It was small – upon that, everyone agrees; a six pound cannon, most likely of Spanish make, very likely of bronze, or maybe iron, perhaps of brass. It was called a six-pound cannon because it fired a missile of that weight; pictures of an iron cannon of that type (and thought to have been the original) show a rather small bit of ordinance – barely two feet long, from end to end, and hardly impressive piece, since it had been spiked and otherwise rendered nearly useless when fired for effect. It appears to have been intended mainly for show – to make a loud noise, or as one early chronicler observed in disgust, for signaling the start of a horse race. Nonetheless, this little cannon – or perhaps another of similar size and made of bronze was issued to the settlers of Gonzales, Texas early in the 1830s, for defense of the infant settlement. Texas was wild and woolly – plagued by raids from various Indian war parties – Tonkawa, Apache and most especially, the feared horse-stealing, slave-trading Comanche. Anglo settlers newly come to an entrepreneur-founded settlement near the Guadalupe River, and their Tejano neighbors succeeded in making some kind of peace with all but the Comanche. Knowing this, the Mexican authorities in San Antonio de Bexar approved issuing that one small cannon to the settlers.
Their town was called Gonzales, after the then-governor of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas. Called informally the Dewitt Colony, it had been established after a couple of false starts by Green DeWitt, who spent a great deal of his own personal funds in recruiting families and adventurous single men to an outpost on the farthest western fringe of the various Anglo settlements. Eventually Green DeWitt’s settlement was laid out in a neat grid of city blocks, each block divided into six lots. This layout is still preserved in present-day Gonzales; including a row across the middle of town set aside for civic purposes, although the historic buildings lining those streets are from much later. Only one building – a dog-trot log cabin with a shake roof – remains to give an idea of what this thriving little town would have looked like in 1835, when a small party of Mexican soldiers sent by the military governor in Bexar came to get the little cannon back.
The political situation in Mexico, which had once been favorably-inclined towards Anglo settlers, and entrepreneurs, like Stephen Austin and Green DeWitt had deteriorated into a welter of mutual suspicion. For a while, it had appeared that Mexico, with a Constitution modeled after that of the United States, would evolve into a nation very similar, with fairly autonomous states, a Congress, and a central federal authority which administered with a light hand. Unfortunately, a newly-elected President of Mexico, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had other plans – plans involving tight central authority, revoking liberal reforms, dissolving the Congress, and establishing rather a kind of dictatorship backed by armed force. Out on the far frontier, even with shaky and irregular communications with the larger world, the settlers in Gonzales may not have known much for sure, but their suspicions had a firm basis. Resistance to the central government, especially in the outlying regions – accustomed to managing their own affairs in the face of more or less benign neglect from the governmental authorities in Mexico City sprang up at once. Rebellious provinces included Zacatecas, Jalisco, Durango, Nueva Leon, Tamaulipas . . . and Texas. Santa Anna, a brutal and efficient commander of armies utterly smashed the rebels in Zacatecas, taking 3,000 prisoners and allowing his soldiers to loot, burn and rape at will – making it abundantly clear that any other acts of organized defiance would earn the same punishment meted.
In September, 1835, Colonel Ugartechea, the commander of Mexican military forces in San Antonio de Bexar sent a corporal with five soldiers and a small oxcart, to retrieve the cannon from Gonzales. Andrew Ponton, who was the alcalde (mayor and justice of the peace) cagily stalled for time, not wanting to give up a cornerstone of local defense, and suspecting – along with may other Anglo citizens of Texas, that the little cannon might very well be made usable again and turned upon them . . . “Cannon, you say? What cannon – are you sure there is a cannon around here? I don’t see anything of the sort . . .” The cannon was hidden, buried in a peach orchard near the river. Baffled of their aim, the soldiers returned to San Antonio, empty-handed – but Colonel Ugartechea did not give up as easily as all that. He sent an officer and a hundred mounted troopers, with a more strongly worded request. There were only eighteen settlers, standing on the riverbank at the edge of Gonzales when Ugartechea’s soldiers appeared on the far bank of the river – but that handful had hidden the ferry-boat, and anything else which might be used to cross the rain-swollen and treacherous Guadalupe River. Again, they pointedly refused to hand over the cannon – and wisely, they had also sent out word to other settlements.
Frustrated, the soldiers from Bexar retired northwards along the river-bank to a more defensible position, but on the night of October 1st the Texian volunteers – who now outnumbered the Mexican force, with more arriving every hour – crossed the river in force. They brought with them the little cannon, repaired, made ready to fire in earnest and mounted on a make-shift gun carriage – and a banner made from the skirt of a silk wedding dress. This banner was adorned with a single star, a rough outline of the cannon which was the cause of the whole ruckus – and the taunt “Come and Take It.” There was a slightly farcical face-off between the two sides, among the corn and melon-fields, aided and impeded by morning fog, and a well-meaning go-between, during which the cannon fired a load of scrap-metal in the general direction of the Mexican dragoons, but in the end, the dragoons retreated, leaving the Texian volunteers in possession of the field, and the little cannon . . . for the moment. The time had not yet come for open war; Colonel Ugartechea did not wish to press the issue too far – and for a time, neither really did the citizens of Gonzales.
But still – the first shot had been fired. Within the space of six months, a good few of the Gonzales volunteers who had stood on the riverbank and taunted Ugartechea’s soldiers, telling them to come and take the cannon, if they could – would be dead. Thirty or so (perhaps more) would answer a desperate plea to come to the aid of another strongpoint under siege – the Alamo, and Gonzales would be deserted and burned to the ground . . . but that is another story.