

There were 14 royalists executed. The actual list of names varies from source to source, but the names listed as in the presumably accurate burial records were: Manuel Salcedo, Simon Herrera, Geronimo Herrera, José Goseachocea, Juan Ignacio Arrambide, Lieutenant Juan Caso, José Amador, Francisco Pereira, Joaquín Ugarte, Antonio López, José Mateos, Captain Miguel Arcos, along with his two sons, Francisco and Luis.

[1] Navarro said Delgado’s escort was 60 men. Hunter, “San Antonio’s First Great Tragedy,” 47. Anonymous [Navarro] account in Gulick, 4(2):7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hunter, “San Antonio’s First Great Tragedy,” 47. Baker, 228-9. “Deposition of Guillermo Navarro,” April 8, 1813, in I. Wayne Cox, 21.

[4] Salcedo’s wife and daughter appear to have remained in New Orleans. It is possible they never even entered Texas. Samuel Davenport, who visited the town periodically on business, kept Salcedo informed about his family’s situation. Presumably, Gen. Herrera’s family was still in Mexico. La Vere, 114.

[5] Harris Gaylord Warren and Jack D. L. Homes, “Herrera, Simon de,” HOTO, accessed May 12, 2018.

[6] There were 14 royalists executed. The actual list of names varies from source to source, but the names listed as in the presumably accurate burial records were: Salcedo, Herrera, Geronimo Herrera, José Goseachocea, Juan Ignacio Arrambide, Lieutenant Juan Caso, José Amador, Francisco Pereira, Joaquín Ugarte, Antonio López, José Mateos, Captain Miguel Arcos, along with his two sons, Francisco and Luis. Along with the governors, five of these had been among the royalists initially sent to Mexico by Casas two years before.

Of five sources reporting the names, the closest, with 12 of 14 names correct (and each with one additional incorrect name), are Carlos Beltrán and José Antonio Navarro. The fact that Beltrán is so accurate, and includes a name that Navarro does not, is alongside other verifiable facts in his account, definitive proof that his narrative is at least partially authentic. The other accounts are Spanish soldier Guillermo Navarro (discussed later in this chapter), Antonio Menchaca, and an unknown republican soldier writing an account reported by John Sibley. Burial records from San Fernando Church Burial Book 3, 1802-1817, Archives of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, Texas. This is reprinted in Waynne, 27-34, available at: Hunter, “San Antonio’s First Great Tragedy,” 47. Anonymous [Navarro] account in Gulick, 4(2):8. “Deposition of Guillermo Navarro,” April 8, 1813, in I. Wayne Cox, 21. Sibley to Secretary of War, May 7, 1813, in Garrett, “Dr. John Sibley,” 49, no. 3 (Jan., 1946), 425. Chabot, Texas in 1811, 82.

[7] In Beltrán’s account, the prisoner who hands over his possessions is identified as Governor Antonio Cordero, but this is impossible, since Cordero was not in Texas and indeed lived until the 1820s. Beltrán was likely confused; elsewhere in the account, he admits that he’s not sure of all the details because of the lapse of the decades between the event and the recording of it. Orramel Johnston’s connection to the prisoners is unknown, though his brother was their legal counsel. It is possible Orramel, a doctor, attended the prisoners. Hunter, “San Antonio’s First Great Tragedy,” 48. “Deposition of Guillermo Navarro,” April 8, 1813, in I. Wayne Cox, 21.

[8] Mexican Historian Lúcas Alaman placed the blame for the murder on Captain Pedro Prado as the commander of the execution squad, though American sources all identify Delgado as the commander of the executioners and Prado as merely a deputy. Delgado, based on other references, would have been senior. Alaman, 484.

Hall and Beltrán both mention the one man who begged to be shot, as does Natchitoches Indian Factor Thomas Linnard. Beltrán identifies this man as Salcedo, Linnard as Herrera. Schwartz, 31. Hunter, “San Antonio’s First Great Tragedy,” 48. Linnard to Mason, May 7, 1813, Letterbook of the Natchitoches Sulphur Fork Factory, National Archives, T1029. McDonald, 26. Anonymous [Navarro] account in Gulick, 4(2):7.

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