The Exiles

At the beginning of the 1760’s, the American world was being torn apart and sewn back together. For the better part of a decade New France had been at war with the British colonies. It was here that George Washington first saw battle along the bloody frontier. For the first time, every British colony from Massachusetts to Georgia stood united against foreign invasion. They were proud Britons, and proud Americans.

After some time it grew apparent to the French that the war was being lost. King Louis XV, expecting to be booted from the continent, sold the portion of New France west of the Mississippi to his Spanish cousins. A year later, in 1763, the Treaty of Paris would end the French and Indian War, and the remainder of the French lands in America would be left to the British.

It took some time for the Spanish to adjust to the new situation. No longer was there danger from encroaching French settlements in the north and east. The buffer state of Texas was unnecessary, as were presidios all along the frontier. In 1772 the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio Maria de Bucareli y Ursua, sent out the New Regulation for Presidios. In the order he called for all Spanish subjects in the missions of East Texas to pull back to San Antonio.

Generations had risen and faded since Father Margil’s miracle on the banks of Lanana Creek. The settlers had long ago forgotten whatever lands they had come from. Their homes were here, their farms and ranches and small towns. They had been raised in East Texas soil, had found love there, had raised children of their own, had worshipped there, had scratched a living out of that ground, and by now it had as much claim on them as any Spanish politician.

Antonio Gil Ibarvo was among these natives. He was born in Los Adaes in 1729, in that portion of the Sabine Country that Americans later tacked on to Louisiana. When he married his wife, Maria, they settled a place they called “Rancho Lobanillo,” a hard day’s ride from Nacogdoches. In 1773, when the Governor sent soldiers to force the East Texans off their land, they rallied behind Ibarvo, naming him their leader. When they reached San Antonio, he petitioned for their return. After some time, his request was partly granted. In September of 1774 they founded the town of Bucareli on the west bank of the Trinity River.

Four years passed. The British were at war with themselves, the colonists fighting for their freedom against a tyrannical parliament and the king that stood behind it. Spain declared war on King George’s forces, but the people of Bucareli were already fighting a war of their own. Flooding and Indian raids ruined crops and laid waste to the town. In 1779, without government permission, they quietly left the settlement behind and passed into the forbidden east, to what may have been the only remaining European structure in East Texas: the mission at Nacogdoches.

The town soon began to thrive, far from Spanish oversight. Here in the wild woods they traded with Caddoes and Frenchmen, and the newly arrived Cajuns. As the years wore on, the victorious Britons of America would spread their Union westward, founding state after state. Outlaws and refugees of every race and creed would find a hiding place in the country east of the Sabine, where Ibarvo was born. But here, in Nacogdoches, settlers and immigrants would find their gateway back into a civilized nation. In time, Spain named Ibarvo lieutenant governor, commander of the militia, and local magistrate. They had no choice but to acknowledge the pueblo that would not die, the exiles that would not leave. Nacogdoches was here to stay.

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The Eyes of Father Margil

On April 27, 1716, seventy-five clergymen, soldiers, and civilians crossed the Rio Grande headed north and east. They travelled with all their tools and livestock for hundreds of miles before resting under the boughs of the East Texas woods. There they founded some half-dozen missions, little settlements intended to convert the Indians, and offset the French influence creeping west from Louisiana.

Among these missions, founded on the ninth of July, was Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe de los Nacogdoches. At its head was Father Antonio Margil de Jesus, a Franciscan missionary from Valencia who left Spain in 1683 and spent nearly fifty years founding missionary colleges in the Americas and ministering to the indigenous population.

At first, the mission seemed to be a success. In 1717, however, a severe drought struck East Texas, killing crops, draining Lanana Creek nearly dry, and causing many of the natives to leave the mission. This continued into the summer of the next year, the state of the mission growing worse with every passing day. At last, distressed by the loss of his flock, Father Margil was caught up in a vision.

He took his staff and began to walk up the creek, a crowd following behind him. He stopped at a bend in its course, gazing at an overhanging rock shelf. The others watched as he struck the tall creek bank twice with his staff, and each time a steam of water gushed forth. From those two spouts the whole creek was filled again, the crops began to recover, and the Indians found the inspiration to stay at the mission. The spring became known as Los Ojos de Padre Margil—the Eyes of Father Margil.

Almost three hundred years later, there is a trail along Lanana Creek. I am fond of it, and walk its six mile length whenever I can. Once, after hearing the story of Father Margil, I walked that portion of the trail where the spring was said to have been all those ages ago. There is a place where the path diverges into a tangle of walkways, and one of them leads up some wooden stairs along a rise in what used to be the creek bank. On one side is a wall of earth, on the other an oxbow pond. In that wall of earth, I saw a little trickle of water flowing down.

Some months later I returned to that place to find it substantially improved. Large areas had been cleared, benches had been set out, and a stone marker sat beside the oxbow pond, facing the bank and my trickle of water. This area had been declared “Father Margil Park,” and old stories passed down through families that had lived in Nacogdoches since time immemorial proved my hopes right. In that little trickle, grown small through the centuries, I had seen the Eyes of Father Margil.

Between the Bayous

The Caddo Indians told an old legend of a cave where the Red River and Mississippi met, a place called Chahkanina, “the place of crying.”  When the Caddoes emerged from that darkness, their leader, Moon, told them to turn west and not look back. Among the bands that turned west were Nacogdoche. They settled in a land of deep woods filled with great pines, the earth shaped by the rivers and creeks that cut through it. The ground there was fertile, and they settled between two bayous, Lanana and Banita. They named their village “Nevantin.”

Nevantin, like other Caddo villages, was a collection of beehive-shaped huts. There they raised corn, beans, pumpkins, sunflowers, and sometimes tobacco, which they considered sacred. They hunted deer and buffalo and small game in the surrounding woods. The village had a caddi, a chief, and a xinesi, a priest or shaman. They worshipped the “Caddi Ayo,” or “Lord of the Sky.”

For hundreds of years the Nacogdoche band continued in this way of life, year after year, harvest after harvest, in trade and marriage and war and peace. Then, in the year of our Lord 1542, a Spaniard named Luis de Moscoso Alvarado passed through East Texas with a company of explorers. News of these strangers from across the sea rippled through the Caddo bands. The story of Nevantin, the village between the bayous, was about to change forever.