Artigas was raised in the Banda Oriental, the colonial name for the eastern bank of the Rio de la Plata, what is now Uruguay and part of Brazil. In this cattle-raising and wheat-growing region, he absorbed many of the customs and habits of the Gauchos who roamed the Uruguayan littoral. He was intelligent and active. Too restless to join the priesthood, he joined a local militia, the Cuerpo de Blandengues, where he rose through the ranks and was promoted to captain and given command of a frontier company. He was heavily influenced by Félix de Azara, a Spanish naturalist with decided views of governing.
Eventually rising to general, Artigas saw action against Spain beginning in 1811, and became the leader of the Orientales and during the time the Banda was affiliated with Argentina, sent delegates to the Buenos Aires constituent assembly with instructions to create a federation of Uruguayan states. Denied entry into the assembly, the delegates went home and thus began the efforts for Uruguayan independence from Argentina.
Uruguay is not only the geographical transition zone between the pampas of Argentina, the tropical Parana river delta and the uplands of southern Brazil. It is a land of sweeping grasslands, wooded valleys and low hills and the political buffer between two powerful nations. For the most part peaceful now, Uruguay's early history as a nation is chaotic, as other nations sought dominion over Uruguay, and internal power struggles buffeted the country from within.
Artigas fought for independence from Spain, then Argentina, then Spain again in 1816 after Spain restored its presence. After those successful battles, he had to face Brazil, who annexed the Banda in 1820 and forced Artigas into exile in Paraguay.
Following Artigas' exile, a group of men who had fought with him in the Independence battles formed the 33 Orientals or Immortals. Of these, Juan Lavalleja, Manuel Oribe and Fructoso Rivera led the country in a series of coups and counter strikes that characterized Uruguay's chaotic leadership and civil wars.
In 1845, after 20 years of exile, Artigas was offered the chance to return to Paraguay, but he declined and continued to live in that country until his death on September 23, 1850.
It wasn't until José Batlle y Ordóñez became president in the early 1900's that Uruguay achieved some measure of political stability.
Today José Gervasio Artigas is remembered on the anniversary of his birth with a national holiday. A department of Uruguay is named after him, as are countless public monuments, including one in Chile, schools, buildings, radio stations and even an Antarctic base.