Texas is as varied as a peacock’s feathers. On any given day—all on the same day—you can die of heatstroke in Houston and freeze to death in Amarillo. If you like piney woods, Texas has them. Beaches and sun? Sure—miles and miles of the stuff. If you’re into mountains I can point you in the right direction. We have deserts and canyon lands and prairies filled with wildflowers so beautiful you’ll think you’re in heaven. You can find citified fashion in Dallas and cowboy fashion in Fort Worth. We smoke the best barbecue you’ve ever eaten—whether Texan or Korean. You can dine on fine shrimp and oysters on the Gulf Coast or fine beef and pronghorn in the Panhandle. There’s simply no other place as wide-ranging as Texas. As one observer said, “I am forced to conclude that God made Texas on his day off, for pure entertainment, just to prove that all that diversity could be crammed into one section of earth by a really top hand.”
As diverse as Texas is in its geography, economy, and gastronomy, its history is equally assorted. Six different nations have claimed Texas, each with their own unique past and contribution to the Lone Star State.
Texas was at the far flung extreme of Spain’s North American empire. The crown’s primary activity during the first 166 years of occupation (1519–1685) was to dispatch Conquistadors on missions of exploration. The first Spanish explorer was Alonso Álvarez de Pineda, who in 1519, mapped the Texas coastline. Then, in 1528, after being blown off course and shipwrecked near Galveston Island, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca transversed the coastline and inlets before working his way across the southwestern portion of Texas in an attempt to reach Mexico City. Thirteen years later, in 1541, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, after discovering that the famed Seven Cities of Gold—Cibola—was a myth, crossed a portion of the Texas Panhandle in search of Gran Quivira, another (mythological) golden city.
The first colony-like activity took place on April 30, 1598, when Juan de Oñate and members of his expedition, along with natives in the region of what is present-day El Paso, held a Thanksgiving ceremony—three years before the Pilgrims’ famed “first” Thanksgiving in New England. The first official settlement came in 1681, after Spanish and allied Indians fled an uprising in Santa Fe and established mission Corpus Christi de la Isleta (Ysleta) near El Paso. However, the Spanish crown did not get serious about exploring and establishing colonies in Texas until after French explorer La Salle’s colony on Garcitas Creek was discovered by General Alonso de León on April 22, 1689. Alarmed that the French had landed in Texas, the Spanish government, in an effort to protect its interests, moved swiftly to build missions and presidios, particularly in the east where La Salle’s colony was established.
Adventurer and explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who navigated the Mississippi River by canoe in 1682, claiming the river’s basin for France, persuaded King Louis XIV in 1684 to fund an expedition to find a sea route to the mouth of the Mississippi with the intention of establishing a permanent colony in the newly named territory of Louisiana. The superpowers of Spain and France were locked in a battle for world dominance. Spain, with a long standing presence in North America, had already claimed the Gulf of Mexico as its exclusive territorial waters. So when La Salle approached King Louis with a scheme to set up a settlement in the region, near the silver mines of northern Mexico, Louis jumped on the opportunity.
Outfitted with provisions and 400 men and women, including a handful of priests, La Salle set sail for the Gulf of Mexico and the mouth of the Mississippi on August 1, 1684. Three ships—the L’Aimable, Le Joly, and Saint-François—accompanied the navy frigate La Belle across the Atlantic Ocean. Trouble began almost at once. The Saint-François was seized by Spanish pirates off the West Indies. At Cuba the rigging of the La Belle and L’Aimable became entangled when a sudden squall drove them together. The La Belle lost one of her two anchors, which at the time didn’t concern the crew, but would prove a critical loss.
Relying on inaccurate maps, La Salle overshot the Mississippi by some 400 miles. On February 18, 1685, the La Belle sailed into Matagorda Bay. Two days later, the L’Aimable, attempting to navigate the narrow channel into the bay, ran aground and broke up. Arms, medicines, trade goods, casks of wine and brandy, bacon, beef, and most of the settlement’s clothing was lost to the sea. Then, in mid-March, the Le Joly, as planned, returned to France. What wasn’t planned was her cargo: half of the settlers, after spying the rugged countryside, decided that France was beckoning and chose to sail back home.
