Why is Texas called the Lone Star state? Did you know at one time Texas wanted to become a state in Mexico? Who knew that Texas was once a sovereign nation?
History buffs can learn answers to these and other questions at Washington-on-the-Brazos Historical Park about an hour outside of Houston. It was at Washington-on-the-Brazos (pronounced Brasus) that a group of daring Texans wrote and signed a Declaration of Independence from Mexico and launched the Republic of Texas, an independent nation that would last for a decade.
To understand the significance of Washington-on-the-Brazos Historical Park and what happened here 178 years ago, we have to step back in the history of Texas. For 300 years, Spain ruled the area now known as Texas. France also briefly came to power and then, in 1821, Mexico broke away from Spain and Texas became the northern territory of Mexico.
However, to hold onto its claim to these wild lands Mexico needed colonists to settle the land. There weren’t enough Mexicans to serve as settlers so the Mexican government made a deal to bring 300 hand-picked American families to the northern territory of Texas to solidify Mexico’s hold on the lands. When Moses Austin couldn’t complete the contract, son Stephen Austin took up the charge. Soon American families were pulling up stakes to GTT—go to Texas.
These new settlers were willing to become Mexican citizens, abide by Mexican law, and many wanted Texas to become a Mexican state.
Soon American immigrants, drawn by cheap Texas land (12.5 cents/acre) and Mexico’s democratic constitution that guaranteed a strong state government, outnumbered Mexicans 5 to 1. In this Mexican wild west, few Mexican laws were enforced and English rather than Spanish became the language of the land. Still, Austin pushed for Texas Mexican statehood. His appeals were ignored.
When Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana was elected Mexico’s president, things began to go horribly wrong for the American immigrants living in Texas. Within a two years, Santa Ana made himself supreme ruler and, fearful the immigrants might revolt, began sending troops to strip Texan immigrants of their guns.
The Texans didn’t take kindly to the appearance of Mexican soldiers in Goliad to take the canon the government had supplied to protect the town from hostile Native Americans. The troops were met with armed immigrants who flew a white flag with a picture of the canon on it and the words “come and take it.” The troops left without the canon.
By 1835, Santa Ana had thrown out the Mexican democratic constitution. The conflicts between Santa Ana’s Mexican troops and American immigrants living in Texas were heating up as Santa Ana pushed to disarm Texans. Armed skirmishes ensued. The Texan immigrants knew they had to do something.
Fifty nine men were appointed to go to Washington, a little out-of-the-way town on the Brazos River, to draft a Declaration of Independence to officially break away from Mexico. At the same time, armed conflict was increasingly occurring between Texan immigrants and the Mexican military. Santa Ana sent 2,000 troops to squash the armed rebellion at the Alamo.
Independence, Nation Building
As we sit in crude, one story wood building at long wooden tables, Park Ranger John spins the tale of these 59 brave men who represented American immigrants in Texas. “Drafting and signing this document meant signing their own death warrants,” he tells us.
It took the men only 24 hours to pen the Texas Declaration of Independence, a document that was widely published and distributed throughout Texas. Then the men set about the more difficult task of writing a constitution to govern the new nation of Texas.
During this time, the delegates in Washington received a letter from William B. Travis, who wrote, “I’m complete surrounded by Mexican troops.” Many members of the constitutional delegation wanted to stop what they were doing and go to the rescue of the men at the Alamo. But delegate Sam Houston cautioned them to continue their work or the Alamo would mean nothing.
It was sage advice. The Alamo and its small contingent of American immigrant fighters were overwhelmed by 6,000 troops. By the time the letter reached Washington and the Texan delegates, the couple of hundred American fighters at the Alamo were already dead. But the letter gave the delegates reason and purpose to continue their difficult task.
On March 6, delegates finished work on the Texas Constitution. That same night, they passed it and the Republic of Texas was born. In 17 days, 59 men working in a crude, unheated building had created a nation. They adopted a red, white and blue flag with a single star.
In the meantime, Santa Ana and his troops were well aware of the Texas immigrants’ revolt and their Declaration of Independence. On March 16, Sam Houston, appointed Secretary of War and commander-in-chief of the new Texas Republic, sent word that “the Alamo fell.”
Fears and rumors ran rampant. Immigrant families, fearing the Mexican troops would sweep through and kill them, began what is known as the “runaway straif,” fleeing with a few possessions they had.
However, Santa Ana’s army didn’t come to the Washington area.
Instead of heading north and crushing the rebel delegates, Sana Ana chose to chase Sam Houston’s rag tag militia to the coast. Santa Ana’s idea was to wipe out the Texas rebels and march onto the coast where the president could board a ship and return triumphantly to Mexico.
It didn’t work out that way. Houston’s men surprised Santa Ana’s troops, who where weary from long days of battle, and, in 18 minutes wiped out the Mexican army and captured Santa Ana. The new nation of the Republic of Texas would endure for another 10 years.
After Ranger John’s enticing presentation, we amble over to the star-shaped, 25,000 square foot Star of the Republic Museum where we find 10,000 square feet of exhibits dedicated to the telling the story of Texas’ fight for independence and the years it was a republic.
We also stop by the Barrington Living History Farm, just a short distance from the museum. Barrington was the farm of Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas. A working farm, Barrington allows visitors to step into the lives of Barrington Farm’s earliest residents and experience the sights, smells, and sounds of the 19th century. Interpreters, in period style clothing, help visitors get a feel for life in Texas 150 years ago.
By the time, we leave Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historical Park, I’m inspired. And now I know why Texas is the proud Lone Star state. – Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor