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Washington-on-the-Brazos
State Historic Site

Where Texas Was Born

Relive the past in the spot where we declared our independence from Mexico.

By Melissa Gaskill

Texans have always loved a bargain.

Even back in 1836, when the General Convention met in the town of Washington in large part because townspeople offered use of a building free of charge. The 59 delegates to the convention may have questioned that decision when a blue norther arrived March 1, dropping temperatures below freezing both outside and inside the unfinished building.

Texans are also tough, though, and the next day, delegates voted to declare independence from Mexican dictator Santa Anna, whose troops surrounded the Alamo at that very moment. Delegates continued working as the Alamo fell on March 6 and a stream of settlers passed through town fleeing the Mexican army. On March 17, the conventioneers adopted a constitution for the new Republic of Texas and named an interim government before they finally skedaddled, too.

Washington on the Brazos

The historic La Bahia pecan stands as a living witness to the founding of the republic.

Today, the location of that bargain-priced convention is Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site, where modern-day Texans can view a copy of the Texas Declaration of Independence, produced by the convention, in the visitors center. Interactive exhibits in the center also cover the area’s history, starting with the arrival of members of Stephen F. Austin’s original 300 families to settle in the area in 1821, at what was then the northern edge of Mexico, and continuing through the town’s role during the convention, the days of the republic and early statehood. Displays also reveal details on the issues that led to the convention — chief among them Santa Anna’s disregard for the Mexican constitution — and the events following it.

Best of all, park visitors can walk into a replica of what became known as Independence Hall, constructed on the original site, on their own or with a guide. The day I visited, knowledgeable and enthusiastic ranger Adam Arnold led the tour. No doubt he had given his roughly 20-minute spiel countless times, but he managed to make this recounting sound like the first. I practically shivered as he described how delegates covered bare windows with cloth in an attempt to keep out the cold.

Those panicked citizens fleeing Santa Anna took a ferry across the rain-swollen Brazos River to safety. After Arnold’s talk, I followed a path that traces Ferry Street, originally part of the La Bahia road system used by Native Americans and the Spaniards, to stand at the spot where they boarded. A loop trail to the left of the road circles the old town site. To the right, another follows the river to the La Bahia pecan tree, a beautiful 60-foot-tall, 5-foot-diameter specimen. Researchers at Texas A&M University recently put the tree’s age at 190 years or more, meaning it “witnessed” the convention.

Washington on the Brazos

The Brazos River, which borders the park, played a key role in early Texas.

Placing my hand on its trunk, I thought of how Sam Houston, David Crockett, William B. Travis and other titans of Texas surely walked past and perhaps also touched this tree. The pecan’s closest genetic relatives grow 900 miles away in Mexico, so it likely traveled here on the La Bahia road, which extended all the way to Monterrey, Mexico. The tree still produces nuts, and the park sells saplings from them for $100, with the proceeds supporting programs here. (Before you buy one, though, be advised that its maximum potential height is 130 feet and its lifespan perhaps 500 years.)

On the way back to the visitors center, the trail passes an amphitheater built by the Works Progress Administration. Nearby, the Star of the Republic Museum covers the people and wildlife of Texas (don’t miss the armadillo specimen if you’ve only seen the creatures dead on the highway) and the history of our revolution, days as a republic and statehood. Its second floor delves into our social and cultural history, with log cabins, furnished rooms, tools, household items, toys, medical items, agricultural implements and more. A timeline mural lines the ramp between the two floors, listing significant events both here and around the world.

The park also contains Barrington Living History Farm, which once housed the family of the last president of the Republic of Texas, Anson Jones, and now operates as a working 1850s-style farm. It includes the original family home along with a kitchen, smokehouse, barn, livestock, crop fields and re-created slave cabins. Interpreters in period dress carry on as the original residents might have, using Jones’ own diary for reference.

Washington on the Brazos

Early settlers determined the fate of Texas at Independence Hall.

The town of Washington, probably named for Washington, Ga., by settlers who came from there, still exists. It boasts a post office and about 12 residents, half of them park employees. A rather prosperous community during the republic and its capital from 1842 to 1845, Washington declined after turning down a railroad route in the 1850s. The townspeople’s loss became our gain; had the town continued to prosper, the hallowed spot where Texas declared its independence might be no more than a plaque on the sidewalk. Instead, it became Washington Park in 1916, its 293 acres acquired by deed from private owners, and was transferred to the State Parks Board in 1949, with additional land added in 1976 and 1996.

The park has no camping and no river access due to its archeological sensitivity. Even re-enactments of life in Old Washington, staged the third Saturday of each month by staff and volunteers in period clothing, occur only in designated areas, says park interpreter Jon Failor. “You are walking on what once was a thriving community and a highway between Texas and Mexico. It makes us unique.”
Naturally, this park celebrates Texas Independence Day in a big way, with historical re-enactments, craft demonstrations and more. The Texas-sized birthday celebration normally occurs on the weekend closest to March 2. This year, the celebration marking the 180th anniversary of Texas independence will take place March 5-6. In keeping with our bargain-minded forebears, Washington-on-the-Brazos charges no entrance fee.

 

WASHINGTON-ON-THE-BRAZOS STATE HISTORIC SITE

Address: P.O. Box 305, Washington, TX 77880

Entrance Fee: None. However, guided tours of Independence Hall or the Barrington Farm are $5 for adults and $3 for students. Admission to the museum, operated by Blinn College, costs $5 for adults, $3 for children age 6 and up. Tour all three facilities for $9 per adult and $6 per student.

Park Hours: Open daily 8 a.m. to sunset.

More Information: 936-878-2214 tpwd.texas.gov/washingtononthebrazos

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