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Texas, A Modern History

Texas, A Modern History
Revised Edition

Thoroughly updated since its original publication in 1989, this popular history by award-winning author David G. McComb brings the story of Texas into the twenty-first century.

Series: Bridwell Texas History Endowment

October 2010
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247 pages | 7 x 10 | 92 b&w photos, 6 maps |

Since its publication in 1989, Texas, A Modern History has established itself as one of the most readable and reliable general histories of Texas. David McComb paints the panorama of Lone Star history from the earliest Indians to the present day with a vigorous brush that uses fact, anecdote, and humor to present a concise narrative. The book is designed to offer an adult reader the savor of Texan culture, an exploration of the ethos of its people, and a sense of the rhythm of its development. Spanish settlement, the Battle of the Alamo, the Civil War, cattle trails, oil discovery, the growth of cities, changes in politics, the Great Depression, World War II, recreation, economic expansion, and recession are each a part of the picture. Photographs and fascinating sidebars punctuate the text.

In this revised edition, McComb not only incorporates recent scholarship but also tracks the post–World War II rise of the Republican Party in Texas and the evolution of the state from rural to urban, with 88 percent of the people now living in cities. At the same time, he demonstrates that, despite many changes that have made Texas similar to the rest of the United States, much of its unique past remains.

  • Preface
  • 1. Land and Nature
  • 2. The Spanish Legacy
  • 3. Texas and the United States
  • 4. Settlement
  • 5. Texas in Transit
  • 6. The Texas Mystique
  • 7. "God Bless Texas"
  • 8. Afterword: Books and Themes
  • Appendix I: Presidents and Governors of Texas
  • Appendix II: Counties of Texas
  • References
  • Index

David Mccomb grew up in Houston and is an emeritus professor of history at Colorado State University. He has written extensively about Texas history, including award-winning books on Houston and Galveston, as well as about Colorado and sports.


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This is a brief, narrative history of Texas written for the adult reader who wishes to probe into the ethos of a people, taste the unique flavor of the culture, and experience the rhythm of development. In the story you will find triumph and tragedy, sadness and humor, cruelty and compassion, exuberance and depression. It wasn't always easy to be a Texan; it still isn't.

Texas, like a beautiful damsel, has many charms and attractions, but it is not entirely faultless. Indeed, there is no such place as a perfect elysium on earth. . . . But its many beauties will hide a multitude of faults; or render them light and easily borne.
—Amos Andrew Parker, A Traveler in Texas, 1834

The land possesses a powerful and haunting beauty, and Texas, the name for this country, is a word of myth and reality. Although the name comes from precolonial Texas Indians, the five letters are so emotionally encrusted that the name defies definition. It means too many things to people. For example, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1820, "The province of Techas will be the richest state of our Union without any exception." Frederick Law Olmsted, a traveler and landscape architect, recorded in 1857, "'G.T.T.,' (gone to Texas,) was the slang appendage, within the reader's recollection, to every man's name who had disappeared before the discovery of some rascality. Did a man emigrate thither, everyone was on the watch for the discreditable reason to turn up."

"Other states were carved or born, Texas grew from hide and horn," stated Texas poet Berta Hart Nance around 1930. And in 1962, after traveling with his dog Charley, John Steinbeck wrote, "Writers facing the problem of Texas find themselves floundering in generalities, and I am no exception. Texas is a state of mind, Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word."

To say the least, it is huge—267,000 square miles stretching 770 miles from east to west and 800 miles north to south. This second largest state takes in 7 percent of the area of the United States, and if you rode a bicycle around the entire border you would cover 3,800 miles. To the Travel and Information Division of the Texas Department of Highways and Public Transportation, the state is a "Land of Contrasts," as indeed it is to almost everyone who has pondered its nature and character. There are reasons for this, and a major one is geographical.

