Published on March 24, 2020

Austin’s original gravesite worth detour off Hwy. 36

By Janice Edwards / The Bulletin

Have I mentioned lately that I LOVE living in Brazoria County? Every time I think I have located all the rabbit trails of history that I want to investigate and travel down, something points to an unexpected place. The place I found this time is hiding from us all – in plain sight!

Roy and I and Darrell and Gloria Powell were at the Brazoria County Shoreline Restoration Task Force meeting a few years ago when I overheard part of a conversation about little-known historical places in the county, and it led to the cemetery in Jones Creek, where Stephen F. Austin was first interred – Gulf Prairie Cemetery. Since we had to pass that way on Hwy. 36 going home, we made a detour – not expecting to find much. None of us had ever heard about this place right here in our midst – so how important could it possibly be? Were we ever wrong!

How many times have we passed by the Gulf Prairie Presbyterian Church sign as we were traveling to and from Freeport? Roy and I have even stopped at the state historical markers at the intersection of Hwy. 36 and Gulf Prairie Road (where you turn to go to the cemetery). There’s even a sign there that says Stephen F. Austin had been buried in that cemetery. But when we turned off the road, parked in the church’s parking lot, and got out to investigate, we walked out of today and into a page of our county’s past. There, cradled by the Gulf Prairie Presbyterian Church and ancient oak and pecan trees, was a well-kept cemetery waiting to reveal its secrets.

A treasure chest of stories stared back at us from the rows of ornate headstones. People from many parts of Texas’ past are buried there – from the original plot that held Steven F. Austin, to soldiers from the Civil War, to one of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, have all found eternal rest in that shady grove. I had to know more. It never ceases to amaze me that Brazoria County is just packed with pre-20th century history – but not much of the tangible evidence of that history is still here. I think we found an exception in this cemetery, and by reading the headstones, our area’s history began to come alive.
Gulf (originally spelled Gulph) Prairie, Texas was a settlement that predated the Texas Revolution. By the 1830s, the Bryan, Perry and Austin families lived there. A post office operated there from 1848 – 1866. As late as 1906, the school taught 41 students. Today, nothing remains of the community but the church and the cemetery. And I thought you had to go to West Texas or Indianola to find a ghost town!

But it was the cemetery that talked to us all. The cemetery grounds and the land around it were once part of Peach Point Plantation and were used as early as 1829. Peach Point Plantation was the residence of James F. Perry and Emily Austin Bryan Perry (Stephen F. Austin’s sister). All these people are buried in this cemetery – except Stephen, who the State of Texas moved to the state cemetery in Austin, Texas, in 1910.

You’ll also find the markers for William Joel Bryan, son of Emily Austin Bryan Perry and her first husband, James Bryan, and the nephew of Stephen F. Austin, who established Durazno (Spanish for Peach) Plantation in 1840 and his wife, Lavinia (niece of his stepfather, James F. Perry). So many names of people who pioneered this land we are all proud to call home. The headstones tell you just part of the story, though.

As you walk through the grounds, the winds through the trees whisper a siren’s song, begging you to come back and discover more, and they plead for you to grab a history book and find out the rest of the stories.

The church that guards the historic cemetery also has a story to tell. After James Franklin and Emily Austin Perry moved to Peach Point Plantation (around Christmas of 1832), a one-room log cabin was built – but not dedicated – where the family, slaves and visitors worshipped. The church service was provided by any Protestant minister, who came through this part of the country – mostly by the itinerant Methodist minister.

On June 7, 1877, a small building was erected on a site that Mrs. Sarah B. Perry had given, which was located at the cemetery. It had been formed in August 1833, when Emily’s daughter (by her first marriage) died from cholera.

This was the first dedicated church on this location, and the beginning of a church organization that goes on today. This little church met the needs of the congregation from 1877 until 1909, when a hurricane passed through this section of the Texas coast and destroyed the building.

But the community decided to rebuild. Through the effort of the community, funds were raised, and W.B. and Charlie Hanson (carpenters) supervised the church’s construction by the men of the community while the women found ways to provide the funds for the necessary building materials.

In 1946, the officers of the Gulf Prairie Presbyterian Church launched a new building program. The old building was sold and moved to Durazno Plantation after the new building was completed.

People of the community again stepped up and made a new church. The sanctuary was dedicated March 22, 1950, and with only a few additions (like the new chime system, and stained-glass windows), the church you see at Gulf Prairie today remains as it was built. The church and cemetery are still in use.

Here, right under our noses, is Gulf Prairie Presbyterian Church and Cemetery – so full of stories of our past. Each of us has overlooked this treasure as we go about our daily lives – making our own history, I guess.

But next time you drive down Hwy. 36 through Jones Creek, take a minute to slow down for something besides the speed trap. Take that turn onto Gulf Prairie Road and look to your left. The little cemetery waits in the shade, ready to reveal another piece of this area’s history puzzle. But don’t go unless you have some time to tarry, these stories are more like a novel – not a short story.

(Write Jan in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)