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ONE DAY IN HISTORY: Agustina Villarreal de Benavides (1822-1908)

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Agustina Villarreal de Benavides and her husband Santos Benavides. Image by Geni on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.
Agustina Villarreal de Benavides and her husband Santos Benavides. Image by Geni on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.
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Agustina Villarreal de Benavides, Tejana landowner, wife of Santos Benavides, and mother of four adopted children, was born on August 29, 1822, in Laredo, Texas, to Lino Villarreal and Josefa Flores. She came from a highly influential family in Laredo and was described as a “great beauty and belle.” On October 27, 1842, she married prominent Laredo merchant and rancher Santos Benavides at the San Agustín Church in a ceremony that was considered one of the community’s social highlights of the year. Her husband was eventually elected mayor of Laredo in 1856.

During the 1850s, as Santos’s wealth steadily increased, Agustina retained a significant level of financial independence in their marriage. Agustina was unable to bear children. She and her husband adopted four children. Around 1851 the couple adopted two-year-old Agustina, who was the daughter of Teodoro Meka and Refugia Chavez. By 1860 the family included an adopted son, four-year-old Juan, in addition to eleven-year-old Agustina. They adoped Santos’s illegitimate child, Eraclio, that he fathered with Josefa Gonzalez while he was stationed in Guerrero, Tamaulipas, during the Civil War in 1863. The 1870 census listed the family in Laredo, and the household included sons Juan (age fourteen) and Santos (age seven).

In January 1871 Santos and Agustina made out a will bequeathing their property upon their deaths to Agustina Benavides Ayala, Juan V. Benavides, Santos Eraclio, and Santos Jr., whom they acknowledged as their legally adopted children. In 1876 Santos Benavides revoked the previous will and drafted a second document giving all of his property to his wife, Agustina. In yet another legal document created in July 1881, Santos and Agustina cancelled all their previous wills and, “revoked, cancelled, and declared void,” the adoptions of Agustina, Juan, and Eraclio.

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In July 1882 the couple received news from Matamoros that their adopted daughter, Agustina, had died from yellow fever shortly after she had given birth to a son. Only a year later, in June 1883, Santos received news that their son Eraclio was dead from influenza after he had traveled to Monterrey for his health only a few months earlier. Having nurtured Eraclio since he was a young child, Agustina took his death equally hard, and she commissioned a tomb for Eraclio who in death had become un hijo legítimo (a legitimate child). In September 1883 the couple sold their home on San Agustín Plaza to Santos’s younger brother Eulalio and moved three blocks north to Flores Street, opposite the new city hall on Market Plaza. In yet another will written in July 1887, Santos and Agustina gave their property to their son Juan and to Francisco Garza Ayala Benavides, son of their adopted daughter, Agustina; however, the will was never probated and years of litigation followed.

Following Santos’s death in 1891, Agustina was named the executor of his will, but, largely through the legal chicanery common in South Texas at the time, she lost virtually all of their property. She outlived her husband by seventeen years. Agustina Villarreal de Benavides died at the age of eighty-six on February 2, 1908, at her family home on Flores Street in Laredo.  A funeral Mass was concelebrated by Bishop Peter Verdaguer and clergy at San Agustín pro-Cathedral, and a lengthy funeral procession that “included all available carriages of the city and a large number of private vehicles” proceeded to the cemetery. Agustina was buried at the Calvary Catholic Cemetery in the same plot as her husband.

By Ashley Garcia, Handbook of Texas Online

Published by the Texas State Historical Association

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