How many capital cities has Texas had? The answer, as with so many questions about Texas history, is: it depends. It depends on whether you are talking about French Texas, Spanish Texas, Mexican Texas, or present-day Texas.
For now, disregard the capital cities of the countries that have claimed or ruled Texas. It is easier, but not by much, to just focus just on the capitals of Texas as a province or state. It would feel odd for Lone Star citizens to think of places in Mexico and Louisiana as capitals of Texas. Nevertheless, forgotten history is full of surprises, and the story of Texas’s many capitals is no exception.
Before 1519, Texas was essentially an unexplored area of North America, not dominated by any one tribe or culture. Eventually seeking to create a buffer between French Louisiana and New Spain, the Spanish began colonizing East Texas, and set up provincial capitals for the vast area they called “Coahuila y Tejas.”
By 1686, the Spanish named Monclova, in the state of Coahuila, as the first capital of Texas. The city was the headquarters of the explorer, Alonso De León, who extended his control over Coahuila to Texas as well.
1726: Los Adaes
In 1719, the French invaded East Texas. The governor of Coahuila decisively drove out the French. Coahuila and Texas became separate provinces, and the mission at Los Adaes, near present-day Robeline, Louisiana, became the capital of Texas until the early 1770s.
1772: San Antonio de Béxar
In 1771, the new governor of the province recommended that Spain reorganize its border defenses and advised a complete abandonment of East Texas. He called for the presidio at San Antonio to become the new provincial capital. By 1773, after the Royal Regulation of 1772 was issued by the Spanish crown, the 500 residents of Los Adaes were abruptly ordered to move to San Antonio, and the presidio there eventually encompassed the Alamo. San Antonio became the provincial capital of Texas until 1824.
After the War for Mexican Independence, the Mexican Constitution of 1824 recombined Coahuila and Texas, and moved its government to Saltillo. A quarrel between the Mexican Centralists and Federalists caused a feud between Monclova and Saltillo. Monclova won the political struggle and became capital again in 1833.
1835: San Felipe de Austin
In late 1823, surveyor Seth Ingram began platting the town of San Felipe de Austin on a west bank bluff of the Brazos River, part of the colony granted to Stephen F. Austin by the Spanish, and subsequently Mexican, government. The town became the social, economic, and political center for life in Austin’s colony. By the time of the Texas Revolution, San Felipe was the second largest city in Texas, only to San Antonio. The Conventions of 1832 and 1833 were held there, as was the Consultation, in November 1835. During the Consultation, Texans set up a provisional government, making San Felipe the capital of the provisional government of Texas, which existed until the Convention of 1836 the following March.
Texas Government on the Run
March 1836: Washington-on-the-Brazos
From the time the Convention of 1836 convened on March 1 at Washington-on-the-Brazos, the government of Texas was on the move. By order of the provisional government, delegates convened at Washington, declared independence, wrote a constitution, and formed a government. Simultaneously, the Alamo was under siege and fell to the Mexican army before the convention was ended. When the delegates voted for an ad interim government in the early morning hours of March 17, Burnet was elected president of the new Republic of Texas.
Mid-March 1836: Harrisburg
Upon hearing that the Mexican army was only 60 miles away, one of Burnet’s first actions was to relocate the republic’s capital from Washington to Harrisburg. Harrisburg was closer to the U.S. border, closer to Galveston and the Texas Navy, and farther from Santa Anna. By March 22, Burnet and his cabinet were ensconced in the home of the Jane Harris, the widow of the town’s founder. Burnet declared martial law in Texas and ordered all men between the ages of 18 and 55 to show up for military service or forfeit their Texas citizenship. On April 9, Burnet received a precious gift of two cannons, dubbed the Twin Sisters, from friends in his hometown of Cincinnati. He immediately sent them on to General Houston. However, Burnet’s government was soon on the move again as Santa Anna closed in. On April 16, the Mexican army unleashed its fury on Harrisburg with 750 Mexican soldiers. Santa Anna ordered the town burned to the ground
Mid-April 1836: The Steamboat Cayuga
It is true that for a few days a river steamboat served as the capital of Texas. On April 15, the Cayuga picked up the ad interim government at Harrisburg and headed for Galveston. Burnet got off the Cayuga at Lynch’s Ferry to retrieve his family. He was literally running for his life. He rescued his wife and two children from their home at Oakland and just missed being captured at New Washington. As the Mexicans closed in, the Burnet family crowded into a rowboat. When the boat was about 30 yards away, the Mexican troops arrived. Burnet stood upright in the tiny boat in hopes that the Mexican troops would aim at him instead of his family. Mexican Colonel Almonte, in an act of chivalry rarely seen in the Texas Revolution, ordered the troops not to fire, having seen Hannah Burnet in the rowboat. As with Harrisburg, the Mexican army narrowly missed capturing the Texas president, but razed the community, burning it completely as they marched on to Buffalo Bayou. After Burnet re-boarded the Cayuga, the steamship dropped its passengers off at Galveston, while the ad interim government remained aboard. The business of the republic was conducted through April 26 on the Cayuga, the temporary capitol. During this time, the republic bought the steamer for $5,000.
