By George Slaughter
At one time, before cities such as Austin, Dallas, or Houston even existed, San Felipe was the second-largest town in Texas, after San Antonio. The town itself, the site of which was just north of Interstate 10 between Brookshire and Sealy, was burned during the Texas Revolution of 1836 and never recovered.
On Friday, a new, 10,000-square foot interpretative museum was dedicated at the Stephen F. Austin State Historic Site tells the story of San Felipe de Austin, which is among the most historically significant sites in Texas.
The museum is across Farm Road 1458 from the historic site. It shows the story of Stephen F. Austin and the settlers he brought to Texas, which in 1823 was a part of Mexico. It includes exhibits and a replica log cabin to help visitors better understand the people, the events, and the place. Additional markers behind the building illustrate key points in the town site.
Museum planners understood that today’s audiences are used to technology and interactive exhibits. The museum has those, including a large touchscreen wall mural that depicts the town layout as it appeared in its heyday.
“We wanted to take a stab at showing people what the town looked like,” Bryan McAuley, the site manager, said. “We have lots of interactives.”
Austin was the leader of the colonizing efforts, but he was not the only San Felipe resident who went on to a place in the Texas history books. Another resident, William B. Travis, went on to become one of the commanders at the Alamo. He was living in San Felipe when he went west to meet his fate.
“He was communicating with the government here while he was serving in that capacity,” McAuley said. “We want to make sure have a sense of how big this story (of San Felipe) really is.”
Building a museum was challenging for several reasons.
After the Alamo fell in March 1836, the Texas Army retreated eastward from the Mexican Army. In what became known as the Runaway Scrape, the Texans and burned San Felipe, among other settlements, in an effort to keep the Mexicans from looting and destroying those places.
The Texans won their independence in April 1836 at the Battle of San Jacinto, but San Felipe residents never returned and the town never recovered. Today, at the historic site, archaeologists continue to find artifacts from when the town existed. Some of those artifacts, such as plates, are on display in the museum.
“Most of these stories are stories that Texans have lost over time,” McAuley said, adding that in the 1920s, the stewards of the historic site were expressing concerns that the site was being forgotten. The state in 1936 placed a historical marker and a statue of Stephen F. Austin at the site.
“It was important, but superficial, because it didn’t have a story attached to it,” McAuley said.
The state owns the historic site and the adjacent Stephen F. Austin State Park. The state transferred the historic site in 2008 from the Parks and Wildlife Department to the Texas Historical Commission. The commission needed more land for a museum site, which it purchased in 2011.
“It was a much bigger project than we planned,” McAuley said.
The museum cost $12.56 million and was funded through a public-private partnership between the state and private philanthropy coordinated through the Friends of the Texas Historical Commission. The capital campaign will continue as the commission works to complete its development of the museum and the site.
Another challenge was telling the story of Austin himself. Austin was born in 1793 in Virginia and took over the Texas colonization efforts after his dying father, Moses Austin, requested that he do so. Austin set up the town, but he left before the Texas Revolution and never returned. He died in December 1836 at West Columbia, in Brazoria County. Initially he was buried there, but his remains were eventually moved to the Texas State Cemetery in the city named in his honor.
The museum features a desk believed to be Austin’s.
“We’re excited to bring it back home,” McAuley said.
McAuley said because San Felipe had no facility to house Austin’s personal effects, they ended up at other places, such as the San Jacinto Museum of History or at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. The hope is that these other institutions will loan some of those effects for display at the museum.
“We feel we’re telling these stories in compelling ways that we think will surprise people in pleasant ways,” McAuley said.
For McAuley, the creation and opening of the museum coincides with his 10th anniversary as the site manager. He worked closely with the architects, state officials, donors, and others to create the museum. He said it was a rare experience for a historian to do this.
The museum has a gift shop that includes books and videos about Austin and San Felipe.
Admission is free through Sunday. The web site is visitsanfelipedeaustin.com.