Penitas. Possibly one of oldest towns in the United States. Established, according to tradition, in mid-1520s. Founders were a priest and five other Spaniards of the unsuccessful Panfilo de Narvaez Expedition into Mexico in 1520. Narvaez was sent to arrest or kill Hernando Cortez, conqueror of Mexico, who was accused of disloyalty to the king. Cortez, however, defeated Narvaez in battle, imprisoned him, and took most of Narvaez's army for his own. After Narvaez was released from prison (1521), he and the remnant of his men set out for Florida. But Father Zamora and five officers gave up further plans to travel with Narvaez, and settled at Penitas. The refugees were befriended by Indians living in huts and dugout-type homes in the vicinity. The Spaniards erected stone houses with whitewashed walls. Father Zamora brought the Catholic faith to the Indians, also teaching them weaving and better farming. The Indians taught cookery to their guests. Cabeza de Vaca, aide in a later Narvaez expedition, is famous for having written of his shipwreck and wanderings in Texas from 1528 to 1535. The founders of Penitas are recalled best by their descendants, some of whom still live in this area. Historical Marker text, 1970. Marker location: from Mission, take FM 2062 south about 5.5 miles.
Peñitas. The community of Peñitas, which derives its name, meaning “Little Pebbles,” from area gravel deposits, traces its origins to the colonization efforts of Spaniard José de Escandón. In 1749, he settled families on the Villa of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Reynosa land grant in Mexico. Peñitas developed on a section of the ejidos (town commons) north of Reynosa as grazing land for livestock.
Escandón selected a site west of Reynosa for a mission. Soon, another small mission, San Joaquín del Monte, formed, ministering to indigenous people and to settlers living on the north bank. The mission also protected colonists from attacks. This area quickly became the focus of commercial trade for its mother city of Reynosa as residents gathered here to sell and purchase goods. The salt trade became specially prosperous for settlers; salt was essential for preserving food and curing hides.
By the 1760s, a number of settlers worked on ranches on the north bank of the Rio Grande. By 1767, the Spanish government granted porciones (allotments of land) to certain colonists, while other rented land on the ejidos for ranching or farming. Soon, ranching communities developed on the ejidos, including the Peñitas, Tabasco and Ojo de Agua ranches, which were forerunners of the towns of Peñitas, La Joya and Abra, respetively. In the mid-1800s, Peñitas became a refueling stop for steamboat traffic and by the early 20th century had residences, stores, a cemetery, a post office, a school and a stop on the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico Railroad. Today, Peñitas, which incorporated in 1992, continues to thrive as a community rich in cultural heritage. Historical Marker text, 2007. Marker location: FM 1427, 3/4 mi south of Business 83 (NE corner of Veterans Memorial Park, in front of City Hall)