Portions of four of the eight major physiographic regions that make up the terrain of North America divide the state. The Rocky Mountain system decorates far West Texas with islands of low, clustered mountains set in beige desert basins. The highest point, Guadalupe Peak, reaches 8,751 feet; there are only six others over the 8,000-foot level. With the exception of this intermontane segment in West Texas, the state consists of three gently sloping plains separated by escarpments. They formed about 100,000 years ago. If you could accelerate the erosion process to smooth the land to an even surface, you could place a bowling ball at the 4,600-foot elevation of the Panhandle, and it would roll southeastward into the Gulf of Mexico. The momentum and the continued tilt might even carry the ball underwater until it dropped off the edge of the continental shelf six miles from the shore.

This is the reason why all the major rivers—Rio Grande, Nueces, San Antonio, Guadalupe, Colorado, Brazos, San Jacinto, Trinity, Sabine, Red, and Canadian—flow in the same general southeastern direction. They are not the businesslike, rushing streams of the Northeast with the power to turn waterwheels and inspire industry. Their descent is gentle and meandering. Their brown waters take the time to build sandbars and explore new channels before reaching the shallow waters of the Gulf. In the early years the streams barely tolerated small steamboats, and they have never been good for hydroelectric dams or even waterwheels to any extent.

Beneath the land and extending beyond state borders, in addition, are six major freshwater aquifers. They collected their precious water over thousands of years and held it in sands and porous rock. Along with mineral deposits—salt, sulfur, petroleum, natural gas, gypsum, helium, limestone, lignite, quicksilver—which became part of the subsurface some 180,000,000 years ago, the water resources had to await the advance of technology before they could be extensively utilized.

The Great Plains with its subdivisions of the Llano Estacado and the Edwards Plateau splits the Panhandle, thrusts through West Texas, and crosses into Mexico midway up the Rio Grande. The Balcones Escarpment with its dramatic limestone cliffs and choppy hills marks the southeastern boundary of the plains in Texas. In West Texas near Post and in the Panhandle near Clarendon the rising Cap Rock, an exposed hard-pan layer, announces the eastern line of the Great Plains.

Although occasional badlands and colorful gorges such as Palo Duro near Canyon challenge the monotony of this landform, it is an area that early wayfarers faced with dread. "The traveler, in passing over it, sees nothing but one vast, dreary, and monotonous waste of barren solitude," wrote Randolph Barnes Marcy, a trailblazer of the mid-nineteenth century. "It is an ocean of desert prairie, where the voice of man is seldom heard, and where no living being permanently resides. The almost total absence of water causes all animals to shun it; even the Indians do not venture to cross it except at two or three points, where they find a few small ponds of water."

And yet there can be an addictive attraction to this near-desert expanse. As artist Georgia O'Keeffe commented about the Panhandle, "I lived on the plains of North Texas for four years. It is the only place I ever felt that I really belonged—that I really felt at home. That was my country—terrible winds and wonderful emptiness." To her friend Anita Pollitzer she wrote in 1916, "I am loving the plains more than ever it seems—and the SKY—Anita, you have never seen SKY—it is wonderful."

More comfortable for most people are the gently rolling plains of the southwestern tip of the interior lowlands, a physiographic landform that stretches through the midwestern United States from the Great Lakes to north-central Texas. It joins the Great Plains on the west and the even lower coastal plain on the east. The coastal configuration, for its part, extends from New York, follows the Atlantic seaboard, and swings around the Gulf into Mexico. It is less than 1,000 feet above sea level in Texas and was once under water. This gently sloping plain mildly slips into the Gulf waters and continues descending to form the shallow continental shelf.

The shoreline, characterized by easy surf, depthless bays, and salt marshes, nurtures shrimp, oysters, and aquatic birds of all sorts. Offshore sand barrier islands such as Galveston and Padre guard the mainland from the fury of West Indian storms, and serve, as they have since the early days of settlement, as a place of retreat for overheated Texans. Inland on the coastal plain the first Anglo-American settlers found the climate and black clay soils compatible with their cotton, slaves, and manner of life. The maelstrom of the Civil War caught them there, and thus the coastal plain of Texas became the geographic and historic terminus of the Old South. Its border with the interior lowlands even today denotes the point at which the South meets the West.

