Iron Mountain Press has just published an attention-grabbing new book titled Federico Villalba's Texas: A Mexican Pioneer's Life in the Big Bend by Juan Manual Casas. Casas begins his absorbing account of the Villalba family with the arrival in present Mexico of a Spanish ancestor, Lt. General Juan de Villaba in 1767. Appointed by King Carlos III, General Villalba inspected northern Chihuahua and reported to the King his recommendations of how the new frontier might best be defended. Later the General settled in the Spanish Province of Nueva Vizcaya at San Geronimo putting down roots for later generations of the Villalba family. Casas proudly recounts the fact that his family has noble Spanish blood and by the time his great-grandfather was born in 1858 had become prosperous landowners and merchants at Aldama north of Chihuahua City.

In 1882, twenty-four year old Federico Villalba left his parents home to take up ranching initially at San Carlos, Chihuahua before moving north into the Texas Big Bend. Villalba's Rancho Barras located near Burro Mesa did well with his cattle herds growing to over 2,000 head in a few years. His Rancho Barras brand became well known. Villaba also owned property west of the Chisos Mountains where quicksilver was discovered in 1899. In addition to his ranching and quicksilver operation Federico engaged in the manufacture of saddles and leather goods and opened a small store that stocked necessary supplies. By the time Villalba reached thirty years of age and married, Federico had established three successful business operations. His family grew to include three sons and three daughters. Early in the 1900's, Villalba entered into a quicksilver mining partnership and opened a general merchandise store at Study Butte.

In 1907, a financial downturn signaled troubled times ahead for the Villalbas. Then after surviving the dangerous years of the Mexican Revolution in the Big Bend, tragedy struck the family. The Villalba boys loved to play cards and gamble and Jacabo took up bootleg liquor smuggling. Following a poker game that went bad, Jacabo shot and killed two men that resulted the murder trial of his brother Jorge. The case went to trial in the Brewster County Courthouse in February 1924 and ended with Jorge being found not guilty. But the verdict proved to be bittersweet because Federico lost Rancho Barras to pay legal expenses. In 1931, Jacabo lost his life after being shot while trying to collect a debt. Federico never got over the death of his son and died two years later bringing an end to the Villalba's time in the Big Bend.

"Federico Villalba's Texas" is an outstanding and well-told family story. It is an excellent read, one that Big Bend enthusiasts will greatly enjoy and want to have on their bookshelves. Casas has done a fine job of presenting the Mexican perspective in the frontier times of the Texas Big Bend. Although the author should have offered more detailed documentation, the research given appears to be sound for the most part. It is a story that simply needed to be told and begs discussion.



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