Historian helps steer border wall clear of South Texas’ historic cemeteries and ancient plots

The Border Wall

A look back on 'last area to really be settled' after Civil War

SOUTH POINT, Texas (Border Report) — South Texas historian Eugene Fernandez rarely has both hands on the steering wheel of his weathered “field truck” as he excitedly points out historic cemeteries and family plots from a dusty levee alongside the Rio Grande.

On a recent 8-mile drive to the southern-most tip of Texas known as South Point, Fernandez identified 150 or so ranchitos where hundreds of cemetery plots are located. The small ranch substations, which sprung up after the Civil War, include Rancho La Canasta, Rancho La Bolsa, and Rancho Burrita, named after the ancestral ranch managers.

Ranch workers brought with them their families to live on these outposts, and as generations died off, they were buried together in small cemeteries on the properties. Some rest beneath majestic Montezuma Cypress trees or alongside patches of prickly pear cactus.

There are countless human remains from this bygone era lying beneath the sandy soil in this rural section of Texas’ Cameron County. And as the Trump administration plans to expand the construction of the border wall here, skirting these plots and cemeteries requires someone familiar with the county’s history and lore.

Fernandez is that go-to person.

As chairman of the Cameron County Historical Commission, Fernandez is the local liaison for the Texas Historical Commission. He also chairs the historic cemetery committee, and he seems to know where all, or most, of the bones are buried.

South Point, Texas, is at the southern most tip of South Texas, about 10 miles west of the Gulf of Mexico.

“The little ranchitos that were developed on that side. … These were the little establishments of human civilization back in those days,” Fernandez said Thursday, looking at cattle grazing on a bluff on the Mexican banks of the calm Rio Grande. “They started sending people in here from up the river (and the Mexican towns of) Camargo, Mier and Guerrero because this was the last area to be really settled.”

Fernandez said during the post-Civil War period, ranchers owned lands on both sides of the river and tended fields and herds with no consideration for any type of international border boundary. They went back and forth regularly as cattle strayed, and as the crops and finances demanded.

But those boundary lines are soon to be demarcated with a towering 30-foot-tall metal bollard border fence, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials told Border Report that they rely on Fernandez for information on what might lie beneath and where.

A living, walking history of the region

Fernandez is an energetic and enthusiastic 70-year-old who talks fast and often strays on historical tangents, more than willing to impart all of his vast wisdom of the area on newcomers.

Eugene Fernandez, chairman of the Cameron County Historical Commission, is seen on June 17, 2020, in front of a segment of border wall near South Point, Texas, the southern most tip of Texas, where new border wall will be built. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

He easily recites names like the Brulay Plantation, which was founded in the early 1870s by Frenchman George Brulay of Paris. He points out exotic birds and native plants like sabal palm trees, whose largest grove in the nation is located here.

Fernandez also explains how the Native American Comanches, Apaches and Karankawa had originally settled this area and the difficulties that Mexican ranchers had in establishing a foothold. “It was just too hairy out in this part of the country,” he said. “They couldn’t settle in here and so they did it gradually.”

What he doesn’t know he gets by asking the “old timers,” community contacts in their 80s or 90s, or by consulting maps from the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), the agency that oversees the river lands, he said.

His own ancestors date back to the original founders of some of the largest cities in South Texas and northern Mexico. And he has plenty of stories about them, too. Some of which he shares during his weekly Thursday history segments on KVEO-TV.

Building around ancient ruins

CBP officials confirmed to Border Report they consult with Fernandez for guidance when faced with historical remains in the path of the border wall, adding that “CBP makes every attempt to go around and mitigate any impacts to the sites.”

“Identifying possible historical and cultural resources within a planned barrier alignment has always been part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s public and stakeholder outreach process. It has never been CBP’s intent to disturb or relocate burial sites or sensitive sites that may lie within planned barrier alignment,” a CBP official said in a written response to Border Report.

CBP officials said they “halt work” if they find “unidentified artifacts.” They then “work with the appropriate stakeholders to identify strategies that avoid, minimize, or mitigate impacts to the greatest extent possible.”

