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A public conversation about our worlds.

  • Monday: Morgan J. Locke
  • Tuesday: Madeleine E. Robins
  • Wednesday: Maureen F. McHugh
  • Thursday: Bradley Denton
  • Friday: Steven Gould
  • Saturday: Caroline Spector
  • Sunday: Rory Harper

Brain Activity



Sometimes You Just Have to Shoot the General Land Office

May 1st, 2008 by Bradley Denton

 BLAMMO!

On the west side of Congress Avenue in downtown Austin, between Sixth and Seventh Streets, stands a statue of a lady in her nightgown . . . firing a cannon.

This statue (which you can see in its full downtown-Austin context via Google StreetView) depicts a real person and event. The lady was Angelina Eberly, and modern-day Austin probably would not be the capital of Texas were it not for her cannon shot – which was the only shot fired during the so-called Archives War of 1842.

In 1836, Sam Houston, the first President of Texas (and the general who had defeated Santa Anna), wanted the capital located in the swampy coastal city named after him:  Houston. The Texas Congress, however, perhaps recognizing that President Houston was a megalomaniac (not that there’s anything wrong with that), preferred to locate the capital in less-swampy Central Texas.

But in those early days of the Republic, Congress was no match for the Hero of San Jacinto. So for President Houston’s first term, Houston (the city) served as the capital.

Then, in 1839, Mirabeau B. “Bojangles” Lamar became President, and he and Congress almost immediately moved the capital (and the Republic’s archives) to the town of Waterloo, on the Colorado River. They also changed the town’s name to honor Stephen F. Austin, the Father of Texas, who had died while serving as Secretary of State in December 1836. One imagines that this name change pissed off Sam Houston almost as much as the move itself, since no one knew the potential power of dead men better than he did. (“Remember the Alamo!” “Remember Goliad!” At San Jacinto, Santa Anna hadn’t stood a chance.)

Houston (the man) became President again in 1841, and he came to Austin (the city) with ill will and a bad attitude. In fact, to demonstrate that he was determined to make Austin a temporary capital, he insisted upon staying in a boarding house instead of in the official President’s residence. (The irony of this fact would not become apparent until December 1842, when the owner of that boarding house – Mrs. Angelina Eberly – would play a key role in thwarting the President’s plans.)

In March of 1842, elements of the Mexican army invaded and occupied a few Texas cities for several days — most significantly, San Antonio, less than 90 miles from Austin. So President Houston used this opportunity to declare that Austin was too dangerous for the government to remain there, and he moved Congress to Houston (the city).

But when the President asked for the nation’s archives to be moved to Houston as well, the citizens of Austin refused. They knew that if the archives were moved, Austin would never be the capital again . . . and the Austin “Committee of Safety” declared that they were prepared to hold on to the archives using any means necessary.

Another temporary Mexican occupation of San Antonio in September bolstered President Houston’s contention that Austin was too dangerous a location for the capital, and he craftily convened a new Congress at Washington-on-the-Brazos (where Texas independence had been declared in 1836) instead of Houston. Then he ordered Colonels Smith and Chandler to go to Austin and get the damn archives.

In the middle of the night on December 29, the two Colonels and a force of thirty men parked three wagons at the General Land Office Building on Congress Avenue in Austin, where the Republic’s archives were stored. Then they began carrying out their orders.

Perhaps they made too much noise. Or perhaps Mrs. Angelina Eberly – whose boarding house was nearby – was simply a light sleeper. History does not tell us.

History does tell us, though, that Mrs. Eberly sure as hell knew how to shoot a cannon. And the city of Austin just happened to have one conveniently located at (approximately) the present-day intersection of Sixth and Congress.

So Mrs. Eberly, having realized what President Houston’s rascals were up to, ran down to the cannon in her nightgown, and –

BLAMMO!

– blew a big ol’ hole in the side of the General Land Office.

Colonels Smith and Chandler and their men fled (wouldn’t you?) with all three wagonloads of archives. But Mrs. Eberly’s cannon shot had awakened the Committee of Safety, and they caught the Presidentially-commissioned thieves north of town the next morning. Guns were drawn but not fired, and the archives were safely returned to Austin without bloodshed.

