The Hispanic Southwest and Texas
When the Mexicans won their independence from Spain, in the year
1821, their domain included the present American states of
Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Colorado in
part, and Utah. They numbered about 25,000 in this vast region and
their neighbors were some 100,000 Indians, some of whom were
Catholics, most of whom were of the rites of the
many tribal nations.
The region was dry, its distances great. its topography often rugged,
its soil generally infertile. (Actually, North of the region, the land
that came from the Louisiana Purchase was also dry; all seventeen
present-day American states West of the North-South line of the
Missouri River are arid or semi-arid all or in part.)
The areas of principal Hispanic settlement were along the upper Rio
Grande at El Paso, along the lower Rio Grande, near the upper Gila
River, in middle and Northern New Mexico especially around Taos
and Santa Fe, and around San Francisco and the lower part of
California. The modern points of Santa Fe, Nogales, San Antonio, El
Paso, San Diego, Los Angeles, Monterey, San José and
San Francisco were alive and thriving.
The Pueblo peoples were long settled and had been in a state of
relative decline as integrated societies by the nineteenth century.
They were surrounded by Navaho, who had been nomadic, but had
now settled down with a culture developed partly by borrowing
Pueblo elements. Around many Indian and Mexican villages and
farms circled nomadic Apaches. Little effort went into subduing
them. They were now masters of horsemanship and firearms.
Subjection would have been impossible without a large infusion of
cavalry supported by a much larger resident population.
This came not from Mexico, but from the East, the United States.
Meanwhile the Apaches governed de facto a territory the size of
France with perhaps 10,000 people of their tribe. The Pima-Papago
Indians had, like the Pueblo and Apache, endured Spanish rule for
three hundred years before the invaders from the East appeared. Like
the other Indians, they would at long intervals rebel, and then, once
put down, return to their traditional ways. Agriculture was ingeniously
suited to the dry and hot land. It had a long pre-history, probably as
long as that of Middle East farming.
The 300 years, however, had introduced Spanish and Catholic culture
into Indian life. The Spanish had adapted readily to the modest and
appropriate Indian agriculture, adding the horse, some iron tools,
wagons and a few new types of seed. They were careful to maintain
the old irrigation system employed by the Indians and accommodated
Spanish law, which regulated ownership among individuals to water
rights as against communal modes of rationing. They were closer
together and now became integrated, but were distinct from the water
distribution system brought from the East.
Eastern law allowed only riparian rights; if a farmer did not own the
well or hole or bank of a river, he held no rights to water and had to
buy them from the owner. In the Hispanic system that came to be
adopted in most places, the rights were governed by the community
and parceled out in accord with the priority of the possessor and the
amount seasonally available. Such was the "beneficial use" or
appropriation system as opposed to the riparian rights system.
Most Pueblos professed Christianity. A number of Catholic missions
had been established in what became American territory. The Jesuits
and Franciscan monks operated them. Distanced far from one another,
they acted as community centers for a growing number of Mexican-Indians
and pure Indians. A few of these were taught in mission
schools, a few became acolytes, a few ventured to make their fortunes
in Chihuahua, which was the city to the South from which trade
radiated into the region, or even in Mexico City, much farther South
and the largest city in North America until the nineteenth century
industrial revolution matured in the East. (In the
late twentieth century it became again the
largest city in North America.)
Land ownership was generally in small plots associated with
villages, but very large tracts were given or sold to individuals. The
missions were dispossessed of their property after the revolution,
when the Mexican revolutionary government pursued
a policy of anti-clericalism, and their lands also ended in the
hands of great landlords.
Many of the rich families had much the same reputation as the planters
of the East; they lived for horses, rodeos, gambling, and feasting. On
their ranches a cowboy culture developed. It was from the Mexican
gaucho that the American cowboy assumed his habits, skills, and
something of his character. The uniform was Mexican: hat, chaps,
spurs, lariat and saddle, down to the cinch (cincha) bellybanding the
saddle, that became a dozen common American extensions used ever
after by people who had rarely been near a horse - the "dead cinch"
being, for instance, a sure bet. Also Mexican were the cowboy yells.
The cowboy culture had also Southern roots, from Eastern
Louisiana; many Africans were cowboys in those earlier times and
kept up the tradition farther West.
