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Texas History

Jane Long’s Christmas

The woman who is called the ‘Mother of Texas’ faced unthinkable challenges, including a brutal winter, nearly alone on Bolivar Point

Christmas of 1821 tested the mettle of Texas pioneer Jane Wilkinson Long. Jane’s husband, James Long, bade her to wait at a small stone fort on Bolivar Point at the entrance to Galveston Bay while he and 52 soldiers set out to help free Texas from Spanish rule. Winter was coming; the nearest neighbors were a hostile Karankawa tribe living across the bay; and Jane was expecting a baby.

Long, the fort’s commanding general, promised to return in three weeks. He left Jane, their 6-year-old daughter, Ann, and Kian, a 12-year-old servant girl, in the care of some 50 soldiers on October 19, 1821. Three weeks came and went; supplies began to run low; and winter arrived with a vengeance. A few at a time, the remaining soldiers abandoned the fort.

To their credit, the soldiers pointed out the perils. Jane, 23, was unmoved, and the last soldiers reluctantly left her behind with a few surplus rifles, some ammunition, an old cannon, a few fishhooks, a single fishing line and a dog. Jane provided for her family by fishing and shooting birds.

Born in Maryland in 1798, Jane Wilkinson lost her father before her first birthday and her mother in 1812. Gen. James Wilkinson, the controversial veteran of the American Revolution, was a distant relative, and he adopted Jane. On his plantation in Mississippi, she grew into a remarkable beauty, independent and adventurous.

When she met James Long, a handsome surgeon who fought in the Battle of New Orleans, Jane abandoned her studies and married him. Long practiced medicine, bought and operated a plantation where daughter Ann was born, and then went into the mercantile business. Yet when he was offered the rank of general to head an expedition to Texas, he donned a uniform again.

Jane followed her husband to Bolivar Point after the birth of her second child, Rebecca, traveling by boat and later by mule. She stayed for a month with her sister in Louisiana, and the baby died there of unknown causes. Heartbroken, she joined Long at the battered stone fort, where they lived without furniture or amenities for nearly a year until duty called him away.

Winter blew in on bitter winds after Long’s departure, and Galveston Bay froze over. Jane moved her family into a makeshift tent inside the walls, but snow collapsed the tent’s roof and dusted the beds with white.

On December 21, 1821, as young Kian lay delirious with fever, Jane delivered her own baby, a third girl she named Mary James. The next day, she went out to collect fish, frozen in the ice, for Christmas dinner. The day after Christmas, seven men from Monterrey brought a message from Long. His letter explained that he was imprisoned in Mexico City but was well.

Across the bay from Bolivar Point, fires gleamed at night on Galveston Island, where the Karankawa had set up camp since the departure of the pirate Jean Lafitte. One morning, Kian ventured outside the fort and began to scream. Approaching the mainland were canoes loaded with painted warriors. With adrenaline-fueled strength, Jane and Kian turned the aged cannon toward the flotilla. Then she and Kian applied tinder to the cannon and fired. She missed the boats, but the tremendous boom had the desired effect. The Karankawa paddled away.

In March 1822, Jane finally agreed to leave Bolivar Point and accepted passage to San Jacinto with James Smith. She would not receive the letter telling of her husband’s death until July, although he had been shot months earlier in Mexico City. His death was an accident, the Mexican government claimed.

In time, Jane opened a boarding house in Brazoria, and legend says she turned down marriage proposals from Sam Houston, Ben Milam and Mirabeau B. Lamar.

Jane is often called the “Mother of Texas” because it was thought that her third daughter was the first Anglo-American child born in Texas. Although researchers have since found earlier births, most feel she earned the title during the lonely vigil of Christmas 1821.

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Martha Deeringer is a frequent contributor who lives in McGregor.