A Tricoastal Woman: Texas History

Come and Take ItIf you go to public school in Texas, you will at some point be required to take Texas history. In fact, unless things have changed, if you want to teach school in Texas, you have to take a course in Texas history, even if you’re going to teach, say, physics.

At my school, we had this class in eighth grade. It was preceded by a semester of Texas geography, which is why I’m still pretty good at figuring out the location of the state’s 254 counties and know something about the indigenous population and the different landscapes.

My Texas history teacher took us up through statehood, but didn’t bother with anything that came later because, he said, “After that Texas history is just like the history of every other state.” That’s not completely true, and a lot of that later history would have been worth studying, though not, perhaps, on an eighth grade level.

Truth is, Texas is so big on its history that you don’t really need a class. It gets hammered at you all the time, from all directions. I imagine that just about everyone who ever goes to San Antonio tours the Alamo, for example. And when we were fighting a draconian anti-abortion law a few years ago, activists drew on the “Come and Take It” flag from the battle of Gonzales that kicked off the Texas Revolution against Mexico and made the t-shirt that illustrates this post. Here’s the original flag

Come and Take It

Which is to say, all native Texans (and even some folks who’d like to be mistaken for native Texans) go in for this history. It’s part and parcel of being Texan.

Some years back, when a bunch of extremist militia types called themselves the Republic of Texas and caused a lot of havoc in the high desert country around Marfa, I got very angry, not just because their politics were both stupid and dangerous, but because this creep from Missouri was appropriating my personal history. I am, after all, fifth generation Texan on both sides of my family.

But here’s the thing about the Texas history that everyone knows: It’s Anglo history. It’s essentially the history of the white people from the rest of the United States who hotfooted it to Texas in the early 1800s. Those include my ancestors, but let’s be clear: they weren’t the only people in Texas. And many of those other people were there long before they showed up.

I more or less knew this. Texas history class did cover Cabeza de Vaca and his sojourn among the Karankawas, who lived along the Gulf Coast. The Spanish explorers poked around beginning in the 1500s, and the area became part of Mexico after it won its independence from Spain in 1821. A large swath of the state was Comanche territory and very few others challenged them if they could avoid it.

The Anglo Texans came in 1823 – Stephen F. Austin and the Old Three Hundred. I don’t think any of my family goes back quite that far. (There was a Moore in charge of the Battle of Gonzales, but as far as I know, he’s no kin of mine.) In other words, the Texas glorified in the Texas history classes is less than two hundred years old.

And if you read some of the folklore collected by the great scholar Americo Paredes, you will find that among Mexican Americans – Tejanos – at least, the stories are told differently. For example, one thing everyone knows is that the Texas Rangers were a formidable police force. Their unofficial motto was “One riot, one Ranger.”

But if you read Paredes’s account of both the true story and the myths surrounding one Gregorio Cortez, With His Pistol in His Hand, you will find that one of the many corridos (ballads) sung about this hero talks about the hundreds of Rangers it took to catch one Mexican.

By the way, Cortez wasn’t leading a riot. He just defended himself by shooting the sheriff who shot his brother. And he rode four hundred miles and walked a hundred from Central Texas to the border, only to finally be arrested because someone betrayed him. Three or four hundred officers were chasing him.

Americo Paredes was teaching anthropology and folklore at the University of Texas when I was in school, but I didn’t know enough back then to discover him. In fact, I found out about him by reading his obituary, which lead me to check out his books. He was from Brownsville, along the Texas/Mexican border, and he spent a lot of time collecting stories and ballads from the frontera, the history not taught in school.

Tish Hinojosa has a wonderful song about him, called “El Corrido de Americo Paredes.”

There are many other histories in Texas. The German and Czech settlements in Central Texas are fascinating, as is the history of Jewish immigration through Galveston. Slavery and Jim Crow underlie a lot of African American history, but there is also a great deal of hidden Black culture in parts of the state, particularly in deep East Texas.

