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Rodriguez, José Policarpio (1829–1914)

Rudi R. Rodriguez Biography Entry

José Policarpio “Polly” Rodriguez, frontiersman, U. S. Army scout and guide, rancher, county official, and minister, was born on January 26, 1829, in Zaragoza, Coahuila, Mexico, located approximately thirty-five miles west of present-day Eagle Pass, Texas, to José Antonio Rodriguez and Encarnacion Sánchez. His paternal great-grandfather was a founder of Villa San Fernando de Austria, Provincia de Coahuila, and his maternal great-grandfather was Tomás Sánchez, founder of Laredo, Texas. Rodriguez, known as “Polly,” acquired a rudimentary education during his boyhood by attending Franciscan schools in Coahuila—eight months at a school in Nadadores and six months in Cuatro Ciénegas. 

Due to years of continued Indian raids and loss of property, Rodriguez’s father decided to move farther north to San Antonio and by 1841 had purchased from Ignacio Perez a town lot on the banks of San Pedro Creek in San Antonio and moved his family there. By 1850 José Antonio Rodriguez purchased a 250-acre ranch from Luciano Navarro on the Medina River fifteen miles south of San Antonio. This ranching valley, known as La Medina, was home to Ignacio Perez, Blas Herrera, Domingo Losoya, Francisco Rodriguez, Francisco Ruiz, and other notable Tejanos.

About 1842 Polly Rodriguez’s father apprenticed him to become a gunsmith under James Goodman. Polly’s apprenticeship ended in 1845, and he became acknowledged as a gunsmith. During this period, surveyors began to seek him out for his frontiersmanship and marksmanship. By 1848 Polly Rodriguez had worked with surveyors: John James, Richard Howard, Charles Montague, and Joseph Tivy. Howard gave Rodriguez the final practical experience to become a trained surveyor. In 1849 Howard and Rodriguez were hired by Lt. William H. C. Whiting to help guide, survey, and explore for the Whiting and Smith expedition, a government-contracted venture charged with establishing a westward road from San Antonio to El Paso. The expedition left Fredericksburg on February 21 of that year, reached Presidio del Norte on March 25, proceeded north along the Rio Grande, and finally reached El Paso on April 11. Since the last leg of the journey was marked by exceedingly difficult traveling conditions and Indian attacks, the Whiting party chose a more direct route back to San Antonio and arrived there on May 25. This latter route, laid out with the invaluable help of Rodríguez, became the principal westward road to El Paso. In Whiting’s diary, he described Polly as “one of the most valuable members of my party” and praised his surveying and excellent frontiersmanship. The expedition established Rodríguez's reputation as a reliable scout. Following this exploration, Col. Joseph E. Johnston was selected to finalize and construct the road. In turn, Johnston hired Rodriguez to be one of the lead scouts and guide for this mission.

In 1851 Gen. Persifor F. Smith appointed Rodriguez head guide, scout, and interpreter for the U. S. Army in Texas. At this time Rodriguez was only twenty-two years old, however he was prized as being one of a few frontiersmen with the most knowledge of Texas and Mexico. He was an able communicator with various American Indian groups and possessed the skills to determine their movements and warfare. He could also determine suitable land for fort construction and understood the value of military command and mission. Smith was commissioned was to build a second line of defense—construction of new forts along a line from Eagle Pass to Fort Worth. This project lasted five years and became one of the nation’s largest military construction efforts and greatly benefited the state’s economy. Rodriguez’s role was to provide reconnaissance on tribal locations and movements and to submit potential fort locations with ample water, adequate pasture foraging, and native building materials. By 1855 General Smith had completed his mission and was ordered to California to continue his role in nation-building. He requested that Rodriguez join him, but he declined because his family and his home were in Texas.

In late 1855 the newly-created Second U. S. Calvary led by Col. Albert S. Johnston and Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, crossed the Red River into Texas and deployed to all the recently built forts to quell American Indian conflict on the Texas frontier. Rodriguez’s role changed from peacetime scout to combat guide, and he was posted to Fort Merrill at Conquista Crossing. In 1856 he was mustered into Company C under Capt. Innis Palmer at Camp Verde in Kerr County. Rodriguez’s service often brought him into frequent contact with hostile Apaches and Comanches in the Texas Hill Country and the West Texas plains.

