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article number 711
article date 04-05-2018
copyright 2018 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The Bold & [Unique] Texas Story, Part 1: Brutal Foundations
by Work Projects Administration

From the 1940 Work Projects Administration book, Texas, a Guide to the Lone Star State. Includes 1969 revisions.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Tour references, i.e. "(see Tour 5c)" have not been edited out of this presentation. Tour text from the book is not given but such reference shows activities available for those interested.

This article is randomly decorated with pictures from the many sections of the [same] book.

* * *


ALONSO ALVAREZ DE PINEDA, searching in 1519 for a direct western water route to India and Cathay, explored the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Yucatan, mapped the coast line, and sailed into the mouth of the "Rio de las Palmas" (the Rio Grande) to claim part of the lands of the Aztecs for the governor of Jamaica.

The Pineda expedition not only made the first map of the Texas coast, but also accomplished the first civilized penetration into the region. As a result, the lower Rio Grande region can claim the distinction of being the second place to be visited by Europeans within the present limits of the United States; Ponce de Leon discovered Florida in 1513.

Rivalry prompted the next two entradas (entrances) into Texas. Francisco Garay, former companion of Christopher Columbus, was the rival of Cortés, conqueror of Mexico. Garay in 1520 sent, and in 1523 brought galleons loaded with cavaliers and with soldiers armed with crossbows to the Rio Grande; but Cortés defeated all his plans and his cities were never built.

In 1527 the cruel Nuflo de Guzmán conducted a slave trade among the natives of the Panuco region, whose kinsmen in the Wilderness along the Rio Grande so effectively resisted the Spaniards that exploration of the interior of present-day Texas was halted.

The advantages of the new land, all the more enticing because it was unexplored, brought the first strangers to Texas.

In 1528 a few half-dead Spaniards were hurled ashore by the sea somewhere on or near Galveston Island. They were the remnant of the Narváez expedition to Florida which had met disaster, and were trying, in rude barges, and using their tattered shirts for sails and the manes and tails of their horses for rigging, to reach the Rio de las Palmas. Cabeza de Vaca, of a noble family, told the story.

Savage Karankawas soon surrounded the shipwrecked Spaniards. Cabeza, though held virtually a captive, impressed the Indians with his healing power and became respected and feared among them as a medicine man. In 1535, he and three companions escaped and made their way westward afoot, from tribe to tribe, until they had crossed the continent and had reached a port in the Gulf of California occupied by their countrymen.

De Vaca’s Relación, published in Spain in 1542, was the first descriptive story of the interior of this land claimed by the Spaniards—a hypothetical claim, all the interior being still in the hands of the Indians.

Now, however, began a long and colorful procession of white men into the region called New Spain. There were 92 expeditions from the time of Pineda to the year 1731. In 1541 the conquistadores of Coronado marched in, plumed and in coats of mail, fruitlessly seeking the fabulous Gran Quivira which, like the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, was only an Indian myth.

Survivors of the expedition of Don Hernando de Soto wandered, lost, below the lonely banks of the Red River (see Wichita Falls).

Chapter intro-art. From the book, ’Texas, a Guide to the Lone Star State.’

Great though the dangers of hardship were, men seeking gold, land, slaves, or the salvation of human souls continued to cross the Rio Grande. They called the new country by various names—Amichel, the New Philippines, and finally Tejas, which in time became Texas.

In February, 1685, the little ’Amiable’ of the fleet of Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle was wrecked in Matagorda Bay with supplies for a French colony aboard. The Frenchmen founded Fort St. Louis on Garcitas Creek, six small huts clustered about a fort in a rude stockade.

This French threat spurred the Spanish settlement of Texas. When the order of Franciscan monks proposed a spiritual conquest of Texas through the establishment of missions, their plan was eagerly adopted. The eastern- most Spanish outpost was established on May 25, 1690: the Mission San Francisco de los Tejas, northwest of the present community of Weches near the Neches River (see Tour 5c).

By 1731, a dozen missions had been established. Civilizations centered about their heavily buttressed walls, and the presidios, or forts built to protect them.

Spanish settlers were persistent hunters, and buffaloes, wild horses, and small game were sources of food and profit. Cattle raising, Indian trading, and the business of smuggling contraband goods through both the Spanish and French frontiers may be said to have been the leading industries.

Towns were small and primitive, but the style of life in many of the flat-roofed adobe houses was patterned after the grand manner of European society or the viceregal court in Mexico City. Colonial officials and their ladies had brought jewels and laces to the frontier. They gave lavish entertainments and drank good wine.

