By John Ronan Broderick
THE OLDEST TOWN IN TEXAS
Legend has it that somewhere around 700 B.C., a Caddo Indian chief who lived on the Sabine River instructed his twin sons to travel in opposite directions, west and east, for three days and to then establish their own villages, since they had come of age. One son established his settlement 122 miles northwest of the Sabine in Texas, at another Indian community formerly known as Nevantin, which eventually became Nacogdoches.
The other son founded his settlement in Louisiana 106 miles northeast of the Sabine, thus both towns were fairly equidistant from the river. It was known as Natchitoches. There may even be a grain of truth to this legend since the spelling of the town in Spanish-controlled Texas, Nacogdoches, is the equivalent of the other town’s name in French-controlled Louisiana–two different spellings in two different languages for the same tribe of Native Americans. The two cities are 111 miles apart.
Archaeologists conjecture that prehistoric settlement in the area around Nacogdoches dates back some 10,000 years, to the Paleolithic era. Later, circa 1250 to 1450 A.D., a large village that incorporated Caddoan architectural styles, burial mounds, and a civic ceremonial center sprang up. It was this site that the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto discovered, possibly as early as 1542. The first European descriptions of the town, however, date back to the French explorer, Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, circa 1686.
The entire region was hotly contested between the French and the Spanish for several years. In 1690, the Spanish explorer and conquistador, Ponce de Leon, made the first attempt at settlement in Nacogdoches. It was buttressed by the establishment, in 1716-17, of the Spanish Catholic mission, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe de los Nacogdoches, and five or six lesser missions in the region, which was the standardized way the Spanish established their footprint in an area, via a system of missions.
This initiative had been aided by French-Canadian explorer, Louis Antoine Juchereau de St. Denis, who had mapped out El Camino Real (“the real way”), the highway across the region from the Rio Grande River to Nacogdoches between 1713 and 1716. St. Denis liked to play two ends against the middle, insisting to the Spanish that he wished to become a subject of that country, even marrying the granddaughter of a high-ranking Spanish official. He later fell out of favor with the Spanish and hurried back to Natchitoches in French-controlled Louisiana, ingratiating himself once again with that government. It was there that he died in 1744.
It was not until 1779, though, that a Spanish Lieutenant Governor named Don Antonio Gil Ibarvo (or Y’Barbo—sources differ) was appointed to oversee Nacogdoches, giving it a civil and military sanction. He was responsible for construction of the Old Stone House, aka Old Stone Fort (though it was only used for that purpose on one occasion), laying out modern streets, and writing the first law code. It was during this period that Nacogdoches became a portal for much illegal trade with the French and Americans from Louisiana, due in large part to the French-Canadian explorer, Louis Antoine Juchereau de St. Denis, who had also
(Note: I am indebted to Dr. Jere L. Jackson, Regents Professor of History, Stephen F. Austin State University, and Chairman of the Nacogdoches County Historical Commission for his article entitled “The SFA Story: A Brief History of Nacogdoches,” from which I borrowed and paraphrased much of the foregoing.)
NINE FLAGS OVER NACOGDOCHES
Whereas it is a commonly accepted fact that six nations have claimed sovereignty over Texas—France Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the United States of America, and the Confederate States of America—Nacogdoches is the only city in Texas that can also lay claim to three other flags having flown over it. They were: the Gutierrez-Magee Expedition, an 1812-13 joint filibustering expedition by Mexico and the U.S. against Spanish Texas during the early years of the Mexican War of Independence; the [Dr. James] Long Expedition, 1819-21 filibustering expeditions, also against Spain; and the Fredonian Rebellion, an 1826-27 attempt by Anglo Texans to secede from Mexico, led by the first empresario of Texas, Haden Edwards. All three were based in or around Nacogdoches, at that time a hotbed of discontent with the Spanish and, later, Mexican governments.
