Spring Into History
To see, feel and experience history, take a spring drive along the Texas Independence Trail.
By Rob McCorkle
April is the 166th anniversary of Texas independence, so what better time to experience both nature and history firsthand? Shucks, even for native Texans, it can be difficult to sort out all the events of the riveting drama of how a loose coalition of farmers, ranchers, country lawyers and adventurers struggled in a foreign land against daunting odds to win independence.
This spring, follow the trail of history and view spring migration and wildflowers along the back roads that traverse the region's coastal plains, hardwood bottomlands, rolling blackland prairies and oak mottes, to the historical heart of the state known as "The Cradle of Liberty."
Our road trips revolve around three key Texas independence sites, as well as nearby parks and nature refuges, that lend themselves to a day trip or weekend getaway destined to satisfy history buffs and outdoors enthusiasts alike. A visit to any one of these heritage hubs will reward you with insight into the people, the land and the events from Spanish colonial days to Texas' entry into statehood in 1845, and delight you with the state's incomparable natural beauty to boot.
Perhaps the best place to begin a jaunt through the pages of Texas history is the place where the fight for Texas independence culminated - on a spit of coastal prairie known as San Jacinto. San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, just 20 miles east of Houston, is one of 13 state parks along the Texas Independence Trail. It is here on the grassy prairie, river terrace and marshland where the San Jacinto River meets San Jacinto Bay that General Sam Houston's outnumbered Texian army on April 21, 1836, routed 1,200 Mexican troops under General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. It was this 18-minute battle that gave birth to the Republic of Texas. (This year's reenactment of the Battle of San Jacinto, featuring uniformed Mexican and Texian troops firing muskets and cannons and swinging swords, takes place on Saturday, April 20.)
Head straight for the base of the park's most visible landmark - the 570-foot-tall San Jacinto Monument. This 70-million-pound National Engineering Landmark is built of fossilized Cordova cream shellstone. Yes, everything is bigger in Texas, including this monolith, which stands 15 feet taller than the Washington Monument. For a bird's-eye view of the surrounding battlegrounds, marsh and bay - and on a clear day, the Houston skyline - take the elevator ride 489 feet to the monument's observation deck.
Head back down to the lobby for the must-see slide presentation "Texas Forever!" narrated by Charlton Heston. This engaging presentation covers the establishment of New Spain, Mexico's winning of independence from Spain, Mexican rule, the arrival of Anglo settlers under Stephen F. Austin in what would become Texas, Santa Anna's dictatorship, hostilities leading up to the Texian revolt and the decisive battle itself.
Proceed to the San Jacinto Museum of History, whose collections range from the establishment of New Spain through the Mexican revolution, the Texian insurrection, Battle of San Jacinto and on through statehood and the Civil War era. Artifacts dating from the 1700s include a number of rare items such as Franciscan writings and paintings. Exhibits on Texas heroes Sam Houston, Lorenzo de Zavala, Mirabeau B. Lamar, as well as Santa Anna and others, bring history to life.
Back on the ground, take a drive through the park and note the various markers, rich with description, which help you visualize how the battle played out. Other granite markers note the spots in the uplands, oak mottes and knolls where the Texian troops camped out of view the night before the battle and from where they launched their deadly attack, as well as the location of the Mexican breastworks and encampment in the lowlands backing up to the tidal marshes and mudflats.
This choice of location proved to be Santa Anna's biggest tactical mistake. A planned restoration of the coastal tallgrass prairies will help park visitors better understand how Texians were able to so completely defeat the Mexican forces, many of whom tried to escape by fleeing across what they thought was solid ground, only to be bogged down in the soggy mudflats. The restoration, which will return the landscape to its 1836 look, should be aided by a $12 million bond issue approved last year by Texas voters.
Some 100 acres of wetlands that have already been restored now attract a host of waders, shorebirds, tern and gull species. Follow the newly completed boardwalk into the restored tidal marsh, and you may catch a glimpse of the roseate spoonbills, reddish egrets, storks, pelicans, falcons and even river otters that now populate the wetlands. In the spring, the park's woodlands and open fields come alive with migrating birds on this designated stop on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail.
