In life, surprises loom. Growing up and attending all my secondary education years in Waco, I was surprised that as a young father of three, I didn’t know all I should about Waco history. Sure, I was familiar with the early Huaco Indians and the names of George Erath, Neil McLennan and Shapley Ross. But another name in local history was unknown to me till I took my young family to San Antonio’s Hemisfair Park years ago and found among the historical books there a small brochure about early Texas Jewish pioneers.
In it, Jacob de Cordova was proclaimed the “father of Waco, Texas.” Who? How might I have missed this in my 12 years of Waco public school education?
I was reminded of this when I attended a recent, well-attended public lecture organized by the Historic Waco Foundation and its energetic executive director, Jill Barrow. Vann de Cordova, Jacob’s great-great-great-grandson, told the story of his ancestor, including Jacob’s Spanish-Jewish heritage and the de Cordovas’ years of wandering following the expelling of Jews from Spain in 1492 via the Alhambra Decree, also known as the Edict of Expulsion.
The family traveled to Constantinople and Amsterdam, among several destinations, ultimately settling in Jamaica. Jacob was born in 1808, but his mother died when he was young and he was sent to England to be educated. His Jewish heritage was never in question and he was educated in Jewish ritual and history. He spoke and wrote the Jewish language of Hebrew. He and his family founded a newspaper in Jamaica called “The Gleaner,” still printed today, 180 years later.
Ultimately, Jacob made his way to the United States, marrying wife Rebecca in Philadelphia. He arrived in Texas in 1839, becoming a city alderman in Houston and later landing in the Texas Legislature in 1848. He became a successful land merchant, at one point the largest landholder in Texas with more than 1 million acres, and produced the first truly accurate map of Texas. And in 1848 he made his way to the Huaco Indian village on the banks of the Brazos and began planning the founding of Waco.
“He called it one of the most beautiful places for a city in Texas,” Vann de Cordova said. “Jacob was so fond of this location that he called Waco, ‘It’s going to be my daughter.’” Jacob hired George Erath to survey the land, then began selling parcels to newcomers, reportedly at $5 an acre in town, $2 to $3 for farmland beyond. He befriended Texas Ranger Shapley Ross and encouraged him to settle in Waco where Ross opened up a hotel and became the first postmaster. Shapley’s daughter was the first white child born in town. With his wife’s strong encouragement, Jacob donated land in the center of town to be used for schools, houses of worship and city administration. This land, called the Brazos Commons, carries his name on official land deeds.
Jacob eventually moved on to other pursuits, including founding the town of Kimball, some 50 miles north of Waco. Kimball seemed promising at the outset but declined when first the cattle drives, then the railroad, bypassed the Bosque County community. Jacob died there in 1868. The remains of Jacob and Rebecca were moved to the State Cemetery in Austin in 1935. Some of his descendants still live in and around Waco, but for many years his name was not known. No public street, sculpture, building, school or sign carried his name.
In 1986, the Waco Jewish community adopted as its Texas Sesquicentennial project a campaign to erect a historical marker in Waco dedicated to the memory of Jacob de Cordova. The marker was dedicated before a significant gathering of Jacob’s descendants on some of the very land in Indian Spring Park that Jacob gave to the city of Waco. Shortly thereafter, a meeting room of the Waco City Council was named for him.
Unfortunately, and at least till recently, the intertwining of Jacob’s story and the history of Waco has remained little known. His name rarely arises in history classes in our schools. But that’s changing thanks to Texas Fine Artists executive director Monica Shannon, who learned of Jacob’s history when a painting of him came to the Texas Fine Artists’ Hispanic Art Festival last year. Since then, she has worked tirelessly to bring de Cordova’s efforts to greater recognition. A coloring book telling Jacob’s story has been created by Roy de Romero and Jasmin Romero and is now distributed to all elementary schools in the Waco area.
A number of de Cordova descendants gathered for the recent Historic Waco Foundation lecture, some from Waco, some from Oklahoma and California. Vann de Cordova was delighted to see and, in some cases, meet them for the first time. Among other things, the family spent time visiting an exhibit honoring Jacob de Cordova at the Helen Marie Taylor Museum of History, itself located on a stretch where the Huaco Indians once lived.
Some of us who have now known Jacob’s story for many years yet wonder why it has not been told more often. At a time when our city experiences a significant resurgence and metamorphosis, one in which visitors and tourists from across the nation and around the globe are reveling in the natural beauty that so obviously attracted de Cordova 170 years ago, his contributions certainly rate more recognition.