Texas Pioneers and Their Role in the Southern Underground Railroad: The Jackson Ranch Church & Cemetery

A historic Texas site from the Southbound Underground Railroad is still intact despite being in the path of former President Trump’s border. According to the Texas Historical Comission, Texas pioneers, Nathaniel Jackson and his wife, Matilda Hicks, whom he liberated from slavery, migrated together from Alabama to Texas in 1857 and established the Jackson Ranch in the Rio Grande Valley of  Hidalgo County in Texas.


Born to a plantation owner, Nathaniel Jackson sold his inherited plantations in Alabama and Georgia to buy the land for his ranch in Texas. He worked as both a rancher and farmer in raising livestock and harvesting various vegetables on his ranch.

Nathaniel Jackson’s ranch was riverfront property along the Rio Grande River, according to historic documents contained in the Hidalgo County Historical Commission Collection. Sylvia Ramirez, a descendant of the Jacksons, said in an article published by Texas Public Radio, Nathaniel and Matilda assisted runaway slaves by ferrying them towards Mexico, a path known as the southern underground railroad. Mexico had abolished slavery in 1829.

Roseann Bacha-Garza, a historian and the program director for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Community Historical  Archaeology Project with Schools ( UTRGV CHAPS), said Nathaniel Jackson had a licensed ferry landing on his property. The UTRGV CHAPS is a program focused on educating the citizens of the Rio Grande Valley of its cultural history and the importance of  preservation of its historic sites.

According to an article published by RGVision Magazine, the UTRGV CHAPS program has designated the Jackson Ranch a site of historical importance in the Rio Grande Valley’s role during the civil war because it was located between Fort Ringgold and Fort Brown.

Alice Baumgartner, a historian and author of South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War, said in an article published by National Public Radio, an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 runaway slaves used the southern underground railroad to cross into Mexico. Whereas the northern free states were required by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to return runaway slaves to the southern states, Mexico was under no obligation to return slaves to the U.S. after they crossed into the country.

Nathaniel’s son, Martin Jackson, donated his father’s land from the ranch to the Board of Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church for establishing the Jackson Ranch Church & Cemetery in 1874 after Nathaniel’s death in 1865.

The Jackson Ranch Church was considered as one of the first churches to hold Methodist congregations in Hidalgo County when it was established. The Jackson Ranch church also functioned as a ranch school. Eli Jackson, also the son of Nathaniel, established the Eli Jackson Cemetery in 1865, where members of the Jackson family were buried. The Eli Jackson Cemetery is also the burial ground of veterans from World war I, World war II, the Korean war, and the Vietnam war. Martin Jackson had served in the United States Colored Infantry 29th Regiment (USCI) for the Union Army during the American Civil War. The Texas Historical Commission established the Jackson Ranch Church & Cemetery and the Eli Jackson Cemetery as state historical markers respectively in 1983 and 2005.

From an article published by the Washington Post, Dr. Ramiro Ramirez is a psychologist and rancher from Mercedes, TX, a town on the southern border. According to an interview of Dr. Ramirez by the Los Angeles Times, both the Jackson Ranch Church & Cemetery and the Eli Jackson Cemetery are not only the burial sites of Dr. Ramiro’s ancestors but are also the future burial sites for the Jackson family descendants. Nathaniel Jackson is the great-great-grandfather to Dr. Ramiro Ramirez and Sylvia Ramirez.

Dr. Ramirez owns the property to the Jackson Ranch Church & Cemetery. During the Trump administration, both the Jackson Ranch Church & Cemetery and the Eli Jackson Cemetery were at risk of irreparable damage by the nearby border wall construction. Dr. Ramirez, along with a coalition of non-profit organizations, an association of indigenous peoples, and another Texas landowner affected by the border wall construction filed a federal lawsuit against the Trump administration in March 2019. Dr. Ramirez and the coalition were represented by Earthjustice.

Earthjustice is a non-profit organization committed to the litigation of environmental concerns. According to the lead attorney for the lawsuit, Sarah Burt, Earthjustice claimed in the federal lawsuit Trump’s declaration of a national emergency for the funding and construction of the border wall in February 2019 through the National Emergency Act of 1976 was unlawful.

However, due to president Biden’s proclamation issued January 2021 for the termination of a national emergency regarding the construction and funding of the border wall, the circumstances directly involved in the lawsuit changed. Burt said currently the lawsuit is in the process of settlement negotiations and Earthjustice is hoping to soon reach an agreement with the government to dismiss the lawsuit. 

In addition to the lawsuit, Burt said Earthjustice lobbyists worked with legislators at the capitol in representing the concerns of Dr. Ramirez and the coalition in ensuring the inclusion of text in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020 that prohibits the use of funds for construction of the border wall within historical cemeteries. The Jackson Ranch Church & Cemetery and the Eli Jackson Cemetery are protected through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020 because they are historical cemeteries. Furthermore, Burt said the protection of historical cemeteries from border wall construction is considered indefinite for every consolidated appropriations act after 2020.



Recently I discovered I am a direct descendant of Texas pioneers, Nathaniel Jackson and Matilda Hicks, through my maternal side of the family. Nathaniel Jackson is my great-great-great-grandfather and Martin Jackson is my great-great-grandfather. Nancy Jackson, the daughter of Martin Jackson, is my great-grandmother. Nancy Jackson was the grandmother of my mother. Ramiro Ramirez is my mother’s cousin.

I interviewed my mother to find out more about my fascinating ancestry.


Tell me what you know about Nathaniel Jackson? 

“I know that he was born in Georgia in 1798 but raised in Alabama. 

His father was a plantation owner in Alabama who owned several slaves, one of which Nathaniel fell in love with and married, Matilda Hicks. 

At the time they couldn’t legally marry due to Alabama’s laws against interracial marriage. Due to this concern, and to protect his wife and their children from being enslaved, they decided to migrate to Mexico, where slavery was banned. 

On their way to Mexico, they decided to instead settle in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. He purchased 5,500 acres of land in the Rio Grande Valley, where he established the Jackson Ranch in 1857. 

He had seven children with Matilda, two of which were Martin and Eli. Nathaniel and Matilda were both active and supportive of the underground railroad. They used their ranch as a safe haven by providing food, shelter, and a safe passage for people who were fleeing from slavery to cross into Mexico.”

What is your relationship to Nathaniel Jackson?

“Nancy Jackson was my grandmother, who was the daughter of Martin Jackson. Martin Jackson is my great-grandfather, and Nathaniel Jackson is my great-great-grandfather on my paternal side of the family.