“She ended up in Texas and landed on our coast. Her brave deeds are recorded; so Texas can proudly boast...Jane helped the Texans fight for a life that was free. With ammunition and money, she helped Texas come to be...Pioneer woman brave and true. Yes, Jane Long was a lady who did what she had to do.”
–Linda C. Elissalde, “The Ballad of Jane Long.” (Music by Bruce Haire.)
This new year marks two-hundred years since the events that defined one woman’s enduring legacy within Texas history and prompted her title as the “Mother of Texas,” events that occurred both here on Galveston Island and just across the channel on the western tip of Bolivar Peninsula. From heiress to destitute widow by the time she was 24 years old, Jane Herbert Wilkinson Long abandoned the promise of a comfortable and worry-free life to pursue one of adventure and purpose.
This bold choice, made such by an era when women were widely considered suited only for domestic life, led to devastating personal tragedies. Yet Jane did not falter, neither in her love for her husband nor in her determination to ensure fruition of the cause for which he lived and died. Valiantly defying cultural norms, Jane Long would later cement her own place in history as a key player in the fight for Texas Independence.
Born on July 23, 1798, in Charles County, Maryland, Jane Long was the tenth child of Captain William Mackall Wilkinson and his wife Anne Herbert Wilkinson (nee Dent). A wealthy plantation owner, Jane’s father died when she was barely one year old; his last will and testament had not yet been updated to include her.
He did, however, bequeath one slave to each of his named daughters, and to his wife the power to divide his assets between the children how she saw fit, so this is presumably how began Jane’s close relationship with a slave girl named Kian who later accompanied her to Texas. The details are scant—some sources claim Kian was only 12 years old during their fated winter on Bolivar in 1821, while others maintain that the two were close in age and grew up together.
Around 1811, Anne moved the family to Washington in the Mississippi Territory but died two years later. Jane was sent to live with the eldest sister Barbara and her husband Alexander Calvit at their Propinquity Plantation outside of Natchez, Louisiana.
In 1815, she met James Long, a surgeon for the United States Army who had recently completed his service in the War of 1812. He traveled to Natchez after the final Battle of New Orleans and married Jane mere months later on May 14, 1815.
For the next four years, the couple remained in the Natchez area close to Jane’s relatives. Industrious and enterprising, James operated an international wholesale business in the city, practiced medicine at Port Gibson, and started a plantation. Their daughter Ann Herbert Long was born on November 26, 1816, but the small family’s quaint, quiet life ended forever in 1819.
James had become increasingly passionate about the rights of settlers in the North American territories, particularly those who were beholden to foreign rule. When the Adams-Oniz Treaty was signed on February 22, 1819, securing the western border of the Louisiana purchase at the Sabine River thereby excluding Texas, it enraged James. He rallied other prominent citizens of Natchez who began to plan a filibustering expedition to liberate Texas from its Spanish ruler and place Long in command.
James assembled a militia of 300 men and traveled to Nacogdoches in June of 1819, leaving behind his young daughter and Jane, nine-months pregnant with their second child. Shortly after his departure, Rebecca Long was born on June 16.
Undoubtedly dedicated to her husband and his cause, Jane set off to join him twelve days later with baby, child, and Kian in tow. While passing through Louisiana, they stopped to visit the Calvits who now lived near Alexandria.
Jane became ill during her stay, but refused to delay her journey any longer. Not yet recovered, she left little Rebecca with her sister and pressed on to Nacogdoches.
Jane finally reached her husband in August, but two months later, she was forced to flee along with other Anglo and American families who were rallying for the settlers’ independence. The Spanish government had been alerted to their movement, and troops were on their way from San Antonio to squash any potential uprising.
James was visiting Galveston Island when the exodus began, but managed to meet up with Jane at a rendezvous point along the Sabine. From there, Jane returned to the Calvits where she learned that Rebecca had died.
Unaware of the death of his infant daughter, James traveled back west to Bolivar Peninsula to complete the establishment of Fort Las Casas. Far ahead of his time, or perhaps the spark that started it all, James erected a military fortification on the far western portion of the peninsula, built expressly to unshackle Texas from its foreign ruler, a cause that would not reach revolution for another 15 years. In March of 1820, he retrieved Jane and brought her to the fort.
