Henry, William R. (ca. 1821–1862)

By: Manuel Guerra

Type: Biography

Published: October 1, 1995

Updated: October 24, 2019

William R. Henry, a notorious filibusterer, adventurer, and Texas Ranger, was born in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, around 1821, a grandson of Patrick Henry. He ran away from home while still a young man and joined the United States Army, lying about his age since he was too young to enlist. He reached Texas around 1844 after fighting in the Seminole War. During the Mexican War (1846–48) he attached himself to his old Florida regiment, the Second Dragoons, and saw action in Vera Cruz, Puebla, and Cerro Gordo. He returned to Texas by land. Eventually he settled in San Antonio, where he was sheriff from 1856 to 1858.

Henry took part in and often led some of the most controversial skirmishes along the Texas-Mexican border in the 1850s. As a Texas Ranger he participated in several operations, sometimes with the rank of captain. In July 1855 he attempted to organize an army of volunteers to intervene in Mexico and establish a government that would not threaten Texas interests. In letters to Santiago Vidaurri, the governor of Nuevo León and one of the most powerful men of Northern Mexico, Henry volunteered his services to help Vidaurri, who Henry and others presumed wanted to secede from Mexico and establish a Republic of the Sierra Madre. Vidaurri declined the offer. Henry was a principal instigator of the Callahan Expedition of 1855, which led to the burning of Piedras Negras and subsequently to years of bitter exchanges between the United States and Mexico over Mexico's demand for restitution for the destruction. In 1857 Henry, a staunch supporter of filibusterer William Walker, urged "all my frontier comrades to join me...in...Galveston" to embark for Nicaragua. As a member of Capt. William G. Tobin's Texas Ranger volunteers in the Cortina war of 1859 (see CORTINA, JUAN NEPOMUCENO), Henry provided some heroic drama to an otherwise dismal performance on the part of the Texas Rangers.

Henry was supremely confident and fearless, but his boldness often bordered on folly. John Salmon (Rip) Ford said that Henry "had rather exalted notions, and was difficult to control. He was brave, and possessed merit, but had the credit of interfering with his superior officers. He was not always in the wrong." Henry's schemes were often grandiose, reflecting that fervor so common at the time in Texas that the United States, and especially Texas, indeed had a hemispheric manifest destiny. On March 15, 1862, Henry quarreled with a man named William Adams over who was going to command the local company of Confederate troops. In a gunfight in front of the old Plaza House on the north side of Main Plaza in San Antonio, Henry was shot dead. An inquest held soon after determined that Adams, having been repeatedly provoked, had acted in self defense. Henry's wife was Consolación Urrutia. One of his daughters, also named Consolación, married Antonio M. Bruni, who became one of the largest landowners in Webb County.

Elton R. Cude, The Wild and Free Dukedom of Bexar (San Antonio: Munguia Printers, 1978). John S. Ford, Rip Ford's Texas, ed. Stephen B. Oates (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1963). Earl W. Fornell, "Texans and Filibusters in the 1850s," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 59 (April 1956). Ernest C. Shearer, "The Callahan Expedition, 1855," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 54 (October 1951). Ronnie C. Tyler, Santiago Vidaurri and the Southern Confederacy (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1973).

Time Periods:
  • Antebellum Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Manuel Guerra, “Henry, William R.,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 30, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/henry-william-r.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 1, 1995
October 24, 2019