Antonio Zapata, military leader and wealthy ranchero, was born around 1800 in Guerrero, Tamaulipas, and spent the early part of his life as a sheepherder. He eventually made a fortune as a ranchero. Zapata served as juez in Guerrero and distinguished himself as a militia officer against Comanche and Lipan raiders. The Indians knew him as "Sombrero de Manteca" because he used a hair tonic that caused his hair to shine. He joined with other northern leaders in armed resistance to Antonio López de Santa Anna's Centralist subversion of the Mexican Constitution of 1824. Commissioned a colonel, he fought for the Federalist cause under the command of Antonio Canales Rosillo. A gifted cavalry officer, he had been compared to Chevalier Bayard and Stonewall Jackson. During the Texas Revolution foreign merchants closed their trading houses in northern Mexico, Zapata's properties were looted, and he took some $70,000 in losses, yet he remained financially solvent. In 1838 he became a major leader in an insurrection that organized at Guerrero against the Mexican Centralist government. He participated in various military campaigns and served against Centralist forces at Mier. In January 1840 a convention of delegates, including Antonio Canales Rosillo, Jesús Cárdenas, José María Jesús Carbajal, Juan Francisco Farías, Manuel Niña, Pedro Lemus, and Francisco Vidaurri y Villaseñor, met at Laredo and proclaimed the existence of the Republic of the Rio Grande with Laredo as its capital. Named as military commandant under Canales, Zapata led a cavalry unit that bore most of the fighting as Laredo and other Rio Grande towns, except Matamoros, were taken in succession. After lifting a siege at Matamoros Canales's forces took the field against Monterrey. But at a decisive point in the battle, part of the Federalist forces deserted to the enemy. Colonel Zapata's cavalry and Texian auxiliaries formed the rear guard and with heavy losses returned to the Rio Grande. Canales then sent Zapata with about forty men, including twelve Texians, on a foraging expedition. They were captured at Santa Rita de Morelos, Coahuila, and having refused to betray the republic, Zapata, along with twenty-two of his men, was tried by a military council, convicted of treason, and executed at Monclova, Coahuila, on March 29, 1840. Zapata's head was carried to Guerrero and exhibited on a pole there for three days as a warning to any would-be conspirators. General Canales made an effort to save his friend, but was defeated by the Centralist forces of Gen. Mariano Arista between San Fernando and Morelos. The new government at Laredo, upon hearing of the disaster, fled toward Lipantitlán on the Lower Nueces. This ended the republic's first stirrings, but for decades afterward it would be periodically revived.
Zapata County was named for Antonio Zapata when it was separated from Starr and Webb counties on January 22, 1858. Carrizo, later renamed Zapata, was the county seat.