Martín De León, the only Mexican empresario to found a colony in Texas, was born in 1765 in Burgos, Nuevo Santander (now Tamaulipas), where his parents, Bernardo and María Galván De León, settled after moving from Burgos, Spain. The De Leóns were an aristocratic family of great wealth; members were educated in Madrid, Paris, and London and were acquainted with European rulers. Martín, however, declined his father's offer to complete his education in Monterrey and Europe, choosing instead to become a merchant and supplier of provisions to the miners of Real de San Nicolás. In 1790 he joined the Fieles de Burgos regiment, organized by Mexican viceroy Juan Vicente Guernes Pacheco as a defense against Indians in Nuevo Santander. De León was promoted to captain, thus achieving the highest rank available to a criollo. In 1795 he married Patricia de la Garza, daughter of Gen. Felipe de la Garza, commandant of the Eastern Internal Provinces. The couple settled in Cruillas, Nuevo Santander (now Tamaulipas), where they began ranching. An excursion to La Bahía, San Antonio, and Nacogdoches in 1805 induced De León to settle in Texas. He established a ranch between Chiltipin Creek and the Aransas River, stocked it with cattle, horses, mules, and goats that he brought from Mexico, and enclosed several leagues of land with a brush fence in an effort to corral and domesticate mustangs.
In 1807 De León petitioned the Spanish governor at San Antonio, Manuel María de Salcedo, to establish a colony in this vicinity. The government, however, denied this request as well as a second one in 1809, as a result of rising political troubles in Mexico and rumors that the De Leóns were not loyal to Spain. De León then established a new ranch on the east bank of the Nueces River near the site of present San Patricio, where he enclosed another pasture. He had by this time driven several herds of livestock to market at New Orleans, thus becoming one of the earliest traildrivers in Texas. Texas presidio garrisons were moved as a result of the uprising in September 1810 of Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. Because the frontier then became vulnerable to hostile Lipans and Comanches, De León removed his family to the safety of San Antonio, where he joined the Republicans in resisting the Royalists under Joaquín de Arredondo and Ignacio Elizondo. After a respite in Burgos in 1816 De León returned to his ranch and cattle, now numbering about 5,000 head. In 1823 he drove a large herd of livestock to New Orleans and became interested in settling a colony on the lower Guadalupe River.
Mexican independence from Spain brought a more open colonization policy. On April 8, 1824, De León petitioned the provincial delegation at San Fernando de Béxar to settle forty-one Mexican families on the lower Guadalupe and founded the town of Nuestra Señora Guadalupe de Jesús Victoria. The colonization grant was approved on April 13. Patricia De León contributed $9,800 and cows, horses, and mules valued at $300, which she inherited from her father. De León's colony was the only predominantly Mexican colony in Texas, and as a Mexican citizen the empresario received legal preference in the numerous border disputes with American settlements encircling Guadalupe Victoria.
De León stood six feet tall and was skilled as a horseman and Indian fighter; Indians called him "Capitán Vacas Muchas" ("Captain Plenty of Cows") since he often placated raiding parties by feeding them beef. His five-league (22,140-acre) ranch was located on Garcitas Creek in what is now southeastern Victoria County and probably included the site of La Salle's Fort St. Louis. His thousands of cattle carried the first brand in Texas, an E and J connected, signifying "Espíritu de Jesús." De León registered the historic brand in 1807; Jesuits had used it for hundreds of years before the royal De León family in Spain adopted it. De León's ranchland, though considerably less extensive than that of later cattlemen, provided a foundation for one of the characteristic industries of Texas. As a devout Catholic, De León was planning to build a church without rival in Texas when he became a victim of the cholera epidemic of 1833 and died, leaving his widow, four sons, and six daughters an estate of over a half million dollars.
In addition to dominating Guadalupe Victoria, the family of Martín De León controlled the ayuntamiento of Goliad; sons-in-law José Miguel Aldrete and Rafael Manchola each served as alcalde, and Manchola was also commandant of the La Bahía garrison. The family was intimately involved with the Texas cause against Antonio López de Santa Anna as well. Gen. José M. J. Carbajal and Capt. Plácido Benavides were sons-in-law of De León. Martín's sons, Fernando, Silvestre, Felix, and Agapito De León, contributed horses, mules, cattle, military equipment, and provisions to the Texas army and offered the safety of their ranches to colonists needing refuge. Not surprisingly, the Mexican army of occupation under Gen. José de Urrea singled out the De León family as traitors; Fernando and Silvestre were arrested.
After the Texas victory at San Jacinto, the De Leóns fell victim to the prejudice directed against Texans of Mexican descent. Agapito was murdered by Mabry B. (Mustang) Gray, who was rustling De León cattle. Fernando was wounded in a similar affray. The De León, Benavides, and Carbajal families were forced to abandon their lands, cattle, and most possessions and flee to Louisiana for their lives. The De Leóns remained in New Orleans for about three years before removing to Soto la Marina (now in Tamaulipas), the childhood home of Patricia de la Garza De León, where her daughter, Agustina De León Benavides, died in 1841. Soon thereafter, Patricia and her family returned to Texas to recover their property, but they were largely unsuccessful. In April 1972 the De Leóns were honored with Texas state historical markers in Evergreen Cemetery, Victoria. Among the dignitaries attending the dedication were Patricia De León, great-granddaughter of the empresario, and Dr. Ricardo Victoria of Mexico, great-grandson of President Guadalupe Victoria, for whom Victoria, Texas, is named.