National Geographic : 1913 Mar
WANDERING ISLANDS IN THE RIO GRANDE BY MRS. ALBERT S. BURLESON THE migratory habits of certain small bodies of land inhabiting the Rio Grande and known as "cut-offs," or "bancos," have been the occasion of protracted diplomatic corre spondence and discussion between the United States and Mexico. Their refusal to remain permanently attached to one or the other of the river's banks deprived them of a fixed legal status as either Mexican or American territory and brought about their partici pation in many illegal and unrighteous adventures, which in turn led to mis understandings between the two coun tries. Inherently weak by reason of a loose, sandy soil, they are an easy prey to the power of the Rio Grande, a river of un usual and striking characteristics and revolutionary action. No one with an intimate knowledge of a great river will wonder at the homage so frequently offered it by early peoples. Its personality is so real to those who have lived by it and on it and know some of the many things it can do that they come to have a feeling akin to the blind fear and admiration expressed toward certain rivers in many acts by primitive races. A RIVER OF UNSETTLED HABITS In no river is spirit more evident than in the Rio Grande. From its birthplace in the snows of Colorado to where its flood meets the tides of the Gulf of Mexico, it seems a sentient intelligence, laden with messages for the country through which it passes. Its power to do good or to withhold it is apparent in the creation of rich allu vial valleys, or when it plunges through rock-bound canyons, leaving the country for miles on either side a voiceless desert. Throughout its length it seems to brood over the land for good or for evil. Along its sinuous route below Rio Grande City it pushes its way through miles of level sand in its final reach to the Gulf, twist- ing and doubling upon itself like a great sea serpent. For centuries it had coiled and un coiled and straightened itself again in the yielding sands of the semi-arid region, with none to heed its vagaries, until Mexico and the United States, by the Treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo, in the year 1848, fixed upon it as the boundary line between the two countries and there by brought it under international super vision. Its unsettled habits were recog nized, however, and in the earliest con vention on the boundary question every effort was made to provide against future misunderstandings arising between the two countries because of them. The boundary was to be the "middle of the river, following the deepest chan nel." This seemed clear, and took practi cal note of the river's shifting current, and neither side foresaw that it would not prove broad enough to cover the good intention of each to the other. But the Rio Grande possessed char acteristics that had not impressed them selves upon the framers of the conven tion as possible causes of friction between the people living along its banks. In ad dition to its eroding power, exercised through long months of low and mean water, it could during flood periods leap with torrential force across a narrow neck of land at the base of one of its long loops and cut for itself a new channel. WHAT A BANCO IS Through such avulsive action of the river, Texas soil would sometimes be come Mexican, and on occasions a plan tation occupied by jacals and Mexican citizens would over night find itself a part of Texas-and behold a banco!* To meet this condition a new conven *A banco is the non-descriptive term-elud ing translation, but whose nearest English equivalent is cut-off-applied to, those portions of the territory thus separated from the main land by the river.