Preserving the Story
Mary Christian Burleson was born in 1795 in Wythe County, Virginia to John and Nancy (Wright) Buchanan. Her Grandfather, Captain John Buchanan, owned a modest Virginia Plantation and was a noted weaver with a strong family tradition in stock raising and farming. While not as well connected in the political world of the old south as once thought, Mary was likely raised in comfortable surroundings and received an education in art, literature, and music.
Mary met Thomas Christian at age 27 during a visit with family in Kentucky in 1822. Christian had fought in the War of 1812 and was a farmer, stock raiser and surveyor. After a short courtship, the couple returned to Virginia to marry. They remained in Virginia for a few years where their son John Madison, and two daughters, Nancy Wright and Eliza Ann were born.
After the birth of Eliza Ann, Thomas and Mary Christian began their trek westward, first stopping in Missouri, where Mary had two more daughters, Martha Allison and Amanda Jane. In Missouri the family joined immigrants headed to San Felipe de Austin in Texas, where they arrived in April 1832. In Texas, Thomas and Mary were granted one of the 15 original titles in Stephen F. Austin’s Little Colony.
In a letter from James Clark to Stephen Austin, Thomas Christian was described as follows: “…in steadiness and habits of integrity and honor he yields to no citizen of our country. His circumstances are easy though not affluent and he seeks in your Country under a climate more congenial an asylum from the cold of the North.”
The family stayed in Bastrop for the following year, as Bastrop was a fairly secure place to live while preparations were made for moving to outlying farms and while lots were surveyed. Many of the townsfolk lived in temporary camps; Christian built the 5th structure in Bastrop on a lot selected along the river bank.
Due to a lack of cleared cultivable lands on their lot, the Christian family moved in the summer of 1833 to Mr. Webber’s location and secured a crop of corn. John F. Webber, an Anglo who had settled in the area early in 1827 with his African American wife and children, sought to find a place where he and his family could escape the discrimination of the antebellum South. This is likely why they took up land on the very edge of the frontier. According to Noah Smithwick, who personally knew the family, Webber’s wife, ‘Puss’, was “ever ready to render assistance, without money and without price,” to anyone in the neighborhood who needed help. Smithwick tells of several unfortunates to whom the Webbers gave a temporary home. The Christians appear to have been among the families that benefited from her generosity.
Mary became the sole provider and protector of her young family of six when her husband, Thomas Christian, was scalped and killed in the famous Wilbarger Massacre in August of 1833. He had ventured west to scout for land further up the Colorado River near present day Walnut Creek with Josiah Wilbarger. At Pecan Springs, now in East Austin, the party was involved in a shootout with a group of Indians. Christian was one of the two men killed at the scene. The two surviving men brought news to the Webber’s neighbors. Ruben Hornsby, reporting the death of their three companions, stated that they “saw Wilbarger fall with about fifty Indians around him, and knew he was dead”. Ruben Hornsby brought Mary Christian and her six young children to his settlement where he prepared a simple cabin for them, where they lived temporarily. Mary is said have left Ruben Hornsby’s for Bastrop as “the wild, rich valley soil had lost its luster for her” after the death of Christian.
Drawing strength from her faith, in the spring of 1835 Mary was one of an eleven member charter (which included Cecilie, a slave of the Samuel Craft family) to organize what is believed to be the second oldest Methodist congregation in Texas. This was risky business. Under Spanish rule, the law permitted only Catholic congregations. This society met at an unfinished Bastrop store where a barrel served as the pulpit and seats were planks supported by boxes.
It is very likely that Mary, along with other Methodists in Bastrop at the time, supported the abolition of slavery. Only a few years later, Bastrop area Methodists passed a local resolution making it unacceptable for a bishop to be connected in any way with slavery.
In 1835, Mary wed the patriarch of the prominent Burleson family, James Burleson Sr. During their short marriage, her husband fought at the first major campaign of the Texas Revolution under command of his son, Gen. Edward Burleson, commander at the siege of Bexar (San Antonio). He was named a hero for leading a decisive charge in the Grass Fight. Mary became the step-mother of James Sr.’s many adult sons, who become well known characters in the battles with the Mexican Government and Indian groups, as well as important leaders in the Republic and during early Statehood.
Mary’s stepson Edward Burleson would go on to become Commander and Chief of the Texas Army and Vice President of the Republic of Texas 1841-44, receiving just over 6,000 votes in the election. Burleson’s death in 1851 was said to have produced a profound sensation throughout the country, in which “his name had become as familiar as a household word”.
Mary was widowed a second time when Burleson Sr. became ill and died after being discharged from battle in January of 1836. In March of the same year, Mary and her family became participants in the drama of the Texas Revolution. After the fall of the Alamo, Col. Edward Burleson relieved his brother Jonathan and a young 13-year-old volunteer soldier John H. Jenkins from their stations to help Mary as she and her seven children joined area settlers seeking refuge from Mexican soldiers in the “Runaway Scrape”.