I think the interrelationship of Mexico and Texas is at the heart of much of the less known Texas history, though. And as the Anglo population dwindles there while the Tejano population continues to grow, I find myself hoping that some day Texas history classes will have a different flavor from the stories I grew up on.

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A Tricoastal Woman: Texas History — 15 Comments

  1. I recollect the truth about Texas history: when I was in sixth grade, at the beginning of the school year, the teacher asked us to draw a map of the United States by hand, from memory. (By the end of the year we would be able to do it more or less right.) Well, most of us made a mess of it, getting maybe ten or twelve states (I thought Philadelphia was a state), but one boy’s map stood out. He made a mess, too, except there was a perfect outline of Texas right where it belonged, and pretty much a mishmash to either side. His family had recently moved from Texas to CA, and he explained to us that they all knew Texas history and the map much earlier than sixth grade.

    • At one time I could put in the name of every county in Texas on a map with the counties outlined on it. But I suspect I’d have had real trouble with states in the Midwest and New England at that point.

      My world geography at that point was even worse. My mother was horrified to learn that I was being taught in sixth grade geography that Nanking was the capital of China. It seems the book we were using was published in 1936 and our teacher — the women’s basketball coach — didn’t know any better. After that, I went to school in a town farther away where they actually had recently published textbooks, not to mention language labs and new math.

  2. I remember going to Austin and seeing the Texas History Museum. I was struck by how seriously they take the state history. In Virginia where I live we are much more laid back. The energy is fractured between the Colonial history people (George Washington, Jefferson, etc.), the Civil War mavens (re-enactors, people with metal detectors, ageing Confederates who have not yet surrendered, and so on) and many other sub-groups.
    And the iconography of the Texas slogan is still current. I am unable to persuade the system to paste the image in here, but going to this old BVC blog post will show you what I did with it.

    • BTW, when I interviewed for legal services jobs in Lynchburg and Danville back in the day, I realized that many people in Virginia were still debating whether Lee made the right decision to surrender at Appomattox. So I suspect it depends on where you are in Virginia whether state history is a big deal.

      • I once worked for a guy who was on the vestry of an Episcopal church in Haymarket, VA. They were redoing their brochure, and he had me proof it. Haymarket is now in the commuter belt for Washington DC, and churches can survive and thrive if they draw in young families with kids. So when I read in the brochure about the War of Northern Aggression I suggested that they fix this wording, so that millennials wouldn’t be turned off. He said it couldn’t be done — the land under the church’s parking lot was owned by a woman who was still fighting the Battle of Manassas in her mind, and was never going to surrender even if Bobby Lee did. They would alter the brochure after she died.

  3. We had Our State courses too, in 7th or 8th grade, back in North Dakota. Those classes were wiped out in our state by the 1970’s, and earlier than that in most of the rest of the US as out-of-date and unnecessary. I disagree, but never mind.

    Alas though that most Texas histories even now, even written for adults, is intentionally formulated to buoy up phony myth-making, and no part is more false than most of these histories of the incident that got inflated into a grand epic called The Alamo. There’s a reason the Mexican American War has been mostly forgotten and ignored — just as it was soon after what was left of the armies came home.

    As Grant and many others who were there at the time, including General Zachary Taylor, called it, “the most wicked war” made only for the sake of the slaveocracy and its expansion, made upon the poor in their own homes. The volunteer troops’ rape, pillage and massacre-murders upon civilian Mexicans were uncountable, among many other atrocities. Once the people back home began learning of all this, they were appalled (the north, particularly the northeast never wanted the war at all, knowing what it was about) — not to mention at the escalating costs. Think, o, say, Vietnam. So Polk who made this war on behalf of Jackson and the slaveocracy of which he was a part, had to settle.

    We have also conveniently left out of the history how many of the so-called settlers of Texas, which was MEXICO, where cotton planters fleeing their debts in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, in the wake of the failed economic policies of POTUS Andrew Jackson — GTT, “Gone to Texas”. They were sure to take their slaves with them — and in Mexico slavery was illegal. So the slaves ran to freedom. Indios and Mexicans married black slave women. Must have war to fix that! Plus as Republic, Texas had so heavy debts she had to be rescued by the US, but could only have her debts taken up by the US gummit if Texas was a state. Desperation!

