In the clear, brittle light of that summer afternoon, the simple lines and time-worn stones of Presidio la Bahía seemed to exemplify the classic Spanish fort: strong; stalwart; impenetrable; beautiful.
Even softened by the glow of approaching evening, its limestone walls appeared equally secure: though warmer, and more inviting.
Curious, already warmed by the welcome I’d received from a fort volunteer, and eager to explore the place I’d call home for three days, I unlocked the door. Heavy and resistant, it required a second push before it fully opened. Cypress? I wondered. Not cedar. Maybe mesquite.
Stepping into the room, I stopped: surprised by streaks of sunlight spread across the floor. Seeing curtains drawn across the single, small window, I turned, seeking the light’s source. Much to my amusement, I found it: streaming through my fort’s strong, stalwart, impenetrable door.
Maybe Leonard Cohen’s right, I thought. Maybe there is a crack in everything. Whether light alone would filter through those cracks was yet to be determined.
Given the fort’s age and history, an occasional chip or crack hardly is surprising. The oldest fort west of the Mississippi, the only fully restored Spanish presidio in the United States, and the only Texas historical site restored to its 1836 appearance, La Bahía has had quite a run.
From its establishment on the banks of the San Antonio river in 1749; through the years leading to Mexican independence in 1821; and up to its role in the signing of the declaration of Texas independence in 1836, Presidio La Bahía has seen more battles than any site in Texas. In the process, the settlement surrounding the fort was decimated. By 1836, little remained.
After incorporating in 1840, the city of Goliad claimed both the presidio and its mission. In that same year, thanks to a joint resolution of the Texas House and Senate granting Goliad formal title rights to the buildings and land, property disputes and governmental decisions replaced military action as a cause of destruction. Caveats notwithstanding, an 1847 Goliad city council resolution declared open season on rocks:
Be it further inacted [sic], that the citizens residing in the town tract of Goliad shall have the right to take and carry away any loose rocks that may be found within the Mission wall, so that in removing said rock no injury shall be done to the building and the walls enclosing the same.
That word of permission to cart away stone seems to have been interpreted fairly liberally. The Presidio provided its own share of building materials, until Judge Pryor Lea, a railroad promoter, arrived in Goliad and transformed the Presidio chapel into his private residence.
Still, the damage had been done. John Russell Bartlett, a United States Boundary Commissioner who kept a detailed journal of his travels through the Southwest, visited Judge Lea at his chapel home, and observed:
Around the church are some twenty or more ruined buildings of stone, with nothing but their walls standing. One of these extends about 150 feet southward, and appears, from its small apartments, to have been constructed for barracks. Its walls, like those of the church, are very massive.
A high wall seems once to have surrounded the church, but much of it lies now prostrate. The other buildings, which are detached and of various dimensions, were chiefly used as dwellings. The whole town is in ruins, and presents a scene of desolation.
Needless to say, many who worshipped at Our Lady of Loreto were less than pleased when Judge Lea moved into their chapel. After some negotiation, the presidio and chapel finally were returned to the Catholic church. On November 27, 1853, Bishop J. M. Odin, the first Catholic Bishop of Galveston, purchased the property on behalf of the church, for $1,000.
Through it all, Our Lady of Loreto remained relatively intact. The fort, damaged and neglected, continued to deteriorate. Like an old barn, it seemed destined to settle back into the ground from which it had sprung, and to fade even from the memories of those who had known it.
Then, Kathryn Stoner O’Connor appeared: a true conservator, a woman willing to stand against the forces slowly destroying her beloved Presidio la Bahía.
Given the state of the presidio in the 1960s, charitably described as near-total collapse, her mission in life — a historically accurate restoration of the fort to its 1836 appearance — seemed laughable. On the other hand, her plans were the natural extension of a lifetime spent in the heart of Texas history.
When she married Tom O’Connor, she married into a family with deep Texas roots. Her father-in-law, Dennis O’Connor, was the son of Thomas M. O’Connor, an 1819 immigrant from County Wexford, Ireland. Granted 4,428 acres by Mexico, he helped to plat the town of Refugio before undertaking other, quite interesting adventures:
After arriving in Goliad on October 10, 1835, he was among the first to reinforce La Bahía by joining the volunteers commanded by Philip Dimmitt. With John O’Brien, another nephew of Power, he was in charge of the oxcart evacuation of San Patricio, Refugio, and Victoria ordered by Dimmitt [the so-called “Runaway Scrape“].
