Today’s discussion is about the creation of historical memory and how one war in particular, The Texas War of Independence, is remembered. But also how historical memory of that war is profoundly colored by the memory of the Civil War through what is known as the Lost Cause.
We invite you to listen to our podcast, read the transcript below or watch the YouTube video at the bottom of this post.
*these links are affiliate links* This means that by purchasing one of the books linked below, Dig History Podcast will receive a small percentage of the sale from Amazon. This does NOT increase the price for the buyer.
Randolph B. Campbell, ed. The Laws of Slavery in Texas: Historical Documents and Essays. University at Texas Press, 2010.
Timothy M. Matovina. The Alamo Remembered: Tejano Accounts and Perspectives. University of Texas Press, 1995.
Elizabeth Hayes Turner. Women, Culture, and Community: Religion and Reform in Galveston, 1880-1920. Oxford University Press, 1997.
Andrew J. Torget. Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850 (The David J. Weber Series in the New Borderlands History). The University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
Other Episodes of Interest:
- Guerrilla Warfare: The American Civil War and Irregular Soldiers
- Death, Mud and Guns: Military Revolution and the Birth of Bureaucracy
- George McGovern and the Elusive Christian Left
Transcript of Texas Independence, Slavery and the Lost Cause:
Written and researched by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, MA, PhD Candidate
Produced and Recorded by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, MA, PhD Candidate and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD
Elizabeth: How do we remember our past? Or more accurately, how do we reconstruct our past? Historical memory is selective. We choose what we will remember, what we will honor, what we will teach our children, and what we will selectively forget. The retelling of the past is never an exact replication of what “happened.” To think that it is- is a mistake, a gross form of naivete, a confusion between sentimentality and realism.
Sarah: Instead, as historians, we take the documents, the words, the stories, the pictures, – everything we can get our hands on that was produced during the time we are studying – and combine them with the context of the day- with the events both big and small going on in the world in which our historical subjects lived, worked, and loved. We analyze this with secondary sources, with the historiography and knowledge that has come before us. Then, as historians, we weave a rich, fuller picture of the life and times of our historical subjects – sometimes richer than what they were aware of even at the time.
Elizabeth: Forces stronger and even perhaps unknown to our historical subjects shaped and manipulated the choices and decisions that they made everyday. Sometimes those forces aren’t even visible until many years later. That is why history is never dead. It is constantly being re-evaluated, reinterpreted, and reexamined. Why? Because history is not a static monolith . It is not a dry set of “facts” and dates – of great white men and silent masses. Instead, history colors our everyday, and is also colored by our present. Let me read you a great quote by American author James Baldwin, “history… does not refer merely to the past… history is literally present in all that we do.”
Sarah: So when we break that down a little bit, what he’s saying, what we’re saying, is that history is alive and breathing and gets interpreted within current contexts.
When we are discussing history, especially about national or foundational myths that explain who we are (or wish we were) as a culture or a nation – these myths or origin stories that we internalize as truth, or somehow elemental to who we are – we MUST be aware that these historical stories were created during a particular period in time. The context, the social, political and cultural context of the period these stories were created, colored the formation of those myths or origin stories.
Elizabeth: So today’s podcast is going to be a little different than what we normally do. Instead of giving you a lot of backstory on an event or period in history, we are instead going to talk about the creation of historical memory and how one war in particular, The Texas War of Independence, is remembered. But also how historical memory of that war is profoundly colored by the memory of the Civil War through what is known as the Lost Cause.
I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins
And I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik
Sarah: And WE are your historians for this episode of Dig.
Elizabeth: Make sure to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts so that you never miss an episode.
Sarah: And leave us a review! It really helps us reach a larger audience.
Elizabeth: This episode is a bit more personal than some of our other Dig History episodes that you are used to. Sarah and I -this is Elizabeth speaking- come to this story through a unique perspective- we both found our love and passion for the history profession through a childhood fascination with the Civil War.
Sarah: Yeah, I fell in love with the Civil War when I was a little girl – my dad actually gave me his copy of a book called North and South, which is a sort of schlocky 1970s epic, romantic novel about two families during the Civil War. It’s was huge, and I carried it around on the playground in a Winnie the Pooh backpack and read it while all my peers were playing. Later, he and I both read the book The Killer Angels, which is a novel about Gettysburg. It’s funny because as much as I was drawn to the war, I never ever thought about studying it professionally until I found myself in kind of a quandry about where my life was going – I thought I wanted to be a lawyer for years until I did an internship that was mind-numbingly boring. I did some googling for internships and programs about the Civil War purely on a whim, and ended up studying at Gettysburg College for a semester, doing nothing but studying the Civil War. And now here I am!
