Introducing the Land


Soil & Rainfall


Water Supply

Political History


Abstract of Title

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Image: Aerial View of Rio Grande River

From "Rio Grande Heritage" by Brian Robertson

The land of Cameron County is an alluvial plain or delta of the Rio Grande River. The unique topographic feature is that the land gently slopes downhill from the Rio Grande River to the northeast. On average, the fall is about one foot per mile. The bank of the Rio Grande southwest of San Benito is at an elevation of approximately 60 feet, while downtown San Benito is at an elevation of approximately 30 feet. Put another way, the bottom of the river channel is slightly higher in elevation than downtown San Benito.

About two-thousand acres are too high to be watered by the gravity system , and for the irrigation of this tract a high line ditch has been constructed and large pumps installed at the head gates. These pumps also provide additional protection should the level of water in the river become lower than the intake at the head gates for the gravity system.

Soil & Rainfall

The soil of the Valley is very fertile, but the climate is semi-arid. The average rainfall of the Valley is 26 inches per year. However, most falls as thundershowers and consequently is unevenly distributed, both geographically and seasonally. Large variations occur over relatively small areas.


Until the arrival of the railroad in 1904, stock raising was the principal agricultural industry in the Valley. Crops were primarily grown for subsistence. Irrigation was used only on a very limited scale. By 1900, mesquite, ebony, huisache, retama, and wood brush covered much of Cameron County. The connection of the area to the national rail system in 1904 made the construction of large-scale irrigation systems economically feasible. Developers formed land and irrigation companies to purchase large tracts of land, construct irrigation systems, clear the land and divide it into farm tracts and town sites. They promoted their developments throughout much of the United States, particularly the Midwest. However, most of these private companies were inadequately capitalized. Beginning in 1914, the landowners created irrigation districts, which are political subdivisions of the state, to purchase and operate the irrigation systems. With irrigation, Cameron County is one of the most intensively farmed counties in the nation. Approximately 287,000 acres of Cameron County are irrigated. The basic money crops are cotton, sorghum, vegetables, sugar cane, and citrus fruit (both grapefruit and oranges).

Water Supply

Text taken from a 1909 report:

"The lands of this Company carry with them rights for withdrawal of a full supply of water from the Rio Grande. Over 90% of the water is withdrawn from the stream by gravity through head gates installed on the river banks. The Rio Grande is a national boundary line and the head gates have been constructed with the permission and under the supervision of the United States and Mexican Governments."

"The water is first diverted from the river into a canal two and one-half miles long, with a width of seventy and a depth of fifteen feet. This artificial waterway connects with a series of resacas, or dry river beds, which are not connected with the river. These resacas, being ancient channels of the river, are water tight and there is no loss from leakage. The resacas are conveniently located, with the diversion canals, and lateral canals furnish water facilities for every forty-acre tract in the district. The resacas are large and form storage basins of immense capacity. All told, there are 32 1/2 miles of main canals and resacas of an average width of over 350 feet and depth of 20 feet, which with the smaller canals have a storage capacity of 30,000 acre feet, or in other words, sufficient water to cover 30,000 acres one foot in depth. This storage capacity is an ample safeguard against all low water stages in the river."

Political History

Although Spain discovered what is now Cameron County in about 1519, it did little to settle the area until the mid 1700's. In 1746, Spain created the Colony of Nuevo Santander, which stretched from the Panuco River (Tampico, Mexico is at the mouth of the Panuco) to the Nueces River (Corpus Christi, Texas is near the mouth of the Nueces), and included what was to become Cameron County. In 1825, after Mexico won its independence from Spain, Nuevo Santander became the state of Tamaulipas.

Although the territory between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers, sometimes referred to as the Nueces Strip, had never been part of the province of Texas, the First Congress of the Republic of Texas declared the Rio Grande River to be the southern boundary of Texas in December 1836. However, Texas never physically possessed what is now Cameron County during the existence of the Republic.

