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The forgotten pieces of Texas history

Goliad's plans, heritage languish in neglect






January 4, 2004

GOLIAD -- True or false:

  • Some of the first cowboys in Texas were Indians.
  • Only one Spanish colonial fort is still standing in Texas.
  • The first man wounded in the Texas revolution was black.

All are true statements. And all apply to Goliad, which is at once one of the most historic places in Texas, one of the least appreciated and one of the most neglected.

Goliad is best known for what happened here on Palm Sunday, March 27, 1836, during the Texas revolution. Col. James Fannin and 341 of his men, after surrendering and being held captive for a week, were killed by Mexican troops under Gen. Santa Anna. That was nearly double the number of Texans killed three weeks earlier at the Alamo. The two events inspired the Texans' battle cry at San Jacinto, where independence was secured: "Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!"

But Goliad is not just a shrine of the Texas revolution. Presidio La Bahia, established in 1749, is the oldest standing fort west of the Mississippi. Two Franciscan missions, one of them partially restored, introduced Catholicism and cattle ranching to the region. And the hero of Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican national holiday commemorating a victory over French invaders, was born here.

A 1999 "interpretive master plan" by state agencies, local governments and private groups concluded that this rich history was a story waiting to be told. It called for building two sites for visitors at Goliad that would fill large gaps in the state's network of historical, cultural and political venues: a Tejano history center to focus on the Hispanic history of Texas and a ranching heritage center to explain the evolution of that centerpiece of Texas identity. Neither has been built or even seriously discussed.

"This is one of the last great places in the state," said F. Lawerence Oaks, executive director of the Texas Historical Commission. "There are so many threads in our history that come to a confluence in Goliad. There's an absolutely unique opportunity here. Certainly we need to get the public and private sectors focused back on that vision."

Goliad's remote location -- along the San Antonio River in South Texas where the brush country, post oak savannah and coastal plain converge -- hasn't helped its cause. And a simmering debate about whether the killing of Fannin and his men should be called a massacre, as history books term it, or an execution, as some scholars and Hispanic activists prefer, has been a distraction.

The price tag, about $9 million, is another obstacle. There is also a lack of political will and forceful advocacy, both locally and in Austin. The state Legislature has not shown special interest in Goliad, and its recent budget-trimming means that some planned repairs to state-owned sites here are indefinitely delayed.

A special place

Visitors here get a piecemeal sense of history.

The presidio, the restored mission, the battleground where Fannin surrendered, Fannin's grave and the restored birthplace of Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza, the Cinco de Mayo hero, are stand-alone entities, each telling a narrow story. Display panels at many of the sites are outdated, and no panel explains the role of Samuel McCulloch Jr., a freed black man who became the first Texas casualty of the revolution when the presidio was seized from Mexican control in October 1835.

Even Goliad's singular moment, the slaughter of Fannin and his men, is not given its due. The killing grounds -- three sites less than a mile from the presidio, where the Texans were held captive -- have never been thoroughly studied. And although more than 12,000 historical markers have been placed across the state, addressing everything from barbed wire to fruitcake, no marker stands on or adjacent to those blood-stained grounds.

"I think that something should at least be done to positively identify those sites and put up a marker," said Newton Warzecha, the director of Presidio La Bahia, which is owned and operated by the Catholic Diocese of Victoria. "It takes someone to take the leadership."

Several sites operated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, including the restored mission, a granary, Zaragoza's birthplace and the Fannin Battleground, need costly repairs to walls, roofs or foundations. Zaragoza's birthplace is closed most weekdays because of insufficient staffing.

Despite these problems, Goliad has a special feel. Of the Texas revolution sites, it has changed the least. The Alamo is hemmed in by offices, hotels and shops in downtown San Antonio. The San Jacinto battlefield, outside Houston, is cluttered with unrelated historical markers. At Goliad, it's still possible to crest a hill at the edge of town and get a clear view of the tree-lined river and the presidio with its soaring chapel.

The town of 2,000 people is unpretentious, but it nevertheless evokes a sense of pride and place. At the La Bahia Restaurant, where manager Michelle Rubio serves up an eclectic menu of Tex-Mex, steaks and seafood, some of the patrons wear spurs on their boots, and it's not for show. Drivers must weave around large live oaks that have been left standing in the middle of some streets. The Goliad County Courthouse recently got a $4.8 million facelift to restore towers, the roof and other features to their historically accurate style, thanks in large part to a state grant under a courthouse-renovation program.

Repairs at a standstill

No one wants Goliad to become too big, but Tejano and ranching centers could provide a much-needed boost for the heritage tourism that is crucial to the community's economic future, said Doris Freer, chairwoman of the Goliad County Historical Commission, which operates a small museum on the downtown square.

