The Road to Gonzales connected the most important of the early Anglo-American colonies in Tejas to the Mexican seat of government in San Antonio de Béxar. As the newly independent nation of Mexico began to abandon the principles of its 1824 constitution the settlers along this road felt betrayed.
The first shots of the war for Texas independence were fired along this road. The defenders of the Alamo travelled this road on the way to their destinies. So too did General Antonio López de Santa Anna on his way to his surrender at San Jacinto. This cart path no longer exists, it is a lost Texas road. The swath it carved through Texas history is the stuff of legend.
Surveying the Road
Recently independent from Spain, Mexico was eager to populate her northern territory. Parts of Texas were open to Anglo American colonization by qualified families. The first set of families to take advantage of Mexico’s liberalized immigration policies were those that settled in 1822 along the Brazos River as part of Austin’s colony. In 1824, San Felipe de Austin was established as the colony’s capital.
In 1824, Mexico adopted a federalist constitution giving power to the states. The new state of Coahuila y Tejas was responsible for implementing the new General Colonization Law within its borders. Would-be empresarios, inspired by Austin’s success, the decentralization of Mexican authority, and inexpensive land petitioned the Mexican government.
In 1825, Green Dewitt was granted an empresario contract to settle land immediately to the southwest of Austin’s colony. In 1827, the current site of Gonzales on the Guadalupe River was established as the colony’s capitol.
In the 1820s, all roads in Texas lead to San Antonio. San Antonio as the capitol of the district of Béxar (the Texas portion of the new state of Coahuila y Tejas), served as the authority between the Mexican government and the new colonies.
As Austin’s San Felipe grew to become a commercial and political center for the Anglo-American colonists, so too did the importance of the road linking it to San Antonio. DeWitt’s Gonzales was the settlement between these capitols.
The Mexican government hired the surveyor Byrd Lockhart to lay out the road that connected San Felipe de Austin, Gonzales, and San Antonio. By the end of 1827, Lockhart had completed his survey in exchange for expenses and four leagues of land (17,714 acres).
Lockhart’ request for payment characterized the road as being 169 miles long and as being wide enough to accommodate large wagons. That same year, Lockhart completed his survey of the town tract of Gonzales along this same road.
Mexican President Guadalupe Victoria wanted to better understand the landscape, population, and boundaries of the Tejas province. He dispatched General Manuel de Mier y Terán to travel from Mexico City to Nacogdoches as head of a ‘Boundary Commission’. Terán’s travels into Texas included visits to San Antonio, Gonzales, and San Felipe along the newly minted road.
The group’s diaries offer remarkable insight into contemporary life in the colonies. Terán’s reported experiences in Gonzales and particularly San Felipe would have dramatic consequences. While visiting San Felipe, the group’s diarist Lt. José María Sánchez recorded:
“This village has been settled by Mr. Stephen F. Austin, a native of the United States of the North. Its population is nearly two hundred persons, of which only ten are Mexicans… The Americans are… in my opinion, lazy people of vicious character. Some of them cultivate their small farms, but this task they usually entrust to their Negro slaves, whom they treat with considerable harshness…”
Sánchez made the fateful prediction:
“…In my judgment, the spark that will start the conflagration that will deprive us of Texas, will start from this colony…”
Terán’s observations and recommendations were reported to the Mexican government and became the foundation for the Law of April 6, 1830. This law forbid any new Anglo-American immigration into the state, forbid the importation of slaves, rescinded the property tax exemption previously enjoyed by immigrants, and instituted a custom duty tax on imports from the United States.
The government of Mexico drifted away from the 1824 Constitution under which the Texians had sworn allegiance to Mexico. In 1833, General Santa Anna was elevated to President of Mexico and began dismantling the constitution’s federalist provisions. He moved to centralize the government, repeal liberal reforms, and dispose of the Mexican Congress.
Tensions between the Mexican government and the Texian colonies increased. Mexico feared Terán’s concerns about a Texian rebellion would be realized.
In the autumn of 1835, the Mexican government in San Antonio decided to act. More than one hundred soldiers under Lieutenant Francisco de Castañeda were dispatched to Gonzales to retrieve a cannon Mexico had previously provided the colonists for protection.
