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History of Victoria, Texas

Prehistory and the Karankawa Tribes

Few accounts are available detailing the lives of the Karankawa people in the Victoria Region. They were a nomadic people who subsisted on seafood during the cooler seasons and buffalo and deer inland in areas like Victoria during the hot season. When hunting the bigger animals they would use spears, longbows and atlatl – a uniquely-flung spear.

Sadly, by the late 1850’s it’s suspected that the last members of the Karankawa tribes were exterminated by settlers. All that remains of this entire culture are a few accounts, some artifacts and less than one hundred words of the Auia language.

La Salle and the French Exploration

The first Europeans to settle in Victoria County were actually French explorers, led by the famed Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. Arriving in 1685, La Salle and his colonists established a settlement on the west bank of the Rivière aux Boeufs (the “River of Oxen” was so named because of the herds of buffalo they found nearby, but is now known as Garcitas Creek). La Salle never gave a name to this settlement; it is known today as Fort Saint Louis.

Within a few short years the colony’s population of 180 was decimated and fewer than forty-five colonists remained alive. Lack of fresh water and food was a real problem; the colonists were struggling to adapt to the area (several colonists even died from eating unprepared prickly pear). Various diseases and poor relations with the indigenous Karankawa people led to further deaths. La Salle for his part met his end in 1687 when leading an expedition of seventeen men to request help in New France (now Illinois). Several of the men, hungry and quarreling over the remaining buffalo meat mutinied killing La Salle.

By 1688 the Spanish government had heard rumors of Fort Saint Louis’ existence and were feverishly scouting for the French colony. The Spanish feared that a French foothold in the area would lead to further expansion and attacks on their silver mines. Spanish explorer Alonzo de Leon discovered the remains of the colony in mid-1689 several months after the Karankawa sacked the settlement and killed or carried-off the remaining few settlers. Ironically the Spanish, who were so intent on eliminating the French threat, ended up being the saviors for the few remaining children and men when they captured them from the Karankawa.

Of the 180 settlers only fifteen or so survived the colonial experience. Following the failure of Fort Saint Louis the Victoria area remained largely free from European influence for several decades.

Colonial Spanish Rule

La Salle’s French intrusion into Spanish territory caused Spain to reinforce its presence near the Louisiana border with a series of missions and presidios (fortress).

In 1721, the Spanish began construction of the first Presidio La Bahia directly atop the burned remains of Fort St. Louis. The following year Roman Catholic missionaries constructed Mission Espiritu Santo on the east side of Garcitas Creek in present day Jackson County. Within two years, the presidio and the mission were moved to Tonkawa Bank on the Guadalupe River. In 1726 they moved another 8 miles up the river. In 1749, both were relocated to Goliad County; this Presidio La Bahia is considered one of the most fought over pieces of land in Texas history.

The road from San Antonio de Bexar to the Guadalupe River site was an important portion of the camino real. The road continued on to Nacogdoches in East Texas. Historically it is known as the Bexar-La Bahia-Nacogdoches Road. After the mission and presidio moved to the San Antonio River at Goliad, the camino real continued to convey traffic across Mission Valley in Victoria County. The former site of the presidio became known and was shown on maps of the day as Presidio Viejo.

De Leon's Colony in the First Mexican Republic

By 1821 it was clear that Mexico had achieved independence from Spain (though the Spanish crown would not recognize Mexico until 1835 after several attempts to retake it). Enter Martin de Leon who, with his powerful connections within the Mexican aristocracy, secured approval from the First Mexican Republic to found a colony in the Coahuila y Tejas state in 1824. By 1825 Villa Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe de Jesus Victoria (known as Guadalupe Victoria) was founded with forty families.

As empresario, de Leon laid out the town in accordance with Mexican colonization law, reserving areas for a church, trade, public buildings, and a school. Main Street was then known as La Calle de los Diez Amigosâ or The Street of Ten Friends, so named in honor of those influential individuals who were responsible for the initial success of the colony.

The Texas Revolution

By 1836 the Texas Revolution was in full swing. Victoria was firmly in control of the Texans. Just south of Victoria, a large force of around 400 Texans led by Colonel James Fannin garrisoned the Presido La Bahia. Fannin was a prodigious fundraiser and recruiter for the Texans but his effectiveness as a battle commander was questionable.

Fannin’s first major sortie was an attempted relief mission to save the embattled garrison at the Alamo Mission ninety miles away. His men were ill-equipped and logistics issues forced them to camp for the night within sight of the Presidio they just left. Fannin and his men never made it to save the Alamo.

About a week later Colonel Fannin received orders to abandon Presidio La Bahia and move his troops to Victoria. Fannin conservatively followed the order, slowly preparing to leave and waiting for his outlying forces. This proved to be a significant mistake; the Mexican forces, including fast moving cavalry were very much approaching the Victoria area.

Four days after receiving the order to pull back to Victoria, Fannin and his men had left the Presidio and were en route. However, within hours they were surrounded by Mexican cavalry later backed up with infantry and artillery. The battle was fierce, but Fannin’s delay had placed them in a poor location for a siege with no water and no high-ground.

The next day the Texans surrendered. One week later the prisoners from this battle who had been interred at the now-Mexican-controlled Presidio were marched out and executed. Among the prisoners Colonel James Fannin was the last to be executed. Not only was he forced to watch his men die, but his final requests for his possessions to be sent to his family, to be shot in the heart and for a Christian burial were all disrespectfully ignored. Of the hundreds of Texan prisoners, less than thirty survived the massacre.

An Evolving City

Victoria was among the original twenty-three counties established by the Republic of Texas on March 17, 1836. The City of Victoria was chartered in 1839. Despite the typical problems of Texas settlements during this era, Victoria prospered. Its newspaper, the Victoria Advocate (formerly the Texian Advocate), founded in 1846, is the second oldest newspaper in the state.

In the aftermath of Texas independence from Mexico and subsequent statehood, Victoria became a primarily Anglo settlement. The town grew steadily during the mid 1800s, acquiring a large immigrant population moving inland from the port city of Indianola. The majority during this influx were Germans, many of whom brought valuable knowledge and skills in various trades. Through the years a diverse population came to call Victoria home, with many being English, Polish, Czech, French (Alsatian), Mexican, and Irish in origin – just to name a few.

Its advantageous location has allowed the city to benefit from being the regional hub for many industries. Ranching and agriculture, the earliest industries, are still viable today. Banking, merchant and retail services, medicine, legal services, and transportation spurred the city’s growth over the decades. The 1930s saw the oil and gas industry emerge as vital forces in Victoria’s economy. During the mid-1900s Victoria was home to two military installations – Foster Field and Aloe Field.

The Victoria County Courthouse was constructed in 1892 and occupies the block to the west of De Leon Plaza. It was designed by noted architect J. Riely Gordon, who is responsible for 18 Texas Courthouses. It was spectacularly restored over a period of seven years, culminating in its rededication on March 24, 2001. The 1892 Victoria County Courthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Registered Texas Historic Landmark.

The Victoria of today is a modern city, but one which has not lost its small town atmosphere.

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