The story of the “Come and Take It” flag begins Oct. 2, 1835, at what is now known as the Battle of Gonzales — the first military engagement of the Texas Revolution.
It was the fall of 1835. Mexican President Santa Anna had dissolved the Constitution and made himself dictator. Tensions began to flare between his oppressive government and the liberty minded desires of Texans and Tejanos. To suppress the rumblings of unrest and revolution, the Mexican military leaders began their quest to quietly disarm the Texans. One of the first actions was to retrieve a cannon lent to the Texan colonists at Gonzales. The famous bronze cannon was loaned to the Gonzales colonists by the Mexican government in 1831 to defend themselves from hostile Apaches and Comanches. Mexican Corporal Casimiro De León and a few soldiers were sent to reclaim the cannon.
The relationship between Texas and Mexico during this period had always been somewhat tumultuous. In the early 1820s, Mexico granted permission to Stephen F. Austin to colonize the area around the Brazos River for purposes of expanding Mexican territory and barring the French from encroaching into the region. Texans began moving into the area because of its fairly open borders and plentiful amount of inexpensive land. But in 1830, Mexico prohibited further immigration by U.S. citizens into the area since it feared the ideals of the Mexican government and American immigrants differed in significant ways. Texas was removed from Mexico both geographically, being separated by the Rio Grande, and culturally, given that Texas was made up of English-speaking colonists.
Knowing that the stiff tensions between the Texans and the centralist government of Santa Anna could provoke aggression on either side, Domingo de Ugartechea enlisted the help of Captain Francisco de Castañeda and an estimated 100 Mexican cavalrymen to repossess the cannon, which had been buried in a peach orchard near the Colorado River for safety, but was retrieved shortly after and readied for battle and mounted on cart wheels.
Ugartechea instructed his men to avoid open conflict if possible, but to resort to forceful removal if needed. An assembly of men left San Antonio de Béxar on Sept. 27, 1835 and arrived at the banks of the Guadalupe River opposite Gonzales two days later.
The Mexican troops were met by high water and a group of 18 militiamen, both of which blocked their entrance into Gonzales. Captain Castañeda asked that a message be relayed to the alcalde (mayor), Andrew Ponton, but the Texan militiamen said he’d need to wait for Ponton’s return.
Castañeda and his troops set up camp a few hundred yards nearby in anticipation for Ponton’s arrival; meanwhile, Gonzales citizens called for backup from the surrounding settlements to build a stronger resistance that eventually numbered 150.
“Come and Take It” was a motto adopted by the Texas rebels defending the cannon. Two days earlier, Sara Seely DeWitt and her daughter, Evaline, hastily designed and created the Old Cannon Flag, which today is known as the “Come and Take It” flag, from a wedding dress belonging to Naomi DeWitt. It depicts the small, Spanish-made cannon with a black, singular star above it and the words “Come and Take It” spanning the width of the battle flag underneath the cannon. This wasn’t just Texas’ first battle flag; it was the first lone-star flag as well.
On Oct. 1, 1835, Captain Castañeda began to demand officially that the cannon be handed over, but not without numerous militiamen taunting and tantalizing the Mexican troops to “Come and Take It!” The people of Texas rallied in support of the men defending the cannon. Boldly, the Texas front marched across the Guadalupe at night, preparing to attack Mexican troops the following morning.
At daybreak, fog blanketed what would become the battlefield of the first contest — some say skirmish — of the Texas Revolution. With Stephen F. Austin in command of the First Army of Texas Volunteers, the cannon loaded and the “Come and Take It” flag waving high, the army of brave Texas men sprung a surprise attack on Castañeda and his troops. The Mexican side was outnumbered by manpower and firepower.
On Oct. 2, the small cannon, mounted on a wheeled base, was fired during the clash between the Texan volunteer army and the Mexican troops sent by Santa Anna to retrieve the cannon. Castañeda and his troops pulled away, marking victory for the Texan side. The Battle of Gonzales, with the Come and Take it flag flying high, marks the first sign of a break between Texas colonists and the Mexican government, which would ultimately lead to the formation of the Republic of Texas less than a year later.
The Come and Take It flag is a symbol from the Battle of Gonzales that’s prevailed through 183 years of Texas history. The flag stood for defiance against Mexican dictatorship, and today the flag’s meaning remains rooted in Texas pride. The actual phrase “Come and Take It” can be seen throughout history during important battles around the world. The first alleged appearance of the motto dates back to a situation closely resembling the Battle of Gonzales, where King Leonidas I defied the Persian army when they tried to confiscate his army’s armaments at the Battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece. The phrase appears again in the American Revolution when Colonel John McIntosh uttered “Come and Take It” to British forces when they attempted to take over Fort Morris in Georgia on Nov. 25, 1778. Although the slogan can be seen throughout military encounters spanning centuries, today it is synonymous with Texas’s audacious history. The defining message on the flag is one that echoes the bravado and perseverance that Texans are notorious for — rough, tough, and firm in their beliefs.
When all was said and done, this battle, lasting only a few hours, forced the retreat of Mexican forces. Two Mexican soldiers died. The only Texian casualty was a man thrown from his horse who suffered a bloody nose. The Battle of Gonzales represented a final and definitive break between Texian settlers and the Mexican government. There would be no return to business as usual. Word of the battle quickly spread through the United States, where the event (initially known merely as “the fight at Williams’ place”) was lionized as “the Lexington of Texas.” Young men flocked to Texas to join the cause of freedom.
Today, one can see “Come and Take It” plastered across Texas in the form of T-shirts, replica flags, tattoos, license plates and pretty much anything else you can think of. The cannon used in the dispute can be found at the Gonzalez Memorial Museum, along with a replica of the flag used, although the whereabouts of the original Come and Take It flag is unknown. While we don’t have the original, replica flags can be found in important buildings across the state from the Bullock Texas State History Museum and the Texas State Capitol in Austin to schools like Sam Houston State University in Huntsville and the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, along with numerous other establishments.
The Come and Take It flag carries a simple slogan with deeply rooted meaning for Texans past and present. Each October, Gonzales holds a celebration called the “Come and Take It Celebration” to honor Texas’ heritage, where the first shots of the Battle of Gonzales took place. Against the odds from the beginning, the courageous men of the First Army of Texas Volunteers led by Stephen F. Austin faced the trained soldiers of the Mexican army and persevered.
The people of Gonzales and those from surrounding areas that lent a helping hand stood firm in their beliefs and fought against Santa Anna’s rise to dictatorship in Mexico in favor of forming an independent republic. Defiance, ingenuity and bravery personify those involved in the Battle of Gonzales. The Come and Take It flag encapsulated the spirit of those who partook in the battle the would spark the movement for Texas independence and continues to be a symbol, above all else, of Texas itself.