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Last of the Dons

The man who saved the breed that defined the West.
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Credit: National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame

Credit: National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame

Enrique Guerra was justly proud of the fact that, 15 generations after landing in America, the Guerras have lived under all six of Texas’s flags. He would point out that his family arrived on these shores only 87 years after Columbus. They settled on land deeded them by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, in the province of Nuevo Santander, in what is now Mexico—and it was harsh land indeed.

“Still,” recalled Guerra, “we survived.” 

The Guerras did much more than simply survive. They thrived, eventually locating in Mexico City. For nearly a century and a half, they worked their way north, ultimately crossing the Rio Grande. In 1748, they established a cattle ranch on a land grant in what would become Hidalgo County, near Linn, Texas. It was on Rancho San Vicente that Guerra continued the family’s ranching tradition. 

The cattle industry in the New World was founded by Spanish ranchers with stock initially brought from Spain. It was a tradition that grew as New Spain became Mexico, then Texas. In adapting to the conditions of the region, the cattle took on certain characteristics, resulting in the breed known today as the Texas Longhorn. By 1920, though, the purebred Longhorn had nearly been bred out of existence. 

Some three decades later, Guerra was operating a 48,000-acre ranch, where he had experimented with raising a variety of cattle—among them, Brahmans, Herefords, Charolais, Brown Swiss, and Beefmasters. Realizing that the Longhorn was best suited for the rugged country he ranched, he determined to save the breed. 

He combed the backcountry of Mexico in search of “crafty, wild cattle that had never been caught.” Over a two-year period, he drove 100,000 miles, managing to locate 69 head of old, purebred Longhorns living in the mountains. 

“They were fresh in the blood and pure as the driven snow,” Guerra recalled, “the descendants of the original cattle.” 

He and his crew of ropers dragged them from their haunts to the pickup, one or two at a time, and drove them back to the ranch. 

Over the next decades, Guerra oversaw the rejuvenation of the Longhorn in America—an act done out of love, not profit. He explained, “To this day, I keep a small herd of Longhorns. Believe me, it is not cost effective; I’m losing money. But I’m preserving the pure bloodlines for posterity. As long as I live, I’ll continue to support them.”

In addition to making an indelible mark in the Texas cattle industry and perpetuating a historic breed for the coming generations, Guerra was also one of the world’s foremost collectors of Texan and Mexican artifacts and ephemera. His is an invaluable collection, and one he often opened to institutions and individuals with a serious interest in the history of the region.

At the age of 86, Guerra peacefully passed away in his home. He was the last of the Old World dons—generous and gracious to a fault, a patron in the truest sense. He was posthumously inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Hall of Great Westerners on April 15 of this year.

Credit: National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame

Credit: National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame

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