Zapata, TX

By: Jean Y. Fish

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: November 1, 1995

Zapata, the county seat of Zapata County, is on U.S. Highway 83 and the shores of International Falcon Reservoir, fifty miles south of Laredo. The first European settlers in the area were residents of Revilla (now Ciudad Guerrero), Mexico. Organized settlement of the area began about 1750, when the viceroy of New Spain commissioned Col. José de Escandón to explore and colonize the vast northern frontier along the Rio Grande. One of the inducements for colonists was the promise of large land grants from the Spanish government on both banks of the Rio Grande. After the requirements for validation of the grants were met, the final adjudication of the lands occurred in 1767. Soon thereafter, the settlers began to move across the river, and a town was begun on the north bank of the Rio Grande. The first name of the village was Habitación. Later the name was changed to Carrizo, after a local Indian group that lived in huts made of cane. In 1858 the name was changed to Bellville, in honor of Governor Peter Hansborough Bell, who signed the bill officially marking off the new Zapata County from Webb and Starr counties. In 1898 the name of the town was permanently changed to Zapata, in honor of Col. Antonio Zapata, a local rancher and respected military man who became one of the leaders of the federalist movement to found the Republic of the Rio Grande, which began in 1839. The first headquarters of this movement were in Zapata County. Two military posts, Camp Drum and Camp Harney, were located at Zapata in the early 1850s to combat border disturbances and Indian attacks.

In December 1842 the men of the Mier expedition under the command of Alexander Somervell occupied Carrizo while foraging for supplies. It was here that General Somervell received orders from President Sam Houston to abandon their punitive expedition. The activities of Juan Nepomuceno Cortina touched Zapata shortly after the Secession Convention in 1861. Cortina and one of his followers, Antonio Ochoa, seized the opportunity to instigate hostilities between the wealthy landowners and the poorer citizens. A group of armed men under the leadership of Ochoa marched on the county seat, seeking to prevent the county officials from taking their oaths of allegiance to the Confederacy. A confrontation occurred, and the insurgents were defeated. In May of the same year Cortina attacked a ranch in the area and was repelled when Confederate troops from nearby Fort McIntosh were sent to the aid of the local forces. The economy in the Zapata area flourished during the 1870s, when Mexico declared a duty-free zone along the border. The free zone was eliminated in 1903, and trade through the border ports declined. The population of Zapata made a sudden jump when the Mexican Revolution in 1913 frightened many residents of Guerrero into fleeing across the river. Many of these people owned land in the area. Zapata was the center of extensive ranching and agricultural endeavors. The townsite was relocated to higher ground upon the completion of Falcon Dam in 1953, when many acres of rich, irrigated farmland were inundated by the waters of International Falcon Reservoir. Zapata is the center of extensive oil and gas wells. In 1985 ranching continued to be a major industry in the area. Zapata has attracted winter tourists and vacationers because of the mild climate and fine fishing in the reservoir. From 1978 to 1985 Zapata had an estimated population of 3,500. It had seventy businesses in 1986. In 1990 the population was 7,119. The population dropped to 4,856 in 2000.

Patsy Jeanne Byfield, Falcon Dam and the Lost Towns of Zapata (Austin: Texas Memorial Museum, 1971). Virgil N. Lott and Mercurio Martinez, The Kingdom of Zapata (San Antonio: Naylor, 1953). Florence J. Scott, Historical Heritage of the Lower Rio Grande (San Antonio: Naylor, 1937; rev. ed., Waco: Texian Press, 1966; rpt., Rio Grande City, Texas: La Retama Press, 1970). Jerry Don Thompson, Vaqueros in Blue and Gray (Austin: Presidial, 1976).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Jean Y. Fish, “Zapata, TX,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 07, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1995

Currently Exists
Place Type
Town Fields
  • Has post office: Yes
  • Is Incorporated: No
Belongs to
  • Zapata County
Associated Names




San Bartolo

  • Latitude: 26.90726050°
  • Longitude: -99.27142550°
Population Counts
People Year
300 1920
450 1930
500 1940
850 1950
2,031 1960
2,102 1970
3,500 1980
7,119 1990
4,856 2000
5,089 2010
4,643 2019