If 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
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.