A Moveable Fort

Presidio la Bahia, Goliad, Texas ~ 1910

The woman couldn’t have been more pleasant, or more accommodating. On the other hand, it was our fourth conversation, and it felt as though we were becoming friends. It wouldn’t have surprised me if we’d begun swapping recipes.

The first time we talked, it was because of a travel tip I’d discovered online after a post-Christmas trip from San Antonio to Port O’Connor. Alamo Plaza and the River Walk had been more frantic than festive, and I was in the mood to dawdle: taking time to stop in Panna Maria, the oldest Silesian settlement in the United States, and, farther south, at Goliad’s Presidio La Bahía and Mission Espíritu Santo, where I first saw an Agave americana decorated as a Christmas tree.

By the time I reached Goliad, the day had turned cloudy and damp, with occasional fits of rain. Driving up the hill for a desultory look around the fort, I decided against going inside. Previous visits had taught me something of its history and its importance for Texas generally, so I pulled away: thinking, as I did, that a springtime trip would be nice, especially after the flowers began to bloom.

On that day after Christmas, what I didn’t know — what I couldn’t have known — was that my next visit would take place sooner, be far different, and provide significantly more enjoyment than I ever could have imagined.

Early in January, while roaming the wilds of the internet, I stumbled across a post describing a family’s encounter with ghosts during an overnight stay at Presidio La Bahía. “Surely,” I thought, “you can’t just book a room there. It’s a fort, not the Hilton.”  As it turned out, I was only half right; the Quarters at the Presidio had multiple ratings on TripAdvisor. After pondering for a day, I called La Bahía.

Seemingly eager to chat, the volunteer who answered my call provided some details. The portion of the fort available for guests originally had served as the Presidio’s officers’ quarters. During a major restoration in the 1960s, builders incorporated a two-bedroom apartment to serve as a rectory for the chapel’s priests. Now, with the space no longer used by the diocese, anyone could rent the suite.

When I asked about cost, the figure quoted for a night was a bit pricey, but no more so than for hotels on San Antonio’s River Walk, or any number of high-end Texas resorts. “Why not?” I thought. “It’s a fort, not the Hilton.” Overcome by the thought of hobnobbing with the spirits of Colonel Fannin and his massacred men, I booked two nights in March, at the very beginning of wildflower season. Then, things became complicated.

Not long after I made my reservation, cataract surgery was added to my to-do list. Since the surgery dates conflicted with my time at the Presidio, I called to explain the situation, and reschedule my visit. I happened to reach the same volunteer, and we arranged for dates that seemed well beyond any recovery period.

When pre-surgery complications required another rescheduling, she said, “No problem. The Presidio’s not going anywhere.”

After circumstances forced yet another (and final) rescheduling, I apologized for causing so much trouble. I swear if we’d been talking in person, she would have patted my hand and said, “Now, don’t you worry.” As it was, she laughed, and said, “You’d better get those eyes fixed before you come. We’d hate for you to miss anything.”

Then, she paused. “Besides,” she said, “you’ll be here in a few weeks. It took the Presidio a whole lot longer than that to get here.”

Indeed, it did. Several decades lay between the establishment of the Spanish fort and mission on Garcitas Creek and its re-establishment in Goliad: decades of events, complicated by multiple locations and confusing names.

Today, the fort is known as Presidio La Bahía, or simply La Bahía (“The Bay”), but those names have nothing to do with its current location on the San Antonio River. Constructed by the Spanish in 1720 or 1721 on the site of René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle’s failed Fort St. Louis, the original Presidio took its name from La Bahía del Espíritu Santo: “The Bay of the Holy Spirit.” Today, we call those waters Lavaca and Matagorda bays, and know them as the home of Indianola: the hurricane-destroyed port of entry for so many mid-1800s immigrants, and just a few camels.

Across Garcitas Creek from Presidio Nuestra Señora de Loreto de la Bahía del Espíritu Santo, the mission known as Nuestra Señora de la Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga was established: honoring both the Virgin Mary and Báltasar de Zúñiga, Viceroy of New Spain. People referred to the fort as Presidio La Bahía, and to the mission as La Bahía.

In short, La Bahía could refer to the bay; to the mission; to the fort; or (after its final move) to the settlement that grew up around the fort. By 1829, the confusion may have been too much, even for residents of the area. The name of the settlement was changed from La Bahía to Goliad: an anagram of the name of Father Hidalgo, the priest who initiated the Mexican fight for independence from Spain. Even so, if you travel to Goliad today, you still may hear someone refer to the town as “La Bahía.”

Goliad County Map, showing La Bahia ~ 1920

In the beginning — which is to say, in 1720 — Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo, governor and captain general of the provinces of Coahuila and Texas, received a commission from Báltasar de Zúñiga to reoccupy East Texas missions and presidios abandoned during the French invasion of 1719.

