Texas’s Cart War

Not so much a war as a racially based campaign of terror against Texans of Mexican descent, the so-called Cart War was a series of armed raids that nearly ruined the efficient and profitable cartage business of Tejanos and ensured Anglo economic ascendancy in Texas.

Summary of Event

The August-December, 1857, conflict in which Mexican American cart teamsters in Texas were attacked by raiders seeking to destroy their trade was rooted in the historic tensions between peoples of different ethnicities who resided in Texas. Soon after Euro-Americans began arriving in what was then Spanish—and later Mexican—Texas at the beginning of the nineteenth century, racial conflicts intermittently flared into violent encounters. Many whites had inherited negative images of Hispanic peoples from their western European ancestors’ creation of the Leyendas Negras, or Black Legend. Spain;Black Legend The Black Legend portrayed the Spanish and Portuguese inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula and their descendants as greedy, cruel, lazy, arrogant, and dissolute. Moreover, many Europeans believed that intermarriage Marriage;interracial between Europeans and native peoples produced a “mongrelization” of races. Euro-American migrants into Texas generally regarded people whose backgrounds were Spanish, Mexican, or Native American as inferior. Cart War (1857)
Texas;Cart War (1857)
Mexico;and United States[United States]
Mexico;Texas Cart War
[kw]Texas’s Cart War (August-Dec., 1857)
[kw]Cart War, Texas’s (August-Dec., 1857)
[kw]War, Texas’s Cart (August-Dec., 1857)
Cart War (1857)
Texas;Cart War (1857)
Mexico;and United States[United States]
Mexico;Texas Cart War
[g]United States;Aug.-Dec., 1857: Texas’s Cart War[3190]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug.-Dec., 1857: Texas’s Cart War[3190]
[c]Economics;Aug.-Dec., 1857: Texas’s Cart War[3190]
Cass, Lewis M.
Pease, Elisha M.
Pezuela, Manuel Robles

This attitude of superiority accounts in part for the Texans’ war for independence against the Republic of Mexico from 1835 to 1836. Texas residents of Mexican descent, who were known as Tejanos, became increasingly suspect in the eyes of Anglo-Texans, even though many Tejanos had fought alongside the Anglo-Texans against Mexico during the war. Following independence, the Republic of Texas began systematically dispossessing Tejanos of their lands, economic livelihoods, and legal rights. East Texas was virtually depopulated of its substantial Tejano presence. One of the few places in which Tejanos held any numerical, economic, and political power by the time Texas achieved U.S. statehood in 1845 was the most important settlement in Texas during the nineteenth century, San Antonio.

By 1857, Tejanos monopolized the commercial transportation of food and merchandise between the coast of Texas and the trading center of San Antonio. Tejano mule and ox drivers, who were known as arrieros, moved goods on large carts, which had single pairs of five- to seven-foot wheels of cottonwood puncheons fastened with wooden pins and rawhide straps. The carts’ axles were made of strong woods, such as pecan or live oak. Thus, emergency repairs could be made using natural materials that were readily available. The Tejano teamsters’ engineering ingenuity, combined with their superior skills as teamsters and their low charges for moving goods, enabled them to operate profitably. It is estimated that arrieros made up almost 60 percent of the Tejano workforce in Texas. Frederick Law Olmsted Olmsted, Frederick Law , a northern traveler in Texas in 1855-1856, observed,

The Mexican [Tejano] appears to have almost no other business than that of carting goods. Almost the entire transportation of the country is carried on by them with oxen and two-wheeled carts.

During the late summer of 1857, reports began to appear in local newspapers of attacks on Tejano cartmen by masked bands of armed men. Ambitious Anglo teamsters had been trying for some time to take the freight business away from the arrieros. They could not compete with the low rates charged by the already established Tejano commercial ventures, however. Frustrated, they retaliated: first, by harassing and then by assassinating Tejano freighters and by stealing their cargoes. As word spread of the depredations, Anglo communities worried about a race war, and the Tejanos feared an increase in the carnage directed at them. Anglo citizens in Goliad County warned that retaliation by armed Tejanos would provide an excuse for extermination.

