How Washington Became the First Capital of Texas

March 02, 2022

On March 2,1836, the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed at a small, unfinished frame building at a small settlement on the Brazos River in the east part of Texas. That date is now what Texans commemorate as Texas Independence Day, and the location marks the birthplace of the Republic of Texas.  

The Texas Flag today. 

The First Texas Capital

We recently explored Washington on the Brazos State Historic Site in Washington, Texas. It is maintained by the Texas Historical Commission and a must-see for those who desire to learn more about Texas’s rich history. (The THC has preserved the stories and locations of other Texas Republic locations, such as the San Jacinto Battleground and San Felipe de Austin.)   

While the building is far from awe-inspiring, being in the same location where significant
Texas history took place still felt reverential. Walking the grounds was quite peaceful. 

To visit the old Texas capital, visitors must travel 20 miles north of Brenham, Texas on part of the Texas Independence Trail into the remote countryside. Almost 300 acres, this site has a reconstruction of Independence Hall, the Star of the Republic Museum, and Barrington Plantation, a currently working farm and former home of the last president of the Texas Republic, Anson Jones. The museum and the 19th-century farm on the site require an admission fee. However, there is still plenty to enjoy for free: a learning area inside the welcome center, hiking trails with a view of the Brazos River, and picnic areas.

Washington and the Fight of Texas Independence

The story of the Texas Republic begins with Stephen F. Austin and the 300 families he encouraged to settle on the northern frontier of Mexico in 1821. By 1835, many Texans, both Anglo colonists and Tejanos, concluded that a republican government was impossible while General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna ruled Mexico. That December, Texans took San Antonio by force. The provisional government in nearby San Felipe issued a call for delegates to a convention. In March 1836, a group of 59 representatives gathered in the small town of Washington, Texas, to establish an independent Texas republic.

In 1836, Washington was a one-street town with fewer than 200 residents. Commerce was limited to the ferry crossing on the Brazos and crude travel accommodations. However, the town leaders offered the delegates a free meeting hall if they would bring their convention to Washington.

There was unusually cold weather when the delegates met on March 1, 1836. The meeting hall was a small, unspectacular framed building, with windows covered with linen cloth and a ceiling open to the rafters. Yet, the delegates persevered, and on the following day, March 2, independence from Mexico was declared.  

An example of the type of linen curtains that were used at the time. 

Meanwhile, 150 miles to the southwest in San Antonio, the Alamo was still under siege by General Santa Anna’s troops. When the Alamo fell on March 6, the news panicked settlers. Many fled the countryside from the oncoming Mexican army, known as the “Runaway Scrape.”

But the delegates were still in Washington. On March 17, 1836, they adopted a Constitution for the Republic of Texas and named an interim government. Along with other townspeople, the representatives and the new administration quickly left Washington to avoid capture by Mexican forces. Independence was declared, but the war had yet to be won.

Remember the Alamo

Since March 13, the Texan army had been in retreat when it left Gonzales after learning about the fall of the Alamo. After the massacre at Goliad on March 27, many men left the army to assist their families who were fleeing the Mexican Army.

A photo of the Alamo historical site when we visited in 2017. Always a popular stop for visitors,
this former mission displays considerable artifacts from the Texas Revolution. 

Now Sam Houston had to reassemble some sort of an army. Over the next month, he trained new recruits into something resembling a disciplined army, then continued the march toward the Sabine River.

With his rag-tag army of fewer than 900 men, Houston prepared his troops (in the city now known as LaPorte) on April 21, 1836. In line with the “Twin Sisters” cannon, the men were shielded by trees and a rise in the terrain.

At 3:30 in the afternoon, during the Mexican siesta, the Texans advanced. With cries of “Remember the Alamo” and “Remember Goliad,” the Texan army swooped in on the Mexican army of almost 1500 men, overpowering them and capturing Santa Anna. The Battle of San Jacinto lasted less than twenty minutes. Santa Anna conceded.

Washington after the Revolution

After the revolution was won, the town of Washington still played a pivotal role. In 1842, Sam Houston moved the Capitol of Texas from Austin back to Washington, and the town once again flourished as a political and trading center.

This etched glass gives an idea of what Ferry Street in Washington, Texas
looked like in the 1850s. I didn't succeed well with lining up the photo! 

 When the capital was once again moved back to Austin in 1845, Washington’s political significance declined. However, the town still flourished due to the travel and commerce on the Brazos River. The town grew to 900 residents and enjoyed prosperity. In the 1850s, Washington town leaders rejected the "newfangled railroad" plans for the area. It was an expensive and fatal mistake, and the town began its slow and steady decline. 

This is the monument visible on the right side of the building. The engraving is getting quite
hard to read; I had to take a photo from the side with the sun shining on it just right. 

Although not a native Texan, over my 20 years here, I have come to appreciate the rich history and deep roots of Texas. There is always something wonderful to see and experience. And I have so much more to explore. 

1 comment:

  1. Interesting tale. One of which I was totally unfamiliar. Thanks for the share.


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