When you read this today I’ll be on Bolivar Island, south of Galveston, TX. It’s only accessible by an hour-long ferry ride. There are no stores or anything on Bolivar–just beach houses. I’m going to disconnect and clear out my brain. I really need it.
Now…listen to a story about Bolivar Island.
History is full to the brim with strong courageous women who helped settle this state and none is more colorful or more endearing than Jane Long.
Jane Herbert Wilkinson Long was born in July 1798 in Maryland. She was the tenth child of Capt. William and Anne Wilkinson. Her father died the following year and her mother thirteen years later, leaving Jane an orphan at 14. An older sister who lived near Natchez, Mississippi took her in.
It was in Natchez that Jane met the love of her life, Dr. James Long. He was a physician who had served as a surgeon under Gen. Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans. After a whirlwind courtship, they married. Jane was a mere 16 years old. A year later they welcomed a daughter.
James Long purchased a plantation near Vicksburg but he became restless. Talk swirled that Texas was eager to declare its independence from Spain. James was chosen to lead an expedition to Nacogdoches, Texas. Jane was expecting another child so was left behind. Twelve days after giving birth, she set out to join her husband with her two daughters and a young black maid.
Jane was the first white woman to brave the Texas frontier. But two months after arriving in Nacogdoches, she was forced to flee when Spanish troops from San Antonio marched for the frontier outpost. She, her children and her maid returned to Natchez until it was safe again to rejoin her husband. While there, her baby daughter died.
When she again returned to Texas, it was to Fort Las Casas on Bolivar Island, a peninsula opposite Galveston Island. The year was 1821. It’s said she and James dined with the pirate, Jean Laffite, and in later years she talked much about it.
James Long left on an excursion that was to have only taken a month. Pregnant again, Jane stubbornly waited for her husband even when all the men in the fort left. She resisted all pleas to leave with the last of the fort’s occupants saying that her husband left her there and there she’d stay until he returned. She had no way of knowing that the Spanish had captured James and taken him to Mexico where he was killed.
So all alone in an ice-covered tent with only her five year old daughter and young maid, Jane gave birth to her third daughter. This child was the first Anglo-American known to have been born on Texas soil. Folks from all over the country referred to Jane as the Mother of Texas and the title stuck.
That winter was extremely bitter. The food supply dwindled. Jane and her small band survived by chopping fish and ducks out of Galveston Bay. To keep away the cannibalistic Karankawa Indian’s in the area, she fired an old cannon daily and flew her red petticoat on the flagpole to make it appear that troops still occupied the fort. The ruse worked.
It was mid-summer before Jane learned of her husband’s fate. The long wait was over. Jane was a widow at 24 years old. She finally abandoned the fort when a friend of James’ came to deliver the news. Desperate for more information and seek justice for his death, she rode a horse alone to San Antonio to speak with Governor Jose Felix Trespalacios. But after ten months with no satisfaction, she gave up the quest. Eight months later, the baby who had earned Jane the title of Mother of Texas died.
Jane received land as one of Stephen F. Austin’s colonists and settled down to farming. Finding it difficult to make a living on the farm, she opened a boardinghouse near the town of Brazoria in 1832 and ran it for several years.
In 1837, the widow was 39 years old and bought a tract of land two miles from Richmond, Texas. With one black man to work the farm until it began to pay, she operated a hotel in town. Jane bought and sold land, raised cattle, and grew tobacco and cotton. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, Jane had one of the most valuable plantations in Texas. She was intensely loyal to the Southern cause and refused to wear any clothing not made in the South. Her own dresses were made of cotton that had been grown, spun, woven, and dyed on her own plantation. And in her spare time, she made garments for the Confederate soldiers.
Jane Long was fiercely independent. Throughout her long and active life, she was courted by some of Texas’ leading men such as Ben Milam, William Travis, Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, and Mirabeau Lamar. She turned them all down. She’d had but one love and everyone else paled in comparison.
On December 30, 1880, Jane passed away at the age of 82 at her plantation. She lies buried in a little cemetery in Richmond, Texas. On her tombstone is the inscription “Mrs. Jane H. Long, The Mother of Texas.”
While I’m on Bolivar, I’m going to listen for her voice in the ocean breeze and the faint cry of a newborn. Part of the time I’m going to hunt for pirate treasure. Jean LaFitte once lived on the island and used it for a base of operation so I just know he left some coins behind–or a button. Doesn’t take much to make me happy.
Doesn’t Jane sound like a heroine in one of today’s romance novels? She’s certainly an embodiment of the frontier spirit. Pack your bags and come along. We’ll walk the beach and visit the old fort, listen to the waves roll in, and count our blessings. Heavenly!