Although the original inhabitants of San Felipe were born before photography was invented, photographs of 75 of them now adorn the walls of the temporary exhibit hall at the San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site and Museum.
The “Faces of Austin’s Colony” exhibit opened Nov. 2 and will remain open through the spring of 2020. There are 65 portraits depicting 75 original inhabitants of the city that was settled along the banks of the Brazos River in 1824. The community served as the capital of Stephen F. Austin’s colony until residents razed it in 1836 as they fled the advancing Mexican Army in what is known at the Runaway Scrape during the Texas Revolution.
It was during this time that photography was invented. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took the first known photograph in history in 1827. He died in 1833, but his assistant, Louis Daguerre, improved the process, dropping exposure time down from eight hours to mere minutes. It was in 1839 that William Henry Fox Talbot created negative film and made prints of the images. From there, photography gradually became widespread.
By the time photography reached Louisiana and Texas, many of San Felipe’s residents were in their golden years and do not appear as they would have in their prime when San Felipe was founded and a thriving community. The portraits in the exhibit were taken between the 1840s and the 1910s
“Although all the people in these photographs are Texans, not all the images included in this exhibit were made in Texas. Many of the wealthier citizens of Texas traveled to New Orleans or back to their families in Missouri, Tennessee, or the eastern coast of the United States where they would have their photos made. However, most of the photographs were made right here in studios across the state,” a sign in the exhibit says.
The exhibit is curated by Danielle Brissette.
“It was a lot of fun to research,” she said.
She said she got the idea for the exhibit after noticing that a lot of photographs of the early settlers existed in various places. Her hope is that the exhibit will grow.
“The longer the exhibit (is on display) the more we’ll be adding to it,” she said.
There is a plea in the exhibit for anyone with access to qualifying photographs to let her know.
This is the second time a photo exhibit of San Felipe settlers has been exhibited. In 1853, J.H. Selkirk, son of William Selkirk, one of the first settlers, sought out early settlers to be photographed and displayed in his gallery in Matagorda. Those images, however, have been lost to time.
“When you walk in, the first one is my personal favorite, and that’s Jane Long,” Brissette said.
She called the photograph of the “Mother of Texas” a “haunting picture.”
“Her eyes show you all the different things she has seen,” Brissette said.
The photograph of Long is just one of a few pictures of women in the exhibit.
“There aren’t a significant number of women from the colony. Men outnumbered women eight or nine to one,” she said.
One of the more prominent images in the collection is of two African American brothers, George and Yarboro “Sam” Allen.
She said the Allen brothers were unique in that one was born a slave and the other was born free. The portrait was made in the 1910s.
“Unfortunately, it’s the only significant picture that shows the diversity in the colony,” she said.
According to information in the exhibit, slaves made up about 25% of the population in Austin’s colony, yet slaves, like many other population groups including Tejanos and Native Americans, were either not photographed or their photographs were lost.
Other groups were purposefully omitted from the exhibit. That includes, obviously, those revolutionaries who died during the Texas Revolution, those who only passed through without taking up residence (most notably those who came to fight in the revolution), and those who settled after the revolution in 1836.
“They had to have a house and live in Austin’s colony at the end,” Brissette said, adding “They had to be walking on the streets and shopping in the stores and eating in the tavern.”
As Brissette researched the exhibit and found information to put in the biographies that accompany each image, she learned that San Felipe was a very close-knit community.
“I was surprised at how much everybody in the colony knew each other and were connected to five other people hanging on the wall,” she said.
The exhibit is free to the public and open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit www.thc.texas.gov/historic-sites/san-felipe-de-austin-state-historic-site.