Sometime over the next year, Jane claims to have sailed across the channel to Galveston Island where she dined with Jean Laffite. Sometimes pirate, sometimes privateer, Laffite formed a small colony on the eastern portion of the island that existed between 1817 and 1821. Presumably, Jane’s aim in meeting with the infamous marauder was to secure funding for her husband’s cause.
A wealthy man from his decades of exploits both sanctioned and illegal, Laffite is said to have lavishly entertained Mrs. Long. He was also unapologetically disinterested in allegiance to any political cause and declined her request.
However, he may have recommended an alternate source for funding or at least provided a bit of intel. Soon after this meeting, the Longs left Bolivar and traveled to Laffite’s former haunt of New Orleans to elicit backing for Texas’ deliverance.
On the way, they went to Alexandria to pick up Ann, but found she had been sent to live with Jane’s other sister, Anne Chesley in Rodney, Mississippi. After unsuccessful efforts in New Orleans, James and Jane purchased passage over the Gulf to Bolivar, but at the last minute, Jane decided to retrieve Ann from Mississippi and missed the boat. She brought Ann back to Alexandria and remained there until a compatriot of her husband’s came to escort them over land to Fort Las Casas.
A small but thriving community had grown in and around the fort by the time James Long left it for the last time on September 19, 1821. His plan was to take most of the soldiers stationed there and travel to La Bahia, construct a strategy, and perhaps pursue diplomatic negotiations with Mexico. The neighboring country had recently won their independence from Spain and was now the governing agent of Texas.
James assured Jane, now well into her third pregnancy, that he would return in one month. They agreed that she would remain at the fort and wait for him to return.
James carried with him the fort’s flag, sewn by Jane: a solid red cloth with a simple, lone white star in the center. It is considered by some to be the first Texas flag, the first Lone Star, and Jane reportedly maintained that the real “lone star” was in fact her husband.
One month passed. Then two. Slowly and then all at once, the remaining soldiers at the fort abandoned their post.
Residents of the surrounding community started to pack up their belongings and leave, certain that James’ absence indicated that the cause was lost. Stubborn and determined to keep her word to her husband, Jane refused to leave the fort.
As one of the worst winters on record began to set in on the peninsula, Jane, Kian, and 6-year-old Ann were left all alone to fend for themselves. Amid the harsh, lonely conditions, Jane gave birth to her third daughter Mary James Long on December 21, 1821.
As supplies dwindled and the temperature continued to plummet, Galveston Bay froze over completely, and the three sustained themselves by foraging and pulling frozen ducks and fish out of the icy bay.
To deter Karankawa who loomed menacingly around the fort, Jane made efforts to display that Fort Las Casas was still occupied by soldiers. She loaded and fired the cannon once a day, every day, and raised her red petticoat above the fort to mimic her lone star flag.
In the early months of 1822, she began to welcome immigrants who landed on the shore and were headed for the colonies along the San Jacinto River. Time and again, though weary and near starving, she refused to relinquish her vigil and travel inland with them.
Finally, in the spring of 1822, Jane relented. She moved with a family to a camp on Cedar Bayou. In the summer, Jane moved further up the San Jacinto where she finally learned the fate of her husband.
He had been captured and imprisoned in San Antonio and then Monterrey. In March of 1822, around the time Jane left Bolivar, he was taken to Mexico City to argue his case before the Mexican emperor Agustin de Iturbide.
But on April 8, he was shot by a guard. Officials claimed that the shooting was accidental, but these protestations denied certain evidence that the guard acted under the orders of a Mexican militia leader.
Shortly after hearing the news, Jane traveled to San Antonio in October of 1822. Her quest was twofold: to request a pension from a former associate of her husband, now governor of Tejas, and to seek the truth about her husband’s death.
Jane remained in San Antonio for ten months, yet was unsuccessful in both of her pursuits. Defeated, she returned to Alexandria in September 1823.
Fortunately for the future of Texas, Jane Long returned to the territory after the death of Mary James, her Bolivar baby, on June 25, 1824. Steeled by grief, perhaps still incensed by her husband’s death, or merely unable to extinguish the fire of revolution that James had sparked, Jane staged a remarkable comeback.
She was given one of the first land grants to Anglo Americans in Texas, part of Stephen F. Austin’s famous “Old 300.” A rare receipt for a woman and a celebration of all she had sacrificed for Texas up to this time, Jane’s triumphant return set the scene for her extraordinary contributions to the fight for freedom and the eventual formation of the Republic of Texas.
…To Be Continued in March 2021