The Historic San Antonio Viejo

The legacy left by the East Family is a special part of Texas history. The history of those that have worked on the land cannot be easily separated from the land itself, and in fact it becomes part of the story that we need to put into all parts of delivering our mission. The ranching heritage on some of the Foundation’s land reaches back for more than 200 years, including some of the oldest evidence of early ranching in South Texas. South of the present Ranch headquarters is an interesting historical area. There we find old hand dug wells and remains of old buildings of sillar (blocks of consolidated caliche stone). These without a doubt were the homes, churches and other structures for a long-ago ranching community, the stories of which have been lost to time. Working with historian Armando Alonzo, we are trying to recover some of that history by discovering early documents and evidence of settlement and land use in and around the original San Antonio Viejo Land Grant.

A description in one of these documents caught my eye: Here is a notation by Land Surveyor Martin Van Merick of Starr County. Merick surveyed the San Antonio Viejo Land Grant during August of 1867.

“Field notes of a survey of (4) four leagues of land called San Antonio, made for the heirs of Francisco Xavier Vela, being the quantity of land to which they are entitled by virtue of a grant from the State of Tamaulipas to Francisco Xavier Vela dated July 30th 1805. Said survey is in Starr County situated at the San Antonio Wells on the road from Rio Grande City to Laredo about 45 miles North from Rio Grande City.”

The San Antonio Viejo was one of a handful of early Spanish Land Grants in the Wild Horse Desert of South Texas. When land was granted by the Spanish Crown, the distance measurements were in varas (about 33 inches) and area was measured in leagues. Each league was 5,000 varas squared, making an area of 4,428 acres. The four leagues making up the San Antonio Viejo were thus equal to 17,713 acres.

In 1805, Francisco Xavier Vela was granted the San Antonio Viejo by the Spanish Crown. The Colonial Administrator’s goal was to settle this part of Texas with tough ranching communities that could buffer the Spanish centers of Monterrey and Saltillo from incursion by hostile Indians. For some historical perspective, in the same year of this land grant Thomas Jefferson was U.S. President and Lewis and Clark were on their 3 year expedition westward across the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase.

The Mexican War of Independence broke out only 5 years after the San Antonio Viejo Land Grant was finalized. By the end of that War in 1821, the ranch became a part of Mexico, and it is likely that the San Antonio Viejo was already a thriving community. Over the next several decades, with assistance from the Catholic Missionaries from Roma, the community expanded and was home for several influential leaders. One of which was Lino Ramirez whose tomb is on the San Antonio Viejo ranch, close by to some of the remains of old homes that were part of those early communities.

As an ever growing Foundation, we must keep history and legacy at the heart of what we do. While much of this history we have not yet uncovered or documented, or preserved, we have taken steps to preserve the East family archive, including hundreds of letters, documents, and photos. We are working with historians, taking steps to identify and protect our historical assets on the land, and recording oral histories from those that knew the East Family and worked their land. The reason behind this is all clear – if land forgets its past, it has no future.

A land without ruins is a land without memories — a land without memories is a land without history.” - Abram J. Ryan