    Real history should be taught. I wish it was. Television doesn’t help either. They just keep rolling the same old lies.

    • You remind me that my first inkling of the true history of Mexican American War came when I visited Chapultepec Park in Mexico City and saw the impressive monument to the young cadets who leaped to their deaths rather than surrender to the American forces. I’ll have to write about that experience.

      GTT was always part of the myth. We joked about it in our family. But it was part and parcel of the “coming out to Texas to be free” story (as long as you were white).

      Stephen F. Austin assured the Mexican government that his settlers weren’t going to drag Texas into the United States. I suspect that was a lie from the beginning.

      Did you see that a Mexican politician wants to challenge the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican American War? If that was tossed out, Mexico could get back Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. I’m not sure they really want us at this point, but it might be a good way to stop the border wall and oppressive immigration policies.

  4. P.S. I have spent a lot of time in Texas for all kinds of reasons, including my partner’s family are Texans. Have many close friends who are still living in Texas, and constantly battling all this, including the roll back of women’s reproductive rights, and all the rest. They’ve been fighting a long time, and are tired.

    Also, as historians specializing in the history of slavery, one cannot write a history of the US without understanding deeply the connections between Texas as a state and California as a state. Many historians see the history of the Civil War as inevitable beginning with Texas and the Mexican American War, as the fight to expand slavery began there, and then with the additional territory annexed from Mexico, as to be slave territory or free soil territory.

    Just sayin’, yanno, coz I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’d just been talkin’ through my 10-gallon hat.

    In many ways, there is more actual history of Texas in Edna Ferber’s novel, Giant, than in most histories, and certainly in televised history on the History channel and so on. Of course, Ferber was of that era of writers who tended to lean left, some more than others, like John Steinbeck, from back in the 1930’s. So in all her novels one sees issues of racism and class examined through her characters. This is one of the reasons her novels fell from favor after WWII.

    • Your knowledge of Texas is plenty accurate. Though I would say the war on women’s reproductive rights and other extremist agendas of the time are a relatively new phenomenon. The Texas Legislature passed the ERA back in the day. And there wasn’t much focus on immigrants without the requisite paperwork, because they were an essential part of the state’s economy. (Still are, in fact, but of course people are at greater and greater risk.) Basically, if you look at Texas as a wholly owned subsidiary of ExxonMobil, most of its Twentieth Century politics makes sense. But the extremist of the last couple of decades has gone way beyond that.

      I read Giant a long time ago. Barbara Hambly has done a good job of nailing the pro-slavery nastiness of “Texians” (and the relative freedom for Black people in Mexico) in her Benjamin January mystery series. A friend of mine has an as-yet unsold novel that also uses this history. As you say, fiction can get across truths that history neglects. OTOH, there’s Gone With the Wind.

  5. The California history we had when I was a kid was sanitized for our protection. No mention of the slaughter of the Native Americans, no mention of the horrors of the Mission System, etc.

    • Things have changed somewhat in California. I noticed when visiting one of the missions that their museum mentioned the Indigenous Californians of the region and suggested that the Spanish settlements may not have been all that good for them. The language wasn’t as strong as you or I might have used, but it was something.

  6. It remained just as bad, and for certain groups got worse, with the arrival if the USians — the same USians (far and away all agreed, the worst were the Texans, who persisted in treating everyone not white like Indians and / or black people, who in their minds were animals) who committed the rapes, massacres, pillaging and the other, many crimes in Mexico during that Mexican American war.

    • Yeah. These days many political events around here in Oakland start with a blessing from someone from one of the Indigenous nations. And while I appreciate it that we recognize that heritage and know that the people in my political circles are sincere in wanting to show respect, I can’t help feeling that it’s too little, too late.