San Agustín de Laredo, a colonial city of New Spain founded in 1755, was named for a town in Santander, located on the north coast of Spain. Nuevo Santander, one of the last northern provinces of New Spain, was established by the Spaniard José de Escandón as part of a program to colonize northern Mexico. Appointed governor, Escandón was responsible for the colonization along the Río Grande, and a chain of six settlements were established, with Camargo being the earliest in 1749. The other outposts included Reynosa (1749), Dolores (1750), Revilla (1750), and Mier (1752). Since no missions or presidios were associated with its founding, Laredo is considered the oldest independent settlement in Texas and is the only remaining Spanish colonial settlement on the north bank of the lower Río Grande.
Laredo was founded on the north bank of the Río Grande on May 15, 1755, when Captain Tomás Sánchez, with three families, was granted permission to settle 15 leagues of land near an Indian ford on the Río Grande. Operated as a family rancho, the Sánchez estate ran cattle, sheep, goats, horses, mules and oxen. In 1767, the city was laid out, and in the years to follow, ranching became the sustenance of the colony.
The 1757 inspection reported eleven families owning 100 cattle, 125 mules, 712 horses, and 9,089 sheep and goats. The first Texas cattle drives took place along the San Antonio-Laredo road to Saltillo in the 18th century, and Laredo became an important frontier outpost on the lower Camino Real, or King's Road, which stretched from Saltillo through San Antonio to Los Adaes. During the Spanish-Mexican period, the Texas cowboy was born. Round-ups of wild cattle called mesteños were regulated by the City Council, and brands were publicly registered.
The Spanish settlement became a Mexican city in 1821 when Mexico gained it independence from Spain, and, during the early 1800s, a trading economy developed as cattle hides and wool were traded south in exchange for food and household necessities. However, trade was disrupted and many ranchos were wiped out by the raids of the Comanche and Apache Indians who reaped the spoils of war and gained prestige in their warrior-based societies. The Carrizos, another group of Native Americans who practiced a hunting-gathering existence, were decimated by disease and eventually assimilated into Spanish culture.
Disgruntled with the Mexican centralist government's rule by dictatorship and its complacency in defending the northern frontier from Indian attack, many Laredoans supported the constitutional convention which created the Republic of the Río Grande on January 7, 1840. Laredo became a capital of the new republic which attempted to unite Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, and parts of South Texas. After several skirmishes with the Mexican army, the short-lived republic came to an end, enduring only 283 days. Although the Republic of Texas, which had won its independence from Mexico in 1836, attempted to claim Laredo, its citizens remained loyal to Mexico after the defeat of the Republic of the Río Grande.
In 1845, the annexation of Texas by the United States led to the declaration of war against Mexico. Shortly after the fall of Mexico, the Río Grande was declared the boundary between the United States and Mexico. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Laredo officially became part of Texas. Mexicans who wanted to retain their citizenship moved across the river. This area previously settled as part of Laredo was named Nuevo Laredo in 1848. An estimated 120 refugee families planted their roots and grew to a population of around 2,000 in the 1870s.
The development of Laredo, from a small Spanish settlement to a bustling metropolitan city, is evident in its urban landscape. Central to the urbanization of Laredo was the development of a street grid based on the Spanish plaza settlement system. In 1767, Juan Fernando de Palacios, the governor of Nuevo Santander, New Spain, officially designated Laredo as a villa, laid out a central plaza, and issued porciones or land grants to settlers. Town lots were assigned for public and private uses, and six leagues of land surrounding the villa were designated as ejidos, or common pastures. Town lots measuring 20 x 40 varas were laid out around the plaza. The depth of the town lot was laid out "for the greater comfort of the owners, and in order that they may build enclosures and patios in which they may keep their cattle and horses." The streets were laid out 10 varas in width "so that people may go in and out on horseback with ease and without danger." Central to the plan was the rectangular plaza which was 100 varas in length and 80 varas in width. This original Spanish plaza was used to corral cattle during roundups for branding and for public gatherings such as readings of decrees.
After the Civil War, this traditional Spanish plaza town plan was expanded by Mayor Samuel Jarvis. Knowledgeable in engineering, Jarvis surveyed the city to advance its development. On October 18, 1869, the City Council passed a resolution that officially adopted the "new map that the mayor made of the streets." Jarvis laid out plazas and named many of the streets alternately for Mexican and American heroes, while others he named for his daughters. Later in 1872, Samuel Jarvis and the City Council ordered the subdivision of the ejidos (common pasture lands) leased and sold. Samuel Jarvis's vision soon became reality as the city would experience a period of unprecedented growth and emerge as a major international land port.