La Salle, undeterred, believing he had reached the western arm of the Mississippi, determined to scout a suitable location for the establishment of the colony. On March 24, he and 52 men canoed into present-day Lavaca Bay and up Garcitas Creek. He chose a low hill about four and a half miles inland in present-day Victoria County. Construction on the settlement began in April. In mid-June, the remaining settlers—70 in all—arrived at the colony, which La Salle named Fort St. Louis. By July, half of the colony had succumbed to disease, malnutrition, and poisonous berries or snakes. Over the next two years, more of the company would die or desert to the Indians. The La Belle, without both anchors, would be dragged across the bay in a storm, run aground stern-first into Matagorda Peninsula, and sunk. La Salle would be murdered by mutineers, just west of the Trinity River, in a forlorn attempt to reach a post he had established on the Illinois River in 1683, before he had canoed down the Mississippi.
In its latter years as a colonial power, Spain was ruled by rival monarchs: Charles IV and Ferdinand VII. But after Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula both Spanish kings were forced to abdicate. Napoleon crowned his elder brother Joseph as the new king of Spain, which led to revolts throughout its Mexican colony.
Things came to a decisive head on September 16, 1810, when Catholic priest Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costillo preached a revolutionary sermon: Grito de Dolores—the Cry of Dolores—calling on the people of his perish to leave their homes and join him in armed rebellion against what he saw as the illegitimate government of Bonaparte, sparking the Mexican War of Independence against Spain. Though Costillo wouldn’t live to see Mexico become an independent nation, having been executed and decapitated in July 1811, he is considered the “Father of Mexico.”
The war itself dragged on for eleven long years and saw some of the most brutal fighting and atrocities in North America—until the American Civil War. On August 13, 1813, in the bloodiest battle ever fought on Texas soil, about 200 miles south of present-day San Antonio, at the Battle of Medina, royal (Spanish) forces defeated republican (Mexican) forces. Some 1,300 Mexican soldiers were killed in combat or executed after surrendering.
Mexico eventually prevailed over Spain, which signed the Treaty of Córdoba on August 24, 1821, recognizing Mexican independence. However, the sparsely populated state of Coahuila y Tejas proved troublesome for the young nation. Indian raids from Kiowa, Comanches, and other hostiles had been a constant source of terror in northern Mexico. And the ever expanding United States threatened Mexican sovereignty over its northern territory. To serve as a barrier against hostile Indians and to solidify its sovereignty over Coahuila y Tejas, the Mexican government authorized land agents (empresarios) to recruit Anglo-American settlers to colonize Texas. They would receive protection under the Constitution of 1824. And as long as they swore allegiance to Mexico and converted to Roman Catholicism, the Mexican government allowed Texians (as they were then called) to rule themselves.
The Republic of Texas, 1836–1845
Spain hadn’t yet lost Mexico when on December 26, 1820, it authorized Moses Austin as an empresario to settle Anglo-Americans in Texas. His plan was to settle 300 families on land bordered by the Brazos and Colorado Rivers, just north of El Camino Real—the old military road linking San Antonio and Nacogdoches. However, Moses died the following June, before establishing his settlement. His authorization transferred to his son, Stephen F. Austin.
Stephen was not enthusiastic about his father’s “Texas Venture,” but threw himself into the business because Moses’s dying wish was that Stephen spearhead the enterprise. Problems beset Austin from the beginning. Families began arriving in December 1821, under Spanish land grants. But when Mexico won her independence the provisional government refused to recognize the Spanish grant to Moses Austin. The Mexican government would regulate colonization by a general immigration law, forcing Stephen to travel to Mexico City and lobby for a law favorable for settlement in Texas.
The Mexican Congress granted Austin’s wish, passing a law that offered heads of families a league and a labor of land—4,605 acres. By the end of the summer of 1824 most of the initial families, known as the “Old Three Hundred,” were established in Texas.
