History Friday – One Little Cannon

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.

11 thoughts on “History Friday – One Little Cannon”

  1. Quite a story Sgt Mom – and I did not know that Mexico had a constitution like ours. Why did the evolve differently? I think it was our middle class that made the difference fr us.

  2. The Constitution of 1824 was partly based on our constitution, Bill. I’ve always thought it ironic that the rebellion of the other Mexican states is overlooked in pop-culture accounts of the Texas war for independence. It wasn’t just about us, looking at the big picture. It was just the final hiccup in an intra-Mexican conflict.

  3. }}} It was just the final hiccup in an intra-Mexican conflict.

    Methinks La Raza might disagree with you on the applicability of the word “final”…

  4. La Raza are a-holes. They don’t get much traction around here, since they seem to be principally set on recreating the situation which send their parents and grandparents out of Mexico to begin with. The plain truth is that Mexico erupts in a civil war about every fifty years, and the refugees from it wash over the border into Texas, seeking a bit of peace and quiet.
    I laugh my *ss off, every time I read about how Mexico claimed so much of the Southwest, technically. They only claimed it – aside from California and a stretch of New Mexico which were settled by settlers from Spain and Mexico, it was the Apache and Comanche who had actual possession.

  5. La Raza never had much traction anywhere except Newsrooms and college campus radical groups. Like you said, the Mexicans who have come here wanted to get away from the hellhole that the La Raza idiots want to re-create.

    If you want to point a finger at who was mostly responsible for screwing up Mexico, look at Santa Anna. His ambitions to be Emperor of Mexico caused all the rebellions. The Constitution of 1824 was actually quite good, and had Mexico been able to stick with it, it would have been a radically different nation. The aristocratic tendencies of the old Spanish culture were just too strong. Unlike England, there had never been a large class of small farmers and businessmen in Spain.

  6. Joe Wooten Says:
    October 14th, 2013 at 11:20 am

    I beg to differ. Here in Colorado in the mid- 1970’s I spent far too much time searching hospitals for bombs being planted by La Raza Unida and “Crusade for Justice” based on bomb threats called in. Fortunately, they did not plant any in the hospitals, but they did in other public places. I note for the record that the late then-Captain Bob Shaunnesey of the DPD Bomb Squad had big brass ones that clanged as he walked, and he proved it then.

    The leaders of those groups then are now running major parts of the Democratic Party here in Colorado, and are elected officials.

    They really have not changed.

    Subotai Bahadur

  7. Good story. Hate to pick a nit, but in re: “It was called a six-pound cannon because it fired a missile of that weight; pictures of an iron cannon of that type … show a rather small bit of ordinance …” the word you wanted was “ordnance”, which is not the same thing as an ordinance.

    Ordnance: military supplies including weapons, ammunition, combat vehicles, and maintenance tools and equipment;

    Ordinance: a law set forth by a (non-sovereign) governmental authority; specifically a municipal regulation.

  8. I’ve always wondered if any of the Texan settlers had suffered through schoolboy Greek back east in his youth. It wouldn’t have been all THAT uncommon; many schoolboys started learning Latin and Greek early, and many of our “backwoods” pioneers had book learning far in advance of our own uneducated masses.

    It’s just that the line “Come and take it!” is remarkably similar to the words attributed to Leonidas of Sparta prior to the Battle Of Thermopylae; when the Persians demanded that the Spartans should lay down their weapons, Leonidas replied “Molon Labe”; or, colloquially, “Come and take them!”

  9. It is very likely indeed, Ken – I had a list of the subjects taught by an itinerant schoolteacher who set up business in Gonzales early on, and the classics had a good working over. Likely many knew the story, if not the language. In fact, when I wrote about the Come and Take It Fight in Daughter of Texas, I had my (fictional) Gonzales schoolmaster quote Leonidas when asked by the ladies making the flag what they should put on it. The ladies answered that they had best put it in English, as he was likely the only man in town who understood ancient Greek ,,,

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