The Bloody San Antonio Origins of Chili Con Carne

The original Tex-Mex staple dates back further than most historians realize.

Chili Queens surrounded by customers at their stand at Haymarket Plaza in San Antonio, Texas in January 1933.

How much do we really know about the history of chili con carne? Once considered outrageously exotic by Anglo diners, chili has since won recognition as the dish that gave rise to Tex-Mex cuisine. Here at home, it is now so thoroughly assimilated that it has reigned for forty years as the official state dish of Texas, much to the ire of those who think it sits on a throne rightfully occupied by barbecue.  

Chili’s genesis seems nearly impossible to trace today. W.C Jameson’s Chili From the Southwest: Fixin’s, Flavors, and Folklore offers up eleven competing theories, ranging from a proto-psychedelic, hyper-Catholic, Spanish/Mexican Indian tale about a teleporting, recipe-sharing Blue Nun; to another crediting California-bound gold prospectors; to others touting the efforts of Texas prison convicts and cowboys.

But Texas food historian Robb Walsh subscribes to the theory that the recipe originated with San Antonio’s Canary Islander population. As a bulwark against possible French expansion in Texas, the Isleños, as they were known, were encouraged to move to San Antonio with the promise of becoming hidalgos, literally “sons of something”—basically, minor Spanish nobles. In 1731, sixteen Canarian families (a total of 56 people) took up residence in the new town, joining a mixed population of clergy, soldiers, and mission Indians. Almost immediately, the Canarians became the city’s business and political elite, and also, according to Walsh, gave us chili.

He believes that the slow-simmered mélange of meat, garlic, chile peppers, wild onions, and cumin betrays Moroccan (specifically, Berber) influences prevalent in the Canary Islands. Although cumin had been on hand in San Antonio spice cabinets before their arrival, Walsh has written that Canarian cooks were very heavy-handed with dried cumin—comino molido—the signature ingredient in what we know today as chili.

True, indigenous Americans had been stewing North American game (venison, turkey, antelope) with native spices for centuries. In the 1730s, a wandering Swiss Jesuit, Philipp Segesser, came across a dish in southern Arizona he described as composed of roasted crushed chile peppers fried in sizzling lard with chunks of meat. In 1568’s The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote that luckless Spaniards who fell into Aztec hands were butchered and stewed in pots along with tomatoes and chile peppers.  

“This was not, however, anything like the chili con carne we know today,” noted Charles Ramsdell in his 1959 book San Antonio: A Historical and Pictorial Guide, apparently with a straight face. Nope, “chili con-quistadores” (to coin a phrase) was, in his view, more accurately described as “a version of the classic mole poblano, concocted for festive occasions by the Aztecs and by their descendants today, who make it with chicken or turkey.”

So if it wasn’t an old Aztec dish, when did chili first become popular in Texas? When did the Tex meet the Mex? According to the most widely accepted narrative, chili—along with tamales, enchiladas, and a few other Tex-Mex staples—made its first inroads into the Anglo palate within a decade or two after the Civil War, courtesy of San Antonio’s famous “Chili Queens.”

As Walsh wrote in 2008:

Chili con carne was introduced to America by the “Chili Queens,” women who served food in San Antonio’s Military Plaza as early as the 1860s. Chili stands were also common in Galveston and Houston; they were the taco trucks of the 1800s. Tamales with chili was the most common order—beans were often added. Laborers counted on the chili vendors for a quick meal. Adventurous eaters loved them. And the upper classes tried to chase them away or get them shut down.

But what if Walsh’s estimate is actually too conservative—by five decades? We’ve found evidence to suggest just that.

• • •

Jameson, the food historian, claims that chili was not publicly available in San Antonio until the 1880s, basing that date on the fact that “a number of literate and observant explorers, soldiers, and others” passed through the city between 1767 and 1882, and none of them mentioned chili or chili con carne by name.

That echoes San Antonio historian Ramsdell’s timeline. He notes that Southern poet and musician Sidney Lanier came to town in 1872 and made no mention of the presence of chili or chili stands in the plazas. Nor did Edward King, author of the 1874 Scribner’s magazine travel story “Glimpses of Texas.”

However, King did say that any and all comers were welcome to take spicy meals that sound suspiciously like chili con carne in private homes in Laredito, a slum adjacent to Military Plaza. “[One] has only to enter and demand supper to be instantly served, for the Mexican has learned to take American curiosity about his cookery to account,” he wrote.