Shortly after arriving at Camp Verde, his first sortie was to recover the escaped U. S. Army camels, which he located in the Privilege Creek valley in Bandera County. This discovery led to his purchase of 360 acres along the creek from John James, and he established his home and ranch. During this period, Camp Verde units engaged in many combat missions. In 1858 Rodriguez led a pursuit action that engaged Lipan Apaches along the San Geronimo River in Bandera County. He was later singled out for his valor in combat in a presidential citation that was awarded to the unit. Rodriguez was noted for his skill in the use of firearms, for his superb horsemanship, and for his knowledge of American Indians and his tracking abilities.

He remained stationed at Camp Verde until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. That same year, upon the departure of the U.S. Army, he declined both Union and Confederate captain’s commissions and instead mustered in the newly-created “Home Guards.”. His service included membership in the Third Frontier District, Texas State Troops, under Capt. Bladen Mitchell (1864). During the war, ranging units patrolled a designated frontier district to provide protection against hostile tribes and bandits. Many times, other Ranger captains sought out Rodriguez to lead punitive actions. They were not paid for services at this time but did receive donation grants after the war for services rendered. After the war the U. S. Army offered to hire Rodriguez as a guide again, but he declined.

During Reconstruction Rodriguez served Bandera County in a number of capacities. He was appointed a road commissioner, a cattle and hide inspector, elected twice as county commissioner, and finally became a justice of the peace. He also served a stint with Lt. Robert Ballantyne in the Texas Rangers from 1872 to 1873.  During this period he continued his ranching interests by accumulating an almost 4,000-acre ranch filled with longhorns and horses. He sold land in the Privilege Creek region to new Tejano pioneers—a total of more than thirty ranching families. Most of the new pioneers came from San Antonino and south along the Medina River valley. The Tejano practice of compradozgo (“God parentage”) helped strengthen family unity, economics, and religion. Thus he founded the J. P. Rodriguez Settlement.

In 1888 designation of a U. S. post office in the village changed the name of the settlement officially to Polly, Texas. Around this time the town included a fort, general store, school, chapel, and a cemetery along with more than 300 residents. Rodriguez donated land and funds to create and construct the chapel, cemetery, and, schoolhouse. 

In 1877 Rodriguez experienced a religious awakening and converted from Catholicism to Methodism and became a licensed minister and circuit rider. By 1882 he completed building a hand-hewed limestone chapel known as Polly’s Chapel on his ranch. In 1888 he was ordained a minister in the Methodist Church. The Reverend Polly Rodriguez served throughout Texas and Northern Mexico until 1914. He was married twice, first to Nicolasa Arocha on November 20, 1852, with whom he had four children. On September 27, 1903, he married Anastacia Salinas, who bore him at least four children (some genealogy records indicate six). He was a Mason. José Policarpio Rodriguez died at the age of eighty-five on March 22, 1914, in Poteet, Texas. His last wish was to be buried on his ranch, and that was honored a day after his death, when he was buried in Polly’s Cemetery.

Bandera Bulletin, December 6, 1968. Bandera County Deed of Records, Bandera County Clerk’s Office, Bandera, Texas. Historical Marker Files, Texas Historical Commission, Austin (Polly’s Chapel). Polly Texas Pioneer Association (https://www.pollytexaspioneerassociation.org/), accessed December 4, 2020. Jose Policarpo Rodriguez, Jose Policarpo Rodriguez, “The Old Guide”: Surveyor, Scout, Hunter, Indian Fighter, Ranchman, Preacher: His Life in His Own Words (Nashville, Tennessee, and Dallas, Texas: Publishing House of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, Smith & Lamar, Agents, 1898). Thomas T. Smith, The Old Army in Texas: A Research Guide to the U. S. Army in Nineteenth Century Texas (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2000). Thomas T. Smith, The U. S. Army & the Texas Frontier Economy, 1845–1900 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999).

Categories:

  • Exploration
  • Guides, Scouts, and Interpreters
  • Surveyors and Cartographers
  • Founders and Pioneers
  • Military
  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
  • Politics and Government
  • Civic and Community Leaders
  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Ranchers and Cattlemen
  • Religion
  • Methodist

Time Periods:

  • Antebellum Texas
  • Civil War
  • Reconstruction
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era

Places:

  • Central Texas
  • San Antonio
  • Hill Country and Edwards Plateau Region

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

Rudi R. Rodriguez, “Rodriguez, José Policarpio,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed March 08, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/rodriguez-jose-policarpio.

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