Private William McKay

Private William McKay

Texas Rangers, Texas

End of Watch Wednesday, November 16, 1859

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William McKay

What became known as The Cortina War, started when Juan N. Cortina, the heir to a large land grant in the lower Rio Grande valley that included the area around Brownsville, witnessed the city marshal pistol-whipping an intoxicated Mexican citizen who had previously been employed by the Cortina family. Cortina shot the marshal in the shoulder and fled on his horse with the prisoner.

On September 28, 1859, Cortina and 60-100 men rode into Brownsville intent on seeking revenge for numerous grievances. The bandits killed a local merchant and George Morris, who may have been a constable. Cameron County Jailer Robert L. Johnson refused to release the prisoners, and instead, fired at the group, killing one of the raiders. Johnson and a citizen were killed in the fusillade that followed. Cortina later withdrew back into Mexico.

Texas Governor Runnels authorized Captain William G. Tobin to raise a company of 100 rangers from San Antonio to quell the lawlessness in Brownsville. On November 16, a detachment of thirty rangers under the command of Lt. John Littleton spotted a band of Cortinistas about a mile from Palo Alto and pursued them into the chaparral. The rangers dismounted, tied their horses to some scrubby mesquite, and charged into the dense brush. In the vicious fight that lasted only thirty minutes, Ranger Privates Thomas Grier, William McKay and Nicholas R. Milett were killed, and four others badly wounded, including Lt. Littleton. Private John Fox surrendered to the Cortinistas and was executed. The day after the Palo Alto fight the rangers rode to the scene where they found the stripped and mutilated bodies of the dead rangers. The men were buried on the battlefield.

By early December a second company of 120 rangers arrived as did 165 regular army troops. On December 14, army troops and rangers defeated about 400 men under Cortina in the battle of Rio Grande City. Ranger Private David Herman of Tobin’s company was mortally wounded.

On February 4, 1860, Cortina appeared at La Bolsa, a large bend on the Rio Grande about 35 miles above Brownsville, where he attempted to capture the steamboat Ranchero. Army troops and rangers arrived and in the fighting Ranger Private Fountain B. Woodruff was mortally wounded. He handed his revolver to a fellow ranger and said, Take it. I shall never be able to use it again.

Virtually no personal information is known about the rangers, except that William McKay was 19 years of age and Fountain B. Woodruff was 22 years of age. Cortina invaded Texas again in 1861 and then returned to Mexico where he was a state governor and army general. He died in 1894.


  • Age 19
  • Tour 1 month
  • Badge Not available

Incident Details

  • Cause Gunfire
  • Weapon Unknown weapon
  • Offender Not available

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Pvt. McKay,

Thank you for your service and sacrifice for the State and citizens you were protecting.


Robert McKay

November 15, 2021

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