Harrisburg's Role in the Early Days of the Republic

On March 2, 1836, the Texas Declaration of Independence was drafted and signed by delegates to the Convention of 1836 and thus was born the Republic of Texas. When angry protest finally led to armed conflict, the fledgling government abandoned its capitol at Washington on-the-Brazos and slowly made its way toward Harrisburg, where escape by sea would be possible. Late in the evening of March 22, President David G. Burnet, his cabinet and such records as they could bring with them, arrived in Harrisburg. There being no place else for so large a number of people to stay, the widow Harris vacated her home and turned it over to the government. Some cabinet members, we are told, slept on the floor. The indomitable Mrs. Harris not only gave the government her home for their use, but she and her servants prepared the meals for them. There is no record of her asking for compensation, or of her being reimbursed. She stayed with friends across one of the bayous, and each morning and evening a servant rowed her to and from her self-imposed duties.

Harrisburg's claim to fame as capitol of the Republic of Texas was of short duration. Upon news of the approach of Mexican army units, the government took a steamboat to Galveston sometime on the afternoon of April 15. Mrs. Harris and family presumably accompanied them to Galveston. Soon after, advance elements of the Mexican army rode into town. Santa Anna, who was accompanying this reinforced reconnaissance group, slept in the town of Harrisburg that night. The only Texans to fall into his hands were two printers who had stayed behind in the office of the local newspaper.

On Sunday afternoon, April 17, the Mexican forces burned the town, the Harris home with it, and rode on in the direction of Lynch's Ferry. As the world knows, Santa Anna's confidence prevailed over his judgment, and he allowed his 1500 or 1600 men to be trapped and annihilated on ground of General Sam Houston's own choosing. Some say that Emily West, who later became known as "The Yellow Rose of Texas", kept Santa Anna occupied in his tent while the Texans attacked. In any event, on the afternoon of April 21, 1836, on the Plain of St. Hyacinth, Mexico's governance of Texas came to an end.

Jane Birdsall Harris and her son, DeWitt Clinton, had gone to Galveston. There, by a miracle of chance, they found Lewis Harris, who had just arrived by ship from the East. Thus united, the family came back to Harrisburg to begin the slow work of rebuilding.

French Colonization

The history of the J.R. Harris League is an intricate but absorbing study in itself, but we are interested here only in the old town of Harrisburg. In 1842, the town became a part of one of the most amazing stories of Texas colonization. A Frenchman named Snider de Pellegrini, "Knight Great Cross of the Order of Jerusalem, director of a society of Colonization established in France, and of which the Central of five is in Paris and residing now in Galveston, Texas," contracted with William P. Harris, brother of John R. Harris, for the settlement of French colonists in Harrisburg.

Harris, acting for himself and other members of the family, agreed to convey to Pellegrini a great number of town lots (the town plat having been greatly expanded from that of 1826), together with 1200 acres of land outside the town, as well as all the timber on the land and free bricks from the town brick kiln. Even more, the enterprising Pellegrini was to have "the exclusive right and privilege of Banking which the proprietors of the town of Harrisburg may have," as well as commission on any land he would sell to his colonists.

In exchange, Pellegrini agreed to establish in Harrisburg "his principal commercial house and his principal office for the issue, circulation and redemption of his paper money," and to direct to Harrisburg "the greater part" of the emigrants which the society would send to Texas.

The only reason that we do not today have French restaurants in Harrisburg is that Pellegrini seems to have had vastly more charm than money. Nothing ever came of all his schemes.

The Demise of Harrisburg

Captain Andrew Briscoe, in 1841, obtained a charter for a railroad, but nothing was done until 1847, when General Sidney Sherman reorganized the road under a new title, the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railroad. By the end of 1852 the road had been completed to the Brazos, a distance of 32 miles. This road later became the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railroad--the GH&SA--and by 1860 had reached Alleyton, 70 miles from Harrisburg.

By 1853, Harrisburg had a steam saw and grist mill, several stores, three hotels (one of them operated by Mrs. Harris in her converted home), and a railroad terminal with shops and yards. The Civil War, however, brought an end to that prosperity and before the end of it, Harrisburg had fallen on grim times. The new town of Houston had already outstripped Harrisburg in commercial development, and Harrisburg suffered in 1870 when the railroad and its shops were moved to Houston. In the Spring of 1879, the Morgan Steamship Company completed a new terminal on Buffalo Bayou, not at Harrisburg, but at Clinton, across and down the stream.

Harrisburg continued to exist, but actually as a withering appendage to Houston. In 1899, Congress approved broad plans for a deep-water port at Houston, and on November 10, 1914, President Wilson touched a button which fired a cannon at the Port of Houston, thus marking the opening of what in time would become one of the nation's greatest ports.

For Harrisburg as a city, the end came in December of 1926, when, by an ordinance of annexation, it became a part of the City of Houston. Thus, Mayor James S. Deady presided over the last act of the little town just 100 years after Captain John R. Harris built his home and laid out the town he proudly called Harrisburg.

Jane Birdsall Harris, the real heroine of the story of Old Harrisburg, died on August 15, 1869. She is buried in Glendale Cemetery, within sight of the town and the home she loved so well. To her courage and to her indomitable spirit we must pay tribute.

Nothing remains of pioneer Harrisburg except Glendale Cemetery, which lies at the foot of East Magnolia Street, overlooking the Ship Channel. The Glendale Cemetery Association, a small group of citizens devoted to the preservation of this quiet place, have assumed responsibility for its care and maintenance.

Many people have supposed that the old brick home which stood for many years on the west side of the 500 block of Broadway was the Harris home. It was not. This was the Charles H. Milby home and was built sometime in the 1880's. It was demolished about the time the underpass was built on Broadway.

The Harris home was located across Broadway, on the east side of the 500 block, facing the bayou. A stone marker may be found on the back side of the business property at that location, but it is so situated that it can scarcely be seen from Frio Street. This marks the location of the first capital of the Republic of Texas.

Much of the content on this page comes fromThe Story of Old Harrisburg written by L.L. Walker, Jr. as a community service project of the Rotary Club of Harrisburg, published by Harrisburg Bank, date unknown.