The Archive War

Georgian by birth in 1798, Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar developed into a well-educated young man, an excellent horseman, an expert in firearms, a credible poet and artist, and the editor of a local newspaper.  Lamar served the governor of Georgia as a secretary and member of his personal household staff.  After marrying in 1826 he moved his wife to Columbus to nurse his wife, who was suffering from consumption.  While in Columbus, Lamar founded the Columbus Enquirer.  When his wife passed away in August 1830, he withdrew from public life until 1834, when he ran an unsuccessful bid for Congress.  It was in this year that his brother Lucius committed suicide.  It was a disheartened man who finally sold his interests in the Enquirer and accompanied his friend James W. Fannin to Texas.  He decided to settle in Texas in 1835.


Mirabeau B. Lamar from the Public Domain

At the outbreak of hostilities with Mexico, Lamar enlisted as a private in the Texian militia.  On the eve of the Battle of San Jacinto, Lamar led a force of Texans in the rescue of a detachment of men who had been surrounded by a superior number of Mexican soldiers.  His courageous act drew a salute from the Mexican lines.  One of the men he rescued was Thomas Jefferson Rusk, who would later serve as Texas’ Secretary of War.  Lamar was promoted that day from private to Colonel and placed in charge of cavalry in preparation for battle on the next day.  General Sam Houston wrote a glowing report of Lamar’s courage under fire. Even so, Houston and Lamar were political opposites, a gulf that grew wider with each passing year.

Sam Houston [1] became Texas’ first president, his term of office being two years (three years for subsequent executives).  In 1837, Houston established the capital of Texas in the town named in his honor.  Lamar was elected as Houston’s vice president.  After hunting buffalo in Central Texas in 1837-38, then Vice President Lamar proposed that a new Capital of Texas be established in this region, situated along the bank of the Colorado River, and that it be named in honor of Stephen F. Austin.

Following the Houston presidency, Lamar became the unanimous choice of the predominant Democratic Party. He was inaugurated on 1 December 1838. In stepping down, Houston delivered a three hour “farewell address” that so flummoxed Lamar that he was unable to read his inauguration speech.  It was, instead, delivered by an aide.

Lamar differed considerably from Houston in matters of the treatment of Indians. Houston had lived with the Cherokee for ten years and had developed an affinity for the plight of native Americans. Lamar focused almost exclusively on Indian depredations.  In his first formal address to the Texas Congress, Lamar urged approval for removing all Cherokee and Comanche from their lands in Texas —even if they had to be destroyed in the process.  He also opposed Texas annexation to the United States … two areas in which Sam Houston stood totally opposed.  There were other areas of disagreement, of course —one of these being the location of the capital city of the Republic of Texas.

Acting on Lamar’s proposal in 1839, the Congress of Texas seated a commission to study it and hired Edwin Waller to survey the village of Waterloo as a potential site for the new city. Waller and others concluded that the site was suitable for a capital because was a convenient crossroad for trade and transportation between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Galveston Bay, and the track from Northern Mexico to the Red River.  Waterloo was renamed Austin.

What next occurred was the Texas Archive War.

The fact was that in the early days of Texas Independence, the seat of government was wherever the president was standing at any given moment; the capital of Texas was located at five separate locations between 1836 and 1841 [2].  In those days, it was common to remove the seat of government (and all records) whenever it was believed they were in jeopardy of seizure or destruction.  After all, Austin was situated on the edge of the frontier and near several hostile Indian tribes.  During its early formation, Austin was without easy access to commerce or supply.

Under the Lamar administration (1838-1841), all official records of Texas were relocated from Houston to Austin, the transfer occurring between 26 August and 14 October 1839.  The undertaking required fifty wagons. President Lamar and his cabinet arrived on 17 October.  Over the next several years, Comanche Indians staged several raids [3].  Sam Houston (and his supporters) complained that Austin’s frontier location was too susceptible to attack by hostile Indians and, potentially, Mexico’s army.  Lamar (and his followers) remained undaunted, however, and the capital remained in Austin.  That is, until Sam Houston became president again in 1841.