This east-west separation, traced roughly along the ninety-eighth meridian by Interstate 35, is not the only division. Average rainfall drops with a steady beat from fifty-eight inches per year in the extreme east to eight inches in the extreme west. Generally, people of the coastal plain expect forty inches or so; along the Balcones line they anticipate thirty inches; and beyond the Cap Rock ranchers predict twenty inches. People have gathered in greatest numbers in central and eastern Texas, but the extra dry west has a reputation for the healthiest climate. "If people there want to die," so the folk saying goes, "they have to go somewhere else."

Heavy snowfalls are uncommon, but there are blizzards on the high plains, one of which set a record of thirty-three inches in 1956. In other places, such as Houston, snow is so unusual that when it comes the schools adjourn for the fun of the occasion. On rare occasions Galveston Bay has partially frozen and people have been able to scoop up the stunned fish with nets. Droughts have occurred, commonly during the odd-numbered decades—1850s, 1890s, 1910s, 1930s, 1950s, 1970s—as well as in the first decade of the 2000s.

A German traveler, Benno Matthes, noted in 1856-1857 that the Brazos and Colorado rivers were so low that they could be crossed on horseback. Huge cracks in the earth, fifty feet long, three feet wide, and twelve feet deep, creased the prairies. The same conditions prevailed one hundred years later, threatening urban water supplies in north Texas and creating dust storms so thick that the automatic streetlights in Dallas turned on at midday.

South-central Texas, moreover, is the southern end of "tornado alley," a 200-mile-wide zone which points like a gun barrel northward to Iowa. This is the most tornado-prone region in the world—131 in Texas in 1986, 232 in 1967, 223 in 1995—and the springtime months are the most dangerous. In 1997 a half-mile-wide F5 tornado (winds of 261-318 miles per hour) hit the town of Jarrell north of Austin and killed 27 persons. Warm air from the south, cool air from the north, and a fast-moving jet stream aloft cause these deadly, tight-whirling storms. They customarily form and strike during the afternoon when warm moist air rises in advance of a cold front.

This happened in Waco in 1953 when a "twister" slashed through the downtown section, destroyed 185 buildings, and killed 114 people. The one that struck Wichita Falls in 1979 killed 42 people and caused $400 million in damages. In 1987 the small Hispanic town of Saragosa in West Texas suffered a tornado with multiple vortexes at sundown which obliterated the settlement and killed 30 people, many of whom had gathered at the community center to celebrate the Head Start program.

Greater devastation, however, has come from hurricanes striking the Texas coastline. Warm humid air rising in the mid-Atlantic from June through November creates the condition for these broad storms, which roar out of the Caribbean to ravage the shoreline with heavy rains, tornadoes, and winds of over 75 miles per hour. In 1900 Galveston experienced the worst natural disaster in terms of mortality in the history of the United States when a major hurricane flooded the island and killed six thousand people.

Hurricane Celia, which struck Corpus Christi in 1970 with gusts of wind measuring 161 miles per hour, caused eleven deaths and $454 million in damages. Allen, a hurricane that hit the same general area in 1980, resulted in three deaths and $650 million in damages. Alicia, which assaulted the Galveston area in 1983, killed eighteen people and caused property losses of $3 billion. Rita blew into the Sabine Pass area in 2005 with 175-mile-per-hour winds and caused three deaths and $160 million in damages. Hurricane Ike in 2008 wiped clean the Bolivar Peninsula of beach homes, flooded Galveston six feet deep with water from the bay, and brought into question once again the future of the Island City. Ike killed 61 people and caused $16.2 billion in damages to Texas with its 109-mile-per-hour winds. Ike was the costliest in state history and the fifth most expensive in United States history.