The master plan, shaped by historians and lay people alike, called for the ranching center to be built at Goliad State Park, whose main section includes not only the usual park amenities, such as camping, swimming and fishing, but also Mission Espiritu Santo, the partially restored mission. The park's outlying holdings include Zaragoza's birthplace, the Fannin Battleground and the ruins of Mission Rosario.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department can't keep up with routine repairs at Goliad, much less finance new construction. About $1 million in bond money has been set aside for repairs. A third of that money has already been spent to refurbish a pavilion at the Fannin Battleground, renovate campgrounds and upgrade the water system.

The balance has been earmarked for mission roof repairs, mold removal, electrical upgrades and drainage improvements, as well as for studies of deteriorating plaster at Mission Espiritu Santo and of structural problems with the granary. But no money has been set aside to correct the causes of those problems and repair the damage. It's anybody's guess when a crumbling gazebo at the Fannin Battleground and decaying floors and walls at the Zaragoza house will be fixed.

It didn't help when the Legislature suspended new bond issues by the parks department and other agencies in 2003 and this year to save money. Even though voters in 2001 approved $850 million in bonds, including $101.5 million for park repairs, the Legislature has not let the parks department use more than about a third of its bonding authority.

The Tejano center is also just a dream at this point. The master plan called for it to be built at La Bahia, as the neighborhood around the presidio is known. The area includes state, county and private land. Tejanos -- native-born Texans of Hispanic descent -- are largely ignored by the state's historical parks, despite their outsized role in shaping the state's culture.

"Goliad should be much more important to the Hispanic community than it is," said Jose Limon, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas. "It's the Zaragoza connection that makes that place international, even more than the Texas revolution."

History untold

Visitors to Goliad get a good dose of the mission era and Texas revolution but not much on Tejano history.

Estella Zermeo, a Goliad native who traces her lineage to one of the original soldiers assigned by the Spanish crown to the presidio, said a Tejano center could change that. Her ancestors also include Karankawa Indians and people who fought on both sides during the Civil War. She and her husband, William, share these stories as volunteer tour guides at the Zaragoza house.

They also tell visitors about an alternative view of what history books call the Goliad Massacre. The Zermeos consider "execution" a more accurate term, as well as a less pejorative one. At the time, Mexican law treated prisoners as pirates of war subject to execution.

But Warzecha, who has made Fannin's fate a centerpiece theme at the presidio with an annual re-enactment of the event, bristles at what he regards as an effort to rewrite history.

Leah Huth, who became the manager of Goliad State Park about a year and a half ago, sees both sides. Many of Fannin's men had no idea that a bullet was coming, and their deaths could be considered a massacre, she reasons. But a smaller group of wounded soldiers was taken outside the presidio's chapel. These 40 Texans were forced to lie on the ground and shot. Fannin, also wounded, took the last bullet in his face after he was seated and blindfolded. The killing of Fannin and the smaller group seems more like an execution, Huth says.

She hopes to get the Zermeos, Warzecha, local officials, business and civic leaders, state agencies and private foundations to work together. The Goliad Heritage Council, a public-private group spawned by the master plan but currently in neutral gear, is a logical planning instrument.

Similar groups, along with well-connected advocates, have obtained millions of dollars to spruce up other historic sites in Texas, such as the monument at San Jacinto and the sprawling grounds of Washington-on-the-Brazos, where the Texas Declaration of Independence was signed.

Huth is not wedded to the master plan. One alternative, she said, is to put the ranching and Tejano centers on a single tract along with a museum that would summarize Goliad's broad sweep of history and serve as a jumping-off point for visitors. She is quick to add that a local consensus is needed before political and financial capital can be secured from the Legislature and private foundations.

"The efforts in the past have been fragmented and individualistic. Is it an uphill battle? Yes. But so was Government Canyon," Huth said, referring to a state park near San Antonio acquired through a combination of local, state, federal and private money.

Few historical projects are as worthy as the challenge at Goliad, said Shirley Caldwell, a commissioner with the Texas Historical Commission. She declined an invitation to attend the White House Christmas tree lighting because of her commitment to speak at the dedication of the refurbished Goliad County Courthouse last month.

A Tejano center could tell both sides of the massacre-execution debate, as well as the largely unrevealed story of how Tejanos lost land after Texas became a republic, Caldwell said. Together, she said, the Tejano and ranching components are vital to understanding the evolution of Texas.

"We came up with a plan that we thought would do that," Caldwell said. "And for some reason it came to a screeching halt. I don't care who's responsible. I want us to sit down and work on it again."; 445-3604


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