Henry Clay Davis (known to friends as Clay), soldier, merchant, landowner, state senator, Texas Ranger, and founder of Starr County seat Rio Grande City, was born in Georgia on September 29, 1814. He was the younger son of Amos Garrett Davis and Catherine (Reeves) Davis. Davis had an older brother and two sisters. He grew up in Georgia until the age of twenty when his family moved to Kentucky, where he briefly lived. In 1836 he decided to travel around in pursuit of adventures in other states, specifically Texas. He arrived in San Antonio that fall and on November 9, 1836, enlisted into the First Cavalry Regiment with a year-long contract. Davis was active in the military during the years of the Republic of Texas and participated in a number of engagements against American Indian groups as well as defense against Mexican incursions. After spending time in the military, Davis is shown on record to have been granted many plots of land for his services, but he neglected to claim many of them and continued to travel around Texas in the 1830s.
Throughout his soldiering years, Davis eventually rose to the rank of captain. On multiple occasions he was called to protect and defend the borderlands from Brownsville to Laredo. On March 19, 1840, he arrived in San Antonio just in time to witness and take part in the Council House Fight against a delegation of Comanches. On August 31, 1842, Davis (then a first lieutenant and still in San Antonio) was ordered to report to John C. Hays and “render him every assistance in your power in raising a Spy Company for service on the Western frontier.” Davis was a participant in the battle of Salado Creek in the fall of 1842. He was also connected with the Somervell expedition, and a letter from the “Department of War & Marine” on November 19, 1842, reported the appointment of Davis as quartermaster and that he was “designed to remain permanently at Post San Antonio and will do so.” Davis later (in 1852) submitted a “claim for Services as Quarter Master on the Somervell Campaign” for the sum of $405 to the Texas legislature. Historians and sources differ regarding the exact events surrounding Davis’s actions, but, according to a summary by biographer Dick D. Heller, Jr., and based on a number of primary and secondary sources, Davis was dispatched from San Antonio to gather and transport needed supplies to the Somervell troops in Laredo. Reportedly, Davis, upon witnessing mistreatment of Laredo citizens by some of the soldiers, resigned his commission in disgust. Somervell expedition member Gen. Thomas Jefferson Green later accused Davis of deserting to the Mexican army, but other contemporaries refuted the statement. After leaving Laredo, Davis was captured by Mexican forces and imprisoned in a jail in San Fernando, Mexico.
After his imprisonment in San Fernando, Davis headed toward Corpus Christi, where he delved into working with tradesmen such as Henry L. Kinney. Here, Davis grew in prominence as a merchant, quite probably through the trade of smuggled goods, and apparently served in Kinney’s private rangers to provide protection of his wagon trade. From his experience with trade, Davis was able to eventually connect multiple cities into trade routes.
By the mid-1840s, Davis, wealthy from his recent experiences in Corpus Christi, arrived in Camargo, Mexico, where he met his future wife Maria Hilaria de la Garza, daughter of Teodoro de la Garza and granddaughter of Francisco de la Garza Martinéz. Maria Hilaria was the heir to her grandfather’s large estate of Carnestolendas, Porción 80, which had been in the family since the eighteenth century as granted by the King of Spain during colonization. The couple was married on April 21, 1846. Davis and his new wife moved to Carnestolendas and named the land Rancho Davis. There Davis established Davis Landing, a docking area for steamboats on the Rio Grande. He then founded Rio Grande City and entered into a partnership with Forbes Britton to promote the new town. On February 10, 1848, the Texas legislature established Starr County. Davis was elected the first county clerk for Starr County on August 2, 1848. As the founder, he quickly became a prominent leader of Rio Grande City and patterned the new town after Austin’s layout with a main road leading to the courthouse. In 1848 the Davis house was built near the river on Britton Street (now Britton Avenue), the main road that leads to the courthouse. Davis owned much of the land used to establish Rio Grande City, and he sold tracts in order to create the small town. By August 1849 he established a wagon route from Mier to Rio Grande City to Laredo and then eventually to Corpus Christi and New Orleans.
