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Trevino’s Fort, Jose Villarreal,
and the Sundial in San Ygnacio

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
The weathered sundial positioned on top of the arched entrance to the old family fort at San Ygnacio tells more than the time – it tells a story.
San Ygnacio Texas - sundial on the roof
The 1851 sundial placed by Jose Villareal
TE Photo
Don Jesus Trevino built the first segment of the rambling stone residence that came to be called El fuerte (the fort) when he settled on the Rio Grande in 1830. It became a place of protection for his family and the few other hardy inhabitants of the village as well as a hub for Trevino’s cattle ranch.

El fuerte’s thick stone walls enabled Trevino and his family to stay relatively comfortable in the seemingly relentless summer heat, but blistering temperature amounted to mere inconvenience compared with the depredations of the Comanches and Lipan Apaches. Both tribes raided along the Rio Grande and even deeper into Mexico, sweeping south in the early fall to collect scalps and capture livestock and children.

To make his safe house even more safe, Trevino later added a pair of rounded structures with gunports – troneras – to the structure. Next came what is now known as the casa larga, or long house.

Eventually, Trevino’s fort covered a full block. Its walls are eight feet high and two-and-a-half feet thick. Living quarters lined those walls, with a large courtyard in the center.

Marked above one entrance is the date “May 1 de 1875.” Above the door to one of the large bedrooms is the date 1854. Carved on a hand-hewn rafter in the living room, still perfectly preserved, is the date “Octumbre 2 de 1851.”

That’s the year Jose Villarreal brought his family to settle in San Ygnacio. Born in Guerro, Tamaulipas, he made his living as a blacksmith. He forged the metal rod that penetrates El fuerte’s sundial like an arrow, a symbolism particularly apt considering what had happened to him as a teenager.

When he was 13, Villarreal and his cousin Cosme Martinez were working in their family’s field near the old Spanish colonial town of Revilla (downriver from future San Ygnacio) when a band of Comanches captured the boys.

Knowing they would never see their families and friends again unless they could get away from the Indians, the two boys bided their time waiting for the right moment to escape. When that moment came, they successfully slipped away from their captives.

Guided by the North Star, they made their way through the wilderness of Northern Mexico toward the Rio Grande. After much suffering, they reached Palafa, a small community between Laredo and Eagle Pass. Relatives there nursed the boys back to health. A few weeks later, after they had recovered from their ordeal, they were reunited with their parents.

Though he could forge horseshoes and other metal objects, Villarreal became known for his mathematical prowess. He also studied the stars, learning to recognize the various constellations.

Three decades after his escape from the Indians, Villarreal came to San Ygnacio. Soon the blacksmith decided to do something to pay tribute to the heavenly body that had guided his cousin and him to freedom.

Using his mathematical and metallurgical skills, Villarreal fashioned a carefully calibrated sundial and adjusted it by aligning it with the North Star.

Mounted at an angle on a stone pedestal, the sundial shows time on its south side during the summer and on its north side in the winter. For about 15 days out of the year, when the sun hovers directly overhead, time literally stands still on the dial.

Villarreal set the dial to the time in Mexico City, nearly 800 miles to the south. Today, the zig zag lines of the time zones cause the dial to be 36 minutes fast – that much plus an hour fast during Daylight Savings Time.

The sundial began marking time the same year that the long house went up. La casa larga, like the earlier section of El fuerte, also had slits in its walls so that anyone standing inside could fire a rifle at any attackers. Trevino built the long house for his daughter Juliana and her husband, Don Blas Maria Uribe.

While he built El fuerte as a place to stand and fight if necessary, Trevino had these words carved into stone: “En paz y liberated obremos.” (Let us work in peace and freedom.)

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
December 8, 2010 column
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