Drive along any major interstate in the U.S. and you see small towns dotting the landscape that are oftentimes passed by as people drive from one city to the next. It’s these small towns that often times hold not only pieces of history but also beautiful places to explore.
San Felipe is one such town. Located about 30 minutes west of Houston along bustling Interstate 10, it sits quietly waiting for travelers to discover it’s history. Covering only 8.5 square miles with nearly 1/2 of a mile of that being the Brazos River, it’s the kind of small Texas town where cattle may very well outnumber people.
The History of San Felipe
San Felipe de Austin, as it was originally named, was originally part of Mexcian Tejas. Stephen F. Austin‘s father received approval in 1821 to settle 300 colonists on the land but died before he could realize his dream. In 1822, Stephen took on the effort and colonized the land, to realize his father’s dream. Nearly immediately after colonizing, Austin was challenged by the newly independent Mexican government. They refused to recognize the land grant his father received because it was made under Spanish charter.
Knowing he had to correct the situation, Austin traveled to Mexico City and because he was skilled at diplomacy, secured a new law confirming his right to colonize the land and designating him as the new colony’s administrative authority.
San Felipe de Austin was the first town to have a post office which still stands as the oldest post office in Texas, as well as one of the earliest newspapers and land offices in Texas.
The Texas conventions of 1832 and 1833 were held in San Felipe de Austin and the town acted as the capital for the provisional government until the convention of 1836. It was in 1836 when the town was intentionally burned to the ground by military order to prevent it from being taken over by the Mexican army after the fall of the Alamo and was eventually rebuilt.
Opened in April 2018, the San Felipe de Austin Museum is part of the Texas Independence Historic Trail and is operated by the Texas State Historical Commission which is a state agency that oversees the preservation of historic Texas landmarks.
Located on the same land where Stephen F. Austin established the headquarters for what would become the town, the San Felipe de Austin Museum tells the history of this important Texas town.
At the entrance of the museum sits a bronze sculpture depicting a typical colonial family on a pilgrimage to the new land. It sets the tone for the story that will be told inside. As I stood and admired the sculpture, I thought about how difficult it must have been to travel with small children and all my valuables to a new land, uncertain of what it would be like or how I would survive.
To start the adventure into the past, there is a short video presentation that sets the tone. Presented from the point of a citizen of the town, the video tells the story of the beginnings of San Felipe de Austin. After watching the video, I felt as if I was part of the town, experiencing what it was like, from the beginning, to travel and establish a home.
I was ready to experience the history of San Felipe de Austin. As I walked through the museum, reading about the humble beginnings of the town, I was taken back to a time when settlers traveled hundreds of miles to stake their claim to the new land and new hope.
Along the walls of the museum, the history of the town is laid out from beginning to end to guide you along on a journey. Filled with artifacts from the past, many donated by descendants of those who once lived on the land, I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like to live there. From chairs with cowhide seats to butter churns, it is a reminder of just how far we’ve come.
Being able to touch the logs of a centuries-old cabin that once stood on the same land is, for someone like me who loves old buildings, a treat. Each log a reminder of just how much work it took to cut down the trees and hand shape them to form a home.
Seeing the nails that were forged from open flame and used to build a desk, or table made me think of how, even today, we depend on the same hardware to live our lives. The old Spanish coins reminded me that although Texas is now part of the United States, it was not always that way and that there was a lot of life lost to secure its independence. While there is a lot of history to see inside the museum, there is also a reminder of how the town used to be outside. Located just outside the west doors of the museum lies a model of exactly how San Felipe de Austin looked before it was lost to time.
The model is set with grids and numbers that correspond to a directory that shows what each building was such as the home of Stephen F. Austin, the general store, etc.
While I was inside the museum, the curator had told me that there was a trail on the grounds with markers for where buildings were. While it was quite warm outside, I couldn’t help but be inquisitive about where some of the buildings stood so off I went to walk through the past.
There, along the trail where hundreds of years ago homes and buildings stood, were markers with the history of each place. Having studied the model, it was easy to envision what stood there and how the town laid out before me.
Walking through the museum and along the trail, I was reminded of just how much more there is to the history of Texas than just the Alamo and what a vital part San Felipe de Austin played in it. The museum is a perfect stop on a road trip through Texas, a school field trip, or even just a great side trip off the busy interstate.
As if I had not had enough Texas history, another part of the historical site is located across the street from the museum.
An impressive statue of Stephen F. Austin welcomed me onto the location which is part of the original San Felipe de Austin colony. There is also the General Store building as well as a wonderful log cabin that is another reminder of what used to be.
The museum is open 7 days a week, excluding some holidays. The entrance fee is quite affordable at $10 for adults and $5 for children 5-14. For a family of 4, it’s only $20 and there are discounts for seniors and active military and their families can see the museum for free.
To read more about the history of San Felipe de Austin, visit the San Felipe de Austin State Historical website.
Thank you to the folks at the San Felipe de Austin museum for hosting me. While I worked in collaboration with them, the opinions expressed are my own.