The long vanished wooden structure that settlers called a fort was nothing more than a two-room cabin that was built as a storage shed. It was never designed to be a fort and would have been very inadequate to the task had it been needed for that purpose. Fortunately, it never was.
The structure did serve a purpose – primarily to store construction materials and provisions while some of Stephen F. Austin’s original colonists built their settlement near present-day Richmond. Other than that, it was a deteriorating marker on the path of progress as Texas won its independence from Mexico and eventually became part of the United States.
No one seems to know exactly where it stood or when its last remnants were swept away in the Brazos River but there is a historical marker near the spot where it is believed to have been. Just south of the marker on the west bank of the river near where Front and Fort streets are in Richmond sits a collection of rusted old mobile homes, thick brush and a landscape littered with junk. It’s hardly a fitting sight for the historic location of the humble building that was important enough to name a county after, but that’s where it supposedly was.
If there is one thing I have learned while studying Texas history is that many of the people and things that made this state great were true underdogs. Some of the heroes of old such as Sam Houston, Jim Bowie, and William Travis were has-beens running from their past and trying to forge a future in a new land. The ragtag band of rebels that called themselves an army defeated one of the biggest and best-trained armies of its time. And a hastily constructed wood cabin became a fort for which this county was named.
As I have visited historic sites in Texas the past few years I have been both impressed and bemused by the degree of historic preservation in this state. The state’s most iconic and revered historical treasure – the Alamo – is in a sad state. I’m not talking about the church most of us know as the Alamo, but the rest of the compound that is long gone and paved over.
Many of us cheered when George P. Bush campaigned for Land Commissioner on a promise to save the Alamo and restore the hallowed grounds. Today, many of us vilify him for his plan to “re-imagine” the Alamo, not by rebuilding its stone walls, but outlining the compound with glass panels.
If you ask me, the Alamo should be rebuilt like Presidio La Bahia in Goliad. Part of “Fort Defiance” is original, but much of it is reconstructed to look like it did when Col. James Fannin and his troops were slaughtered there in the Goliad Massacre. It’s a prime example of historic restoration and preservation at its finest.
Closer to home, San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site will open a new museum on April 27. The site has also been the focus of archaeological digs to find remnants of original structures that were burned down by fleeing colonists during the Runaway Scrape. It’s been a slow process, but I applaud the work that is being done there to bring that part of history back to life.
Here in Fort Bend County, historical preservation has been a hodgepodge of successes and failures. One of the things that jumped out at me was the lack of information about the “fort” that the county was named after. As I began my research for the story on the front page of this week’s paper, I found it very difficult to find any information about it. I can’t thank
Chris Godbold, chief curator of collections for the Fort Bend History Association, and Paul N. Spellman, author of the book “Old 300 Gone to Texas,” enough for their help with the story. Even with their help, information was scarce.
Godbold told me that at one time there was a replica of Fort Bend, but it, like the original, is long gone and forgotten. Likewise, so is Thompson’s Ferry, the raft and landing used by Santa Anna and his army to cross the Brazos. I spent part of Thursday in Richmond looking at historical markers and buildings and coming away feeling like there is a lot of lost opportunity there. The area is rich in history but does a poor job of preserving and promoting it. I don’t mean this as a slight against the Fort Bend History Association or any historical preservation organizations – as nonprofit volunteer groups they are limited in what they can do. Mine is just the observation of a Johnny-come-lately who has seen the success of other historic sites across the country.
For whatever it’s worth, I see a great opportunity here to capitalize on historic tourism. The whole region inside the big bend in the Brazos on the north end of Richmond has recently been designated as an Opportunity Zone. That means the government is providing tax incentives for economic investment in the very area I’ve been talking about here. Before the bulldozers come and plow under more history for the sake of progress, why don’t we take advantage of this and restore some of our history?
Wouldn’t it be great to buy up the dilapidated properties where the fort once stood, create a historic park and make a new replica of the fort there? You wouldn’t need millions of dollars to do it. Another idea would be to make a “Santa Anna trail” that follows the route the Mexican dictator and his army took through this area, culminating at another historic park at the area where Thompson’s Ferry once was. These would be relatively small investments with big local impact. If there is one thing the Richmond/Rosenberg area is sorely lacking is good hiking and biking trails. This would help meet an outdoor/fitness need as well as a historical one.
Who knows, maybe this is just a pipe dream, or maybe not. I can only hope this will plant a seed that will germinate and blossom into something wonderful for our area. A very unique chapter of Texas, American, and Mexican history happened here. I just seems logical to me that we would capitalize on that so that future generations and visit and appreciate their past.