Laredo is on the Rio Grande in southwestern Webb County in South Texas, about 150 miles southwest of San Antonio and 135 miles west of Corpus Christi. It is served by Interstate Highway 35, U.S. highways 59 and 83, State Highway 359, Ranch Road 1472, and the Missouri Pacific and Texas Mexican railroads. This cosmopolitan city is a major port of entry for international trade and tourism between the United States and Mexico. Laredo was established in 1755, when Tomás Sánchez de la Barrera y Garza was granted permission by José de Escandón to form a new settlement about thirty miles upriver from Nuestra Señora de los Dolores Hacienda in what is now Zapata County. Laredo was the last town established under the authority of Escandón, who had been given responsibility for settling the province of Nuevo Santander. Altogether Escandón saw to the founding of twenty towns and eighteen missions in an attempt to thwart French incursion into Spanish territory and to propagate the Christian faith among the various Indian tribes of the region. Sánchez chose a site downriver from a ford later called El Paso de los Indios but known at that time as El Paso de Jacinto (after Jacinto de León of the San Juan Bautista garrison, who noted it in a report of 1745). About eight miles downriver from Laredo was another crossing, called the Don Miguel or Garza ford (after Miguel de la Garza Falcón). The ford upstream could be crossed by a person on horseback, while the one downstream could be forded by sheep and goats. Tienda de Cuervo, who inspected the community in 1757, reported that Laredo was the usual crossing place for those traveling to Texas from Nuevo León and Coahuila. The initial settlement at Laredo was made by Sánchez and three families from Dolores. They soon found that lack of rain restricted farming to the riverbottoms; the rest of the land lay too high above the river for irrigation. The raising of livestock-chiefly goats, sheep, and cattle-thus became their principal livelihood.
From 1755 to 1760 Laredo had no resident clergy but was visited on occasion by Franciscans stationed in Revilla (later named Guerrero), some sixty miles downriver. In 1760, however, Laredo received a resident priest, becoming the second oldest parish (after San Fernando de Béxar) to be administered by secular clergy in what is now the southwestern United States. Until Laredo was accorded the status of villa in 1767, Sánchez, who held the title of "captain," exercised authority over both civil and military matters. During this period the fifteen leagues granted to the community were held in common. The communal system, mandated by Escandón, was intended to forestall disputes and the formation of land monopolies that would discourage immigration. Colonists, however, proved reluctant to make improvements without holding private title. In 1767 the viceroy appointed a commission to oversee the partitioning of lands in Nuevo Santander. In Laredo this commission supervised the laying out of San Agustín Plaza and the common areas of the village, as well as eighty-nine porciones, each having a river frontage of a half mile and a depth of about 15½ miles. Twenty-three of the porciones were left unassigned at that time, however, because of a lack of demand.
Though no Indians lived at Laredo initially, bands of Carrizo, Borrado, and Lipan would occasionally come to trade after the community had become established. Allowing for the possibility that Indians might one day congregate there, the commissioners set aside a place for them on the right bank, across the river from the town. In 1767 or 1768 Father Gaspar José de Solís, while on a visit to the Texas missions, sent a group of Indians to Laredo for religious instruction. In addition to seeing to the distribution of land, the commissioners raised Laredo to the status of a villa, a town with a governing body. The first election for local officials was held in 1768. Laredo grew steadily: its population rose from 85 in 1757, two years after its founding, to 185 in 1767 and 708 in 1789. The latter figure included 111 Carrizo Indians, who were enumerated in a separate census. In 1783 Laredo's first public school was established.
In the early years of the settlement, colonists reported no problems with either the Coahuiltecans of the region or with the Comanche and Apache Indians. As the surrounding ranchos became more prosperous, however, raids by Comanches and some Apaches became a concern. A military garrison was established at Laredo in 1775, though it is not clear if troops remained in the town continuously thereafter. Raiding increased in the last several decades of the 1700s, and Laredo implored authorities for more soldiers, especially the effective compañías volantes (cavalry), for protection. The threat from Indian raids was compounded between 1810 and 1820, when troops from Laredo were called away to combat insurgents and filibusterers along the Rio Grande. Laredo itself remained one of the few islands of royalist sentiment in a sea of pro-independence activists on the northern frontier (see MEXICAN WAR OF INDEPENDENCE). The political alignment of the town has been attributed to the dependence of the propertied classes there upon the Laredo presidio, which remained loyal to the Spanish crown.
