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Digging for Baylor’s Roots in Independence

This article was written by Tony Pederson and published in the June 1980 issue of The Baylor Line.

For the casual visitor to Baylor’s original site in the tiny Texas village of Independence, the most visually pleasing point of interest is the old female campus, where four magnificent columns from the old main building have been restored.

Most of the publicity on Baylor at Independence has pictured the four columns, giving the impression of Baylor having “ruins” similar to those usually thought of in archaeological terms.

But the main work currently underway on the Baylor at Independence Project, a three-year, university-funded excavation of Baylor’s first site, is being done about a mile from what was the female campus. Across what male students once called the “River Jordan” (which actually isn’t much more than a Texas creek) on what was the male campus, James S. Belew, director of the project, is doing most of his work. And on that site, there’s nothing that resembles the four columns on the female campus. 

“There’s really not much to look at,” Belew says in agreeing with a first-look assessment of a visitor not skilled in archaeology. “But there’s a lot of stuff here. Just a few feet down we can find artifacts that will tell us an enormous amount of information. And I can say that the archaeological material here is of a much more complex nature than I ever dreamed.” 

Baylor’s funding of the project and Belew’s search are part of a renewed interest in the original site of Baylor, founded in 1845 and the oldest college in continuous existence in Texas. Baylor was at Independence from 1845 until 1886. 

There are well-known and obvious reasons for Baylor’s leaving Independence: the decline in agricultural productivity in the area and the subsequent decision not to put a railroad through the town, emancipation of the slaves, departure from the area by religious denominations that generally had sup-ported the college, and general decline in statewide importance of Independence, near the one-time capital of the Republic of Texas, Washington-on-the-Brazos. Not to mention, just yet, the personal feud between Baylor’s president and another administrator. 

Belew says he is looking for information to add to the knowledge already available. He’s looking for clues to student and faculty life of that time, and further details on a series of fires that destroyed most of the buildings on the campus in the later part of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century. There are records to indicate that Confederate soldiers occupied part of the campus beginning in 1859, but the reasons for the occupation are anything but clear. “I would like to think that the excavation here could enrich our heritage as Baylorites, and this helps give us a unique sense of historical depth as a university,” Belew said. “It tells us that we aren’t the only generation to have to seek funds and we’re not the only generation to have some form of student unrest or faculty unrest or administrative difficulties. These people had the same ups and downs as we do today. And I think we might gain some insights into how they were able to solve some of their problems.” 

Belew, who is the son of Baylor vice president for academic affairs John Belew and drama lecturer Ruth Belew, attended the University of Texas at Austin and graduate school at Southern Methodist University; he has a background in anthropology with an emphasis in archaeology. Much of his graduate research was done at the Institute of Archaeology at Baylor, and he became well acquainted with several faculty members at Baylor during that time. While doing graduate work, he considered places where he could do research and work that would combine archaeology and anthropology, and Baylor’s site at Independence seemed perfect. 

“I came here, took a lot of photos and presented some findings and ideas to the Institute of Archaeology and Dr. (Herbert) Reynolds,” Belew said. “They were very enthusiastic and the job was made available to me very rapidly.” 

Belew came on the excavation site at Independence in July 1978. Home for him now is a comfortable mobile home that is only a few feet from the location of the excavations. He is doing a large part of the work himself but has occasional help from Baylor faculty and classes doing fieldwork. 

Sketches from the period of the male campus, or main campus, show differing numbers of buildings. Belew’s first task is to identify the exact number of buildings on the campus, their size and functions, and to do limited excavations of the walls and interiors. 

He has established “beyond any reasonable doubt” four buildings on the main campus. He has located the perimeters of Graves Hall, the oldest building on the campus (1851); Houston Hall; Tryon Hall; and Burleson Domicile, which was occupied by the Con-federate soldiers. In addition, there are two other locations where Belew is “almost certain” major buildings once stood. Their exact dimensions, identifications and functions are yet to be determined. 

And there are about six other areas that have good chances of having once been locations of structures of some kind. “Some of these may not turn out to have been anything more than a shed for a horse or an outhouse area,” Belew said. “But they’re important for examining the daily life of the students. We’re interested in finding these minor buildings just like we’re interested in finding the main classrooms and the dormitories.” 

But the areas where the most significant questions may be answered will be the main buildings, for example, Burleson Domicile. And Belew says he is hopeful that some original library books will be uncovered in the excavation of Graves Hall. 

“We have records to suggest that Baylor did not move all the books to Waco,” he said. “And if that fire that destroyed the building was a quick fire, there might be some books preserved.”

The move of Baylor from Independence remains at the center of the investigation. The university’s existence at Independence was, from its inception, a shaky one. The university was almost constantly in need of funds, and some faculty members went without salaries on occasion. The school’s best five years at Independence were from 1855 to 1860, under President Rufus B. Burleson. Enrollments peaked in 1861 with 280 in the male department and 200 in the female department. 

The emancipation of the slaves, Civil War, and Reconstruction brought changes in population patterns in Texas and major economic changes in the Independence area. As white Protestants left the area, European immigrants and Southern blacks moved in. The Europeans were not interested in a Protestant college, and blacks were not admitted. The rich farm lands around Independence were almost depleted, and the crops coming out of the once-rich area declined. Baylor’s enrollment declined steadily after 1861. 

Burleson left Baylor in 1861 to become president of Waco University. This was after years of the well-known feud between Burleson and Horace P. Clark, principal of the female department. Most of the feud seems to have centered on the operations of the separate male and female departments, with the female department having been relegated to a secondary role. Burleson took most of the faculty of the male department with him to the month-old Waco University and graduated seven members of the Baylor senior class with degrees from the new school.

The Burleson-Clark feud and Burleson’s departure are areas of particular interest to Belew. 

“I think we need to explore more the idea of this being a very pro-Confederate area at that time,” Belew said. “Remember that Burleson and Sam Houston (Texas’ pro-Union governor from 1859-1861) were close friends, and Burleson had baptized Houston. Emancipation had taken away the slaves from the people of this area, and they had suffered a great deal of eco-nomic loss. It’s well documented that pro-Confederate sentiment here was quite high, and I personally think Burleson might have wanted to go to an area that was a little less hostile to him.” 

Belew’s project may be years in developing. The university has funded the excavation through May 1981, and Belew says that by that time he should have found all the buildings on the site and will have made a limited number of probes around the walls and interiors. 

“But by no means will there be time to do extensive excavations in any one of the areas,” he said. 

Private funding is being sought for the continuation of the project beyond the 1981 date. And there is a renewed interest in the project and the history of Baylor at the site. The university trustees met at Independence in March of this year for the first time since 1886. 

There is even some interest in having Baylor own the land once again. Currently, the only evidence of Baylor’s having existed in Independence are the four columns and a marker on the female campus and a small stone marker on the male campus. 

The continuity of life and the solving of problems are keys in Belew’s mind as he probes Baylor’s past and puts it in perspective with the present and future. 

“I think what we’ll find is that the people back then in 1845 took some problems in hand and solved them in very creative ways,” he said. “And it’s been a continuous process at Baylor since 1845.”




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1 thought on “Digging for Baylor’s Roots in Independence”

  1. Excellent article!
    Please keep publishing historical articles like this one from long past issues of The Baylor Line. This keeps us remembering and honoring our wonderful and rich history & heritage.

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