Emilio Forto, politician and businessman, was born in Gerona, Spain, in 1856. He moved with his family to New Orleans when he was twelve, then followed his older brother, Frederick, to Brownsville by the early 1870s. Like his older brother, who served as a county commissioner, Emilio Forto became involved in Cameron County politics. He was elected county judge in 1882 and served for ten years. In 1892 he was elected Cameron County sheriff for several terms. He also served as mayor of Brownsville and was on the City Board of Education for sixteen years. As a businessman Forto served as an agent for two British steamships that landed at Brazos Santiago, and he and his brother were responsible for a canal built in Brownsville. In 1900 Forto became the personal representative for banker James Stillman, who was chairman of the board for New York's National City Bank. Forto remained Stillman's representative for many years, overseeing the operations of the financier's numerous interests in Brownsville and throughout the lower Rio Grande Valley. Forto himself became very wealthy and owned many interests in the Brownsville area. One publication listed his home as "one of the most comfortable homes in Brownsville."
But Forto was not without his detractors. Like most politicians in South Texas during the early 1900s, Forto belonged to the Democratic political machine headed by James B. Wells, Jr. Many Hispanic ranchers in Cameron County opposed Forto's nomination for sheriff because of his apparent approval of the Texas Ranger' tactics, which often included harassing Mexican-American ranchers in the area. These ranchers also claimed that Forto had built a close alliance with smugglers in the Rio Grande Valley. A split within the Cameron County Democratic party occurred before the election of 1900, and Forto left the party and joined the fledgling Republican ticket as candidate for sheriff. Forto's opponent was former county treasurer Celedonio Garza, who also was a part of the Wells machine. However, Jim Wells refused to throw his support behind either candidate. Although unsuccessful in his bid for sheriff, within a few years Forto had become a leader in the Cameron County Republican party and even expressed outrage when a Mexican-American rancher was brutally murdered by a Texas Ranger. Unfortunately for Forto, Jim Wells resolidified his Democratic machine, and Forto's support dwindled. In 1908 Emilio Forto helped form the Independent Party of Cameron County, which accused Well's Democratic machine of graft, corruption, and patronage. This call for political reform was well received among the growing number of Anglo farmers who were moving to the Valley from the Midwest. These newcomers resented the hegemony ranchers held over South Texas politics, and sought to sever the patronage system to disable machine politics. Following the Independent Party's success during the election of 1910 and Rentfro B. Creager's rise to power within the ranks of the party, Forto returned to the Democratic fold. He was vice president of the First National Bank of Brownsville in 1914. No information is available on his death.
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Evan Anders, Boss Rule in South Texas: The Progressive Era (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982). 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). Frank W. Johnson, A History of Texas and Texans (5 vols., ed. E. C. Barker and E. W. Winkler [Chicago and New York: American Historical Society, 1914; rpt. 1916]).
Politics and Government
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 22, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
September 1, 1995
Most Recent Revision Date:
October 9, 2019
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: