Dissolving into the late afternoon heat, a sweet stench of rotting fruit thickened the air, rendering it palpable as withered petals fading and dropping from the passiflora. Torpid among the vines, bees buzzed erratically, seemingly ambivalent about their task. Like the bees, I’d come to work, but I suspected none of us would be disappointed when darkness brought labor to an end.
After days of rain, alleyways between the rows of melons, tomatoes, and eggplant remained soggy: rich in puddles, and riddled with crawdad chimneys. Though good for still-ripening figs, water was bringing an end to the abundant tomato crop. Soggy as the ground, their skins splitting, fruit fell to the ground or fell to pieces at the first hint of a touch. Finding still-firm tomatoes required concentration, and the development of a rhythm: search, test, pluck, bucket.
Intent on harvesting, lost in thought, I heard only the buzzing of the bees until a voice caught my attention. “You better watch your bucket, there, ma’am.” Startled, I looked through the vines to find a man peering at me: an old man, in jeans, wearing a cap that advertised his allegiance to the local farm and ranch supply. “Your bucket,” he said. “You better tend to it, or them fellers gonna get your best t’maters.”
Turning, I saw a half-dozen ducks pushing their bills into fallen fruit, or pulling rotted tomatoes from the vines. Not content to rummage on the ground, the largest duck had walked up to my bucket and was busy trying to dislodge a whole, blemish-free tomato. “Stop that,” I said, pulling away the bucket.
Undeterred, the duck advanced. When I picked up the bucket and set it in front of me, the duck followed, circling around my legs to make another grab for the tomato. A snapped bandana only made him hiss before he attacked the bucket again. Finally, a tomato rolled to the ground. Before I could make a move, he’d squashed it with his foot, and began to eat.
Unwilling to admit defeat by a duck, I made one last, irrational grab for the remnants. At that point, he lowered his head, made an unearthly and entirely un-duck-like sound, and stood his ground.
The folks watching the confrontation laughed. The fellow who alerted me to the duck’s presence laughed, too. “Now, that there, ” he said. “is a real come-and-take-it duck.”
Only a woman in platform sandals, a couple who’d arrived in a car with Kansas plates, and a Greek family who’d come for figs but stayed for tomatoes, seemed puzzled. Every Texan within earshot laughed even harder, and stood a little staighter. They knew their history.
Long before an 1835 skirmish broke out between Mexican soldiers and Texian militiamen at Gonzales, tensions among various factions in Texas — Spanish royalists, Mexican revolutionaries, Anglo settlers, and waves of independence-minded and land-hungry immigrants — had led to remarkable changes.
Before signing the Treaty of Córdoba on August 24, 1821 (the treaty which formalized Mexican independence), Spain had granted Moses Austin permission to found a colony of Anglo settlers in Texas. Austin died on June 10, 1821, but on his deathbed charged his son, Stephen, with the task of carrying on the work of colonization.
Though reluctant, Stephen agreed, and immediately found himself embroiled in complexities. Agustín Iturbide, chosen by the Mexican revolutionaries as a military leader, decided to celebrate independence from Spain by dissolving the Mexican Congress and declaring himself August I, Emperor of Imperial Mexico.
Although he re-signed Austin’s colony into law on January 4, 1823, Iturbide was forced into exile on March 19 of that year by a group of army officers which included Antonio López de Santa Anna. With Iturbide’s abdication, the colony law was annulled, but Austin once again managed to have it reinstated, and his three hundred family colony became a reality. By 1832, Austin’s colonies alone had grown to 8,000 people, despite Mexico’s imposition of immigration limits in 1830: a result of rumors that the United States might be thinking of annexing the region.
In 1835, a caretaker government headed by Valentín Gómez Farías eliminated the law limiting immigration to Texas, and lifted restrictions on land speculation. As the number of new settlers increased, so did the level of discontent: particularly where taxes and tariffs were concerned. The reopening of customs offices at Velasco and Anahuac was particularly irksome.
The history of battles, surrenders, retreats, and trickery at both ports is complicated. Suffice it to say that, when Mexican General Martín Perfecto de Cos made known his intention to arrest William Barrett Travis for his role at Anahuac in June of 1835, and asked the Texans to hand Travis over, they were unwilling to do so: irking the Mexicans in turn.