With the admission of many Anglo-Americans into the region in the early 1820s came the first English language newspaper published in Texas. According to an uncredited article entitled “Nacogdoches History,” published on the Internet, “In 1832, a group of Nacogdoches citizens, led by James W. Bullock, attacked the town’s Mexican garrison and successfully drove the Mexican troops out of East Texas. The encounter, known as the Battle of Nacogdoches, cleared the way for the Texas fight for independence.” Since that battle on August 2, 1832, Nacogdoches has been known as the “Cradle of Texas Liberty.” It should be noted that those citizens who participated in the battle were of both Mexican and Anglo descent.
Dr. Archie P. McDonald’s undated internet article entitled “Disturbance of 1832” provides somewhat more detail about the Battle of Nacogdoches, which I will summarize here: The Mexican commander of the Nacogdoches garrison, Colonel Jose de las Piedras, had precipitated a revolt of the local citizenry when he issued an edict that they must surrender all their guns. True to the spirit of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the “right to keep and bear arms,” these transplanted Americans were not about to obey any such order.
These defiant Texians, under their elected leader, Bullock, fired upon Piedras’s headquarters in the Old Stone Fort, as well as another building located catty-cornered to the fort, known as the Red House. The Mexican soldiers managed to hold out throughout the day, but that night Piedras and his men attempted to sneak away under the cover of darkness. They were overtaken the next day by the Texians at the Angelina River, where another brief skirmish occurred before Piedras surrendered.
Piedras’s troops were marched 300 miles away to San Antonio by none other than the famous knife-fighter from the neighboring state of Louisiana, Jim Bowie. He had arrived shortly after the battle, and it was in this city, where Bowie would die three and a half years later at the Alamo, that Piedra’s troops were released. Piedras and the other officers were released in Velasco. Their withdrawal meant an end to a Mexican military presence in East Texas. Santa Anna did not like this, and when he was elected El Presidente of Mexico the following year, he added one more score to settle with these upstart, traitorous Texians.
Because Nacogdoches was during this period a major crossroads and gateway into Texas from the southern United States, it is unsurprising that even the renowned Davy Crockett passed through the town in January 1836, with 30 of his fellow Tennesseans, armed to the teeth, on their way to the Alamo in San Antonio. It was in Nacogdoches that Crockett swore allegiance to the Provisional Government in Texas in exchange for land. I am sure it seemed a fair swap to him at the time—a little squabble with the Mexican Army for a nice chunk of land.
He had after all fought the British during the War of 1812 and the infamous “Red Sticks,” a murderous faction of the Creek Indians, in 1813, under the command of fellow Tennessean, Andrew Jackson. In both wars Crockett had emerged with his coonskin cap and his scalp intact, though he had been wounded in battle. He was a fearless man who believed in fighting for a good cause, in this case the cause of freedom. It didn’t bother Davy any if Texas wanted to give him a little land as an incentive to fight for their independence.
Santa Anna exacted his revenge on March 6th, 1836, when the defenders at the Alamo were shown no quarter and the entire garrison was put to the sword. Rather than allowing them a Christian burial, Santa Anna ordered them burned like they were so much rubbish. Similarly, at Goliad, exactly three weeks later, again under Santa Anna’s orders, 342 Texian prisoners-of-war under the command of Colonel James Fannin were summarily executed.
These atrocities would forge battle cries that would resound throughout the ages, but especially so on April 21st, 1836, when Sam Houston’s rag-tag army of volunteer farmers, merchants, and vagabonds would rout the supposedly superior forces of Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto. “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember Goliad!” were ringing in the ears of the Mexican soldiers that fateful day as this volunteer army of Texians, full of bloodlust, took their revenge, many of them killing Mexican soldiers attempting to surrender. What goes around, comes around.
