By Mark Wilson, Travis Audubon Board Member
Travis Audubon’s Blair Woods Preserve is a wonderful oasis in the middle of the Austin urban environment. Open to all every day from 9a – 4p, it offers a peaceful place to enjoy birds and nature. But Blair Woods is also a sanctuary for the history of the Austin community. One important part of that story is Fort Colorado.
Many people have noticed the Texas Centennial marker on East MLK Blvd, just outside the Blair Woods fence, marking the general location of this 19th century outpost. Fern Blair (she and her husband W Frank donated the preserve to Travis Audubon in their will) shared local stories she heard about the fort and its location near Coleman Springs, located in Blair Woods. It was said materials from the fort were used by area farmers in building their homes and barns. She found artifacts on the 10 acres she and W Frank owned, and donated to archeologists investigating the fort in the mid-1960’s.
In 2020, the Travis Audubon Board authorized the use of grant funds to enable Sergio & Melinda Iruegas, archeologists and owners of GIT Environmental, LLC, to explore the history of Blair Woods. Using archival research and shovel testing, Sergio and Melinda documented the amazing history of the preserve, and the high probability that part of the historic fort was located in Blair Woods.
Fort Colorado was constructed on land granted to Jessie Tannehill by the Mexican government in 1830 (he founded the community of Montopolis to the south). In 1836, after the battle of San Jacinto, General Houston appointed Colonel Robert M Coleman as commander in charge of the Republic of Texas’s ad interim government. Coleman built a series of forts circumventing the Coahuiltecan villages of the Rancheria Grande (central Texas) , with Fort Colorado as the fulcrum. The purpose was to manage, maintain and protect trade along the El Camino Real, the traditional trading route running from Louisiana to Mexico.
Fort Colorado was occupied for 2 years. We have stories about life at the fort as handed down from Noah Smithwick, recorded by his daughter in 1900 when he was in his 90’s. He served as blacksmith, mechanic, interpreter and negotiator. He described negotiations and trade with neighboring Comanche and Coahuiltecan tribes, who camped in the vicinity of Coleman Springs. A swale, or depression formed in the land from years and years of continual traffic to and from the springs, can be seen today leading up from Coleman Springs towards the high ground used for camping and the fort.
Based on the investigations by Sergio and Melinda, and with the help of members of the Travis County Historic Commission, Blair Woods has been nominated for inclusion in the National Park Service’s El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail. This will be a multi-year process – stay tuned for updates. If you are interested in further reading, a copy of “The Archeology of Blair Woods Nature Preserve Historic Fort Colorado” by Sergio and Melinda Iruegas is available in the Travis Audubon Library, as well as the Austin History Center. Noah Smithwick’s memoirs “Evolution of a State” can be found on Amazon.
Featured image above is of Sergio and Melinda Iruegas doing a shovel test at Blair Woods.