An Informal History of Harris County Historical Markers
Erecting markers and commemorating events must be in our DNA as our ancestors have been doing this since before time in memoriam with the practice being so prevalent that we now have policies, procedures, and bureaucracies to distinguish officially sanctioned markers from private projects.
Barring stakes in the ground, stacks of stone, and slashes in trees denoting property lines, the first known reference to a marker in Harris County dates from 1837 when distinguished Houstonians decided to erect a marker (probably a gravestone) in memory of Levi L. Laurens, a true gentleman who fell honorably in a duel orchestrated by a physician who was a gentleman only by virtue of his social position. If that marker was actually erected, it has since been lost.
Until well into the early 20th Century the State rarely involved itself in erecting markers and monuments although in 1856, a time when State coffers were unusually flush due to payments from the National government for relinquishing claim to land outside its current boundaries, it did participate in marking gravesites at the San Jacinto battle grounds, here, in Harris County. Despite a few sporadic state funded projects, the business of raising statues and monuments was primarily a private or local affair with various groups and individuals installing plaques and memorials to themselves and to their heroes. These activities were generally ad hoc and uncoordinated. We have, for instance on Caroline Street two plaques sponsored by competing heritage societies identifying the site of Sam Houston’s house.
The State of Texas first got heavily involved during The Texas Centennial in 1936 when, in the midst of the Great Depression, the legislature appropriated $3,000,000 to erect markers, gravestones, monuments and buildings commemorating Texas heroes and events. This one massive effort resulted in 1,100 memorials state-wide with 49 being in Harris County including the renowned San Jacinto Monument.
After the Centennial, it was a quarter-century (1962) before the State committed itself to another ambitious program—and that just so happened to correspond with the centennial of the American Civil War. Under the auspices of the Texas State Historical Survey Committee (now the Texas Historical Commission) county historical survey committees (now County Historical Commissions) began erecting state sanctioned markers to subjects that the locals deemed worthy.
The popularity of the program can be seen in the numbers. Texas, being Texas, boasts more historical markers than any other state—and the number is growing. We reached the initial goal, 5,000 markers, in 1969. By 1992 there were more than 11,000 and in early 2011 the Texas Historical Commission listed 14,988. Harris County, with 381, has more markers than any of the other 254 counties. Both numbers are sure to grow.
Markers are increasing in quality as well as quantity. In the early days the standards were loose and the Commission’s files indicate that sometimes local lore was documentation enough. Soon, however application had to be supported by formal narratives, some of which have proven to be defective. Today applications must be accompanied by a narrative with formal citations to primary sources. For some facts oral history is still acceptable but the relater must be identified and vetted. This is good because for many subjects the narrative will be the best and most accessible account and will be the starting point for future research.
The overall success of the marker program resulted in the Texas Historical Commission overhauling the program in 2006 to require the county commissions to submit applications electronically during a relatively short period at the end of the year. Under pressure from the State Legislature, it is also limiting the number of markers approved each year. No longer are applicants with an appropriately documented history of an eligible subject assured of success. All now have to compete with other applicants for a finite number of approvals.
So what is the future for historical markers? We don’t know. But the one thing we have learned from our study of history is that the only certain thing is…change. Historical markers embrace those changes, and that can be seen in a number of our county’s contemporary markers which help to remind us that history still occurs in our lifetime.