South Texas ranch recognized as a refuge for slaves pursuing freedom

The Jackson Ranch in San Juan was owned by a white farmer and his wife, a former slave.

By Michael MarksMay 10, 2024 3:39 pm,

In 1857, a man named Nathaniel Jackson moved his family from Alabama to a ranch near the banks of the Rio Grande, in present-day Hidalgo County. Jackson was white. His wife, Matilda Hicks, was Black. 

Jackson lived the rest of his life on the ranch until his death in 1865. During that time, he and his family raised vegetables and livestock on their land. 

But they had a clandestine operation there as well. The Jackson place was also a refuge for runaway slaves on their way to Mexico.

The National Park Service recently recognized the Jackson Ranch’s historical significance as part of its Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program. Roseann Bacha-Garza, an anthropology lecturer at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and manager of the Community Historical Archaeology Project with Schools, spoke to the Texas Standard about the site’s history. 

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: First, can you tell us a bit more about who Nathaniel Jackson and Matilda Hicks were and why they came to Texas? 

Roseann Bacha-Garza: Nathaniel Jackson was a white farmer and landowner in Alabama, as you said, and Matilda Hicks was an enslaved woman who was purchased by Nathaniel Jackson’s father in Georgia in 1804. When Nathaniel’s father purchased Matilda, she was only 4 years old and Nathaniel was 6 years old.

I had theorized that Nathaniel and Matilda grew up together as children on Nathaniel’s father’s Georgia plantation. I believe that Nathaniel and Matilda developed a close friendship and eventually grew up to have their family together.

But in February of 1857, Nathaniel and Matilda and their children, grandchildren, and significant others embarked upon this 900-plus-mile journey from their home in Alabama and headed toward Mexico. 

So how do historians know that they sheltered runaway enslaved people? 

Well, historians have come to know the story of the Jackson family through family stories that have been passed down through the generations.

Earlier historians in the Rio Grande Valley, let’s say back in the 1960s and 1970s, have conducted oral history interviews with grandchildren of Nathaniel and Matilda. And those grandchildren of Nathaniel and Matilda had heard firsthand of these adventures of the Jackson family directly from those who made the 900-mile overland journey to the Rio Grande from Alabama. 

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Well, you’re the person who, I understand, worked with the the National Park Service, put this on their radar. You saw the application process go through and be approved. What was that like for you? 

It was very exciting to have been called for this task, because this National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program was legislation that was passed in 1998. And since that time, the National Park Service has been conducting scholars roundtable events.

I was invited to be on the one that they were conducting in 2020. And so my research of the Jackson family, for example, got their attention, and therefore I was invited to participate. And so, of course, I had recommended that this property be placed on the map.

By December of 22, I was asked by the National Park Service to submit an application specifically to put the Jackson Ranch Church property on the map. The application process was quite intense. And the National Park Service people were quite helpful. And by January 15th of this year, I was able to submit the application.

And then last month, in April, we received the fantastic news that the Jackson Ranch Church and Martin Jackson Cemetery have been adopted officially onto the Underground Railroad National Network to Freedom program. 

Well, congratulations. This is a rare designation, as you said, in Texas. Is that why it’s such a big deal? What do you think it means?

To be selected onto the National Network to Freedom program is a big deal for many reasons. But in particular to this family, it recognizes the risky and clandestine efforts put forth by the members of the Jackson Ranch family, as they were a benevolent, spiritual group of people who displayed care and compassion for self emancipators on their quest for freedom in Mexico.

Now that we are well into the 21st century and we see the descendants of Nathaniel and Matilda are not only acknowledging their rich history, but they are embracing it and celebrating it. And that is awesome.

So having this Network to Freedom Designation will bring more family members back to visit the property and will also bring other interested community members and tourists to actually stand on the church grounds and feel the presence of those who went before them. 

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