Elizabeth: Yes and I come to this story through a classroom indoctrination in the Lost Cause, a weird childhood obsession with Gone With The Wind, (and the novel North and South and was reading those novels in elementary school like you. I also grew up in the shadow of the tall tales of the Lone Star State. Like many southerners, I was fascinated with the Civil War and the valour and chivalry that I thought represented the Southern way of life. Regrettably, slavery and the racial repercussions of the war never entered my world view until much later.
Sarah: That seems to be a pretty common theme among white people who grew up in the South, but in the United States in general. The erasure of Black people, slavery, and the violence of Redemption after the Civil War in our collective understanding of the war are pretty common.
And we want to argue that the selective forgetting we experience in regards to the Civil War has also happened within our historical memory of a war that happened even earlier, The Texas War of Independence.
Elizabeth: Right – a little backstory of why this episode is personal for me. I am a sixth generation Texan. My great, great, great grandfather Bradley Garner started the line that moved to Mexican Texas and wound up with me. My line of the Garner family originally lived in Spanish Louisiana, which then turned into French Louisiana, then into American Louisiana after the Louisiana purchase in 1804. Their oldest son, David went to Texas in 1825 and received a land grant from Mexico to settle near the Sabine river in Southeast Texas. He was my great great grandfather. David’s siblings and parents followed shortly after. One of his sisters married Claiborne West who was one of the signers of the Declaration of Texas Independance.
In 1835 during the Texas War of Independence, my great great grandfather Garner mustered nineteen militiamen and participated in one of the earliest skirmishes in the war, the “Grass Fight” and later in the Battle of San Antonio with Col. Ben Milam. The Battle of San Antonio is not the fight at the Alamo- otherwise he would have died and I wouldn’t be here, but the skirmish in which the Texans took the Alamo from the Mexicans in the first place. Which is what prompted Santa Ana to recapture it in 1836, proving deadly for the overwhelmed Texans.
My family went on to live in Texas and became cattle ranchers. They were slave owners and fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Sarah: So you may be wondering, what does the Texas War for Independence and the Lost Cause have to do with one another? The Texas War for Independence was in 1836 and Texas became a state in 1845. The Civil War ended in 1864 and the Lost Cause didn’t become a “thing” until the 20th century. Hear us out:
Historians talk about the Lost Cause a lot – but I’m not sure a lot of people really know what we mean. The Lost Cause, or in its complete form, The Lost Cause of the Confederacy, was a sort of shared myth created after the Civil War ended – and the Confederacy was defeated – that refashions the Civil War as the honorable and heroic struggle of a knightly, Christian South against an immoral invader (the North) with vastly greater resources and troop strength. This is why the Lost Cause uses the moniker, The War of Northern Aggression, or even The War for Southern Independence, instead of the Civil War or the War Between the States. This mythology was actively created by writers, who wrote nostalgic essays and books about beauty and honor of the Old South, by women’s groups, who helped to direct public events and celebrations of Confederate martyrs, and, of course, by the creation of monuments to Confederate heroes. They also had to create the idea that the war had *nothing* to do with slavery, and instead was about state’s rights and protecting the homeland from invaders, especially protecting their vulnerable women.
Elizabeth: And we want to argue that the history of Texas Independence is greatly influenced by the same type of historical memory creation of the Lost Cause.
So- this episode is very personal for me. I am a Texan through and through, I mean hell, I grew up with a giant Longhorn skull – like HUGE- with a Texas flag under it as a focal point of my childhood living room. My daddy is none too happy that I went and married a “Yankee.” And yet – since becoming a student of history -since seeing how the Lost Cause has colored the history of Texas and the South in general- and since gaining a deeper understanding of American history- I find myself adrift, even angry sometimes. Angry that I was taught one thing, that elements of my land and people were systematically “forgotten” and the story that was perpetuated was only a half-truth. I learned Texas history as the white Texans (and the occasional Tejano sympathizer) were fighting for freedom from evil and debased Mexicans, and Black people were nowhere to be found. That’s pretty much the same way I learned about the Civil War. The southern states seceded because the evil North was trampling on their states rights. It was all white men, not a woman or a Black person in site.
So I think I can at least understand WHY some people get reaaaalllly offended when historians or social justice proponents point out that monuments, history books, and collective memory do not tell the full story. Because it’s hard to be told that everything you’ve been taught since you were a child, may not be the whole truth. That can be severely disarming for some people. And a lot of people’s reaction is to double-down, to denounce those that try to bring a broader understanding of history, because frankly it’s easier- and unfortunately I think it’s a pretty normal human reaction for many. To be clear, I’m not giving them a pass- because at this point it’s willful ignorance. But what I am saying is I think I understand why they do it.
