First election held in Duval County set the stage for politics of the future

The San Felicidad Ranch in the Agua Poquita grant was the first voting precinct in Duval County. It was located at the crossroads of the San Diego to Mier road and the road to Laredo.

When Archie Parr, the founder of the Duchy of Duval, was still in the cradle in the Matagorda Island frontier town of Saluria, an election occurred in Duval County that laid the foundation for the future of Duval County and the Parr political machine. The special election to fill the unexpired term of the Fourteenth Judicial District in August 1860 was the first time that an election precinct was established in the unorganized county of Duval. At the end of the voting, the turnout in Agua Poquita and San Diego thrust Duval County into the middle of state politics. Governor Sam Houston intervened to reverse the vote and the Texas Supreme Court ultimately settled the matter.

The 1860 election included all the elements that would later make the Parrs notorious in state politics. Political historians and observers of South Texas have long posited the idea that the Parr political machine shaped the politics of Duval County and South Texas. The truth is that it was Duval County politics that provided the mold and fuel for Parr’s machine.

In 1860, the population of Nueces County was 2,906, including slaves. It was the first census that counted residents in what became Duval County. According to the U. S. Census, taken on June 20, 1860, San Diego had 225 residents and nearby Agua Poquita had 49. There were only a handful of non-Spanish speaking individuals. John Vale, a Swede, had settled on the Agua Poquita grant. New Yorker Edward Gray was a stock raiser in San Diego and later that year John Levy, an English-born Jew, established a mercantile store.

The original land grant of Agua Poquita was made by the Mexican state of Tamaulipas to Santos Flores in 1836. Ownership of the ranch in 1860 was in flux for no one of those counted in the census owned real estate. Vale, 34, had the ranch surveyed in March 1860 as the assignee of Flores and he was likely in possession until the ownership was resolved.

Vale, his overseer Rafael Salinas, 24, and Salinas’ wife Juanita, 20, lived in the main house. There were nine other dwellings at the ranch, including what must have been a bunkhouse with nine single men listed as occupants. All told, there were 14 laborers, two servants, and a carpenter at the ranch. All but four-year-old Ramón Charles–the only native Texan–were born in Mexico. There were five families and four childless couples. Twenty of the residents were men 21 or older, the minimum eligibility for voting.

The census shows San Diego had 53 men of voting age. There were 64 native Texans (all Mexican Americans) and 150 Mexico natives. The men in San Diego of financial substance included Juan Sáenz, Encarnación García, Antonio García, Benito González, Benito Ramírez, and Gray. The community had 14 herdsman, 18 laborers, three shoemakers, a fiddler, a tailor, a carpenter, 12 servants, and a shepherd.

The area was definitely on a growth path. San Diego was becoming more than a rancho. As more foreigners moved into the area, landowners saw the need to reinforce the titles to their lands. To keep their lands, the pioneer rancheros had jumped through the bureaucratic hoops of Spanish bureaucracy; reestablished their claims with the new Mexican government; fought off the Comanche and Lipan Apache; suffered charges of treason from their Mexican countrymen and treachery by their Texan counterparts during the war for Texas Independence; and then had to reestablish their land rights once again under the new Texas government.

Article VIII of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the U.S.-Mexican War granted Mexicans in the area full rights to the property they owned. Shortly after, in 1850, the new Texas state government established the Bourland-Miller Commission to gather information on land claims in South Texas so that they could be legally ratified. Not all landowners trusted the commission, and many did not offer the land board the documentation it sought.

The U. S. Supreme Court, in the 1855 case of McKinney v. Saviego, clouded the issue of Mexican land titles because it essentially ruled that Article VIII of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo did not apply to Texas because Texas had come into the union as an independent republic with its own land laws.