Brownsville, TX

By: Alicia A. Garza and Christopher Long

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: September 30, 2020

Brownsville, the county seat of Cameron County, is across the Rio Grande from Matamoros, Tamaulipas, at the southernmost tip of Texas. The city is at the southern terminus of U.S. highways 77 and 83 and the Missouri Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads, as well as a major port of entry to Mexico. Although the site was explored as early as the seventeenth century, the first settlers did not arrive until the latter part of the eighteenth century. In 1765 the community of San Juan de los Esteros (present-day Matamoros) was established across the Rio Grande. In 1781 Spanish authorities granted fifty-nine leagues of land on the northern bank of the river, including all of the site of Brownsville, to José Salvador de la Garza, who established a ranch about sixteen miles northwest of the site. During the early nineteenth century a small number of squatters, most of them herders and farmers from Matamoros, built huts in the area. A small settlement had formed by 1836, when Texas declared her independence from Mexico, but the region was still only sparsely settled when United States troops under Gen. Zachary Taylor arrived in early 1846. After taking up a position across from Matamoros, Taylor's forces began the construction of a defensive position near the settlement. Their temporary fort was originally called Fort Texas, but was renamed Fort Brown a short time later, in honor of Maj. Jacob Brown, who died during a Mexican attack on the stronghold. After the Mexican War, at the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the area became part of the state of Texas and fell within the jurisdiction of San Patricio County. The same year Charles Stillman purchased a large part of the Garza grant north and northwest of Matamoros, including part of the city's common landholdings, from the children of the first wife of José Narciso Cavazos. Cavazos had remarried, however, and the heirs of his second wife, led by the eldest son, Juan N. Cortina, had been given legal title to the property, a fact that later led to a long series of legal battles over ownership. Stillman and his partner, Samuel Belden, laid out a town that they called Brownsville. George Lyons, deputy surveyor of Nueces County, surveyed a townsite of 4,676 acres. In December 1848, Stillman, Belden, and Simon Mussina formed the Brownsville Town Company and began selling lots for as much as $1,500 each.

Brownsville was made county seat of the new Cameron County on January 13, 1849, and a post office went into operation on February 3. Within a short time the town's population—swollen by refugees from Matamoros and Forty-niners taking the Gila route to the gold fields of California—had increased to more than 1,000. Despite a cholera epidemic in the spring of 1849 that reportedly killed nearly half the population, the town continued to boom. Brownsville soon replaced Matamoros as the leading trade center for northern Mexico. Merchants on both sides of the border quickly recognized the advantage of shipping goods to Brownsville and then smuggling them across the Rio Grande to avoid paying high Mexican duties. During the Mexican War, Richard King, Mifflin Kenedy and Charles Stillman had set up a transport company to haul American troops and supplies up the river. After the war the three men managed to establish a virtual monopoly on Rio Grande transportation, thus ensuring the Anglo dominance of trade in the area and helping to spur the town's growth. As a result of the flourishing commerce, numerous stores sprang up along the riverfront. A city market opened in 1850, when the first regular newspaper, the Sentinel, began publication. The 1850 census showed a population of 519, two-thirds of whom were from the states along the Atlantic seaboard; most of the remainder were Mexican, Irish, French, English, and German. The culture of the town reflected the cosmopolitan character of its inhabitants: a large number of the early residents had previously lived in Mexico and many had absorbed Mexican customs and practices. Because of Brownsville's extensive trade network and large European contingent, a large percentage of the residents were fluent in several languages, including Spanish, English, French, and German.

Efforts were made to incorporate the town in the early 1850s, but a protracted series of legal battles over who had actually owned the land—Stillman or Cavazos's heirs—complicated matters. The Third Texas Legislature passed a measure on January 24, 1850, incorporating the town and relinquishing all state's rights and title to the area, but the Fourth Legislature repealed the law as of April 1, 1852, because of claims made by the Cavazos heirs. After a series of special sessions the following year, the legislature reincorporated the city on February 7, 1853. But the title issue was not completely settled until 1879, when the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Stillman group. Despite recurring epidemics of cholera and yellow fever, Brownsville prospered and grew. Already by 1853 S. P. Moore, the surgeon of Fort Brown, estimated the population to be 3,500. The first Catholic church was founded by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1854, and by 1856 the Episcopalians, Methodists, and Presbyterians had established churches. The first school, Villa María School for girls, was opened by four Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament in 1853, and the following year Melinda Rankin established the Rio Grande Female Institute with Presbyterian support. The first public school was established in 1855 with an enrollment of eight students.

