A Little Bit of Texas History – Early Texas Immigrants

Some were first Spanish citizens. Later, they became citizens of Mexico. 1 served as Spanish governor of Texas from 1767 to 1770. 100 fought alongside Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto. Mexican forces cut the throats of 14 of them at the Goliad Massacre. 11 died at the battle of the Alamo. 100% of them were Catholics who suffered persecution for their faith. Who were these early immigrants to our state? Hint: The Republic of Texas established Refugio and San Patricio counties on St. Patrick’s Day, 1836. 

marker irish immigrants in refugio

Natives of Ireland were among the first settlers in Spanish-ruled Texas, and the story of the Irish in Texas is in many ways coincident with the founding of the republic and the development of the state. The heritage of the Irish seems in retrospect to have peculiarly suited their migration to a new land, for the English dominance of Ireland must have been to the new colonists in Texas a close parallel to the oppression they eventually found in the new country. It is not surprising that as many as twenty-five Irishmen probably signed the Goliad Declaration of Independence, that four signed the actual Texas Declaration of Independence, and that 100 were listed in the rolls of San Jacinto, comprising one-seventh of the total Texan force in that battle. Probably the first Irishman in Texas was Hugo Oconór, who became governor ad interim of Texas in 1767. Though his national origins are uncertain, Oconór was almost certainly Irish, as his name suggests. His success in reinforcing San Antonio against raiding Apaches was a notable contribution to the further settlement of that region. Philip Nolan, a native of Belfast, Ireland, was said to be the first Anglo American to map Texas. Whatever his real mission in Texas, Nolan’s activities so aroused Spanish authorities that he was killed by a force sent to arrest him in 1801. James Hewetson and James Power, along with John McMullen and James McGloin,qqv were the first Irishmen to receive empresario contracts from Mexico, successfully settling the areas now comprising Refugio and San Patricio counties. Hewetson accompanied Stephen F. Austin to Texas on his first trip in 1821, and many Irishmen were counted in Austin’s Old Three Hundred. De León’s colony at Victoria also included several Irish families, and it should be noted that all of these contracts, except that to McMullen and McGloin, called for the settlement of Mexican as well as Irish families, specifically Catholics. Some writers have maintained that the southern grants were made only to the Irish to form a buffer zone of devout Catholics between Mexico and the northern Anglo settlements, but it now seems clear that the McMullen-McGloin colony was adjacent to the Power and Hewetson colony only by sheer coincidence. During the days of the republic the two colonies were on the frontier that saw the worst possible hardships for settlers. In the Texas Revolution such Irishmen as Francis Moore, Jr., John Joseph Linn, Thomas William Wardqqv and the four empresarios named above all played important roles. James Power used his influence to seat Sam Houston at the Convention of 1836. Eleven Irishmen died at the battle of the Alamo and fourteen were among those with James W. Fannin, Jr., at the Goliad Massacre. Appropriately, Refugio and San Patricio counties were among the first established in Texas after the revolution; the date was March 17, 1836, Saint Patrick’s Day.

The 1850 census listed 1,403 Irish in Texas; ten years later the number was 3,480. Notable Irish-born Texans in the nineteenth century included William Kennedy, whose book The Rise, Progress and Prospects of Texas (1841) encouraged immigration to the new republic; Richard W. Dowling, whose company of all-Irish Confederates repulsed the Union fleet at Sabine Pass; Peter Gallagher, a Texas Ranger and later an organizer of Pecos County; Samuel McKinney, an early president of Austin College; and John William Mallet, first chairman of the University of Texas faculty. Irish colonists in Texas endured the same problems of education, farming, and economic hardship as did other settlers, though perhaps with better success, considering their proximity to hostile forces. The descendants of generations who had long fought and died for their civic and religious liberties, the Irish were quicker than most to recognize incursions upon their rights and to defend against them. In 1980 572,732 Texans described themselves as of Irish descent. The Irish were third among those claiming European ancestry, following English and German. [Sources: TSHA, Williamson County Historical Museum, The Texas Almanac]

Hugo Oconór, Spanish Governor of Texas 1767 to 1770
Hugo Oconór, Spanish Governor of Texas 1767 to 1770


John White

2 thoughts on “A Little Bit of Texas History – Early Texas Immigrants

  1. Also looks good.

    Change “1” to “One” in following:

    1 served as Spanish governor of Texas from 1767 to 1770.

    I wasn’t aware of the Irish contribution to Texas.

    My Mother’s maiden name was O’Donnell.

    I knew there was some reason I left Pennsylvania to come here.

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