Members of the lower classes peons, attempted to copy the grandees. The result was an impermanent artificial society which left, after more than a hundred years of Spanish occupation (1820), a population of less than 3,000 people, whose actual wealth was very small and whose efforts to develop the region had been confined largely to card tables and ballrooms.

Not so in the missions. There, life was patterned by brown-robed, sandaled monks and arranged to fall into an ordered routine, marked by the ringing of the bells in the chapel towers.

As a Spanish province, Texas was ruled by a commandant general, with local councils or "ayuntamientos" presided over by "alcaldes" (civil magistrates with duties resembling those of mayors).

The center of the province, the seat of its civil government and its largest settlement, was San Antonio de Bexar, founded in 1718 (see San Antonio). Southeastward 80 miles stood the presidio of Nuestra Señora de Loreto de Ia Bahia del Espíritu Santo (the present Goliad) and its mission, the former erected on the San Antonio River in 1749.

These two, San Antonio and Goliad, were the military strongholds. Nacogdoches, where a mission had been established in 1716, was the eastern outpost.

Mission Concepcion near San Antonio. Photo Courtesy of Southern Pacific Railway.


Anglo-Americans had long been interested in Texas, to which the absence of a natural barrier between Texas and Louisiana, other than the Sabine River, permitted easy access. Adventure, the desire to escape justice or debt, the lure of wealth waiting to be taken, called to men in the United States whose forefathers had for generations been pushing the frontier forward.

It was thus inevitable that filibusterers should enter Texas.

Philip Nolan in 1800 led a party into the province, ostensibly to look for wild horses. Spanish soldiers overtook his force on March 21, 1801, and Nolan was killed.

After the United States acquired Louisiana, in 1803, a writer in New Orleans declared that “the Americans were already spreading out like oil upon a cloth.”

For a time the dividing line between Texas and the United States was in dispute and therefore vague. Following the Louisiana Purchase, representatives of the two countries in 1806 set aside a long narrow strip of land between the holdings of their respective governments as the Neutral Ground, thus hoping to avert difficulties over the ownership of the eastern fringe of Texas.

Yet shortly afterwards the expedition of Zebulon M. Pike, who was sent into the Southwest by General Wilkinson, served to center the attention of Anglo-American home seekers and adventurers once more upon Texas, a land reported to be rich and desirable.

By the Treaty of 1819 between the United States and Spain, all claims to Texas were formally relinquished by the United States.

Meantime, the filibusterers continued their activities. In 1812-13 Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara and Augustus W. Magee invaded Texas, and in 1813 the invaders took San Antonio. During this episode the first Texas newspaper was published in Nacogdoches.

The remnant of the expedition met a Spanish force under Joaquin Arredondo near the Medina River in August and was slaughtered, few escaping (see Tour 9c).

Dr. James Long of Natchez, Mississippi, led two expeditions into Texas in 1819-1821, and proclaimed the independence of the province. His attempt and those of others proved unsuccessful.

Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, and Texas, with Coahuila, became a state of the Mexican Republic.

San Jose Mission, Grinding Apparatus. National Park Service photo.


Moses Austin, middle-aged St. Louis banker who had lost his fortune in the panic of 1819, secured in 1820 authority from the Spanish government to settle 300 families in Texas, but soon afterward he died. His son, Stephen, 28, assumed the colonizing task in 1821, and by 1831, had brought in 5,600 Anglo-Americans.

The metropolis of the Austin colony was San Felipe de Austin, founded by Stephen Austin in 1823. This colonial town stood on the banks of the Rio de los Brazos de Dios (River of the Arms of God).

The life was rigorous, conditions primitive. Here women in drab calico (which sold for 50 cents a yard) stirred “hog and hominy” with home-made wooden spoons, and learned the use of the long rifle. They lived in bare, sometimes windowless, log cabins. Flour was $25 a barrel. Noah Smithwick credited a Texas housewife with the expression, “Texas is a heaven for men and dogs but hell for women and oxen.”

Austin required every colonist to present evidence that his character was “perfectly unblemished, that he is a moral and industrious man, and absolutely free from the vice of intoxication.” In 1829 he wrote, “You will be astonished to see all our houses with no other fastening than a wooden pin or door latch.”

But as immigration increased many arrived who had urgent reasons for so doing. The letters, “G.T.T.” were applied in connection with those who had “Gone to Texas” to escape justice.

As in any frontier society, the two elements, moral and undesirable, were mingled.

The opening of Texas to colonization came at an opportune time to attract settlers from the United States. The westward movement of immigration in their own country had brought them to the door of Texas. A recent panic had wrecked fortunes, and the promise of economic recovery in a new land was a powerful incentive.