Mid-April 1836: Galveston
The presidential setup at Galveston was less than desirable. Burnet took shelter in a crude log cabin, void of furniture save a couple of pallets, a few wooden boxes, and a barrel to use as a writing table. Still, the rude conditions were better than those afforded the thousand or more Harrisburg refugees fearfully camped on Galveston’s beaches.
Late April 1836: Velasco
Following the victory at San Jacinto, Burnet joined Houston at Velasco. Burnet installed his ad interim government at Velasco, and personally negotiated with Santa Anna. The Treaties of Velasco were likely the highlight of his presidency. He made Velasco the temporary capital of the Republic of Texas, and government records were housed at Fort Velasco until the first official capital of Texas was established.
Republic of Texas
September 1836: Columbia
Burnet called an election and ordered the capital be moved to Columbia. Columbia was likely selected for two reasons. First, the town boasted better facilities than most other Texas towns. Additionally, the Telegraph and Texas Register newspaper was reestablished there, after being originally based in San Felipe. Columbia featured ample permanent buildings such as a large hotel, offices, a few houses, and log cabins. Two buildings housed the Congress and the principal offices of the government, while some officials and committees used nearby log cabins. The First Texas Congress met at Columbia on October 3, 1836, and on October 22 Houston took the oath of office as president. One of the most poignant events of the Columbia capital was the death of Secretary of State, Stephen F. Austin, who developed a cold, and subsequently pneumonia, succumbing to his illness two days after Christmas in 1836. He was only 43. His body lay in state at the Columbia capitol building before being buried with full military honors elsewhere. Despite its initial qualifications, the lack of housing at Columbia continued to be a problem, and in 1837, the congress voted to move the capital of Texas once again.
April 1837: Houston
In April 1837, Sam Houston moved the Texas government from Columbia to the newly created town of Houston. The Texas congress Special Session met at Houston in May 1837, and appointed a commission-at-large to find a site for a permanent capital.
October 1839: Waterloo (Austin)
The commission’s first choice was Bastrop, followed by Washington-on-the Brazos, San Felipe, and Gonzales. The congress took no action, but in December appointed a site commission, which chose land on the Colorado River near La Grange. In 1839, a third commission recommended that the capital be called “Austin,” after the late Stephen F. Austin. Commissioners chose Waterloo, a frontier settlement on the Colorado, and the Texas government officially moved to the newly created city of Austin in October 1839.
The Archive War
March 1842: Washington
In March 1842, the Mexican Army showed up outside San Antonio, demanding the town’s surrender. President Sam Houston, now in his second term, ordered the government moved to Houston for safety. Austin residents, however, were more fearful of relocating the capital city to Houston than they were of the invading Mexicans. They formed a vigilante committee that sent notice to Sam Houston’s department heads that any efforts to move state documents from Austin would be met with armed resistance. Houston called the congress into session at Washington-on-the-Brazos. In December, he sent armed Texas Rangers to Austin to retrieve the documents, with instructions to avoid bloodshed at all costs. The Rangers successfully loaded the documents and began transport back to Washington. However, the vigilance committee overtook the rangers. A few shots were fired before the Rangers relented to avoid bloodshed, and the vigilance committee took the papers back to Austin. Nevertheless, Washington-on-the-Brazos continued to operate as the Texas capital until 1844 when Austin became the capital once again.