King described the scene within these house-restaurants: 

Entering one of these hovels, you will find a long, rough table with wooden benches about it; a single candlestick dimly sending its light into the dark recesses of the unceiled [sic] roof, a hard-earth floor on which the fowls are busy bestowing themselves to sleep; a few dishes arranged on the table and glasses and coffee-cups beside them. The fat, tawny Mexican materfamilias will place before you various savory compounds, swimming in fiery pepper which biteth [sic] like a serpent; and the tortilla, a smoking hot cake, thin as a shaving, and about as eatable, is the substitute for bread.

What, exactly, were those various savory compounds, swimming in venomous peppers, if not chili?

King went on to note that the more adventurous members of San Antonio’s Anglo elite were already devotees of these ad hoc diners, including “Don Juan” Twohig, an Irish-born banker and merchant. San Antonio’s chili stands and parlors (the term may derive from these early house-restaurants) seem to have been the great levelers of San Antonio society, where the more raffish members of the aristocracy mingled with the underworld. (In later years, some of the more famous chili restaurants were located on the fringes of San Antonio’s red light district, but were still patronized by every tier of society.)

Ramsdell cites another example of a luminary visiting San Antonio and not mentioning chili by name in the late 1870s. Harriet Prescott Spofford, of Harper’s magazine, noted in 1877 that while rolls, chocolate, and pastry were available in Military Plaza, you had to go to the sort of “hovels” King described to find “Mexican refreshment” that would make you “malodorous for days.” (If she sampled some of this fare, she did not write about it.)

Chili con carne tables in San Antonio, circa 1880.

San Antonio View Co.

And, then, in 1882, according to both Ramsdell and Jameson, we have the jackpot: chili con carne’s first mention in print. It came in a mysterious (and now apparently lost) pamphlet called Gould’s Guide to San Antonio which “mentions chili con carne and its availability in various locations around the plaza,” Jameson writes.

“Those who delight in the Mexican luxuries of tamales, chili con came, and enchiladas, can find them here cooked in the open air in the rear of the tables and served by the lineal descendants of the ancient Aztecs,” Jameson quotes Gould as writing.

Ramsdell argues that the American palate for Mexican food developed in the 1870s, and that it was originally only dished out in houses, not in the plazas. Open-air fare did not come about until the 1880s, he writes, proposing that the city’s first Mexican restaurant did not open until 1889, with one Madame Garza as proprietor. And he argues that the Chili Queens’ reign over the plazas did not commence until the 1890s.

What, then, were all those places King described in the 1870s? Soup kitchens, serving up free meals to hungry Americans for nothing? Jameson notes that in 1862 a rowdy element of the city’s Confederate garrison rioted in Military Plaza and wrecked some food stands. Tamales were mentioned by name in the damage report, as were “stews.” Once again, what were those stews if not chili?

• • •

Neither Ramsdell nor Jameson had access to today’s internet—specifically, newspaper databases searchable by keyword and date. Thanks to one such database, the subscription-only Newspapers.com, we found a mention of chili con carne that predates Gould’s by a full five years, courtesy of an anonymous reporter visiting San Antonio from Fort Scott, Kansas.

Speaking of hot things, at San Antonio they have a dish called chili con carne. It is of Mexican origin, and is composed of beef, peas, gravy and red pepper. It is awful seductive looking, and gives a fellow the idea that he has a soft thing on hash. They always have enough to go around, for no stranger, no matter how terrific a durned fool he is, ever calls for a second dish. He almost always calls for a big cistern full of water, and you can’t put the water in him fast enough with a steam engine hose. 

Again, five years before Gould got around to mentioning chili con carne in San Antonio, we have man from Yankeeland defaming local fare. But chili con carne was already well on its way to conquering the state. According to an 1878 Brenham Weekly Banner article, a man in Denison, way up near the Red River, was “about starting a Mexican restaurant. Chile con carne, tomales [sic], and other ‘hot’ dishes will be served to order.”

By 1881 a similar menu appeared in Abilene, per the Dallas Daily Herald: “The New Abilene Hotel […] is the most comfortable place for drummers [salesmen] and strangers to stop. Good rooms, fine table; Mexican tamales, chile-con-carne, spring chickens and fish a specialty.”

Meanwhile, back in San Antonio, in 1882, it was reported that “Captain Bill Tobin is arranging to ship a car load [by then rail had arrived] of chile con carne to this city. It sounds like bringing coals to Newcastle, but it is just the thing for pic-nics [sic] and for travelers, and it is easily prepared for family use.”