If you haven't had your fill of birding by the time you depart San Jacinto, visit the Baytown Nature Center, a mosaic of uplands and wetlands supporting a diverse wildlife population. A former housing subdivision in Baytown has been converted into this wildlife oasis with two new fishing piers and a butterfly garden.
Serious birders might want to visit Candy Abshier Wildlife Management Area, which has been designated by the American Bird Conservancy as one of the nation's top 100 birding spots. Abshier is one of the first places in Texas to experience the spring "fallout," when exhausted birds plummet from the sky after their migratory crossing of the Gulf of Mexico. In the fall, this is one of the best places in the state to see the southerly migration of raptors. To get there, take the Lynchburg Ferry from San Jacinto and head east on Interstate 10 for about an hour to the other side of Galveston Bay.
The emerald-green, wildflower-covered rolling hills of Washington County provide a perfect opportunity to spend a day or two soaking up one of the state's most historic and scenic areas. Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site, the "Philadelphia of Texas," commemorates the time in the bone-chilling winter of 1836 when 59 citizen-delegates gathered in the old La Bahía Road settlement overlooking the Brazos River to declare Texas' independence from Mexico.
A handsome limestone, state-of-the-art visitor center anchors the 293-acre park, which includes the old Washington townsite (a drafty frame building called Independence Hall), the Star of the Republic Museum and Barrington Living History Farm. Displays of Republic of Texas memorabilia and artifacts commingle with computerized interactive exhibits to provide insight into the compelling story of the "Founding Fathers of Texas," as well as the republic's various ethnic groups who lived and worked the land in the republic's capital until Texas' annexation in 1846. George Childress, the "Thomas Jefferson of Texas," penned the Texas Declaration of Independence adopted by delegates on March 2, 1836, as Santa Anna's troops laid siege to the Alamo.
Check out the wall map that shows the route of two of the most important early Texas trails - La Bahía Road and El Camino Real. "The Nation's Last President & His Family" exhibit spotlights the life of Anson Jones, who ran an antebellum plantation in the Brazos River Valley in the 1850s, a story portrayed at the Barrington Living History Farm (see "The Forgotten Story," February 2002).
A new interpretive trail leads visitors to the Washington townsite and its "main street" - a grassy path skirting stands of magnolia trees. Take a short walk down the hill to a riverside observation deck marking the spot of the former Brazos River ferry landing. The ferry was established in the 1820s by Andrew Robinson, one of the Old Three Hundred, who were the settlers who received land grants in Stephen F. Austin's first colony in 1821. The park picnic area and children's playground in a pecan grove along the river provide a perfect outdoor setting to enjoy glorious spring weather amid bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, primrose and other wildflowers.
Inside the Star of the Republic Museum is the earliest known surviving Texas flag, currency from the Republic of Texas, a Bowie knife and the only known copy of The Tarantula, a Washington newspaper dated Feb. 9, 1942. Children will love taking the wheel of the replica of the Brazos riverboat, The Yellowstone, and going for a virtual ride down the river courtesy of a video screen.
Leaving the park, take Texas Highway 105 west toward Brenham, the home of Blue Bell Creameries, and turn right on Farm Road 50. Follow the road until it intersects FM 390 (La Bahía Road) at the 1835 town of Independence, formerly called Cole Settlement, an often overlooked historical gem. The Baptist Church where Sam Houston worshiped and the home and burial vault of his widow, sit at the crossroads of this town.
The most attention-grabbing landmark in Independence is the grouping of four masonry columns perched on a hilltop - the site of Old Baylor (1845), the oldest university in Texas operating under its original name and the one that gave rise to Baylor University and Mary Hardin Baylor University. From atop bluebonnet-specked Old Baylor Hill, gaze south just across the highway, where a private residence marks Houston's original homesite, which includes the original corn crib and water well. Old Baylor Park also includes the John P. Coles Home (circa 1820s), an 1839 dogtrot cabin and the Old Gay Hill School attended by area African Americans from 1890 to 1950.