Herds of cattle and sheep roamed on the usually desiccated plains from
one watering place to another. The rivers, with marked
exception - the Colorado, Rio Grande, Nueces, and Gila
particularly - dried at the end of summer, to wait for the rains of
winter and the mountain snows of spring to melt; furthermore, their
flow from one year to another was and is erratic. It was discovered
that ranging livestock was about the only occupation suited to the
land, beyond a few specially endowed areas.
The famous East-West routes-to-be were known to Indians, Spanish,
Mexicans, French and a few Americans by the beginning of the
nineteenth century. The first regular use of a route from American
territory to a significant Mexican settlement came with the opening of
the Santa Fe Trail by Mexican-American traders in search of an outlet
to the Northeast. It linked the bend of the
Missouri River where now stands Kansas City, by way of the
Arkansas River, to the Upper Colorado River.
Another point of contact had been initially set up by French traders
at Taos, New Mexico. San Miguel del Bado had achieved contact with
Eastern trading wagons. Taos workers built Bent's Fort on the
Arkansas river. Soon the monopoly of Chihuahua of trade with the
Southwest interior was broken and Santa Fe caravans might proceed
all the way to St.Louis. Thereupon, regardless of borders, Americans
ventured as far South as Zacatecas, and in the end the goods of this
huge interior country were competed for by the port
cities of New York, New Orleans and Vera Cruz (Mexico).
By the 1830's aggressive American commercial dealers had a new
route to follow. Hispanic traders had marked a new so-called "Old
Spanish Trail" that took them from New Mexico in a giant U-turn
Northwest (through Utah) and South through the San Bernardino
Mountains (Cajon Pass) into California. For decades, California mules
and horses were driven all the way to Missouri, with exchanges on the
way there to add New Mexico woolen goods.
Actually commerce and settlement and development could have
proceeded well, conducted by the United States and Mexico without
war and eternal grudges. But this was not to be. The authority of the
United States entered upon the great Southwest, "The Golden West,"
"Arid West," via three acquisitions that came after the Louisiana
Purchase: the Annexation of Texas of 1845; the Mexican Cession of
1848; and the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. The last of these was simply
a boundary straightening deal involving a small payment to the
always cash-needy Mexican government (welcome, then,
although the same land would cost billions of dollars today).
The Texas story occupies us for the balance of this chapter, the
Mexican war in the next.
The father of Stephen F. Austin of Missouri got an enormous land
grant from the Spanish authorities of Mexico, and Stephen could
employ it in liberated Mexico. He started a colony on the Brazos River
just as Mexico was achieving independence in 1921 and before long
had persuaded 2000
people from the East
to settle in. Other impresarios were offered similar
deals to bring in immigrants by the State of Coahuila-Texas.
Eastern Texas had good cotton land, so that before long
thousands of cotton planters had come in. One thousand
slaves had entered at the same time.
Mexicans became alarmed at the influx and tried to stop it,
bringing up troops to police the border, but the effort was no more
successful than the recent efforts to prevent illegal Mexican
immigrants going the opposite way. Soon there were ten times as
many American immigrants as there were Mexicans in the area.
Among them was a man named Sam Houston, or Paul Samuel
Houston as he had renamed himself, an attorney of Nacogdoces.
Houston is a man worth knowing. He is a top contender for the most
remarkable man in American history. He was a Mexican citizen. He
also had been and probably still was a Cherokee citizen named
Oo-Tse-Tee Ardee-Tah-Skee, meaning "The Big Drunk." He had been
solely an American citizen, a citizen of Tennessee, and had been
born in Virginia.
In his teens he had left his widowed mother (now in
Tennessee) with her nine other children to go live with the
Cherokees, where he was adopted by Chief Oo-Loo-Te-Ka.
In 1812, at 19, he decided to open a school in the nearby White
community, then gave it up after a year to join the Army,
carrying a heavy drinking habit with him.
He fought against the Creeks, and at the battle of Horseshoe Bend
was shot in the groin while charging the enemy. He also was shot in
the leg by a barbed arrow that was jerked out, and then in the
renewed attack caught two more bullets. The commander, Andrew
Jackson, was so impressed by his impetuous courage that he would
take his side for the rest of his life.
As token of his esteem, Jackson helped him become a lawyer, a
Congressman from Tennessee, and then Governor of the State. He
married while Governor, but his wife deserted him for her family
within months of the ceremony. Some say that she loved another
man, others that he was an impossibly jealous drunk. Many years
later she was quoted as having called him demented, insanely
jealous, while another reported that she was repelled by the
running sore in his thigh.
