Settlers of the Texas Frontier were undeniably an eclectic bunch, and the founders of Waco were no exception. One of the main organizers of the new city was a Jewish, Jamaican-born Spaniard named Jacob de Cordova. De Cordova was not only instrumental in the founding of Waco, but he would soon be the largest landholder in the fledgling state of Texas. In his life he explored more territory than famous voyager Cabeza de Vaca and brought more settlers to Texas than Stephen F. Austin.
Jacob Raphael de Cordova was born to Judith and Raphael de Cordova in Spanish Town, Jamaica, on June 6, 1808. Judith died during childbirth, and Raphael resented the infant Jacob for her death, so he sent Jacob to be raised by an aunt in England. Though far from family, Jacob received an incredible education in Europe and was proficient in five languages: English, French, Spanish, German, and Hebrew. These would all come in handy when recruiting and dealing with settlers from around the globe. Fortunately, he eventually moved back to Jamaica to live with his family, and he and his father grew very close.
De Cordova was just a boy when he first set his eyes on the land that would become his passion and his home. In 1819, Jacob traveled to the United States with his father, and they made a side trip to the Spanish territory of Texas. Though only eleven years old, de Cordova was captivated by the area and vowed that he would return.
By the mid-1820s, de Cordova had decided to move to the United States for good, yet he first sought a colder climate, as he thought the heat and humidity of Jamaica contributed to his poor health. He set off for Philadelphia, where he married the daughter of a pioneer family, Rebecca Sterling, and settled for a few years. Rebecca identified as Baptist, but her Christian faith and Jacob’s Jewish faith never appeared to cause any discord in the marriage. The couple had five children during this period: William, Henry, Joshua, Jenney, and Elizabeth. But the cold did not bring the rejuvenation de Cordova had hoped for, and after a massive blizzard in 1836, the couple moved south to New Orleans. De Cordova thrived in New Orleans and set up a successful import/export business. But he really had his eyes on Texas, what he later called “the brightest star in the constellation of the American Union.” After getting his feet wet in the business world, he decided to move his family to Galveston, where his life as a true Texan began.
De Cordova quickly became a naturalized citizen of the Republic of Texas. He moved from the small, swampy town of Galveston to Houston, where his business expanded greatly. With his new citizenship, he also found new ways to serve the Houston community. He helped found the Houston Chamber of Commerce, became an alderman in 1844, and was elected representative to the Second Texas Legislature in 1848. Additionally, he took it upon himself to found an Odd Fellows Lodge, a chapter of one of the oldest fraternal organizations dedicated to service and helping those in need. He served previously as Grand Master of a lodge in Louisiana, and he went on to found three additional Texas lodges. Jacob de Cordova had fully invested himself in the betterment of the community.
In 1845, de Cordova dove into his biggest venture yet. Alongside his half-brother Phineas, Jacob founded what would become the largest land agency in the state of Texas. The two brothers were well suited to run a business together, as Phineas did the office work and Jacob went out and surveyed, bought, and sold land. It was Jacob’s expertise in this area that led him to Waco as well. A man named Jonas Butler hired Jacob in 1848 to lay out a town on some land he owned on the Brazos River. After making the city layout, de Cordova hired George Erath to survey plots for settlement. De Cordova also received one-fifth of the interest of the land, and he held full power of attorney for the land transactions. De Cordova and Erath agreed to sell the plots for five dollars apiece in town, and three dollars outside the city. Mrs. Sophia St. John then hired him to sell her land on the other side of the Brazos, what was called the La Vega land grant. Rebecca de Cordova insisted the new town be named Lamartine, but Erath vehemently protested. Instead, the town was named Waco after the local Native American population, the Waco, or Wi-iko, tribe. Jacob de Cordova and George Erath later fought to make Waco the county seat of McLennan Country when it was formed in 1850, and, of course, won. Interestingly, de Cordova never lived in Waco. He settled with his family on an estate farther north on the Brazos at Kimball’s Bend. He named the settlement Wanderer’s Retreat, the same name as his previous estate in Guadalupe County, and lived there until his death.
De Cordova’s career soon extended far beyond agent work in Waco, and his agency eventually owned more than one million acres of Texas property. From his extensive knowledge of the state, he created the first accurate map of the state of Texas, which his agency sold for twenty dollars. The map proved to be much needed, and he continued to update it throughout his life. Having such a great love for Texas and such a large stake in its settlement, de Cordova set off on an advertising campaign to recruit settlers. He delivered lectures on Texas in New York, Philadelphia, and even Birmingham, in the United Kingdom. To reach all the places he could not travel, he wrote two treatises on Texas—The Texas Immigrant and Traveler’s Guidebook and Texas: Her Resources and Her Public Men. He also ran two newspapers, De Cordova’s Herald and Immigrant’s Guide and the Southwestern American.
Despite his dedication to settling Texas, things did not go as planned for de Cordova. The land agency fell on hard times, and Jacob found himself in a massive amount of debt. He had invested in Confederate war bonds, and then during the war the Union blockade had stopped immigration to Texas. On top of that, he refused to foreclose on any current settlers when they could not pay their debts. This combination quickly spelled trouble, and de Cordova found himself in the middle of several lawsuits when his creditors came collecting.
But he was not out of ideas just yet. Jacob started purchasing equipment and making plans to harness the Brazos River’s water power. This project would power textile mills and boost manufacturing along the river from the Gulf of Mexico to Waco and beyond. But this dream did not become a reality, as de Cordova died in 1868 before all the machinery arrived. He was originally buried near the Brazos in Bosque County, but he and his wife’s bodies were later moved to the state cemetery in Austin.
After his death, de Cordova’s substantial land holdings—spread across forty-eight Texas counties—were divided up to pay his debts. This was no simple task, and it took over sixteen years for lawyers to untangle his agency’s assets and distribute its holdings. Much of the land was sold for as little as twenty-five cents an acre, and settlers often remarked it was “rich man’s land for a poor man’s price.” So, though de Cordova did not reap the benefits of all his lands, he still did indirectly help populate the state he so loved. Yet his greatest legacy remains the city of Waco. Jacob was right when he said of Waco, “She will be my daughter, and a beautiful daughter she will be.”