A Brief History of Texas from American Settlement to Annexation, 1820-1845
The history of Texas is among the most colorful histories of all American states and territories. With its diverse population of Mexican, Mexican-American, Native American and Anglo-Saxon inhabitants, its culture is rich and varied. Spain first arrived in Mexico in 1519, and Nueva Mexico was part the vast territory known as New Spain. Spanish rule in Central and South America was very different from that of British rule in North America. Where the British saw each colony as a separate political entity to be governed more or less independently, Spain tended to govern its entire empire from the center. That tradition was passed on to the Mexican government once the Mexican revolution against Spain was complete, and virtually all of Mexico was governed from Mexico City. The individual provinces of Mexico, which included the province of Coahuila, of which Tejas—Texas—was a part, had very little self-determination. That situation was challenged by the arrival of an immigrant American population who came to obtain land grants being generously offered by the Mexican government.
Following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Americans began to look hungrily at the land just across their southwest border, and the Mexican government, following the lead of Spanish authorities, granted colonization rights to the American Moses Austin in hopes of creating a buffer territory against unilateral encroachment by the land-hungry Americans. The Mexican government, in other words, decided to fight fire with fire. By allowing a limited number of American immigrants into Mexico under certain restrictions, they could prevent land hungry Americans from simply seizing the territory.
Moses Austin died before his colonization project became a reality, but the mission was taken over by his son, Stephen F. Austin. In 1821, with permission from the Mexican government, Stephen Austin brought 300 families across Sabine River to the region along the Brazos River, where the first American colony in Texas was established. In exchange for generous land grants, the Mexican government attached certain conditions to those grants as part of its plan to use Texas as a buffer. Each settler had to agree to become a Mexican citizen, to adopt the Roman Catholic religion, and to give up the practice of slavery.
Since the Texas colony was governed very loosely, much as the American colonies had been only loosely controlled by Great Britain during the century and a half before the American Revolution, the Mexican government turned a blind eye to violations of the agreements. The status of Mexican citizenship changed very little in terms of the loyalties of the American settlers; they were Americans first, Mexicans second. And so far as the Catholic religion was concerned, there were no Catholic priests in the province, and therefore attendance at confession and mass could not be demanded nor controlled in any way. As to slavery, the Mexican government was willing to accept a compromise in authorizing the practice of lifetime indentured servitude. The difference between that status and slavery was, of course, only technical, but it satisfied both sides. The Texans were also obliged to pay taxes to the Mexican government, but there were no tax collectors in the Texas province, so that point was also moot.
In other words, the situation of the Americans in Texas was similar to that of the American colonists on the east coast of North America in 1760. They were treated with benign neglect, and the Texans possessed a de facto sense of self rule if not outright independence. The men and women who came to Texas tended to be a rough and ready lot. Many who emigrated were of Scots-Irish descent from the Shenandoah and other regions west of the Appalachians. Adventurous American women learned that if they came to Mexico and married a Mexican citizen they could gain very generous land grants and have significant rights to the titles. Thus a complex society emerged, a mixture of Mexican and American along with Comanche, Apache, Kiowa and other Indian tribes on the edges of the Texas colony. They developed a small but robust society.
President John Quincy Adams tried in 1825 to purchase Texas from Mexico, without success. Henry Clay also worked on the issue, and President Jackson continued negotiations with Mexico in 1829. Jackson’s minister, Anthony Butler, tried to bribe the Mexican government. Jackson called Butler a “scamp” but left him there. Mexico was insulted, and the negotiations went nowhere.
Stephen F. Austin: A True Statesman
Under Stephen Austin the Texas community thrived. Austin spoke fluent Spanish, played by the rules, and developed good relations with the central government in Mexico City. He insisted that the Americans who came to Mexico understand and abide by the rules under which they were granted land. Between 1824 and 1835 the Texas population grew from 2,000 to 35,000 settlers. Some of the immigrants were renegades, “one step ahead of the sheriff.” Some were men like Jim Bowie, a fighter and gambler whose brother invented the Bowie knife, and others who fled the U.S. because of various legal difficulties, both major and minor. The Mexican government eventually came to consider them “a horde of infamous bandits.”
Texas was, however, subject to the political affairs of greater Mexico. Mexico had adopted a constitution in 1824 under which the Texans believed that their rights were more or less assured. And as long as they were left alone, they were free to create a society according to their own designs. When revolution began in Mexico, however, conditions began to change for the Texans. In 1830 the Mexican government reversed itself and prohibited further immigration into Texas. Mexican dictator Antônio Lopez de Santa Anna, somewhat after the fashion of his counterpart, King George III, decided that it was time to make the Texans toe the line. What happened in Texas is typical of situations in which people get used to doing things their own way and are suddenly forced to obey the dictates of others. The Texans rebelled.
Stephen F. Austin, who had spent time in jail in Mexico, defended Texans' right to independence in a speech in Lousiville on March 7, 1836:
As mentioned above, Texas was something of a refuge for Americans who had reason to leave home. One such emigrant was Sam Houston, a colorful figure whom some historians believe was the most significant figure in American history between 1840 and 1860. A colleague of Andrew Jackson who had fought with the general during the War of 1812, Houston was elected governor of Tennessee in 1828. He married a woman of a prominent Tennessee family and it ended quickly and badly; details have remained murky. In any case, Houston gave up his governorship and left Tennessee and for a time dwelt among the Cherokee Indians, who adopted him as a son. He was known as “the Raven” because of his jet black hair.
