(When I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Texas history, some of it – like the mass executions of Texian fighters at the Goliad – came as a surprise to some readers. This might be another surprise: a Mexican invasion six years later, which briefly occupied San Antonio…)
Like a great many locations of note to the tumultuous years of the Republic of Texas, the site of the battle of Salado Creek today doesn’t look much like it did in 1842 . . . however, it is not so much changed that it is hard to picture in the minds’ eye what it would have looked like then. The creek is dryer and seasonal, more dependant upon rainfall than the massive amount of water drawn into the aquifer by the limestone sponge of the Hill Country, to the north. Then – before the aquifer was tapped and drilled and drained in a thousand places – water came up in spectacular natural fountains in many places below the Balcones Escarpment. The Salado was a substantial landmark in the countryside north of San Antonio, a deep and regular torrent, running between steep banks liked with oak and pecan trees, thickly quilted with deep brush and the banks scored by shallow ravines that ran down to water-level. Otherwise, the countryside around was gently rolling grasslands, dotted with more stands of oak trees. There was a low hill a little east of the creek, with a house built on the heights. Perhaps it might have had a view of San Antonio de Bexar, seven miles away, to the south and west.
In that year, San Antonio was pretty much what it had been for two centuries: a huddle of jacales, huts made from plastered logs set upright in the ground and crowned with a roof of thatch, and thick-walled houses of unbaked clay adobe bricks, roofed with rusty-red tile, all gathered around the stumpy tower of the Church of San Fernando. A few narrow streets converged on the plaza where San Fernando stood – streets with names like the Alameda, Soledad and Flores. The whole was threaded together by another river, lined with rushes and more trees. The river rambled like a drunken snake, but it generously watered the town, the orchards and farms nearby . . . and was the main reason for the town and a string of missions having been established by the Spanish in the first place. That street called the Alameda, or sometimes the Powderhouse Hill Road (now Commerce), led out to the east, across a bend of the river, and past another ramble of stone and adobe buildings clustered around a roofless church; the Alamo, once a mission, then a presidio garrison, and finally a legend. By 1842 – the siege of it’s Texian garrison only six years in the past – it was still a barracks and military establishment. In the fall of 1842, the Mexican Army returned to take temporary possession.
General and President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had never ceased to resent how one-half of the province of Coahuila-y-Tejas had been wrenched from the grasp of Mexico by the efforts of a scratch army of volunteer and barely trained rebel upstarts who had the nerve to think they could govern themselves, thank you. When General Adrian Woll, a French soldier of fortune who was one of Lopez de Santa Anna’s most trusted commanders brought an expeditionary force all the from the Rio Grande and swooped down on the relatively unprotected town . . . this was an action not entirely unexpected.
Coincidentally, for the Texans, that fall had seemed to be a good time to get on with urgent civic business, such as the meeting of the District Court in San Antonio. There had not been the opportunity to try civil cases for many years; the town was full of visitors who had come for the court session: officials, lawyers and litigants. Court opened on September 5th – but within days rumors were flying of another Mexican incursion. Such rumors were cheerfully dismissed – not soldiers, just bandits and marauders. Just in case, local surveyor John Coffee Hays – who already had a peerless reputation as a ranger and Indian fighter – was sent out to scout with five of his men. They saw nothing, having stayed on the established roads; unknown to them, General Woll was approaching through the deserted country to the west of San Antonio, with a column of more than 1,500 soldiers – as well as a considerable assortment of cannon.
Under cover of a dense fog bank on the morning of September 11th, Woll’s army marched into San Antonio, with banners flying and a band playing. Having blocked off all escape routes, the General ordered a cannon fired to announce his presence. There was some sharp, but futile resistance, before surrender was negotiated. General Woll announced that he would have to take all Anglo men in San Antonio as prisoners of war; this included the judge, district attorney, assistant district attorney, court clerk, court interpreter, every member of the San Antonio Bar save one, and a handful of litigants and residents, to a total of fifty-five. They were kept prisoner – after five days they were told they must walk all the way to the Rio Grande, but they would then be released. Sometime during this period, the-then Mayor of San Antonio, John William Smith, managed to escape.
(To be continued … this incident features in my upcoming book, Deep in the Heart, as a friend of the heroine is one of the litigants taken prisoner, and her brother is one of Jack Hays’ rangers.)