Davis Landing became an important part of river commerce. In addition to the landing, Davis established a barracks, called Camp Ringgold (later called Fort Ringgold) in 1848. The site was 400 square yards, and Davis leased it to the United States Army for $600 a year. He was a partner in the firm of Davis, Walton & Co., which ran the sutler’s store at the fort. Fort Ringgold was in operation off and on until 1944.
In 1849 Davis was elected state senator, representing Starr County along with Cameron and Webb counties. He served in the Third Texas Legislature during the terms of governors George T. Wood and Peter Hansborough Bell. Davis served on several committees, including the Military Affairs, Indian Affairs, Finance, and County Boundaries committees.
Davis and Maria Hilaria had twelve children; six died young. Their first child, Louisiana Georgia Davis, never married but lived in Rio Grande City until her death in 1926 and lived to see the first train arrive in the border town. Later in life, the heirs of Clay Davis donated the land where the current Starr County courthouse is located, at the north end of Britton Avenue.
Davis spent three decades, from the 1830s to the 1860s, protecting the border of Texas along the Rio Grande from both threats with the Mexican government and American Indian raids. He not only exercised protection for the people in the town that he built, but he was also a well-established merchant and politician throughout his life. Davis participated with the Texas Rangers from 1848 to 1865, as was custom for many rich landowners to be commissioned in Texas. His involvement included work with the Texas Rangers and the U.S. Army that battled Juan Nepamuceno (Cheno) Cortina who was distantly related to Hilaria and who led raids to several Texas towns including Brownsville, Corpus Christi, and Rio Grande City. On November 5, 1859, Cortina struck Rio Grande City and even visited Davis’s wife Hilaria who refused to leave the Davis house. At the time, Davis had left to assist defenses in Brownsville. Both Texas Rangers and regular army pursued Cortina and his men. Maj. Samuel Heintzelman fought Cortina at Rio Grande City on December 27, 1859. Eventually Cortina was driven back into Mexico. In the aftermath, Davis requested reimbursement for the damages to property owned by him in the sum of $7,717 but most likely was never reimbursed by the state due to the outbreak of the Civil War.
On July 12, 1860, Davis received a letter from Governor Sam Houston requesting that he take the position and appointment of brigadier general in the state militia to be stationed around the border area. In the days before the outbreak of the Civil War, Davis, like many in his position on the border, favored the Union but was Texan first and decided that he would support the decision for Texas to join the Confederacy. Davis, though against the war, prospered from the wartime cotton trade along the river at Davis Landing. He remained in the borderlands of Texas throughout the war and aided with fighting for the Confederacy as well as fighting against the never-ending presence of Cortina. The Civil War officially ended for Rio Grande City by the summer of 1865, but Cortina continued his presence as a rogue after this and even after Davis’s death.
On June 25, 1866, Davis ran for state senator, and won popular support in his county, but lost to Francis J. Parker in Brownsville.
Davis’s life came to a sudden end at the age of fifty-two when he was involved in an accident during a hunting expedition. On December 8, 1866, Davis and a colleague set out on an expedition to hunt game, when suddenly the wagon holding Davis and his friend turned over. Davis’s double-barreled shotgun, already loaded, was accidentally set off during the confusion and fatally injured him in the abdomen and thigh. Davis was survived by his wife and six children. An account of the accident was published in the Brownsville Daily Ranchero and reported that the incident was completely accidental. Davis was buried in Rio Grande City Downtown Historic Cemetery. His wife Hilaria continued to live for ten years before her own death in 1876. She was buried beside her husband, as was their eldest daughter, Louisiana, who never married. Before his death, Davis transferred the remainder of his land, about four porciónes, to his wife who thus passed down the land for up to five generations. In 1936 a Centennial marker was erected to commemorate Rancho Davis.