Soon afterwards, Mary and her family participated in Second Runaway Scrape, this time to Washington-on-the-Brazos where Mary was forced to swim across the flooded Brazos River with her baby, Betty Burleson, on her back. The other children walked barefoot, leaving blood in their tracks, from Bastrop to Parker’s Fort, a 200 mile trek.
After the Battle of San Jacinto, April 21, 1836, Mary came back to Bastrop from Parker’s Fort, three weeks before the Fort Parker massacre in which members of the pioneer Parker family were killed in a raid by Comanches.
In 1838, Mary again supported the fledgling Methodist community as one of the 15 member charter, which under the flags of the Republic officially organized a Methodist church building in Bastrop. A bell for the church was shipped by way of the Colorado River on the riverboat “The Moccasin”, built by Sherman Reynolds, stepson of Mary, husband of Martha A. Christian Reynolds, Mary’s eldest daughter.
In a courageous move in 1840, Mary with her 7 young children, built a small log cabin and established the first homestead on the northernmost portion of Austin’s Little Colony, which was an unsettled frontier notorious for Indian raids. The cabin no longer stands but likely sat near the historic New Century Club near Main Street. Portions of this first cabin were reused in the 1847 home we are working to preserve today.
To say they were living on the frontier is a gross understatement, as Mary’s settlement was at the time by far the westernmost settlement in Texas. The family’s nearest neighbors were the Mike Young family, of Perryville (Hogeye) three miles south of her homestead. All of Elgin north of Avenue C has been built on part of Mary’s league of land.
Mary left her small homestead and went to Bastrop after a Comanche raid, but returned to her league in 1847 to build a home on the edge of the prairie: the homestead we are seeking to preserve today and the oldest home still standing in Elgin. The home is of a Vernacular style, a style and age rare in the country, retaining early sawmilled lumber, juniper cedar poles, field stones, waney lath, wooden pegs, and square cut nails.
The first description of the land in vicinity of Mary Christian Burleson’s homestead is recorded in 1871 as, “Vast open prairie, with large herds of cattle roaming, where grains and other cereals were farmed.” While this was written a year after Mary’s death in 1870, the large herds described were likely stock raised by Mary’s daughters and sons-in-law.
The Burleson men were involved in many battles with native groups, but some, especially Edward, developed close relationships with local Natives. Mary likely shared some of Edward Burleson’s openness to some American natives. Two occasions shed light on her attitude: the first being her overall lack of concern for an impending raid of her first cabin. Accounts state that she was busy getting a piece of cloth out of the loom and did not heed the warning of a raid until rather late in the afternoon.
The other incident happened after Mary built her second home on the prairie. Every winter migrating native groups would come into the neighborhood for the winter season. One day two Indians, likely Comanche, knocked at her back door and requested two beeves (Spanish for cattle raised for meat). Mary granted the request and the next winter they returned, and calling again at the house, whereupon they spread out two lovely buffalo robes saying, “These for the two beeves”.
With a long family history in stock raising, Mary managed livestock with the help of her young family, some of whom later served the Confederacy by rounding up cattle to feed the army, driving them up the Chisolm Trail to Kansas.
The scarcity of records makes it hard to be certain, but it is very likely that Mary was also a charter member of the first Methodist society in Elgin, which would later become First Methodist Church. The a-framed one room building worship center stood where the brick church now stands, possibly on or near the same location Mary first home stood.
It is certain that her daughters, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were pillars of the Elgin First United Methodist Church. Memorial windows describe the leadership of Mary’s daughters, stepsons and later descendants. Six names in total appear in the memorial windows in the church. Two of Mary’s great-grandchildren became Bishops, and one of them, Angie Frank Smith, established churches throughout the South, receiving recognition by Southwestern University and with the building of the A. Frank Smith hospital wing in the Methodist Hospital of Houston.
The Burleson Branch School was the first school in the area and located on the Christian tract in the late 1860’s. It consisted of a one-room log structure with seats made of split logs. After a few terms the school was moved into the town of Elgin.
Multiple Christian and Burleson women were college educated and some became educators in the early community. The influence of Mary and her educated daughters made significant contributions to the education of children on this new frontier. With Mary's encouragement, her son-in-law Charles Brooks obtained a charter for the Burleson Male and Female Academy in 1873. It was the first school in the area that accepted girls. Mary’s daughter Betty Burleson Brooks taught at the school, and later descendant Kittie Henderson and A.H. Carter were well known educators in the area.
In the late 1860s Mary and her stepson, Jonathan Burleson, granted a right-of-way to the Houston and Texas Central Railway route through their land for the town site of Elgin.
Mary died in 1870 and was buried in the family cemetery less than a mile from the homestead in Elgin. She was the mother of seven children who became leaders in the growth of the Texas and many in the Elgin Community, including the first mayor, local judges, teachers, business owners, and educated men and women, called her Grandma Burleson.
Citation: Embree, Cristin L. A History of Mary Christian Burleson, In Mary Christian Burleson, Historical Background, Homestead Site Chronology, Development and Use.