By Art Martinez de Vara
VON ORMY—Texas history is notable for its legends, tall tales and heroic characters. Myth and fact intertwine in the complex story of Texas, its origins and independence.
The Lone Star, as a symbol of Texas, is one of these legendary tales that has come to define Texas. Today the lone star is emblazoned on our state flag. We teach our children that it symbolizes Texas as an independent nation and Texans in their independent character. But where did it originate?
Many will be surprised to learn that the first known use of the lone star as a symbol for Texas was made by José Antonio de la Garza, a land grantee in South Bexar County. As postmaster of San Antonio he minted official coins with his initials on one side and a lone star on the other.
José Antonio de la Garza was born in San Antonio on May 31, 1776. His parents were Leonardo de
la Garza and Magdalena Martinez. His family were converses, or forced Jewish converts to Christianity, who settled in Nuevo Leon, Mexico from the Canary Islands in the late 16th century.
In 1813, José Antonio de la Garza was elected mayor of San Antonio, in what was perhaps the most eventful year in the city’s history. Early in the year, a revolutionary army of Tejanos took the town and declared independence from Spain. By year’s end the revolution was squashed at the Battle of Medina, the town was devastated by the Spanish and its population scattered into exile.
Economic despair set in as a result of depopulation and increased hostilities of rebels and Indians. Apparently, community leaders prevailed upon the governor of the province, Lt. Col. Manuel Prado, to authorize Manuel Barrera to coin 8,000 copper coins to facilitate commerce in March of 1817. No specimens are currently known from this minting.
In May 1817, Prado was succeeded by Antonio Martinez as governor and military commander of the province of Texas. In December 1818, he granted the request of José Antonio de la Garza, the local postmaster, to mint 500 pesos' worth of "small change in copper coins called Jolas, which shall circulate only through the town with values of one half of a “Real each." This amounts to 8,000 pieces authorized. The small coins were worth the equivalent of a nickel. In a town with a population of about 2,000 people, this would have had a significant impact on relieving the shortage of small change.
The petition granted also stated that "these shall be engraved with the first letters of my name and surname and the year of this date." Garza was also required to redeem Barrera's coins issued the previous year in exchange for his own. Perhaps this exchange was so successful that no Barrera Jolas survived. While significant parts of the United States were at one point Spanish territory, the Texas Jola is a unique issue in that it is the only known Spanish Colonial coin made in what is now the United States of America.
The de la Garza Jolas first came to the attention of collectors when one was sent to The Numismatist, the study or collection of currency, including coins, tokens, paper money, and related objects, which published a line drawing of the piece in 1903, but was unable to provide any information to its owner. A historian knew of them in 1892 but this knowledge did not make it to numismatic circles for more than half a century. Meanwhile, the house in which de la Garza may have minted these coins was destroyed in 1912, so all information about this issue is likely to come from the coins themselves and documents in the Bexar Archives. It has been speculated that the star on the reverse was the inspiration for the "Lone Star" that became and is perhaps the best known symbol of Texas. In 1959, a group of approximately 60 specimens was discovered during excavation work along the San Antonio River. The area of the find was once a 19th century campground used by cowboys. A few others have been discovered since, virtually all of which have been dug. Apparently they did not circulate long, so most are not greatly worn but, having been buried, most do show corrosion. After acquiring permission from the Spanish government of the time, Garza acquired a reputation throughout Texas due to his initials "JAG", being on one side of the coin, along with the year “1818”. Garza struck his coins in his home located on Houston and Soledad Street over a period of a year and a half. The home was destroyed in 1912.
In 1824, thanks to the success of its currency, Garza was granted two leagues of land in what would become South Bexar County and the City of Sandy Oaks, becoming thus one of the largest landowners in Bexar County. His ranch head was located between San Antonio and Medina River.
In 1832, Garza was renamed Mayor of San Antonio. In this year he signed the articles resulting from the Convention of 1832. Probably at the beginning of 1834 he bought the San Francisco de la Espada Mission. This purchase, however, was deemed illegal by some residents, leading to a rejection of him, which was further strengthened when, in the middle of Texas Revolution, some of the residents of the city thought that the owner's family sympathized more with the idea that Texas should remain Mexican.
In the 1840s he and his family moved to a new home near Calaveras Lake. The house, a two-story structure was built forty years earlier, in 1801 and had a triple function: it could serve as a church, school and community center. Garza probably died on May 5, 1851 in San Antonio. In 1876 Garza County was named after the Garza family, which had been in San Antonio for two centuries.
Art Martinez de Vara is an attorney and has a Master of Arts in Texas History from Sam Houston State University.