José Carbajal, son of José Antonio Carbajal Peña and María Gertrudis Sánchez Soto, was born in San Fernando de Béxar (San Antonio). In 1823 he went to Lexington, Kentucky, and worked two years as a tanner and saddle maker. Later he studied at Bethany, Virginia, under Alexander Campbell, renounced Catholicism, and became an ardent Protestant. Aided by Stephen F. Austin, he returned to Texas as the official surveyor for Martín De León, laid out the town of Victoria, and married De León's daughter, María del Refugio De León Garza, around 1830. They had two children. In January 1831 Carbajal accompanied José Francisco Madero to survey and issue land titles in East Texas, was arrested by John Davis Bradburn, but was soon released. He acted as ad interim secretary for the ayuntamiento of Bexar and in February 1835 was elected deputy from Bexar to the legislature of Coahuila and Texas, where he acted as secretary. In the spring of 1835 the legislature authorized him to publish the laws and decrees of the state in English and Spanish. The laws were published in Texas in 1839. Domingo de Ugartechea ordered Carbajal arrested for attempting to stir up rebellion, and Carbajal left for New Orleans, where in November 1835 he joined Peter Kerr and Fernando De Leónqqv in chartering the Hannah Elizabeth to supply the Texas forces. The vessel was captured by Mexicans, and Carbajal was imprisoned at Brazos Santiago and then at Matamoros. While preparations were underway to transfer him to San Juan de Ulloa, he escaped and returned to Texas, where he or possibly his brother Mariano, who was with James W. Fannin in 1835, signed the Goliad Declaration of Independence on December 2, 1835. Carbajal was elected to the Convention of 1836 at Washington-on-the-Brazos but did not attend.
In 1839 Carbajal, in command of a group of American volunteers, defeated a Mexican Centralist army near Mier but was wounded in the engagement and lost the use of his left arm. As an advocate of an independent republic in northern Mexico, he commanded a division of the Mexican army against the United States in 1846. From 1850 to 1853 he led American merchants and filibusters in the border engagements known as the Merchants War. Although he was arrested twice by United States authorities, he was released both times. He was living in Piedras Negras in 1855, when his house was destroyed by the Callahan expedition. In 1861 Carbajal was commander in chief of state troops of Tamaulipas and was defeated at Matamoros while supporting the de jure government of Jesús de la Serva. In 1862 Carbajal joined the Mexican liberal army to serve against the French. He was governor of the state of Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosí in 1865, when he was commissioned financial agent to negotiate a loan from the United States. Some time later he moved to Hidalgo County, Texas, and from there, in 1872, moved to Soto la Marina, Tamaulipas, where he died in 1874.