Houston’s great centennial project was the construction of a monument on the San Jacinto Battleground to properly commemorate the most important event in Texas history. On February 15, 1938, the San Jacinto State Park Commission requested that George A. Hill, Jr., serve as chairman of a museum board to plan and organize a museum of history to be housed in the San Jacinto Monument. George Alfred Hill, Jr., was born in Corsicana, Texas, on January 12, 1892, into a family not only involved with and interested in the history of Texas, but inextricably linked to San Jacinto. James Monroe Hill, George A. Hill, Jr.’s grandfather, fought at the battle of San Jacinto and was later appointed as chairman of the commission to purchase the battlefield for the state; George A. Hill Sr. was involved in the purchase of the land that would become the first state park in Texas. The sale was concluded in 1897.
By the time plans for the San Jacinto Museum began in the mid-1930s, George Hill had been collecting documents, print materials, and relics for over twenty-five years. His purpose in collecting seems to have been designed for the creation of a museum at the battlefield that would contain a range of items. In 1935, he noted: “I have been engaged, for a number of years in the collection of historical material in the form of books, maps, coins, medallions, etc., with a view to a graphic and sequential presentation of our history, and which has taken a more definite form with the emergence of the plan to establish a museum of history in the San Jacinto Memorial.” His personal collection was recognized as one of the finest in the world. He bought these materials in Texas as well as during extended trips to Mexico.
In early April, 1938, Hill corresponded with respected scholars of Texas history and museum directors, asking their opinion of his plan for the formation of a museum. Hill’s report on the plan was then submitted to the State Board of Control and the San Jacinto State Park Commission, which unanimously approved the plan. The State Board of Control approved a resolution creating the San Jacinto Museum of History on September 22, 1938. The board, composed of George A. Hill, Jr., Louis W. Kemp, Col. W. B. Bates, A. C. Finn, and Madge W. Hearne, incorporated and received a charter in November, 1938, as the San Jacinto Museum of History Association.
The charter of the association proclaimed the mandate “to revisualize the history of Texas and the region; instill and encourage historical inquiry; collect and preserve the materials of history and spread historical information; illustrate the chronological story of the region as determined from authoritative history by means of exhibits worthy of a museum of first rank; extend and diffuse knowledge of our history, and promote and perpetuate peace, friendship and sympathetic understanding between the people of Texas and the people of Mexico, Spain, France and the Latin-American Republics.”
From the beginning, Hill viewed the mission of the museum as a broad one. “I think the point can then well be made that the Museum of History at San Jacinto is not designed, and should not be designed, to commemorate the event of the Battle, but to teach the sound lessons to be learned from history, viz: Patriotism, the priceless benefits religious tolerance and individual freedom and mutual respect, tolerance and friendship among the nations of the earth.”
Hill hired Ike Moore, State Supervisor of the Historical Records Survey of the WPA, to be the first Director of the Museum, beginning January 16, 1939, and Malcolm McLean was hired as Assistant Archivist. The initial focus of the museum association was to prepare for the opening of the museum on April 20, 1939.
Museum cases were purchased from the Remington Rand Company, in a style approved by Alfred C. Finn, the architect of the monument, and were designed to compliment the fluting on the exterior of the monument shaft and the interior bronze doors. A total of fifty-one cases were purchased before the opening in 1939, with additional cases purchased over the next several years. Some of these cases are still in use today, as are the benches and chairs that were designed to match the cases.
The original plan for the museum exhibits was to start with the coming of the first Europeans in 1510 and cover the period to 1861, with plans to collect later periods for display when additional space was provided. The opening exhibit contained a significant number of items loaned from other institutions and from individuals. Some loan items were not received until the third week of April. Ike Moore and Malcolm McLean spent the night before the opening completing the installation of the cases, leaving the monument just before 8 AM; Margaret McLean, hired as receptionist, and the elevator operator were the only employees present when the doors opened.
In creating the museum, the association believed that many Texans would take advantage of the new museum by donating their historical materials. Suffice to say that the descendants of Texas pioneers and private collectors responded magnificently. In the first two years, 400 donors gave the Museum over 15,000 relics, 75,000 pages of manuscript materials, hundreds of rare newspapers, maps, paintings, photographs, textiles, and ephemera. One of the major donors was George A. Hill, Jr.; equally important, Hill was instrumental in steering collections to the museum.
World War II was difficult for the museum. Staffing was an increasing problem, due to the distance workers had to travel to the museum at a time when fuel was limited, the higher wages available for defense work, and the calling up of staff to join the Armed Forces. Malcolm McLean resigned December 15, 1941 to do translation work for the War Department. Ike Moore left in 1943, and lost his life aboard the U.S.S. Sangaman in May of 1944. In February of 1942, Joe B. Frantz was hired as Archivist; he became Temporary Acting Director as of May 31, 1943, until he too went into the Navy three weeks later. Andrew Forest Muir started work as Acting Director on August 8, 1943, and Dorothy W. Estes (later Knepper) took over the job in June of 1944. Elevator operators, secretaries, custodians, and building engineers were also lost to the war effort.
After World War II, Dorothy Knepper was confirmed as Director of the San Jacinto Museum; during her tenure a new elevator paid for by Jesse H. Jones replaced the original metal cage elevator, air conditioning was added in the early 1960s, and the museum recovered from minor damage caused during Hurricane Carla, when a piece of stone fell from the top of the monument through a skylight; fortunately, no artifacts were damaged, and the skylights were covered, also protecting fragile items from UV rays. Although the museum’s first publication, a checklist of Texas newspapers, was made in 1941, Dorothy Knepper built a program of publication that continued under J.C. Martin when he assumed the role of director in 1979. Feeling a need to better explain the Battle of San Jacinto and its impact on Texas and the region, Martin spearheaded the creation of the multimedia Texas Forever!! The Battle of San Jacinto. Under his tenure, the museum celebrated the Texas sesquicentennial, created its first Web site, and began a project to create digital catalogs of artifacts and library materials. This project was completed under subsequent museum president George Donnelly.
Recent museum efforts include a new curriculum guide, new programs for fundraising and outreach, and the expansion of changing exhibits, under current president Larry Spasic.