During the Texas Revolution Laredo served as a concentration point for the forces of Antonio López de Santa Anna. After the war, Texas leaders generally considered the Rio Grande to be the southern boundary of the new Republic of Texas, but they made no effort to extend jurisdiction over the border region. The residents of Laredo continued to consider themselves citizens of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Though Laradoans identified with Mexico, they felt their needs had been neglected for decades by the central government. In late 1838 the rancheros of this region revolted, and in January 1840 insurgents proclaimed the Republic of the Rio Grande, with Laredo as the capital. It was not long, however, before centralist forces arrived to crush this federalist-inspired rebellion, headed by Antonio Canales Rosillo and Antonio Zapata. Zapata was captured and executed in March, and in November Canales capitulated and joined the centralists. Laredo continued to witness the marching of troops during the period of hostilities between Texans and Mexicans in the 1840s. During the 1842 Somervell expedition a revenge-seeking army of Texans sacked the town. The looted goods were ordered returned to the citizens by an outraged Gen. Alexander Somervell, and some were restored, but Laradoans claimed that Texans kept other goods worth 12,674 pesos. No effort was made to place Laredo under the jurisdiction of Texas until the Mexican War. In March 1846 Texas Ranger captain Robert Addison Gillespie raised the United States flag over the city, and the next November an American garrison, under the command of former Republic of Texas president Mirabeau B. Lamar, occupied the town. In 1848 Laredo became the county seat for newly established Webb County, which was named after James Webb, a friend of Lamar's. The establishment of the Rio Grande as the international boundary divided the town of Laredo, many of whose residents had homes and ranchos on the right bank (in Mexico). A number of other families who did not wish to live under the American flag chose to move across the river to what became the village of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. Fort McIntosh was established a mile west of Laredo on March 3, 1849. The post, originally called Camp Crawford, became critical in the protection of the community and the Rio Grande frontier. It was renamed after the fallen Mexican War hero, Lt. Col. James Simmons McIntosh. The army outpost saw almost continuous service until 1947, when the facilities were turned over to the newly established Laredo Junior College.
During the Civil War the Union blockade of the southern coast caused Confederate cotton to be shipped to Mexico, where it could be exported from Mexican ports. In the early years of the war much of the cotton passed through the border town of Brownsville, Texas, but in 1863 the fear that Union troops might capture Brownsville drove the trade farther west. Laredo was one of the towns to receive this redirected trade. In March 1864 Union troops advanced on Laredo with orders to destroy all the bales of cotton that were stored around San Agustín Plaza. Col. Santos Benavides and his Laredo Confederates repulsed the federalists at Zacate Creek in the battle of Laredo.
Laredo's modern era began in 1881, a watershed year that saw the establishment of the Laredo Times, the arrival of the Texas Mexican Railroad from Corpus Christi, and the completion of Jay Gould's International and Great Northern Railroad from San Antonio to the border. In 1882 the Rio Grande and Pecos Railway was completed to the cannel coal fields along the Rio Grande above Laredo. Laredo was the first Texas border town below Eagle Pass to secure a rail connection, and it remained the only one until Brownsville, near the mouth of the Rio Grande, acquired rail service in 1904. By 1887 the Mexican National railway linked Nuevo Laredo with Mexico City, creating a system that became vital to the growth and development of Laredo and instrumental in making it the gateway to Mexico that it is today. The arrival of the railroads produced marked social as well as economic changes. Anglo Americans had settled in Laredo during and after the Mexican War and Civil War, but their numbers were small compared to the influx brought by the railroads. As the numbers of Anglo residents grew, intermarriage declined and a separate Anglo society developed alongside the original Mexican community. The early 1880s witnessed development on a number of fronts. In 1882 the principal streets were improved by grading and graveling and a city hall and courthouse were constructed. The first public school to be established there since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo also opened that year. It joined the Ursuline Academy, established in 1868, and the Laredo Seminary (1880), later known as the Holding Institute. In 1883 water mains were laid and telephone service inaugurated.
The last twenty years of the 1800s witnessed economic growth stimulated variously by the railroads, coal mining some twenty miles upriver, and the introduction of onion farming in 1898, which opened the area north of the city to irrigated farming. The population of Laredo rose from 3,521 in 1880 to 13,429 by 1900. This period also witnessed a memorable political confrontation, which took place the day after a hotly contested city election in April 1886. The two political factions-the Botas, representing the new commercial class that had arrived with the railroads, and the Guaraches, representing the older elite-engaged in a shootout on San Agustín Plaza. Estimates of the dead range from more than a dozen to sixty, with a likely total of twenty-five to forty suggested by some recent historians (see BOTAS AND GUARACHES). Out of the violence later emerged the Independent Club, a Democratic party machine that tightly controlled city and county elections until 1978. Laredo was also a hotbed of activity for anti-Porfirio Díaz activist exiles between the years 1890 and 1910. After the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the subsequent political instability in Mexico, Laredo became a refuge for thousands of Mexican citizens seeking a stable, peaceful, and more economically secure environment.
Rich oil and gas finds in the area surrounding Laredo in the first quarter of the 1900s gave an added boost to the Laredo economy. During World War II the Laredo Army Air Field served as an important tactical training base for fighter pilots. After the war the field was deactivated, and the property reverted to the city of Laredo, which used it as a municipal airport in 1950. The base was reactivated and renamed Laredo Air Force Base in April 1952; it was closed permanently in 1973. The population of Laredo increased from 22,710 in 1920, to 39,274 in 1940, 60,678 in 1960, and 122,899 in 1990. By 2000 the population reached 176,576. In spite of periodic economic instability, Laredo by the early 1990s had become one of the state's most active centers for import and export trade with Mexico. The development of maquiladoras along the border during the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the North American Free Trade Agreement of the early 1990s, ensured that Laredo would continue to be at the forefront of social and economic activity along the border.