The Civil War years were a period of prosperity for Brownsville and Matamoros. After the Union Navy succeeded in blockading most Southern ports, the Confederates looked for other avenues to ship cotton to Europe in return for ammunition, medicines, and other war supplies. The Confederates initially shipped their goods overland to the Brazos Santiago Pass at the mouth of the Rio Grande and from there to the neutral port of Bagdad in Mexico. But after Union forces captured Port Isabel the trade was moved inland to Brownsville. In November 1863 federal troops under Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks marched on Brownsville seeking to interrupt the trade. The outgunned Confederates abandoned Fort Brown, blew it up with 8,000 pounds of explosives, and withdrew. On July 30, 1864, Confederate troops commanded by John S. (Rip) Ford reoccupied the town and held it until May 1865, a month after the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Despite pleas of Union commanders to end the conflict, the Confederates in the area refused to surrender, and on May 13, 1865, they fought a skirmish with Union troops just outside of Brownsville. The battle of Palmito Ranch was the last battle of the Civil War. A few days later the Confederates in Brownsville agreed to a truce.

After the war Union armies reoccupied Brownsville and launched a massive construction effort to repair war-damaged Fort Brown. By 1869 army engineers had completed seventy new buildings at the fort and stationed army, infantry, and cavalry units there. The Brownsville economy, which had been buoyed up by the smuggling trade during the war years, however, was slower to recover. Despite the construction of the narrow-gauge Rio Grande Railroad from Brownsville to Port Isabel in 1872, the town grew only modestly during the early 1870s and did not fully rebound until the middle of the decade. In 1875 authorities reestablished the Brownsville public school system, and by 1884 the town had two banks, three churches, two ice houses, a cotton gin, and a population of nearly 5,000. In 1892 the Cosmopolitan, a local newspaper, was purchased by Jesse O. Wheeler, who renamed it the Brownsville Herald. The paper was still serving the city in the early 1990s. Among the chief local concerns voiced in the Herald's editorial pages was the need for a railroad connection to the north and a bridge to link the city with Matamoros. Several attempts were made to attract a railroad, but not until 1904 did the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway reach the town. In 1910 a railroad bridge was constructed between Brownsville and Matamoros and regular service between the two towns began.

The introduction of the rail link to Brownsville opened the area for settlement of northern farmers, who began arriving in the lower Rio Grande valley in large numbers after the turn of the century. The new settlers cleared the land of brush, built extensive irrigation systems and roads, and introduced large-scale truck farming. In 1904 H. G. Stillwell, Sr., planted the first commercial citrus orchard in the area, thus opening the way for citrus fruit culture, one of the Valley's leading industries. The expansion of farming in the area and the railroad link to the North brought new prosperity to Brownsville and spurred a host of civic improvements. In 1908 work on a city-owned electric-lighting system, waterworks, and sewerage system was launched, and in 1910 the first international car bridge connecting Brownsville and Matamoros was completed. During the next two decades, a large influx of Whites from the North served to reshape Brownsville's ethnic structure. Before 1900 nearly half of all those born in the city were the products of interracial marriages, and both Anglo and Mexican customs were widely practiced and respected. The town's new residents, mostly Protestant and White, however, were more reluctant to assimilate, and as a result ethnic divisions began to widen. Racial tensions, however, did not confine themselves to Anglos and Mexicans. The Brownsville Raid of 1906 involved black troops stationed at Fort Brown. The soldiers went on a rampage in the city and killed or wounded a number of townspeople. Relations between persons of Mexican descent and the Anglo populace also began to deteriorate; many of the new Anglo immigrants saw their Mexican neighbors as "racial inferiors" ignorant of the American way of life, while Mexican Americans, the majority of whom worked as common laborers, became increasingly resentful of their situation. The animosities grew even worse during the Mexican Revolution, when border raids by Mexican bandits wrecked havoc among the Valley's populace.