I’m not angry that the fuller history makes my ancestors, both Texas and Confederate, have motives, wants and needs that make them less heroic- No, I’m angry because that history, that FULL history was kept from me and my classmates. A child of the south shouldn’t have to go to grad school in order to get a fuller, more unbiased understanding of their own history! Now I admit, it’s been awhile since I was in grade school, so some things may have changed as far as the curriculum goes. But as a whole, it really hasn’t.
Sarah: Also, Texas is the largest purchaser of school textbooks in the country- so if they don’t like what’s in a book, whether it’s history or science, then that book doesn’t get published, bought, and used throughout the rest of the country.
So to get back to this idea of the Lost Cause- the creation of an intellectual and literary understanding that the Civil War war had *nothing* to do with slavery, and instead was about state’s rights and protecting the homeland from invaders. To come to this conclusion, one must completely ignore the actual writings and speeches of Confederate leaders.
Sarah: Exactly, these documents make it clear that slavery was central to the motivation for secession and war by Confederate leaders and their supporters. When southern whites spoke of the “southern way of life,” they referred a society founded on white supremacy that built on the institution of black chattel slavery. I mean, just read any of the Confederate states secession statements, called Declarations of Causes, to see this in black and white.
Elizabeth: For example, here is Texas’ Declaration of Causes:
“Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?
The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretences and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States, unless under odious and unconstitutional restrictions, from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slaveholding States.”
Sarah: And here is Mississippi’s:
“In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”
Elizabeth: And just in case you still aren’t convinced, here’s is the Cornerstone Speech, delivered by Alexander Stephens- the vice president of the Confederate States:
“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Elizabeth: I didn’t see that speech until I moved up North and was in grad school, BTW.
Sarah: Supporters of the Lost Cause often stress the idea that secession was a reaction to Northern aggression against their way of life, that the South was more Christian and moral than the North, that the Confederacy leadership were prime examples of chivalry and honor, and that slavery was a benevolent institution that “helped” African Americans. In explaining the Confederate loss, it wasn’t because the South as a region was vastly behind in industrializing because they had relied so much on cotton production and slavery, or due to a lack of civilian support but instead only because of the quantitative advantage of the Union Army. The Lost Cause also demonizes Reconstruction – Reconstruction was a continuation of that invasion, with Yankee carpetbaggers coming in, stripping Southerners of their manhood by subjugating them to federal power, and of course, giving the formerly enslaved new rights – and protecting those rights with the presence of the US military. I mean, something that is sometimes lost when we teach Reconstruction is that it was a military occupation – so this was demoralizing and emasculating on top of the bitterness of defeat.
Elizabeth: Historian David Blight argues that there were two competing visions of how the Civil War should be remembered during the 20th century. Some embraced an “emancipationist” vision in which the Nation would be reborn in a more egalitarian Republic that upheld the tenets of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. The second was a “reconciliationist” vision in which harmony and the mending together of the North and the South were more important that the actual causes of the war and the unfinished business of Reconstruction and racial equality. Unfortunately, by the end of the 1800s, the subordination of Black people in both the North and the south were so ingrained into white people’s understanding of social order that “the forces of reconciliation” completely “overwhelmed the emancipist vision.” Put another way by historian Eric Foner, “The Confederacy lost the war on the battlefield but won the war over memory.”
Sarah: Right – I just want to point out here that *all the time* students or other people will say to me, “History is written by the victors.” But this is a really, really important example where that is not true at all – the losers totally won the battle for Civil War memory.
Bringing this back around to Texas, specifically, this type of reconciliation “remembering” colors the way many people “remember” the Texas War for Independence. In most retellings of this war, slavery is just a small, insignificant aspect of the story. – nobody wanted it, it was brought begrudgingly, etc.
Elizabeth: One of the reasons for this “selective” memory is taught to our school children and regurgitated in popular memory is because of HOW that memory was created. And in order to understand that, we need to look to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) and the Daughters of the Confederacy (DRC).
Sarah: Both of these organizations formed at about the same time. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas in 1891 and the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1894.
The Daughters of the Confederacy was overly concerned with a desire to educate the young in “proper” histories of the South. Historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner writes:
“Mary Hunt Affleck, chairwoman of the textbook committee for the Texas Division of the UDC (Unt daught confed), exhorted her audience to concern itself with the selection of books for schools and town libraries. “Southern schools should use such books bearing on literature that give proper emphasis to Southern productions; on civics, that discuss the deeper constitutional questions, as did the ante-bellum statesmen and jurists; on history that recognizes the great war of the sixties as a civil war, in which both sides were equally patriotic and both honest defenders of unsolved national questions, and in which neither was in rebellion.” Histories that did not make the grade were “condemned,”…the UDC was encouraged to use its influence “as a body to have books teaching Southern authors and their words” in public schools.
