25: Come And Borrow It

 

Brantley The small town of Gonzales, Texas sits a little over sixty miles east of San Antonio. It’s home to about 8,000 people and it’s also home to the Gonzales Memorial Museum. 

 

To reach the building you walk along a reflecting pool that leads to the main entrance. At first the museum looks monumental but as you get closer you realize it’s only about the size of a house. You enter through an open vestibule that divides the building in two. If you turn to the left you enter the building’s north wing - although calling it a wing might be overselling it a bit - it’s really just a room.

 

Gary And then of course in the middle of the room we have the original cannon displayed for everybody to come in and take pictures. And all of that.

 

Brantley I noticed there’s a sign that says, “Yes, it is the real… Cannon." Do people ask that question a lot?

 

Gary Yes and it’s not as big as they expected. That’s the main thing is that when they walk in that door, that cannon is pointing towards that door and they go, “It’s not as big as I thought it was.”

 

Brantley That cannon is what we’re going to talk about on this, the twenty-fifth episode of The Works: a podcast about the world we build around us. 

 

I’m Brantley Hightower.

 

The guy showing me around the Gonzales Memorial Museum is Gary Schurig. He’s the museum’s head curator and between his mustache and his glasses he looks a lot like Teddy Roosevelt. When we sit down in his office he tells me the story of Gonzales and its famous piece of artillery.

 

Gonzales was established as one of the first Anglo-American colonies in the part of Mexico that would later become Texas. Of course the Comanche People were already living in the area and they weren’t all that thrilled about their new neighbors.

 

Gary It started 1831 because the Comanches had literally burnt Gonzales to the ground two times. And so they applied to the Mexican government for some kind of relief. And that’s how they ended up getting this cannon that we have here on display.

 

Brantley But the cannon the Mexican government let them borrow wasn’t all that great. For one, it was REALLY small.

 

Gary It’s approximately about twenty-one and a half inches long… The cannon actually weighs about sixty-nine pounds is all it weighs… It has about an inch and a half bore so it doesn’t have a very big bore on the cannon.

 

Brantley The “bore” of a cannon refers to its inside diameter. A cannon with an inch-and-a-half bore can shoot a cannonball that’s an inch-and-a-half wide. Or at least it SHOULD be able to do that.

 

Gary They gave them the cannon and prior to giving it to them they literally spiked it in the touch hole - drove a nail in it so it wouldn’t shoot live ammunition… 

 

Brantley A “touch hole” is the small opening in the back of the cannon where you light the powder that fires the cannonball out the opposite end. If you plug up the hole, you can’t really use the cannon AS a cannon.

 

Gary So settlers were only able to put powder in it and put maybe a long fuse and set it off and maybe it would make a loud noise and shoot fire and smoke and that served its purpose against the Comanches because they had no idea what was making all that noise. 

 

Brantley So just to recap, the Mexican government lent the people of Gonzales a used cannon that was really small and couldn’t shoot.

 

Now something to keep is that Mexico had only won it’s independence from Spain ten years earlier. It was still figuring out how to govern itself.  Over the next few years what had started out as a federal republic devolved into a dictatorship. Its constitution was repealed. Its state legislatures were abolished.

 

For many this was NOT a popular move. As talk of rebellion grew the Mexican government decided it might be a good idea to take back some of that artillery it had leant out over the years. When the people of Gonzales heard that a small detachment of the Mexican army was heading their way they decided the best thing to do was to bury their cannon in the ground and call their neighbors for help.

 

Several days later when the Mexican Army showed up on the banks of the Guadalupe River they were surprised to see over a hundred men from Gonzales and other nearby settlements. The hastily-formed militia had elected John Henry Moore to be their leader. Moore was a wise commander and he knew that before you can start a proper fight you need a proper flag. 

 

Gary We know that John Henry Moore instructed the ladies to make a flag. And they took a white wedding dress and they cut it out and they painted it as you see the replicas now: a cannon, a star, and the words, “Come And Take It” on the bottom of it. And that’s what they used for that Come And Take It Battle.

 

Brantley Armed with a flag - and a catchy slogan - they were ready to dig up their cannon and face the enemy.