Because the killings and thefts were vengeful acts by a particular group against innocent victims, a segment of the Anglo population protested the depredations. However, it is unclear whether the Anglos were motivated by humanitarian or economic considerations. Some complained that carriage rates rose when the arrieros refused to haul merchandise along dangerous routes. Others feared dire economic consequences for the entire region. Carriage prices increased 30 percent after the attacks began. Meanwhile, alarmed Tejanos left San Antonio in unprecedented numbers. Despite a reported seventy-five murders, government and law authorities were slow to act.

Eventually, a committee of citizens from San Antonio was charged with investigating the matter. Some area newspapers called for inquiries but often invoked racist rhetoric in doing so, referring to the Tejanos as a “weak race,” “greaser population,” and “low in the scale of intelligence.”

A combination of forces eventually led to a cessation of the bloodshed. Military escorts accompanied the Tejano cartmen at the insistence of San Antonio merchants who were losing money. Communities organized volunteer companies, which operated under lynch-law traditions, to bring about order. International diplomacy even played a role. On October 14, 1857, the Mexican minister to Washington, Manuel Robles Pezuela, Pezuela, Manuel Robles notified U.S. secretary of state Lewis M. Cass Cass, Lewis M. that his sources reported that armed bands in Texas were hunting down and murdering Mexicans on the public roads. Robles Pezuela’s entreaty—and the fear of international diplomatic complications—moved Cass to pressure Texas governor Elisha M. Pease Pease, Elisha M. to settle the troubles.

Although the raids ended, no one was ever arrested for participation in the crimes. Many even refused to acknowledge the wrongs perpetrated against the Tejano entrepreneurs. In December, 1857, Karnes County citizens condemned the use of military escorts and the actions of the governor. They called the “peon Mexican teamsters . . . intolerable nuisance[s]” who destroyed property. Goliad County citizens expressed similar sentiments.


Ultimately, the perpetrators of the Cart War accomplished their objective. Never again would Tejano freighters dominate commercial shipping in Texas. The arrieros, however, had already demonstrated that, in spite of the stifling prejudice directed against them, skill and business acumen could bring them economic success as long as they were allowed to engage in commerce without violent interference by others envious of their success. The economic ascendancy of Anglo Texans would not be challenged by Tejanos until the twentieth century. Standard histories of Texas ignored the Cart War until the 1980’s, when prominent Tejano historians such as Arnoldo De León focused attention upon it.

Further Reading

  • Alonzo, Armando C. Tejano Legacy: Rancheros and Settlers in South Texas, 1734-1900. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998. Pioneering study of the mutually beneficial relationships between Anglo ranchers and Tejano workers in southern Texas during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
  • De León, Arnoldo. The Tejano Community, 1836-1900. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982. Survey of the inner workings of an ethnic community in nineteenth century Texas, by a leading Tejano historian. Describes the cart trade and its importance to the economies of both San Antonio and the Tejano people.
  • ________. They Called Them Greasers: Anglo Attitudes Toward Mexicans in Texas, 1821-1900. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983. Thorough account of the incidents based upon primary sources, in particular contemporary newspapers. Portrays the Cart War as an example of the pervasive racism practiced and tolerated by Anglos against Tejanos during the nineteenth century.
  • Matovina, Timothy M. Tejano Religion and Ethnicity: San Antonio, 1821-1860. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995. Examines the interrelationship of religion and ethnicity in one of the major urban areas of the southwestern borderlands during the transition period prior to the U.S. Civil War, when Anglos wrested political and economic power away from the Tejano community.
  • Meier, Matt S., and Feliciano Ribera. Mexican Americans, American Mexicans: From Conquistadors to Chicanos. Rev. ed. New York: Hill & Wang, 1993. Standard history survey of people of Mexican descent in the United States. Useful introduction tackles nomenclature considerations; glossary of potentially unfamiliar terms. Places the Cart War in the larger context of patterns of economic intimidation practiced against Mexican Americans in the southwestern borderlands.
  • Montejano, David. Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987. Award-winning history of relations between Anglos and those of Mexican descent in Texas since the winning of Texas independence. Employs sociological models and traditional historical sources to connect early historical experience in the post-Mexican period to twentieth century attitudes. Includes a brief account of the Cart War.
  • Rocha, Rodolfo. “The Tejanos of Texas.” In Texas: A Sesquicentennial Celebration, edited by Donald W. Whisenhunt. Austin, Tex.: Eakin Press, 1984. Brief and blunt overview of the Tejano experience, based on more extensive works.

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