And they’ve been in Austin ever since, thanks to Angelina Eberly:  businesswoman, cannoneer –

And, it seems to me, the unofficial Patron Saint of Librarians and Archivists.

Especially . . . if they live in Texas.

Don't Mess With Texas Women

Posted in Brad, History, People, Politics | 14 Comments »

14 Responses

  1. Morgan J. Locke Says:

    Bloody brilliant. Only in Texas.

  2. Maureen McQ Says:

    Dear Brad,

    I live in a universe that is parallel to yours lets call it California) where certain things you describe in this fine blog are different in the reality where I reside. Some of those differences are quite sad. We do not, for example, have flying monkeys in our Flint Hills. (http://eatourbrains.com/EoB/2006/12/21/no-place-like-it/)
    So when I read something like this, I naturally assume that anything this…fantastical is perhaps not true in my universe. As it turns out, I have underestimated Texas, which even in my reality is a truly strange place.

  3. Madeleine Robins Says:

    Does anyone make souvenir scale models of Mrs. Eberly? Cause I’d sure like to have one. As a lifelong fan of archivists and librarians (and big Blammo! noises) of course.

    Excellent.

  4. Tom Kastan Says:

    Alonzo E. Horton sucessfully moved the city of San Diego from Old Town to near the bay (Horton’s Addition) by transporting the archives in the dead of night. This must have been more common than I thought.

  5. Stuart Says:

    Oklahoma has its own version. The state capital was at Enid until an intrepid band of citizens stole the state seal in the middle of the night and took it to Oklahoma City.

    Since the state itself was stolen from the Indians twice it is only fitting. When I say twice it is because the original inhabitants were displaced by tribes that were brought from the east and then the land was stolen from them for the sake of white settlers.

  6. Steven Gould Says:

    I hereby declare that the Capitol of the State of New Mexico shall forever be Truth-or-Consequences! (Archival Raid to follow.)

  7. Steven Gould Says:

    Mad, a small scale model exists but I’m not sure it’s available.

  8. Madeleine Robins Says:

    Steve, what I really want is a tourist tschotske that I could keep on my desk. Something like those models of Sigmund Freud or Jane Austen. Even if the smaller bronze is available, I’m sure it’s out of my price range.

  9. Steven Gould Says:

    Well, Mad, if you can’t get the figure you can always go for the beer.

  10. Bill Bottorff Says:

    Madeleine, you might look at the following link:
    http://www.cannon-mania.com/
    They have a “carbide canon” that is pretty good for big bangs. You load it with little pebbles of carbide and drip some water in them and it generates acetylene gas which is highly explosive and LOUD. Lots of fun! I ran into a guy here in Austin who built a mortar that would shoot bowling balls. What fun!
    Bill

  11. Casey Hamilton Says:

    Actually, regarding Oklahoma, the former state capital was Guthrie, states the former legislative flack. They’ve built a thriving tourist industry from this fact.

  12. Stuart Says:

    Oops! Thanks for the correction. Guthrie is not one of those towns that embeds itself in forefront of memory. It is as famous for its nightlife as it is for its culture. 0 = 0

  13. Jeff Kerr Says:

    Angelina Eberly’s story is indeed fascinating. I include it in my book “Seat of Empire” due out next spring with State House Press. There is little doubt that she was present when the cannon was fired. Contemporary accounts, however, leave room for doubt about who exactly applied the match that fired the gun. Most of the men were out of town chasing Indians at the time. Someone noticed the activity at the land office. The cannon was rolled across the street by several bystanders. Eberly evidently taunted the men to take action. As the cannon was about to be fired, she reportedly shoved the barrel more towards the land office. Someone then lit the fuse. Whether this was Angelina Eberly is not clear, but do you honestly think that a group of 19th century Texan men would have stood by while a woman fired the cannon? Anyway, it probably doesn’t matter. If the story isn’t true, it should be!

  14. Bradley Denton Says:

    Thanks, Mr. Kerr. I look forward to your book.

    No doubt the tale of Angelina Eberly, as usually told here in Austin, does not quite jibe with how the Archives War cannon shot really happened — as your research indicates.

    Nevertheless, I agree with your final comment. Or, to paraphrase a famous line from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE:

    “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, blog the legend!”

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