Over the next decade thousands of settlers poured into the Mexican state. By 1830, Texas boasted a population of 15,000 souls, with Anglo-Americans outnumbering Tejanos (Mexican Texans) four to one. For the most part, these Texians were free to do as they pleased and govern themselves . . . until 1834, when Antonio López de Santa Anna declared himself dictator of Mexico, repealing the Constitution of 1824 and dismantling the federal government. State militias were reduced to one man for every 500 people. And when the legislature of Coahuila y Tejas moved the capital from Saltillo to Monclova, Santa Anna sent his brother-in-law, Martin Perfecto de Cos, to Texas to break up the state government. After disbanding the legislature, Cos established his headquarters in San Antonio de Béxar, intent on ending Texas resistance by arresting critics of Santa Anna. Outraged Texians refused to acquiesce. Then, in October 1835, the Mexican garrison at San Antonio attempted to seize a six-pound cannon that had been granted the DeWitt colonists to protect themselves from Indian raids. When the Mexican column reached Gonzales they were confronted by armed Texians flying a war banner: a large canon on a white field. Emblazoned across the top was the following defiant challenge: “Come and Take It.” Later that year, in December, Stephen F. Austin and Edward Burleson laid siege to Béxar, forcing Cos’s surrender. He was pardoned on the pledge that the Mexican government would reinstate the Constitution of 1824.
Santa Anna, however, had no intentions of honoring any pledge made to armed rebels.
On February 12, 1836, Santa Anna, riding at the head of the Mexican army, crossed the Rio Grande bound for San Antonio. He arrived outside the gates of the old mission-fort Pueblo de la Compañia de Álamo (also known as San Antonio de Valero, or simply the Alamo) on February 23 and began to lay siege to the defenders inside. A few days later, on March 2, delegates meeting at Washington-on-the-Brazos signed a formal Declaration of Independence. Four days later, on March 6, the Alamo fell to Mexican forces. All defenders were either killed in battle or executed without quarter.
After the fall of the Alamo, terrified Texians began running eastward pell-mell, in what became known as “The Runaway Scrape.” Sam Houston, commander-in-chief of the Texas army, took his troops east, not wanting to engage the Mexican army until he thought his men ready.
Though ordered by Houston to abandon the presidio La Bahía at Goliad, commander James Fannin tarried too long and was caught by Mexican General José de Urrea, who executed Fannin and his 350 men on March 27.
Houston and the Texas army continued their eastward retreat, followed by Santa Anna, when on April 21 the Texas and Mexican armies tangled in a clearing next to the San Jacinto River. The Mexican army was defeated, Santa Anna captured, and forced to capitulate. At Velasco, Santa Anna signed a public and a private treaty—publicly, hostilities would cease, the Mexican army would withdraw south of the Rio Grande, prisoners would be released, and Santa Anna would be shipped to Veracruz; privately, Santa Anna would recognize Texas’ independence, provide diplomatic recognition, negotiate a commercial treaty, and establish the Rio Grande as the southern border for the new Republic.
The United States of America, 1845–1861 and 1865–present
Sam Houston was elected the first president of the Republic of Texas and immediately began seeking support for annexation to the United States. But Houston and the new Republic faced numerous difficulties. Many Texans, including the commander of the Texas army, still flush with military ardor, wanted to invade Mexico, which remained warlike itself. The Mexican government refused to honor the provisions in the private treaty of Velasco. Hostile Indians—murdering, stealing cattle and horses, and kidnapping women and children—were a constant source of danger, particularly on the western fringes of the Republic. Foreign relations had to be developed, and relations with the United States solidified. And if these problems were not enough for the new Republic to address, Texas’ economy was in shambles. And yet, Houston pushed for annexation. President Andrew Jackson, a friend and mentor to Houston, however, wasn’t keen on the idea, dooming the initial move toward annexation.
Those who followed Houston as chief executive of the Republic often opposed annexation. Mirabeau B. Lamar, who was elected as Texas’ second president, had visions of empire in which Texas would rival the supremacy of the United States. And debates within the United States Congress about how new territories and states would upset the delicate balance between slave and free stalled talks of annexation. When the issue came back around again, during the 1844 presidential election, things had changed in Texas and within the United States. The Democratic platform called for adding Oregon and Texas to the Union—one free and the other slave. James K. Polk, the nominee, supported the measure. When Polk won the election in November, President John Tyler, fearing British meddling in Texas, declared that the people of the United States had spoken in favor of annexation and resubmitted the matter to Congress. Various bills were debated, but in February 1845, Congress passed a resolution in favor of annexation. Texas would cede to the United States public property, such as forts and custom houses, but could keep her public lands. The United States would help settle the persistent dispute between Texas and Mexico about the Rio Grande.