Elizabeth: And this isn’t a hypothetical- I’ve seen this in action when doing research on the Texas School for the Blind. I can’t remember the date off the top of my head but it was between 1915 and 1920 and I found a letter from one of the school officials writing to his book distributor about a set of history books he had received in Braille. He was complaining that he couldn’t use them because they were too biased towards the North- they didn’t teach “proper” Southern history, and was lamenting that he couldn’t get Braille books with proper southern history because mostly all books in braille produced during the time were made in the North!
Sarah: In researching the founding of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, Turner recounted how Betty Ballinger, one of the founders of the DRT, argued that the future of Texas belonged to the men, the “holy past” would be taken care of by the women and went on to say “let us love to study Texas history and teach it to her children until they have learned that Goliad is as glorious as Marathon and San Jacinto as sacred as Bunker Hill…. Let us seek out the graves of our heroes and having found them, let us care for them with grateful reverence. Be ours the duty to visit it and mark the spots where Texas was won for us, Gonzales, the Alamo, Goliad, San Jacinto – milestones along the bloodstained path to freedom.”
Elizabeth: Membership in the Daughters of the Republic of Texas was much more limited just because one had to be a direct descendant of an original settler of Texas, or fought in the war for independence, and so there just weren’t as many women who could claim that as could claim membership into the daughters of the confed. (I can actually claim both- won’t! But could). But these women ran in the same circles. A few could belong to both groups. They were part of the middle class elite. They were the wives of prominent men in town. They had the money and the leisure time to volunteer for these organizations as well as the YWCA, local church organizations, and other voluntary organizations. And both groups had similar founding beliefs, to take care of the graves of fallen heroes from the war, to erect commemorative monuments, and to teach future generations their version of history which offered their ancestors as heroic figures fighting on the side of liberty and justness. Slavery was NOT a part of this picture.
Sarah: The Daughters of the Republic of Texas raised the funds to rescue and restore the Alamo from decrepitude. They were the sole operators of the site, which they named “the shrine,” from 1905 until 2015 when Texas took control of it and put it under direction of the Texas General Land Office. Disputes over the DRT’s ability to financially support the upkeep of the Alamo finally caused the split, but for many years previous, bills were routinely filed in the Legislature to remove the DRT as custodian on the grounds that its interpretation of the Alamo’s history was racist. The story of the Alamo, both in Texas history books and at the Alamo itself (at least prior to 2015) was one that pitted Anglo Texans against Mexicans. That’s it. Mexicans were bad, the Texans good and they were fighting for freedom.
Elizabeth: One San Antonio native and advocate for a more inclusive and historically accurate interpretation of the Alamo and of the Texas war in general is quoted as saying that like most people she believed the John Wayne version of the Alamo’s story for most of her life. “It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that Susanna Dickinson wasn’t the only woman who survived the battle,” “Eleven Tejano women and eight children also survived. Their history has been erased.”
Sarah: And this historical misinterpretation is all due to efforts in the 20th century by groups like the DRT and the UDC to sentimentally reinterpret the past and guarantee that a heroic, Anglo-centric interpretation of history is disseminated through elementary schools and public monuments.
Elizabeth: The Republic of Texas, meaning the years between Independence in 1836 and statehood in 1845, is celebrated in Texas schools. We went on field trips to the building that housed the French Legation in Austin- and marveled that a country that loomed so large in our childhood minds, would have their own embassy in the Republic of Texas. We learn why the Texas flag can be flown at the same level as the American flag- because Texas was its own country (Hawaii can do the same). The period of the Republic is celebrated and admired and sometimes seen as a “good ‘ole days” that Texas could secede back to if it really wanted. I mean, even “liberals” in Texas joke about seceding, bc that’s just what we do. You will never meet a bunch of people more proud of their state or involved in a more exceptionalist outlook on their state than Texas. Maaaybe New Yorkers come close? Especially if you’re from the city- but I think you’d be hard pressed to find that kind of widespread exceptionalism in other states. I dunno- maybe that’s just my exceptionalism. LOL
Sarah: But in reality the years of the Republic of Texas were confusing and dangerous. Mexico still claimed most of Texas as its own. In the power vacuum that Texas Independence created, Comanches, Creek and other indigenous peoples vied for control of land and resources once unavailable to them. And the U.S. spurned Texas’ request for statehood- staving off the questions over slavery that rocked the late 1830s and 40s, that Texas annexation brought with it.
So let’s dive a little deeper into Texas slavery and its erasure in the myths of Texas Independence.
Elizabeth: Slavery in Texas is usually not seriously considered when talking about the chattel slave system of the South. What generally comes to mind are the vast slave plantations of the deep south, like Mississippi or Georgia. In fact, some people, historians included, discount slavery in Texas because “it only lasted 20 years.” Meaning chattel slavery in Texas only lasted from 1845, when Texas became a state, to 1865 – June 19th, 1865 to be exact, when the Emancipation Proclamation was read in the state of Texas, then part of the Confederate States, and the formal institution of slavery ended.
