Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Woman Who Saved Austin, Texas

by Benjamin Gustafsson
As you walk between Sixth and Seventh Street you might notice the bronze statue of a woman getting ready to fire a six-pound canon ball across Congress Avenue. If you’re anything like me, you’ve asked yourself where that canon ball is headed. The answer is into the side of the General Land Office Building that stood in its way in 1842. The woman is Angelina Eberly, known as “The Savior of Austin.” This statue marks the exact spot where she fired a canon shot that once preserved Austin as the state capital.

So why did Eberly want to blow a giant hole in the General Land Office Building?

Apparently, in the America of the late 19th century, the primary symbol of political authority lay in government archives carefully maintained in the capital of each state. Similarly, the Republic of Texas archives had been kept since 1839 at the General Land Office building in the small frontier town of Austin, after Stephan F. Austin—which had recently changed it’s name from Waterloo to reflect its new status as the republic’s capital.

From the first days of the Republic, the Texas congress had favored a plan to build a planned city as its capital somewhere in the strategic center of Texas. However, Sam Houston—who will from here on be considered the villain of this story for the purposes of our narrative, in spite of his patriotic service at the Battle of San Jacinto—had hatched an ego-maniacal plan to move the capital to his precious namesake city of Houston. Using his authority as President, Sam Houston blocked congress plans and had the archive moved to Houston.

Yet, with the ascension of Mirabeau B. Lamar to the Presidency in 1839, the Central Texas plan was revitalized. Lamar chose an area near the village of Waterloo, which lay between Shoal and Waller Creeks on the banks of the Colorado River. Edwin Waller, whom the creek was named after, was then selected to draw up a plan for the city. He designed a fourteen-block grid with a broad north-south main street that would run from the river to the State Capitol. It later became known as Congress Avenue.

But despite these developments, Sam Houston refused to give up his plan. During the intervening years he railed against Austin, calling it “the most unfortunate site on earth for a seat of government.” Then in 1941 1841, Houston again became President of the Republic.

During the first year of his Presidency, Houston expressed his distaste for the new capital by refusing to stay in the official residence of the president. Ironically, during his visits to Austin he stayed at a room in the boarding home of his future nemesis: Mrs. Angelina Eberly.

In her time as his host, Mrs. Eberly grew suspicious of Houston.

In 1842, when the Mexican army took control of San Antonio, Goliad and Victoria, the president called for a meeting of the congress in Houston where he argued that Austin was too vulnerable against a Mexican attack and ordered that the precious archives be returned to his beloved Houston.

Ready for such a move, the residents of Austin formed a vigilante group to protect the archives, which they named “The Committee of Safety,” and threatened to defend the official papers with armed resistance if necessary. In response, Houston ordered that the papers be stolen in the dead of night.

The stage was set.

On a cold December night, Houston declared that Austin was no longer the state capital. That night twenty men, led by Colonel Thomas I. Smith and Captain Eli Chandler, arrived in Austin and began loading the archives into their wagons. Awoken by the sounds, Mrs. Eberly spotted the men, ran to a canon lying in wait and lit the fuselage. A six-pound canon ball exploded into the night and crashed into the side wall of the Land Office Building, frightening the soldiers and awakening Austin’s residents.

Smith and Chandler fled into the night with two wagons filled with archives—the vigilantes followed them. At Brushy Creek, in what is today known as Williamson County, the soldiers were forced to return the documents at gunpoint. To his credit, Houston had ordered the men to avoid bloodshed at all costs.

By the next morning the archives were returned to Austin where the citizens celebrated with a raucous New Years Eve Party.

For a number of years Sam Houston was able to keep the government located further north out of fear of further Mexican incursions. But in late summer of 1846 the seat of government was returned to Austin where Mrs. Eberly and the archives awaited.

In the late summer of 2004 the city erected the statue in her honor.

Another interesting piece of Texas History.