The encounter at Gonzales sparked the flame of the Texas Revolution, but conflict between Texans and the central Mexican government had been brewing for years.
At a time when the region was booming with immigrants from America and the slaves they brought with them, Texans wanted a federal system like the United States that would allow for more semi-autonomous governance.
Others in Mexico wanted a centralized government, yet the Mexican Constitution that was adopted in 1824 instituted a federal system.
But in 1834, Antonio López de Santa Anna took hold of political power in Mexico and “repudiated liberalism publicly,” “dissolved the republican Congress,” and “appointed every governor and official in the land,” according to Texas historian T. R. Fehrenbach.
Although the 1824 Constitution would not be officially repealed until after the Battle of Gonzales, Santa Anna effectively abolished the federal system and replaced it with a centrist one.
Just as the British before the American War for Independence were concerned about rebels and sought to confiscate weapons at Concord, Santa Anna’s regime was concerned about Texans being armed.
Knowing that a small, brass cannon had been given to Gonzales years before, a band of Mexican cavalryman under the orders of Colonel Domingo de Ugartechea went to retrieve it in late September 1835.
When the order reached him, the leader of the town, Andrew Ponton, stalled by demanding the order be signed by another political chief. In the meantime, he buried the cannon, asked for armed assistance from other Texans, and hid the boats and the ferry that were in the Guadalupe River just south of Gonzales.
Within the next few days, Ugartechea sent Captain Francisco Castañeda along with nearly two hundred soldiers to forcefully confiscate the cannon.
When Castañeda arrived outside of the town, he was stuck on the other side of the river and the citizens refused to let him cross.
According to the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), a Coushatta Indian told the Mexican soldiers that the force of Texas volunteers had grown to about 140. As a result, Castañeda decided to move his camp seven miles west down the river to a place where they could “cross without any embarrassment.”
The Texas militia elected John Moore to serve as their colonel, and Moore decided to preemptively attack the Mexicans at dawn.
The citizens dug up the cannon and mounted it to a wagon. Even though they had no cannon balls, a blacksmith forged some ammunition to use out of iron scraps.
Someone also hastily fashioned a flag for the militia to fight under: a large piece of white cloth with a black cannon painted on it and the words “come and take it” written underneath.
The TSHA provides two accounts of who made the flag.
One account says that “a few days prior to the battle, two young ladies from Gonzales, Caroline Zumwalt and Eveline DeWitt,” prepared the flag. It goes on to say that was used during the battle, but was soon “lost without a trace.”
Another account says that Sara Seely DeWitt, the wife of the late Green DeWitt who founded the colony, created the flag with the help of her daughter, Naomi, using Naomi’s wedding dress.
Regardless of which “inspired soul” — to use the words of Fehrenbach — made the flag, “come and take it” became a symbol of the Texas Revolution and Texans’ defiance against the tyrannical Santa Anna who abandoned and overturned the 1824 Constitution.
After the cannon and flag were ready, the militia set out to attack the Mexican soldiers who had moved down the Guadalupe River. Even once they had come near their enemy, they had to wait a little longer for the thick fog to lift with the dawning sun.
As the day broke, the Texans fired a shot of the cannon. While it missed, Castañeda quickly requested a parley to talk peacefully with Moore.
According to Fehrenbach, Moore said that the cannon had been given for “the defense of themselves and the constitution,” and said the Castañeda was “acting under the orders of the tyrant Santa Anna, who had broken and trampled underfoot all the state and federal constitutions of Mexico, except that of Texas.”
Texans were prepared to fight back.
Castañeda responded that he was also a federalist, but as a soldier had to obey his orders. “At this,” Fehrenbach writes, “Moore returned to his own lines and ordered the Texans to open fire.”
But apparently Ugartechea had also ordered Castañeda to avoid open conflict if possible, so the outnumbered Mexican troops retreated before much of a battle could even begin.
Nonetheless, like the shot heard around the world that was fired at Lexington, the cannon blast at Gonzales marked a turning point in the pages of history — the skirmish on October 2, 1835 was the beginning of the Texas Revolution.
Since then, the Gonzales flag has come to be an enduring symbol for Texans. The city of Gonzales even has an annual “Come and Take It” festival, which will be held once again this weekend in the town east of San Antonio.
The saying has also been picked up by Second Amendment advocates, who use it in response to policy proposals for gun restrictions.
For instance, when Beto O’Rourke exclaimed, “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15” in the last presidential debate, many on Twitter responded to him with the iconic phrase.
Texas State Rep. Briscoe Cain even responded to the tweet with a variation of the phrase, stating, “My AR is ready for you Robert Francis.” O’Rourke in turn responded by claiming it was a death threat and reporting him to Twitter, which has suspended Cain’s account until he removes the original tweet.
Some have criticized the use of the phrase by gun rights advocates, but there is no denying that the term has historically been tied to instances where a tyrannical government demanded weapons be turned over.
Even long before the events at Gonzales, “come and take it” had been used in a similar circumstance.
Plutarch, the famous Greek biographer, recounted an episode between the invading King Xerxes of Persia and King Leonidas of Sparta.
According to Plutarch, Xerxes told Leonidas that he could be the sole ruler of all Greece if he yielded, but Leonidas replied, “If you had any knowledge of the noble things of life, you would refrain from coveting others’ possessions; but for me to die for Greece is better than to be the sole ruler over the people of my race.”
The firm reply aggravated Xerxes, who then demanded the Spartans “Hand over [their] arms.” Leonidas’ reply? “Come and take them” — or “molon labe” in the original Greek text.
Even though Texans were not the first to use the phrase, the flag with a lone star and a simple cannon is uniquely Texan and leaves a simple message for all who dare infringe upon their liberty and God-given right to self-defense: “Come and Take It.”
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Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.