This Day in Texas History: Killing of Sheriff Precipitates Ballad Tradition
This Day in Texas History:
Killing of Sheriff Precipitates Ballad Tradition
June 12, 1901
On this day in 1901, Gregorio Lira Cortez shot and killed Karnes County sheriff W. T. Morris and fled.
The apparent misunderstandings that led to the killing, and the extended pursuit, capture, and trials of Cortez made him a folk hero. His exploits are celebrated in many variants of El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez, a popular ballad that has inspired books and at least one movie.
Cortez, a Mexican native, was farming near Kenedy in 1901, when Sheriff Morris and his deputy, Boon Choate, questioned him about a stolen horse. With Choate interpreting, a misunderstanding apparently occurred that caused Morris to shoot and wound Cortez’s brother Romaldo, after which Cortez shot and killed Morris.
While newspapers followed the subsequent manhunt, Cortez became a hero to many Hispanics and some Anglos. Violent reprisals and a series of trials and appeals followed. During them, Cortez was held in eleven jails in eleven counties, after which he was finally granted a conditional pardon and released in 1913. The corrido lionizing him was sung as early as 1901.
The rest of the story:
Gregorio Cortez (1875–1916), who became a folk hero among Mexican Americans in the early 1900s for evading the Texas Rangers during their search for him on murder charges, was a tenant farmer and vaquero who was born on June 22, 1875, near Matamoros, Tamaulipas, to Román Cortez Garza and Rosalía Lira Cortina, transient laborers. In 1887 his family moved to Manor, near Austin. From 1889 to 1899, he worked as a farm hand and vaquero in Karnes, Gonzales, and nearby counties on a seasonal basis, and this transiency provided him with a valuable knowledge of the region and terrain. Around that time he owned two horses and a mule. He had a limited education and spoke English.
On February 20, 1890, he married Leonor Díaz, with whom he had four children. Leonor began divorce proceedings against Gregorio in early 1903, alleging as part of her petition that Gregorio had physically and verbally abused her during the early years of their marriage and that she had remained with him only out of fear. Her divorce was granted on March 12, 1903. On December 23, 1904, Cortez married Estéfana Garza of Manor while in jail. He was married again in 1916, perhaps to Ester Martínez.
According to folklorist Américo Paredes, before his encounter with Sheriff Morris on June 12, 1901, Cortez was considered “a likeable young man,” who had not been in much legal trouble. Historian Richard Mertz, however, interviewed acquaintances of the Cortezes who claimed that in the 1880s Gregorio, his father, and brothers Tomás and Romaldo were involved in horse theft, an act Chicano historians have typically interpreted as resistance to racial oppression. A charge of horse theft against Romaldo around 1887 was dropped due to lack of evidence, and a similar charge against Tomás about the same time ended with an executive pardon from Governor Lawrence S. Ross. Paredes has noted, however, that in the early 1900s Tomás was sentenced to five years in the penitentiary for horse theft.
The event that propelled Cortez to legendary status occurred on June 12, 1901, when he was approached by Karnes county sheriff W. T. “Brack” Morris because Atascosa county sheriff Avant had asked Morris to help locate a horse thief described as a “medium-sized Mexican.” Deputies John Trimmell and Boone Choate accompanied Morris in their search, and Choate acted as the interpreter.
Choate questioned various Kenedy residents, including Andrés Villarreal, who informed them that he had recently acquired a mare by trading a horse to a man named Gregorio Cortez. Morris and the deputies then approached the Cortezes, who lived on the W. A. Thulmeyer ranch, ten miles west of Kenedy, where Gregorio and Romaldo rented land and raised corn. According to official testimony, Choate’s poor job of interpreting led to major misunderstanding between Cortez and Choate.
For instance, Gregorio’s brother Romaldo told Gregorio, “Te quieren” (“Somebody wants you”). Choate interpreted this to mean “You are wanted,” suggesting that Gregorio was indeed the wanted man the authorities were seeking. Choate apparently asked Cortez if he had traded a “caballo” (“horse”) to which he answered “no” because he had traded a “yegua” (“mare”). A third misinterpretation involved another response from Cortez, who told the sheriff and deputies, “No me puede arrestar por nada” (“You can’t arrest me for nothing”), which Morris understood as “A mi no me arresta nadie” and translated as “No white man can arrest me.”
Partly as a result of these misunderstandings Morris shot and wounded Romaldo and narrowly missed Gregorio. Gregorio responded to the sheriff’s action by shooting and killing him. Cortez fled the scene, initially walking toward the Gonzales-Austin vicinity, some eighty miles away. His name was soon on the front page of every major Texas newspaper. Shortly after the incident, the San Antonio Express lamented the fact that Cortez had not been lynched. Meanwhile, Leonor and the children, Cortez’s mother, and his sister-in-law María were illegally held in custody while posses mobilized to catch Cortez.
