Refugio, county seat of Refugio County, was surveyed in 1834 by James Bray as the administrative center of the Power and Hewetson colony, established in 1828 by Irish-born Matamoros merchant James Power and his Irish-born partner James Hewetson, a politically well-connected merchant in Saltillo, the state capital of Coahuila y Texas. Power and Hewetson agreed to settle Irish Catholic and Mexican families in their colony; as with the neighboring McMullen-McGloin colony, the Mexican government viewed the settlement of Catholics and Europeans as a counterweight to the expanding American immigrant population of Texas. Refugio's gridded townsite, on the north bank of the Mission River, took its name from and encompassed the former Franciscan mission of Nuestra Señora del Refugio, moved to this site in 1795, secularized in 1830, and transferred to Power and Hewetson's ownership in 1831. During the first three decades of the nineteenth century, Mexican stock-raisers had established cattle-ranching operations in the vicinity of the mission and a civil settlement formed adjacent to it. Following negotiations to clarify boundaries with the state government of Coahuila y Texas and other empresarioswhose territories overlapped Power and Hewetson's, James Power went to County Wexford, Ireland, in 1833 and recruited 350 immigrants, who arrived on the Texas coast in the spring of 1834. The State of Coahuila y Texas awarded titles to Power's colonists, including the Tejano ranchers who already lived in the area. As with Escandón's colony of Nuevo Santander in the eighteenth century and de León's colony at Guadalupe Victoria, each settler was also awarded a town lot in Refugio.
Because it lay near the Texas-Tamaulipas border (then the Nueces River), Refugio was invaded by General José de Urrea's army during the Texas Revolution in March 1836. Unlike Guadalupe Victoria, where the Tejano elite sided with the Anglo-Texan insurgents, the Tejano elite of Refugio and Goliad aided Urrea, precipitating the Battle of Refugio, which took place around the mission, and led to the defeat, capture, and execution of two parties of Anglo Texan combatants by Urrea. The town of Refugio did not recover until the 1840s. During the post–Civil War 1860s and early 1870s, economic expansion along the Gulf Coast led first to Refugio's demotion, when the county seat was moved to other towns, then to the partitioning of Aransas County from Refugio County and the return of the county seat to Refugio. In the mid-1870s, as the largest regional ranching operations began to enclose their pastures, ending the free-ranging of cattle, the remaining Mexican ranch families were forcibly driven out of Refugio County. During the late 1870s and 1880s, such ranching families as the McFaddins and O'Connors left Refugio for Victoria. Refugio obtained rail connections in 1905 with the construction of the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway.
The town is small but distinguished by the presence of an unusual number of grand turn-of-the-twentieth-century Colonial Revival houses built by the county's leading ranch families. Discovery of the Greta oilfield in 1928 and of the subsequent Refugio oilfield caused an expansion of the town's population in the middle of the twentieth century that it was not able to sustain.
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