He was so dismayed that he resigned as Governor and rejoined his
Cherokee father at the Indian camp about 100 miles from the Texas
border. There he was often dead drunk, and sometimes engaged in the
liquor and general trade. He married an Indian in a traditional
ceremony. He went to Washington to appeal the case of the Cherokees
and, dressed in his Indian clothing,
pleaded with Jackson for relief.
He then attacked a congressman who had denounced him and was
tried by the House of Representatives. Appearing before the House
drunk, he asked for respect for "the rights of American citizens." He
was reprimanded and left for home, and, shortly, for Texas,
bearing credentials from Andrew Jackson.
At Nacogdoches, he not only became a Mexican citizen, but also was
converted to Roman Catholicism. He conspired on behalf of the
"Texians" for independence. The Committee on Vigilance and
Safety appointed him their military commander. When a convention
of March 4, 1836 declared for Texan independence, he was chosen
to be the Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the Republic of
Texas. This and a lot of recruiting effort brought him a rag-tag army
of some 800 men. They were a rainbow of ethnic and social types,
But if this was riff, then the Army of the Republic of Mexico under
Dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was raff, crowded with
convicts and homeless men. But it was larger. It was encamped by
the San Jacinto River, when Houston's army practically blundered
upon it. Houston of course ordered a charge and, shouting
"Remember the Alamo!" sent the disrupted enemy
flying in a matter of minutes. The men became instant heroes of Texas.
Their commander suffered a severe leg wound.
The legendary Alamo affair had witnessed to begin with a
large collection of Texan and other adventurers, like
Davy Crockett, holed up in an old Spanish mission
built in 1718 and housing Indians. They proclaimed the
independence of Texas and awaited the consequences.
It was February 23, 1836 when
the army of Dictator Santa Anna marched up.
The Texans repelled its attacks for twelve days, but in a final
assault all of the remaining Alamo defenders lost their lives.
(The wounded were despatched by order of Santa Anna.)
The commander, William Travis, was crazed from drinking
mercury, then the therapy-of-choice for syphilis. His co-commander,
Jim Bowie, who had been smuggling slaves and fighting Indians,
had cached in a hole on the Mission grounds a
hoard of gold and silver that he had stolen from Apaches whom he
had murdered, so he was loath to leave, and was sick anyhow.
Crockett tried to surrender, but failed.
It is with such tidbits from modern historical research that
the Hispanics of the area, angered at
a century and a half of racism and subjection by Anglos, argued
away recently the protests of the Daughters of the Republic of
Texas, who have guarded the site as a patriotic shrine.
The reformers and reconstructionists of history wished
to reconstruct the Alamo Mission.
Santa Anna was captured at San Jacinto. He signed a declaration of
the Independence of Texas and was released. The Mexican Congress
reassembled from its disbanding by Santa Anna, and denounced the
action, but no one paid any attention to it. The Texans wrote a
Constitution and elected Houston as President of Texas.
Besides the United States, both France and Britain, sensing
cheaper cotton, recognized Texas as a sovereign nation.
Houston now presented a petition on the part of
the new Republic to be annexed to the United States.
Friendship or no, Jackson was not of a mind to fight a war
with Mexico at the moment, and the opposition to another
slave territory and state was strong in Congress and the nation.
President Van Buren also evaded the issue of annexation.
President Tyler, next at bat, asked his Secretary of State,
John Calhoun, to put the treaty of annexation before the Senate.
Opposition was heavy, nor was it soothed with a leaked letter of
Calhoun explaining the wonders another slave state
would do for the Union. The bill failed.
Next in line was President Polk, a man full of expansionist
sentiments. He was well-educated and had lengthy political
experience, including two terms as Governor of Tennessee. After
his election, during the "Lame Duck" Congress that preceded his
inauguration, Tyler and the expansionists took liberties with the
Constitution and long practice: they introduced a joint resolution in
Congress (practically the same as a normal bill ) offering to admit
Texas as a State, were it to apply. (Treaties, we recall, required a
two-thirds approval in the Senate.) Tyler signed the resolution as
soon as it passed through both houses by simple majorities,
27-25 in the Senate, 120-98 in the House.
Even the immense and free acquisition, gratifying to the nation's
expansionists, had to buck against an increasingly stubborn and
growing free-state sentiment. Texas voters ratified the proposal and
on December 29, 1845 became citizens of the State of Texas and the
United States of America.
