Texas Backroads: San Augustine

For centuries Native Americans roamed the deep forests of East Texas before Europeans even new the land existed. Predominant was a sect of the Caddoans called Hasinais, with tribes such as the Nacogdoche, Naconish, and the Ais, or Ayish, who settled on a little bayou not far from the Sabine river, the western border of Louisiana. Hasinais tribes shared a greeting: “Tejas!” This greeting would give name to a vast and untamed territory destined to play a major part in world history over the next few centuries. The Ayish settlement had its own destiny. It played a pivotal role in the history of Texas from Spanish conquest to statehood.

By the mid-1600’s the Spanish New World stretched from the Sabine in the east to beyond the Rio Grande in the west, encompassing all of Texas. Provincial Governor Teran De Los Rios, appointed by the Spanish crown, blazed through Texas in 1691, making way for Spanish missionaries and staking claim to the territory. De Los Rios’ route was called “El Camino Real” (The King’s Highway). It later became known as the Old San Antonio Road. The last stop for De Los Rios was the little tribal settlement on Ayish Bayou.

Spanish Missionaries mingled with Native Americans beneath a canopy of massive pine and hardwood trees whose seeds sprouted centuries before. Frenchmen ventured into the area from Natchitoches (pronounced Nak-i-tosh), across the river in Louisiana, often on raids which sent native tribes and Spaniards scrambling into the woods. The Mission Nuestra Senora de los Dolores de los Ais was established in 1717 to validate Spanish claim against French encroachment. Not too many years later Anglo settlers started drifting down the Camino Real, finding their way first to Ayish Bayou and then into the new Promised Land of Texas.

Texian rebels going the other way, followed by Mexican troops, crashed through Ayish Bayou from Nacogdoches during the short-lived Fredonia Rebellion of 1827. By then Ayish Bayou was a settlement with a mixture of Natives, Spanish, and American Colonists. Citizens of the Bayou didn’t support the Fredonia effort but sent troops to serve in the Battle of Nacogdoches, 1832, “sometimes called the opening gun of the Texas Revolution.” (Texas Handbook Online) They had representatives at the conventions of 1832 and 1833 where Texas claimed independence from .

While Texas boiled with rebellion Ayish Bayou changed from being a haphazard settlement to an official Mexican municipality. Ayish Bayou became the municipality of San Augustine in 1833. The city was named for St. Augustine of Hippo. After Texas independence San Augustine officially incorporated June 5, 1837, as county seat of San Augustine County under the government of the Republic of Texas.

When Texas became the 28th state and San Augustine native J. Pinckney Henderson took over as the first governor, San Augustine settled down a bit. For a time San Augustine was a Cotton boom town, a center of commerce, shipping and trade. Slaves tended plantations while white Texans prospered. Then came the Civil War.

San Augustine sent several brigades to fight for the Southern cause. After the war San Augustine suffered along with much of the south during reconstruction. Railroads and sawmills rallied the town for a while until the timber was depleted. San Augustine’s economy took a double blow early in the Twentieth Century: loss of the timber industry and then the depression. Through World War II and afterward San Augustine slowly recovered.

Today San Augustine is a town of twenty-five hundred at the crossroads of Texas 21 (route of the old Spanish road) and U.S. 96 running north to south. It lies deep in the pine forests of East Texas. Most visitors come from Nacogdoches, about twenty miles to the west. The drive from Nacogdoches to San Augustine is one of the most scenic in Texas, shadowed by towering pines and billowing oaks. There’s a monument on 21 at the crest of a hill about five miles east of San Augustine. The stone marker was set in 1918 by the Daughters of the American Revolution and the State of Texas marking the route of the King’s Highway. A modern sign above the monument gives more explanation of what it represents and makes it easier to spot.

On down the road just before San Augustine city limits there’s a picnic area on the south side of the highway. The small, quiet park was built in the early 1930’s by the National Youth Administration. Its beauty and character has been preserved very well. A marker in the park set upon a petrified stone indicates the land was donated by the Blount family in memory of Captain Thomas W. Blount. Captain Blount was a Captain in the Confederate army, a man who claimed title as the first “Texian” to serve the Confederacy. Blount’s father signed the Texas Declaration of Independence and served as Houston’s aide-de-camp. The home of the elder Blount, built in 1839 and still well maintained, can be found on Columbia street in San Augustine.