Castañeda arrived at the crossing of the Old Gonzales Road and the Guadalupe River to find that the ferry had been removed to the Gonzales side. Albert Martin, captain of the Gonzales militia stalled the Mexicans from the other side of the crossing while reinforcements could arrive. Most of these volunteers traveled to Gonzales from the east, along the newly laid out road. The Texian colonists decided to pick a fight with the Mexicans, and refused to surrender the cannon.
The Texians and Mexicans briefly exchanged gunfire, with James Neill firing the sought after cannon. Castañeda, operating under orders to avoid hostilities, returned to San Antonio. This exchange along the road to Gonzales would be written about as the “Lexington of the Texas Revolution”
News of the battle at Gonzales was dispatched by courier along the road to San Felipe where Stephen F. Austin received it. As chairman of the ‘Committee of Safety’ Austin issued a statement:
“War is declared against military despotism. Public opinion has proclaimed it with one united voice. The campaign has opened.”
Volunteers poured into Gonzales. Upon arriving from San Felipe, Austin was unanimously elected commander-in-chief of the forces. Austin’s army left Gonzales and advanced along the road to San Antonio. On October 16th, the army set up a camp at the Cibolo Crossing and moved to the Salado Crossing on October 20th.
While camped along the San Antonio to Gonzales Road at the Salado, Sam Houston visited the camp. Houston had travelled from San Felipe to collect members of the Consultation. Members of the Consultation were needed in San Felipe so that a provisional government could be seated.
Austin’s army followed the road into San Antonio, and successfully laid siege to the city. In mid December, the Mexican troops garrisoned in the Alamo under General Martín Perfecto de Cos (Santa Anna’s brother-in-law) surrendered. The Mexican Army had been driven from Texas by the end of 1835. Most of the Texians returned to their homes believing that victory had been achieved.
In Mexico, Antonio López de Santa Anna had replaced the Constitution of 1824 with his military dictatorship. He began moving his army to San Antonio. The Texians had provided Santa Anna with an opportunity to avenge the stain his brother-in-law’s surrender of the Alamo had made on his family’s honor.
The Road to Destiny
As Texians came to understand their victory against Mexico was not assured, fewer than one hundred men were garrisoned at the Alamo. The mission’s commander, Lt. Colonel James Neill sent word to the provisional government, by way of the road through Gonzales, that they were desperately in need of troops and supplies should they need to defend the mission.
By February 23rd, when Santa Anna arrived in San Antonio fewer than one-hundred men had reinforced the defenders’ ranks. These reinforcements included the troops brought by the mission’s new commanders William Barret Travis and James Bowie. As Santa Anna’s army laid siege to the Alamo the defenders became aware of their dire circumstances. On February 24th Colonel William Barret Travis penned the following letter:
“Fellow citizens and compatriots;
I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna. I have sustained a continual Bombardment and cannonade for 24 hours and have not lost a man. The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken. I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, and our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism and everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch. The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily and will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor and that of his country. VICTORY or DEATH.
William Barret Travis
Lt. Col. Comdt.
P.S. The Lord is on our side. When the enemy appeared in sight we had not three bushels of corn. We have since found in deserted houses 80 or 90 bushels and got into the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves.
Albert Martin carried this letter to Gonzales. Men from the Gonzales Company of Mounted Volunteers answered Travis’ call and returned with Martin. They entered the Alamo under cover of darkness on March 1st, and were the last reinforcements to arrive before the siege ended.
After having laid siege for thirteen days, Santa Anna’s anger had not cooled. During the siege, he had raised the notorious ‘no quarter’ flag at the San Fernando Church, letting all within the Alamo know that they should expect only death. On the morning of March 6th, a Mexican bugler played El Degüello signaling all would be put to the sword. A fierce battle commenced. By the day’s end, Santa Anna had made good on his threat, as all of the Alamo defenders had been slain.