Much more common for the discomfort of citizens than these unusual storms, however, are the northers of winter and the stifling temperatures of summer. The "blue norther" approaches as a fast-moving, heavy bank of dark purple clouds on the northwestern horizon. It arrives with a howl and proceeds to break tree limbs, slam shutters, and lower the temperature by as much as twenty-four degrees in one hour. It can be either wet or dry, but it is always cold. As an editor in Galveston commented in 1876, "The norther has many ways of demonstrating its affection for animal objects. It can come about as near getting over, and under, and around, and inside of a thinly clad specimen of the human species as almost anything else."

In its own way the "blue norther" can be inspiring. Pecos Bill, a Texas cowboy tall-tale character invented by journalist Tex O'Reilly, supposedly rescued a dog running ahead of a norther with a six-hundred-pound block of ice on his tail. Bill broke off the block and took the dog inside to warm up, but the cold of the storm had frozen the barks of the grateful animal, who joyfully opened his mouth without sound. Bill picked up some of the frozen barks and warmed them in the skillet, and the cabin was soon filled with noise, much to the bewilderment of the dog, who searched the room for his canine rival.

Even without such exaggeration, wide temperature ranges during the year are common. Amarillo, for example, has recorded from -14 to 108 degrees Fahrenheit; Dallas from -1 to 113; Lubbock from -16 to 114, and Houston from 9 to 107. In August 1999 the Dallas-Fort Worth area recorded twenty-six days of temperatures greater than 100 degrees. Sixteen people died from the heat. In late December 2004 a rare snowstorm provided the only white Christmas in South Texas history with twelve inches of snow in Victoria and four inches in Houston and Galveston. Texans have learned that April with its refreshing spring rains and bluebonnets and October with its bright periwinkle blue skies are the best months for the comfort and temper of human beings.

In spite of prevailing southerly breezes, the summer months sizzle, and during the heat wave of 1980 temperatures of 105 to 110 were common throughout the state. Recordings in the 90-degree range are to be expected during July and August. This explains why Texans were the first to experiment with air-conditioned sports arenas, why Houston is the most air-conditioned city in the world, and why the comment of Philip H. Sheridan—while a junior officer at Fort Clark in 1855—is the most widely known Texas joke. "If I owned Texas and Hell," he said, "I would rent out Texas and live in Hell."

As might be expected, temperatures remain warmer longer in South Texas and permit an extensive growing season. In the southern tip the season lasts 330 days; in the extreme northwest it is 180 days. This means that the lower valley of the Rio Grande is a prime citrus region, an industry that began in the 1920s. Still, there can be trouble. The "big chill" of December 1983, which held Texas in a frigid hammerlock for seventeen days, killed over half of the orchards. The trees that produced the sweet ruby Texas grapefruit had to be replanted, and it took four years for the valley to bear fruit again.

The vegetation pattern of the area, like that elsewhere, responds to the precipitation, temperature, and soil conditions. There are more than eight hundred soil types in Texas, and of the ten major soil orders, seven can be found abundantly in the state. They range from leached sandy soils to nearly impermeable clays to dark loams. Early settlers preferred the alluvial soils of the river bottoms and the black, waxy clay of the coastal prairie. Here, so it was said in early days, the soil was so good that Irish potatoes would turn into sweet potatoes.

The western end of a pine forest strip that runs to the Atlantic Ocean reaches into East Texas, and three prongs of the central hardwood zone thrust across the Red River into the north-central and northeastern part of the state. Oaks, pecans, hickories, and elms are a part of these three fingers known as the Western Cross Timbers, Eastern Cross Timbers, and the Post Oak Belt.

Scattered through and between these four forest areas in early Texas were corridors of prairie which served as natural passageways through the thick timbered regions, as well as glades of grassland which attracted farmers and planters. In the southeast in the midst of the pine woods stood a unique and almost impenetrable rain forest called the Big Thicket, while along the shoreline were salt marshes. As the elevation rose, however, bunch-grass and bluestem took over. All of this impressed early travelers and attracted the earliest Anglo-American settlers, who tried to combine in their claims a combination of grassland and timberland.