Campers, boaters, hikers and equestrians can end their Texas history quest with a relaxing visit to nearby Lake Somerville State Park Complex, whose two state parks (Nails Creek and Birch Creek) provide more than 150 campsites and a host of recreational opportunities on the edge of a 11,640-acre reservoir. The 13-mile Somerville Trail, which connects the two parks, caters to horseback riders and also accommodates hikers and cyclists. The park is another prime spot for seeing spring wildflowers.
The "Come and Take It" cannon that fired the first shot for Texas independence. The Immortal 32. The Runaway Scrape. The Sam Houston Oak. "The Lexington of Texas." The pages of early Texas history resonate with the momentous events that took place in and around the town of Gonzales during Texas' fight for independence.
Gonzales is an easy day trip from Austin and San Antonio. Here the first shot of the revolution was fired, and 32 men answered Travis' desperate call for reinforcements at the Alamo. Days later, General Houston was in Gonzales when he received word that the Alamo had fallen, beginning his famous retreat to San Jacinto.
Start with a visit to the battleground on the banks of the lime-green Guadalupe where 18 Gonzales men under Joseph Clements hid the ferry and defied the Mexican soldiers' orders to return a small cannon given to the settlers to defend themselves against Karankawa Indian raids. To reach the site, take U.S. 87 west of Gonzales and proceed six miles to the First Shot of the Texas Revolution monument. Follow the spur about a mile to the river, where a flagpole and small gray granite marker denote the battleground. If you've got a canoe or small boat, this is an excellent spot to launch a boat into the lily pad-covered waters. Two small wooden piers provide a perfect fishing perch or a quiet place to reflect on historical events.
True to the Mexican survey of 1832, Gonzales remains the only town in Texas that retains its original configuration of seven town squares. Just south of the main town plaza is the Old Jail Museum, and around the corner the stately county courthouse faces Texas Heroes Square just across U.S. 183. The smell of the Gonzales Food Market's smoked barbecue wafting across the square may convince you to postpone the history tour for a while to satisfy more pressing cravings.
What Gonzales city fathers have recognized as the true "Come and Take It" cannon can be viewed at the Gonzales Memorial Museum at 414 Smith St. Curator Mary Arnold can expound on how the cannon came to rest at the museum, as well as point out other interesting memorabilia.
Spring is a good time to combine a tour of Gonzales County wildflower hotspots with tours of some of the town's many historic residences. Five homes are open to the public during the historic homes tour the last weekend in April.
Not part of the tour, but open by appointment, is the McLure-Braches Home. Located on County Road 361 about 10 miles east of town just off U.S. 90A (look for the roadside sign for the Sam Houston Oak), this former stage stop and 19th-century Gonzales County social gathering spot on Peach Creek rises like the ghost of Tara from its pastoral setting. A national and state landmark, the home was popularized by Janice Woods Windle in her historical novel True Women. This Greek Revival-style mansion (circa 1843), though restored during modern times, is unfurnished and retains the raw look and feel of an antebellum prairie home. The upstairs window provides a picture-book view of the fabled Sam Houston Oak roughly 100 yards away, where the leader of the Texian Army is said to have rested during the early morning hours of March 13, 1836, after ordering the burning of Gonzales during the Runaway Scrape. Contact the Gonzales Chamber of Commerce (see sidebar) for a tour. Spice up this year's wildflower-viewing and discover just how Texas came to be by spending a day or a weekend sampling a slice of history along today's paved "trails."
Travelers will be delighted to learn that pockets of natural history in Gonzales County remain little changed from the days of Houston, Travis and Crockett. Two very different ecosystems offering various recreational opportunities exist within a short drive from Gonzales.
Palmetto State Park, located on U.S. Highway 183 about 10 miles north of Gonzales, is a Civilian Conservation Corps-built park tucked into a bend of the San Marcos River. Unusual vegetation, such as the park's namesake fan-bladed palms and anaqua trees, gives this park a tropical feel sure to engage the most jaded naturalist. Birders can hope to spot some of the 240 bird species that have been documented in this riparian refuge, while canoeists will find a new trail that provides all-weather access to the San Marcos River. Canoes and pedal boats are available to rent for use on the park's oxbow lake. Picnic areas, multi-use campsites, a group camping area and nature trails make this a great stopover on the Texas Independence Trail for the family.