Slave owners saw in Texas an opportunity to increase their profits and to hold, without opposition, their human chattels.

Thus, the glowing accounts of the early travelers fell upon fertile ground. “A most delicious country,” wrote a United States Senator who had visited Texas in 1829. “. . . (A) most delightful champaign (sic) country; dry, pure, elastic air, springs of sweet waters . . ."

Cotton farming was the chief commercial occupation of the settlers, although some of the farmers had formerly been doctors, lawyers, and clerks. They had inherited the instincts of the men who had hewn the Wilderness Road, for in many instances their fathers had helped hew it. Their lives showed the democratic simplicity Thomas Jefferson preached.

This type of immigrant, independent, undeviating, individualistic, had come to live in a land claimed and governed by the Latin-American, so temperamentally different—sensitive, circumspect, respectful of tradition, and accustomed to blind obedience to authority.

It was thus inevitable that the question of civil rights should enter the Texas-Mexican relationship. Mexico had obtained its freedom after 300 years of subjection to Spain, and was untrained in self-government.

In 1824 Mexico adopted what has been called the most complex form of government ever devised by man. The Federal constitution of that year gave, Mexican authorities believed, the rights of free men to their colonists.

But the Anglo-American colonist based his conception of personal rights upon those obtaining in the United States. He particularly resented denial of the right of a trial by jury and—the Roman Catholic faith being compulsory—the absence of religious freedom.

Chapter intro-art from the book, ’Texas, a Guide to the Lone Star State.’

When Austin led the way, the other "empresarios" (colonizers) followed, and in 1829 there were contracts for nearly 7,000 families.

Stephen Austin, representing the typical slaveholding, conservative element, was loyal to the Mexican government and strove to reduce the first symptoms of conflict.

A governor of Durango had written that the United States was “not dangerous as a conqueror, but as a greedy, aggressive knave.”

Henry Clay attempted to prevent ratification of the Treaty of 1819 whereby the United States relinquished claims to Texas, and this did not lessen Mexico’s suspicion and alarm.

John Quincy Adams believed that by the terms of the Louisiana Purchase, Texas belonged to the United States. In 1825 he appointed Clay Secretary of State, and together they attempted to persuade Mexico to cede to the United States the territory east of the Rio Grande for one million dollars.

Hayden Edwards, an Anglo-American empresario, in 1826 proclaimed the Republic of Fredonia and organized a rebellion, after Mexican authorities had declared his colonization contract void (see Tour 22a).

This abortive attempt at independence on the part of foreign colonizers was received in Mexico as a danger signal.

On April 6, 1830, a Mexican decree was passed checking further immigration from the United States. The object of the law was to colonize Texas with Mexicans and to distribute Mexican troops throughout the province.

Ill feeling grew. In June, 1832, battles occurred at Anahuac and Velasco between Texas farmers and the Mexican soldiers stationed there to enforce the laws.

PORTRAITS: Stephen Austin & Sam Houston.


As Texas grew it desired a government separate from that of Coahuila, to which it was joined politically in a union which gave Mexicans control of its affairs. A convention was held in San Felipe in October, 1832, at which greater liberties under Mexican law were sought.

Another convention was called in San Felipe in 1833, by which a proposed state constitution was adopted to be sent to Mexico for approval, and Austin went to Mexico to present this document and plead for civil rights.

Austin was imprisoned and held for almost two years, three months of which he spent in a former dungeon of the Inquisition. This naturally aggravated the strained relations between the province and the national government.

Meantime, Sam Houston had come to Texas. Houston was a veteran of Andrew Jackson’s Indian wars and had been Governor of Tennessee. As a United States Congressman he had won national attention, partly for his brilliance, and partly for the gaudy Indian blankets he wore, he in youth having been adopted by the Cherokees, who had named him "Co-lon-neh" (the Raven).

Following a disastrous marriage and another sojourn among the Cherokees, Houston at the age of 39 had chosen Nacogdoches as his home, and was quietly practicing law or attending colonial meetings where men spoke strongly of Mexican oppression.

Born in Virginia, Houston was nevertheless essentially a product of the stormy Tennessee frontier. He was a natural leader of the aggressive, adventurous, land-hungry pioneers of the type that settled the West.

There were now, in Texas, men who dared to drink a new toast in the taverns of the wilderness: “Liberty and Texas.”

A young South Carolina lawyer, William Barret Travis, was earning a reputation as a firebrand. Ladies called him “the gallant captain.”

Another fire-eater was James Bowie, mighty fighter and hunter whose deeds were already epic along the moving frontier, and whose name had been given to a type of knife which some said his brother Rezin had designed, and which he wielded with deadly skill.