Sam Houston from the Public Domain

Sam Houston wanted the capital of the Republic permanently situated in Houston.  Congress continued to rebuff his proposals.  After the Congress adjourned in February 1842, Mexico staged two invasions of Texas, both of which went as far as San Antonio.  In the first, in early March, Mexican troops under General Rafael Vásquezassaulted Texas, conducting sorties and an occupying force at Goliad, Refugio, and Victoria. By 5 March, over 1,000 Mexican soldiers were camped inside San Antonio even having the audacity to establish their headquarters in the Alamo.  General Vásquez withdrew his forces after a few days, although Sam Houston may not have known this at the time and betook himself back to the city named in his honor. On March 10, citing the Constitution of Texas as his authority for doing so, Houston ordered the Secretary of War to seize and remove all government archives to Houston. There was one caveat, however: there was to be no bloodshed.

Meanwhile, a committee of vigilance in Austin declared martial law and ordered residents to evacuate the city.  A small number of people ignored the order and remained. Colonel Henry Jones, acting as military commander of Austin, convened a meeting with the remaining citizens to consider Houston’s order.  The majority of the republic believed that Austin was safe; it was only Houston’s somewhat rapid withdrawal that created a sense of anxiety among local residents —and, which, they argued, had significantly devalued Austin real estate.  On 16 March, the committee in Austin resolved that any removal of government records was illegal and would not be permitted.

The vigilance committee organized mounted patrols with orders to search every wagon and seize any discovered government record. Houston’s private secretary suggested to him that the residents of Austin would rather use their rifles to protect the archives than use them against Mexican invaders.  Houston called a special session of Congress, which convened on June 27, 1842.  Congress took no action to move the capital of Texas.

In September 1842, General Adrian Woll led another Mexican expedition into Texas.  With the help of disaffected native Americans, San Antonio once more fell to a superior force of the Mexican Army.  Once again, a Mexican general established his headquarters at the Alamo. Houston convened the Seventh Texas Congress at Washington-on-the-Brazos and in his introductory remarks, Houston demanded that Congress support the removal of archives, over the protests of the “seditious” citizens of Austin.  And, he argued, as to the propriety and necessity of such actions, no reasonable doubt could exist.  On December 9, 1842, Senator Greer [4] (in the Houston camp) proposed a law providing for the safety of the national archive and a vote to suspend the rules of order to allow rapid passage of the bill resulted in a tie.  Senator Burleson [5] (supporting Lamar), who did not particularly care for Houston, cast the deciding vote against the bill.

Senator Greer remained undeterred; the next day he introduced another bill proposing to move the land office.  He left blank the name of the city to which he thought the office should be moved, and this resulted in weeks of debate.  That very day, however, seeking fait accompli [6], Houston privately tasked Colonel Thomas I. Smith and Captain Eli Chandler with moving the nation’s archive to Washington-on-the-Brazos.  Houston wrote:

“The importance of removing the public archives and government stores from their present dangerous situation at the City of Austin to a place of security, is becoming daily more and more imperative.  While they remain where they are, no one knows the hour when they may be utterly destroyed.”

coveredwagonSmith and Chandler were encouraged to raise a small troop, ostensibly to conduct an excursion against Native tribes, and then quickly secure the archives and transport them.  Smith assembled twenty men and three wagons, driving into Austin on the morning of December 30, 1842.  Smith’s troop had nearly finished loading the wagons with papers when Angelina Eberly, the owner of a nearby boarding house, noticed them [7].  Eberly ran to a 6-pound howitzer on Congress Avenue, turned the cannon toward the General Land Office, and fired it.  Some shot did hit the office, but there was no substantial damage, and no one was injured. Smith and his men quickly departed Austin heading northeast, hoping to avoid vigilance patrols.  A steady downpour of rain impeded their progress on the road.  By the end of the day, the convoy had barely progressed 18 miles.  They stopped for the night at Kinney’s Fort near Brushy Creek.

