The Peñascal Raid occurred on May 9, 1874, in what was then Cameron County (present-day Kenedy County) in South Texas, when ten or eleven outlaws robbed and killed five people at a remote store in the community of Peñascal near Baffin Bay. The raid was an example of the protracted conflict in South Texas among Anglo Texans, Tejanos, and Mexicans. These groups had been engaged in cattle rustling, raiding, and land disputes throughout the region and exacerbated the already unstable environment in Reconstruction-era Texas. Much of the violence was committed by outlaw vaqueros and former Civil War soldiers, whether Union or Confederate, who took advantage of the instability to engage in illegal activities. Contemporary newspapers warned readers of increasing danger in the area. Exactly one year before the incident at Peñascal, the Galveston Daily News, on May 9, 1873, reported, “…the road between Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande is too dangerous to travel.”
During the evening of the raid, six people were at the Morton Store, located in Peñascal, approximately sixty miles south of Corpus Christi. Among them was the store owner, John Morton, Michael Morton (John’s brother), Patrick Coakley (also spelled Coakly), Herman Tilgner, and Francisco Zamora (Morton’s cook) and his wife. Francisco Zamora exited the store and walked to a well to retrieve water. As he was at the well, the raid occurred.
The events of that day were reconstructed from Zamora’s eyewitness account. Ten or eleven men approached the store and started shooting. Zamora saw Tilgner running out of the store and vomiting blood. The raiders continued shooting him until he fell. Zamora reported that Michael Morton was shot in the head four times. Patrick Coakley was tied down by the men and shot three times. Store owner John Morton was shot in the arms, forced to carry supplies out of the store to the raiders, and then shot six more times until he was dead. Zamora’s wife was also killed, but there is no account of how she died.
Early news about the massacre spread quickly. The first reports in the Galveston Daily News mistakenly stated the eyewitness, Zamora, was killed during the incident. As the news spread, a posse was assembled and sent towards Peñascal in an attempt to track down the raiders. The group had little trouble determining the direction in which the outlaws fled the area, because the raiders left a trail of merchandise that was easy to follow. The posse determined that the raiders traveled in the direction of Corpus Christi but, after searching the surrounding area, were unable to locate them. Later, former Texas Ranger John “Red” Dunn, formed his own group and took up the search. This new posse located two of the raiders, Hypolita Tapia and Andres Davila, near Meansville in San Patricio County. Dunn placed the two raiders under guard in Meansville. When Dunn brought Tapia out to interview him, the raider refused to divulge any information. The former ranger forced a confession out of Tapia by suspending him by a rope around his neck until, fearing for his life, he told Dunn everything that happened at Peñascal.
Tapia told Dunn that a Corpus Christi police officer, Tomas Basquez, had heard there was a large shipment of goods and money going to the Morton store by boat. He then enlisted Tapia to raise ten men to raid the store and steal the goods and money. Tapia gathered Davila, another man named Joe (an Anglo), and eight others to raid the store. When the raiders came close to the Morton store, they saw a boat in Baffin Bay and assumed the goods and money had already been delivered. The delivery had not yet been made, and the raiders only came away with twelve or thirteen dollars. After receiving Tapia’s confession, Dunn delivered the two raiders to Nueces County Sheriff John McClane.
In the May 29, 1874, issue of the Austin Daily Democratic Statesman, a report from May 18 stated that in Corpus Christi:
Five of the Mexicans engaged in the Penescal [sic] murder have been secured and were positively identified in the examining court as belonging to the party. It is reported on reliable authority that two of the fiends, one a white man, were captured yesterday and hung. The five who are here in jail are in [imminent] danger of the same fate, and it is more than likely that they will be taken from their prison by our incensed citizens and strung up to the nearest telegraph pole.
When Tapia and Davila went to trial, they changed their stories and insisted that, though they were with the other raiders, they did not take part in the shootings. Both were found guilty and sentenced to hang. On August 7, 1874, Tapia and Davila were hanged from a scaffold built on the front of the balcony of the Nueces County courthouse. A third suspect was removed from the San Diego jail by a lynch mob and hanged. The police officer, Basquez, was never charged.
Throughout the following decade, the murders and robbery at Peñascal became a remarkable example of the instability and dangerous conditions in South Texas. The Weekly Democratic Statesman in Austin wrote, “…the Peñascal murders were the bloodiest deeds known to the annals of crime.” The following year the postmaster of Neucestown, when describing the events of a raid there by Mexican outlaws (see NUECESTOWN RAID OF 1875), wrote they “…have the enjoyment of a general massacre, a la Peniscal [sic].”