Brownsville, the county seat of Cameron County, is across the Rio Grande from Matamoros, Tamaulipas, at the southernmost tip of Texas. The city is at the southern terminus of U.S. highways 77 and 83 and the Missouri Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads, as well as a major port of entry to Mexico. Although the site was explored as early as the seventeenth century, the first settlers did not arrive until the latter part of the eighteenth century. In 1765 the community of San Juan de los Esteros (present-day Matamoros) was established across the Rio Grande. In 1781 Spanish authorities granted fifty-nine leagues of land on the northern bank of the river, including all of the site of Brownsville, to José Salvador de la Garza, who established a ranch about sixteen miles northwest of the site. During the early nineteenth century a small number of squatters, most of them herders and farmers from Matamoros, built huts in the area. A small settlement had formed by 1836, when Texas declared her independence from Mexico, but the region was still only sparsely settled when United States troops under Gen. Zachary Taylor arrived in early 1846. After taking up a position across from Matamoros, Taylor's forces began the construction of a defensive position near the settlement. Their temporary fort was originally called Fort Texas, but was renamed Fort Brown a short time later, in honor of Maj. Jacob Brown, who died during a Mexican attack on the stronghold. After the Mexican War, at the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the area became part of the state of Texas and fell within the jurisdiction of San Patricio County. The same year Charles Stillman purchased a large part of the Garza grant north and northwest of Matamoros, including part of the city's common landholdings, from the children of the first wife of José Narciso Cavazos. Cavazos had remarried, however, and the heirs of his second wife, led by the eldest son, Juan N. Cortina, had been given legal title to the property, a fact that later led to a long series of legal battles over ownership. Stillman and his partner, Samuel Belden, laid out a town that they called Brownsville. George Lyons, deputy surveyor of Nueces County, surveyed a townsite of 4,676 acres. In December 1848, Stillman, Belden, and Simon Mussina formed the Brownsville Town Company and began selling lots for as much as $1,500 each.
Brownsville was made county seat of the new Cameron County on January 13, 1849, and a post office went into operation on February 3. Within a short time the town's population—swollen by refugees from Matamoros and Forty-niners taking the Gila route to the gold fields of California—had increased to more than 1,000. Despite a cholera epidemic in the spring of 1849 that reportedly killed nearly half the population, the town continued to boom. Brownsville soon replaced Matamoros as the leading trade center for northern Mexico. Merchants on both sides of the border quickly recognized the advantage of shipping goods to Brownsville and then smuggling them across the Rio Grande to avoid paying high Mexican duties. During the Mexican War, Richard King, Mifflin Kenedy and Charles Stillman had set up a transport company to haul American troops and supplies up the river. After the war the three men managed to establish a virtual monopoly on Rio Grande transportation, thus ensuring the Anglo dominance of trade in the area and helping to spur the town's growth. As a result of the flourishing commerce, numerous stores sprang up along the riverfront. A city market opened in 1850, when the first regular newspaper, the Sentinel, began publication. The 1850 census showed a population of 519, two-thirds of whom were from the states along the Atlantic seaboard; most of the remainder were Mexican, Irish, French, English, and German. The culture of the town reflected the cosmopolitan character of its inhabitants: a large number of the early residents had previously lived in Mexico and many had absorbed Mexican customs and practices. Because of Brownsville's extensive trade network and large European contingent, a large percentage of the residents were fluent in several languages, including Spanish, English, French, and German.
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