José Francisco Ruiz (Jan. 29, 1783 — Jan. 19, 1840)

by Alamo Historian Dr. Bruce Winders

For years, Texas school children have been asked to recognize José Francisco Ruiz as one of the two Tejano signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence. In reality, one would have to judge Ruiz’ life as a full and important life even without that historic distinction.

José Francisco Ruiz (1783–1840) was born during a tumultuous time in Texas. Apache Indians were still raiding the area missions, seizing livestock and killing or kidnapping residents. On the international front, a radical upstart republic called the United States of America had managed to assert its independence from Great Britain. The result can be described as radical because it set in motion a chain of events that challenged the existing system of interlocking monarchies that had ruled Europe for ages. Soon, this contest over the nature of government would sweep across the Western Hemisphere, including Texas. For Ruiz, both the quest for domestic security and the support of republicanism shaped his life as he grew into adulthood.

Ruiz began a career of public service in 1803, when at age twenty, he became schoolmaster for the town of Béxar. However, the community of Béxar relied on its young men for defense and in Ruiz 1811 received a commission as a lieutenant in the local militia. His participation in the military was likely occasioned by Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla’s revolt that had erupted the year before. Revolution against the Royalists also broke out in Béxar after a local militia captain named Juan Bautista de las Casas vowed to carry on Hidalgo’s work. He rallied his men and captured Governor Manuel María de Salcedo and other Spanish officials. We have no direct knowledge of Ruiz’ role in this ill-fated and short-lived affair, but evidence exists that by 1813 he was actively supporting Mexican revolutionists and American volunteers who came to Béxar as part of the expedition launched by Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara and Augustus Magee to establish a republican government in Texas. Following the crushing defeat suffered by the republicans at the Battle of Medina on August 18, 1813, Ruiz and others were forced to flee to Louisiana to escape punishment by a vengeful General Joaquín de Arredondo. He returned to Texas in 1822, after Mexico had declared its independence from Spain.

Ruiz resumed his military career, holding the rank of captain before gaining promotion to lieutenant colonel. Although associated with the Second Flying Company of San Carlos de Alamo de Parras, he often served on detached duty. Ruiz sat on the commission to mark out the Texas-Louisiana border. Moreover, he traveled among Texas’ Indian nations, representing the Mexican government. It was in this capacity that Ruiz found and ransomed from the Comanche a young captive from Béxar named Gregorio Esparza. Esparza would go onto become an Alamo defender. From 1830 to 1832, he struggled to help manage Texas’ influx of Americans, a task that proved as difficult as it was futile. Ruiz retired from the military at the end of 1832. Nevertheless, his public life was not over.

Ruiz, a long time adherent of republicanism, sided with the federalists against the centralist administration of Mexico’s President Antonio López de Santa Anna. His public service and knowledge of the region and its people made him valuable to the newly formed Provisional Government of Texas. He was appointed a commissioner to negotiate with the Comanche, but the war with the centralists prevented a meeting from occurring. Residents of Béxar elected Ruiz as one of their representatives to the constitutional convention scheduled to be held at Washington, a small town located on the Brazos River. It was at this convention that he signed the Texas Declaration of Independence. Another signer from Béxar was his nephew, José Antonio Navarro.

Ruiz’ family connections magnify as well as help to explain his importance to Texas history. His sister, María Josefa Ruiz y Peña, became part of the influential Navarro family when she wed José Ángel Navarro. Another important Béxareño, Martín de Veramendi, also married into the Navarro family clan. A wealthy merchant, Veramendi held several civil posts in Béxar before being elected vice-governor of the state of Coahuila y Tejas. In 1832, he became the governor following the death of José María Letona. He and his wife died the following year in the Cholera epidemic that struck Monclova. Another casualty was their daughter, Ursula, who had married colonist James Bowie. Ursula’s two cousins, Juana Navarro Alsbury and Gertrudis Navarro, had been adopted by José Ángel Navarro and his wife, Josefa, Ruiz’ sister. Juana and Gertrudis accompanied James Bowie into the Alamo, thereby becoming witnesses to the famous thirteen-day-long siege. Ruiz’ son, Francisco Antonio Ruiz, was serving as the alcalde (mayor) of Béxar during the siege. It was he who Santa Anna ordered to gather townspeople to assist in the burning the bodies of the Alamo’s defenders on March 6, 1836. Thus, the Ruiz family played a much larger role in the Texas Revolution and the Battle of the Alamo than realized by many historians.

Following Texas’ independence, José Francisco Ruiz served as a senator in the congress of the Republic of Texas. Nevertheless, he knew that independence had caused a shift in power that affected Tejanos like him. In late December 1836, Ruiz wrote to his son-in-law, Blas Herrera, warning that he and his friends must accept the new political reality. “Under no circumstance take sides against the Texans, for only God will return the territory of Texas to the Mexican government.” Ruiz died in 1840, remembered mainly by his role as a Tejano signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence.