A Brief History of Washington County
It was on March 2, 1836, that a delegation of 59 men gathered at Washington on the Brazos to draft a Declaration of Independence and establish a constitution for a new nation. They declared Texas a “free, sovereign and independent republic.” Washington County, the “Birthplace of Texas,” is etched in the history books forever.
Brenham is the county seat for this historic and scenic region. The area was opened to settlement in 1821, one of the earliest settled areas in Texas. Pioneers from all parts of the United States and immigrants from Western Europe flocked to Austin’s colony to take advantage of its liberal land grants. The area’s German heritage is demonstrated at the annual Maifest Celebration.
Brenham was established in 1844 and named for Richard Fox Brenham, a hero of the Texas Republic and the Mier Expedition. Downtown Brenham is the heart and soul of the community and features a wide array of specialty shops clustered around the courthouse square. The downtown area also houses a variety of restaurants, as well as Unity Theatre, the only professional theatre in the region.
Brenham’s Main Street organization and other downtown groups host several annual events for visitors to enjoy, including Hot Nights, Cool Tunes concerts and the Christmas Stroll. An array of colorful murals on downtown buildings has inspired #BrenhamArtWalk, and the number of National Register markers on these same buildings has generated a self-guided Historic District Walking Tour.
West of Brenham on Hwy. 290, Burton was known for its cotton farming and, as a result, the city prospered throughout the late 1800s. In spite of its small size, Burton is home to the restored Texas Cotton Gin Museum which attracts thousands of tourists each year. The annual Cotton Gin Festival takes place the third weekend in April.
Chappell Hill was founded in 1847 and prospered in the early days, becoming a popular stagecoach stop. It also provided a steamboat port for the shipping of cotton down the Brazos River to the Port of Houston.
Today, there are a dozen National Register properties in the historic district to be explored. The Chappell Hill Historical Museum illustrates the region’s history with fascinating exhibits and artifacts. The two largest festivals in Washington County, the Official Bluebonnet Festival of Texas and the Scarecrow Festival, as well as the greatest small town Fourth of July parade, are held here.
Independence was originally called Coles Settlement and began in 1824 on land granted by Mexico to Judge John Prince Coles, one of Austin’s 300 colonists. In 1836 the community was renamed Independence in honor of Texas’ declaration of freedom from Mexico.
In 1839, a Baptist church was established and is still active today. Sam Houston attended church and was baptized here. Legend has it that following his baptism in the creek, he said, “I pity the fish downstream.” Houston’s mother-in-law was so thrilled with the transformation that she had a large iron bell created and presented it to the church with gratitude. The adjacent Texas Baptist Historical Museum features this bell along with many other early Texas history exhibits.
Independence is also the original site of Baylor University. The ruins of the Baylor Female College still stand surrounded by a peaceful park and playground area.
Also located in Independence is the Antique Rose Emporium, an 8-acre retail garden featuring romantic antique roses, native plants, old-fashioned perennials, herbs and wildflowers, all scattered among beautifully landscaped grounds.
The town of Washington holds a unique place in Texas history, and today you will find Washington on the Brazos State Historic Site, Star of the Republic Museum and Barrington Plantation within its boundary. A replica of Independence Hall echoes with the voices of those 59 men who created the Republic of Texas governing documents. The museum perpetuates the memory of “Old Washington” through exciting cultural exhibits focused on the Republic period. At Barrington Plantation costumed reenactors portray life in the 1850s. Visitors can spend time in the Visitor Center with its interactive exhibits and extensive gift shop, enjoy a picnic lunch on the beautiful park grounds next to the Brazos River and explore interpretive trails. Plus, each year on the weekend nearest to March 2nd, the Texas Independence Day Celebration is held to recognize this pivotal era of Texas history.