Meanwhile, in Austin, Captain Mark Lewis gathered together a group of men who agreed to assist him in recovering these records. Some of the men had no horses; some of the men had no weaponry, but Lewis’s men did manage to reach Smith’s encampment in the middle of the night.  Because Smith had neglected to post sentries, Lewis arrived undetected. In the morning, these armed and dangerous looking vigilantes took custody of the records and returned them to Austin.

In the aftermath of its investigation of these events, the Texas House of Representatives admonished Houston for trying to circumvent the Congress.  A Senate committee reported that while they did not think the capital should be in Austin, they could think of no legal reason why it should not be the nation’s capital. The issue persisted for some time. In 1843, the Senate voted that the archives should be removed from Austin if there ws not peace with Mexico. The vote was again tied, but this time Burleson cast his deciding vote in favor of the bill.  The Texas House rejected it.

The Senate also issued a resolution encouraging Houston to move the government’s agencies back to Austin.  The legislature and government offices continued to operate from Washington-on-the-Brazos.  In March, former President Lamar received a report that the town of Austin was nearly deserted; most businesses were closed, but the archives were present —and safe.

A convention met in Austin to consider the annexation of Texas to the United States on July 4, 1845.  At this time, all records that had been retained in Washington-on-the-Brazos were transferred to Austin, recreating a single archive.  Despite Sam Houston’s efforts, the city that bears his name would not become the capital of Texas.


  1. Winfrey, D. H., The Texan Archive War of 1842, Southwestern Historical Quarterly, October 1960.
  2. Spaw, P. M., The Texas Senate: Republic to Civil War (1836-1861), College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
  3. Fowler, M. and Jack Maguire. The Capitol Story, Statehouse of Texas, Austin: Eakin Press, 1988.
  4. Thrall, H. S., Angelina B. Eberly, Southwestern Historical Quarterly 36, January 1933.


[1] Sam Houston (1793-1863) served in the War of 1812, the Creek War, Battle of Horseshoe Bend, and the Texas Revolution.  He served in the US House of Representatives from Tennessee (1823-1827), 6thgovernor of Tennessee (1827-1829), Representative in the Texas House of Representatives (1839-1841), first and third President of the Republic of Texas (1836-1838, 1841-1844), US Senator from Texas (1846-1859), and the 7thgovernor of Texas (1859-1861).  He was obviously an unskilled worker.

[2] San Felipe de Austin, Washington-on-the-Brazos, Harrisburg, Galveston Island, Velasco, Columbia, Houston and Austin.

[3] The Council House fight occurred on 19 March 1840, the Great Raid beginning on 8 August 1840, and the Battle at Plum Creek on 12 August 1840.

[4] John Alexander Greer (1802-1855) moved to Texas from Kentucky in 1830.  He served as a senator representing San Augustine from 1837 to 1845, served as Secretary of the Treasury from 1845, and in 1847 served as lieutenant governor to the newly admitted state of Texas.  He died while campaigning for the governorship on 4 July 1855.

[5] Edward Burleson (1798-1851) was a soldier and early Texas statesman.  He variously served as a member of town council of San Felipe de Austin, delegate to the founding conventions in Texas, a colonel of infantry during the revolution, commander in chief of the volunteer army, frontier ranger, member of the Congress, and a military commander during the Cherokee War. In 1841, he served as vice president of the Republic.  As a senator, he represented the fifteenth district.  He died of pneumonia on 26 December 1851 while serving as president pro temof the State senate.

[6] Literally, an “accomplished fact”; something that has already happened and is thus unlikely to be reversed; also, a done deal.

[7] The city of Austin erected a statue of Eberly in 2004.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in History. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Archive War

  1. Angel says:

    always inspirational Mustang..thank you!:)


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