Texas: Presidio La Bahia

Presidio La Bahia is the only fully reconstructed Spanish colonial fort in the Western Hemisphere. Strategically situated on the route connecting the province of Texas with Mexico, this Spanish frontier fort was established to protect nearby missions. It subsequently played a key role in the history of the area and was the site of the Goliad Massacre and other events of the Texas Revolution.

Site Office

Presidio La Bahia

P.O. Box 57

Highway 183

Goliad, TX 77963

ph.: (512) 645-3752

The European settlement of Texas was spurred by conquistadores such as Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, who sought gold and instead found a new country that they called (variously) Amichel, the New Philippines, and Tejas (the origin of the name “Texas”). The ensuing development of the area produced a melting pot of Spanish, Mexican, Indian, and Anglo-American cultures that in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s was stirred to conflict. The result, after first Texas independence and then Texas statehood, was a deep cultural rift between the Mexicans and Anglo-Americans.

Early European Exploration

There were over ninety European expeditions into the area by the early 1700’s. Most were conducted by the Spanish, but when the French founded Fort St. Louis, the Spanish perceived it as a threat to their undisputed control of the area. Franciscan monks proposed to establish missions in Texas, and the Spanish quickly agreed, leading to the founding of San Francisco de los Tejas on May 25, 1690. By 1731, there were a dozen missions in the area. Strategically situated on the route connecting the province of Texas with Mexico, Presidio Nuestra Señora de Loreto de La Bahia was established in 1721 as a Spanish frontier fort to protect nearby missions and subsequently played a key role in the history of the area; in 1749, it was moved to its present site.

The nearby mission–Espíritu Santo–was created to Christianize the Karankawa Indians on Matagorda Bay. It was called Mission La Bahia (Bay Mission) even after it moved inland in 1726 to the Mission Valley area of Victoria and finally to the present-day site in 1749. Another mission, Mission Nuestra Señora del Rosario, was established nearby by Franciscans in 1754.

The missions had some difficulty in winning converts, but they, along with the presidio, were successful in another effort–developing the cattle-ranching industry of Texas. By 1770 Espíritu Santo had forty thousand head of cattle, while Rosario claimed thirty thousand. The missions also had herds of sheep, raised primarily for their wool, which the missionaries used to make clothing and blankets. Soldiers of the presidio oversaw the herds of the missions and provided troop escorts for cattle drives to other Spanish settlements.

The presidio played a role in the American and Mexican wars for independence. During the American Revolution, the presidio’s troops assisted the armies of Bernardo de Gálvez, a Spanish ally of the American colonists. The combined Spanish and Continental forces won victories over the British at Baton Rouge, Natchez, Mobile, and Pensacola.

The Mexican Independence Movement

In 1812, during the Mexican fight for independence from Spain, the presidio was seized by a group of Mexican revolutionaries and their French, Indian, and American allies, under the command of Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara and Augustus Magee. The revolutionary army held the fortress through a lengthy siege and pushed the Spanish forces back to San Antonio. At this time the Americans decided to declare the first Republic of Texas, but Gutiérrez insisted that Texas remain part of Mexico.

In 1819, an army assembled by James Long in Mississippi invaded Texas and again declared the colony an independent republic. Long and his forces occupied La Bahia in October, 1821, but Spanish troops surrounded them and forced their surrender. When Mexico won its independence that same year, its army took control of the presidio.

The Texan Independence Movement

The Texan independence movement did not disappear, however, and it was this movement that would result in the most historic events at the presidio. During the 1820’s and 1830’s, Mexico was engaged in an ongoing debate over just how powerful its central government should be. Many of those living in Texas favored a decentralized government, which was endorsed by the liberal Mexican constitution of 1824. When Antonio López de Santa Anna became president in 1833, he at first pledged to uphold the constitution, but then voided it in 1835. That year, Texan activist Stephen Fuller Austin, who had been imprisoned in Mexico for a year and a half because he was suspected of revolutionary activities, was released and appealed to Texans–and their allies in the United States–to take arms in the cause of Texan independence.

When Mexican troops came to quash the Texas rebellion, the presidio was the first military installation they secured, early in October, 1835. Within days, however, a Texan revolutionary force captured the presidio, in the first offensive operation of the Texas Revolution. On December 20, the presidio was the site of the first signing of the Declaration of Texas Independence from Mexico.

Siege of the Alamo

During the siege of the Alamo at San Antonio early in 1836, the presidio at Goliad was manned by a force of between four hundred and five hundred; some were from Texas, but mostly the men were from the United States, under the command of Colonel James W. Fannin, Jr. Fannin’s actions during this time were controversial. William B. Travis asked Fannin to come to the aid of the Texan forces at the Alamo. Fannin refused Travis’s first request, but when the second came Fannin and most of his troops set out for the Alamo. They left on February 26 and spent the night on the banks of the San Antonio River, but they backtracked to Goliad the next day. For this action, some have called Fannin a coward; others have said he was merely being prudent, and undoubtedly saved his troops from being wiped out at the Alamo. Fannin justified the action by explaining that not only had his ammunition wagons broken down, he had also received word that Mexican forces under General José Urrea were nearby. Fannin said,

It was apparent to all that the evacuation of Go- liad . . . would leave the whole frontier from [San Antonio] to the coast open to the incursions of the enemy. . . . Everyone felt an anxiety to relieve our friends . . . yet everyone saw the impropriety, if not the impossibility, of our proceeding under existing circumstances.