To the west beyond the Balcones Escarpment and the ninety-eighth meridian, where the land becomes drier, the taller grasses and trees scatter and eventually disappear. Other species of grass, shorter and tougher, cover the west—Indian grass, bluestems, side-oats, buffalo grass, switchgrass, and others. Interspersed are various shrubs such as mesquite and sagebrush along with cacti, various thorny plants, and the tall spikes of yucca plants. William A. McClintock, a soldier in the War with Mexico, observed the brush in South Texas in 1846 and commented, "There is nothing of the vegitible world on the rio grand but what is armed with weapons of defence and offence . . . pricks, thorns, or burs."

Throughout the early land there flourished a rich wildlife, which included bears, wolves, roadrunners, alligators, rabbits, deer, turkeys, javelinas, and ducks. All four poisonous serpents of the United States lived in Texas—copperheads, rattlesnakes, coral snakes, and cottonmouth moccasins. The western diamondback rattler grew to seven feet in length. Buffalo ranging into the coastal prairie were also common in early days. Cabeza de Vaca reported them in the 1530s apparently in the vicinity of Austin. "They have small horns like the cows of Morocco; their hair is very long and flocky like merinos'," he wrote. "Some are tawny, others black. . . . The Indians make blankets out of the skins of cows not full grown; and shoes and shields from the full-grown." George W. Kendall, a Texas Ranger, rancher, and newspaperman, observed in 1842, "I have stood upon a high roll of the prairies, with neither tree nor bush to obstruct the vision in any direction, and seen these animals grazing upon the plain and darkening it at every point." No mammals with the exception of human beings have thronged together in such great numbers.

With settlement in Texas in the nineteenth century the bison all but disappeared. Some people drove them away because it was thought the buffalo attracted Indians. By the late 1850s they were rare enough in Mason County west of the Balcones Escarpment that when one lone animal appeared, several German farm children ran home screaming that the devil was into the cattle herd. Following the Civil War the systematic slaughter of the bison herds on the Great Plains removed them from the state.

Passenger pigeons, gray and red wolves, bighorn sheep, jaguars, elk, and greater prairie chickens disappeared. Black bears and ivory-billed woodpeckers were left only in remote areas, but alligators, brown pelicans, and pronghorn antelope have revived through conservation measures in the twentieth century. The fate of whooping cranes, Kemp's ridley sea turtles, peregrine falcons, and southern bald eagles remains to be determined.

The Spanish, on the other hand, contributed mustangs and longhorn cattle to the environment, and with time some ninety-two other species came from elsewhere in the world. Brown house sparrows spread after the release of a flock in Galveston in 1867, and the European starling, which landed in New York in 1890, made it to Texas in 1925. The grackle arrived in the twentieth century, and the armadillo swam the Rio Grande sometime in the 1840s. John James Audubon published a picture of one in the 1850s.

The fire ant, capturing five to ten miles per year, marched into East Texas in the 1950s from South America via Alabama. This painful threat to livestock and crops now infests 130 counties. The latest arrival of note, however, was the black- and white-striped Asian tiger mosquito, whose eggs can survive cold weather. With its lust for human blood and its potential to carry dengue fever, the Asian tiger mosquito arrived in used tire casings at the Port of Houston in 1985. In two years' time it spread to seventeen states.

The most important agents of change, also migrants, have been human beings, who moved to exploit the environment for their benefit. The first of these were ancient Indians. The popular image of the Indian, the mounted and feathered nomad of the plains, has been projected by western fiction writers, Hollywood, artists, and travelers. It was not necessarily a false image, but rather one that was too simple and narrow, too generalized.

The natives of Texas and their histories were more complex and sophisticated than the image. None of the various groups, however, possessed the ability to write, and most of what is known about them comes from Anglo observers and writers, archaeologists, and anthropologists. Unavoidably, there was an ethnic and cultural bias; there were few notations from the Indian side of the historical ledger to balance the account.