Unaware that the Alamo had fallen, troops continued to pour into Gonzales in preparation of marching to the aid of the Alamo defenders. Sam Houston arrived in Gonzales on the 11th of March, now commander-in-chief of all the land forces in Texas. Without information regarding the Alamo’s fate, Houston dispatched spies to ‘ascertain [their] true status’. Perhaps the most capable of the dispatched Texian spies was Erastus ‘Deaf’ Smith whose home was near the Cibolo crossing of the San Antonio to Gonzales Road. On the 13th of March, Deaf Smith returned to Gonzales with the widow of Gonzales resident Almaron Dickinson. The event was described:
“…My correspondence of yesterday was interrupted by the arrival in camp of the wife of Mr. Dickinson of the Alamo. Deaf Smith and company had intercepted her just west of Gonzales and brought her into camp about 8 P.M. She confirmed the most horrible of truths about the fall of the Alamo and the total loss of life. Although they gave their lives in our gallant cause, they inflicted extremely high causalities among the enemy before they perished.
Following up on the Alamo news, it was learned that General Sesma of the Mexican Army was within 40 miles of Gonzales and in full march to our location.
General Houston immediately ordered a retreat….
Respectfully yours, Alexander Horton, aide-de-camp.”
Santa Anna’s Road to Perdition
In San Antonio, Santa Anna lacked solid information regarding the location of the remaining Texian troops. Impatient to bring the expedition to a conclusion, and believing that he had the Texians on their heels, Santa Anna divided his forces. The bulk of Santa Anna’s troops were sent along the Gonzales road toward San Felipe, beginning with General Joaquín Ramírez y Sesma’s brigade, which was ordered from the Alamo on March 11th.
When the Mexican troops under General Sesma arrived in Gonzales the following day, they found only smoldering remains. Houston had the town burned to the ground rather than to have it fall into Mexican hands. With Houston’s troops having apparently dissolved into the wilderness north of Gonzales, Sesma continued his march along the road to San Felipe.
It would be ten days before they had passed through Gonzales and reached the banks of the swollen Colorado River where the Texians had camped on the other side.
Santa Anna grew restless in San Antonio. As news reached him about political matters in Mexico, he grew eager to return to cement his role as dictator. The military leaders that remained with him in San Antonio counseled him that victory was imminent. They warned that he should not allow the credit to go to one of his other generals, thereby creating a possible political opponent.
Twenty-three days after the fall of the Alamo, General Santa Anna sent the last forces and artillery from San Antonio to follow the Gonzales Road in support of his other forces. On March 31st, Santa Anna left the Alamo in a carriage to follow his troops. Pouring rain made the carriage ride to Gonzales impractical. By the following day Santa Anna had mounted a horse and sent the carriage back to San Antonio. While the Gonzales road made carriage travel difficult, it was even worse for the Mexican artillery units.
While Santa Anna covered the muddy ground of the Gonzales road at a steady pace, his Generals made slow progress along the road. The Mexican forces were held up for days at the Guadalupe River crossing at Gonzales and the Colorado River crossing west of San Felipe.
Sesma’s troops required three full days to cross the Colorado River. The artillery spent two days crossing the Guadalupe River at Gonzales. The crossing required an increasingly impatient Santa Anna to leave troops behind to protect the artillery as it crossed the Colorado.
When Santa Anna and Sesma’s troops reached San Felipe, more than a month after the fall of the Alamo, they again found a town destroyed by the Texians.
The muddy terrain and swollen rivers of the Gonzales Road had stretched Santa Anna’s armies and resources. Perhaps fatally, it had stretched Santa Anna’s patience. By the time Santa Anna had crossed the Brazos, he was so eager to conclude his victory he further divided his forces. Moving with a diminished force he was captured by the smaller Texian army at San Jacinto.
As the defeated Mexican army left Texas through the muddy coastal plains, Sam Houston dispatched Juan Seguin to San Antonio. When Juan Seguin arrived in San Antonio on June 4th, only a small contingent of Mexican troops remained at the Alamo. Seguin formally accepted the surrender of the Alamo from the Mexican Army by Lieutenant Francisco Castañeda, the same officer who had been dispatched to Gonzales, less than a year before, to demand the surrender of their cannon.