Sarah: And we’ll sidetrack a little her just so you know this history, the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19th in Texas was actually two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – which had become official January 1, 1863. Before General Robert E Lee’s surrender in 1865, the Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on Texas because there was a minimal number of Union troops there able to enforce the Executive Order. It was only after surrender and the arrival of General Granger that Union forces were able to overcome resistance in Texas.
One of General Granger’s first orders of business was to read to the people of Texas, General Order Number 3 which began:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”
*sidenote about Juneteenth celebrations
Elizabeth: But slavery in Texas did NOT only last for 20 years, but operated in some capacity or another since European contact in the 16th century and most likely before that among indigenous peoples living in the region prior to contact. However the type of slavery that we will be discussing today is chattel slavery. This type of slavery is very different than older forms of slavery. Chattel slavery is a type of slavery in which people are actual property who could be bought, sold, traded or inherited, much like livestock or inanimate objects. A person was born into slavery and their offspring would become slaves too. This was the type of slavery practiced in the Southern United States and the one we will be concentrating on today.
Sarah: Slavery in Texas is unique because it involves Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, and the United States.
During the Spanish Colonial period, roughly 1690-1821, Spain settled the region by establishing presidios, or fortified bases to maintain control of an area. And they established missions to convert the indigenous populations to Christianity.
Elizabeth: so story, I began my undergrad career as an archaeology major and did a dig at a presidio site in Mission, TX with the Texas Archaeology Research Laboratory. It’s super far south on the TX border with Mexico. It was super cool- found some small arrowheads and pottery shards but that trip made me realize I did NOT want to be an archaeologist. It was flipping 120 degrees and I was camping in a tent. I guess I was about 18 or 19 years old and I remember there was a lady who, well she was probably only in her 30s but she was a, like real “grown-up” in my eyes, and she asked me how I slept and I said I didn’t cause you know, I was hot and alone and freaked out and she was like oh, I just had a Tylenol PM and a glass of wine and I slept like a baby. And that my friends was when I first learned that was a thing-
Sarah: Slavery was allowed in New Spain, meaning land that includes present-day Central America north of Panama; Mexico; the U.S. Southwest; and parts of the Philippines and Caribbean Islands that were controlled by colonial Spain. In 1813 the viceroyalty of New Spain held about 6.1 million people. It’s capital was Mexico City, the city formally known as Tenochtitlan before Spanish conquest. The region that would become Texas was sparsely populated. Chattel slavery however, did not operate in Texas until White American settlers began to migrate into the region during the 19th century.
Elizabeth: The Mexican National period that lasted from 1821- until Texas Independence in 1836 represents the greatest shift in the early history of slavery in Texas. Mexico, like many other South American colonies during the 19th century, fought it’s own war of independence against Spain and won. Mexico attempted to develop the region of northern Mexico that we now know as central and south Texas by offering land grants to Americans in exchange for bringing settlers to bolster the population in the area.
In 1821, the same year of Mexican independence, Mexico granted a Connecticut farmer named Moses Austin, and later his son Stephen F. Austin, permission to colonize the Texas region of Mexico with American farmers. The Austin’s received a large land grant and then re-sold smaller tracts of land to American settlers. Settlers had to be of good moral character, become Mexican citizens and practice Catholicism.
Sarah: Land incentives and many other conditions, like soil exhaustion encouraged settlement and fueled slaveholders from parts of the Deep South to move to Texas. Most of the people that Austin recruited came from southern states and brought their slave laborers with them.
Elizabeth: Most White Americans willing to emigrate to Texas did so because of the opportunity to get cheap land and to begin making money by producing cotton. And unfortunately, the only way to grow cotton profitably required slaves. Stephen F. Austin made this clear in 1824: “The principal product that will elevate us from poverty is cotton,” he wrote, “and we cannot do this without the help of slaves.”
Sarah: This isn’t to say that cotton can’t be grown WITHOUT slaves. That’s ridiculous. We are just saying that during the time, people did not believe they could grow cotton profitably without slaves. And they had a point. Large plantations in the southeastern United States relied on slave labor, and competing against those cotton producers with wage labor would have been futile.
Elizabeth: This emigration into Texas was part of a larger phenomenon historians call the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom, or Mississippi fever. Essentially- get fertile land as cheap as possible (usually land newly acquired from Native Americans), buy as many slaves as possible, and grow cotton for profit.
Sarah: So Stephen F. Austin negotiated a policy with officials in Mexico in regards to slavery. For each slave that an emigrant brought with them, they would be allowed to purchase an additional 50 acres of land. This later increased to 80 acres of land. Because Austin knew that the only way he could attract settlers, would be if they could also bring slaves.