O’Connor was one of the signers of the Goliad Declaration of Independence and was later a member of R. J. Calder’s company. At age seventeen, he was the youngest man to participate in the battle of San Jacinto.
In her introduction to the third edition of Kathryn O’Connor’s Presidio La Bahia 1721-1846, Louise O’Connor writes:
From my earliest recollection, my grandmother, Kathyn Stoner O’Connor, was compiling and collecting material on her beloved Presidio la Bahía and Mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga. All the grandchildren knew they had better be able to recite the whole name without error. We were often driven to Goliad with her to see the crumbling old pile of stones.
As children, we all watched Granny rebuild this monument to Texas liberty, and even helped excavate on several trips. I once found a sewing machine bobbin that still contained the red thread that was in it the day it was lost by its owner. I never fail to visit this artifact every time I go to the Presidio.
To achieve her goal, Mrs. O’Connor required at least two things: plenty of money (which she had), and an architect who understood historical restoration.
She found her architect in the person of Raiford Stripling, a Texas-born-and-bred historical specialist who had participated in the 1930s restoration of mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga.
Together with archaeologist Roland Beard, Goliad engineer L.A. Pettus, and Superintendent O.G. Compton, also of Goliad, they set out to excavate the site to the 1836 level.
Raiford Stripling in the midst of his project ~ perhaps checking his to-do list (Center for Heritage Conservation, Texas A&M University)
As work began, Stripling had in hand this 1836 lithograph, published in New York. Based on a plan drawn by Joseph M. Chadwick, Colonel James Fannin’s topographical engineer and supervisor of fortifications, it purported to show a contemporary view of Fort Defiance, the name given the presidio by Fannin.
In Restoring Texas, Raiford Stripling’s Life and Architecture, Michael McCullar writes:
Raiford learned that the drawing, a bird’s-eye perspective made by a New York lithographer in 1836 and entitled ‘The Correct View of Fort Defiance,’ was based on a smaller, 6-by-6-inch drawing that Chadwick sent his mother in his last letter from Goliad [shortly before being killed in the Goliad massacre of March 27, 1836].
The larger lithograph showed a pitched-roofed, Gothic chapel, which meant that the New York lithographer had never seen a Spanish colonial structure.
But the notes on the lithograph were remarkably thorough, describing the uses of various rooms and buildings and indicating how detailed Chadwick’s original drawing — which Raiford thought was probably an annotated plan — must have been.
Fearing inaccuracies in the lithograph, Stripling searched for the original throughout the process of restoration. When Chadwick’s original drawing was found in a Charlottesville, Virginia library, just two weeks before the dedication of the restored Presidio, it validated decisions Stripling had made, such as turning the lithograph’s east-facing chapel to the west.
Ground plan of ‘Fort Defiance, March 2, 1836 ~ Lieut. Joseph M. Chadwick
Click here for a larger image, with annotations
While he had his plan, Stripling had more: particularly, vision, insight, and an unparalleled gift for imaginative reconstruction. Like an unexpected shaft of light breaking through a presidio door, his flashes of insight were legendary. Louise O’Connor recalls:
Stripling believed that buildings had souls, and his philosophies were pure and traditional. He was a man of his word, and at the same time, a truly free soul.
His mantra was “use your eyes.” He did not learn this in school. It was a sensitivity developed and honed on the job. He felt that there was little certainty in preservation architecture. He hung loose, and expected those he workd with and trained to do the same.
He was an imaginative problem solver. “You get a feelin’ for things,” was his explanation of this talent, which he had to the highest degree. I can remember my grandmother saying, “Strip’s got a feelin’. I have to go to La Bahía today and see what it is.”
“Orders from headquarters” ~ Rev. Edward Kircher and Raiford Stripling listen to Kathryn O’Connor make a point (1967)
Reminiscing about the project, Rev. Kircher, the Diocesan representative, writes:
Miss Kate and Mr. Stripling were very respectful of each other. He would go in with preconceived ideas, but he was flexible enough to change. He was a genius, in that he left her feeling she was running the show. This created peace on the job. They would lock horns from time to time, but she always had the last word.
