America’s Long Journey: The Republic of Texas

The Republic of Texas

We all know, or think we know, the story of the founding of the Republic of Texas. Rah-rah patriots think it is the story of freedom-loving Americans beating a tinhorn dictator at his own game. Add a racist component, and it becomes white efficient modern American Protestants overthrowing mixed-race backward superstitious Mexican Catholics. Anti-slavery Northerners at the time tended to think it was an example of Southern aggression in order to obtain new slave territory. The Mexican government, and modern anti-imperialists, think it was a simple case of larceny. But it isn’t as simple as any of those stories.

Late in 1820 and 1821, a banker from Missouri named Moses Austin obtained a contract from the Spanish government (which had ruled Mexico for 300 years) to settle three hundred families in Spanish Texas. He died before he could begin to execute his plans, so his son Stephen travelled to San Antonio de Bexar and received confirmation that he, as his father’s heir, could carry out the contract. The Spanish government, and Austin himself, insisted that any colonists be of reputable character and must be loyal to the government and religion of Spain. But in 1821, Mexico finally won its eleven-year struggle for independence from Spain, so Austin’s contract was now with the new Mexican government. The Mexicans honored the contract, and what followed has been called the most successful colonization movement in American history.

The Mexican government wanted the English-speaking settlers as a buffer against marauding Indians, but the colonists naturally preferred to settle where there was decent farmland and trade connections with American Louisiana. Austin found rich river bottom land between the Brazos and Colorado Rivers, and his settlers began to transform an unsettled wilderness. He advertised in newspapers along America’s western frontier, more or less the Mississippi, offering land at one-tenth the cost of public land in the United States. Immigrants came. In 1825, Texas had a population of only approximately 3,500, mostly of Mexican descent. By 1829, English-speaking immigrants outnumbered native Spanish speakers.

The immigrants came, and they prospered. They found the Texas soil unbelievably fertile, and they found the plains filled with herds of wild horses and cattle, the descendants of Spanish livestock lost over the years. Merging Mexican ranching practices with their own Southern practices of livestock management, they invented a form of cattle ranching that, in the next half century, spread throughout the American West. By 1834, of a total Texas population of 38,000, fewer than 8,000 were of Mexican descent.

The Mexican government got nervous and tried to tighten its control. It prohibited slavery, reinstated a property tax, and increased tariffs on U.S. goods. The settlers (and many Mexican businessmen) rejected the demands, especially the attempt to shut down trade with the States. Mexico tried (ineffectively) to close Texas to immigration, and passed a few more unpopular laws. All this raised tensions, which might have blown over, but in 1834, General Antonio López de Santa Anna made himself dictator and began to centralize power in his own person. When he threatened to quash semi-independent Texas, Austin called the Texans to arms.

So, points to remember as we come to the revolution: The Americans came to Texas originally with the welcome of the Mexican government, which had its own reasons for wanting them. The country they settled was fertile but largely uninhabited. As settlers, they obeyed the law of the land, and prospered, until suddenly, instead of living in a country of laws, they were living in a country run by a strong man.

In the final months of 1835, armed clashes between settlers and government defeated all Mexican troops in the region. The Texans elected delegates and created a provisional government, and on March 2, 1836 (Sam Houston’s 43rd birthday, as it happened) they declared their independence from Mexico.

In San Antonio de Bexar, there was an old mission called the Alamo, which had been turned into a makeshift fort. It extended across 3 acres, and the walls surrounding the complex were nearly three feet thick and were between nine and twelve feet high in different places. But Houston couldn’t spare enough men to mount a successful defense. Instead, he sent Colonel Jim Bowie and 30 men to remove the Alamo’s artillery and destroy the complex.

Bowie couldn’t remove the artillery, for lack of draft animals, and he became convinced that the Alamo was a vital strategic outpost. He wrote to the provisional government, asking for reinforcements. He received a pitiful few – on February 3, William Travis with 30 men, and on February 8, another a small group of volunteers that included the famous frontiersman and former U.S. Congressman David Crockett. That gave the defenders somewhere between 100 and 200 men. On the 23rd, Santa Anna marched into San Antonio de Bexar with an army of 1,500. His Army of Operations in Texas comprised mostly raw recruits, a large number of whom were conscripts. Still, there were 1,500 of them.

For the next 10 days the two armies engaged in skirmishes, while Travis wrote letters pleading for more men and supplies, but early on March 6, the Mexicans captured the Alamo in three attacks, in the process losing about 600 killed or wounded, or one-third of those involved in the final assault. Mexican soldiers took no prisoners, bayoneting anybody that moved. They stacked and burned the Texan corpses.

Santa Anna reportedly said that the battle “was but a small affair,” at which another officer said, “with another such victory as this, we’ll go to the devil.”

They did, but not right away. The Mexican army in Texas still outnumbered the Texan army by almost six to one. Santa Anna sent several Texan noncombatants (women and children) to Gonzalez, hoping to spread panic. It did. The panic (which Texans called “The Runaway Scrape”) sent the army, the new government, and most of the settlers fleeing from the advancing Mexican Army. But it also fueled a rush to join the Texan army.

Santa Anna divided his surviving troops into three separate groups, sending 1,000 men to restore order in the towns and villages to the south. and another 800 men to the north, to cut off Houston’s army from retreat eastward. Then, with 700 men and artillery, he moved north. But on the afternoon of April 21, only six weeks after the fall of the Alamo, Houston took him by surprise and in 18 minutes won the Battle of San Jacinto, with Texan soldiers yelling, “Remember the Alamo!” Santa Anna was captured the following day, and was forced to order his troops out of Texas, and sign the Treaties of Velasco, recognizing the independence of Texas.

The war was over. But the Treaties of Velasco, which recognized the Rio Grande as the boundary of the Republic of Texas, were repudiated by the Mexican government, which promised to reclaim the lost territories. In 1842, Mexico launched two small expeditions into Texas , and twice captured San Antonio, but Mexico left no occupying force in Texas. This inability to defend itself against superior numbers played a large part in Texas’s determination to join the United States. Neither Mexico nor the Republic of Texas had the military strength to effectively assert its territorial claim to the huge, largely unsettled area between the Nueces and the Rio Grande. As we saw, within a decade that disputed territory helped lead to war between Mexico and the United States.

One thought on “America’s Long Journey: The Republic of Texas

  1. Always an exciting story, but I hadn’t heard the story behind the story. Interesting to read it as Mexico holds its elections. Thanks for this.

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