The decades after the turn of the century also saw a profound shift in the political structure of the city and its environs. Before the arrival of the farm settlers, politics in South Texas was dominated by cliques of merchants, lawyers, and large landowners. In Brownsville the political scene was controlled by Democratic political boss James B. Wells, whose power eventually extended across much of South Texas. Although Wells occasionally resorted to intimidation, his power rested largely on meeting the needs of his constituents, from both the Anglo elite and the Hispanic majority. He welcomed the participation of Mexican Americans in his political organization and the municipal government, and he provided modest, informal support for his most impoverished constituents, much like a Mexican patrón or big-city boss. With the changing demographic make-up of the city and surrounding region and the rising tide of racial hostility between Anglos and Hispanics, however, Wells could no longer maintain his position, and he lost control of Brownsville in 1910. A new Anglo elite, made up mostly of recent arrivals, emerged, and a new social order, based on de facto segregation, became the rule.

During the 1920s Brownsville underwent a new period of prosperity as the area experienced a prolonged land boom. Enterprising agents went to the midwestern and northern states boosting the abundant cheap land in and around Brownsville. Special trains were dispatched to bring prospective buyers to the area, and during the height of the boom in the early 1920s as many as 200 landseekers a day were being brought into the environs. The population of Brownsville, which was just over 6,000 in 1900, grew nearly four-fold during the next three decades, reaching 22,021 in 1930. During the Prohibition years Brownsville became a popular port of entry into Mexico, attracting numerous tourists who wanted to have a drink in Matamoros. Smuggling, always an important industry, had a brief heyday as the town became an important crossing point for illegal liquor. The 1920s also witnessed a series of civic improvements: roads were paved, a new international bridge was opened, and the first airport was constructed. Efforts were also begun to build a ship channel from Brazos Santiago Pass, so that deepwater vessels could dock in Brownsville. In December, 1928, voters approved a measure establishing the Brownsville Navigation District and provided $2 million in bonds to build the channel. The work initially went slowly, but after a major hurricane hit the area in 1933 the Public Works Administration lent money to the district to complete the seventeen-mile-long channel and build a turning basin and terminal facilities. The port of Brownsville, located five miles northeast of the city, was officially opened on May 15, 1936. State Highway 48 runs alongside the seventeen-mile-long ship channel that connects the port to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. The port was originally 32 feet deep and 200 feet wide, while the turning basin was 36 feet deep by 1,000 feet wide and handled five million tons of cargo annually. The port of Brownsville is on the Brownsville Ship Channel, and the turning basin is about seventeen miles (14.5 nautical miles) inland from Brazos Santiago Pass. During the 1970s the southern side of the port was enlarged to 350 feet wide and 1,900 feet long. By 1980 the port had forty-eight piers, wharfs, and docks, with seventeen facilities in the Brownsville Ship Channel, seventeen in the fishing harbor, and fourteen on the Brownsville Turning Basin. The port was connected by rail to the Missouri Pacific Railroad, the Southern Pacific Transportation Company, and the National Railways of Mexico. Dry and cold storage warehouses, oil bunkering, bulk liquid storage, marine repair plans, dry-docking facilities, and a grain elevator were also available at the port.

