By John and Betty Oglesbee
Ninety percent of the men who engaged in the strife for Texas Independence
had walked the streets of San Augustine. -Louis Nardini, in No Man's Land
These men, often with their friends and families, entered Texas by way of El Camino Real de los Tejas, designated a National Historic Trail in 2004. The ancient trace had been blazed in 1691 by Domingo Teran de los Rios, newly-appointed governor in the Spanish Province of Texas. Variously identified as the Old Spanish Trail, San Antonio Road, and King's Highway, the time-worn roadbed stretched from the interior of Mexico, crossed the Rio Grande, then meandered in an easterly direction across Texas into Louisiana. Teran was accompanied by Father Damien Massanet, whose idea of establishing seven permanent Catholic missions along the way appealed to Spanish authorities. Their claim to Texas could be defended against French encroachment, and at the same time, the Catholic faith could be introduced to the Caddo Indian tribes of eastern Texas. In accordance with this plan, Mission Nuestra Senora de los Dolores de los Ais was established in 1717 on the Ayish Bayou. The documented site covers a large area near the present-day city of San Augustine.
Near Mission Dolores was the large ranch, Tequitana, part of four leagues granted to Antonio Leal by the King of Spain in 1800. A few years later, Edmund Quirk purchased the Leal grant.
Many immigrants entering Texas from Louisiana in the early 1800s came by way of James Gaines ferry on the Sabine River, traveling west to the Ayish Bayou District and the village soon to be named San Augustine, the first settlement of consequence along El Camino Real. "The Redlands" was often the name used for the area, for its iron-rich crimson soil.
By the early 1820s, Elisha Roberts, Nathan Davis, John Bodine, John and Matthew Cartwright, Philip Sublett, John Chumley, and Alexander Horton, among other immigrants, had settled in the San Augustine area. Alexander Horton described the locale in his memoirs: "When I first came to San Augustine in 1824, I found this to be the most beautiful country I had ever seen. The woods were clear of any undergrowth, covered over with large red oaks, hickory, black jacks, walnuts, and post oaks. The hills and valleys were covered with a rich covering of grass from twelve to twenty-five inches high, and the creeks and bottomlands had a rich growth of cane. It was a most lovely and desirable country…a land suitable for the right kind of man." Horton later remarked that the wild game was so plentiful he could sit on his front porch and shoot turkey, bear, and deer.
Dr. George Louis Crocket (1861-1936) in Two Centuries in East Texas: A History of San Augustine County and Surrounding Territory From 1685 described the founding of San Augustine as follows: "In 1832 at a mass meeting of the people a committee of fifteen men was appointed to select the spot on which the town should be located." Riding on horseback over various locations in the region, they chose the east bank of the Ayish Bayou for the town site, an area encompassing 645 acres in the Edmund Quirk grant. Purchase price was $200. Crocket continued: "It is interesting to note that this spot was thus, for the third time, selected as the most suitable location for a permanent settlement: first by the Ais Indians who placed their village here, next by the Spaniards who located their mission here, and last by this committee of American settlers."
Surveyor Thomas McFarland was selected to survey the town site and sell the lots. It is believed that San Augustine was the first town in Texas laid out on the purely American Plan, i.e., 356 lots on forty-eight city blocks with two lots in the center for a courthouse square, and all streets forty feet wide.