Sam Houston meanwhile had married for the third time, now to a
young woman named Margaret Lea. She was full of the Bible and
converted him to Baptism. She cured him of drunkenness, wrote
poetry, underwent the removal of a breast cancer without anaesthesia,
and proceeded withal to bear him eight children.
After annexation, he became a U.S. Senator and tried to become a
Presidential candidate of the American (Know-Nothing) Party,
attacking Whigs, Democrats, and Republicans.
His Senate seat was withdrawn by the legislature.
But he had two big acts left.
In 1859 he ran for Governor and was elected once more.
In the crisis of secession, he contended for the Union. He refused
the Confederate oath, but also turned down President Lincoln's
request that he take command of Union forces in Texas. He was
forced from office by the Texas Secession Convention.
He died two years later.
Following upon Statehood, the young giant Texas went after more of
Mexico. It also extended its economic and cultural influence into
Oklahoma, Eastern Louisiana, New Mexico and Arizona. Its people
came from several cultures that stamped various sections of the State.
In the far South and upper West Rio Grande, Hispanic
Catholic culture prevailed. In the far East sprang up a cotton culture
of Blacks and White, sharing much the same way of life but set
apart as castes. Their lands were soon eroded, and the people
became even poorer than they were when they entered. In the
1850's 90% of the people of Texas
lived in this area composing 2/5 of the state;
75% of the White population
owned only 15% of the wealth.
The many African-Americans, of course, owned zilch.
Catholic and Lutheran Europeans, Germans, pushed in from the
Gulf coast to settle on a group of hills in middle Texas.
Midwestern Protestants came down from Illinois, Missouri, Iowa and
points in between to people the Panhandle that was
ultimately patched on to Texas.
A large number infiltrated from the states of Tennessee,
Arkansas, and Missouri to lend a border Southern White complexion
to the state as a whole. They promptly formed the poorest 21
counties of Texas and stayed that way, despite heavy
emigration westward. The area remained, in effect, part of
Appalachia (It is spooky to recall the theory of Chapter One that
these hills of Texas are a distant geological continuation of the
Appalachians so far away). The same group pushed West and
ultimately colored New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California,
though not so much as Texas.
It is well to allude once again to the expansive propensity of the poor
Southerners: they had nothing to lose by moving; they did not build
neat farms usually and enrich themselves from the
environment at hand or the goods to be imported; they achieved a
subsistence standard and looked around for new country; they would
move even when the difference between what they had and what
they might expect was small.
But they were also at the same time romantic dreamers.
Territorially, although not in numbers, wealth, or creativity, their
culture came to characterize in some part half the area of the
continental United States. In the late twentieth century, you
could drive all over the United States listening to their
country music and Bible sermons on the radio.
From every point of the compass, the phenomenon of the Texas
cattlemen put in an appearance. They collected beasts, for some years
the rather scrawny and tough-eating longhorns, hired gauchos and
cowboys, and bought and fought for pasture and range. Small fortunes
were made and lost continuously in the risky business of the wide-open
spaces. They dealt in hides and beef. Their richest
markets were in the growing Northern cities. They tried every
desperate measure to walk or transport their animals North and East.
The metals and minerals, the petroleum, would come later;
meanwhile life was grim for the vast majority of Texans -
Indian, Hispanic, African, or Anglo (the term used for everyone of full
European descent, whether an original Texan or a newcomer).
Without exception, Texas was ruled by an oligarchy of rich Anglos of
several ethnic strains. Later on, populists would be elected to office,
invariably in the pay of the cattle, real estate, and oil interests.
Finally, a process of assimilation of other elements
to power and wealth, and therefore dignity, began -
first under the New Deal, then,
after World War II,
at a faster yet still vastly frustrating pace. A great
influx of technical, academic and industrial families from the North
heightened and broadened the change in culture. The native Anglos
themselves altered their own perspectives. The word
"Anglo" was disappearing: an American, a Texan, yes, but not an Anglo.
Lyndon Johnson, a schoolteacher and politician wheeler-and-dealer,
before becoming President by accident of an assassination,
would exemplify the worst of the traditional Texas Anglo -
were it not for his late conversion to the cause of
the poor and oppressed of the nation.
So far as the Mexican War is concerned, it simply crystallized the
initial peculiar forces of Texas, as Sam Houston himself had
discovered in the end.