Near the south bank of the San Antonio River, a fortress stands out against the local backdrop of anaqua trees and warm blue skies. Through two revolutions, countless skirmishes, and untold hours of everyday life in times gone by, Presidio la Bahia has stood on this spot since 1749.
Now serving as a museum, church, and occasional hotel, La Bahia holds centuries of history both on its grounds and beneath them, in forms ranging from monuments in honor of its heroes to mass graves of the unknown departed.
Although the cannons on its parapets have long been silent, many believe that the hundreds of souls to leave this plane on the grounds of La Bahia have left behind a goodly number of unquiet stragglers.
History of Presidio La Bahia
The Heart of Goliad
The Presidio la Bahia was originally established as a Spanish stronghold to defend Spain’s mining interests in the area, but after French colonists withdrew from the Texas territory the fort became a vital waypoint along major trade routes and a gateway to the river. At first a show of military might, it soon became a vital landmark of the region.
As the fort transformed into an economic hub, the town of Goliad sprouted and blossomed around it, and the fort chapel, Our Lady of Loreto, was constructed to serve the soldiers, their families, and the townsfolk. Being the only consecrated ground for miles in any direction, the chapel courtyard soon became home to countless graves, both marked and unmarked, unrelated to the wartime bloodshed on the grounds.
Civilian life persisted around the fort even as it changed hands between the Spanish and the rebels multiple times throughout the Mexican War of Independence, but the worst was yet to come.
During the Texas Revolution, Presidio la Bahia was commanded by the Texan Colonel James Fannin, who renamed it “Fort Defiance.” Running critically low on supplies, fighting frigid storms, and unable to offer support to the falling Alamo, Fannin was ordered to abandon the fort and fall back to neighboring Victoria.
The troops of La Bahia had barely left the gates when they were captured by the forces of Mexican General José de Urrea and corralled back into their own fort, now as prisoners. When Urrea refused a presidential order to execute the prisoners as pirates, his lieutenant took up the order and had Fannin and his men divided up into groups to be killed.
The Goliad Massacre
Francita Alavez, the common law wife of another of Urrea’s officers, argued passionately for mercy for the prisoners, and was fortunate enough to have some luck in this venture. She succeeded in having 20 men spared for their medical, linguistic, or other useful knowledge, and managed to hide an unknown number of others, saving their lives.
For this and her other humanitarian efforts throughout the war, Alavez became known as the “Angel of Goliad,” in time earning a statue that now stands in her honor in the Presidio’s plaza.
In spite of Urrea’s refusal, and the best efforts of Alavez and other objectors, the majority of Fannin’s men, over 400 in total, were led outside in groups and shot. Those too injured to walk were dragged to the fort’s quadrangle, and those who survived the initial firing were beaten and stabbed to death. Only 28 escaped by hiding among the corpses.
Fannin himself was saved for last and forced to sit in a chair in the chapel courtyard due to his wounded leg. He requested that he be shot in the heart, given a Christian burial, and that his watch be sent to his family. The soldiers performing the execution shot him in the face, stole his watch, and burned his body along with the rest.
Ghosts of Presidio La Bahia
Our Lady of Loreto
To this day, the chapel of Our Lady of Loreto remains a functioning church, holding weekly services and frequent weddings. The structure has stood unchanged since 1779, but the toll of the past centuries can be felt everywhere.
As a center of activity in peacetime as well as war, the chapel is rumored to be home to a dense and varied population of spirits. The sounds of crying babies, a church organ, and a women’s choir can sometimes be heard from within, and the bells are known to chime at unexpected times.
A woman in mourning attire is said to appear at the offering table to light a candle, while another woman in white wanders the courtyard, searching the graves for a name that can’t be found, and a robed friar patrols, frightening off trespassers.
Ghosts of the Officer’s Quarters
Near the chapel, a section of the officers’ quarters can be rented for the night by parties of four or fewer, but one should do so with caution for the abnormal activity known to occur. The most common manifestations in the quarters are phantom footsteps, distant cannon fire, banging on the walls, and the sound of a woman’s cheerful humming.
This is also where the presence of Fannin himself is most felt, with some overnight guests experiencing sharp leg pains and attacks of panic and dread, echoing his final moments. Though some have claimed a feeling of hostility from his presence, anger at his untimely demise and the loss of his men, a general feeling of mournfulness is also described.
Blood on the Quadrangle
On the other side of the chapel’s courtyard wall is the quadrangle where the injured among Fannin’s men were executed. Vultures still flock to this area in anomalous numbers, perhaps attracted to the same lingering impression of the massacre that some visitors still sense, a smell of spectral blood perhaps that never washed clean.
Aggressive, poltergeist-like echoes of Urrea’s men are said to bark orders in Spanish and attempt to shove the unwary living to their knees. At sunset, some have seen bodies decaying on the ground out of the corner of an eye, or caught a whiff of the burnt, rotten aftermath on the breeze.
Whether you encounter a ghost on your own visit to Presidio la Bahia or not, this altogether haunting museum and landmark is a perfect place to connect with a bloody yet fascinating slice of Texas history.
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