(We’ll have more on this later, but Captain Tobin was in the business of canning chili long before that innovation is generally credited with coming into being.)  

The Kansan reporter’s mention of chili con carne is the first in the Newspapers.com database, but the dish must have existed long before 1877; that’s only the year it came to be known by its current name in print. What’s more, there’s the simple fact that even wayfaring Jayhawkers had discovered it in 1877, whereas it needed no introduction to readers in Brenham or diners in Denison by 1878, and by the time the mysterious Gould mentioned it in 1882 San Antonians already regarded its importation as something akin to exporting tea to China or beer to Bohemia.

So why do so many scholars settle on the 1880s date?

It could be the fact that interstate railroads first linked San Antonio to the outside world around that time. All of a sudden the city was besieged by hordes of outsiders, marveling at the curious, exotic fare that locals had been eating since birth. Before that, the gospel of chili had been forced to travel along stagecoach routes and cattle trails, both of which linked San Antonio to places like Abilene and Denison.

Another factor could be language. Nineteenth-century San Antonio was a trilingual town: English, Spanish, and German were spoken by roughly equal proportions of the population, and each might have had a different name for the spicy meat stew, if they even bothered to call it anything other than dinner or supper. Even in English, the spelling has been known to vary from “chile,” to “chili,” to “chilli,” and even “chilly.” Or even more exotic attempts: In describing San Antonio’s open-air chili scene in 1882, a reporter from Alabama’s Greenville  Advocate rendered it as “chille cancarne.” (And also reported that it contained beans. Ay caramba!)

What’s more, some of the earliest Anglo reports we found describe it as a sort of “hash,” “compound,” or “stew.” The first English-language mention of a chili-like dish on record in San Antonio came in 1828 from a Texian colonist named J. C. Clopper, a pioneer of today’s Houston area, who visited the city seven years after Mexican Independence and eight years before the Texas Revolution. “When they [poor families of San Antonio] have to pay for their meat in the market, a very little is made to suffice for the family; it is generally cut into a kind of hash with nearly as many peppers as there are pieces of meat—this is all stewed together.”  

In The Tex-Mex CookbookWalsh quotes a San Antonio tax commissioner by the name of Frank Bushick, who claimed in 1927 that the Chili Queens were up in running “away back there when the Spanish Army was camping in Military Plaza [no later than 1821]”—which contradicts Walsh’s own “as early as the 1860s” date. 

So maybe chili was being dished out by other names, or names Texan ears either could not comprehend or failed to commit to print. You run into similar problems tracing the history of grackles in Texas: people appear to have called them “jackdaws” up until about 1900. (Jackdaws are a European bird of another species whose name has fallen out of use here.)

Or consider the beignet. Most of us think of them as a confection dating back to the moonlight-and-magnolia, absinthe-drenched days of Creole New Orleans, and they very well might. Only nobody called them by that fancy French name until about 1960, even though Cafe du Monde, the world’s most famous purveyor of beignets, had been open since 1862.

Yes, looking back through the newspaper archives, you can find many, many references to beignets, but all of them refer to pastries quite unlike the square-cut, hole-less doughnuts of French Quarter fame. New Orleans natives just called them “French doughnuts” for the century between the cafe’s opening and the early 1960s, when they were given that fancy, faux-folkloric name. Even today, the packaging for Cafe du Monde’s beignet mix also refers to them as “French doughnuts.” (As does my father-in-law, a Louisiana native whose maternal ancestors once supplied flour to Cafe du Monde.)

It seems that the public, open-air sale of chili con carne in San Antonio goes back much further than is generally believed.

In my digging through the newspaper archives, I came across an 1884 San Antonio Light article claiming that the American exposure to chili and tamales, and the advent of the Chili Queens, came about as long ago as 1813—amid appalling bloodshed and extravagant romance.

• • •

Few American cities, and certainly none in Texas, have known as much strife, wholesale terror, and mayhem as San Antonio. The venerable old town’s history is a better fit for the Balkans, revolution-wracked Latin America (which it once was), or Game of Thrones.

