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José María de Jesús Carvajal

1809 - August 19, 1874

Topic- Mexican Political Turmoil A Continent Divided: The U.S.-Mexico War

José María de Jesús Carvajal

ca. 1809—August 19, 1874

José María de Jesús Carvajal, a surveyor, legislator, and liberal revolutionary, led a number of anti-centralist revolts in northern Mexico, as well as the secessionist movement for a Republic of the Rio Grande. He also commanded a Mexican division during the U.S.-Mexico War.

Born in the Spanish municipality San Fernando de Béxar (San Antonio) in ca.1809, José María de Jesús Carvajal was mentored by Stephen F. Austin after the former's father died. At the age of fourteen, Carvajal moved to Kentucky to take up tanning and saddle-making. In 1826, after traveling to Virginia, he abandoned the Catholic faith and converted to Protestantism.

Upon his return to Texas around 1830, Carvajal became a surveyor. Stephen F. Austin helped him become empresario Martín De León's official surveyor. Under De León, Carvajal laid out the settlement of Victoria. He also surveyed land in East Texas for the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas. Carvajal ended up marrying De León's daughter.

A lifelong liberal and federalist, Carvajal entered politics in the early 1830s, sitting on the town councils of both Nacogdoches and San Felipe de Austin. His political influence grew when the people of Coahuila y Tejas elected him as a legislator in 1835. Because the state election yielded an anti-centralist majority, the army shuttered the congressional session by force. President Antonio López de Santa Anna, in the process of establishing a centralist regime, instructed the military government in Texas to issue arrest warrants for Carvajal and other federalists.

When the Texas War of Independence broke out, Carvajal did not fully support its secessionist aims but hoped it would lead to a general Mexican struggle against centralism and for the restoration of the Constitution of 1824. He helped the fledgling republic purchase weapons, but refused to actually fight against the Mexican army. His "neutrality" made him suspect in Texas, so the new Texas army exiled him and his family to Louisiana and confiscated their land.

Upon his return to Mexico, Carvajal met Antonio Canales Rosillo, an influential federalist leader from Tamaulipas. The pair participated in the federalist revolts that rocked northern Mexico in the late 1830s. Joining rebels in Coahuila and Nuevo León, Canales and Carvajal helped proclaim a secessionist movement that aimed to establish an independent Republic of the Rio Grande in 1840. Carvajal served as the provisional government's Council Secretary. He was wounded in a skirmish near the northern Mexican town of Mier, losing the use of his left arm. Low on supplies and money, and unable to resist the larger and stronger centralist army, the revolutionaries surrendered. The Mexican government pardoned Carvajal along with Canales and many of the other rebels.

The U.S.-Mexico War posed a dilemma to Carvajal and Canales. While Carvajal considered himself a Mexican patriot, he despised the centralist regime in power. The centralist general Mariano Paredes y Arrillga sat as president in the months before the war began. In January 1846, Carvajal and Canales contacted U.S. General Zachary Taylor to solicit help in overthrowing Paredes in exchange for recognizing the U.S. annexation of Texas, but the conspiracy did not materialize. Hostilities between the U.S. and Mexico commenced that May. Rather than fighting for the U.S., or pursuing another separatist movement, Carvajal fought for Mexico. He commanded a division of Mexican volunteers during the war, attacking U.S. supply trains along the roads of northeastern Mexico.

After the war ended in February 1848, Carvajal took up surveying in Camargo, Tamaulipas. In 1850, however—still critical of centralist rule—Carvajal resumed his revolutionary activities. This time, Carvajal fought for an independent, federalist Republic of the Sierra Madre. In 1851, he issued a pronunciamiento against the the central government: the Plan de la Loba. Carvajal organized a fighting force of Mexicans and Anglo mercenaries from the U.S. Merchants operating along both sides of the northern border supported Carvajal in an effort to thwart Mexican import duties. The border warfare that ensued became known as the Merchants War.

Carvajal's army managed to take the cities of Camargo and Reynosa but the rebels and filibusters were eventually driven into the U.S. Carvajal and his men regrouped and invaded Mexico again in 1852. Antonio Canales Rosillo, his old comrade, led the Mexican National Guardsmen that defeated him.

Carvajal subsequently lived as a fugitive in Mexico until 1857, when the Reform War began. He supported the liberal Minister of Justice Benito Juárez. Juárez became President of Mexico in 1858, appointing Carvajal military governor of Matamoros.

With the liberals in power, he then proceeded to defend his country by leading a battalion against the French when Emperor Napoleon III sought to take advantage of a weakened and divided Mexico. In 1861, French troops—in collaboration with conservative and centralist Mexicans—invaded Mexico. On November 12, 1864, Juárez sent Carvajal to the U.S. to raise money for Mexico's war effort and possibly solicit the assistance of a foreign army. He successfully convinced U.S. arms manufacturers into accepting Mexican bonds in exchange for arms and munitions. The French expedition ended in 1866.

In 1870, at the age of sixty one, Carvajal retired. He died in Soto Marina, Tamaulipas on August 19, 1874.


"Carbajal, Jose Maria Jesus." Handbook of Texas Online. Accessed June 26, 2015. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Society.

Chance, Joseph E. José María de Jesús Carvajal: The Life and Times of a Mexican Revolutionary. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2006.

Tucker, Spencer C. The Encyclopedia of the Mexican-American War: A Political, Social, and Military History. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2012.

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