The completion of the port made Brownsville the shipping center for the lower Rio Grande valley and northeastern Mexico and helped the city to weather the worst effects of the Great Depression. By the late 1930s the economy began to recover, and on the eve of World War II Brownsville stood poised to begin another era of prosperity. During the war Fort Brown served as training base for the 124th Cavalry, and large numbers of servicemen passed through the town. The fort was deactivated in 1945; the grounds were eventually turned over to the city. After the war, Brownsville once again experienced a period of growth. Shrimpers from Texas and Louisiana moved into the area and established the town as one of the leading shippers of shrimp in the country. The port of Brownsville also saw a growing volume of agricultural produce as vegetable and citrus farming in the Valley expanded. In 1949 the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway was extended to Brownsville and the ship channel was expanded to accommodate larger vessels. Cotton, introduced to the area on a large scale in the late 1940s, saw a marked upswing in the early 1950s, and for a time the port of Brownsville became the world's leading exporter of cotton. Union Carbide began construction of a plant near Brownsville in 1959, and the same year an immigration and customs building was constructed at the International Gateway Bridge.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a continued period of growth. Between 1950 and 1960 the population increased from 36,066 to 48,040, and by 1970 the town had 52,522 inhabitants. In 1966 the Industrial Development Council was formed to encouraged new industries, and the following year the Border Industrialization Program was instituted by the Mexican government to attract Mexican businesses and laborers to the border area. The results were impressive. Between 1966 and 1978 the Brownsville area attracted more than 100 industrial firms that offered 13,600 jobs. Major industries in the early 1990s included petrochemicals, frozen foods, canned fruits and vegetables, and the manufacture of paper bags, beverages, mill work, garments, mattresses, hats, and metal products. From the 1970s to the mid-1990s Brownsville grew rapidly. One estimate suggests that as many as 37 percent of household heads in 1980 entered the city between 1969 and 1979. Much of the population growth came from immigration from Mexico, but the area has also seen growing numbers of retirees from the North and Midwest. In 1980 the population of the city was 84,997; by 1990 it had increased to 107,027 and numbered 139,722 in 2000. Although approximately 80 percent of the population in the 1990s was of Mexican decent, Anglos still own most of the city's wealth. The last several decades, however, have witnessed a growing Hispanic middle class, and Hispanics have begun to play a larger part in political in community affairs. City leaders have been particularly interested in expanding educational opportunities in the area to promote future development. After considerable lobbying from local leaders the University of Texas System took over Pan American University at Brownsville and renamed it the University of Texas–Pan American–Brownsville in 1989. In September 1991 the name was changed to the University of Texas at Brownsville, and at that time the institution began a partnership with Texas Southmost College. Despite the recent wave of growth the city is faced with a variety of problems including substandard housing in colonias and high unemployment. Nonetheless, Brownsville continues to be a mecca for tourists year round. Points of interest in and around the city include Fort Brown; the Charles Stillman home; the sites of the battles of Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, and Palmito Ranch; the Gladys Porter Zoo; South Padre Island; and Matamoros.

Evan Anders, Boss Rule in South Texas: The Progressive Era (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982). Betty Bay, Historic Brownsville: Original Townsite Guide (Brownsville, Texas: Brownsville Historical Association, 1980). Helen Chapman, The News From Brownsville: Helen Chapman's Letters from the Texas Military Frontier, 1848–1852, ed. Caleb Coker (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1992). W. H. Chatfield, The Twin Cities of the Border and the Country of the Lower Rio Grande (New Orleans: Brandao, 1893; rpt., Brownsville: Brownsville Historical Association, 1959). Garna L. Christian, "The Brownsville Raid's 168th Man: The Court-Martial of Corporal Knowles," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 93 (July 1989). Charles Daniel Dillman, The Functions of Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Tamaulipas: Twin Cities of the Lower Rio Grande (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1968). Henry N. Ferguson, The Port of Brownsville: A Maritime History of the Rio Grande Valley (Brownsville: Springman-King, 1976). Milo Kearney and Anthony Knopp, Boom and Bust: The Historical Cycles of Matamoros and Brownsville (Austin: Eakin Press, 1991). Milo Kearney, ed., A Brief History of Education in Brownsville and Matamoros (University of Texas–Pan American–Brownsville, 1989). Milo Kearney, ed., Studies in Brownsville History (Pan American University at Brownsville, 1986). Milo Kearney, ed., Still More Studies in Brownsville History (University of Texas at Brownsville, 1991). The Ports of Freeport, Port Lavaca, Port Isabel and Brownsville, Texas (Port Series 26, Fort Belvoir, Virginia: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1980). Robert B. Vezzetti and Ruby A. Wooldridge, Brownsville: A Pictorial History (Virginia Beach, Virginia: Donning, 1982). John D. Weaver, The Brownsville Raid (New York: Norton, 1970).

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Alicia A. Garza and Christopher Long, “Brownsville, TX,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 18, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 30, 2020

Currently Exists
Place Type
Town Fields
  • Has post office: Yes
  • Is Incorporated: Yes
Belongs to
  • Cameron County
  • Latitude: 25.99811640°
  • Longitude: -97.45664500°
Population Counts
People Year
2,734 1860
4,905 1870
4,938 1880
6,134 1890
6,305 1900
10,517 1910
11,791 1920
22,021 1930
22,083 1940
36,066 1950
48,040 1960
52,522 1970
84,997 1980
107,027 1990
139,722 2000
175,023 2010
185,625 2019