AFTER THE REVOLUTION
Nacogdoches County was organized by the legislature in 1837, after the successful revolution that made Texas a Republic in its own right. Initially an immense county in terms of land area, it was eventually whittled down to 902 square miles after the legislature carved it up into several other counties. The city of Nacogdoches was named its county seat and has remained so despite the initial gerrymandering of the country’s boundaries that resulted from the constant influx of new settlers into the area.
Nacogdoches also dwindled in importance, both politically and economically, during the half-century after the Texas revolution. This was due primarily to its lack of navigable rivers and the absence of a railroad. During those years Nacogdoches slid into obscurity somewhat and remained a quiet backwater agricultural community. All that changed in May of 1883 when the railroad came to town.
The first train to come through Nacogdoches was the Houston East & West Texas (HE&WT), and it was a Texas-sized train by any definition of the term: 10 locomotives, eight passenger cars, four baggage cars, 546 freight cars, and 12 handcars. This was a game-changing event for the town, and the citizens and the railroad people celebrated with plenty of banquets, bands, speeches, and barbeques to commemorate the occasion. The population of the town in 1880 was a scant 400 people. By 1884, however, due to the railroad, the population had tripled, to 1,200, adding a variety of supporting businesses as well.
Nacogdoches became a true railroad crossroads in 1903, when the Texas and New Orleans (T&NO) Railroad laid track through the town as it connected Dallas and Beaumont. The HE&WT became part of the Southern Pacific Railway in 1934, and it subsequently merged with the Union Pacific in 1996.
In 1911 the Southern Pacific Railroad built a new railroad depot when the original burnt down after being struck by lightning. With the advent of improved highways and the post-World War II popularity of the automobile, the railroad discontinued passenger service in 1954, and the depot is now a museum that was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in 1992. The Nacogdoches Railroad Depot is the only surviving depot on the old HE&WT line.
The most significant change in the makeup of Nacogdoches, overall, to occur in the 20th century was the establishment of Stephen F. Austin State Teachers College (now Stephen F. Austin State University) in 1923. For it became the town’s biggest attraction to new residents, never mind eventually becoming one of the two largest employers in Nacogdoches, along with Pilgrim’s Pride. Its current estimated enrollment of 13,000 undergraduate and graduate students creates not only additional consumers for the city’s retail trade but employees for the very businesses it enhances.
Someone—most likely the Nacogdoches County Historical Commission and/or the East Texas Historical Association—has done a phenomenal job of preserving the architectural heritage of this oldest town in Texas. For there are 23 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), of which eight of those are also listed on the Recorded Texas Historic Landmarks (RTHL). Moreover, there are an additional nine properties listed on the RTHL that have not yet made it to the NRHP.
These sites include (mostly) houses, commercial and government buildings, a church, six historic districts, the railroad depot, a university building, even a recreation of the Old Stone Fort. Of these buildings, the oldest by far is the circa 1830 Sterne-Hoya House, Museum, and Library, which also holds the supreme distinction of being listed as a State Antiquities Landmark.
Though not listed on either the NRHP or RTHL, the 1852 Old North Baptist Church is still standing on the outskirts of Nacogdoches and still ministering to its members. It holds the distinction of being the first Baptist church in Texas. Another structure of significance from that era is the 1858-59 Old Nacogdoches University Building, which was chartered in 1845 as the first nonsectarian institution of higher learning in the town, possibly in Texas. It, however, is listed on both the NRHP and RTHL, as well as being a State Antiquities Landmark.
In addition to these numerous properties listed on the NRHP and RTHL are literally dozens of State Historical Markers that identify the site of some historic building or incident that occurred there. In some instances, the structures are still standing but do not qualify for incorporation in the other two listings, typically because of extensive modifications to the buildings, which make them historically ineligible for inclusion. The Old North Church is probably a good example of this.
Besides those properties already alluded to, there are seven other sites shown on both the NRHP and RTHL. They are the: c. 1860s Tol Barret House, now a popular Bed & Breakfast; c. 1835 Durst-Taylor House, the second oldest structure in the city; 1917 Hoya Land Office Building; 1897 Roland Jones House; 1917 Old Post Office Building; c. 1940s Virginia Avenue Historic District; and 1859-1940 Washington Square Historic District, which contains 55 contributing structures.