Throughout Texas men like these were holding meetings. In Mexico a broker’s son, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who had risen to power planned the swift subjection of the Texas rebels. Santa Anna became dictator under the title of "El Presidente." In 1835, he dissolved the legislature of Coahuila and Texas.

The Mexican dictator sent troops northward. Travis went to Anahuac in June, 1835, and drove the Mexican garrison out.

At the psychological moment Austin came home. He had been released from prison, but his health was broken. The founder of the first Anglo-American colony spoke, and this is what he said: “Texas needs peace and local government. Its inhabitants are farmers, they need a calm and quiet life. But how can anyone remain indifferent when our rights, our all, appear to be in jeopardy?”

A Committee of Safety organized at Bastrop on the Colorado, May 17, 1835. Other committees organized.

Chapter intro-art from the book, ’Texas, a Guide to the Lone Star State.’

The first clash of the Texas struggle occurred October 2, 1835, when an assortment of farmers at Gonzales (see Tour 23b) defeated a Mexican force sent to take the town’s cannon. A volunteer army gathered; they had squirrel guns, hunting knives, butcher knives.

Smithwick, a soldier there, wrote, “I cannot remember that there was any distinct understanding as to the position we were to assume toward Mexico. Some were for independence, some for the Constitution of 1824 and some for anything, just so it was a row. But we were all ready to fight.”

On October 9 a force of about 50 Texas volunteers captured the important fort at Goliad and seized $10,000 worth of military supplies. Stephen F. Austin was appointed commander in chief of the Texas army on October 10, and on October 12 Austin’s army marched toward San Antonio. They numbered about 700, and not even the eloquence of Sam Houston, who believed the war was premature, could turn them from their purpose.

San Antonio was besieged by the Texans. On October 28 about 90 men led by James Bowie and James W. Fannin, Jr., defeated about 400 Mexicans who had surrounded them at the old mission of Concepcion, near Bexar. The engagement lasted less than half an hour.

Meantime, a “consultation” met at San Felipe on November 3, 1835 and issued a declaration of causes of war.

A provisional government was adopted.

In the United States, young men were reading with interest a poster sent out by Sam Houston: “Volunteers from the United States will . . . receive liberal bounties of land . . . Come with a good rifle, and come soon. . . . Liberty or death! Down with the usurper !"

Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Louisville became recruiting stations for volunteers.

There was a great frontiersman in the ragged Texas army, who heard the soldiers murmuring at an order to lift the siege of San Antonio. Ben Milam’s voice suddenly rang out, “Who’ll go with old Ben Milam into San Antonio?”

The answer they gave him is a Texas classic. They went, most of them with “old Ben Milam” (who was only 44) into Bexar, and on December 9, 1835, they took the city. Milam had been killed.

When the defeated Mexican army withdrew, the Texans thought the war was over.

But in Saltillo, Santa Anna was assembling a large force. He burned candles to the Virgin of Guadalupe and robbed the church to hire soldiers. He flew into a frenzy and shouted, “If the Americans do not beware I shall march through their own country and plant the Mexican flag in Washington.”

Travis had been ordered to the Alamo, the old mission at Bexar which had become a fort. On February 23, 1836, Santa Anna and his legions arrived at San Antonio.

During this period, bitter political controversies prevented the orderly supervision of military affairs in Texas, and the soldiers in San Antonio under Travis and Bowie, their leaders convinced that the Alamo must be held in order that Santa Anna’s march into the interior might be blocked, had been left upon their own resources.

Among the defenders was David Crockett, noted frontiersman and statesman of Tennessee.

James Butler Bonham, another of the ragged little garrison, a lifelong friend of Travis, had borrowed the money to come to Texas that he might fight for its freedom. There were between 185 and 200 fighting men in the Alamo, most of them volunteers.

Before the Texans shut themselves inside the walls of the fort, some 20 or 30 noncombatants sought refuge there. Mrs. Susanna Dickerson (often inaccurately called Dickenson), wife of the artillery captain, and her infant daughter Angelina, were among the refugees.

The Alamo, San Antonio. Courtesy of Southern Pacific Railway.

A blood red flag, the flag of no quarter, was hoisted by Santa Anna. This, and his demand for an unconditional surrender, were answered by the Texans with a cannon shot.

Travis’ appeals for aid went unanswered except by 32 brave men of Gonzales, who marched in even after the doom of the fort seemed certain.

Thirty-seven years later a story was published, as having been told soon after the battle by one who claimed to have escaped following the incident, that Travis, when hope of further aid had been abandoned, drew a line with his sword and asked all who would stay and die with him to cross it.