Journals kept during Aguayo’s expedition chronicled construction of the first Presidio La Bahía, directly over the ruins of Fort St. Louis:

Shortly before March 16, 1722, Aguayo sent fifty of the best soldiers, selected from the battalion, under Gabriel Costales to Espíritu Santo. Because of the scarcity of horses, he himself could not go until the 16th, when with forty men, accompanied by Doctor Codallos y Eabal, Captains Thomas Zuburia,, Miguel Zilon y Portugal, Manuel de Herrera, and Pedro Oribe, he began his march for that place.
In the latter part of the journey, they came to two good-sized streams, evidently the Garcitas and Arenosa. Crossing these, the expedition turned southeast three leagues, and arrived at the ”presidio of Nuestra Señora de Loreto,” March 24, 1722.
Apparently it was considered already founded by the garrison. [On April 4, 1721, forty soldiers under the command of Captain José Domingo Ramón, had arrived at Fort St. Louis to begin preparing for the building of fortifications.]

Juan Antonio de la Peña also kept a record of the expedition. According to his account:

On the sixth of April [1722] his lordship began to draw the lines for the presidio on the site where the French, under command of M. de la Salle, had occupied it from 1684 to 1690. 
The hole in which the artillery had been buried and in which the powder had been burnt is within the lines of the new fort, and can still be seen. On opening the ditch, in order to lay the foundation of the fortification, nails, pieces of gun locks, and fragments of other things used by the French were found. The foundation for the fort is to be in the shape of an octagon.

The Spanish plan map depicted three concentric rows of buildings surrounded by a complex, sixteen point star-shaped palisade wall, a moat, four bastions, and a tower.

Nuestra Señora del Loreto Presdio de La Bahía, drawn by the Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo, 1722.
Courtesy Bryan (James Perry) Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin

For years, historians and archaeologists debated the authenticity of the map and journal entries.

The elaborate design seemed grandiose, given the presidio’s remote location. They wondered whether the elaborate fortification actually had ever been constructed, or if the map had been simply a propaganda ruse to deceive hostile governments about Spanish strength in the area.

Finally, in 1999, after multiple field investigations and ongoing archival work, an investigation was launched at the site of the original Presidio la Bahía by the Texas Historical Commission. The details of the two-and-a-half year search are fascinating, and the results were remarkable:

Archeological work confirmed that the presidio had been built according to the elaborate plan drawn by the Marqués de Aguayo, and had been garrisoned with soldiers to guard against the return of the French.
Traces of the Karankawa were found throughout the site as well… Distribution of native artifacts strongly suggested that the Indians had not only traded with the French but lived just outside—if not within—the walls of the presidio during the time of the Spanish.
Project archeologist Jeff Durst notes that the unusual length of time spent excavating allowed for continual reassessment of findings in the field.
“We had different interpretations of what we were seeing as we went along, changing about every three weeks as we made new discoveries. We looked for the Spanish palisade wall trench for about a year before we found it. We had begun to think that the Spanish map of the presidio with the 16-sided wall was just propaganda put out at the time. Had it not been for that extra length of time we spent in the field, we might never have found it.”
Months of excavation [brought] no success, until a series of rains ironically broke both an area drought and the archeologists’ ‘dry holes.’ Moisture from the rains made subtle contrasts in the soil horizons more visible, enabling crew members to detect a dark, linear soil discoloration in one of the excavation units. 
On closer inspection, the darker area proved to be a series of post molds.  More digging revealed additional sections of the original Spanish setting trench and the discovery that the palisade had, indeed, followed the exact 16-point star shown on the map.
Aerial view of the excavation site near the end of investigations, with Garcitas Creek at the bottom.
The 16-point-star-shaped Spanish presidio has been outlined with plastic tape. (Photo courtesy THC)

Due to conflicts with local Karankawa Indians, conflicts exacerbated by the unfortunate actions of Captain Ramón, the Garcitas Greek site was abandoned in 1726. The mission and presidio were moved to a location (or locations — opinions differ) on the Guadalupe River, near present-day Victoria and Mission Valley. Finally, in 1747, the mission was moved to its current location on the north bank of the San Antonio River, and Presidio La Bahía was established on the south bank.

(Click image and scroll for a larger version and more detail)
First site of Presidio la Bahía; approximate first location of Mission Espíritu Santo
Second site of Mission Espíritu Santo
Third site of Mission Espíritu Santo; second site of Presidio la Bahía
Final site, Mission Espíritu Santo & Presidio la Bahía

By 1749, the compound included several small wooden buildings and approximately 40 simple grass huts. As the community grew, permanent stone structures took shape, including a quadrangular defensive wall, rounded bastions for mounted cannons, officers’ quarters, storehouses, workshops, an arsenal, and an impressive chapel.

Over the years, La Bahía prospered and declined; alternated between Spanish and Mexican control; saw the death of many, and the birth of the Texas Republic. In the 1850s, a single individual, Judge Pryor Lea, owned the presidio and used the chapel as a residence.