The famous Old Stone Fort had devolved to becoming a saloon and was demolished in 1902. It was reconstructed, however, in 1986, on the campus of Stephen F. Austin State University in honor of the Sesquicentennial of the Republic of Texas.
Respect must be paid to the dead as well. And so it is in the Oak Grove Cemetery, formerly known as the American Cemetery, because it was here that Anglos only were buried. It is located on a portion of the original 1826 land grant of empresario Haden Edwards. The first marked grave here is dated 1837, and the cemetery has the honor of being the final resting place of many Texas heroes and statesmen from the revolution era as well as our nation’s other wars.
It was here, in 1911, that those interred in what was known as the Spanish Cemetery were relocated when the county decided to construct the Nacogdoches County Courthouse on the site of the Spanish Cemetery. This courthouse was later razed to make room for the 1958 courthouse which was constructed adjacent to its site. The construction of the 1911 courthouse ended the segregation, in death, of the Anglos and Mexicans. For in death, as in life, we are all equal in our Creator’s eyes.
This may also have been the time of the name change of the American Cemetery to that of Oak Grove Cemetery. I was unable to nail that down for certain. It is notable that the oldest grave relocated from the Spanish Cemetery is that of “Father Mendoza” and is dated 1718, two years after the founding of the first Spanish mission here. The good padre holds the distinction of having the oldest marked gravesite in Texas.
According to the World Population Review website, the 2020 U.S. Census estimated population of Nacogdoches is 33,322, making it the 101st largest city in Texas. Covering 28 square miles, its population density is 1,208 people per square mile. The average household income is $53,762 with a poverty rate of 31.09%. The median rental cost in recent years is $772 per month, and the median house value is $136,500. The median age is 24.2 years, and for every 100 females, there are 87.8 males.
Based on the U.S. Census 2018 ACS (American Community Survey) 5-Year Survey, there were 1,501 veterans of the U.S. military living in Nacogdoches, 1,280 of them males, and 221 were females. The breakdown by war they served in was as follows:
Vietnam 551 48.2%
Second Gulf War 288 25.2%
First Gulf War 172 15.1%
Korea 103 9.0%
World War II 28 2.2%
In terms of languages spoken, 83.2% of the population speak English only; Spanish-speakers account for 13.53%; and the remaining 3.29% speak some other foreign language. Regarding places of birth, 75.7% of the population are native-born Texans, 16.58% were born elsewhere in the U.S., 7.72% are foreign born, mostly from Latin America, and 5.63% are non-citizens.
THE 20th CENTURY AND BEYOND
The 21st century economy focuses on a few holdovers from the first half of the 20th century like timber, education, and general merchandising. Add to that the agribusiness, manufacturing, poultry, feeds and fertilizers, tools, equipment, banking, tourism, and medical services industries, and you have a well-rounded picture of Nacogdoches today in terms of business and employment. The two leading employers, which run pretty much neck-and-neck in terms of the number of employees, are Pilgrim’s Pride and Stephen F. Austin State University.
Tourism has become a very big deal in Nacogdoches in recent years, particularly the older homes and buildings previously alluded to. Add to those sites Historic Town Center, Millard’s Crossing Historic Village, the Nacogdoches Fire Museum, and the Statue Trail, which commemorates seven important individuals and their roles in the development of Texas.
Further away, but still well within driving distance, are: Angelina State Forest (12 miles); Caddo Mounds State Historic Site (32 miles); and Sam Rayburn Reservoir (65 miles). Nacogdoches certainly deserves consideration for a weekend getaway for those who are serious Texas history buffs or perhaps parents who want to help their college-bound high school student select a wonderful institution of higher learning in an altogether lovely Texas town.