The last president of the Republic looms large in Texas history.
By Rob McCorkle
Last Jan. 18, while the leading edge of a cold front whipped across the Brazos River Valley, a hardy handful of park visitors huddled near a blazing hearth in the parlor of a wood-framed home to celebrate the birthday, life and times of the “Architect of Annexation” and last president of the Republic of Texas, Anson Jones. Directly behind Jones’s white two-story house sits a small kitchen, where park interpreters were busy baking a birthday cake in a Dutch oven, using an 1833 recipe from The Frugal American Housewife.
The dogtrot residence built by Anson Jones in 1844 anchors the Barrington Living History Farm at Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site. The 70-acre park replicates the farm where the Massachusetts-born physician, congressman and diplomat raised corn, cotton and tobacco in the mid-19th century. During the 1936 Texas Centennial, the building was moved to its current site from its original location about four miles away. There, a state historic marker announces the Barrington Plantation, where a a bed and breakfast now welcomes guests. It is built on the exact spot of the Jones home, whose original steps have been incorporated into the new establishment.
But, today, the state historic site is hosting its annual Anson Jones’ Birthday Celebration at the Barrington Living History Farm. Bill Irwin, who manages the farm, is regaling visitors with stories of Jones’ early days in Texas. He arrived from New Orleans amidst a yellow fever epidemic, revived his languishing medical practice and soon found himself the darling of the Brazoria community. “In 1834,” Irwin says, “his diary reads, ‘I stayed in Texas. I’m a landowner now; I own my own house and business. I’ve paid off all my debts and currently have a medical practice worth $5,000.’”
Before Irwin, on a small table, sits one of the few existing photos of a somber-looking Jones, from the 1850s, and several 19th-century apothecary items the doctor might have used during what was called the “Age of Heroic Medicine.” Throughout the day, Irwin will alternate stories about 19th-century medical practices with stories about Jones, the doctor, statesman and reluctant politician born on Jan. 20, 1798, in Great Barrington, Mass.
Most of what is known about Anson Jones, according to Irwin, comes from Jones himself, through his diaries, account books, personal letters, an autobiography and his Republic of Texas presidency correspondence that was published posthumously in book form as The History of the Republic of Texas. Unless you’re a Texas history scholar or elementary student in Texas public schools — a number of which bear the Jones moniker — the name Anson Jones might not ring a bell. But his story is a compelling one.
In the annals of early Texas, one would be hard-pressed to find a more star-crossed or more important public figure than Anson Jones. Though not as well known as Lone Star State icons such as Stephen F. Austin, Gen. Sam Houston or William B. Travis, Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas (elected in 1844), lived a rather privileged mid-19th century life that was both blessed and cursed.
When the Texas Revolution was brewing, Jones advocated independence from Mexico and later fought in the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836. He was appointed by Houston, the Republic’s first president, to the post of Apothecary General of the Texas Army. Jones later became Houston’s valued confidante and served in key foreign-relations posts.
After San Jacinto, Jones returned to Brazoria to resume his practice, but first had to evict James Collinsworth from his office, challenging him to a duel to achieve that end. The voters of Brazoria elected him to the new Texas Congress, where he pushed for a uniform system of education, an endowment for a university and legislation to regulate medical practice.
In 1838, President Houston appointed Jones Minister to the United States and in a bid to strengthen the new Republic’s independence and garner better trade relations with Europe, authorized him to take the Texas proposal for U.S. annexation off the table. By making Texas more economically independent, Houston and Jones hoped to make annexation more appealing to the U.S. Congress. The annexation of Texas was a sensitive subject politically because it involved the expansion of slavery westward. Jones also sought to win recognition of Texas’ independence from Mexico.
Jones was elected president of Texas in September 1844, while James K. Polk was elected U.S. president on a platform that called for the annexation of Texas. While Jones held the annexation cards close to his vest, continuing to court Mexico and holding out for the most favorable terms from the U.S., the Texas Congress and the majority of the public misinterpreted Jones’ actions as an indication that he favored Texas remaining a sovereign nation. A resentful citizenry burned the Texas president in effigy and made threats to overthrow the government.
On June 4, 1845, after finally securing from Mexico a treaty of recognition for Texas, Jones presented the people of Texas with the option of either having peace with Mexico and remaining independent or being annexed by the United States. The Texas Congress rejected the Mexican treaty, drew up a state constitution and called for a vote on annexation. The constitution and annexation won by an overwhelming margin, and Texas was annexed with favorable terms on Dec. 29, 1845.
“So, in essence, Jones spent his presidency negotiating himself out of a job,” Irwin points out. “This was a guy who, ironically, never sought political office, but always sought to serve Texas.”
Irwin likes to note that at the Feb. 19, 1846, annexation ceremony in Austin, during which the Texas flag was lowered and the U.S. flag raised, the flagpole snapped in two. Jones, presiding over the ceremony, gave an eloquent speech whose words have proved prophetic.
According to the 1997 book, Anson Jones: Last President of the Republic of Texas, by Jean Flynn, the outgoing president of the republic addressed legacy this way: “The public mind will settle down to proper conclusions. … and I repose upon the sincere belief that history and posterity will do me no wrong.”
While Jones’s prescience proved accurate enough, it was his later years as a Texas plantation owner and wannabe U.S. Congressman that proved both frustrating and ultimately deadly. Jones hoped to be elected to the U.S. Senate, but Houston, whom Jones had come to dislike, and Thomas Jefferson Rusk were chosen instead. Jones never got over the snubbing by his fellow Texans. A fall from a horse in 1849 that severely damaged his left arm contributed to Jones’s woes, and the pain, often excruciating, would dog him the rest of his life.
After Texas’ annexation, Jones returned home to Washington County to write his memoirs, tend to his crops and raise his family. He and his wife, Mary McCrory, had a daughter and three sons. Seeking to raise his family in a better social and educational setting, Jones sold the farm in 1857 and headed to Galveston to rent a house and set up a new medical practice. The family remained behind with five African-American slaves to await his summons to follow him to the island. The message never arrived.
The visitor’s center at Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site dedicates considerable space to the last president of the Republic of Texas, where the little that is known about Jones’s tragic death unfolds in the “Suicide of Ex-President Anson Jones” exhibit. While spending the night at the old Capitol Hotel in Houston, which had once served as the capitol of the Republic of Texas, he foreshadowed the suicide, telling a visiting friend, “My public career began in this house, and I’ve been thinking it might close here.”
A newspaper article of the Jan. 9, 1858, suicide reports that Jones was “found lying across his bed this morning at half past 8 o’clock, a discharged pistol in his hand and his brains blown out. This is all the particulars of this lamentable affair we have been able to obtain.”
Despite Jones’s tragic demise, his legacy lives on as the “Architect of Annexation” and in several other notable achievements, chief among them helping to establish the first Masonic Lodge in Texas and the creation of the organization that was the precursor to the Texas Medical Association.
“He was the person who brought Texas into the Union, but to hear it from Sam Houston, it was all his idea,” Irwin says with a smile. “Anson Jones is truly one of our forgotten Texas heroes. And very few people, unless you’re in the fourth grade (studying Texas history), know or remember him.”
Jones (1798-1858) is buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Houston. A statue of the Texas hero stands in the square in the West Texas town of Anson, in Jones County.