Brought Home from the Mexican War

On August 7, 2016 · 2 Comments

Texas claimed its independence from México in 1836 as a result of the Texas Revolution. It became a sovereign nation. Even so, México considered Texas part of its rightful territory. Texas faced many difficulties during its early years as a new country as it struggled to keep going. It pushed to join the United States and traded its sovereignty to become the 28th state in 1845. This also created tensions between México and the United States, leading to warfare in 1846. The United States won decisively and grew considerably at México’s expense. Its spoils included all of California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada, plus parts of several other states.

Elsewhere in the United States, settlers pushed out from the original Atlantic states onto the prairie. These included Mexican War veterans. They returned home, platted towns, and used names familiar to them. Some of those names reflected their war victories, bringing an odd smattering of Mexican themes to places nowhere near the border.


State Route 26 Between Hawkinsville and Montezuma, Georgia
State Route 26 Between Hawkinsville and Montezuma, Georgia. Photo by Ken Lund on Flickr (cc)

Montezuma ruled the Aztecs from his capital of Tenochtitlan when Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in 1519. Cortés famously captured Montezuma and destroyed his empire. The Aztecs — at their prime when Cortés arrived — fell as famine, disease and warfare ravaged its lands. Tenochtitlan then evolved into a Spanish colonial capital, Mexico City. High upon a hill within that city rose Castillo de Chapultepec, the Castle of Chapultepec (map), a home of Spanish and later Mexican rulers. These were the famous Halls of Montezuma referenced in the official hymn of the United States Marine Corps. Marines stormed and captured Castillo de Chapultepec, a key to seizing Mexico City during the war.

I couldn’t find a single place called Montezuma in México. However military veterans picked up the name and moved it to spots in Georgia (map), Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Kansas, Tennessee, Virginia, California and New York. The largest, Montezuma County in Colorado, actually did not come from the war. People once thought mistakenly that the Aztecs built nearby Mesa Verde. They named the county accordingly and called its primary town Cortez.


Matamoras, Pennsylvania
Matamoras, Pennsylvania. Photo by Doug Kerr on Flickr (cc)

Matamoros, directly on the southern side of the Rio Grande River, became a staging point for an American invasion. The army of the United States under General Zachary Taylor built a fort on the opposite side of the river. Mexican forces bombarded the fort, the Americans called for reinforcements, and a large cavalry and artillery battle broke out (map). The U.S. army routed its foes with better, quicker-firing artillery. Maj. Jacob Brown died during the battle so Taylor changed the name from Fort Texas to Fort Brown. Later a town grew around the fort and it also adopted the name, becoming Brownsville, Texas.

Places inspired by the battle used a slightly different spelling in the United States, namely Matamoras. I stayed overnight in Matamoras, Pennsylvania on my way to New England recently (map). I wondered why a Pennsylvania town adopted the name of a Mexican city, and that inspired my search for more. Matamoras held other secrets including the easternmost point in Pennsylvania and a corner of the New Jersey – New York – Pennsylvania (NJNYPA) tripoint. It was also remarkably close to the New Jersey highpoint.

Another Matamoros surfaced in Indiana.

Buena Vista

Buena Vista Furnace
Buena Vista Furnace. Photo by Kordite on Flickr (cc)

Buena Vista translated from Spanish as "good view." However, combatants probably didn’t get an opportunity to appreciate their surroundings. Mexican General Santa Anna hoped to crush the American army at the Angostura Pass (map). His army numbered three times that of his foe and he had them cornered. American artillery and well-trained infantry stopped the Mexican advance. Eventually they withdrew. Neither side claimed victory although México suffered greater casualties and failed to defeat its much smaller foe.

Buena Vista appeared again in the American heartland. It spread to places as far apart as Iowa, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania (map), Wisconsin, Illinois, Tennessee, and Virginia. Many of them emphasized an Americanized pronunciation, something closer to Beuwna Vista.


Hidalgo County Courthouse
Hidalgo County Courthouse. Photo by Jimmy Emerson, DVM (cc)

A vision of the Virgin Mary appeared several times in 1531 to a peasant outside of Mexico City. The spot became a sacred shrine, Our Lady of Guadalupe. Much later, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla led the Mexican War of Independence, ending Spanish rule in 1821. A town adjacent to the shrine combined the two names, becoming Guadalupe Hidalgo (map). The United States defeated México in 1848, destroying its army and capturing its capital. The two sides came together at this town and negotiated an agreement favorable to the United States. It became the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

The largest Hildago in the United States appeared as a county name in New Mexico (map). Another county of Hidalgo was established in Texas. A much smaller Hildago also sprouted up in Illinois.


