How a reluctant civil servant preserved a Texas treasure

tree of liberty texas

Jane McCallum didn’t much want the job of Texas Secretary of State, offered to her by Gov. Dan Moody in 1927. A journalist and suffragette leader, she ended up taking the post as a way to do something for both women and herself. Ultimately, McCallum was able to a great service to all Lone Star State residents.

Not long after taking on her new role, McCallum was cleaning up her office and came across a rusty tin box in a vault in the Capitol building in Austin. Inside was a decayed scroll of paper.

It turned out to be the Texas Declaration of Independence, missing for the previous three decades, and, in fact, absent almost since it was drafted more than 90 years earlier.

The document was approved March 2, 1836, and signed March 3, 1836, at Washington-on-the-Brazos, in today’s Washington County.

Texas officials sent the Declaration of Independence along with other documents to Washington, DC, where Stephen F. Austin was seeking recognition for the new republic.

The document was deposited with American officials at some point in 1836 by William Wharton, who had been appointed minister plenipotentiary to the US by Texas President Sam Houston.

What happened to the Declaration of Independence after that is unknown – and it remained missing for the next six decades.

Texas Declaration of Independence.

Texas Declaration of Independence.

“Until 1896, puzzled officials and historians guessed the document may have been destroyed in one of the Texas Capitol’s fires,” according to the book “A Month of Sundays.” “But in May of that year the document turned up.”

A man named William Hallett Phillips had come across a file in the State Department that appeared to contain the Texas Declaration of Independence. He mentioned it to a friend, native Texan Seth Shepard, who was serving as an associate justice of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Shepard originally believed the document in question to be a copy, but it proved to be the original. State Department officials agreed to return it to Texas, and Gov. Charles A. Culberson received the document on July 1, 1896.

Shortly thereafter it went missing for another three decades – until McCallum came across it.

She took considerable time deliberating on the best way to conserve the document, taking two years to determine how to restore and display it. After officials at the University of Texas preserved the Declaration of Independence, it was placed in a wrought iron “Tree of Liberty” in a niche near the Capitol rotunda.

It remained on display in the Capitol until 1940, when it was moved to the Texas State Library. After being moved a couple more times, it ended up at the Texas State Archives and Library Building in Austin.

While the original is no longer on display, a replica, along with the wrought iron grill that McCallum used to show off the original Declaration of Independence, can still be seen in the visitors center, located in General Land Office Building on Capitol grounds in Austin.

(Top: “Tree of Liberty,” holding replica of Texas Declaration of Independence, in Austin, Texas.)

2 thoughts on “How a reluctant civil servant preserved a Texas treasure

  1. I grew up “just across the river” from Washington on the Brazos, a beautiful and very historical Texas park where I spent a lot of time tramping around and immersing myself in our fascinating Texas history.

    • I’m visiting Austin for the first time and have been amazed by the amount of history here. Washington-on-the-Brazos must have been a great place to tramp around as young-un, and a great place to begin learning about state history.

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