José San Román, merchant, banker, and broker in the contraband cotton trade of the Civil War, son of Joaquín María de San Román, was born at Valle de Arcentales, Bilbao, Spain, in 1822. He came to America in the late 1830s and settled in New Orleans, where he was apprenticed to the English merchandise firm Thorn M. Grath Company. In 1846 San Román moved to Matamoros, Tamaulipas, and established a dry-goods firm sponsored by the company. By 1850 the business extended across the Rio Grande to the newly incorporated town of Brownsville, Texas. San Román prospered and expanded his business into commercial credit, trustee holdings, real estate, and cotton brokerage. His international business was affected by the insecurity of the times: the presence of United States troops in Matamoros (1846–47), José María Carbajal's filibustering expeditions in the South Texas-Tamaulipas area (1851–53), the panic of 1857, Juan N. Cortina's revolt (1859), and European intervention in the northern Mexico-South Texas region. By 1860 San Román had moved to Brownsville, where, with Mifflin Kenedy, Richard King, Charles Stillman, Humphrey E. Woodhouse, Jeremiah Galván, Santiago Yturria, and the Treviño brothers, he monopolized credit services to smaller merchants and forced many of them out of business. Earlier, San Román and John Young, a former associate of Stillman, operated several boats along the Rio Grande, including the Guadalupe, the Alamo, and the José San Román. In 1857 they sold most of their interest in the Guadalupe and another steamboat, the Swan, to Mifflin Kenedy and Company.
During the Union blockade in the Civil War, San Román became a key figure in the contraband trade carried on in Bagdad, Brownsville, and Matamoros. His firm served as a brokerage house for hundreds of cotton farmers west of the Mississippi River. He moved back to Matamoros in the early 1860s and sold cotton wholesale to textile firms in New York, England, and Germany, thereby avoiding the interference of United States military and civil authorities on the Texas side of the Rio Grande. By 1870 he was considered one of the wealthiest men in South Texas. After the war he opened a larger mercantile firm in Brownsville managed by his apprentice, Simón Celaya. In the 1870s, with Celaya as principal agent and Woodhouse as a financial backer, San Román helped to secure a new charter for the Rio Grande Railroad and to build it from Point Isabel to Brownsville. As partners, San Román and Celaya were also involved in the Tamaulipas Zona Libre bill of 1870, which affected the transportation of goods from Texas to Mexico. After establishing two of his relatives in commercial activities, San Román returned to Spain in 1878, leaving his major interests in the hands of Celaya and Feliciano and Justo San Román. From Bilbao, he assigned the power of attorney over his personal property and real estate holdings to Feliciano. According to Mrs. Celia S. Santiso, local Brownsville agent for the San Román family in Spain, José San Román died at Bilbao in the late 1890s.