More typical of the area's flora is the M.O. Neasloney Wildlife Management Area, donated to Texas Parks and Wildlife for use as a wildlife demonstration area and outdoors education facility. Located in the uplands of the post oak savannah, Neasloney WMA is about 20 miles northwest of Gonzales off State Highway 80. It is open by prior arrangement only on weekdays. Recreational opportunities on the 100-acre tract, which includes a one-mile marked nature trail, are limited to wildlife viewing, hiking and wildlife ecology field tours.
According to WMA manager Jeff Bonner, springtime is the right time to visit "...if you like wildflowers and don't want to have to view them through a vehicle window. We have 118 species of blooming forbs from March through mid-December," he says. "You name it, it's here."
Rob McCorkle is the media relations coordinator for Texas Parks & Wildlife and writes frequently about Texas state parks and history.
The Texas Independence Trail
The Texas Independence Trail region travel guide is the second in a series being developed by the Texas Historical Commission to celebrate and promote the historical and cultural treasures in 10 trail regions. The Texas Travel Trails Regional Program lies at the heart of the commission's heritage tourism efforts designed to heighten the awareness of the importance of historic and cultural resources to the travel experience.
To learn more about heritage tourism in Texas or to obtain a free Texas Independence Trail Region travel guide, visit the THC Web site: The Texas Historical Commission, or call toll-free (877) 55-TRAIL.
The San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site is 20 miles east of downtown Houston. From Loop 610, take Texas Highway 225 East for eight miles. Exit on Battleground Road and turn left. Admission is free to the park and the San Jacinto Museum of History. Nominal admission fees are charged for the Observation Floor, Texas Forever!! The Battle of San Jacinto and the Battleship Texas. For more information about San Jacinto Battleground and Battleship Texas state historic sites, call (281) 479-2431 or go to San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site Complex. For information about the San Jacinto Monument and Museum, call (281) 479-2421 or go to San Jacinto Monument and Museum.
To reach the Baytown Nature Center, take I-10 East toward Beaumont and take the Spur 330 exit (Decker Drive). Turn right on Bayway, go two miles and turn right on West Shreck. For more information, call (281) 420-7128. Candy Abshier Wildlife Management Area is located at Smith Point. From Houston, take I-10 East to Hankamer, then take Texas 61 south to its intersection with FM 562. Follow FM 562 south 22 miles to Smith Point. The area is open daily. For more information, call (409) 736-2551 or go to Candy Abshier Wildlife Management Area.
Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site is off State Highway 105 between Brenham and Navasota. The park is open daily; Barrington Living History Farm is closed Monday and Tuesday. The Star of the Republic Museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information, call the park at (936) 878-2214 or go to The Birthplace of Texas.
To find out more about Washington County's bluebonnet trails and the other attractions of Washington County, including Independence, contact the chamber of commerce at (888) 273-6426, (979) 836-3695 or go to the Washington County Chamber of Commerce site for Brenham, Texas. The chamber is at 314 S. Austin St. in downtown Brenham.
Lake Somerville State Park is approximately halfway between Houston and Austin, just north of U.S. Highway 290. The Birch Creek Unit is on the north side of the lake and the Nails Creek Unit is on the west side. For information, call (800) 792-1112 or go to Lake Somerville State Parks & Trailway. To reserve campsites call (512) 389-8900 or go to TPW State Parks and Historical Sites and click on "Make Park Reservations."
For information on exploring Gonzales, contact the Gonzales Chamber of Commerce, (888) 672-1095, visit their Web site, Gonzales Chamber of Commerce & Agriculture home page or visit the Old Jail Museum just south of the main town plaza.
Palmetto State Park is located 10 miles northwest Gozales off U.S. Highway 183. For information, call the park at (830) 672-3266, the general information number at (800) 792-1112 or go to Palmetto State Park. To reserve campsites call (512) 389-8900 or go to TPW State Parks and Historical Sites and click on "Make Park Reservations."
M.O. Neasloney WMA is 20 miles northwest of Gonzales just off State Highway 80. The WMA is open by prior arrangement only. Call (830) 424-3407 for more information or go to M.O. Neasloney Wildlife Management Area.
- Garland Levit