Tuesday, December 8, 2015


"Lone Star Historian 2" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas during his second year. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College (www.panola.edu) in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published over 40 books, almost half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine. In 2013 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by his alma mater, Texas A&M University - Commerce. 

St. John's Lutheran Church, outside town 
During October, while traveling south to participate in an event in Hallettsville, I turned off the highway for a short drive through the countryside to Independence. It had been several years since I had visited this historic community, and I knew that much has been done to preserve the rich heritage of Independence. John P. Coles, one of Stephen F. Austin’s “Old 300” colonists, was the area’s first settler, and as the village grew it was called Coles’ settlement. But after Texas independence from Mexico was won in 1836, the community became known as Independence. Baylor University was born in Independence in 1845, developing separate campuses for young men and women. The president of Baylor customarily served as pastor of Independence Baptist Church, organized in 1839. In 1854 President/Reverend Rufus Burleson baptized Sam Houston before a large crowd at Rock Creek outside of town. Houston and his family resided in Independence for a time during the 1850s, and following his death in 1863 in Huntsville, Margaret Houston moved back to be near her mother, who lived across the street from the Baptist Church and who was a mainstay of the community.
Entrance to Texas Baptist Historical Museum

Brenham, to the south, won the seat of Washington County by a two-vote margin over Independence. With no major transportation route, Independence remained a small rural community – therfore many of its early buildings were not torn down in order to be replaced by non-existent new construction. Baylor University moved to Waco in 1885, with a women’s college at Mary Hardin Baylor in Belton. Independence long has offered a well-preserved collection of early Texas buildings.
Gravestone of Margaret Houston

I stopped first at the Texas Baptist Historical Center, attached to the stone sanctuary that was erected in 1872. Inside I was greeted by Rev. Phil Hassell, pastor of the Baptist Church and director of the Texas Baptist Historical Center. This museum offers a superb survey of the history of Baptists in Texas. There are artifacts from the home of Sam and Margaret Houston, as well as a large depiction of the baptism of Houston by Reverend Burleson. On display is a shiny church bell provided by Margaret’s mother, Nancy Lea, who sold her fine silverware for $500 so that her church could have a proper bell. Nancy’s home was across the road from the church, and when she died in 1864 she was buried beside her house facing her church.
Gravestone of Margaret's mother, Nancy Lea

Historic 1872 Baptist Church
Margaret’s house was nearby, and in 1867 she died at 48 during a yellow fever epidemic. Because of public health restrictions, Margaret was interred immediately, beside her mother. Other family members also were buried in this small private cemetery. Nancy Lea left her property to the church, and today a modern Baptist church stands on the site of her final home.

In recent years both the women’s campus, with ruins of a few buildings (Old Baylor Park) and the men’s campus (Baylor Park on Windmill Hill) have been improved with informative interpretive exhibits. Just past the men’s campus park, Sam Houston Road leads two miles to the site of Houston’s baptism. (After Reverend Burleson announced from the creek that Houston’s sins were washed away, Sam famously stated, “Well, God help the fishes!”)
Historical markers in the town square with old frame
school in the background

The two-story antebellum house where Margaret Houston lived with her children during the last four years of her life still stands on Main Street. Just down the street is the picturesque Independence General Store. There is an old frame school and numerous other historical buildings. The 1872 stone Baptist Church is still used for weddings and other special occasions. Indeed, it is one of six venerable churches in and around Independence that are beautifully lit and provide striking evening tours. The two Baylor parks also are lit, at Christmas a growing number of other buildings light up during the season, and Independence has become a popular site for Christmas bus tours. At Christmas or any other season, Independence is well worth a visit by Texas history buffs.

For more information: http://www.independencetx.com/IndependenceBaptistChurch.htm
Margaret Houston's final home

Rev. Phil Hassell

Church bell, courtesy of Nancy Lea

Facade remains of Baylor's
Women's Building

Sam Houston was baptized in the creek
behind this marker.

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