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Apuntes históricos

Corozal: The Early Years, 1795-1803

by Luis R. Negrón Hernández

Translated by Ann Shevlin

Article based on documents found by this researcher. You will find documents
from this research at the Centro Histórico Turístico del Cibuco, in Corozal.

(c) CopyRight - Prohibido copiar, reproducir

Photo: Document from 1803 related to the founding of Corozal, found by researcher
Luis Negrón Hernández.

Photo: Exhibit for students from Corozal on the findings related to the town’s founding; project led by this historical researcher.

overnor De la Torre in Corozal in 1824

During his visit to Corozal in 1824, Governor and Lieutenant General Miguel de la Torre was informed that Corozal had been founded in 1795 through the efforts of the proxies Joaquín Marrero and José de Rivera Ortiz. The latter, as I will explain in this essay, was actually the first constitutional mayor in 1813, not the first official at the time of the town’s founding. In the documents that I found in the Archivo General de Puerto Rico, he is mentioned, but as the candidate who was defeated in the first elections of 1803. This may be the reason for the confusion about the historical date.

Ever since then, that date (1795) has been cited as the founding date, even though documented evidence, unknown until now - and discovered by this researcher- points to the later date. This is not only the case in Corozal, but also in other towns on the island, where town governments adopt earlier dates in order to increase the antiquity of their municipalities, without evidence, corroboration or research into the source documents at the Archivo General de Puerto Rico.

Pastoral visits by Bishop Zengotita

Beginning on May 31, 1796, the Bishop of the island, a member of the Order of Mercy, Juan Bautista Zengotita y Bengoa (1795-1802), unlike his predecessor Francisco de la Cuerda y García, began making pastoral visits to all of the towns on the island, concerned about the shortage of clergy, the spiritual well-being of his Christian parishioners, and the material progress of the parishes. In none of these church documents, nor in any government ones, is there mention of any effort to establish a new town in “the place of Corozal”.

England attacks Puerto Rico

Toward the end of 1796, the famous English general Ralph Abercromby tried to capture the island for Great Britain, with thousands of troops and tens of landing craft. The bombardment and land assaults by the British produced panic among the inhabitants of San Juan, Cangrejos, Puerto Nuevo, Martín Peña and Río Piedras. The Bishop called off his visits, mounted his horse, and returned at top speed to the Fortaleza, where he put the resources of the clergy and the facilities of the Church at the Governor's disposition for any defense effort.

Pepe Díaz, "the King of Spain's Bravest Soldier"

The urban militia of Toa Alta, to which the "place of Corozal” belonged, joined the war effort on April 21st. In Martin Peña, Sergeant Major Pepe Díaz, "the King of Spain's Bravest Soldier", was mortally wounded. Many others like him went down in Puerto Rican history for their acts of heroism, deeds which, finally, in April of 1797, brought and end to the attack by Great Britain.

Zengotita resumed his pastoral visits and, in 1799, upon completing them, perhaps it was suggested to him that he establish a new parish in Corozal, in the township of Toa Alta.

The floods along the river and the great distance of this new town from the church in Toa gave urgency to the need for a temple for religious instruction and Eucharistic celebration. Once the process of creating a new parish and marking off the boundaries of Vega and Toa Alta had begun, both of which were requirements for the creation of a local government, popular elections were held to choose the first executive for Corozal in the jurisdiction of Toa Alta.

Photo: Teachers from Corozal visit the traveling exhibit of documents related to the foundation of their town. Thousands of pamphlets with newly discovered historical data were distributed during the talks given by this researcher in tens of schools in Corozal.

Marshal De Castro commissions the first elections in 1803

My research into documents exchanged between La Fortaleza and Corozal at the beginning of the 19th century reveals that it was in 1803 that Governor and Field Marshal Ramón de Castro y Gutiérrez (1795-1804) commissioned War Lieutenant José Navarro of Vega Alta to create a new town in “the place of Corozal”. Navarro, accompanied by the "witnesses of attendance", took off on horseback at 9:00 a.m. from Vega Alta, and, upon arriving six hours later at the rudimentary beginnings of the new church building (being built from palm bark), he ordered those assembled there to bring the townspeople together the next day for elections.

Only Whites and land owners

The community was to present three "honest and pure" candidates, from whom the Governor would appoint the one who received the largest number of votes.