1881 marked the transformation of Laredo from a villa to a booming "gateway" city with the arrival of the railroads. Laredo became a major thoroughfare for trade between the United States and Mexico, augmented by the Zona Libre, or free trade zone established between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. The rediscovery of Spanish coal mines 29 miles northwest of the city assured a supply of fuel for the railroads. These coal deposits which ran along the Río Grande north to Eagle Pass were the largest in the United States. Another boost to the local economy was the late 19th century expansion of nearby Ft. McIntosh, founded in 1849 on the Paso del Indio, an old Indian crossing northwest of the city. The city's population tripled from 3,521 in 1880 to 11,319 in 1890 as emigrants from Europe and all parts of the United States moved to Laredo seeking employment and business opportunities.
Two town plans charted the city's expansion. The 1881 Plano de los Dos Laredos created by E. R. Laroche, an engineer hired by the Mexican government, was a binational town plan designed to accommodate the economic and demographic expansion of the cities resulting from the revolutionary impact of the railroads in the movement of goods and services. Construction began on the railroad from Monterrey to Nuevo Laredo in 1881, and the state became imbued with an expectation of economic growth and prosperity of the Porfirian era, as the two Laredos emerged as important international ports. Nine years later, the 1890 City Map of Laredo produced by Jorge Pérez showed an expanded town plan with 23 plazas, and all of the ejidos (three square miles) subdivided into blocks.
During the 1880s, the city of Laredo began to expand northward from San Agustín Plaza. The city grew north along Flores Avenue, which became the main business artery. The building of a new City Hall in 1883-1884 caused businesses, hotels, and restaurants to locate north of San Agustín Plaza. Known as El Mercado, the rear portion of the building housed stalls for vendors who offered all types of produce and other articles for sale. Several Mexican-style commercial buildings were erected around the Mercado. These brick structures were characterized by flat roofs with extended parapets, hood molds over arched windows, and dentiled cornices. A zaguán, or arched carriage entrance was another prominent feature. Other buildings featured American Late Victorian ornamental cast iron facades imported from the industrial Middle West.
The site of Laredo has been a well know point for crossing the Río Grande. The settlement was located near the Paso de los Indios, an old Indian crossing noted by explorer Jacinto de Leon in 1745. The river provided a way of life for the settlers, as river perch became part of the Spanish settlers' diet, crops planted in the fertile river valley provided an abundant harvest, and carrizo, or cane, was utilized as thatch for their hut-like homes called jacales. The steep banks of the river were rich with sandstone, lime and mud, durable materials that contributed to the border's unique architectural legacy.
Laredo's ferry crossing was originally situated at Water Street and Flores, and resulted in the emergence of Flores Avenue as the main business artery in the early 19th century. Families who were inextricably connected by a common ancestry used small canoes called chalanes to cross the river. However, the age of steel would revolutionize the river access between the two cities, as monumental engineering fetes became major mechanisms of transmigration.
The first international bridge was a temporary railroad structure erected in 1881 shortly after the arrival of the railroads. It was not until 1889 that the Foot and Wagon bridge was constructed at Convent Avenue, with the material for its entire construction being exported from Toledo, Ohio. After a fire destroyed the bridge in 1920, a second International Bridge was constructed and opened to the public in 1922. The wild, untamed river was master in the 1954 flood. Purportedly the second largest flood in the Laredo's history, the raging waters inundated the Second International Bridge. This prompted the construction of the existing bridge which accommodates more than seven million pedestrians annually.
The residential character of Laredo is consistent with the status oriented, high density Latin American settlement pattern. Those families of the highest social status located their homes in close proximity to the plaza, while others of lesser status located on the periphery. In the second half of the 19th century, the elite residential neighborhood centered around San Agustín Plaza. San Agustín Church, situated on the east side of the plaza, was founded in 1767, and the present building was constructed in 1860-1872. Prominent ranchers and settlers who lived adjacent to the plaza were the García, Leyendecker, Martin, Vidaurri, Benavides, and Ramon families.
Neighborhoods, or barrios, developed on the periphery of the centro, or downtown commercial district. These barrios became densely populated, fueled by the early 20th century oil and gas boom coupled with the major migration northward during the Mexican Revolution. Small neighborhoods developed in relation to places of employment, and churches and schools became focal points of the barrios. Escuelitas, or small private schools, and kindergartens were established to educate Spanish speaking youth.