On November 11, 2015 · 12 Comments

I thought I’d sliced-and-diced my county counting exploits in every way imaginable by the time I posted Counting Down, my account of barely crossed and airport only captures. Loyal reader and fellow county counter Andy begged to differ. He discovered one more dimension when he noted, "Probably 99% of what you or I color in on the map has been driven over or flown into, even if we got out of the car to touch ground with our own feet. But — have you visited any counties /only/ on foot?" On foot, eh? Now that was something I’d never considered.

I knew it couldn’t be very many instances. I’ve lived a pretty sedentary life devoid of strenuous hikes over vast distances. Friend-of-12MC Steve from (formerly Connecticut Museum Quest and now much more broadly focused) once completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I created an article on counties he’d hiked through hoping he’d pick up the county counting hobby, although it just wasn’t his thing. I’m sure Steve drove through a few of the 87 AT Trail counties on other journeys although I’d also guess that his "only-on-foot" tally would be substantial. Mine, not so much.

San Juan County, Utah

4 Corners
Four Corners – Summer 1992.
Utah, Colorado, New Mexico & Arizona come together at a single point

I think I have two only-on-foot counties. One for sure. That would be San Juan County which was Utah’s contribution to the sole state quadripoint of the United States, Four Corners. Notice my right foot touching said county in the photograph above from a long-ago road trip. I circled around the marker any number of times, traveling through that tiny bit of Utah on foot each time.

Four Corners

I had confidence in my memory although I consulted maps extensively to confirm it. Apparently I drove on all sides of San Juan Co. without actually crossing the border except on foot at the Four Corners marker. Even the road leading up to the marker remained completely outside of Utah. So that’s ONE. Absolutely.

Nantucket County, Massachusetts

Cisco Brewers
Visiting Cisco Brewery.
That is NOT the pedaled vehicle we used.

Might it be possible to bend the rules a little? I’d have a second example from one of my more recent travels if that wish were granted. Massachusetts’ island of Nantucket fell within its own county. I never used a motorized vehicle anywhere on Nantucket. However, we rented bicycles and pedaled a few miles into the countryside to the Cisco Brewery for an afternoon of tastings and entertainment during our stay (map). I think I deserved at least partial credit or an honorable mention for getting everywhere on Nantucket under my own personal muscle power.

Incidentally I couldn’t make the same claim a day earlier in Dukes County (Martha’s Vineyard, primarily). We rented a car in Oak Bluffs and drove all over the island.

Municipio de Juárez, Chihuahua, México

Av Juarez to S El Paso Crossing
Av Juarez to S El Paso Crossing by Aquistbe on Flickr (cc)

I wondered if I could expand the game into foreign countries. I’ve been to México twice, neither time using engine power so I felt I might meet the rules for an entire nation. It involved two separate Mexican states so I should also get credit for Chihuahua and Coahuila. However I decided to focus on counties for this exercise, or in this instance their Mexican equivalents, municipalities (municipios).

Several years ago on a business trip to El Paso, Texas, a group of us decided to walk across the bridge into Juárez (map). The smarter bunch hopped into a taxi as soon as they crossed the border and went to a restaurant in a nicer part of town. Others, myself included, just sort-of milled around the border area checking out the scene. I thought it was pretty seedy, with a bunch of shops selling liquor and discount drugs that would need prescriptions back in the United States. I lasted about ten minutes before I grew bored and walked back into the U.S., although apparently it added Municipio de Juárez to my very short only-on-foot list.

Municipio de Ocampo, Coahuila, México

Boquillas del Carmen, Coahuila, Mexico
Boquillas… and the burro I rode in on

How about an even better rule bender than Nantucket? Several years ago I wrote about my technically illegal (albeit tolerated) dodge across the border into México while visiting Big Bend National Park in Texas. I visited tiny Boquillas del Carmen (map) in Municipio de Ocampo. I never used a motorized vehicle during that visit although I didn’t remain entirely on foot either. I rode a burro into town after disembarking a rowboat that ferried me across the border. Yes, a burro. I’m fairly certain it was the only time I’ve even ridden a burro. I should get double points for that effort.


Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls. My Own Photo.

I couldn’t think of any other examples. I’ve traveled into Canada using seven different border stations. For a moment I thought I might be able to claim the Regional Municipality of Niagara in Ontario because I walked across the border from New York for a better view of the falls. Then I remembered I drove up to Toronto on a different trip and would have passed through the same municipality by automobile. No dice. I also looked at my travels to Europe, Asia and Australia and found nothing.

The final tally in the United States: one county solely on foot; one on foot and bicycle. In México, one municipio solely on foot; one on foot and burro.

