By Michael Rugeley Moore
Stephen F. Austin founded San Felipe de Austin in 1823 with high ambitions. He laid out an expansive town plat that he intended to one day serve as the capital city of Texas.Thirteen years later, his village lay as smoldering ashes, completely destroyed during the “Runaway Scrape” in the Texas Revolution (1835-1836). Another town named for Austin ultimately became the capital.
The significant story of San Felipe, the Villa de Austin, became lost as did the evidence of the town itself. Blocks that once housed hotels, stores, workshops and houses reverted to cattle pastures. San Felipe’s municipal archives were destroyed or dispersed in the evacuation and burning of the town. Recovering that story and identifying specific locations for those buildings have occupied more than two decades of my research efforts. Resources of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC) have been key to many of my discoveries.
In 2018, the Texas Historical Commission opened a new museum and expanded interpretation for the San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site. Items from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission are prominently featured in the exhibits and programs. More critically, TSLAC resources helped recover the site’s story and have led to exciting archeological finds. I am very grateful to the Archives staff for their help in my research visits and requests for scanning of illustrations and archival items used in the exhibits. I encourage everyone to visit the new museum and experience this rediscovered story of the life and cataclysmic death of San Felipe de Austin.
I wanted to share a few anecdotes that demonstrate how TSLAC resources make a critical difference in the understanding of San Felipe’s story and significance.
The Texas Revolution was governed from San Felipe’s Council Hall that served the San Felipe Committee of Safety, the November 1835 Consultation, and the Provisional Government established by the Consultation. Until the discovery of a rental receipt in the State Archives collection, it was not known where these governmental bodies met. The Council Hall, it turns out, was a rental building owned by San Felipe merchant Joseph Urban.
The most dramatic month in the history of San Felipe began with the receipt of William Barret Travis’ “Victory or Death” letter from the Alamo. This document, perhaps the most famous single item in the TSLAC collection, was addressed “To The People of Texas and All Americans” with Travis’ instructions to “Send this to San Felipe by Express night & day.”
Texas had no functional government at the time, with the Provisional Government adjourned until the March 1836 Convention at Washington gaveled into session. San Felipe’s citizens responded immediately, forming a militia company under Moseley Baker, and having them march to help defend the Alamo. Printer Gail Borden, joined by the ladies of the town, presented the company a flag based on Stephen F. Austin’s design. Baker’s company, however, had only made it as far as Gonzales when news arrived of the fall of the Alamo.
Gail Borden and his partners had established a printing office in San Felipe de Austin in the fall of 1835. Issues of their Telegraph and Texas Register and separate broadside imprints from their press documented the Texas Revolution. Much of their printing was done for the Texas government. A list of their most famous imprints of February and March of 1836 are listed on an invoice to the Government of Texas, including “Travis letter” on February 29th, the “Declaration of Independence” on March 5th, and a broadside announcing the fall of the Alamo on March 16th.
San Felipe merchant Nathaniel Townsend wrote “in haste” on March 16th saying “We have recd [received] intelligence which can be relied on that the Alamo is taken and every man in it massacred, and that our forces are retreating from Gonzales.” Throngs of families fled their homes in the Runaway Scrape to escape along with the army.
On March 28th, Houston’s army arrived on the outskirts of San Felipe.Texian officers came into town to requisition supplies for their men. Juan Seguin received round jackets, vests, trousers, and shoes to outfit several of his men. Captains Baker, McIntyre and Eberly also supplied their men from the stores, as did the army’s quartermaster, Major Edward Winfield.
Having resupplied from San Felipe’s stores, Sam Houston’s army marched northward toward Groce’s Ferry. Two companies refused to follow, and Houston ordered each to defend their local Brazos River crossings. Moseley Baker’s San Felipe company was ordered to burn the town on sight of the Mexican Army to deny them the logs that could be used to build rafts to cross the Brazos. On the night of March 29, 1836, Baker’s company burned San Felipe to the ground. Houston later disclaimed having given the order, but the “Board of Examination” paid most claims for the destruction of San Felipe property as an official act of the army. Nathaniel Townsend, for example, had a claim of more than $11,000 paid for the value of his buildings and store merchandise.
Perhaps the single most important discovery in the TSLAC Republic Claims receipts was a request by San Felipe merchant Joseph Urban for reimbursement of his losses in buildings, furnishings and merchandise amounting to more than $8,500. His claim provides important details of building sizes and functions in the village. Of particular importance was his claim for the burning of “The Courthouse 26 feet by 22 feet.” Two witnesses who testified to his loss added that this building was the one “in which Court was held in said town and in which the convention was held….”
This claim also provided important clues about Urban’s own dwelling house and its brick cellar. It had begun its life as the Farmer’s Hotel, with a cellar used for storage or perhaps brewing. Because of the resources of the Texas State Archives, the buildings on this one lot are now some of the best documented of any in the village. Archeological excavations are adding to that knowledge and will form the basis for many future exhibits and educational programs.
During my research at the Texas State Archives every member of the staff proved helpful, particularly Tonia Wood, who helped coordinate the scanning requests for items to be used in the exhibit design process. I would also like to acknowledge the important role of the Summerlee Foundation of Dallas, who provided grant funding to TSLAC to digitize and host the Republic Claims in an online database. This one resource was one of the most critical in rediscovering San Felipe’s story and built environment.
On behalf of the San Felipe de Austin project team, we say “thank you” to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission for preserving these important items of Texas history and making them available for the Texas Historical Commission to feature in the exhibits at the San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site.
About the Author:
Michael Rugeley Moore served as project historian for the San Felipe de Austin development as a volunteer and contractor to the Texas Historical Commission. He wrote the exhibit narrative, assembled graphic support for the exhibit and authored the San Felipe de Austin Site Guide. His connections to the Texas State Archives go back almost 50 years, where his first training in primary source research was provided by his grandmother, Helen Rugeley, who served for more than 20 years as editor of the Austin Genealogical Society Quarterly.