Peñitas leaders claim tiny city is nation’s oldest European settlement - Brownsville Herald: Valley

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Peñitas leaders claim tiny city is nation’s oldest European settlement

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Posted: Sunday, April 1, 2007 12:00 am

PEÑITAS — Political enemies Servando Ramirez and Efren Garza disagree on pretty much everything.

But Ramirez, the city’s mayor, and Garza, the city’s former mayor, both swear that Peñitas is the oldest European settlement in the United States, settled by Spanish explorers in the 1520s.

“I’m as sure of it as I am that I’m alive,” said Ramirez, who has been at odds with Garza since he captured the mayor’s spot from him in 1995.

Ramirez and Garza aren’t the only proponents of the Peñitas founding story, which has been passed down through generations.

The Handbook of Texas Online includes a version of the tale, which it calls “local tradition.” A plaque in Bentsen State Park tells a somewhat different story but also sites “local tradition.” A local historian is compiling evidence to publish a booklet on the subject, and enough residents backed the idea to place the date “1526” on the city’s seal when Peñitas incorporated in 1992.

But if the city’s claim is true, Peñitas predates by more than 40 years the founding of St. Augustine, Fla., which historians almost universally recognize as the oldest city in the United States.

Experts in Spanish colonial settlement and Texas and Mexico history say the Peñitas founding story seems implausible.

There’s no way to definitively prove that no Spaniards lived in Peñitas during the 1520s, historians acknowledge. But the record of Spanish exploration during that period shows no evidence to support the claim — and includes documented facts that actually undermine it, they say.

Donald E. Chipman, a professor emeritus at the University of North Texas who specializes in Spanish settlement of Texas and Mexico, dismissed Peñitas’ founding story as legend.

“The oldest European settlement in the United States is St. Augustine, Fla.,” Chipman said flatly.

But Peñitas it sticking to its story — well, two stories, actually — and its heritage.

THE FIRST STORIES AND THE SKEPTICS

There’s little in modern-day Peñitas indicating that 16th century Spanish explorers made their home there.

So, Efren Garza goes by his memory and physical clues he can find: a trail leading from his boyhood home down to the river that he says was a trading route, the high ground near present-day City Hall that would have protected the settlers from floods.

And he recounts the story that Narciso Cavazos, a prominent political boss who owned a general store in town, used to tell Garza and his friends during their childhood:

The Spanish government was unhappy with Hernan Cortes’s conquest of Mexico because Cortes had set off on the conquest without permission. The government sent Panfilo de Narvaez, a Spanish soldier and explorer, to arrest Cortes sometime around 1520.

The two leaders’ armies clashed, and Cortes prevailed. Navaez’s defeated men then headed north and settled in what’s now Peñitas, intermarrying with friendly Native Americans, Garza says.

Most of that history — except the part about the journey north to the Rio Grande — is documented in Chipman’s book “Spanish Texas: 1519-1821.” But Chipman says settling in Peñitas at that time would be highly unlikely, “given the hostility of the Texas Indians.”

Harriett Denise Joseph, a University of Texas-Brownsville professor who co-authored two books on Spanish explorers with Chipman, also doubts Narvaez’s men would travel all the way from Veracruz, in southern Mexico, to the Rio Grande for no particular reason.

“Why would they head up there when there was absolutely nothing?” she said.

But Mission resident and amateur historian Rigo Ordaz, who is researching a book on Peñitas’ history, thinks he has a more likely story.

THE OFFICIAL HISTORY

Ordaz accepts the 1749 “official founding” date of Peñitas that historians such as Chipman and Joseph endorse. According to most official histories, Peñitas was originally settled by the Spanish in 1749, when settlers establishing Reynosa designated it the town commons for grazing.

The Hidalgo County Historical Commission included this history in a recent application for the Texas Historical Commission to put a historical marker in Peñitas.

And Charles Sadnick, a historian with the commission’s marker program, said he would consider the 1749 founding — not a date in the 1520s — in evaluating whether to bestow a marker.

But, Ordaz wrote in an e-mail, he has compiled convincing evidence indicating Spanish settlers were in Peñitas for more than 200 years before Reynosa formed.

Ordaz points to a later Narvaez expedition, parts of which shipwrecked near Galveston in 1528. Four men, including noted explorer Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, ultimately survived that wreck.

According to Chipman, the “four ragged castaways,” as they were known, were enslaved by Indians for a time and then headed inland before crossing the Rio Grande at Rio Grande City or Roma and heading south around 1536.

But based on Cabeza de Vaca’s memoirs, Ordaz wrote in his e-mail, he believes that friendly Native American guides led the castaways to a spring located in Abram and then to Peñitas, where they found Spaniards already living there.

CARRYING ON THE STORY

Mayor Ramirez says he doesn’t actually remember the story his grandparents told him about how the Spanish got to Peñitas. He says Ordaz’s story — which is similar to the “local tradition” recounted in the Handbook of Texas Online — sounds more likely than the one Garza and the plaque in Bentsen State Park tell.

If the city government’s finances ever improve, Ramirez says he would like to hire a professional researcher to specifically examine how the town was established.

Garza also says he regrets the historical record is so incomplete. He faults historians for focusing too much on the Puritans in New England at the expense of fully examining Spanish settlement of the Southwest United States.

“I wish I had more,” he said.

Ramirez says the important thing for Peñitas residents is not to quibble over details, but to take pride in having a long and rich history.

Joseph, the UTB professor, agrees.

“It’s their folklore. It’s what has been passed down between generations,” she said. “In a sense, it’s their history — whether it’s true or not.”

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