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This week in Texas History: Pugnacious priest saves Texas for Spain

By Bartee Haile

Spanish authorities banished Father Juan Manuel Zambrano from provincial Texas on May 31, 1814, but the combative priest stood his ground and forced his earthly opponents to rescind the order.

Gov. Manuel de Salcedo succeeded in sending Zambrano into exile in 1807.  After three long years of isolation in the Mexican interior, the penitent priest was permitted to return to his native San Antonio over the strong objections of the governor.

Zambrano’s homecoming coincided with the most serious challenge ever to Spanish rule since Cortes’ conquest in 1521.  Three centuries of pent-up hostility erupted into armed insurrection inspired by another political priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Castillo.

The revolt rolled over the Rio Grande and into Texas, where Salcedo was outmaneuvered by a retired army captain.  Supported by the common soldiers, Juan Bautista de las Casas took power and the governor prisoner on Jan. 22, 1811.

Casas at first claimed that his coup was necessary to better battle the Hidalgo horde.  But the two-faced tyrant soon showed his true colors by jailing Europeans and confiscating their property.

While his two brothers stayed in San Antonio to keep tabs on the uprising, Zambrano hid out at the family ranch.  Informed that the time had come to save the day, the fugitive slipped back into town in late February.

Zambrano secretly huddled with four trusted friends, all well-to-do pillars of the community.  He told them to recruit a small cadre of like-minded citizens and to meet him the next night at the military barracks.

The counter-coup was bloodless child’s play.  The sentries gave up without a fight as did the officers, who sheepishly surrendered in their pajamas.  Concerned only with winding up on the winning side, the fickle troops repledged their allegiance to the crown and mother country.

Once the city was secured, the five-man junta dragged the deposed dictator out of bed.  Capt. Casas begged his captors to spare him the indignity of parading half-naked through the streets, a reasonable request they readily granted.

When several minutes passed with no sign of the prisoner, Zambrano suspected subterfuge.  Breaking down the bedroom door, he caught Casas in the act of burning a pile of incriminating papers.  The priest put out the fire and placed the devious despot under constant guard pending his transfer to the interior for trial.

Casas was convicted of treason and executed according to custom.  He was made to kneel and kiss the death decree before being shot in the back.  His severed head was shipped to San Antonio as gruesome proof of his fate.

Father Zambrano presided over a caretaker government until the last pockets of Hidalgo resistance were crushed.  He then astonished his old enemy Salcedo by dissolving the junta and graciously relinquishing the reins.

Zambrano’s reward for rescuing Texas was a commission as a lieutenant colonel.  Reveling in his new role, the friar fought a holy war against the outlaw gangs terrorizing the eastern edge of the province.

The bandits pulled back beyond the Sabine River and laid a trap for Zambrano.  When he rode into their fool-proof ambush, 25 riflemen opened fire and all 25 missed.  The miraculous escape convinced even the most skeptical cutthroat that the reckless priest had an angel on his shoulder.

But peace brought out the worst in Zambrano, whose wild and wicked ways produced a public outcry for his permanent expulsion from Texas.  The governor issued the order but could not find anyone with nerve enough to carry it out.

By the summer of 1815, Zambrano considered himself immune to the laws of man and God.  But a lowly lieutenant came within a whisker of cutting him down to size.

During a quarrel over a gambling debt, Zambrano challenged the young officer to a duel.  His quick acceptance should have alerted the cantankerous clergyman to the danger, but he was more surprised than alarmed that his bluff had finally been called.

His sly opponent was an expert swordsman, who proceeded to carve Zambrano like a side of beef.  Bleeding profusely from a dozen cuts, he was saved from certain death by soldiers who stopped the illegal combat.

The painful encounter did not cause Father Zambrano to reform, though in the future he was more selective of the fights he picked.  Nevertheless, he evidently repeated the same mistake and on that final occasion paid the ultimate price.

While the details of his death have not survived, his passing rated this comment from the San Antonio postmaster in a letter to his wife.  “Don’t be afraid of the beating Father Zambrano threatened you with.  I’ve heard he died recently in an exemplary way.  May God keep him in his heavenly kingdom!”

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