However, environmentalists point out that the Trump administration on Oct. 31, 2019, issued 29 environmental waivers in order to build additional segments of the border wall to connect to the existing wall built on the IBWC’s flood-control levee. This includes waivers to the National Historic Preservation Act, the Antiquities Act, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The waivers are listed in the Federal Register, which cites “the Rio Grande Valley Sector is an area of high illegal entry” and says waivers are necessary “in order to ensure the expeditious construction of the barriers.”

The Administration also has waived these laws in southwestern Arizona, where it is building a border wall through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where the Tohono O’odham nation claims many ancestral remains are located.

READ: Hundreds peacefully protest border-wall construction’s ‘desecration of tribal lands’

It’s quite possible that Comanche, Apache and Karankawa remains are also scattered throughout this desolate countryside. And whenever the possible remains of ancient Native Americans are discovered, Fernandez said he reaches out to the Texas Historical Commission in Austin, which “sends down an archaeologist” to further investigate.

A delta flood plain changed by changing river

This area is part of a delta that, due to the constantly changing Rio Grande, is now within a flood plain. You’ll no longer find ranches or homes here, just fields of the “three Cs: cotton, corn, and cabbage,” crops Fernandez says must be rotated in order to extract enough nutrients from the sandy soil and punishing heat.

There also are some vineyards. And for years, Fernandez himself was a co-partner in a vineyard field where they grew grapes that were sold for wine bottled in Central Texas.

Eugene Fernandez picks grapes from a vineyard where he used to be a co-partner on June 17, 2020, in South Point, Texas, in rural Cameron County. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Sour, dark red grapes grown for port wine, and sweeter white grapes for Moscato, still hang precariously on his former untended vines above thigh-high uncut grass and weeds. But as he examines the neglected crops, Fernandez proclaims “the chachalacas (a loud chicken-like bird) got to them.”

Building a border wall to the Gulf

Congress in Fiscal 2020 exempted any funds from being used to build segments of the border wall on “historic cemeteries.” But it is unclear what protections, if any, are afforded to these ranchito plots that are not historically recognized. While some are just crumbling crosses under large trees, some are fenced off and have modern gravestones dating back as recently as the 1990s.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said he inserted the exemption into the House budget bill.

“The language I put I did not put ‘certified’ but I put ‘historical cemeteries,’ so I guess that could be interpreted another way,” said Cuellar, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Border Security Subcommittee.

Cuellar told Border Report that he will try to insert language in the Fiscal 2021 budget to exempt the border wall in “designated areas.” He plans to bring that up with lawmakers as they return to Washington, D.C., after the Fourth of July break, saying he hopes that will encompass more area of historic and cultural importance in South Texas from border wall construction. But he added: “I don’t know how that language will come out.”

Trajectory of South Texas wall unknown

The current border wall — built over a decade ago — winds and curves and steers well away from noticeable cemeteries. But the trajectory of the new wall is uncertain. Currently, it ends not too far from historic Palmito Hill and the Palmito Ranch Battlefield National Historic Landmark, where the last land battle of the Civil War was fought 34 days after the war had ended.

The end of the current span of border wall in South Point, Texas. It is uncertain where exactly the new border wall will be built as it meanders toward the Gulf of Mexico. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Fernandez expects the wall will not encroach on the national battlefield, and Congress also has exempted it from nearby SpaceX lands. How close it is built through these open fields en route to the Gulf of Mexico depends on the private lands acquired by the government, the soft flood plain soil, and information Fernandez provides to help steer federal officials away from ranching family graves.

At the end of the wall, Fernandez steps over the carcass of a coyote while scanning the horizon. He examines a dirt road that runs through a brown cornfield where he guesses the wall will go.

“Where we are is at the base of the existing levee and the border wall. So, understandably, any future consideration for construction on the wall would go out that way seeming to follow that dirt road,” Fernandez said. He then ticks off four cemeteries nearby from former ranchitos, but rules two of them out from the path of construction, saying one is too close to the river as he points to the green tree line marking the Rio Grande about a quarter-mile away. The other is a half-mile north, seemingly out of the current path.

“So I feel comfortable there is not going to be any encroachment on human remains,” Fernandez said. “Who knows what future talks will be all about but we will be in those sessions.”

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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