Because March 2 marks the anniversary of the dramatic events leading to Texas winning independence from Mexico in 1836, it seems the perfect time to visit some of the key sites.
Fortunately, the Texas Historical Commission has taken much of the effort out of charting such an adventure with its delineation of the Texas Independence Trail region. As it is now defined, the Independence Trail encompasses an area that rambles from the Houston/Galveston area northwest to sites near Brenham, then southwest through Bastrop to the San Antonio area, and then turns back east to Goliad and Victoria before paralleling the coast back to Houston.
Of course, any discussion of Texas Independence should include the Alamo mission in San Antonio, because that distinctive complex and the battle it witnessed stir the imaginations of freedom-loving adventurers around the world. Even so, for this trip, I decided to visit ahandful of the somewhat lesser-visited sites which are no less important to Texas history.
Several of these landmark sites in Texas are planning reenactments of the events that took place in 1836 and which helped define the state. Though I greatly enjoy watching reenacted battles and such versions of historic events, I’ve found that a driving tour during quieter times to visit the sites themselves offers an opportunity to reflect on the history of Texas and see how the years have affected the geography of the land.
The first stop on my tour is Gonzales, because that’s where the first shots of the war were fired in October of 1835 and where, after learning news of the Alamo battle in March 1836, Sam Houston rounded up his army and marched east toward the rendezvous with destiny that would take place at San Jacinto in April.
The city of Gonzales expresses pride for its role in the Texas fight for independence, which starts with Texas patriots firing on and holding out against Mexican soldiers intent on retrieving a small cannon lent to the town folk for defense of Gonzales itself. Once independence had been declared, Houston, newly named general, organized recruits into the semblance of an army. The first attempts at organization are said to have taken place at a site near that of the current Gonzales Memorial Museum building. The museum, built in the late 1930s as a project celebrating and commemorating the Texas Centennial, deserves a stop itself, even if only to appreciate the building’s architecture.
And a second stop in the area requires a short drive east to visit the tree known as The Houston Oak, located near County Road 361, a couple of minutes off Alt. US 90, about eight miles east of town. The story goes that Houston and his troops stopped in that area to regroup near daybreak, still able to see the glow of fires they’d set to destroy Gonzales the night before in order to keep the town from the hands of the Mexican army.
From Gonzales, I part ways with the official Independence Trail driving tour and proceed south to Goliad and Presidio La Bahía, just a mile south of town on US 183/77. Even though I arrive late in the day, I’m able to catch up with director Newton Warzecha, who narrates a tour of the newly remodeled museum. I find that it offers a concise history of the presidio itself, as well as an overview of events leading up to the horrific massacre of Colonel James Fannin and more than 300 of his men on March 27, 1836, Palm Sunday of that year. The monument that marks the mass grave stands a stone’s throw outside the walls of the three-acre Presidio compound, and many say the ghosts still roam the area.
The best way to experience the Presidio is to stay within its walls overnight in the quarters, a modest two-bedroom apartment that adjoins the museum (call well ahead of time for reservations). After the museum closes in the afternoon, you’ll have the grounds of the enclosed presidio to yourself, and once darkness falls, the mysterious vibe sets in. My night is quiet and uneventful, perhaps in part because I make a specific request of the ghosts to leave me a note if they have something to tell me. It is with some trepidation that I take a look at the notepad the next morning. Maybe they hadn’t written anything because I had left a light on, and it may be that ghosts write notes only in the dark.
The next morning, Warzecha reminds me that an unofficial declaration of independence was signed on the altar of the presidio’s chapel and also fills me in on plans for an expanded educational program at the presidio.
After a stop at Mission Espíritu Santo State Historic Site, my drive draws me across the coastal plain to West Columbia, site of the first capitol of the state, and where a replica of the modest and rather rough-hewn building stands. The 1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveston also demolished the original capitol building. I make note of an anecdote attributed to legislative delegate and future governor of Texas Francis Lubbock, which explains that the delegates to this august body typically took their meals in a tavern and slept out under the live oaks.
The Independence Trail continues on to Galveston, where the interim Texas government fled briefly in 1836. Galveston also served as home port for the Texas Navy during the years of the Texas Republic.
Closer to Houston, on the San Jacinto battlefield site, the obelisk monument stands as a sentinel to the memory of 18 minutes of warfare that culminated in Santa Anna’s surrender and General Sam Houston’s decisive victory that gave Texas its freedom.
The nearby crossing over the San Jacinto River is made possible by the Lynchberg ferry, continuing the tradition of a ferry in this location since the early 1800s. After completing the 10-minute crossing, I follow signs to a Harris County park commemorating the homestead of David G. Burnet, who served as interim president of Texas. From his house on the bay, Burnet could have watched the ferry in operation.
In a disruption to the essential chronology of the Independence events, I drive to Washington-on-the-Brazos to walk through the simply constructed building now known as Independence Hall, where the official Texas Declaration of Independence was signed on March 2, 1836.
I know I’ll look forward to visiting this site, which marks a small but bustling river crossing town on the Brazos River, again. It is so serene and peaceful on a weekday afternoon, completely unlike the early years of the Texas Republic.