Since the first Spaniards ventured into the Payaya Indian village known as Yanaguana in the late seventeenth century, San Antonio has changed hands more than a dozen times, occasionally accompanied by savage, bloody reprisals during regime changes. Every student of Texas history knows about Ben Milam and the 1835 conquest of San Antonio by the Texians, after days of house-to-house fighting, and the merciless slaughter of the Alamo garrison months later. After the Battle of San Jacinto, the Mexican Eagle gave way to the Lone Star, but it wouldn’t be the last time “El Tri” would fly over the city: in 1842, Mexican strike forces took the city twice. In common with the rest of the Southern states, San Antonio also flew a Dixie banner for a half-decade.

Most of that, save for the two post-San Jacinto Mexican incursions, is well known. Far fewer people remember the troubles of 1811 and 1813, even though the latter of those conflicts featured the bloodiest battle ever fought on Texas soil, and, according to San Antonio tradition, produced the first Chili Queen.  

Were it not for the fact that the (partially) American side lost in ignominious fashion, movies would have been made about the Gutierrez-Magee Expedition of 1812 to 1813.

Encouraged by the near-success of the 1811 Casas Revolt in San Antonio, and with covert support from Washington, D.C., Spanish Texan revolutionaries traveled to Louisiana and enlisted Anglo and Louisiana Creole soldiers of fortune in a joint “Republican Army of the North” to sever Texas from Madrid for good. (The Spanish and Anglo contingents had different plans—the former wanted Texas as part of a free Mexico, while the latter preferred annexation to the U.S., or perhaps an independent republic as envisioned by Aaron Burr. It seems both sides agreed to set that matter aside until they had seized Texas.)

Once in Texas, this army recruited an auxiliary of Native American cavalry from several tribes, and met with quick success in East and South Texas, taking Nacogdoches and Goliad with little trouble. A large Royalist force besieged them at Goliad, but the rebels held out, broke out, then counterattacked en route to San Antonio, routing the Spaniards—and capturing Royalist leaders Manuel María del Salcedo, the governor of Texas, and Simon de Herrera, governor of Nuevo Leon. Defenseless San Antonio was next to fall, and on April 1, 1813, the multicultural rebels officially took control of the provincial capital.

Two days later, according to the Light, and corroborated by the Federal Writers Project’s San Antonio: An Authoritative Guide to the City and its Environs (compiled in 1938), the aftermath of an atrocity would eventually give rise to the world’s very first Tex-Mex restaurant.

According to the Light’s source—“an aged Mexican lady, who all her life has been in this city, and who is familiar with its traditions and legends”—a rebel officer named Antonio Delgado, acting with the tacit permission of rebel leader José Bernardo Maximiliano Gutiérrez de Lara, marched governors Salcedo and Herrera and a dozen or so other Royalist prisoners toward the coast and what the prisoners believed would be captivity.

They were sadly mistaken. In an incident foreshadowing the Goliad Massacre of 1836, instead they were delivered to a live oak motte on the outskirts of town, where they were taunted and killed—Delgado’s men sharpened their machetes on the soles of their own filthy boots before slitting their throats, according to the 1938 Guide. Delgado had his reasons: according to the Guide, the Royalists had beheaded his father in the failed revolt two years before and left it to rot on a pike in the middle of town for months. 

Even if Delgado had a somewhat understandable motive, some of the American mercenaries, including the Anglo contingent’s commander, Samuel Kemper, quit the army and returned to the States in disgust over this grisly treachery committed in their names.

The brutal reprisal, combined with the fact that much of the remaining army was composed of gringos, turned the populace of San Antonio against its remaining occupiers. The sullen locals refused to feed the invaders, hoping they could starve them out of town and bring about a restoration of Spanish rule.

According to both the Light and the Guide, one rebel who remained in San Antonio was a wealthy young Louisiana Creole named Louis St. Clare. During the occupation, he fell in love with sixteen-year-old Jesusita de la Torre (spelled “Jesuita” in the Guide), who according to the Light, had lost her father, Dr. José de la Torre, in Delgado’s massacre. (The Guide has it that he was dead, but does not give the cause.) The St. Clare–de la Torre romance would eventually leave the Chili Queen tradition as its legacy.

Knowing full well that he and his ilk were loathed by the San Antonians—especially by the de la Torre family and others who had lost sons, husbands, and brothers in Delgado’s purge—St. Clare nevertheless began paying dogged court to Jesusita, attempting to win over her mother in their “miserable jacal [hut] on the outskirts of town.” (Poverty to which they had been reduced after Dr. de la Torre’s demise.)