The voters [access to members of PReb.com only], more than 150 heads of family --probably all white and all owners of land, among them several women-- chose Juan Ortega y Torres, José de Rivera Ortiz, and Pedro de Rivera Martínez.

The elections were repeated in the face of claims by candidate Rivera Ortiz that there had been irregularities and disputes among the commissioners, particularly on the part of the war deputy from Toa Alta, Bernardino de Rivera and the proxy Guillermo Quintero [access to members of PReb.com only]. The Governor, with great patience, proceeded to hand over this task to a third war deputy, Juan Correa, from Vega Baja.

Ortega, the first War Deputy

The young Juan de Ortega y Torres remained undefeated, being chosen as the first War Deputy of Corozal, and he was received with applause in the town square on Sunday, September 18, 1803. This is really the year in which the town was founded.

The old parochial records from Toa Alta do not indicate the existence of any parish, hermitage or church at all under the pastoral jurisdiction in “the place of Corozal”. On the contrary, the parish books show that the residents of that jurisdiction from the “place of Corozal” came to the Toa Alta church to take part in the sacraments. Nor is there any mention of the existence of a parish in Corozal before 1803 in any of the pastoral visits described in the documents of the Archdiocesan Archives of the Diocese of San Juan. In fact, the first book of the parish of “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” (The Sacred Family) in Corozal begins with the date 1804, a few months after the founding of the town. In his letter of July 14, 1803, Don Juan de Ortega indicated to the governor Ramón de Castro that the Ecclesiastic Tribunal and the Vice-Patronage had agreed upon:

in mutual agreement the establishment of a new parish,
with its borders marked off, at the insistence and expense
of the exhibitor, with the goal of being independent of the
other parishes, and has appealed to the goodness of the
Tribunal of Your Lordship that you permit the formation of
a new Town…

On taking office, First War Lieutenant Juan de Ortega y Torres immediately set in motion the process of collecting 30 pesos for the construction of a jail and the organization of the urban militias [access to members of PReb.com only], charged with police duties, as was required at the time.

Photo to right: parish church of Corozal

The next day, Monday, September 19, Ortega informed the Governor about the ceremony in which he took over:

...the job that your Worship has deigned to put in my
charge, in the new town of Corozal… with the applause
and obedience of these residents…

Among his duties, the War Deputy was charged with maintaining public order, seeing that state laws and local regulations were enforced, setting tax rates, submitting monthly reports to the governor, serving as judge, reading the king's proclamations to the people, and promoting commerce and the prosperity of the township.

The executive power of the War Lieutenant would transfer to the Mayor with the approval of the First Spanish Constitution. That document was ratified by the Cortes de Cádiz on March 19, 1812, and promulgated here on July 14 by Governor Salvador Meléndez (1809-1820). The War Lieutenant at the time Don Guillermo Quintero, honoring Article 310 of the political Constitution of the Spanish monarchy regarding the establishment of City governments, informed the Governor that the election of the first Constitutional Government had fallen to Don José de Rivera Ortiz.

Quintero, the outgoing official, handed over the Archive of Corozal to Rivera, which consisted of: two books of Government Circulars, another of Royal Orders, a directory, protocols of writings and finances, sales, contracts, last wills and testaments, a book of requisitions, letters to the Higher Government, two proclamations of Good Government, one of ballots and a copy of the political Constitution of the Monarchy. In these elections of September 1813, Don José Mariano de Rivera was elected to the post of City Solicitor, and Don Pedro de Rivera Martínez, Don Salvador Virella, Don Juan Mariano de Rivera and Don Francisco Antonio de Rivera were elected as aldermen.

It is interesting to have come across - during a series of conferences and traveling exhibits - several of the descendents of these first towns people and officials from Corozal, still among the families of today’s municipality and holding positions in the town government.

Copies and transcriptions of these documents - and many additional details heretofore unknown - have been made available to the town of Corozal by this researcher in order to clear up the previous confusion regarding the founding date and to shed light on the history of its early years.

* Vea transcripciones de documentos de Corozal en: Tablas y censos.
** Si tiene información documental sobre este tema, puede escribirle al investigador Luis Negrón Hernández a PRih@PReb.com (PRih: Puerto Rico Investigaciones Históricas


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