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 –
– 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.