On 21 east of U.S. 96, where the road splits, the Chamber of Commerce and Civic and TourismCenter sits in a beautiful log building right in the “Y”. The building is open nine to five week days. It is an excellent place to find out about everything San Augustine has to offer, learn where to get a good Chicken Fried Steak, and get some local input on the town’s attractions. Out back of the log building there’s a boardwalk and bridge crossing Ayish Bayou, ending at an old railway caboose donated by the Santa Fe Railroad. Close by are the steel tracks that played an important part in San Augustine history and commerce.

A couple blocks further east lies the town square with the county’s third courthouse, built in 1927 on the same square as the previous two. A bronze statue of J. Pinckney Henderson faces north in front of the courthouse overlooking Henderson Street. To his left, facing the street, stands a Historical Marker describing San Augustine history and the courthouse square. On around the corner is the old, imposing N.L.Tindall Building, jail and sheriff’s office where the famous-or infamous, depending on whom is asked – Sheriff Nathan Tindall ran the county for several decades after World War II.

After a trip around the courthouse square a traveler has to decide which street to head down next. Magnificent historic buildings are in almost every direction. A map and more information about each of them are available from the TourismCenter. Just off the square on Columbia is Stripling Drugs. Inside is the old town well, first dug by slaves in 1860, now opened up and restored. A saloon, a bottling plant, and a bank were located on the site before Stripling bought the building early in the 20th century and operated his drug store there. The county historical foundation bought the building in 2003 and operates a gift shop and visitor’s center inside.

Two blocks east of the square and a block south on Congress is the Cullen House, built in 1839, restored in 1953, now serving as a community house and museum. The house was owned by Ezekiel Cullen, who sat as an Associate Justice on the Texas Supreme Court and served in the Texas Congress.

South on Broadway (State 147) from the square a mile or so, in the curve, visitors will find the Mission Dolores Visitor’s Center. There the story of Ayish Bayou is told alongside artifacts from the old Spanish mission. Not only is there an excellent museum and travel center, there’s also a well maintained RV Park. A beautiful vine-covered awning leads the way from the center parking lot to the museum and travel center building.

San Augustine is called the “Cradle of Texas.” It was the entry point for thousands who came from the , fought for Texas, and became the first citizens of the Republic and later the LoneStarState. Nowadays the streets where Sam Houston, David Crocket, Thomas J. Rusk, and many other prominent Texans once walked are quiet. San Augustine is no longer the gateway city to Texas. El Camino is traveled by farmers in pickups and log trucks rather than Spanish missionaries on carretas or Texian rebels on horseback. J. Pinckney Henderson’s statue looks quietly northward as he sits in front of the courthouse, no doubt pondering the history that has passed by.

San Augustine is an important stop on a historian’s trek through Texas. But there’s more to do around San Augustine than soak up the past. There’s two lakes nearby, LakeRayburn and Toledo Bend, where camping, swimming, fishing and other recreational facilities offer plenty of things for the kids. As mentioned, west of San Augustine is the town of Nacogdoches. An hour’s drive to the East is Natchitoches, Louisiana. The two cities share the same history as San Augustine and offer more opportunities for exploration and adventure. SabineNational Forest and AngelinaNational Forest, lands once stripped of old growth timber now carefully tended by the National Forest service, offer a renewable resource and more opportunities for outdoor recreation near San Augustine.

Anyone who has an RV should set up at the Mission Dolores park where rates are extremely reasonable. Otherwise there’s several motels, inns and a couple of Bed and Breakfast’s including The Columns B & B in a house built in 1902, once home to the Cartwright family whose roots in San Augustine predate the Texas revolution. Several other restaurants in town serve up traditional American food, Mexican food or classic Texas hamburgers.

San Augustine’s namesake, St. Augustine, said, “the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” The stories and experiences written on the page titled San Augustine, Texas are timeless, worthy of reading over and over again.

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