What's in a Name? The Long Debate Over Manchaca Versus Menchaca

Feb 17, 2016

If you’ve ever lived – or even spent a weekend – in Austin, you know we’ve got a thing about street names – namely, mispronouncing them. There’s GWAD-a-loop. BURN-it, MAY-ner and MAN-chack, or Manchaca.

While there have been plenty of debates on pronunciation, there’s a larger debate on who or what exactly the Austin street’s namesake is – whether it’s a memorial to a San Antonio-born Texas revolutionary or a Bayou in Louisiana.

First, we’ll start with Manchaca, the formal name of the street that snakes through South Austin, the small town that envelops it and the nearby spring from whence its name sprung.

That pronunciation is supposedly an Anglicization of the Spanish surname Menchaca – which, technically is a Spanish pronunciation for an even older Basque surname, Mentxaka. But, some say the name Manchaca comes from Jose Antonio Menchaca, a one-time captain in the Texas Army who helped win the deciding battle of the Texas Revolution, the Battle of San Jacinto.

Menchaca translated intercepted messages from Mexican couriers into English for his Anglo comrades, namely Sam Houston. But, after that deciding battle, Menchaca’s name was reportedly misspelled, when his name was taken down in a roll call as “Manchaca.” After the war, that’s how his name was officially recognized by the Republic (later State) of Texas. He was given land grants in San Antonio as payment for his service, all of which were deeded to “Jose Antonio Manchaca.”

But before the misspelling’s proliferation, before the land grants, Menchaca joined up with the army in the wake of the revolution, riding between Austin and San Antonio up and down the Old San Antonio Road, protecting early Austin settlers against Comanche raids.

A partial view of a Sept. 1877 map of Hays County showing the town labeled "Manchaca."
Credit Texas General Land Office, Map 3646

“Those Anglo settlers, they loved the fact that the soldiers were coming up here,” says retired Judge Bob Perkins. “They lived in Comancheria. This was Comanche territory. They were constantly on alert, they were constantly getting attacked.”

Perkins has served as the de facto champion of Antonio Menchaca since his retirement in 2011. He says settlers became so fond of the Texan troops, they named a nearby spring after their captain: Antonio Menchaca. His name, Perkins says, was Anglicized by the settlers and then reinforced by the state’s spelling: Manchaca.

Since his retirement, he’s pushed the City of Austin to change the name to Menchaca to honor the Texas figure.

Some folks don’t agree with his insistence that the town and the spring and, eventually, the road were named after the Tejano luminary of early Texas. Marilyn McLeod of the Manchaca-Onion Creek Historical Association says she can’t find proof of that anywhere.

McLeod is a third-generation Manchacan and, she says, the contemporary pronunciation, “MAN-chack,” is the correct pronunciation.

The 1895 painting depicting the Battle of San Jacinto by Henry Arthur McArdle. Jose Antonio Menchaca can be found behind a charging soldier in the bottom left hand corner.
Credit Wikipedia

“There is more support for the M-A-N-C-H-A-C without the ‘A’ on the end. Some of the oldest ones in the 1840s, we’re finding that. And this comes from newspapers; it comes from legal documents, things like that that we’re pulling up. We can’t support the change.” (0:25)

This is where the issue gets murky, thanks to a Louisiana Bayou. Bayou Manchac in Louisiana is older than the Antonio Menchaca. It’s older than Texas. It’s even older than the United States. It’s a Choctaw word the tribe used to describe a shortcut through the Mississippi Delta. It’s been on maps since after the French and Indian War.

Manchac, Perkins says, wasn’t solidified until 1850. When Arkansas surveyor William Pelham bought the land and didn’t like the Hispanic connotation.

“I don’t think that he wanted his plantation known for a Mexican, so I think he took that name Menchaca, he cut off the last ‘A’ made it Manchac, like that good old bayou over there in Louisiana and for 30 years the area comes to be called Manchac, and the people that moved to that area call it Manchac because that’s the way it’s physically spelled.”

In 1880, the railroad came into town and the name changed the name back to Manchaca to honor the Texan war hero. Still, Manchac persisted.

McLeod says the name should reflect history and that there’s little evidence supporting Perkins.

“Renaming the street that leads to the community of Manchaca because someone feels it’s an error or mispronunciation is going against all of the history back to 1840,” she says.

Jacki Horak, a descendant of Antonio Menchaca, begs to differ. She understands the colloquialism of using “Manchac,” but says it’s not historically accurate.

“I’m not butting heads with them. I’m just saying, I realize you’re set in your ways and this is what you know. But this is the truth,” she says. “This is the real story. This is not something that we’ve just pulled out of a hat.”

Dr. Jesus De La Teja, a professor at Texas State University who edited and adapted Menchaca’s memoirs, agrees, but he says he’s never found evidence of Menchaca mentioning the spring.

He says Judge Perkins may have the real story and that he may have plenty of evidence supporting the theory, but it’s all circumstantial evidence.

The heading of an 1838 joint resolution signed by Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar honoring Jose Antonio Menchaca that misspells his name.
Credit Via The Portal to Texas History.

“[T]here isn’t any piece of paper that explicitly states, ‘We’re naming the town for the springs and the springs are named for Antonio Menchaca.’”

He says that’s often the case with the names of Texas locales – people make assumptions based on historical logic, but there’s not always a silver bullet.

“We don’t know who Dallas is named for, although, there was a vice president at the time Dallas was founded who happened to be named Dallas and there are other places like that,” he says.

But, De La Teja says, whether you call it Manchac or Manchaca, the case that it’s named after Menchaca is the strongest.

Perkins says all the Texas revolutionaries – Crockett, Bowie, Bonham and Travis – have been honored with a proper spelling on their memorials.

Even Juan Seguin – a fellow Mexican-born revolutionary who later defected back to the Mexican army– has his name spelled right.

Perkins says Menchaca never gave up on Texas.

“If you could show me something that he had done that was dishonorable or someplace where he had foresworn his allegiance to Texas or something like that, then I would say ‘Oh, you want to dishonor him by misspelling his name, okay. That’s fine.’ But, in point of fact, he always fought for Texas. He never went back on his oath.”