 

Gary Well the settlers take their cannon and they go out there and they wait for the fog to clear on October the 2nd, 1835. They go across the river, they set up their cannon, unroll their flag, and say, “OK, If you really want this cannon, you can come and take it.” And they fired it at them - basically one time - and the Mexican Lieutenant said, “That’s good enough. Ya’ll all keep the cannon - we’re going back to San Antonio.”

 

Brantley Recognizing the strategic irrelevance of the cannon - and the fact they were outnumbered - the Mexican forces withdrew.

 

This relatively minor skirmish over an objectively small cannon was the first battle of the Texas Revolution. The people of Gonzales would play a large role in that struggle. The following year the community sent 32 men to the Alamo: the only reinforcements to arrive during the siege. There were also 75 men from Gonzales at the Battle of San Jacinto where Texas decisively won its independence.

 

A hundred years later the Gonzales Memorial Museum was built to tell the story of the outsized role Gonzales played in Texas history. It’s is a good story, but despite the museum it’s one that’s not all that well know. But what IS well known is the “Come and Take It” slogan and the flag that featured it.

 

In recent years it’s become quite popular.

 

In the last decade or so the “Come And Take It” flag has increasingly been flown by people wanting to make a statement about gun rights. Just as the people of Gonzales resisted the Mexican government when it attempted to take back their cannon, some feel any attempt to regulate firearms must also be resisted. The analogy isn’t perfect - there are few proponents of individual cannon ownership these days - and so it’s became necessary to update the flag. The new version of the “Come And Take It” flag replaces the cannon with an AR-15-style riffle.

 

It’s a rifle that’s actually LONGER than the cannon on display in Gonzales. 

 

Back at the museum I asked Gary Schurig what thought about the flag being used by groups to advance a particular cause. I thought this might upset him - that he might find it disrespectful or offensive. I was wrong.

 

Gary I don’t know… It is interesting that it’s taken on its own little life of itself… It’s interesting you get a lot of people that think it was just thought up in the last ten years and then you get them here and realize that no, it’s a little bit longer than that.

 

Brantley Even though the “Come And Take It” flag was created for a specific historic event, its defiant tone has had wide appeal. Unlike the cannon itself, the flag is no longer just a historic artifact. It’s become separated from its original context. It’s become a symbol.

 

Pete Symbols are powerful. If symbols weren’t powerful people wouldn’t use them. And flags are powerful. If they weren’t powerful people wouldn’t use them.

 

Brantley That’s Pete Van de Putte. He probably knows more about flags than anyone else in south Texas. He’s the chairman of Dixie Flag and Banner Company in San Antonio.

 

I wanted to ask him if it’s possible for a flag to mean different things to different people.

 

Pete Oh absolutely. You’ve seen that in our flag - the United States flag. You’ve watched how different groups have used the stars and stripes. During the civil rights movement of the sixties where you saw protestors for civil rights flying the United States flag and you saw the anti-integration people flying the United States flag. Both on opposite side of the issue but both flying the same flag. And obviously both of them thinking it meant something different.

 

Brantley Back in Gonzales you see the “Come And Take It” flag a lot. A huge version of it flies near the courthouse downtown. It’s on the doors of the city maintenance trucks and it’s the first thing you see on the city’s website. Both the flag and the cannon appear on the masthead of the local newspaper. It’s clearly an important part of the city’s identity. It’s a source of pride. It’s a symbol.

 

The funny thing about symbols is that they don’t BELONG to anyone. Like a cannon, a symbol can be borrowed. It can be used by different people at different times for different reasons. 

 

But at least in Gonzales the “Come And Take It” flag will always be a symbol of their history. It will always be a reminder of who they are. It will always be a reminder that even though their town might be small, like their cannon it’s big enough to get the job done.

 

Brantley Thanks today to Gary Schurig, Pete Van de Putte, Sarah (REE-VLEY) Reveley, and Mayor Connie (KA-SEER) Kacir. The Mayor of Gonzales wanted to personally invite you to the “Come And Take It Festival” that happens every fall. There’s food, beer, parades and live music.

 

Connie We bring headline bands in and always have some really good music and it’s all free. Where else can you “Come and take it” for free?

 

Brantley Special thanks to Christine Fennessy, Kathleen McGovern and Rachel Stevens who all helped edit the script. The music was by Toby Wilson, Steve Vaus and Tony Salomone.

 

The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today at Hi dot Works.

 

Until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.