On March 1, 1845, the United States invited Texas to join the Union. In response, the President of the Republic of Texas issued a Proclamation on May 5, 1845, calling for the election of deputies to sit in convention to consider the annexation overture. Meeting on July 4, 1845, the convention approved annexation to the United States. With statehood reasonably assured, United States troops commanded by General Zachary Taylor (1784-1850) arrived at Corpus Christi at the end of July, 1845. Texas achieved statehood on December 29, 1845 and the state government inaugurated on February 19, 1846. Under orders to move to the Rio Grande River after the state government was in place, General Taylor's army began marching toward Matamoros on March 8, 1846. Taylor's army arrived at a point on the Arroyo Colorado northeast of present-day San Benito on March 19, 1846. The Arroyo Colorado is a natural drain which meanders from the southwest to the northeast and generally bisects Cameron County. Shortly after crossing the Arroyo, Taylor's troops captured Port Isabel in order to receive supplies, men, and materials by ship, and then began construction of a fort directly across the river from Matamoros. In late May 1848, the fort was named Fort Brown in honor of Major Jacob Brown who was mortally wounded during a bombardment of the fort.

The United States officially declared war on Mexico on May 13, 1846. At the time, word had not reached Washington that Mexican and United States troops had engaged in the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma on May 8-9, the latter resulting in a decisive victory for the United States. The Mexican army retreated toward Monterrey, giving the United States control of the Nueces strip and much of northern Mexico.

Negotiations to end the war concluded on February 2, 1848, with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico, among other things, relinquished ownership of the area between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers to the United States. Ten days later, the Texas Legislature created Cameron County. The City of Brownsville soon sprang up adjacent to Fort Brown, and became the county seat at an election held on December 13, 1848.


The territory between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers was sparsely populated until the arrival of the railroad in 1904. When the first Spanish explorers arrived, they found the area inhabited by small bands of Indians. The few attempts made prior to 1749 to settle the area were unsuccessful. Settlement of Nuevo Santander began in 1749 under Governor Jose Escandon (1700-1770), but no colonies were established in what was to become Cameron County.

When Zachary Taylor's army arrived in 1846, the population of what was to become Cameron County consisted of widely scattered ranches, a small village at what is now Port Isabel, a few houses at Brazos Santiago Pass, and the small village of Santa Rita.

The U.S. Army's occupation of the area in 1846 triggered a relatively small migration, primarily from the United States, to the Valley. By late 1847, approximately 6,000 persons resided in what was to become Cameron County. Following this initial settlement, there was no significant influx from either side of the River until the coming of the railroad in 1904, as shown by the U. S. Census records for Cameron County:

1850 *8,541

1910 27,158

1960 151,098

1860 6,028

1920 36,622

1970 140,368

1870 10,999

1930 77,540

1980 209,727

1880 14,959

1940 83,202

1990 260,120

1890 14,424

1950 125,170

1900 16,095

*Cameron, Starr, and Webb Counties combined

Abstract of Title

The Water District Building is situated on land granted by the King of Spain to Eugenio Fernandez and Bartolome Fernandez on March 1, 1789. This grant is known as the Concepcion de Carricitos grant. Descendants of Bartolome and Eugenio owned much of the grant when the Mexican War ended in 1848. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo provided that provable grants issued before 1836 would be recognized by the State of Texas. Brownsville lawyer Stephen Powers (1814-1882) successfully represented the Fernandez heirs in confirming the title to their land. Powers received an undivided interest in the grant as his fee. He acquired additional undivided interests in the grant by purchase, so that by the time of his death on February 5, 1882, he owned 26,354 undivided acres of the grant.

Powers was an officer in Zachary Taylor's army. When the U.S. Army began marching toward Monterrey in July, 1846, Taylor promoted Powers to colonel and appointed him to a military commission to govern Matamoros and the surrounding area.

In 1849, Powers established a law practice in Brownsville. On February 7, 1855, he married Pauline Victoire (Butler) Impey. To this marriage, two daughters were born, Agnes Anastacia Powers and Frances Euphemia Powers. Pauline had two children by a prior marriage, Annette Pauline Impey and Kate Maria Impey. Agnes married James A. Browne. Frances married James L. Landrum. Kate married Dr. Charles B. Combe and Annette married Benjamin 0. Hicks. In his Will, Stephen Powers gave his interest in the Concepcion de Carricitos Grant in equal shares to Agnes, Frances, Kate, and Annette.

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