On March 14, Fannin received an order from Sam Houston, commander in chief of the Texas forces. Urrea and his men were on the way to Goliad; Fannin was to abandon the presidio for the nearby settlement of Victoria. Because of transportation difficulties, and possibly his own reservations, Fannin did not begin his retreat until March 19. By then Urrea’s forces were very close indeed. Near Coleto Creek, a few miles east of Goliad, the Mexican army surrounded Fannin’s troops. After a day and a half of fighting, and unable to stand up to Urrea’s artillery reinforcements, Fannin and his soldiers surrendered and became the Mexicans’ prisoners.

The Mexican government had decreed that any foreigners who aided the rebellion were to be executed. As most of Fannin’s soldiers were from the United States, they were eligible for this penalty. Urrea promised to intercede with Santa Anna, so that prisoners who asked for clemency would be spared. Urrea moved on with his army, taking some of the captured troops with him to serve as medical attendants to his wounded. Fannin and his remaining troops–about four hundred men–were locked up in the presidio, under the supervision of Mexican Lieutenant Colonel José Nicolás de la Portilla.

The Goliad Massacre

Santa Anna refused Urrea’s plea for mercy and ordered Portilla to execute the prisoners. On March 27, 1836–Palm Sunday–all but twenty-seven were killed, in an episode that became known as the Goliad Massacre. Fannin was the last to die. Some of the bodies were burned, but others remained where they fell and created a feast for wolves and vultures. Urrea was outraged and wrote in his diary:

I never thought that the horrible spectacle of that massacre could take place in cold blood . . . a deed proscribed by the laws of war and condemned by the civilization of our country. . . . [The Texan and U.S. troops] surrendered confident that Mexican generosity would not make their sacrifice useless, for under any other circumstances they would have sold their lives dearly, fighting to the last.

The massacre served to solidify support for the Texan cause. “Remember Goliad!” joined “Remember the Alamo!” as the Texans’ rallying cry the following month at the Battle of San Jacinto, where Texas finally won its independence. Texas became part of the United States in 1845.

The presidio fell into disrepair after the Texas Revolution, but in the 1960’s it was restored to 1836 appearance. The graves of Fannin and his men are on the grounds. The compound is administered by the Catholic Diocese of Victoria. The two hundred-year-old Our Lady of Loreto Chapel at the presidio continues to host religious services. The chapel features a striking fresco by Corpus Christi artist Antonio Garcia, and a statue of Our Lady of Loreto by Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore.

The Mission Espíritu Santo was secularized in 1831 and rebuilt in 1848 by the Goliad City Council. It subsequently became Aranama College, a college for Spanish-speaking Texans. The college shut down in 1861 when its entire student body joined the Confederate army. The mission was left to ruin but was meticulously rebuilt in the 1930’s. The ruins of Mission Rosario also may be viewed within Goliad State Historical Park.

Historic Buildings

There are several notable historic structures within the town of Goliad. The Second Empire Goliad County Courthouse was built in 1894 by the San Antonio architect Alfred Giles and was expanded in 1964. It is the focal point of a group of turn-of-the-century commercial, public, and residential buildings that covers portions of nine blocks. On the courthouse’s lawn is the oak Hanging Tree. From 1846 to 1870 court was held under the tree, and those found guilty were hanged on the spot.

The Old Market House Museum opened in the early 1870’s as a market for meat and produce vendors. In 1886 it became a firehouse and meeting hall. The museum features documents and artifacts relating to farming and ranching in the Goliad area from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century.

The Captain Barton Peck House is a stuccoed limestone home built by an easterner who arrived too late to fight for Texas independence and went home but was so attracted by Goliad that he returned in 1842. The Greek revival house took ten years to build and remains one of the finest early examples of that style in Texas.

For Further Information

  • Castaneda, Carlos E. The Mexican Side of the Texas Revolution. Salem, N.H.: Ayer, 1976. The Mexicans’ view of the Texas Revolution is presented through excerpts from memoirs and diaries of the Mexican officers.
  • Fehrenbach, T. R. Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans. 1968. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 2000. Though every bit as thorough in research and presentation of the facts as Hansen (below), uses a more contemporary tone.
  • Habig, Marion A. The Alamo Chain of Missions: A History of San Antonio’s Five Old Missions. Rev. ed. Livingston, Tex.: Pioneer Press, 1997. A discussion of the missions in the San Antonio area.
  • Haley, James L. Texas: An Album of History. New York: Doubleday, 1985. Contains an account of the revolution and the Goliad Massacre.
  • Hansen, Harry. Texas: A Guide to the Lone Star State. Rev. ed. New York: Hastings House, 1969. Originally compiled by the Federal Writers’ Program. Thorough, well researched, and scholarly in its presentation, the book contains a calendar of annual events across the state, twenty-nine driving tours (including one through Goliad and mission country), maps, and selected readings about Texas.
  • McDonald, Archie P., ed. The Texas Experience. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1986. An anthology that presents Texas in mosaic; it is a collection of many writers from Texas schools who offer insights on a variety of topics from history to popular culture.