Four generations of the Thomas W. Smith family came to Austin during the spring of 1839. Family members were his mother Ann Rodgers, his wife Rebeckah. His oldest son James W. Smith and his wife Angelina brought their three children, a son Fayette, daughters Caroline and Lorena. Four of Thomas and Rebeckah’s grown children; William, Harvey, Fenwick and Margaret, all unwed, completed the family of twelve.
Thomas was appointed the first county treasurer; his son James was the county judge when Travis County was organized on January 25, 1840. Judge James Smith was killed one year later by Comanche Indians just west of his Pecan Street (now W. 6th Street) home, his son Fayette was captured. Fenwick, the judge’s younger brother, witnessed and escaped to report the attack. Family and neighbors searched in vain for nine year old Fayette. As his grandfather Thomas searched, he too was killed just outside of Austin by Indians on August 6, 1841. Rebeckah lost her husband, a son and a grandson to the Indians in eight months.
A document dated May 9, 1840, signed by Thomas Smith, gives some indication of Indian problems in the new county. He wrote a requisition for six kegs of gun powder and five bars of lead, to be delivered to Captain John Holliday at the falls of the Brazos.
Rebeckah returned to Alabama and died there in 1856. Thomas and Rebeckah Smith’s children and grandchildren stayed to take part in Austin’s future.
I will be writing short vignettes of the earliest known pioneers of Austin and Travis County during the Republic of Texas. A census taken in December of 1839 accounted for 856 people in the new town of Austin. Men numbered 550, woman 61, children 100, and slaves 145.
I have identified about 75 families who resided in the capitol city from October 1839 until February 19, 1846 when the Republic of Texas ceased to exist. I intend to share with you their stories, based on newspaper accounts, letters and Republic of Texas history. These first footers stories will be published periodically in no particular order. If you know of a good story of an early Austin/Travis County Pioneer, please share it with the Westward Sagas website. The next blog will be about the first Travis County Treasurer, Thomas W. Smith.
City of Austin 1840
In downtown Austin, Texas near Congress Avenue and Sixth Street, stands a bronze statue of Angelina Eberly holding a torch, igniting a canon. From where the monument stands, the Tennessee native fired the opening shot in the short-lived “Archives War” and earned the innkeeper the title of “Savior of Austin.”
Sam Houston ordered the Capitol of the Republic of Texas moved to Houston on March 10, 1842. The estimated two hundred remaining residents of Austin knew if the national archives were removed, Austin would never again be the Capitol. They formed a vigilance committee and loaded the cannon with grape shot in anticipation of a raid of the national records.
On the morning of December 30, 1842, twenty-six men in three wagons, on orders of President Sam Houston, arrived to take the national archives. Land Commissioner, Thomas William Ward or “Peg Leg” as the locals called him, directed the loading of eleven boxes. By noon the wagons were ready to roll, angry vigilantes’ shook their fists at Ward and the soldiers, as Angelina fired her famous shot. Shrapnel hit the Land Office, but no one was injured. The wagons took off north toward Kenny Fort on Brushy Creek. The vigilantes caught up with them, a short gun battle ensued. Houston’s men surrendered and the records were returned to Austin.
France was the first government to formally recognize the Republic of Texas after declaring its independence from Mexico. King Louis Philippe sent a French Ambassador named Alphonse Dubois de Saligny to Austin in 1840. The French Legation, built in 1841, still stands in its original location at 802 San Marcos St., just east of Memorial Stadium. The museum is open to the public and operated by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. Viva la France and long live Texas!
On March 10, 1842, President Sam Houston again attempted to drive the stake of death into the heart of Austin. This was not Houston’s first attempt to do so; not wanting the Capitol of the Republic of Texas moved from Houston in the first place. Houston ordered Secretary of War, George Washington Hockley, to move the Archives stored at the General Land Office, to the city that bore his name. The Archives War was on between the citizens of Austin and Sam Houston’s Administration.
Austin’s population dwindled from 859 in 1840 to less than 150 in 1842. Of the original 75 families that settled the Capitol City, only 12 remained. Many died from Indian raids; 13 in one raid. Others went into the woods to hunt or fetch wood and never came back. Travis County Judge, James W. Smith, was mortally wounded and scalped by Comanche Indians near Shoal Creek; his 9 year old son taken captive January 21, 1841. The following August, Judge Smith’s father, Travis County Treasurer, Thomas W. Smith, was found scalped just outside of Austin.
Sam Houston used these Indian depravations and threat of another invasion from Mexico to declare a state of emergency. His alarm set off Texas’ Second Runaway Scrape. The brave souls that remained in Austin would protect the archives, ensuring Austin would remain the Capitol City of the Republic of Texas. This and other stories of Austin’s earliest days will be told in Book 4 of the Westward Sagas.