On his escape, Cortez stopped at the ranch of Martín and Refugia Robledo on Schnabel property near Belmont. At the Robledo home Gonzales county sheriff Glover and his posse found Cortez. Shots were exchanged, and Glover and Schnabel were killed. Cortez escaped again and walked nearly 100 miles to the home of Ceferino Flores, a friend, who provided him a horse and saddle. He now headed toward Laredo.
The hunt for “sheriff killer” Cortez intensified. Newspaper accounts portrayed him as a “bandit” with a “gang” at his assistance. The Express noted that Cortez “is at the head of a well organized band of thieves and cutthroats.” The Seguin Enterprise referred to him as an “arch fiend.” Governor Joseph D. Sayers and Karnes citizens offered a $1,000 reward for his capture. Cortez found it more difficult to evade capture around Laredo since Tejanos typically served as lawmen in the region. Sheriff Ortiz of Webb County and assistant city marshall Gómez of Laredo, for instance, participated in the hunt.
While anti-Cortez sentiment grew, so did the numbers of people who sympathized with the fugitive. Tejanos, who saw him as a hero evading the evil rinches, also experienced retaliatory violence in Gonzales, Refugio, and Hays counties and in and around the communities of Ottine, Belmont, Yoakum, Runge, Beeville, San Diego, Benavides, Cotulla, and Galveston. By the time the chase had ended at least nine persons of Mexican descent had been killed, three wounded, and seven arrested.
Meanwhile, admiration of Cortez by Anglo-Texans also increased, and the San Antonio Express touted his “remarkable powers of endurance and skill in eluding pursuit.” The posses searching for Cortez involved hundreds of men, including the Texas Rangers. A train on the International-Great Northern Railroad route to Laredo was used to bring in new posses and fresh horses. Cortez was finally captured when Jesús González, one of his acquaintances, located him and led a posse to him on June 22, 1901, ten days after the encounter between Cortez and Sheriff Morris. Some Tejanos later labeled González a traitor to his people and ostracized him.
Once he was captured, a legal-defense campaign began and a network of supporters developed. The Sociedad Trabajador Miguel Hidalgo in San Antonio wrote a letter of support that appeared in newspapers as far away as Mexico City. Pablo Cruz, the editor of El Regidor of San Antonio, played a key role in the defense network, which was located in Houston, Austin, and Laredo. Funds were collected through donations, sociedades mutualistas, and benefit performances to provide for Cortez’s legal representation.
B. R. Abernathy, one of his lawyers, proved to be the most committed to attaining justice for him. Cortez went through numerous trials, the first of which began in Gonzales on July 24, 1901. Eleven jurors, with the exception of juror A. L. Sanders, found him guilty of the murder of Schnabel. Through a compromise among the jurors, a fifty-year sentence for second-degree murder was assessed. The defense’s attempt to appeal the case was denied. In the meantime a mob of 300 men tried to lynch Cortez. Shortly after the verdict, Romaldo Cortez, whom Sheriff Morris had wounded, died in the Karnes City jail. On January 15, 1902, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the Gonzales verdict. The same court also reversed the verdicts in the trials held in Karnes and Pleasanton.
In April 1904 the last trial was held in Corpus Christi. By the time Cortez began serving life in prison for the murder of Sheriff Glover, he had been in eleven jails in eleven counties. While in prison he worked as a barber, an occupation that he probably pursued throughout his years of incarceration. Cortez also enjoyed the empathy of some of his jailers, who provided him the entire upper story of the jail as a “honeymoon suite” when he married Estéfana Garza.
Attempts to pardon him began as soon as he entered prison. After Cruz died, Col. Francisco A. Chapa, the politically influential publisher of El Imparcial in San Antonio, took up the Cortez case; he has been considered the person most responsible for his release. Ester Martínez also petitioned Governor Oscar B. Colquitt for his release. The Board of Pardons Advisers eventually recommended a full pardon. Even Secretary of State F. C. Weinert of Seguin worked for Cortez’s pardon. Colquitt, who issued many pardons, gave Cortez a conditional pardon in July 1913.
Once released, Cortez thanked those who helped him recover his freedom. Soon after, he went to Nuevo Laredo and fought with Victoriano Huerta in the Mexican Revolution. He married for the last time in 1916 and died shortly afterwards of pneumonia, on February 28, 1916.
His story inspired many variants of a corrido called “El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez,” which appeared as early as 1901. The ballad was similar to those that depicted Juan Nepomuceno Cortina and Catarino Garza. Américo Paredes popularized the story of Gregorio Cortez in With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero, which was published by the University of Texas Press in 1958. Between 1958 and 1965 the book sold fewer than 1,000 copies, and a Texas Ranger angered by it threatened to shoot Paredes. In subsequent decades, however, the book has been recognized as a classic of Texas Mexican prose and has sold quite well. Cortez’s story gained further interest when the movie The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez was produced in 1982.