Q: Where do Texas towns get those cannons for their courthouse squares? Eldorado, in West Texas, has a howitzer sitting in its square. Saint Jo, in North Texas, has a bigger cannon—an antiaircraft gun—by the center of town. And a tank! The smaller the town the more firepower?
Sue Hui, Plano
A: There are few places across the United States that are as wacky about weaponry as Texas. We are, after all, the state that boasts, for better or—as too many news stories in recent years have reminded us—for worse, the largest number of gun owners. And though our ranking is actually pretty middling on a per capita basis, there’s no doubt that guns are a major part of Texas’s self-image. But given that hunting is so popular here and our history is so steeped in armed conflict, how could they not be?
That enthusiasm also encompasses a wholly different caliber—literally—of gun than those at the center of such statistics. As you have noticed, Ms. Hui, many Texans love to gaze at great big military-grade guns. Just think about the many historically significant cannons that one can find in Texas. Among the oldest are eleven that were discovered by state archaeologists during the excavation of two South Texas sites in the late nineties and early aughts. These specimens were once in the possession of the ill-fated seventeenth-century French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and are now viewable at various museums around the state. Another seven cannons employed by the similarly ill-fated defenders of the Alamo have been freshly restored and are displayed on the fortress’s grounds, in San Antonio. Then there are the famed Twin Sisters, which were used by victorious avengers of the Alamo at the Battle of San Jacinto. Though this legendary pair of guns have been lost to time, one can admire replicas at the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, in La Porte.
Yet another pair of renowned cannons are familiar to Texas football fans. The Spirit of ’02, a restored World War I–era cannon that was discovered, in 1974, by Texas A&M students in a gully southwest of College Station, sees game-day action at Kyle Field, where it fires (blanks, of course) whenever the Fightin’ Texas Aggies put points on the board. Smokey III, a replica Civil War cannon created in 1988, serves a similar role at Austin’s Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium. Fun bit of trivia: this cannon’s predecessor, Smokey II, rests at the bottom of Lady Bird Lake, compliments of a group of overly enthusiastic Aggies in the early seventies. (Man, the Texanist looks forward to the rekindling of this once great rivalry.)
Perhaps the most famous specimen from Texas’s hoard of once formidable hardware is the Gonzales “Come and Take It” cannon, which is notable for its starring role in sparking the Texas Revolution—and sparking a very lucrative latter-day merchandising industry. A Spanish-made bronze six-pounder, the cannon also put in an appearance at the Battle of the Alamo, was buried there by Mexican soldiers, and was then unearthed, in 1852, by Texas Declaration of Independence signatory Samuel Maverick.
The “Come and Take It” cannon unfortunately is not viewable—at least not in cannon form. This is because in 1874 Maverick’s widow, Mary Maverick, had it melted down and recast into a bell. The “Come and Take It” bell (nobody calls it that, by the way) has hung ever since in the belfry of San Antonio’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, in a particularly Texan take on the swords-into-plowshares ethos.
A bit closer to home—well, technically, closer to the Texanist’s office in downtown Austin—one can find no fewer than five cannons dotting the property surrounding the Texas Capitol. Recently the Texanist took a little postprandial stroll to visit the statehouse grounds, where he found two matching stubby howitzers positioned at the south entrance. They were given to the Republic of Texas, in 1836, by Texas Revolution veteran Major General Thomas Jefferson Chambers, who is the namesake of southeast Texas’s Chambers County. Mere steps away, on either side of the Capitol’s Great Walk, the Texanist admired a pair of light field guns, dating to 1864, that were likely placed there by Reconstruction governor Edmund J. Davis. Finally, in the same vicinity, he came upon a wrought iron cannon that dates to 1865 but about which further information is scant.
Unlike these examples, most cannons on display in Texas serve as veterans memorials and are typically acquired by (or with the assistance of) groups such as the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Where and how such groups obtained these weapons varies from case to case. Some, such as the Civil War–era cannon in front of Kerr County’s courthouse, were donated by private citizens. Others, such as Hunt County’s small, thirties-era Japanese howitzer, were donated by the federal government, in that case as a replacement for a cannon that was surrendered for a World War II scrap-metal drive. Such war efforts seem to have led to the demise of numerous courthouse cannons, though many escaped being recycled. According to some reports, the Spirit of ’02 was buried by students in the forties to avoid such a fate.
One particularly interesting story surrounds the Civil War cannon on display at the Orange County courthouse. This weapon once belonged to a group from Jasper County known as the Jeff Davis Rifles and was brought to Orange for a July 4 celebration in 1907 (some reports say 1906). During a reenactment of the Battle of Bunker Hill, the cannon misfired and badly injured two members of the Jeff Davis Rifles, who decided they wanted nothing more to do with the cannon and simply left it behind.
As for your theory that the smaller the town the bigger the bang, Ms. Hui, the Texanist hasn’t seen anything suggesting that our counties are engaging in such compensatory competition. As to why Saint Jo, population 901, has such an impressive array, that probably has something to do with the fact that the town is the home of the International Artillery Museum, which claims to have the largest private collection of modern artillery in the country. Oddly, the nearby town of Montague, the seat of Montague County, within which Saint Jo is located, has no guns at all in its courthouse square.
Though this exercise has been a real blast, Ms. Hui, the Texanist must now redeploy himself to the next campaign—which involves a question from a Los Angeles woman who wants to know something about sports mascots. Semper avanti!
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.
This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of Texas Monthly. Subscribe today.