Picture yourself sitting in front of your hearth one spring night on the Texas frontier, warming your weary feet after planting your vegetable garden just above the muddy Brazos riverbank. The firelight dances on your newly built log cabin walls. Your small son and daughter are sound asleep on their new cots in the corner, covered with rough woven wool blankets to stave off the chill. An urgent knock at the door startles the entire family. In compelling whispers, a messenger explains that General Santa Anna and his countless troops are marching toward your house, less than an hour away from San Felipe de Austin. They are killing, raping, and pillaging Texan usurpers who are calling for independence from Mexico. In response, Texas general Sam Houston has ordered everyone in the army’s path to destroy all property and resources to keep it out of Mexico’s hands…immediately.
In the wink of an eye, you heed the call, throw on your boots, gather your children, the loaf of bread sitting on the table and flee. Then like your neighbors who are also fleeing, you set fire to everything you have labored to build…home and general store business, and run for your lives into the cold night and crossing the Brazos river on foot and hoping that it will all be worth it.
On March 11th, 1836, this is exactly how the town of San Felipe de Austin was burned to the ground. The town never fully recovered, but some worked tirelessly to rebuild. The dreams of those settlers were certainly tenacious, life long and undaunted. Forty miles west of Houston, tucked into the rural landscape, a new state-of-the-art interactive exhibit recently opened, which is also the product of a decade of dreaming and planning for a few intrepid Texans.
San Felipe de Austin museum tells the heart rendering story of Texas’ earliest European settlement, which I have also researched from a slightly different angle when I coauthored San Felipe Secrets Unveiled. (download free). I recently visited the museum and was struck with emotion that permeated the land, the care with which the site is being managed and the powerful tone of the storytelling. Visitors were invited to immerse themselves in the processes of fiery yet civil debate and making ones own tools on the frontier. This new generation in museums made history and science come alive through technological immersive experiences allowed visitors to San Felipe Historic site to experience yesteryear in the comforts of 21st century style.
I came away filled with a clearer FEELING of what life must have been like when the Mexican army approached San Felipe. Orders were given to burn the town before the Mexicans could access these much needed resources. The first citizens of Texas sacrificed ALL; homes, barns, businesses food, clothing, shoes, livestock, supplies… everything built over the course of thirteen years was sacrificed in one night.
The Mexican troops bypassed the pyres on their way to San Jacinto (near current day Houston) only to capitulate to the Texan farmers and merchants.
For those of you who do not live in Texas, please read this post as a metaphor for life in general… a story character that unfolds when we sacrifice for what we hold most dear. Most Americans of today have not had this privilege. Yet, such was the Zeitgeist of the 18th and 19th centuries, where human struggle for liberty forged new concepts of self governance and responsibility.
To them freedom meant more than getting take vacation or go hunting. They desired freedom to speak English or German instead of the mandatory Spanish. They desired to worship as protestants instead being paying priests for the basic sacraments. But most of all, they desired freedom from mercenary authoritarianism to practice SELF RESPONSIBILITY.
In previous years, the desire for freedom spread like wildfire through the American colonies and France. But what most folks don’t realize is that it also caught hold in Mexico to break free from Spain… and after Mexico gained their independence in 1821, Texas also won independence from fledgling Mexico in 1836. The dominoes started falling with our declaration of Independence on July 4th 1776.
France followed July 14th, 1789; Mexico declared September 16th, 1810 and finally won in 1821. Texas’ fight for independence began on March 2, 1836 and lasted less than two months. The dominoes fell so rapidly that on April 21, 1836 Texas won its independence from Mexico.
We all know that nothing happens in a vacuum. Only nine years later in 1845, the Republic of Texas chose statehood in the United States of America. From July 4th, 1776 when the shot was heard ’round the world, to Texas’ statehood took only 69 years… remarkable.
My current rabbit trail lead me to contemplate the tenacity of the pioneer spirit, ~ self reliant, ornery, an intelligence not measured in scholasticism but survival. They were of a new energy of freedom… burning with desire to break the yoke of bondage to a monarch. They didn’t wait for someone else to give them water; they dug their own wells. They grew their own food and built their own houses from the resources at hand. Their dream of freedom became concrete.
But like all history, times change. While the dream of freedom endures, the essence of freedom shape-shifts against the backdrop of humanity’s progress. While the foundations of those freedoms such as self-reliance and hard work remains, the concept of its comforts has been selectively been altered. Freedom is the harvest, not the seed of hard work, smart work (discernment) self reliance, self responsibility.
The pursuit of happiness is not cable TV or sports; it is more subtle than that. Each of us works to gain experience in creating our better world. It is the sense of wellbeing that comes AFTER the smart choices mature into understanding.
Stephen F. Austin’s dramatic story illustrates this point, even though it ended in his own heartbreak. The town he built from scratch was burned to the ground! But the tenacity of his dream of a better life for Texans became reality for many after him.
So, if you are even a little bit interested in early Texas history, then enjoy a state-of-the-art country style day at San Felipe de Austin Historic Site and experience the tenacity of Texas dreams. What would such an event look like in our times?How would you respond? And most of all, let us be grateful for past sacrifices so that we may drive from coast to coast in safety.