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.

Circles of Commerce, Circles of Life

Like all great migrations it began slowly, in fits and starts, ebbing back toward the known, the comfortable and familiar before once again surging forward into uncertainty.

Driven by curiosity as well as by commerce, enticed by rumor or persuaded by reason, traders and caravaners, mountain men, shopkeepers and scouts followed in the footsteps of men like Zebulon Pike, overcoming first one obstacle and then another as they created the collection of loosely-bundled routes we know today as the Santa Fe Trail. (more…)

Published in: on January 13, 2014 at 7:55 am  Comments (78)  
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Tumbleweed Traveling

Out in western Kansas, tumbleweeds seem to outnumber gas stations by a million to one.

I was in tumbleweed country, with a quarter-tank of gas and who-knew-how-many-miles to go before I could sleep in something other than my car.  When I saw the metal building with its gravel parking lot and a pair of pickups out front, it might as well have had a sign nailed up saying, “Tourist Information”.  

I pulled in, walked over to the open doors and saw two fellows welding pipe. The one facing the door saw me, pushed up his helmet and walked over, smiling as though he’d been expecting me all day.

“What can I help you with?” he said. I explained my concern about seeing no gas stations, and asked where the closest one might be. “Well,” he said. “You’re about a tenth of a mile from it. You see those Co-op grain elevators across the way?” I did. “They’ve got gas pumps over there, too. Drive over and stick your head in the office and they’ll give you the go-ahead. Around here, we get our gas at the Co-ops. If you see an elevator, you probably can get gas.”

When I pulled up to the pumps, I still couldn’t find the credit card reader, so a trucker getting diesel across from me explained what no one else had thought to mention. Just one card reader served all six pumps, and it was hidden away at the end of the island.  As I keyed in my pump number, I noticed him grinning.  “Well,” he said, “I guess we’re gonna have to revise that old song.”

I must have seemed confused, so he added, “Looks to me like it ought to be ‘T for Texas, T for tumbleweeds“. Following his gaze, I turned to look at my car and started laughing myself.  “You saw that, huh?”  “Couldn’t help it,” he said. “Don’t often see someone driving around with a tumbleweed in their back seat. Where’d you pick it up?” (more…)

Published in: on November 2, 2013 at 9:41 pm  Comments (126)  
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Working Fools?

In the beginning, the word we used was “helping”.  Helping wasn’t a burden, a demand or an imposition. It wasn’t a curse or a condemnation, something to be avoided at all cost or valued beyond all reason.  Helping was something people did naturally, and it was the best way for a child to enter the mysterious and utterly appealing world of grown-ups.

Helpers garnered smiles of approval as they trailed behind Mother with a dust cloth or ventured into the yard to carry bundles of sticks for Daddy. Helpers cut flowers that made the house pretty and picked up their toys.  Helpers collected windfall apples in a bucket or pulled low-hanging cherries from the trees. Helpers set the table and dried the silverware, folded the wash cloths and put newspapers in their box. If a neighbor who’d been called away was worried about her thirsty geraniums, a good helper knew to borrow a bucket and carry water to the flowers.

Helping, I thought, was fun. (more…)

Daring to Make Our Own Groceries

She hangs in my kitchen, this nameless woman who holds a chicken in her lap.  She watches me as I move between stove and sink, and I return the favor. Over time, I’ve come to imagine I know a thing or two about her. The directness of her gaze tells me she isn’t afraid of being seen. She’s a busy lady – her apron tells me that, and her distinctly practical hair. She didn’t mean to be posing this morning, but someone came along and she cooperated, no doubt happy for a moment’s rest.  Surprised by her inactivity and suddenly wary, the dog presses protectively against her, but they’ve spent his lifetime together and her hand is enough to calm his fears.

Around her portrait, bits and scraps of ephemera hint at the realities of her life.  A letterhead from A.E. Want & Company, one of Ft. Worth’s premiere wholesale grocers at the turn of the last century, provides elegance to a simple invoice. The invoice is dated September 14, 1921, nine years after the company gained a certain noteriety by suing the Missouri,  Kansas & Texas railroad over a carload of frostbitten Minnesota potatoes.  The potatoes, valued at $155.87, were judged defective, and the railroad ordered to pay. (more…)

Published in: on November 4, 2012 at 10:23 am  Comments (84)  
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