James Grant, physician, entrepreneur, politician and Texas revolutionary leader, also known as Don Diego Grant, was born on July 28, 1793, in Killearnan Parish, Ross-shire, Scotland. His family was closely connected with the East India Company, and, having studied medicine at Edinburgh University, he entered the service of the company as a ship’s surgeon. After making three round trips to India and China between 1812 and 1819, he practiced for a short time in the West Indies and in London. In March 1825, however, he unexpectedly received a dual appointment as medical officer to the Real del Monte mining company and as physician to the British diplomatic mission in Mexico. In reality his duties went far beyond medical matters, and during the next two years he appears to have undertaken clandestine visits to Texas on behalf of the British charge d’affairs and spymaster Henry Ward. This activity culminated in the Fredonian Rebellion of 1826–27, in part instigated as a British attempt to interpose a barrier to American immigration into Texas. Collapse of the rebellion saw Ward abruptly recalled to England early in 1827, but Grant remained in Mexico.
He had little incentive to return home. Like a surprising number of other revolutionary leaders of the time, he was not only intent on making his fortune but also on making a fresh start in his family affairs. In London in 1812 he had married Margaret Urquhart, the daughter of an East India Company official. There were three children, but by the time he came to Mexico the marriage was breaking down. There was no divorce, but in Mexico he settled down with a second partner, Guadalupe Reyes, who was to bear him seven children by 1835.
In the meantime with his original purpose redundant, Grant left the employ of the Real del Monte and was employed by the London banking house of Barings to help run the mortgaged Aguayo estates in Parras, Coahuila. This allowed him to enter into a variety of business ventures which in turn enabled him to acquire a large estate of his own—the Hacienda los Hornos—and latterly to engage in land speculation in part facilitated by his political connections. On September 25, 1830, he had formally become a citizen of Mexico and soon afterwards was elected to the state legislature as one of the three deputies for the department of Parras. A committed Federalist, his active involvement in politics not only saw him appointed secretary and eventually deputy president of the legislature by 1835 but also won him the appointment of Jefe de Armas or colonel of militia. In that latter capacity he took the field against Gen. Martin Perfecto de Cos in April 1835, after the Centralistas set up a rival state legislature in Saltillo. On that occasion Cos backed down, but following General Santa Anna’s victory in Zacatecas the following month, Cos returned and on June 5 arrested both the president of the Federalist legislature, Augustín Viesca, and his deputy president, James Grant, as they tried to flee to Texas.
In response the remaining Federalist leaders set in motion plans for a “general revolutionizing” aimed at creating a breakaway republic of Northern Mexico. As part of this plan, the escape of Viesca and Grant was engineered in order that they could gather troops in Texas, where the colonists were already in open revolt and laying siege to General Cos at San Antonio de Bexar (see BEXAR, SIEGE OF). Grant and a Colonel Gonzales accordingly rode to join the Texian insurgents at Bexar only to find the siege faltering and the army on the point of disintegration. According to John Durst, a deputy from Nacogdoches, Grant was responsible for persuading Ben Milam to make the famous appeal for volunteers to storm the town, and he was certainly elected one of the four colonels to lead the assault. Although badly wounded on the first day, he and Colonel Gonzales subsequently brokered the defection of most of Cos’s forces and so brought about his surrender on December 9, 1835.
Afterwards, with the aid of Col. Frank Johnson, Grant set about organizing an expedition to Matamoros to link up with his Federalist colleagues (see MATAMOROS EXPEDITION OF 1835–36). Initially this expedition had the backing of the Texian General Council, and, as commander-in-chief, Gen. Sam Houston was accordingly instructed to take command. Unfortunately confusion ensued as operational command was successively offered to Frank Johnson and James Walker Fannin. In the meantime, relying on his own authority as deputy president of the former legislature and Jefe de Armas, Grant proclaimed himself acting commander-in-chief of what he called the Federal Volunteer Army. Sending off Colonel Gonzales and a prominent Tejano leader named Placido Benavides as an advance guard, he unilaterally marched from San Antonio on January 1, 1836. News of this move and accusations he had stripped the garrison of both men and supplies precipitated a violent split in the provisional government and its effective collapse at a critical time.
Houston quickly caught up with Grant and on January 21 persuaded four of his six companies to halt at Refugio. However, Grant and Frank Johnson pushed forward with the remainder first to San Patricio and then across the Rio Grande. Significantly, by now they were also accompanied by a senior East India Company officer, Colonel Edwards, revealing the British government’s continued clandestine involvement. Over the next month they fought Mexicans and Comanches but failed to make substantive contact with Antonio Canales or any of the other Federalist leaders other than Benavides. Gonzales had already been surprised and defeated at Meier. Worse, Colonel Edwards was killed on February 20, and two days later Frank Johnson returned to San Patricio with part of the force, where he was surprised by Gen. José de Urrea in the early hours of February 27. Unaware of this disaster, Grant and the remainder of his men were heading north from Camargo on March 2, when they too were ambushed, this time at the battle of Agua Dulce Creek. Benavides and a handful of others escaped, but most were quickly killed or captured. Accounts of Grant’s death vary in detail but agree that after being pursued for some miles he surrendered and had dismounted only to be immediately stabbed in the back by a Mexican lancer.
Dr. James Grant the revolutionary leader is not to be confused with two contemporary namesakes, resident in Nacogdoches and Matamoros respectively, all three being clearly distinguished by their circumstances and handwriting.
The first settled in Nacogdoches in about 1833, and the census of 1835 identifies him as a single man then aged twenty-eight. (Dr. James Grant was at the time aged forty-one). He was associated with James Bowie in seizing Mexican military equipment there in 1835 and afterwards enlisted under Thomas Jefferson Rusk and served in his company at the siege of Bexar. Thereafter he disappears from view. The second, also known as Santiago Grant, apparently to distinguish him from Don Diego Grant, was a Matamoros-based merchant engaged in the 1820s in trying to establish an overland trade route to Austin’s Colony. Still resident in Matamoros in 1839, he was apparently appointed an Indian agent in 1842 and murdered by Mexican bandits shortly afterwards.