Characterized by vernacular as well as high style architecture, late 19th and early 20th century barrio architecture exhibited a blend of Mexican and American concepts of living. These traditional Mexican residences featured flat concrete roofs, exterior street facades with recessed openings, and plain walls with decorative quoins and cornices. A more classical Moorish or mudejar style featured a U or ell shaped plan around a court yard stylized with classical ornamentation such as cornices, pilasters, and wrought iron balconies. The borrowing of American stylistic traits was evident in the use of an Anglo-American central hall or Victorian asymmetrical floor plan. Additional American elements were the exterior chimney which was incorporated into the residential floor plan, and Victorian and Classical Revival exterior trim.
Another Mexican urban trait that endured over time was the neighborhood business district. Small neighborhood businesses such as groceries, tortillerias, confectioneries, and barber shops sprang up in the barrios. A distinctive streetscape pattern was a residential dwelling attached to a commercial corner structure, incorporating a mixed residential and business use.
Located east of the centro on the banks of the Río Grande, the Azteca barrio is considered one of the oldest residential areas in Laredo, since lots were deeded as early as the 1870s and 1880s. As the neighborhood expanded northward, its name changed from El Ranchero to El Azteca, named for the Azteca Theater which opened in 1922. Today, El Azteca is nationally recognized for the integrity of its architecture and urban form, with more than 140 buildings eligible for the National Register.
El Cuatro was another early barrio which sprang up west of the centro. The name, El Cuatro, was derived from the city voting precinct in which the barrio was located - the "Fourth Ward." Many early residents were employed with the railroads, and their box-shaped board and batten houses are still present throughout the neighborhood. Due to its proximity to Fort McIntosh, the neighborhood attracted a small enclave of blacks. For a short time in 1865, the post was manned by a company of the 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry. Since that time a number of black units were stationed at the fort, including Company K of the Black Twenty-fifth U.S. Infantry in 1906. The soldiers' families and their descendants made their homes in El Cuatro and the small barrio across the tracks called El Tonto. Saint James Tabernacle and the Grayson school remain as the only architectural relics of Laredo's black history.
As the city expanded, two elite residential neighborhoods developed. St. Peter's neighborhood was located immediately northwest of the centro and across from the International and Great Northern passenger depot. This neighborhood developed between 1881 and World War I as European and Jewish emigrants settled in Laredo, many of whom came to be counted among Laredo's most prominent citizens. Developed in proximity to a public plaza, the neighborhood was named for St. Peters, the first English speaking Catholic Church, constructed by Enrique Portscheller, a German mason, in 1896-1897. Five other houses of worship were built in the neighborhood representing Protestant and Jewish faiths.
Laredo's first elite suburban development was closely connected with the electric street car service. In 1888, the Laredo Improvement Company was chartered by the state of Texas to purchase property, erect buildings, accumulate and loan funds, and construct a street railway system. The street car system, possibly the first west of the Mississippi, was designed to attract prospective buyers in the Heights residential addition owned by the Laredo Improvement Company. With the establishment of the street car service on December 5, 1889, a real estate boom occurred between 1889 and 1895. Many stately homes were built along Market and adjacent streets which exhibited a variety of styles: Late Victorian, Bungalow, Prairie Style, Italian Renaissance Revival, and Spanish Colonial Revival.
The tumultuous Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 brought a tide of emigrants to Laredo. Many found employment in the booming industries of coal mining, onion agriculture, brick manufacturing, and later in the 1920s, oil and gas production . More barrios extended the city north of the Texas-Mexican Railway tracks and southeast of Chacon creek, and their names reflected a personality of place which continues in importance today. Many of these barrios such as La Ladrillera, Holy Redeemer, El Trece, La Guadalupe, Canta Rana, Los Amores, Sal Si Puedes, Chacon, and Santo Niño continue to serve as symbols of community identity and cohesiveness. By the mid 1950s, most of the Spanish ejidos were developed, and today the city's 19th century urban core remains intact.
Known today as the city under seven flags, Laredo has emerged as the principal port of entry into Mexico. As the second fastest growing city in the nation, this border metropolis has greatly benefited from the well-planned, historic "Streets of Laredo," and its urban core continues to be reinvigorated as commercial areas and neighborhoods make the "Gateway City" their home.