Sam Houston the loser in ‘archives war’

On the night of Dec. 30, 1842, Angelina Eberly sounded the alarm that dealt Sam Houston a stinging defeat and kept the new capital of the Texas Republic from drying up and blowing away.

Taking Houston’s place as president in December 1839, Mirabeau Lamar advocated construction of a capital city on the western limits of the three year old nation. Built on the banks of the Colorado River smack dab in the middle of Indian territory, it would be dedicated to the memory of Stephen F. Austin.

Sam Houston and other influential East Texans attacked Lamar’s idea as an unnecessary strain on the hard-strapped treasury. The site was ridiculed as foolishly dangerous and outrageously inconvenient. Nonetheless, congress gave the project its blessing, and in October 1839 Austin was officially proclaimed the headquarters of the Lone Star Republic.

Houston kept up a steady barrage of barbs against what he blasted as “the most unfortunate site upon earth for the Seat of Government.” When Texans voted for a second Houston administration in late 1841, it was no secret the president-elect planned to turn Austin into a ghost town.

The surprise seizure of San Antonio, Refugio and Goliad by a Mexican strike force in March 1842 dramatically strengthened arguments of Austin’s vulnerability and gave President Houston a golden opportunity. In private he acknowledged the brief invasion was a case of face-saving theatrics by Mexico, but in public Old Sam shrewdly exploited the widespread fear.

He ordered George Hockley, secretary of war and marine, to move the government papers from Austin to Houston for safety’s sake. Confronted by a bitter protest from the citizens of the capital, the skittish cabinet officer backed down and buried the documents.

Citing the insecurity of the frontier, Houston called for a special session of congress to convene in June at Houston. Many western members smelled a trap and refused to attend, but a quorum finally assembled for an address from the president.

Emphasizing the hardship of conducting official business in Austin, Houston dropped the twin questions of the archives and the capital in the congressmen’s laps. Far more concerned with retaliation against the Mexicans than the presidential obsession with Austin, the politicians ignored the speech and instead passed a war resolution, which an angry Houston vetoed.

His anti-war stand seriously undermined Houston’s prestige and popularity. From the elections in early September, his opponents emerged stronger and loaded bear. Realistic friends begged the embattled president to compromise on the capital controversy.

Although it rubbed his principles and ego raw, Houston agreed to meet his adversaries halfway. For the time being he would not insist on reinstating Houston as the capital, if the other side dropped its demand on behalf of Austin.

How about Washington-on-the-Brazos? No one was thrilled by the suggestion, but it was better than the current stalemate. However, the very day Houston declared the virtually deserted hamlet the temporary capital, the Mexicans struck again.

After another short stopover in San Antonio, the foreign troops hightailed it for the Rio Grande. In the meantime, Houston completed his relocation and by Oct. 2 was ready for business at Washington-on-the-Brazos. Capitalizing on the latest threat, he again ordered retrieval of the archives.

A hurriedly impaneled Austin grand jury indicted the President of Texas for “moral treason.” A mob roughed up Houston’s messenger, shaved his horse’s mane and tail and put the contested documents under armed guard.

Vowing to settle the archives issue once and for all, Houston issued instructions on Dec. 10 to the Texas Rangers to remove the records from Austin. He authorized them to use whatever means necessary, force of arms if it came to that, to carry out their mission.

Three weeks after receiving their secret orders, 20 Rangers rode silently into Austin in the dead of night. With the whole town fast asleep, their task seemed easy enough, but they failed to reckon on the feisty proprietor of a local hotel.

Roused from her bed by strange noises, Angelina Eberly spotted the shadowy figures loading the Houston-bound wagons with crate after crate of government papers. Not about to lose her livelihood over a silly political dispute, she rushed outside in her night clothes and fired a thunderous shot from her handy cannon.

The Rangers somehow escaped but were surrounded by pursuers the next afternoon in Williamson County. Deciding the documents and the president’s personal agenda were not worth fighting for, the practical lawmen surrendered the archives.

Ten days later, Sam Houston grudgingly admitted defeat in a message to the House of Representatives. The archives stayed put, Austin remained the capital and the Hero of San Jacinto lost his first and only war.

Bartee has a can’t-miss talk for the New Year! The history of Texas elections! To schedule a speaking engagement for your group, contact him at barteehaile@gmail.com for more information.

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