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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

The "Peculiar Emblem" of Texas

by Clay Coppedge

The Lone Star is the most iconic of Texas emblems. The Lone Star adorns the state flag, state seal, the U.S. mint's commemorative quarter for Texas and, for good measure, it's the state gemstone cut. A few thousand different businesses are named Lone Star this or that. But who first came up with the idea? Who was the first person to use the Lone Star as a symbol of Texas?

Historians have generally traced the origin of the Lone Star back to various battle flags of the Texas Revolution, or maybe back to 1819 and the ill-fated Long Expedition, which carried a Lone Star flag into a dubious and unsuccessful early attempt to wrest Texas away from Mexico. Eli Harris, a printer and member of the expedition, believed he invented the symbol and wrote to President Mirabeau Lamar to that effect in 1841.

George Childress, author of the Texas Declaration of Independence, adopted a resolution at the general convention of the provisional government in 1836 calling for "a single star of five points, either of gold or silver" as the "peculiar emblem" of the Republic of Texas.

By that time, David Burnett had submitted to the First Congress his idea for the design of a Texas seal: "a single star with the letters 'Republic of Texas,' circular on said seal, which seal shall also be circular." President Sam Houston gave his okay and the republic used Burnett's design for three years. The Lone Star has stuck around, in one form or another, ever since.
Houston numismatist James Bevill followed the money in his 2009 book Paper Republic: The Struggle for Money, Credit and Independence in the Republic of Texas. In researching the republic's earliest currencies he found reason to believe the origin of the Lone Star-five pointed with a raised dot in the middle-originated with an obscure San Antonio minter named Manuel Barrera in 1817 when the central government in Mexico authorized a series of coins to be minted in San Antonio for local use. Spanish Governor Manuel Pardo received authorization from Mexico City to strike small copper coins for San Antonio de Bexar (then known as San Fernando de Bexar) and selected Barrera, a local merchant and administrator, to produce 8,000 jolas in 1817.
Jola is Mexican slang for a coin of small denominations, and these were worth real which would be about a nickel today. The copper jolas measured 15 to 20 millimeters in diameter with the minter's initials and on the obverse, or front, of the coin. On the reverse was the five-pointed star with a raised dot in the center. These humble little jolas are also the only known Spanish coins to have been struck in what is now the United States.

After about twenty months, the Mexican government withdrew Barrera's authority to mint the coins, probably because minting was a hard thing to do in 1817 and 8,000 jolas was a lot of jolas. The job went to Jose Antonio de la Garza, whose initials appear on some of the surviving 1818 jolas. Both issues still in existence have all kinds of variances, suggesting to Bevill "a series of small, almost random mintages intended to supply change for the local economy."

No records confirm how many jolas Barrera actually minted, but only nine of the crude 1817 coins are known to exist today. A collector found five of them in 2004 as part of a "junk" collection in Schulenburg. The 1817 jolas preceded the Long Expedition by two years and the Texas revolution by almost two decades. So what did the lone star flag and emblem represent before it represented Texas as an independent republic?

Alamo historian and curator Bruce Winders responded to that question in an email by noting that in vexillogy-the study of flags-stars traditionally represented kingdoms or sovereigns until the end of the 18th century when the star became a symbol of republican ideology, and thus a good fit for the fledgling Texas government. But Winders also noted that before Texas was the Lone Star State, it shared a flag-and a star-with the Coahuila province. That flag was green, white and red with two gold stars in the middle of a white stripe.

"Prior to the Texas revolution, the Texas star flew alongside the star of Coahuila because Texas lacked a sufficient population for separate statehood as established by the Constitution of 1824," Winders said. "Officials designated it the Department of Texas and attached it to Coahuila for purposes of governance."

Bevill says the lone star on the jolas might have carried the same symbolism as the flag. "There were Americans in San Antonio de Bexar who thought of Texas as having a separate identity from Mexico," he said. "But it's hard to say where the influence came from. These were Spanish coins, after all. We don't know if Barrera designed it, or if his helper or maybe the alcade. But we do when the Lone Star first appeared, and that was on the jolas that Barrera minted in 1817."

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" December 18, 2020 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • Oilfield Voodoo 11-16-20
  • Apocalypse on the San Saba 10-16-20
  • The Real Texas Jack 9-16-20
  • Edgar Davis: Visionary Wildcatter 8-16-20
  • Casner Cold Case 7-11-20

    See more »

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