According to the Light reporter, St. Clare’s humble demeanor won over Señora de la Torre, at least to the point where she allowed him to come in and tell her how sorry he was over the death of Dr. de la Torre and how horrified he had been over Delgado’s treachery. As the Light told it, she intuited that he was a good man, one worthy of her daughter’s hand. In short, she “found the Frenchman not so terrible.”

Meanwhile, both the de la Torres and the rebel army were starving, thanks to the resentment of the locals.

As the Guide put it:

Because of this alliance with the rebels, the Royalist families of San Antonio ostracized the de la Torres, removing the support they had previously provided, and soon the mother and daughter faced starvation. St. Clare suggested that it might be profitable if they opened a restaurant, as the Anglo-Americans were notoriously poor cooks and not a Spaniard of Bexar would provide their food. So the Señora de la Torre attempted to rent a house for this purpose, but was everywhere refused. Thereupon the resourceful St. Clare made a crude table and benches, placed them outdoors upon the plaza, and here the de la Torres served fiery Spanish foods and the frontiersmen brushed up on their table manners. Thus, according to tradition, was born the portable outdoor Mexican restaurant later known as the chile [sic] stand; for after St. Clare had married Jesuita and taken her away, other women remembered the success of the eating place under the stars and continued the custom in San Antonio—where, until very recently, chile stands were a feature of the city’s Mexican quarter.

Or, as the Light put it in 1884, this “style of eating became very popular, and to this day, the open-air restaurants, or tamale stands, have been kept up, through rain and shine, under the many succeeding governments that have held sway in this historic city.”

(The legend of Jesusita didn’t disappear entirely; renowned Latina author Josefina Niggli characterized Jesusita as San Antonio’s first Chili Queen in her 1965 play Lightning from the East.)

The Republican Army of the North’s occupation of San Antonio was short-lived. In August, a Royalist force led by General José Joaquín de Arredondo (with a young, admiring lieutenant by the name of Antonio López de Santa Anna in tow) routed the army at the four-hour Battle of Medina and massacred the wounded and prisoners—of the 1,400 rebels, only one hundred survived. It remains the bloodiest battle in Texas history, and second only to the 1900 Hurricane as the state’s deadliest day. (How St. Clare and de la Torre escaped this carnage is lost to history. It is known that of the hundred survivors, ninety were American, of whose number only twenty names are now known.)

In the aftermath, Arredondo launched a merciless scorched-earth campaign against Texas, imprisoning San Antonio’s women and children (and forcing them to grind a huge quota of corn into tortillas daily) and summarily executing men whose loyalty seemed suspect. The years 1813 through 1821 were the darkest in the Alamo City’s history, according to Ramsdell: droughts and pestilence and floods followed Arredondo’s purges, leaving the town “well-nigh deserted.”

Arredondo did not confine his crackdown to San Antonio, which brings another chili origin story into play: the lavandera theory.

Lavanderas—literally, washerwomen—were camp followers of the various armies that marched through Texas in the nineteenth century: Spanish, Texan, Mexican, Confederate, and American. By day they would wash clothes, and by night they would turn their tubs to culinary purposes, stirring up vast pots of chile pepper—and wild marjoram—flavored venison or goat to provision the troops. (Recall how Bushick connection of the Chili Queens to the Spanish army, and also the Jesusita story.)

In 1882, only two years after some historians believe the dish was discovered by Anglos,  Captain William G. Tobin of San Antonio, a veteran of the Texas Rangers and the Confederate army, the first commercial canner of chili con carne, and the man behind the “coals-to-Newcastle” importation of chili to San Antonio, successfully won a contract to supply the spicy chow to the U.S. Army. (There seems to be a persistent association in Texas history between chili con carne and warfare.)

Also intriguing: despite the fact that his chili was canned in Chicago, America’s meat-packing capital, Tobin thought it best to use goat meat rather than beef, suggesting that he had tasted such chili from the lavanderas while on the trail with either the Confederates or the Rangers. It could also be that goat was just that much cheaper. But Chicago was never known as “the goat butcher of the world.” At any rate, much more on Tobin, San Antonio’s forgotten Chili King, in another installment.

It’s easy to imagine that the lavanderas and the Chili Queens were one and the same. San Antonio has always been a garrison town—it remains one today, to some degree—and it’s easy to imagine the nineteenth-century Chili Queens packing up their pots and pans and hitting the road when the soldiers, the mainstay of their business in peacetime, marched out to war. Why wouldn’t they?