A lady of certain years by the time she became moderately famous, Angelina Belle Peyton was born in the last years of the 18th century in Sumner County, Tennessee. For a decade or so Tennessee would be the far western frontier, but by the time she was twenty and newly married to her first cousin, John Peyton, the frontier had moved west. Texas beckoned like a siren – and eventually, the Peytons settled in San Felipe-on-the-Brazos, the de facto capitol of the American settlements in Texas. They would open an inn, and raise three children, before John died in 1834. She would continue running the inn in San Felipe on her own for another two years, until history intervened.
By 1835, times were changing for the Anglo-American settlers in Texas, who began to refer to themselves as Texians. Having been invited specifically to come and settle in the most distant and dangerous of Mexican territories, the authorities were at first generous and tolerant. Newly freed from the rule of Spain, Mexico had organized into a federation of states, and adopted a Constitution patterned after the U.S. Constitution. Liberal and forward-thinking Mexicans, as well as the Texian settlers confidently expected that Mexico would eventually become a nation very much resembling the United States. Unfortunately, Mexico became torn between two factions – the Centralists, top-down authoritarians, strictly conservative in the old European sense who believed in a strong central authority, ruling from Mexico City – and the Federalists, who were more classically liberal in the early 19th century sense, democratically inclined and backing a Mexico as a loose federation of states. In the mid 1830’s Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, a leading Federalist hero, suddenly reversed course upon becoming president, essentially declaring himself dictator, and voided the Constitution. Rebellion against a suddenly-Centralist authority flared up across Mexico’s northern states and territories.
The Texian settlers, who had been accustomed to minding their own affairs, also went up in flames – overnight, and as it turned out, literally. Lopez de Santa Anna, at the head of a large and professionally officered army, methodically crushed those rebels within other Mexican states and turned his attention towards Texas in the spring of 1836. After the siege and fall of certain strong-points held by Texians and eager volunteers from the United States, Sam Houston, the one man who kept his head while all around him were becoming progressively more unglued, ordered that all the Anglo-Texian settlements be abandoned. All structures should be burnt and supplies that could not be carried along be destroyed, in order to deny them to Santa Anna’s advancing army. Houston commanded a relatively tiny force; for him, safety lay in movement rather than forting up, and in luring Santa Anna’s companies farther and farther into East Texas. This was done with savage efficiency: as Houston gathered more volunteers to his armies, families evacuated their hard-won homes. Those established towns which were the heart of Anglo Texas were burned. For a little more than a month, the civilian refugees straggled east, towards the border with the United States, and some illusory safety. It was a miserable, rainy spring. San Felipe burned, either at Houston’s order, or by pursuing Mexicans; Angelina Peyton was now a homeless widow, trudging east with her family. Just when everything turned dark and hopeless, when it seemed sure that Sam Houston would never turn and fight, that the Lone Star had gone out for good; a miracle happened. Sam Houston’s ragged, ill-trained army did turn and fight, winning a smashing victory – and better yet, his soldiers captured Lopez de Santa Anna. In return for his parole, Santa Anna ceded Texas to the rebels. (Lopez de Santa Anna went back on that promise, but that’s another story.)
In the aftermath of the war, Angelina Peyton took her family to Columbia on the Brazos, which would for a time be the capitol of Texas. Late in 1836, she married again, to a widower named Jacob Eberly. Within three years, she and Jacob had moved to what was supposed to be the grand new capitol of Texas – Austin, on the banks of the Colorado River, on the western edge of the line of Anglo-Texas settlement, but square in the middle of the territory claimed by the new Republic of Texas. The place had been chosen by the new President of the Republic, Mirabeau Lamar. It was a beautiful, beautiful place, set on wooded hills above the river. Angelina and Jacob opened a boarding house – the Eberly House, catering to members of the new Legislature, and to those officers of Lamar’s administration. Everyone agreed that Austin had a fine and prosperous future: within the first year of being laid out, the population had gone from a handful of families to nearly 1,000. And the Eberly House was considered very fine: even Sam Houston, upon being elected President after Lamar, preferred living there, rather than the drafty and hastily-constructed presidential mansion. Angelina, now in her early forties, seemed tireless in her devotion to her business – and her community.
But still, disaster waited around every corner over the next years: Jacob died in 1841. In the following year, war with Mexico threatened again, and Sam Houston decreed that the legislature should meet . . . in Washington-on-the-Brazos. Not in Austin. It was too dangerous, and Houston had never been as enthusiastic about Austin as Lamar had been. Panic emptied Austin, as the population fell to around 200 souls. Government and private buildings stood empty, with leaves blowing in through empty rooms. A handful of die-hard residents carried on, hoping that when things calmed down, the Legislature would return, and meet there again. After all – the archives of the State of Texas were stored there, safely tucked up in the General Land Office Building. A committee of vigilance formed, to ensure that the records remained, after President Houston politely requested their removal to safety . . . in East Texas.
In the dead of night on December 29th, 1842, a party of men acting under Houston’s direction arrived, with orders to remove the archives – in secret and without shedding any blood. Unfortunately, they were rather noisy about loading the wagons. Angelina Eberly woke, looked out of a window and immediately realized what was going on. She ran outside, and fired off the six-pound cannon that the residents kept loaded with grapeshot in case of an Indian attack. The shot alerted the vigilance committee – and supposedly punched a hole in the side of the General Land Office Building. The men fled with three wagons full of documents, pursued within hours by the volunteers of the vigilance committee, who caught up with them the next day. The archives were returned – Sam Houston had specified no bloodshed; the following year, he was admonished by the Legislature for trying to relocate the capitol.
The Legislature would return to Austin in 1845 and after annexation by the United States, the state capitol would remain there. Angelina Eberly – who had fired the shot that ensured it would do so – moved her hotel business to the coast; to Indianola, the Queen City of the Gulf. She did not marry again, and ran a profitable and well-frequented hotel, until her death in 1860.
(Angelina Eberly features as a secondary character in Deep In the Heart, the sequel to Daughter of Texas. She is a bit of a gossip and busy-body, with a slightly ribald sense of humor – if early Austin has a petticoat government, so my heroine thinks, than Mrs. Eberly is the queen of it. This is crossposted at my book blog)