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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

William Gammell and the Battle of San Jacinto, Part I

Administrative map of Mexico (1835-1846)
Author - Semhur, 2008
(Wikimedia Commons, freely licensed GRDL)

The life of William Gammell, intertwined as it was with the history of Texas, is a fascinating story in itself that deserves to be told. William succeeded in carving out a comfortable life for himself completely from scratch on the harsh desert frontier. The story begins about 1831, soon after the death of his father. His brother James moved from New York City to his uncle’s farm near Toronto, where he became involved in the Canadian Rebellion. Just a few years later twenty-two-year-old William headed south to Mexican territory. William possessed no less a pioneering spirit and a longing for adventure than did his younger brother James. Reports of the brewing conflict between the Mexican government and the settlers from the United States must have captured his youthful exuberance and inspired him to enlist in the cause. Soon after his arrival in Texas in 1835, William became actively involved in the bloody conflict that would result in the creation of the Republic of Texas.

Spain had maintained control over Mexico for at least two hundred years, but by 1810 the indigenous population began to rebel and started regional revolts against its Spanish overlords. In 1821, after yet another revolt, Mexico finally declared its independence from Spain. In order to protect its sparsely populated northern territory from foreign aggression and hostile Indians, the newly formed government of Mexico began enticing settlers from the United States and Europe. New settlers were granted as much as 5,000 acres of land, and were exempted from taxes. This Federalist system granted “a liberal degree of autonomy to regional government. All that new settlers had to do was promise to become citizens, obey the laws, and worship as a Catholic.”(1)

New settlers came in droves and soon outnumbered the Mexican-born citizens.  By 1831 there were 20,000 colonists from the United States residing in the Texas portion of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas.  They brought with them not only new energy and a new culture, but also their new political ideas, which would soon be met with strong resistance.  The animosity began with the Siete Leyes (Seven Laws) of 1835, enacted by Mexican President and General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna in order to strengthen and centralize the federal government of the young Republic of Mexico, whose very independence was being threatened.  Santa Anna abolished the right of Texans to govern themselves and to choose their own representatives.  The new laws were unpopular throughout Mexico, even among many Texas residents of Mexican ancestry.  The federal government began to forbid land titles to settlers from the United States, and to impose taxes and other hindrances to their prosperity.  United States citizens were not willing to give up their freedoms.  On the other hand,  Mexico was concerned that the United States would claim Mexican territory.(2)

Animosity turned to protest, then to revolt. The Battle of Gonzales (Oct 2, 1835) marked the first official skirmish of the Texas Revolution. On March 2, 1836, Texans signed a Declaration of Independence, and “a new nation was born in North America.” A temporary government was formed, and Sam Houston was named Commander-in-Chief of the Texas army.(3)

The Siege of the Alamo, the most famous battle in Texas history, had already begun by the end of February.  Texan forces had captured the city of San Antonio, and secured the Alamo,(4)  the town’s strongest fortification. Santa Anna’s forces marched on San Antonio and lay siege to the Alamo for twelve days before a final assault on March 6, 1836, when 1,800 Mexican troops stormed the walls. All 225 Texan fighters were killed or executed, and 600 Mexican soldiers died. “Remember the Alamo!” became the battle cry of William Gammell and his fellow soldiers at the Battle of San Jacinto.

In March 1836, things were not going well for Sam Houston and his Texas fighters. Having declared independence from the Mexican government, they were now running from Santa Anna’s army. Fearful citizens were abandoning their homes and running for their lives.

Houston’s men, in their eastward retreat from the Mexican army, could have escaped to refuge in Louisiana.  Instead, they turned southeast and marched to the edge of the coast, crossing Buffalo Bayou just outside of Harrisburg (now Houston), within a few miles of Santa Anna’s army. Santa Anna had marched 700 men to Harrisburg on his way to the coast, burning the town as he went. Confident that he had cornered General Houston’s army, Santa Anna decided to wait to attack on April 22.  He established a position close to where the San Jacinto River joins the Buffalo Bayou. Meanwhile, Houston’s army set up camp across a grassy field 1,000 yards away.(5)

San Jacinto Battle Map
(Wikimedia Commons - free art license)

Continued in the next post:  "William Gammell and the Battle of San Jacinto, Part II."
  1. See “Before the Battle”.
  2. See “Mexican Texas”, “Republic of Texas”, and “Texas Revolution” at
  3. See Timeline of Events, Texas Revolution.
  4. The Alamo, originally known as Mission San Antonio de Valero, is a former Roman Catholic mission and fortress compound, and now a museum, in San Antonio, Texas.

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