Upon passage of the annexation resolution, British officials, who wanted to ensure their favorable cotton trade with the Republic and who hoped to established greater influence on the continent, asked the Texas government for a 90 day delay before accepting the United States’ offer. Britain would negotiate with Mexico and help settle the southern border disagreement.
Britain did successfully broker all Texas claims in the Velasco Treaty, but the sentiment in Texas was no longer for empire. Texans wanted to become Americans. President Anson Jones, who succeeded Houston (after his second term as president), called for a convention in Austin on July 4, 1845, and placed before the delegates the choice of annexation or continued independence with Mexican recognition. The convention voted for annexation. They then set about drafting a state constitution, which was ratified by popular vote in October and accepted by the United States Congress on December 29, making Texas the 28th state.
President Jones, after handing over the reins of government to the newly elected governor, James Pickney Henderson, declaring: “The final act in this great drama is now performed; the Republic of Texas is no more.”
The Confederate States of America, 1861–1865
In the first fifteen years since Texas joined the Union the state underwent tremendous changes. The population tripled with a diverse influx of immigrants. The eastern and southeastern regions were populated by people relocating from the lower South—from slaveholding states. The Texas frontier, west of Austin, was mostly populated by nonslaveholders from the upper South or from Germany. The southwestern regions were populated by immigrants from Germany, Britain, and Mexico.
Although slaveowners remained a minority, they controlled a majority of the wealth and political influence within the state. Slaveholders also cast a mythological influence over the imaginations of new immigrants. The image of treelined southern plantations owned and operated by chivalrous southern gentlemen, drinking mint juleps or sipping bourbon on the porches of their large, white houses while slaves toil in the fields was seen by new landowners as a step up the economic ladder. Even in regions of the state where slavery was virtually unknown and impractical, slave ownership was an economic dream.
On the whole, slaveholders were members of the loosely organized Democratic Party. But with the rise of the well organized Know-Nothing Party, which at best, from a Democrat’s perspective, was agnostic toward slavery or at worst was antislavery, Democrats were forced to formally organize into a political party. Their standard bearer in Texas was Hardin Runnels, who defeated Sam Houston for the governorship in 1857. A strong states-right and slavery advocate, Runnels often spoke of Texas secession. Two years later, Houston, a pro-Union man, defeated Runnels and two Unionist men were elected to Texas’ two congressional seats: A. J. Hamilton and John H. Reagan.
However, within a few months, the political winds suddenly shifted. The federal army seemed to be powerless to stop Indian raids on the frontier. And the Republican-controlled Congress refused to provide additional aid in fighting Indians, creating a greater burden on the state—which then had to rely on the use of the Texas Rangers—to put down hostile activities. The army’s fecklessness and Congress’ recklessness with the lives of Texans on the frontier fueled suspicions among states-right proponents that the federal government did not have Texas’ best interest in mind. Then, in the summer of 1860, a series of questionable fires in cities around the state aroused fears that an abolitionist plot was afoot and that a slave insurrection was in the offing. Secessionists used the army’s failure, Congress’ refusal, and the fires to stir up greater fears. Throughout the state blacks and white northerners were lynched by vigilante groups. With the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, Texas secessionists began making the same arguments that southern secessionists were making—that Lincoln would first restrict slavery to the existing southern states, and then outlaw slavery throughout the United States.
Governor Houston was under pressure to call a special session of the state legislature, to address the question of secession. Houston refused. Nevertheless, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Oran M. Roberts and other secessionists issued a call to the 122 counties to hold elections and send delegates to a convention in Austin. On January 28, 1861, the convention met and 166 delegates voted for secession, only eight voted to remain in the Union. A general election was called for February 23. Houston stumped throughout the state in support of the Union. However, he conceded, if the people of Texas wanted to secede from the United States they should not join the Confederate Sates, rather they should declare their independence and reestablish the Republic of Texas. On election day, with only one-fourth of the population having lived in Texas when she was an independent republic, the vote for secession and joining the Confederacy was overwhelming—76 percent in favor. Lincoln, who would be inaugurated within a couple of weeks, wrote to Houston, offering 50,000 federal troops to keep Texas in the Union. Houston and other Unionists considered Lincoln’s offer, but in the end declined. “I love Texas too well to bring strife and bloodshed upon her,” Houston said. On March 2, Texas Independence Day, Texas officially seceded from the United States of America.