SFA Story: The History of Stephen F. Austin State University

The SFA Story

A Brief History of Nacogdoches


Nacogdoches is the "Oldest Town in Texas." Yet, what really distinguishes a town is not age. It is the importance of the people who lived there, the history that was made there, and the continuation of vitality there. Nacogdoches is a distinguished town. In the words of Karle Wilson Baker, local poetess and an important Texas Woman of Letters:

Nacogdoches has a soul, a spirit, an atmosphere. She is no raw product of today or yesterday. There are ghosts on her streets ....Gentle Franciscan fathers and curious, credulous redmen; lordly Mexican alcaldes and courtly French adventurers.... stubborn, spirited, courageous American Empressarios; ...men like Rusk, ...Crockett, ...Houston ...Travis. (On Being True to the Ghosts)

Of the things most travelers associate with Texas -- oil, cattle, wheeler-dealers, independent nation status -- they all started in Nacogdoches. No one can write a history of Texas without Nacogdoches. Today, Nacogdoches is truly one of the best kept tourist secrets in the state.

Pre-historic Nacogdoches

Paleolithic settlement of Nacogdoches began about 10,000 B. C. with early ceramic evidence starting about 2,000 B.C. The area of the downtown, between the LaNana and the Banita Creeks, became a Caddoan site somewhere around 700 B.C. Around 1250 to 1450 A.D., a distinct development associated with Caddoan architectural traditions produced a large nuclear village with attendant structural mounds and mortuary mounds supported by maize agriculture and far flung trade in exotic goods. A civic ceremonial center developed in the plaza area now known as Washington Square in a triangle between three large mounds. This was the Indian center the Spanish discovered. The Nacogdoches Indians were friendly and their word for friend was "tejas." Legend has it that the Indian town was founded when a Caddo chief on the Sabine River sent one of his twin sons three days to the west and the other three days to the east. The settlements they established were Nacogdoches and Natchitoches, Spanish and French spellings of the same Indian tribe.

Colonial Nacogdoches

While Cabeza de Vaca explored the interior of Texas in 1528, maps do not show the Spanish in Nacogdoches before 1542 when DeSoto arrived. The first descriptions of the town date from the Frenchman LaSalle's stay in 1685. DeLeon, in 1690, made the first attempt at colonization and education, but Nacogdoches was little more than a pawn in the French and Spanish imperial rivalries at this time. When the French explorer St. Denis mapped out El Camino Real across the state from the Rio Grande to Nacogdoches in 1713 and 1716, the Spanish decided to establish permanent settlements in the area with a series of missions. Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe de los Nacogdoches was one of these, as was Mission Conception later relocated when San Antonio was established. In 1779, Don Antonio Gil Y'Barbo built the Old Stone House, laid out the modern streets, and wrote the first law code. Nacogdoches remained an important Spanish and Mexican colonial outpost, the capital of East Texas, until the Texas Revolution. A total of 26 Texas counties have been carved out of the Nacogdoches province, from Sabine to Dallas.

Republican Nacogdoches

THE BATTLE OF NACOGDOCHES. Nacogdoches was the cradle of Texas liberty. In 1832, the citizens of Nacogdoches fired one of the opening guns of the Texas Revolution. The citizens, both Mexican and Anglos, attacked the Mexican garrison under the command of Col. Jose Piedras. The latter held the fortified town center. The garrison was able to defend themselves until Adolphus Sterne showed the newly arrived Redlanders from San Augustine how to out-flank the Mexicans by circling the natural fortress by going through the Washington Square area. The Battle cleared East Texas of Mexican troops and made the independence movement much less dangerous.

THE BIVOUAC AND BANQUET FOR THE NEW ORLEANS GREYS. In November of 1835, the citizens of Nacogdoches, led by Adolphus Sterne, helped outfit a volunteer force, the New Orleans Greys, to fight in the Texas War for Independence. One company of Greys, traveled overland to San Antonio by way of Nacogdoches in November of 1835. The 50-100 men camped for a few days at this site near Sterne's home. They were honored with a "Feast of Liberty" in the orchard in front of the house. At the banquet, bear, beef, mutton, turkeys, raccoon, and other specialties were served. With glasses of Rhine wine from Sterne's cellar, toasts were make and speeches delivered.The Greys had walked into Nacogdoches; they left on horses with arms provided by the citizens. They reached San Antonio before the seige of Bexar, December 5-9, 1835. Most of the volunteers died in later battles of the Revolution, many at the Alamo.

The city saw three independent republics before the Lone Star Republic. The city flies Nine Flags: Spanish, French, Mexican, The Magee-Gutierrez Republic, The Long Republic, The Fredonia Republic, The Lone Star, The Confederate, and The United States.

Modern Nacogdoches

The first producing oil well in the state was drilled here in 1861. However, it was not oil but the coming of the railroad that transformed the republican city into an important commercial center. The railroad, and modern highways like 59 and 259, changed the flow of commerce from east/west to north/south. In the 19th century, the local economy was based on cotton, tobacco, timber, education, and general merchandising. Only the last three came into the second half of the 20th century. New industries include poultry, feeds and fertilizers, tools, equipment, banking, recreation, and medical services. The most important asset to the local economy is Stephen F. Austin State University, with 12,000 students and an annual budget of over 24 million dollars. The rapid growth of the city took place in the 1960s with the enlargement of the University.