Elizabeth: At the same time however, free Blacks in Texas were granted full Mexican citizenship and property rights. Many free Blacks and escaped slaves went to Texas where they received some semblance of equality. In fact, historian Andrew Torget begins his monograph, Seeds of Empire, with this super interesting convergence of peoples and complicates a popular narrative of Texas history. The story written in most histories about Texas’ first American settlers begins like this: on Moses Austin’s first trip to Texas, where he asked for- and received- permission to bring settlers to Texas, he crossed paths with a planter from Louisiana named James Kirkham. This part of Austin’s journey is retold in histories about the beginnings of Texas Independence and the Austin’s because Kirkham stole Austin’s horses and provisions in the middle of the night. Austin was traveling with his son’s slave name Richmond, so Richmond and Austin had to travel by foot in January – which by the way is really nasty in Texas because it’s just wet and mushy and cold. Austin ended up getting pneumonia and although he made it back home, he never really recovered and died a few weeks later. So that’s why his son, Stephen F. Austin took over the settlement of Texas and later became one of the major players in Texas Independence. But, what’s missing from this story, and I’d never known this until I read Torget’s book, was that Kirkham was in Texas because he was chasing three of his slaves named Marian, Richard, and Tivi, who had escaped and run to New Spain for their freedom. They ended up living out their lives as Mexican citizens by the way. So this story of the founder of what we now know as Texas began on this journey with two slave holders and four slaves-there’s just so much to unpack here. The fact that Richmond, Marian, Richard and Tivi are usually left out of this story, Kirkham chasing after his chattel, right, his slaves- who are doing something that hundreds of slaves in the lower states did- they ran to Spanish territory for freedom- so that one little microcosm right there, encapsulates, or sets the stage for a war, the Texas War of Independence, that will happen fourteen years later for “freedom,” and “independence.”
Sarah: As more and more Americans emigrated to Texas and became majorities in some areas, the treatment of Blacks in those areas, changed drastically.
Plus, Mexico was very inconsistent in the laws it enacted regarding slavery. In 1823, Mexico forbade the sale or purchase of slaves, and required that the children of slaves be freed when they reached age fourteen.
Elizabeth: But this law wasn’t strictly enforced. An 1825 census of Austin’s Colony revealed that out of 443 Black people living in the colony, only a small fraction of them were free. The rest were enslaved by the 1,347 White Austin colonists.
Sarah: In 1824 Stephen F. Austin devised a set of regulations for his colony that set harsh rules for slaves who attempted to escape and punished free people who helped runaway slaves. These rules, articles 10 through 14 of Austin’s Criminal Regulations, established what were essentially Texas’ first “slave codes.”
Elizabeth: In 1827, Mexico outlawed the introduction of additional slaves and granted freedom at birth to all children born to a slave. Within a year however, the State Congress of Coahuila [koaˈwila] and Texas passed a law that allowed slave owners to bring in indentured servants to the region. So, slaveowners simply had their slaves sign contracts of long-term indenture to their masters.
Sarah: Yes, and here is an example of how that worked. Americans emmigrating to Texas would go to someone in America, in this example a notary public named William Lewis in New Orleans. Lewis would write and notarize a contract that theoretically freed the slave and subsequently indenturing them to their master, as a servant for sixty to ninety years. A man named John Miller emigrated from Alabama in 1831. The indenture “agreement” he had with his slaves bound George (40), Charlotte (38), and her seven children- Mary (17), Sambo (13), Peter (9), Sally (8), Anna (5), Fanny (3) and David (1)- to serve Miller for 90 years.
Elizabeth: Mexico fully abolished slavery in 1829 as well as additional immigration to Texas from the United States. Mexico made an exception for the Austin colony however, and more White Americans came into the state accompanied by their slave laborers.
So essentially, from 1821 to 1836 the Mexican government threatened to restrict or end slavery but always allowed some sort of out, or loophole, for Texas settlers.
Even though Austin was a slave owner, his feelings about it were mixed. He didn’t fully support slavery, at least he wasn’t a Bible thumper about it. This wasn’t because he was an abolitionist in any way. He owned slaves, so that couldn’t be it. Austin was apathetic regarding slavery because he didn’t want Black people to populate his beloved Texas.
And in all seriousness, many slaveowners felt similar mixed feelings about slavery. Take for example Thomas Jefferson who wrote in 1820 in regards to slavery, “ But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear [meaning slavery], and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”
Sarah: So all of these men, who were making money and survived on the institution of slavery were hinky about it, and moralized about it, but they never did anything to stop it. They didn’t even have the strength to stop using it within their own lives.