The property was returned to the Catholic Diocese in 1853, but its deterioration continued until 1963, when restoration efforts were begun under the auspices of the Kathryn Stoner O’Connor Foundation, architect Raiford Stripling, and archaeologist Roland Beard. While portions of the original presidio remained, including its beautiful chapel, a long process of discovery and evaluation was necessary to replicate what had been destroyed. Finally, on October 8, 1967, an official dedication took place. A year later, Lady Bird Johnson came to Goliad to unveil the plaque designating the Presidio as a national historic landmark.

Lady Bird Johnson and architect Raiford Stripling at the 1968 ceremonies

In 1968, what Kathryn Stoner O’Connor, Lady Bird Johnson, and Raiford Stripling didn’t know — couldn’t have known — was that, one day, guest quarters would replace officers’ quarters, and an assortment of ghost hunters, history buffs, soldiers’ descendants, and just plain folks would arrive at Presidio La Bahía to spend time, appreciate their work, and listen for the voices of the past.

After laughing over the complexities of my own journey to the fort, the friendly volunteer — as delightful in person as she’d been over the phone — gave me the key, and led me out to the parking area. Pointing north, she said, “There’s your door. The back door opens to the Quadrangle and the Chapel. If you’ve got any questions, come by before five. After that, no one will be around.” Then, she grinned. “Except you, of course.”

“Of course,” I said, and headed toward the door.

(Click image to enlarge)
to be continued…
As always, comments are welcome.

Let Us Now Praise Working Fools

In the beginning, I learned to call it “helping.” Helping wasn’t a burden, a demand, or an imposition. Helping was something people did naturally, and being allowed to help around the house was considered a perfectly acceptable way for children to enter the mysterious world of grown-ups.

Trailing behind my mother with a dust cloth, or venturing into the yard to carry bundles of sticks for my father garnered smiles of approval. I enjoyed approval, and so I looked for opportunities: cutting flowers to make the house pretty, or picking up my toys. I collected windfall apples in a bucket; pulled low-hanging cherries from trees;  set the table and dried the silverware; folded the wash cloths; put newspapers in their box. (more…)

Trading A Dream For Reality

Hallie’s Moon ~ Debbie Little-Wilson

Perhaps because I dream so rarely, or at least remember so few dreams of my own, frequent dreamers fascinate me. 

When friends report extravagant, tangled threads of narrative woven through their nights, I press for details. One awakens suddenly, her heart pounding, barely a step ahead of the ax-murderer with a grudge. Another, constricted with horror by the sight of luggage-toting reptilians at her door, thrashes awake, gasping for breath.

My mother once dreamed the Mayor had appointed her to be Keeper of the Kitties. Despite the honor of it all, the thought that she’d been charged with caring for hundreds of cats was, as she said, a real nightmare: fully as distressing as the week she spent all night, every night, searching the aisles of supermarkets for a product she couldn’t find, couldn’t identify, and wasn’t sure she truly needed. (more…)

The Ghosts of Camels Past – Part I

The Camp Verde Store ~ Then

Like donning a pair of well-worn boots, easing into rural Texas elicits sighs of pleasure. Scuffed in places, streaked with mud, even a bit run-down about the edges, the place is comfortable — often more functional than stylish, but not given to pinching the soul.

Over time, you discover that slipping into country life requires little more than a willingness to slow down. After leaving efficient but nerve-wracking interstate highways behind, I met the world’s most dependably satisfying burger in tiny Center Point, served up under a sign that read, “This is not Houston. This is not Dallas. We don’t do fast. We do good. Your choice.”  

It’s still the world’s best burger, and I still make the choice to stop every time I’m in the neighborhood. Then, hunger sated, I turn south and west, passing the fire-ravaged hay barn that lives only in memory; the determined Norfolk pine; the chickens and guineas ranging along the edge of River Road. Where frayed and fraying ropes hang like pendulous vines from swamp-worthy cypress, young boys swing out across the water, shrieking with delighted fear. (more…)

The Capitaines and the Chickens

Boudreaux’s been much on my mind of late.

In 2012, not long after I’d written a thing or two about chickens in art and literature, he emailed a suggestion: “Cher, you want the complete chicken experience, come to Cajun country for a real Mardi Gras. They dance for chickens over here.”

As proof, he sent along Pat Mire’s documentary, Dance for a Chicken. After watching the hour-long film with a certain degree of astonishment, I tucked the link into my bookmarks and resolved to make my own run to the Louisiana prairie to witness the celebrations.

A year later, and the year after that, I remembered Boudreaux’s email only after it was too late to make plans. Each year, I watched the film again and thought,”Next year.”

This year, I remembered, and made some inquiries. After a few phone calls, a conversation or two, and a text, I had the name and address of a Church Point family willing to host a visitor from Texas. I called a friend who lives in Louisiana’s bayou country and said, “Pack your bags. We’ve got chickens waiting.” (more…)

Published in: on February 21, 2015 at 11:59 am  Comments (98)  
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