Many visitors to Texas may not realize that Texas was once an independent republic before becoming part of the United States in 1845. I decided to retrace some of the history I learned in my Texas history class in middle school by visiting the tiny town of Washington, Texas, located roughly 75 miles northwest of Houston.
Administered by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the state historic site at Washington-on-the-Brazos provides visitors with a glimpse of life during the Texas Revolution outlining the daily conditions faced by settlers and providing a history of the 1836 revolution with Mexico. The park includes a visitor’s center, hiking trails, ample picnic areas, a museum (Star of the Republic Museum), a farm (Barrington Farm) and Independence Hall, where the Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico was signed on March 2, 1836.
Washington, Texas began as a ferry crossing as flat boats could cross the nearby Brazos River. During the time of the revolution, Washington was a new, rough frontier town, which only had one street, three frame buildings and several log cabins. Life in Washington was hard as goods were hard to get (both during war and in peacetime); settlers faced diseases like malaria, cholera, yellow fever, dysentery and worms; and, wildlife like bears and wild pigs were in the area. In fact, bear fat or oil was used for cooking and lamp fuel.
Visitors to Independence Hall will see a very rough structure. When Texas declared independence in 1836, the hall wasn’t even completed. Delegates had limited choices of food, mainly comprised of cornbread, pork and occasionally milk and eggs. Coffee was available but I had to laugh when reading that delegates preferred “hard spirits” instead. Looking inside the hall, it’s hard to imagine what life must have been like in a partially constructed building in the winter of 1836.
Trails throughout the park lead visitors along the Brazos River and I tried to visualize what life must have been like when relying on ferry transportation. Not much is left in Washington, Texas today (just a few buildings). The town began to die in the 1860s when residents did not foresee the future by opting not to help fund a railroad. The railroad bypassed the town and ferry transportation died out.
Visiting the park is peaceful and with trails of Texas wildflowers, rolling hills, and the sounds of many birds, Washington-on-the-Brazos is a nice escape from the city. Be sure to bring bug spray, sunscreen for the brutal Texas sun and comfortable, closed toe walking shoes for the trails. Visitors should also be on the lookout for fire ants and snakes.
The visitor’s center includes exhibits, the usual souvenirs (like Texas flags and t-shirts), drinks and ice cream. For first time Texas visitors, be sure to sample a local brand of ice cream called Blue Bell which is a Texas institution. If the flavor “cookies and cream” is available, this flavor has a cult following and is not to be missed on a hot day.
From the visitor’s center, tourists can walk to the Star of the Republic Museum, which provides interesting exhibits on Texas’ beginnings with Native American settlements, colonization by European explorers, governance by Mexico and the Texas Revolution. The museum includes a film, “Once a Nation”, outlining life in the Texas Republic between 1836 and 1845. Do not miss the upstairs exhibits of life as a settler including what was available in mercantile stores (not much), what life was like for children (hard), what medical treatments were available (scary), what education was available, the cotton industry and quilting as examples. I especially liked seeing a flag with 28 stars, as Texas is the 28th state. Be sure to read the signs on the walkways upstairs as these summaries give information on what was going in the world during this period, as well as within the United States and in Texas. Admission to the museum is $5.00 and well worth the price for anyone with an interest in Texas history.
Driving through the park, visitors can also stop at Barrington Farm, which was the home of Dr. Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas. The farm was moved to Washington-on-the-Brazos and visitors can tour the house as well as the slave quarters. Staff members, dressed in period costumes, are available both at the house and the farm to answer questions. Dr. Jones was an experimental farmer whose home was constructed in 1844. The main cash crops on the farm were cotton and corn, but other crops like tobacco, wheat and oats were grown but not as successful. I had a hard time looking through the slave quarters as the living conditions looked horrible. One of the guides told me that most Texans lived in similar conditions during that time.
Admission to the farm is also $5.00 (or visitors can buy a combined pass to both the museum and the farm for $9.00) and there are still animals on the farm like roosters, chickens and turkeys.
Texas is known as “The Lone Star State” as for nine years, Texas was its own independent nation until annexed by the United States. Life for pioneers was hard living in a republic with hostile wildlife, few supplies and extreme heat during the summers. For visitors interested in life on the Texas frontier when Texas was its own country, a visit to Washington-on-the-Brazos is a hands-on lesson in Texas history.
Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historical Site
P.O. Box 305 (the park is located on F.M. 1155)
Washington, Texas 77880