For a number of reasons, most historians regard this, as, at best, a legend—and the heroism of the men of the Alamo needs no garnishing. They were there of their own choice. They remained, when they could have fled. They died.

For at daybreak of March 6, while the exhausted Texans slept (the Mexican bombardment, which had been almost continuous, had temporarily ceased, thus offering a brief respite), nearly 3,000 of Santa Anna’s more than 5,000 troops were unleashed against the Alamo, as the dreadful notes of the "deguello," the no-quarter bugle call of Spain, sounded from the battery where the Mexican general waited.

Still a little dazed from sleep, the Texans sprang to their posts, and in the terrific fighting that followed, the Mexicans were twice repulsed as the long rifles of the frontiersmen, the farmers, the “Tennessee boys” under Crockett, took a dreadful toll. The steady fire of small arms and cannon resembled “a constant thunder.”

Travis fell as the third attack of the Mexicans succeeded in gaining a breach in the walls. The Mexicans now penetrated into the interior of the fortress, as the defenders fought them “muzzle to muzzle, hand to hand, musket and rifle, bayonet and bowie knife.”

A Mexican soldier wrote, “The Texians defended desperately every inch of the fort.”

At last, however, overwhelming numbers prevailed. Most authorities agree that Crockett died beside the post he had been assigned to defend, although there is a story that he was one of several prisoners who, after the battle, were ordered shot by Santa Anna.

Bowie, who had shared the command with Travis at first, only to fall ill after the siege had begun, was killed on his cot—fighting.

There were 187 known victims among the Texans; no male defender survived. Santa Anna ordered the bodies burned. The 15 or more who were spared were women and children, slaves and servants.

Mexican losses are estimated at between 600 and 80. The battle, according to Santa Anna’s official report, lasted more than an hour and a half.

Because of the sacrifice made by the Texans and its subsequent results, the Alamo has become known as the shrine of Texas liberty (see San Antonio).

Chapter intro-art from the book, ’Texas, a Guide to the Lone Star State.’

On March 2, 1836, the Texas Declaration of Independence was adopted by a convention of colonists at Washington on the Brazos River, a constitution was framed and adopted on March 17, and an ad interim government named.

Santa Anna moved swiftly to complete the conquest of Texas. The entire command (275 men) of Colonel James W. Fannin, Jr., surrendered of necessity on March 20 at the Coleto, to Mexicans under General Urrea. They were taken to Goliad, and about 330 men, including Fannin, were shot at Santa Anna’s bidding (March 27). Colonel Ward’s force, captured at Victoria March 24, was also massacred with Fannin’s command (see Tour 25b).

The Mexican dictator took the field and the “Runaway Scrape”—the flight of Texas families—began. Women and children toiled across muddy prairies toward the Sabine as General Houston, in command of the Texas army, Fabianly retreated eastward.

Historic San Felipe was burned by the Texans.

Forty days passed while Houston played a game with Santa Anna, always maneuvering out of his reach. At last they were both in the bayou country near the present city of Houston. “Old Sam” addressed his men, and gave them in 16 words the slogan which won what has been listed among the decisive battles of the world: “Victory is certain! Trust in God and fear not! And remember the Alamo! Remember the Alamo !”

They took up the battle cry, “Remember the Alamo!” Someone added, “Remember Goliad !“ and with these vengeful words in their mouths they marched to meet the Mexican army.

At the junction of Buffalo Bayou and the San Jacinto River the two forces met. The first day, April 20, was spent in skirmishing; the next day, too, seemed likely to pass without a serious clash.

But at 3:30 in the afternoon, when many Mexican officers and men were enjoying a siesta, Houston suddenly gave a command to fall in. The Texans, weaving their way unseen through the long grass, were within point-blank range of the Mexican lines when Houston waved his old campaign hat. It was a signal, and the Texans, shouting, “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” stormed through the Mexican barricade.

The Mexicans awakened in the wildest confusion to stand a moment before an irresistible force of hate and vengeance, and then either to flee or to fall. The battle became a rout, a shambles; and on the next day, Santa Anna, his army dead or prisoners, was brought in disguised as a peon. Houston, wounded, received him (see Tour 6a).

Houston reported that nearly 1,400 Mexicans opposed him. The Texans had nearly 1,000. Houston said the battle lasted only 18 minutes; 630 Mexicans were killed, and 730 taken prisoner. The Texans lost 9 dead and 34 wounded.

For ten years Texas was an independent nation . . .

PAINTIING: Sam Houston receives Santa Anna by American artist, William Huddle.
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