Thanks to the stories that Elizabeth Owens told her daughters, we know about life in Victoria, headquarters for the De León Colony, during some of its most turbulent times.
Elizabeth McAnulty was two years old when her mother and stepfather, Margaret and James Quinn, moved the family from New Jersey to Texas in 1829 as part of McMullen-McGloin Irish Colony. While the group of fifty-three families camped on Copano Bay near present Rockport, Elizabeth’s baby sister became the colonists’ first death, perhaps from cholera that spread through the settlers and followed them as they moved inland to the old Spanish Mission Nuestra Señora del Refugio.
After a year, most of the families moved to the colony land at San Patricio on the Nueces River, but Elizabeth’s family remained and began farming near Refugio. It was the custom for Elizabeth and her brother Thomas to take lunch to her stepfather who was working in the field. Elizabeth recounted the story of a drunk Indian who caught Thomas and must have terrified the children by saying the sweetest morsel ever known was a white man’s heart. Elizabeth ran for help, and her stepfather used an ax to strike the Indian more than once before he released the boy.
When Elizabeth was eight, James Quinn acquired a league of land (4,428 acres) in the De León Colony just outside Victoria. The following year, in February 1836 Elizabeth witnessed a Tancahua Indian Scalp Dance on Market Square in Victoria. The peaceful Tancahuas had been approached by the warlike Carancahuas (generally called Karankawas) asking for help with an attack on the aristocratic and refined Mexican family of Don Martín De León the empresario who had founded the colony. For some reason the Carancahuas especially hated the empresario’s wife. The Tancahuas met the Carancahuas and instead of joining the attack, they cut the Carancahua’s bow strings, killed thirteen members of the tribe, and took the scalps stuck atop their spears, to Mrs. De León as a gesture of their friendship. Mrs. De León expressed her gratitude with a huge feast for the Tancahua and that is when Elizabeth, a nine year old, witnessed the Scalp Dance.
As war clouds for Texas independence built up, James Quinn joined a company that made the twenty-five-mile trip to La Bahía, to help defend the presidio from Mexican attack. Elizabeth went with her mother to a nearby home where the women molded bullets for their husbands. As the large Mexican Army approached Goliad, the settlement around Presidio La Bahía, James Quinn and other men returned to Victoria to move their families to safety. James Quinn discovered his oxen had roamed away in his absence, leaving only the Quinns and two other families who supported independence.
Elizabeth said that during the battle between James Fannin’s troops down on Coleto Creek (fifteen miles away) and General Urrea’s Army, they could hear the sound of the cannons. A man arrived on horseback with a message for Colonel Fannin. When he heard the cannon fire, he stayed with the Quinns. While he told the family his story, Elizabeth sat on the hearth holding a candle in the chimney so the light could not be seen. When a shot rang out, the messenger apparently thought they were under attack because he rushed out to his horse and rode quickly away in the darkness. He did not get far before he was discovered and shot.
General Urrea’s army, having just accepted Fannin’s surrender, reached Victoria with great fanfare, parading through the streets to the sound of their bugles and drums. A Mexican officer took possession of the Quinn’s front room. Although their home was constructed of adobe and had only three rooms with dirt floors, it was one of the more comfortable houses for that time. The officer’s presence afforded protection for the family when a group of Mexican soldiers banged on the door with their muskets because when the Mexican officer’s wife opened the door, the startled Mexicans quickly withdrew.
Elizabeth tells another story about Señora Alvarez, the woman known as “The Angle of Goliad,” who had saved several of the Texans before the massacre. It seems she was the wife of a Mexican colonel, and despite stories of his abandoning her when he heard that she had rescued some of the young Texans at Goliad, she arrived with her husband in Victoria. Seven men who had escaped the massacre rushed into Victoria, apparently unaware that it was occupied by Mexican troops. They attempted to enter the Quinn home, and when Elizabeth’s mother exclaimed that they would all be killed if the Texans were found there, the men ran back into the yard where Mexican soldiers killed three of them. The other four were imprisoned in one of the homes. Elizabeth’s mother bribed the guards to let her son Thomas take food each day to the prisoners. On a day when the boy encountered the new guard he was choked severely for delivering the food.
Elizabeth said that when the four Texan prisoners were brought to the Market Square to the executed, Señora Alvarez threw herself in front of the Texans, spreading her huge skirts out before them and protesting that she would also be shot if they were killed. After Santa Anna surrendered, the four men were released.
Despite Santa Anna’s surrender, a rumor spread that the Mexican Army had reorganized and was heading to Victoria. All residents were ordered to flee. The family loaded a small cart and began their journey northward with a Mr. Blanco and his son. They crossed a creek and the Lavaca River before they reached a ferry on the mile-wide, swift-running Navidad. When their turn came to board the ferry, it was too heavily loaded and tipped the family and all their possessions into the water. Elizabeth grabbed a partially submerge tree and clung for her life. Mr. Blanco’s son disappeared under the water, but Mr. Blanco spotted the white sunbonnet that Elizabeth was wearing and managed to pull her to safety. All the party was saved except for Mr. Blanco’s son.
There were several more scares of Indian attacks or Mexican invasion as Mexico refused to accept that Texas has won its independence. Many times the women and children were moved to a block house that offered better protection; other times they crossed the Navidad River, even spending the entire winter of 1836-37 away from Victoria. Upon returning in 1837 to Victoria, the Quinns found their home reduced to ashes. Texan soldiers had spotted a herd of deer on a hillside, and thinking they were the Mexican Army, the Texans ordered all the houses burned except those that surrounded the town square. The houses on the square were saved for the soldiers’ use. The Quinns spent the winter in the church with other families who hung partitions for privacy.
In 1840 Comanches who felt betrayed by whites in an incident at San Antonio’s Council House that resulted in the death of most of the Comanche leaders, swept down across Texas is what became known as the Great Comanche Raid. When they reached Victoria they killed several and terrorized the town before moving on down to the port of Linnville, which they completely destroyed.
When Elizabeth was seventeen, she married Richard Owens, a New York native who arrived in time to serve in the Army of the Republic of Texas. Among other lucrative endeavors, he became a very successful building contractor, freighter, merchant, and mayor of Victoria. Elizabeth worked as a community leader while raising their twelve children. During the Civil War, Elizabeth and her daughters sewed the regimental flag for Col. Robert Garland’s Sixth Texas Infantry. Using material from Richard Owens’ mercantile store, their flag had a background of red Merino wool bordered in a white silk fringe, featuring a large blue shield with twelve white stars circling a larger star representing the Lone Star State. The regiments name showed in white silk letters.
Elizabeth McAnulty Owens died in 1905, but she had shared the stories of her life adventures with her daughters, and they used their notes to write Elizabeth-McAnulty-Owens, The Story of her Life, which was published in 1936.