A Shortish History of Texas

Everything is big in Texas starting with the land itself which covers just under 269,000 sq miles so what follows is as short a history as you are liable to find! Before I arrived here my knowledge was based on a handful of alltime classic films…

Long before the Europeans arrived various tribes of Native Americans occupied the land known today as Texas. Some were indigenous, some passed through, the Apaches arrived from further north. From Spaniard’s Cabeza de Vaca arrival in 1528, the ultimate outcome for the native tribes was not a pleasant one; wiped out by European diseases or assimulated into Mexican or Spanish populations. The coast was first mapped by Europeans around 1519 but de Vaca was shipwrecked and spent 7 years wandering through the land living with the local natives and documenting his unintentional tour. By the late 17th century the Spaniards had worked out that their new land did not have the gold or silver they sought and the harsh landscape didn’t incentivise them sufficiently to leave the comfort of Mexico City.

The French were the next to arrive, mistakenly. La Salle believed he was landing in Louisianna but was in fact a few hundred miles further west, not far from present day Corpus Christi. Once the Spanish heard the French had set up a colony they renewed their interest so sent Captain Alonso de Leon to confront the enemy and reclaim the region for the Spanish crown. de Leon found the colony decimated by Indians and La Salle murdered by his own men. Spain ruled the land once more.

For the next hundred and fifty years or so the Spanish under the guise of converting everyone to Catholicism protected the lands from any other European invasion. The mission was largely unsucessful, most of the indigenous people succumbed to epidemics. By the start of the 19th century the first Anglo-Americans settlers began to cross the border. And in the early days of the Mexican republic twenty or thirty years later Texas was sparsely populated with just three towns and around 2,500 people. The Mexicans inherited a failed colony, the mssion stations had though contributed the notion of ranching to the future state. Thousands of cattle and horses now roamed the pastures and praires across central and southern Texas. These later gave rise the huge cattle drives after the Civil War which were managed by “vaqueros” or cowboys giving rise to one part of the quintessential culture of Texas. Meanwhile Comanche, Apache and other hostile tribes ruled more than the government in Mexico City.

In 1821 the Mexican government gave American Moses Austin a contract to establish a colony with 300 families. His son Stephen F., the founder of modern Texas, took over the task on his fathers death. Just fourteen years later there were 21 towns and twenty thousand or so Anglo-American immigrants. Santa Anna was by now in charge back in Mexico City moving from democracy to dictatorship, along the way he abolished the state goverment of Coahuila and Zacatecas (Texas). The latter rebelled and Santa Anna’s forces invaded, defeating the opposition then raping and murdering thousands of local citizens.

The Texians (the Anglo-Americans) and the Tejanos (the original hispanic settlers) decided it was time to leave the Mexican state. In October 1835 at Gonzales on the Guadaloupe River they challenged the Mexicans to “Come and Take It” – “It” being a small cannon given to them by the Mexican army to defend the settlement against Native Indians. The defiant banner was central to face off with between the local populace and 100 Mexican dragoons. The Texians fired their cannon and charged, the Mexicans withdrew with two fatailities. This small skirmish was the start of a lengthy, bloody revolution. At San Antonio in early December the untrained but eager Texians forced the Mexicans to surrender and then allowed General Cos, Santa Anna’s brother-in-law to withdraw back to Mexico. Afterwards most of the Texas volunteers went home leaving around 100 in Alamo.

The Texas Army existed with Sam Houston as commander in chief, but had no regular soldiers, only the volunteers who hadn’t returned to their lands. Early 1836 Santa Anna crossed the Rio Grande with 4000 troops as well as cavalry and artillery to punish the wayward Texians. Sam Houston gave orders to abandon Alamo. Believing that the fort could be defended with cannon captured from the Mexicans Willam Travis and David Crockett (who came from Tennessee with extra men) overruled Sam Houston. By late February the sick Bowie who’d been elected commander by the men ceded to Travis as Santa Anna’s army began their siege. Thirteen days later Santa Anna overwhelmed the fort, 182 defenders and over 600 Mexicans were dead including Travis, Crockett and Bowie, the latter shot on his sick bed in the chapel. However this defeat inspired the rest of Texas. Santa Anna had one further victory at Goliad where 400 men left it too late to abandon their fort and found themselves surrounded by the Mexicans just 6 miles later. All were marched back and executed under the Dictator’s orders on Palm Sunday, March 27 1836.