Stephen F Austin for example wrote in 1833 that
“The idea of seeing such a country as this [meaning Texas] overrun by a slave population almost makes me weep. It is vain to tell a North American that the white population will be destroyed some fifty or eighty years hence by the negroes, and that his daughters will be violated and butchered by them.”
And just for you listeners who may not be aware, “violated” in this quote means raped. So he’s saying, hey white people, the Black guys are gonna rape your daughters- an idea that has been a fundamental trope of white supremacy for hundreds of years.
Elizabeth: Austin went on to write, “To say anything to them [White Americans] as to the justice of slavery, or its demoralizing effects on society, is only to draw down ridicule upon the person who attempts it.” He explained that when he began the colony, he had to get the Mexican government to tolerate slavery because, Austin argued, it was the only way he could get emigrants to come. He had to go to Mississippi and Louisiana for his first recruits, and so he had to have slavery be allowed if he expected to get Americans to come and settle in Texan Mexico.
But Austin’s views were fluid, and the economic and social pressures that slavery exerted weighed on his mind. He went on later to state that “I have been adverse to the principle of slavery in Texas. I have now, and for the last six months, changed my views of that matter; …. Texas must be a slave country. Circumstances and unavoidable necessity compels it. It is the wish of the people there, and it is my duty to do all I can, prudently, in favor of it. I will do so.“
Sarah: So although the Mexican government continually made exceptions for Texas in regards to slavery, many slaveholders in Texas worried that Mexico might at some time attempt to actually uphold the laws of the land and abolish slavery for good in the region. American immigrants in Texas had a lot of money invested in cotton production, and thus slavery and they did not want to see those investments put at stake.
Slave numbers in Texas in 1836 were fairly low. Most likely due to Mexico’s ambiguous attitude towards slavery. For example, in 1835 there were 5,000 enslaved people among a total population of 38,000. But the fear that Mexico would crack-down on slavery in Texas became an increasingly alarming concern to slaveholding Texans.
Elizabeth: Right before the fall of the Alamo in March 1836, the Texas government assembled in a city called Washington on the Brazos and were writing the Texas constitution. In Section 9 of the General Provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of Texas, it is stated how the new republic would resolve their greatest problem under Mexican rule: “All persons of color who were slaves for life previous to their emigration to Texas, and who are now held in bondage, shall remain in the like state of servitude … Congress shall pass no laws to prohibit emigrants from bringing their slaves into the republic with them, and holding them by the same tenure by which such slaves were held in the United States; nor shall congress have power to emancipate slaves; nor shall any slaveholder be allowed to emancipate his or her slave without the consent of congress, unless he or she shall send his or her slave or slaves without the limits of the republic.”
Sarah: The argument that slavery was NOT a large part of Texas Independence, but instead a constant “dull, organic ache” was postulated by the Texas historian Eugene C. Barker in 1911. From “Public Opinion in Texas Preceding the Revolution” By Eugene Barker (From Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1911). He wrote:
“Earnest patriots like Benjamin Lundy, William Ellery Channing, and John Quincy Adams saw in the Texas revolution a disgraceful affair promoted by sordid slaveholders and land speculators. Even to the critical ear of the modern historian [modern in 1911] their arguments sound plausible, and it is not strange that in a period distinguished by sectionalism they were accepted by partisans at full value. The fundamental defect of these arguments lay in the fact that their authors knew too little of contemporary opinion in Texas. The truth is, so far as one may judge from the absence of discussion of the subject in Texas, that slavery played no part in precipitating the revolution; while it is certain that land speculation, of which there was unquestionably a great deal, tended rather to retard than to hasten the outbreak.”
Elizabeth: So let’s break that down a little bit. Barker is explicitly saying that the Texas fight had nothing to do with slavery and that people who were saying, at the time- in the 1830s, that it did had no idea what Texans were really thinking. So first off, this was written in 1911. This is big time of the Lost Cause. Birth of a Nation, a movie that celebrated the Ku Klux Klan of the Reconstruction Era and sparked it’s renewal in the 20th century, came out the following year in 1912. Blue and Grey reconciliation gatherings were happening at major Civil War battlefields. The Daughters of the Confederacy were erecting monuments all over the place as were the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. The Lost Cause of the Civil War was being taught to schoolchildren and written into history books, by historians like Barker.
So even though people are saying AT THE TIME, in the 1830s and 1840s that the war in Texas had everything to do with slavery, Barker for some reason, feels the need to refute that when writing his history book in 1911. Hmmmm… why?
Also, Barker says that he can only find three instances of ppl talking about slavery, which is kind of ridiculous because the memoirs of Texan, Mexican and American participants were littered with references to slavery and the fears that Texans had that Mexico would completely curtail the use of Black slaves in Texas.
