INTERSTATE 10 — The cars and trucks speed along here on a bright and cheery spring day. The grass is green, the bluebonnets are blooming. The sky is blue. All is well in Texas. But we are not out here today to smell the flowers, or the diesel fumes. No, once again we come to this highway between San Antonio and Houston to briefly remember an event which took place here long ago, then we can go back to sweating who wins “American Idol.”
We all know about the fall of the Alamo (March 6) and the Battle of San Jacinto (April 21), but tend to forget the time in between. It was called the Runaway Scrape, when Texians – as they were then known – literally ran for their lives. First, let’s set the stage: As early as Jan. 4, 1836, settlers around San Antonio and today’s Corpus Christi got word that the Mexican Army had crossed the Rio Grande and was heading northward. Delegates had gathered at Washington-on-the-Brazos to draw up a constitution when word arrived that the Alamo had fallen. That gave impetus to the evacuation.
Most Texas men had joined Sam Houston’s army, so women, children and old men started trudging towards the safety of the United States, i.e., Louisiana. Using everything from ox carts to worn-out horses or just on foot, the rag-tag citizens moved over what passed for roads, enduring rain, temperatures as low as 33 degrees, hunger and disease. Many died on the way and were simply buried along the roadside. Doctors were scarce since most of them, too, had joined the army. Not only were the refugees afraid of the Mexican Army, there were warring Indians around.
On March 11, Houston moved his army east to the Colorado River and ordered all civilian Texians to do the same. The Constitution was signed on March 15, and by March 17 Washington-on-the-Brazos was deserted. San Felipe de Austin, the biggest town around with five stores and 30 houses, was burned to the ground by its inhabitants before they left. Others also followed a scorched earth policy, leaving Santa Anna’s soldiers practically starving. Richmond was abandoned by April 1. All settlements between the Brazos and the Colorado were emptied. By April 2, the prairie near Lynch’s Ferry (today’s Lynchburg Ferry near the Houston Ship Channel), was covered by refugees with their horses, wagons, mules, baggage and tents. About April 13, San Augustine and Nacogdoches were abandoned as the inhabitants fled east.
Gen. Houston kept retreating, much to the annoyance of the Army, whose officers almost mutinied. The interim Texas government was also dissatisfied with their general. President David G. Burnet addressed a scathing letter to Houston: “Sir: The enemy are laughing you to scorn. You must fight them. You must retreat no further. The country expects you to fight. The salvation of the country depends on your doing so.” Sam kept retreating, but he also kept a detailed expense account and then sent it to the government for reimbursement. Two saddles, five barrels of corn, powder, shot, all of that. The government would not reimburse Houston $2.50 for the in-flight movie.
Among those on the trek were brothers Gail and Thomas Borden, publishers of the Telegraph and Texas Register. The paper, strongly for an independent Texas, first published the Texas Declaration of Independence. It ran letters to the editor: “God and Texas – Victory or Death! W. Barret Travis, Lt. Col. Comm.” And on March 24, 1836, it reported: “. . . the darkness of death occupied the memorable Alamo.” When the Texas Army retreated, the Bordens put their press in an ox cart and joined the Runaway Scrape. The paper arrived in Harrisburg (there was no city of Houston) and had printed only six copies of the latest edition when Santa Anna’s troops entered the town. The Bordens escaped but three printers, still at work, were captured. The press was thrown into the bayou.
Meantime, the two armies had a few scattered skirmishes as they entered today’s Harris County, and camped here and there. The Texas Army entered the area from the northwest via Bastrop, Hempstead and southwest to San Jacinto. Part of the Mexican Army came through Goliad and Richmond, another came up from the south around Columbia. Looking at maps tracing the routes, it appears both armies wandered over half the county before meeting on April 21.
It was not an easy trek in the mud and muck. Yet, on occasion, the Texas countryside would warm, the sun came out and flowers blossomed. The soldiers were touched by the beauty of Texas. Col. Francisco González Pavón ordered his men not to harm what was left of Gonzales because he wanted his regiment to return and set up a colony there after the war.
“If the banks of the Guadalupe, going from Bejar (San Antonio) to (San Felipe de) Austin are extremely beautiful, because of the winding of the river, and undulation of the woods, all of which created a beautiful contrast with its green valley, the areas in which the town of Gonzales was situated is no less pleasant,” Lt. Col. Jose de la Pena, an officer with Santa Anna, wrote. He went on to observe, “Had we been well organized, the Texas campaign would have been a delightful trek, a series of pleasant days in the country interspersed with military maneuvers.” They were not well organized. Santa Anna lost and was captured in today’s Pasadena, about a mile north of State Highway 225.
Word of the victory reached the refugees before most got to Louisiana. There had been so many rumors that it took time for the news to sink in. The Runaway Scrape was over. The miserable lines turned back to the ashes of their homes and memories of their dead kin, and started all over again. Whether we have blood lines or not, we are their descendants and we should remember what happened during that spring in Texas.
Ashby retreats at email@example.com