By Emily Hyatt
While the long years since the Texas Revolution have largely hidden the legacies of the early Native American, Spanish, and Mexican residents of Angelina County, one indisputable remnant of that legacy remains: Angelina, the name of the county. This county, so dependent on the pine trees nurtured by the two rivers that mark its northern and southern borders, is the only county in Texas named for a woman. Without knowing it, Angelina County's residents preserve the memory of a Hasinai woman when all other remnants of their civilization have faded into the forests.
Though the woman herself will remain one of local history's intriguing mysteries, it seems certain from several sources that Spanish explorers encountered a Native American woman named Angelina. A member of the local Hasinai tribe of Caddos, she assisted them as a translator and guide in this area. The extant sources disagree if she was native to the local area or a transplant from a south Texas tribe that had traveled north due to marriage or was compelled to travel with the explorers. She learned Spanish, either from the Franciscan Father Massanet at Mission San Francisco de los Tejas or as a child at a Spanish mission near the Rio Grande, and translated for the priests and government officials. As translator, she served as an intermediary between the priests and other Spanish officials and the local Caddos.
The early Spanish missions were largely unsuccessful in the pineywoods of East Texas, either as a means to convert and "civilize" the native population or as a way to establish a strong Spanish presence so close to the border of the French, and later American, frontier. The local Caddo villages didn't convert easily or thoroughly and blamed the missionaries for disease and famine. If Angelina was to ease tensions between the two groups, she had a difficult job. Mission Tejas, founded in 1690, was abandoned by 1693. Some sources claim Angelina accompanied the Spaniards back to the missions along the Rio Grande while some claim she stayed in her village and kept Christianity alive there. Spanish sources mention her in a Deep East Texas village until the 1720's, so her ultimate fate is not clear.
Most historians agree that the popular vision of a beautiful young Native American woman appearing to the priests and explorers with a miraculous knowledge of Christianity and Spanish, leading them in friendship to her village and insisting her people keep their Christian faith even after the closure of the mission and effective retreat of the Spanish is just a myth. It does seem certain, however, that a local Hasinai woman assisted with translation and was a figure of some importance both in her tribe and to the Spanish in the area. Whatever her true identity, she left an impression strong enough that both the river that was her home and the county it borders received her name - something no other woman in Texas history can claim.