On the Steps

On March 1, 2015 · 5 Comments

I sat there cycling through television channels aimlessly the other day like I do when I’m bored. I came across a famous a scene from one of the Rocky movies where the hero Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) started running up the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (map). You know the scene I’m talking about.

Philadelphia Museum of Arts (Rocky steps)
Philadelphia Museum of Arts (Rocky steps) by Alonso Javier Torres, on Flickr (cc)

He’s climbing the steps triumphantly to a soundtrack of "Gonna Fly Now" and you know someone’s about to get a pounding. I didn’t stick around long enough to figure out which movie it was — apparently Stallone recreated the scene in just about every Rocky movie — although it did get me thinking. Movie locations aside(¹), were there any genuine historical events that happened on steps or stairs?

On the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial

The occurrence that came to mind immediately was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (map) in 1963. The site selected by Dr. King was highly symbolic, as it was the 100th anniversary year of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that trumpeted freedom for slaves living within Confederate states then in rebellion. He drew obvious parallels between the Lincoln of old and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, recognizing Lincoln’s achievements while signaling the struggle continued.

Those same steps featured prominently in another Civil Rights milestone a generation earlier when Marian Anderson sang from that spot in 1939. She’d already earned fame as a classical vocalist, a contralto. She performed on those steps because she’d been denied a performance hall in the city.

Marian Anderson was an international superstar in the 1930s—a singer possessed of what Arturo Toscanini called "a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years." But if race had been no impediment to her career abroad, there were still places in the United States where a black woman was simply not welcome, no matter how famous. What surprised Anderson and many other Americans was to discover in 1939 that one such place was a venue called Constitution Hall, owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution in the capital of a nation "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

The DAR refused to relent in spite of withering criticism. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization, writing "You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization failed."

Fifty thousand people showed up to hear Marian Anderson perform on the Lincoln Memorial steps; many times more than would have heard her at the indoor venue. The Daughters of the American Revolution deeply regretted it actions later and invited Marian Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall several times beginning in 1943.

On the Steps of Aztec Temples

Templo mayor ruins, in the middle of Zocalo
Templo mayor ruins by Antoine Hubert, on Flickr (cc)

Many Mesoamerican societies practiced human sacrifice in the centuries preceding European contact. The Aztec of central México took the practice to an entirely new level. There were many varieties of ritual and sacrifice although it was human sacrifices particularly that attracted the most attention of armchair historians. Bloodletting reached its pinnacle at Templo Mayor, the Great Temple at Tenochtitlan, now in modern day Mexico City (map).

At the climax of the ceremony, prisoners of war were taken to the top of the steep steps of the pyramid leading to two shrines. Held down, the victims’ abdomens were sliced open by high priests wielding ceremonial knives, and their hearts – still beating – were raised to the spirits above and the crowd in the sacred precinct below. The lifeless bodies of those sacrificed were then kicked down the stairs, and as one followed another, these flowed with blood, bright red against the white of the temple walls. Over the four days of the opening ceremony, some 4,000 prisoners were killed to satisfy the Aztec gods.

That was hardly the only time in history where violence happened on stairways.

On the Steps of the Theatre of Pompey

Largo di Torre Argentina
Largo di Torre Argentina by Rodney, on Flickr (cc)

The Roman leader Julius Caesar met his demise on a set of steps at the Theatre of Pompey in Rome in 44 BCE, now at the Largo di Torre Argentina (map).

Caesar attempted to get away, but, blinded by blood, he tripped and fell; the men continued stabbing him as he lay defenseless on the lower steps of the portico. According to Eutropius, around 60 or more men participated in the assassination. Caesar was stabbed 23 times.

This was considered a triggering event. Afterwards the Roman Republic (with consuls elected by citizens) that had lasted for five hundred years transitioned into the Roman Empire (led by emperors).

Other noteworthy events

  • On the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building (map): Congressman William Taulbee was shot to death in 1890; and Congressman John Jenrette and his wife Rita consummated an adult relationship in the early 1980’s (although she now denies it), a sideshow to his bribery convictions.(²)
  • On the steps of the Versace Mansion in Miami Beach(map): A serial killer murdered famed fashion designer Gianni Versace on the steps of his South Beach mansion in 1997.
  • On the steps of the Avon Theater in Stratford, Ontario (map): Last prize goes to a set of stairs in Canada where Justin Bieber often sat busking for tips before he became famous.

I could probably find some more examples although that Justin Bieber thing discouraged me. I can hardly wait for all of the Bieber-related Google Ads that will now start popping onto my screen for the next month.

(¹) Otherwise I’d nominate the Exorcist Steps in Georgetown, Washington, DC (Street View).
(²) Inspiring the name of a local comedy troupe, The Capitol Steps.

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