In 1843, Sam Houston toiled away at a desk in a sixteen-by-sixteen-foot log cabin not far from the muddy banks of the Brazos River. From that makeshift office in Washington-on-the-Brazos, about halfway between Austin and Houston, the then-president of the new Republic of Texas penned letters inviting the chiefs of several Native American tribes to join him for a council meeting. Many of the chiefs came, among them leaders from the Caddo, Delaware, and Shawnee tribes. They spent nearly two weeks in the rough-around-the-edges little town, meeting with officials, demonstrating skills, dancing and playing music, and signing a treaty.

Today, there’s not much to indicate the significance of the spot where Houston’s cabin once stood, at one end of the long-vanished town of Washington-on-the-Brazos. This place is nicknamed the birthplace of Texas, since the declaration that created the Republic of Texas was signed on March 2, 1836 (in Independence Hall, just a few hundred yards from Houston’s cabin). But only a few wooden stakes are punched into the dirt to mark the place where Houston’s cabin once stood. That’s about to change.

Archaeologists recently completed excavations along the town’s main road as part of a $51 million, five- or six-year project to improve the Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site, operated by the Texas Historical Commission. The state set aside some of the land for a small park in 1915. More land was later added, and in 1970, the 22,000-square-foot Star of the Republic Museum opened. But the museum, along with a riverside picnic area and a re-creation of Independence Hall, never fully conveyed a sense of what this frontier town was really like. Now architects are preparing to rebuild some of the ramshackle old community where so much Texas history took place.

When the project wraps up, by late 2025, visitors will be able to visit seven full or partial re-creations of structures that once lined La Bahia Road, a major thoroughfare that carried goods and travelers hundreds of miles across the state, from Goliad to Nacogdoches. Besides Houston’s office, they’ll be able to stroll past a drugstore where townsfolk bought basic supplies, poke their heads inside a carpentry shop, look down on the foundation of a typical home, and step inside a pool hall and tavern that doubled as a meeting place for government officials. The project also includes renovations at the park’s visitors center and new exhibit space at the Star of the Republic Museum, which houses maps, documents, and what’s believed to be the only existing flag from the Lone Star State’s nearly ten-year period as an independent republic. The revamped site may also include a dry-docked re-creation of a ferry that transported travelers across the Brazos River, just down the hill. “We’d like to get people in the mindset that they’re on a street grid,” says Jonathan Failor, manager of the Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site. 

Washington was platted in 1835. By 1836, about a hundred people lived there, sipping drinks in its multiple taverns, fitting their horses with shoes at a blacksmith shop staffed by slaves, and purchasing clothing at the tailor shop. From 1842 to 1845, during Sam Houston’s second term as president, the town also served as capital of the republic. “It’s known as the place where Texas became Texas,” Failor says. “Texas was its own country, and the town of Washington has a role in that. That story never really got told, and people want to engage in history in a tangible way.”

Archaeologists Dug Up a Vanished Texas Town and Found 10,000 Artifacts
The remains of an old brick fireplace uncovered at Washington-on-the-Brazos.Courtesy of Texas Historical Commission

The population had hit roughly one thousand by 1852, making Washington one of the largest cities in Texas. But after residents rejected a proposal to bring the railroad there in 1858, the town shriveled on the vine. A few photos from the late nineteenth century show the town’s slow decline; in 1912 a fire burned the remaining structures. By the 1920s, German immigrants had moved to the area and begun building homes. But those structures, too, eventually fell into disrepair.

Today, clear glass signs etched with the outlines of some of the homes and businesses along the main street give visitors an idea of what the street once looked like. But Failor hopes the reconstructed town buildings will help tell that story in an even more visual way. Visitors will be able to explore the townsite on their own, and although nothing has been finalized, occasional living history programs and special events are likely. The state legislature has allocated $41 million for the project, and the Washington on the Brazos Historical Foundation has raised about $5.6 million of the remaining $10 million needed to do the job. 

Despite the fame of the site, crews trying to re-create the town had surprisingly little to go on. The only known plat map of Washington-on-the-Brazos vanished during the Great Storm of 1900. Researchers used tax records and other documents to determine roughly where buildings were situated, then surveyed to look for anomalies below the ground. “Some fun things popped up, including the brick foundation of a house built in the 1830s,” Failor says. 

Excavations began last September. Over the following six months, crews pushed buckets of dirt through sieves, looking for traces of the old town. They dug trenches, searching for evidence underneath the 20-by-150-foot plot where archival records indicated Houston’s presidential office once stood. On the third try, they found a hole where a support post had been. From there, they determined the footprint of the 16-by-16-foot building and uncovered nails, window glass, buttons, and bits of ceramics, all buried under more than a foot of dirt. 

“When you think about the stuff that occurred in this building . . .” Failor says, his voice trailing off. The reconstructed office will be positioned just in front of the actual site, to preserve it. 

Down the road, a tavern and pool hall called Hatfield’s Exchange also played an important role in the town’s history. Ministers once used its pool tables as sermon pulpits, and it served as the House chamber for the republic. It was where, in 1845, Congress made the decision to let residents vote on whether the republic should join the United States. They voted yes, and the republic’s flag was lowered for the last time on February 19, 1846, two months after Texas officially became a state. “Some great debates happened here,” Failor says. Hatfield’s burned in 1854, and signs of its existence disappeared beneath farmers’ plows.

Across the street, archaeologists uncovered the brick floor of a house built in the 1830s that was later covered by another building. Crews will re-create the outside of the structure, then build a catwalk inside so visitors can walk along it and look down on the original floor. Farther down the street, teams will rebuild Hall & Lott’s Tavern, where Davy Crockett stayed on his way to the Alamo.

Among the 10,000 or so artifacts archaeologists have uncovered are nails and other building materials, the remains of an old brick fireplace, the key to a gold pocket watch, buttons from a soldier’s uniform, gun flints, animal bones, pipes, glassware, ceramics, and coins, including a Spanish silver dollar from 1820 and an 1831 U.S. dime—essentially, “everything you might find on a city street somewhere,” Failor says. 

A lab in McKinney is processing artifacts, and architects from the Texas Historical Commission, in collaboration with historian and subject matter expert Michael Moore, are busy designing the buildings. Because they have no photos to reference, they’ll base their plans on what was typical of the time and place. Construction should begin sometime this summer, and the finished project—a row of modest structures along a dirt road that cuts through a field thick with grass and brush—should provide an authentic perspective on the Lone Star State’s past.

“What this reconstruction will do is remind us of Texas’s agrarian roots, which I think is pretty cool,” says Carlos Kevin Blanton, a longtime history professor at Texas A&M University. “It serves as a reminder that the Texas we know today—whether you think of it as a nation or a state or maybe even a state of mind—has very, very humble beginnings.”