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For information about the Texas Independence Trail, contact the Texas Historical Commission at (512) 463-6255 or
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Independence Hall (above) at Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site. Other sites along the Texas Independence Trail include Goliad’s restored Presidio La Bahia./ Texas Historical Commission photos

Re-enactors remember the Battle of Coleto Creek near Goliad. More than 300 Texans were captured and executed./ Texas Historical Commission photo

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Larger than life
Texas’ Independence Trail dramatically recounts the state’s fight for freedom

Published: Sep/Oct 2002
By Gary Peterson

Texas is almost mythological. There’s the image of John Wayne as Davy Crockett bravely sacrificing his life for the cause at the Alamo. There’s the bold, red-white-and-blue flag emblazoned with a single star. And there’s the slogan, “It’s Like a Whole Other Country.” Yet, despite its near-legendary status, Texas began life as an underdog.

Exploring those improbable origins of our 28th state is an enriching trip–precisely the reason that the Texas Independence Trail was created. As visitors stand on the sites where defining moments of Texan history unfolded, a deeper understanding is reached of the pride displayed by Lone Star State natives.

“I think it’s critical that when people come to visit a place, they are able to connect with its history,” said Andrew Sansom, former executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “If you don’t understand history; if you don’t understand where you come from; if you don’t understand the people, places and events that made you who you are, you’re not very successful as a society.”

The tales told along the Independence Trail are America in miniature: An oppressed people rise up in defiance, fight for the right of self-determination and avenge their fallen brethren by vanquishing a superior foe.

“This isn’t Texas myth,” said Dale Martin, park manager at Monument Hill/Kreische Brewery State Historic sites. “This is Texas fact.”

The battle is joined

The entire Texas Independence Trail runs through 28 counties reaching from Galveston to San Antonio. This story focuses on the trail’s midsection and begins in Gonzales, 69 miles west of San Antonio, where the first shots of the Texas Revolution were fired.

After Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna became dictator of Mexico, life became more difficult in Texas, then a portion of a northern Mexican province. Santa Anna hoped to blunt a burgeoning American immigration to Texas that had outstripped the Mexican-Texan population. He also prohibited arms necessary to defend communities against hostile American Indians from reaching Texas, and he imposed high tariffs on the area.

Negotiations to create a separate Texan province and an adherence to the 1824 Mexican Constitution–voided by Santa Anna’s ascension to power– all failed. A nationalistic movement grew within Texas, which led to skirmishes, such as the one on Oct. 2, 1835, near Gonzales.

When Mexican troops headed for the town to confiscate its cannon, they were met southwest of Gonzales by 50 Texas irregulars brandishing the cannon and taunting them with a flag that read “come and take it.” The Texans fired the cannon and the Mexicans withdrew.

A granite monument commemorates the battlefield site outside of Gonzales. In town, the Gonzales Memorial Museum holds what is purported to be the cannon fired at the Mexicans. The museum also honors 32 local volunteers who rode to help defend the Alamo.

In the immediate aftermath of the Gonzales fight, Texas volunteers swelled into a makeshift army and Mexican forces were driven out of San Antonio, the region’s major settlement, to the west of Gonzales. To the south, Texas soldiers also captured the Presidio La Bahia at Goliad.

The blood of martyrs

If Gonzales is where the first shots of the Texas Revolution were fired, then the presidio is where the revolution began, as the Texan occupiers declared their independence on Dec. 20, 1835, and flew the first Texas flag.

The presidio was restored during the 1960s. Visitors also can book a stay at Our Lady of Loreto Chapel, which was maintained, even as the rest of the presidio decayed around it. It has been in use since the 1700s, and once was a private home. Nearby is Goliad State Historic Site, which hosts a restored mission credited for giving rise to the Texas ranching industry.

The presidio, or more specifically, Goliad, the town it protected, was etched into Texas and American lore when 342 Texas soldiers were executed there on March 27, 1836, a week after their capture at

the Battle of Coleto Creek. The incident, coupled with the annihilation of the defenders of the Alamo three weeks earlier, led to the rallying cry, “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!”

The fall of the Alamo and Goliad, along with the subsequent flight of Texas refugees toward Galveston and the relative safety of the U.S. border, was an ignominious beginning to the Republic of Texas, which had declared its official independence on March 2, 1836.

A new nation

Fifty-nine delegates met at Washington-on-the-Brazos, declared the independence of Texas, voted to raise an army and deliberated over a constitution. Today, the site is Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site. A rebuilt Independence Hall lets visitors imagine the debate within the walls of the original structure. The park also contains a working living history farm and the Star of the Republic Museum. Appropriately called the Birthplace of Texas, Washington-on-the-Brazos celebrates Texas independence every March with a weekend full of festivities.

Barrington Living History Farm follows agricultural practices that would have been used during the 1850s. The farmhouse was moved to the property in 1936 and was the home of Anson Jones, the final president of the Republic of Texas.

The Star of the Republic Museum recounts Texas history on its two floors. On the first floor is a timeline-like progression of the region’s development.

The second floor is dedicated to the cultural and social aspect of Texas’ republic era. Although declared, that republic wasn’t a sure thing until Gen. Sam Houston surprised the Mexican army at San Jacinto. Houston’s army had been avoiding direct conflict with Santa Anna’s troops because of the latter’s numerical advantage. But during an 18-minute battle on April 21, 1836, that all changed. The Texas army suffered only nine casualties while killing almost half of the 1,300-man Mexican force.

Santa Anna was captured the following day and signed a treaty demanding the evacuation of all Mexican troops from Texas.

The 570-foot San Jacinto Monument stands adjacent to the Houston Ship Channel and commemorates the roles of everyone who fought on behalf of Texas. It is the tallest monument column in the world.

Inside is the San Jacinto Museum of History, which displays the early days of Texas, emphasizing the area’s days as a Mexican colony, as a country and its early days as a state. Also in the museum is the Jesse H. Jones Theatre for Texas Studies, which shows the museum’s presentation, “Texas Forever! The Battle of San Jacinto.”

Even after independence was gained, there was conflict between Texas and Mexico. During 1842, Mexico made incursions into Texas, and the Texas military responded with ill-fated mobilizations. The remains of soldiers who died at the Battle of Salado Creek and during the Mier Expedition were interred atop a bluff overlooking the Colorado River outside of LaGrange in 1848. In 1936, a 48-foot-tall monument was constructed at the site, which became Monument Hill State Historic Site.

When the remains were buried, Texas had been a state for nearly three years and the United States was on the verge of winning the Mexican-American War.

The victory would add about one-third of the Continental United States, a mammoth acquisition of land precipitated by the actions of incensed Texans, which are dynamically retold along the state’s Independence Trail.

Gary Peterson is an associate editor of “Home & Away” magazine.

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