One month later Santa Anna had victory in his sights, the remenants of the Texian Army and the Mexicans faced one another over the priarie at the San Jacinto river, more than 1300 Mexicans to almost 900 Texians. The Dictator decided to let his brother-in-law General Cos’ troops rest before commencing the battle. Sam Houston had other ideas so around 3pm on April 21 lined out across the land during the Mexicans’ siesta. Eighteen minutes later the battle was over although the slaughter of Mexicans by Texians wanting revenge for the Alamo and Goliad went on into the night.Santa Anna was captured the following day and forced to sign a treaty that meant retreat to the other side of the Rio Grande. The land of Texas was now a republic, Sam Houston was elected its first president. It was officially recognised as such in 1837 by the USA and later by some European countries including France.

In 1838 newly elected president, Mirabeau Lamar (a buffalo hunter) hated Sam Houston and decided that Houston was not the place for the capital so set about creating one from scratch. Austin was laid out in 1839 close to the Colorado river. The original 200 inhabitants had to put up with raiding Comanche so despite the buffalo and their log cabins, it was a dangerous place to live. By 1841 Houston was again president. He preferred living peacefully side by side with the natives so wanted to move the capital back to Houston. He knew the Austinites would not be keen so he devised a plan to sneak into the city at night without waking the residents, load up the archives on a couple of wagons and take them back to Houston. The plan was foiled when one Angelina Eberly, owner of the Bullock Hotel heard them and on realising what was going on fired the cannon normally reserved for protection against the Comanche. Almost the entire city rode out after the Rangers to retrieve the documents, establishing Austin as the capital of the Lone Star Republic (the original Mexican state of  Coahuila and Zacatecas had had two stars on its flag, Texas took one of these).

At the very beginning of the republic the voters were in favour of annexation but the USA initially turned the request down. Houston needed cash so he courted both British and French investors which the USA was not comfortable with leading to annexation in 1845. The dissolution of the republic incidently sparked a new war with Mexico. During the 1850s the population almost doubled with immigration from Germany bringing beer brewing and sausages to the state and through the importation of slaves who came with settlers from the southern states, until then slavery hadn’t been common in Texas. With the Civil War in 1861, Texas left the Union and joined the Confederates though most of the battles were outside of the state.

The face of the land changed rapidly over this period with the advent of the railway and the rise of ranching. Land barons, businesses and money poured into the state, cities grew from the small settlements. Late in the 19th century the government raised funds for a state capitol building in Austin by selling land in the Pan Handle (the north of the state) to Anglo-Americans for ranching. The imposing capitol, taller that then one in Washington was not without controversy – strikes over the use of imported labour resulted in convicts being used/ And the insistence of the state fathers that local stone should be used meant the original design for an ornate limestone edifice could not be executed as the local stone was not of good enough quality. Eventually red marble from nearby Marble Falls was donated and much of the planned ornamentation dropped but the building is as impressive today as it was when it was built providing grand views from all over the city.

Oil had been discovered in the late 1800’s but not much, then in 1901, a drilling site exploded with a gusher and suddenly the oil boom was on. Just a few years before, further north, Henry Ford had produced his first car so Texas became rich, schools were built, roads surfaced and homes sprang up everywhere. With the stock market crash in 1929 Texan progress screeched to a halt and the state became part of the dust bowl – severe drought, poverty and agricultural decline marked many of the years ahead. But eventually Texas bounced back, during the second world war the military established several major bases here leading to a rise in federal government spending locally as well as manufacturing. Gradually the impoverished state recovered to become what it is today a major oil producer, home to top military bases with ranching as an important sideline – beef, peaches and more are farmed.