June 6, 1808, is the birthdate of Jacob Raphael de Cordova, the Jamaican-born descendant of Spanish Jews who probably did more than anyone else to explore Texas and lure settlers to there after it gained independence from Mexico in 1836.
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De Cordova was the youngest of the three sons of Raphael de Cordova, a Jamaica coffee grower, and his English-born wife Judith, who died while giving birth to him. Generations of Spanish Cordova ancestors had worked as printers, a tradition renewed by Jacob de Cordova and two of his brothers in the 19th century. A great-uncle, the Haham Joshua Hezekiah de Cordova, was rabbi of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in Kingston between 1755 and 1797.
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Jacob de Cordova spent part of his early years being raised by an aunt in England, before joining his father in Philadelphia, where Raphael de Cordova had become president of the Mikveh Israel Sephardi synagogue. It was in Philadelphia that Jacob de Cordova learned the printing trade, and when he returned to Jamaica, in 1834, he and his brother Joshua de Cordova founded the Kingston Daily Gleaner. The Gleaner still publishes today, making it the oldest English-language daily in the Caribbean. Joining Jacob de Cordova there was his wife, the former Rebecca Sterling, whom he had met and married (in a Presbyterian ceremony) in Philadelphia.
By 1836, de Cordova had moved to New Orleans, where he became involved in the cause of Texas, shipping cargo to the territory, by way of Galveston, while it waged war against Mexico. By 1839, Texas was independent, and the de Cordovas had relocated there — first to Galveston, then to Houston, where de Cordova helped found Congregation Beth Israel, the first synagogue in the state.
The new state of Texas (which joined the union in 1846) was desperate for settlers. It encompassed an area twice that of Germany, while its population was smaller than Rhode Island’s. Together with his half-brother Phineas de Cordova, Jacob de Cordova set up a land company, which at its peak had control of some 1 million acres (4,000 square kilometers). He traveled the East Coast, and even journeyed to England, to speak to people about the potential of Texas, in particular as a territory for cotton farming, and his lectures were widely distributed in print form too.
In 1848, Jacob and Phineas de Cordova laid out the grid for the new town of Waco, and sold lots — farmland for $2-3 an acre, plots in town for $5 an acre. At the urging of Rebecca de Cordova, his wife, Jacob de Cordova set aside free sites for the establishment of schools, churches and parks.
In 1849, he published the “Map of the State of Texas” with Robert Creuzbaur, and in succeeding years, he wrote two books intended to draw new residents to the Lone Star State: “The Texas Immigrant and Traveler’s Guide Book” (1856), and “Texas, Her Resources and Her Public Men,” an encyclopedia (1858). The brothers de Cordova also published two newspapers, the Texas Herald (also known as De Cordova’s Herald and Immigrant’s Guide) and the Southwestern American, out of Houston and Austin, respectively. The latter played a significant role in convincing the state legislature to ratify the Compromise of 1850, by which Texas relinquished a large portion of its land to the federal government in return for $10 million.
In the 1850s, de Cordova built a fittingly named home, Wanderer’s Retreat, for his wife and their five children, near Seguin, in Guadelupe County. His last big project before his death was a planning he did for a dam on the Brazos River, in Bosque County, which he proposed as source of power for the textile plants he wanted to introduce to the region. The project was not realized, although a dam built on the Brazos in the 1950s was named for him.
De Cordova died on January 26, 1868. Although he was initially interred in Kimball, Texas, both his body and that of his wife were moved to the State Cemetery of Texas, in Austin, in 1935.