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July - August 2008 Feature Park
Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site

59 Men Gave Birth to Texas in Other Washington


On a wooded bluff overlooking the mocha-colored Brazos River roughly 10 miles from Navasota sits a weathered brick cistern that two centuries ago served the bustling early Texas town of Washington. It is the only visible remnant of the old townsite, where in March of 1836, 59 men gathered in bone-chilling weather inside an unfinished frame building to declare Texas's independence from Mexico.

Rob McCorkle photo © Tx. Parks & Wildlife Dept.
View a larger version of this image.
Barrington Living History Farm park interpreter
Barb King shells peas in the kitchen of a
recreated mid-19th century farmstead at
Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site
between Brenham and Navasota.

The reconstructed Independence Hall with white cotton cloth covering the open windows recalls one of the most significant chapters in Republic of Texas history that unfolded over 17 days even as Mexican Gen. Santa Anna's army laid siege to the Alamo less than 200 miles away. Imagine if you had been one of the Texian revolutionaries in the busy river town on the day they received a dispatch from Alamo commander William B. Travis saying his forces were hopelessly outnumbered, but urging them to finish their business of writing a constitution and a declaration of independence.

It's easy to do just that by visiting Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site - the "Birthplace of Texas," whose buildings, exhibits and interpreters dressed in period clothing tell the compelling story of the genesis of a new nation. The 295-acre site encompasses not only the old Washington townsite, but a 10,000 square-foot Visitors Center with one of the state park system's best-stocked gift stores, the Star of the Republic Museum and Barrington Living History Farm.

Historic site superintendent Bill Irwin believes what happened at Washington-on-the-Brazos in 1836 is as important to Texas history as what occurred at any other revered historic site, including the Alamo and San Jacinto.

"What happened here," Irwin says, "to paraphrase Sam Houston who was a delegate and signed the Declaration of Independence, 'If we don't have a constitution and legitimate government, we're just a bunch of thieves. All we're doing is stealing land.'"

Houston, who would go on to lead Texian troops to victory at San Jacinto in April of 1836 and ultimately become the republic's first president, prevailed over hotter heads at the convention who wanted to rush immediately to the aid of the embattled Alamo troops. By March 17, the delegates had completed their task, and they and remaining townspeople began fleeing east from Mexican troops in what's known as the "Runaway Scrape." Wayside exhibit panels explain the Runaway Scrape, as well as other historical footnotes related to the town of Washington, its citizenry and lodging facilities, and the famous who passed through on their way to immortality.

You can check out an MP3 player (donations are appreciated) to take a 35-minute audio tour along an interpretive trail that leads to Independence Hall and through the old townsite, down what was once Ferry Street to an overlook where Andrew Robinson ran his ferry business. Fascinating anecdotes about Texas history enliven the taped presentation. You'll learn, for instance, that famed Tennessee frontiersman Davy Crockett and four companions paid $7.50 to lodge at Lott's Tavern on their way to the Alamo.

Did you know, too, that when the state capital was relocated temporarily in 1842 from Austin to Washington, the House of Representatives met upstairs in a saloon? To keep the legislators from sneaking downstairs while in session to imbibe, the stairwell entrance was boarded up and stairs built on the outside of the building.

Rob McCorkle photo © Tx. Parks & Wildlife Dept.
View a larger version of this image.
Visitors to Washington-on-the-Brazos State
Historic Site can visit the spot, where in March
of 1836, 59 men gathered to write a constitution
& declare Texas' independence from Mexico.

After Texas won its independence, Washington continued as a busy river port town for two decades, welcoming paddlewheelers bearing goods from Galveston, New Orleans and New York and watching them depart laden with Brazos Valley cotton. When city leaders rejected an offer from the railroad to be a stop on the line in the 1856, the town's fate was sealed. What remained of the town burned to the ground in a series of fires prior to 1899.

The story of the town and the "Founding Fathers of Texas" unfolds with the touch of the computer screen in a spacious Visitor Center. Make this your first stop. Here, you can view a map of the park layout and receive an orientation to the park's main attractions: 1) Independence Hall and Washington townsite, 2) Barrington Living History Farm and Home of Anson Jones, last president of the Republic of Texas, and 3) Blinn College's Star of the Republic Museum. Fees vary (ranging from $4 per adult and $2 student to $9 for adults and $3 for students) depending on the number of sites to be visited. Family rates are offered as well.

A recent influx of funding from state lawmakers has allowed the hiring of additional staff that is making it possible to keep Barrington Living History Farm open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Operating hours for the Visitor Center are the same. The park charges no entrance fee.

At Barrington, interpreters attired in period clothing perform the same kind of tasks that Texas farm workers of the mid-1800s would have done, offering a wonderful educational opportunity. Youngsters can observe such activities as spinning cotton and open-hearth cooking, and can pitch in to shell peas, scrub clothes and help pick fresh vegetables.

The park rents a number of day-use facilities, such as group picnic pavilions and a 400-seat auditorium. There is no cost to head to the pecan grove, where visitors can choose from among dozens of picnic tables and grills. Spring wildflower season and cooler fall months are particularly busy times for the park. More than two miles of hiking trails offer a close-up look at the park's natural beauty.

Two major events at Washington-on-the-Brazos draw large crowds. The largest is the Texas Independence Day weekend in March; the next biggest is the Fourth of July celebration complete with live music, children's activities and fireworks.

While visiting Washington County, one of the state's most scenic and historic counties, take time to travel the historic La Bahia Road, snack on some ice cream at the Blue Bell Creamery, tour antique shops in Brenham and marvel at the floral cornucopia of the Antique Rose Emporium.

Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site is located just off FM1155 between Brenham and Navasota off of Texas Highway 105. For more information visit the Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site web site.

Article by Rob McCorkle

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