Houston eventually made his way to Texas, where he overcame drinking problems and attempted to rise above his overly colorful past. (He once bet a friend on New Year’s Day that he could quit drinking for a year, and he almost made it to February.) The rebellious Texans formed an army and named Houston to lead it because of his military background. They also created the rudiments of a national government, using the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution as models, although they also had their own peculiar issues.
The Texans’ task was as difficult as that of the patriots of 1776, and their resources were, if anything, even more scarce. But they were willing to fight, and after a few brief skirmishes, Mexican dictator Santa Anna personally led an army of several thousand well trained troops into Texas to put down the insurrection. The Texas army, which never numbered more than 700 and had little experience in war, faced a daunting task. Santa Anna, however, unwittingly aided the Texan cause by branding the revolutionaries as outlaws and criminals and treating them as such. While the Texans were deciding on their Declaration of Independence and considering the political future of Texas, Santa Anna was slaughtering Texans and giving them no quarter.
The Alamo. The most famous clash took place at an old Spanish mission at San Antonio de Bexar known as the Alamo early in 1836, the last year of the administration of Andrew Jackson, who was a close friend of Sam Houston. At the Alamo fewer than 200 Texans under Colonel William Travis held off thousands of Mexicans for 12 days. All the Texan defenders died, including Travis, Jim Bowie, and former Congressman Davy Crockett. Santa Anna then had their bodies burned rather than giving them a Christian burial. Weeks later, at Goliad 400 Texans surrendered to Santa Anna, and 300 were murdered. The Texans’ war cry became “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember Goliad!”
In the recent film, The Alamo, with Dennis Quaid and Billy Bob Thornton, a lot of verbal sparring preceded and followed the standoff at the Alamo itself. Some critics would have preferred to see less talk and more action, but the political machinations going on off the battlefield were in many ways just as important as what happened at the Alamo, if not more so. The situation between Texas and Mexico was in certain respects more complex than that of the American colonies; for the inhabitants of Texas, the Americans, had voluntarily sworn allegiance to Mexico, and actually had moved into Mexican territory to make their homes.
Santa Anna’s overconfidence and arrogance led him to carelessness, and Sam Houston, who had been sharply criticized for failing to go to the relief of the Alamo or to attack the Mexican Army, bided his time, waited for the opportunity, and when it came, he struck with startling swiftness. He caught up with Santa Anna on the San Jacinto River, near the present-day city of Houston, found the Mexicans unprepared, and the Texans swept over the Mexican army and won a stunning victory in 18 minutes, suffering few casualties themselves.
Santa Anna was captured, and though there were many who wanted to execute him on the spot for what they saw as his crimes against prisoners at Goliad, Houston instead forced Santa Anna under considerable duress to grant Texas independence. Although Santa Anna later rescinded his agreement unilaterally, the genie could not be put back into the bottle, and Texas remained free.
At that juncture the future of Texas turned on the issue of whether or not Texas would be annexed to the United States. Given America’s propensity to gather up land wherever it was available, the outcome seemed to a certain extent foreordained. But Presidents Jackson, Van Buren and Tyler wanted to avoid war with Mexico, and it was likely that if Texas were annexed, that would be the result. The issue of slavery in Texas was also an issue. Nevertheless Texas pursued her goal of annexation, actually using a veiled threat to perhaps join Great Britain or France if the United States continued to spurn her approaches.
The Lone Star Republic lasted ten years and gained a further identity, so that when Texas finally did join the union they came in with a history of their own, and Texans have held that history in high regard ever since. The Alamo remains a Texas shrine, as does the San Jacinto battlefield. The capital is named for Stephen Austin, the largest city for Sam Houston, and other places in Texas also recall the names of heroes of the Texas Revolution. As feared, the annexation of Texas led more or less directly to war with Mexico in 1846.
Sam Houston’s colorful career would continue through the beginning of the Civil War. He served as governor of two states, Tennessee and Texas, as President of the Republic of Texas, which remained independent for about ten years, and at one point during his interesting life he served as Cherokee Indian ambassador to the United States. His political career finally came to an end when as governor of Texas he refused to support secession and was ousted from office and burned in effigy in 1863. (Having worked hard to get Texas into the Union, he was not about to lead it out.) Nevertheless he remains an American and Texan hero.
Manifest Destiny and Mexico
Having rejected the annexation of Texas in the 1830s, the United States stood by as the Republic of Texas sought to create favorable foreign relations on their own. Texas signed treaties with France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Great Britain and was able to secure loans for commercial development. Mexico continued to threaten the Lone Star Republic, and in 1843 President Santa Anna declared that any act to annexed Texas to the United States would be considered an “equivalent to a declaration of war against the Mexican Republic.” Despite its good relations and favorable treatment from Great Britain Houston still desired annexation but only on the condition that the United States would provide military protection in case of a Mexican attack. President Tyler submitted an annexation Treaty to the Senate, but it was rejected; President Tyler nevertheless kept his promise to provide protection and sent ships to the Gulf of Mexico and troops to the Texas border.
Congressmen John Quincy Adams, by now an open advocate of the abolition of slavery, and others maintained that no one had the power to annex a foreign nation to the United States. The issue was slavery—a free Texas would hem in slavery in the South and prevent expansion to territories west of Texas; a slave Texas would expand the scope of slavery enormously because of the size of the state. There was even talk of dividing Texas into several slave states. Great Britain was interested in Texas and was considering an offer to buy out all the slaves in exchange for other concessions.