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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Tejano Hero
Norberto Sierra

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

A hero is a hero, but sometimes it takes time before people get around to realizing that. Few Tejanos – Mexicans born in Texas when it was still a Mexican province – got any recognition for their role in the war between the United States and Mexico, but a long-forgotten obituary in a border newspaper suggests a hero who deserves to be remembered.

When 71-year-old Norberto Sierra died of pneumonia in Eagle Pass on June 1, 1894, the Eagle Pass Guide published a short notice on page one. Anyone with an interest in Texas history who reads the piece would wish that whoever wrote it had offered more detail, or that someone had gotten around to interviewing Sierra during his lifetime.

An Internet search turns up nothing on Sierra, born in San Antonio around 1823 about the time the first Anglos were settling in Texas. But the yellowing newspaper story on his death does provide some detail and a bit of context.

The day before Sierra’s death, local members of the United American Veterans “accompanied by citizens and not a few ladies” traveled in their buggies to the Eagle Pass cemetery to decorate the graves of two Civil War soldiers, men identified in the newspaper only as Mr. Berndt and Capt. Cunningham.

As the ceremonies proceeded, a blue-clad troop of U.S. Cavalry stood solemnly at attention. Their captain had been too young to take part in the mass fratricide of 1861-1865, but he knew something of heroism.

Winfield Scott Edgerly, commanding Troop G of the 5th Cavalry, had been in Texas since 1892, stationed at Eagle Pass’ Fort Duncan. The unit had come to the border post from the Wounded Knee Indian Reservation in North Dakota, where on Dec. 29, 1890 they had participated in what became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Some 500 soldiers under Gen. Nelson A. Miles had attempted to disarm 120 Sioux whose medicine man had convinced them that they had one more chance to preserve their land and their way of life. The accidental discharge of a rifle precipitated a bloody melee resulting in the death of 150 Indians, many of them women and children, and 25 soldiers.

But the ceremonies on this late spring day on the Rio Grande centered on an earlier era. The Eagle Pass newspaper did not go into the details of what was said at the cemetery, noting only that four different speakers made Decoration Day remarks, followed by a prayer.

If Edgerly spoke that day, he could have talked with authenticity of heroism, despite his role at Wounded Knee. Graduated from West Point in 1870, he had joined the 7th Cavalry as a second lieutenant. In the Dakota Territory, he took part in the infamous Sioux campaign of 1876, rendering “conspicuously gallant service” in a fight along the Little Big Horn River. Elsewhere along that river, 276 of his colleagues died along with Col. George Armstrong Custer.

The captain continued his cavalry service at various posts before his transfer to Texas, where he would spend three years. He would rise to the rank of brigadier general before retiring from the Army in 1909 with 43 years of service.

During that long career, Edgerly attended many a martial ceremony. Whether he remembered the Decoration Day event in Eagle Pass is not known, but he probably perused the next issue of the newspaper, which regularly carried news from Fort Duncan. He would have noted, had he read every item in that day’s Guide, that elsewhere in Eagle Pass on the day of the cemetery observance, the family of Sierra recited their own prayers for a man whose contributions to Texas went unmentioned in the Decoration Day ceremonies.

The story said that Sierra fought on the Texas side when Mexican Gen. Adrian Woll briefly captured the Alamo City in 1842. Four years later, when war broke out between Mexico and the U.S. following the annexation of Texas as the 28th state, Sierra made his living as a teamster.

At some point during the 1846-1848 conflict (the newspaper article offers no date), Sierra and 29 other men left San Antonio for Satillo, Mexico with a wagon train of supplies for General Zachary Taylor’s army.

“When within a day’s march of [the] destination,” the article said, “the train was attacked by guerillas.”

Sierra and his fellow teamsters circled their wagons – whether that happened literally or figuratively was not reported – and held off the Mexican partisans for 24 hours before American cavalry rode to their rescue. No specifics of the fight are provided, but men do not stand off attackers for a full day without demonstrating heroism.

The story does not say how Sierra earned his living after the war, but in 1862 he moved to Eagle Pass as a river guard for the Confederate government. At the time, Eagle Pass thrived as one of the South’s busiest ports.

Also absent from the obituary is any reference to what Sierra did after the Civil War. However he spent his time, he stayed in Eagle Pass and raised a family. He had a son named Adolfo and a daughter, Virginia. In 1872, she married a man Sierra undoubtedly knew well, Mexican War veteran and Eagle Pass pioneer Jesse Sumpter.

The same year Sierra died, Sumpter was appointed U.S. Customs inspector for Eagle Pass, a post he held until his death in 1910. Fortunately, before he died, Sumpter dictated a memoir to a local school teacher. Unfortunately, Sumpter made no mention of Norberto Sierra in his recollections.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" January 5, 2005 column

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