As for Stripling, he took time in 1983, at a symposium held in San Antonio, to offer a tribute to Kate O’Connor, and others like her:
In remarks made prior the symposium, Stripling stepped outside his role as celebrated preservationist to pay a debt he owned to the women of Texas.
They are, he said, the leaders of historic preservation and architectural restoration in Texas, and they constituted the majority of his clients over the years. With tenacity and an independent spirit, and despite unfavorable odds, a number of women, acting individually or collectively, have preserved many historic sites within the state.
As work began, the three acre Presidio site was gridded off into 20′ squares. Trenches established building lines, and aided in the recovery of artifacts: bells, beads, spurs, weapons, arrowheads, pottery shards and household implements. Original building materials were recovered, as well. On April 19, 1964, the San Antonio Express and News reported:
The major emphasis is still along the walls, where a portion of the south wall already has been completed. This includes the port holes and stone facings (each with a round hole for the protruding musket.) These stone facings were all recovered at the site: none is a substitute.
Remnants of the south wall, awaiting reconstruction
Looking toward the south and east walls from the quadrangle grove ~ a perfect place for morning coffee (Click image to enlarge)
Stout walls require doors and gates, and they abound at La Bahia. In one interesting recollection of the restoration process, Fr. Kircher writes:
Miss Kate did not throw money around, and so we saved or made money in many ways during the restoration. We bought two boxcars of cypress, used one and a half boxcar loads, and sold the remaining half for almost enough to pay for most of what we used. All the wood at Presidio La Bahia is cypress.
While the Presidio stonework’s primary function was protective, it has its own beauty: due in no small part to the skills of local craftsmen.
After a training period in the desired results, the Latin-American workmen, many of whom are descendants of the early inhabitants of La Bahia, proved very adept in working out their own techniques for handling and placing mortar, stone, and spauls [sic] in the walls. They used their hands to a great extent rather than the modern tools provided.
An original cannon, used by Fannin and his men
Thanks to other workers, equally skilled in traditional crafts, the interior of La Bahía was restored as beautifully as the exterior.
Workman installing floor tile (photo courtesy Kyle Boyd-Robertson)
A reminder of the spring and summer bounty surrounding the fort ~ and of three-foot-thick walls (Click image to enlarge)
Just as the “Come and Take It” flag recalls Gonzales, the “Bloody Arm” flag is specific to Goliad; it still can be seen in shops and front yards throughout the town. Drawing on Nicholas Fagan’s scrapbook, Kathryn O’Connor provides some context:
“Both of the Fagans were with Dimmitt when he captured La Bahia, and John was one of those of Capt. Dimmett’s command who signed the Goliad Declaration of Independence
The Goliad Declaration of Independence, drafted by Ira Ingram, was read to the citizens of Goliad assembled at Nuestra Señora de Loreto Presidio on December 20, 1835. The enacting clause resolved that the former department of Texas ought to be a “free, sovereign, and independent State,” and the signers pledged their lives, fortunes, and honor to sustain the declaration.
Dimmett, needing a flag for the effort, decided to make one. With the help of his men he took a large sheet of white cloth and painted on it a red arm and hand holding a drawn sword Needing a flagpole to fly it on, Nicholas Fagan went into the woods along the San Antonio River near La Bahia Fort, and cut a sycamore pole to which the flag was secured.
On raising the flag on the pole in the center of the quadrangle of La Bahia, it was greeted by a fusillade of shots from without the walls by the Mexico loyalist citizens of the town of La Bahia.
Today, Dimmitt’s “bloody arm” flag is flown inside the quadrangle, where both the lithograph and personal accounts placed it. However, Chadwick’s sketch shows the flagstaff outside the west wall. Appropriately enough, the United States and Texas flags are flown there now: also from a wooden pole.
While reading about and researching La Bahía’s history and restoration can be fascinating, a stay at the Presidio offers something more: a chance, in Raiford Stripling’s words, to “use our eyes.”
Mornings and evenings, free to wander the grounds in solitude, I sensed the soul of the fort in a way denied most day visitors, and impossible to achieve from a book. The changing light, the sheer beauty of the natural surroundings, a sense of unexpected presence: each cast its own sort of spell.
As for La Bahía ghosts, their stories abound: rattling chains, slamming doors, an ethereal presence on the parade ground. Did I encounter one? Not precisely. But there were those voices…