Updated: May 8, 2019
By Dr. Scott Sosebee
Yes, It Has Been 300 Years
I moved to Nacogdoches in 2006, and it did not take me long to realize that when you told people where you were from very often the next words you would here were, “Is that really the oldest town on Texas,” or, “That’s not really the oldest town in Texas, is it?” My response, generally has been a cautious yes—particularly around people from El Paso and San Antonio, who also want to claim such a title—because I suppose it depends on how you define the meaning of “town.” But, as you delve more deeply into it, I think that it becomes apparent that Nacogdoches is the “Oldest Town in Texas,” and thus in 2016 our city celebrated its three hundredth anniversary—its tercentennial if you are a stickler for detail—or our “tri-centennial” if you want most people to know what you are talking about.
You could certainly make a case that Nacogdoches should have celebrated its millennium in at least 2000, and not a tri-centennial in 2016. Archeological evidence suggests the site of the present city of Nacogdoches was originally inhabited by a band of the Hasinai Caddo, the Nacogdoche, as early as 1000. A Caddoan culture village would have been a series of conical shaped grass or earthen dwellings that were distributed along a central area around cultivated fields. Near the center of the village would have been ceremonial earthen mounds that would have been used for perhaps religious ceremonies, as a central marketplace, or for some sort of political significance.
The Hasinai, like all the bands of the Caddo, grew crops but also engaged in trade. Because they were traders they welcomed all travelers to their villages. When a visitor from outside the band came to the village the Hasinai made a high-pitched scream as a greeting (the earliest Spanish migrants to the villages described it as akin to a wail of grief). The unusual welcoming sound was probably meant to warn all the villagers that someone was approaching as much as it was a salutatory utterance. Still, the Hasinai were generally friendly toward interlopers, a trait that would, in the end, cost them dearly as European diseases first decimated their population, and then non-Native invaders appropriated their lands. So, perhaps Nacogdoches is really much older than 300 years, although many would argue that those strung out Hasinai dwellings did not really constitute a “town” in the sense accepted by conventional western civilization standards.
The other argument against 2016 being the tri-centennial is that Nacogdoches—the city—will not be 300 years old until 2079 since Gil Y’Barbo did not found the Spanish villa of Nacogdoches until he and his followers returned to the area from Bucarelli in 1779. Y’Barbo and his cluster of Spanish citizens experienced nothing but problems after their move from the far northern border of New Spain in 1774—floods, fires, Comanche attacks, and a lack of resources—and they thought that the only solution was to return to their former homes. Thus, with Y’Barbo leading the way, a little band of about a hundred and twenty-five migrants established a new town at the site of the abandoned Mission Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Nacogdohces in April 1779. So, some say that our city “jumped the gun” on our celebration.
However, I submit that is not the case. Why did Y’Barbo choose to resettle where he did? He could have moved farther east, or stopped near the also abandoned San Francisco de los Tejas, San Jose, or Concepcion. Instead, he chose Mission Guadalupe, which is significant. Some evidence, collected by my former colleague Dr. David Rex-Galindo, suggests that despite orders, which were followed by the clerics at the adjacent missions, Mission Guadalupe’s friars continued to occupy that mission. That would mean that the site of Mission Guadalupe, the place where Y’Barbo founded his town, was at least continually inhabited by European residents in a communal setting since at least 1716. To me, that means that the genesis of modern Nacogdoches began in 1716, and 2016 was our 300th anniversary.
Does that make Nacogdoches the oldest town in Texas? In a sense, yes. Martín Alarcón founded San Antonio in 1718, so that city is two years younger than Nacogdoches. Mission Ysléta, in far west Texas near El Paso, was established in 1680, but it was founded on the south side of the Rio Grande (the river changed course in the early 1800s, putting Ysléta on the north side of the river). Also, the modern city of El Paso did not begin until the establishment of supply operations around Fort Bliss in the 1850s. Laredo? There is a possible argument there, but again, the nascent beginnings of what is today Laredo started on the south bank of the Rio Grande. Thus, Nacogdoches is indeed the “oldest town in Texas.”
The East Texas Historical Association provides this column as a public service. Scott Sosebee is Executive Director of the Association and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org; www.easttexashistorical.org