I’ve never been a strong student of history. But a part of me longs to connect to the Texian patriots who, nearly two centuries ago, spent their last days within the grassy quadrangle of the Presidio La Bahía near Goliad. Perhaps I will after my husband and I stay overnight at the Spanish frontier fort, built in 1749 and restored in 1963. Locked behind heavy cypress doors and massive stone walls, we’ll sleep in the Quarters, a two-bedroom suite inhabited long ago by priests.
Before we unload our gear, we drive to a place about 10 miles away where this dark chapter of early Texas history began—the Fannin Battleground State Historic Site, reopened in June 2012 after a year of restoration. At the 14-acre site, a stone obelisk honors Col. James Fannin and his 300 or so men, who—after news spread of the Alamo’s fall—were ordered to destroy the presidio and retreat to Victoria. After two days of battling Mexican soldiers at Coleto Creek, Fannin, trusting that his men would be treated fairly as prisoners of war, surrendered March 20, 1836.
Able-bodied Texians were marched back to the presidio, while the wounded, including Fannin, stayed behind on the prairie for several days. At the fort, the men were crowded into the Our Lady of Loreto Chapel, where Catholic faithful have worshipped continually since the 1700s. Since we’ve come on a Sunday, we decide to attend the 5 p.m. Mass. Seated in a wooden pew beneath the lovely vaulted ceiling, I try to conjure the hopeless despair those Texians must have endured within these whitewashed walls—the heart-pounding terror they felt when Mexican soldiers on Palm Sunday led them away from the presidio, then suddenly turned and massacred them with guns and blades.
But I just can’t connect, even though we’ve stepped through the fort’s exhibits and peered inside glass cases filled with rusted bayonets, pottery shards and iron spurs. We also walked a short distance away to see the Fannin Memorial Monument, a gigantic pink granite gravestone erected in 1938 over the buried remains of the slaughtered Texians. (In 1894, as a makeshift memorial, local landowners erected a gigantic cotton gin screw, which still stands in the park.)
Beneath a starry summer sky, we sit alone in our lawn chairs, eerily encircled by the presidio’s silhouetted perimeter. Silently, I ponder the past. What was it like to have lived in those days? What did those doomed men feel within those walls?
Earlier that evening in the Quarters, we shared a simple supper of crackers and cheese at the wooden dining table instead of cooking in the small kitchen or dining out in Goliad. Evening sunrays streamed through the living room’s iron-barred windows, set deep within the thick rock walls. Wistfully, we eyed a corner fireplace, blackened with use that hinted of cozy winter nights.
No matter that our accommodations lack a television or Wi-Fi. Instead, we thumb through the leather guestbook and read accounts penned by honeymooners who’d married in the chapel, grandparents who brought little ones to learn about history, and longtime friends who’d convened at the Quarters for catch-up time. Before lights out, we relish frosty pints of ice cream as we sit propped up in bed in the master bedroom. Then we dream through the night, tucked beneath a striped purple serape draped across our sheets.
The next morning, we pack up and stop briefly at nearby Goliad State Park, where we stroll through the reconstructed Mission Espíritu Santo, a Spanish colonial church built in 1749 and the site of the first sizable cattle ranch in Texas.
En route home, while my husband drives, I stare out the car window and finally accept that I just can’t do it. I can’t connect with those long-gone Texians because far too many decades separate us. But I can do this: offer up a heartfelt “thank you” and never, ever forget the sacrifices made then for the life I enjoy now.
Sheryl Smith-Rodgers, frequent contributor