Two months later, Stephen Austin returned from his own stint in a Mexican jail. Suspected of inciting insurrection among the colonists after presenting President Santa Anna with a proposal to grant Texas separation from Coahuila, he returned to Texas via New Orleans only after being freed by a general amnesty in July, 1835. In his absence, many had come to favor a clean break with Mexico, partly because of Santa Anna’s annulment of Mexico’s 1824 Constitution. Federalist in nature, it had guaranteed certain rights to the states, and its annulment caused many to believe their rights would be further curtailed.
On August 20, the the citizens of the Jurisdiction of Columbia circulated a broadside calling for a Consultation to be held at Washington-on-the-Brazos on October 15, 1835 to discuss escalating friction with Mexico, and consider options for more autonomous rule for Texas.
Fully aware of restlessness among the Texans, Mexican authorities began taking steps to prevent real trouble. A first step was reclaiming armaments which had been made available to the colonists.
On January 1, 1831, Green DeWitt wrote to Ramón Músquiz, political chief of Bexar, requesting a means of defending Gonzales colonists against hostile Indians. On March 10, James Tumlinson, Jr., a DeWitt colonist at Bexar, received and signed for a bronze cannon meant for Gonzales, given with the stipulation that it would be returned upon request. When the Mexicans asked for the return of their cannon in September, 1835, the colonists declined.
This either is, or isn’t the actual “Come and Take It” cannon, displayed at the Museum in Gonzales ~ Opinions differ
After learning that Gonzales was refusing to surrender the cannon, Domingo de Ugartechea, military commander in Texas, dispatched Francisco de Castañeda and a force of a hundred men to retrieve it. Castañeda’s meeting with the Texans was less than successful. When he requested the cannon be returned, the Texans pointed to the gun, about 200 yards behind them, and said, “There it is. Come and take it.”
After a few days’ worth of maneuvering, the Mexican forces skirmished with the local militia, led by John Henry Moore. Though Castañeda and his men retreated, the event was reported across the country as the first battle of the Texas Revolution. While hardly a significant battle (two Mexicans were killed, and one Texian suffered a bloody nose after being thrown from his horse), the encounter did serve as a potent symbol of the final break between American colonists and the Mexican government.
For their battle flag, the Texians adopted a design created by Cynthia Burns and Evaline DeWitt: a single black star, an image of the disputed cannon, and the phrase “Come and Take It.” There are suggestions the flag also may have been carried by Stephen F. Austin’s volunteer army to the siege of Bexar. As DeWitt colonist Creed Taylor recalled:
About this time, on the tenth, I think, Stephen F. Austin arrived at our camp and was given quite an ovation. All looked upon the great man as a wise councilor and a safe leader, and so he was unanimously chosen as our commander-in-chief with the title of general.
To heighten the excitement and arouse further enthusiasm, at this juncture the general received a message from Colonel Cos, at Bexar, saying that he was coming to Gonzales with a large force to recover that cannon. When this news was circulated among the boys their enthusiasm was raised to the highest pitch. “Let them come and take it,” became the cry.
Like Goliad garrison commander Phillip Dimmitt’s “bloody arm flag,” raised in the quadrangle of Presidio La Bahia in December, 1835, both the “Come and Take It” flag and cannon soon gave way to other symbols of a new Texas Republic. Even so, though the flag is only a memory and the cannon’s provenance is questionable, the realities they represent still live.
Here are only a few examples of ways in which the Gonzalez battle cry, now 180 years old, lives on:
Over the bar at Frank, Austin, Texas ~ Photo by Seth Anderson
As a personalized Texas license plate
The speckled sea trout, gone Texan
I wasn’t born Texan, but I got here as fast as I could ~ with the help of Come and Take It Movers
A yard sign of solidarity during the great Blue Bell ice cream battle
And, of course, there was that duck.
Eventually, a truce was declared in The Great Tomato War of 2015. As the ducks and the tourists wandered off, I went back to picking, but the old man lingered, leaning on a post.
“You know,” he said, “it’s prob’ly a good thing that duck didn’t show up in Gonzales when they were squabbling over the cannon.”
Curious, I stopped picking. “How’s that?” “Well,” he said, “think about it. If that critter had wandered past the cannon, instead of yelling ‘Come and take it,’ somebody might’ve yelled ‘Duck!’ and things could’a worked out a whole lot different.”