Sarah: But Barker is regurgitated over and over and over again in numerous history books, some even from the past decade! He is cited as a source in the majority of books written about the Texas War of Independence when the book is arguing that the war had nothing to do with slavery.
So what we’re getting at here, is that the master historical narrative on whether Texas Independence and statehood had anything to do with slavery was written by a historian that clearly subscribed to the Lost Cause!
Elizabeth: Slavery isn’t discussed in most schools when discussing the Texas War of Independence, unless one has a really exceptional teacher.
For me? Slavery was never mentioned. NOT ONCE. Or at least, not enough for me to remember. It was a war for “freedom”, a war to break free of the despotism of Mexico, and quite frankly the Mexicans were painted as evil. Nevermind that contemporaneously John Quincy Adams, and others- particularly abolitionists – were saying that Americans were pushing slavery in Texas and that if the U.S. intervened, the U.S. would be on the wrong side!
Sarah: Right, Adams said to members of the House in 1836, “Your war, sir, is to be a war of races- the Anglo-Saxon American pitted against the Moorish-Spanish-Mexican American, a war between the northern and southern halves of North America, from Passamaquoddy to Panama. Are you prepared for such a war?…Aggression, conquest, and the re-establishment of slavery where it has been abolished. In that war, sir, the banners of freedom will be the banners of Mexico; and your banners, I blush to speak the word, will be the banners of slavery.”
Elizabeth: And once Texas claimed its independence in 1836, slavery was officially and firmly protected in the state. And when they wrote the constitution for their new republic, one of those signers being Claiborne West, my distant relative by marriage, they “removed all doubt and uneasiness among the citizens of Texas in regard to the tenure by which they held dominion over their slaves,” according to a later Texas Supreme Court Justice.
Sarah: And once Mexico was out of the way, the slave population in Texas went from 5,000 in 1836 to 182,566 in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War. That was 30% of Texas’ population. So it is CLEAR that once free of Mexican rule, Texans and American emigrants into Texas increased the slave population by like a thousand percent. ? I don’t know, what percent is an increase from 5k to almost 200k?
Elizabeth: Now we are not arguing that slavery was the ONLY reason that the Texas War of Independence was fought. What we ARE saying is that is was a MAJOR factor, and a larger factor than most Texans, and most Americans in general, ever realized or were taught in school. And the argument is- that is purposeful. That is because the shadow of the Lost Cause also casts a shadow over the Texas War of Independence.
Sarah: But this makes sense, because this is how America likes to remember it’s “great” wars, it’s great victories. It’s the same way that the Civil War is remembered. Or at least was.
We see that changing, slowly. But there are still people who are fully educated within the Lost Cause.
Elizabeth: Sure, I’m one of them. It took going to graduate school in a Northern city to have my eyes opened to the fallacy of my primary and undergraduate education. (I’m sure I would have discovered these things in grad school down south too. And hopefully on my own by reading books, but who knows?)
Sarah: At the same time however, old myths die hard. Take for example a popular children’s book series, called the “Dear America Series.” They are kind of like American Girl books? They have a central protagonist that is writing in their fictional diary during a major American history event. And let me just read you the back of this book, “In the journal she receives for her twelfth birthday in 1835, Lucinda Lawrence describes the hardships her family and other residents of the “Texas colonies” endure when they decide to face the Mexicans in a fight for their freedom.” So it seems fairly innocuous on the surface right? But reading between the lines, what this says is that the Mexicans are bad, the Texans were fighting for “freedom” and there wasn’t a Black person to be found.
Elizabeth: And seriously, that’s how I was taught about this war! That the Mexicans were super evil, and I even went to a majority Latinx school! And it was still taught that way!
But things are changing and there is a growing movement to “reconceptualize the Alamo as a space for celebrating the confluences of cultures—Native American, African, Mexican, and Anglo—rather than a shrine to Anglo dominance.” San Antonio activist Rolando Castro is quoted as saying. They mythologizing of Anglo heros and the disparaging of Mexicans has to stop.
Sarah: To be clear, during the war the Mexican army committed some serious travesties under directions from Santa Ana. They killed almost every single person at the Alamo and they executed almost 400 Texan soldiers during the Goliad Massacre- so I don’t want to excuse ANYTHING. But those atrocities also happened during a time of war and what the Mexican army considered acts of treason or piracy.
Elizabeth: Yes, if we’re talking about war, we are talking about people dying. But, as we’ve hopefully conveyed today – the ramifications of war have so many effects. Some that the people living through the war would probably never even imagine! If you’d like to learn more about the events we’ve spoken about here, as well as the construction of historical memory, please read our show notes at digpodcast.org where we have links to books and articles you may find interesting.
Sarah: Thanks for listening. Please follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts.
Andrew J. Torget. Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850 (The David J. Weber Series in the New Borderlands History). The University of North Carolina Press, 2015.