During the last Ice Age, some 12,000 years ago, maybe earlier, while the Bering Strait was a land bridge, primitive peoples migrated into North America. Following ice-free corridors, one along the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, they traveled southward and occupied the open land. These Paleo-Indians appeared as early as 9200 BC in the Texas Panhandle, where they hunted mammoths with distinctive Clovis-style flint spear points. Later Ice Age hunters with spear throwers tracked large primitive straight-horned bison. Near Langtry on the Rio Grande the bones of such animals, mixed with narrow, fluted Folsom projectile points, have been found. This was the result of a slaughter after hunters drove a herd over the edge of a steep canyon and butchered them below. The same sort of event occurred a thousand years later, in 7000 BCE, in West Texas, where archaeologists discovered a new style of spear tip called the Plainview point.

The skeletons of a man and a boy found under a rock ledge near Waco in 1970 and that of a woman at Leander in 1982 represent the earliest known burials in North America. The fossilized remains of a Folsom woman exposed in the sand by the wind at Midland in 1953 revealed a physical structure the same as that of modern human beings. There were no precursors to Homo sapiens in the New World.

At the time these first Paleo-Indians entered Texas, in the Middle East at Jericho other primitive peoples invented agriculture, established the first city, and started civilization. In Texas and most of North America the Indians remained at a stone-age level of technology until the coming of the Europeans. Yet, as George C. Frison, an anthropologist from the University of Wyoming, commented: "The Paleo-Indians were a proud people. Look at their weaponry. Look at the individuality and the perfection that went into their projectile points. It's just like a hunter today who has his favorite rifle, and he polishes it and engraves the barrel and takes care of it. These people knew what they were doing."

With the retreat of the Ice Age glaciers and the warming of the land to its modern climatic pattern, earlier game animals disappeared and the Indians had to depend more on plants for a food supply. The Paleo-Indian culture gave way to the Archaic period (5000 BC to AD 1), during which Indians used a greater variety of stone tools—dart points, axes, choppers, picks, drills, mortars, and pestles. It was during this time that the Indians acquired dogs as traveling companions, but North American natives domesticated only one other animal, the turkey. At about the time of Christ, when the Romans were using catapults and steel-edged swords, Texas Indians learned about the bow and arrow and acquired a knowledge of agriculture.

It is a mystery how corn, a hybrid plant, developed and traveled, but the earliest form dates from 2500 BC and came from northern Mexico. This became the most valuable domesticated plant of the New World, and by the time the Europeans arrived it was cultivated to its environmental limits throughout North and South America. The agricultural revolution in America, which included other plants such as beans, squash, potatoes, and tobacco, had the same effect as in the Old World. People settled down to till fields, populations increased, communities developed, and the social organization became more complex. This was particularly true of the civilizations of Central and South America. Texas Indians, however, remained for the most part hunters and gatherers, with a few tribes giving part-time effort to agriculture. Bow-and-arrow technology appeared between the years 1000 and 1100.

It is assumed that the Jumano Indians, who lived in permanent settlements and farmed the Rio Grande and Rio Conchos valleys, were peripheral beneficiaries of the Pueblo culture of the Southwest. This whole area was close enough to have benefited through technological transfer from the high civilizations of Central America. The Jumanos, however, did not apply irrigation techniques and were known to hunt buffalo. They lived in flat-roofed rectangular adobe houses clustered together, organized their society under the leadership of chiefs, manufactured pottery, and possessed bows reinforced with bone and sinew. Briefly, they conducted a cross-Texas trade network to exchange Indian products—corn, buffalo hides, pottery, seashells, flint, turquoise, and captives—for Spanish goods—horses, firearms, metalware, and cloth. They are the least known of Texas Indians and because of changes in climate were declining at the time of Spanish colonization. Cabeza de Vaca in his escape from Texas in the 1530s reported drought conditions to the extent that the Jumanos refused to waste their corn by planting it. After experiencing slave raids by the Spanish and flirting with Christianity, the Jumanos were last seen riding in the hunting parties of the Lipan Apaches.

Across Texas in the eastern pine forests lived another Indian group, the Caddoes, who were also noted for their farming. For them the crops of corn, squash, beans, sunflower seeds, and tobacco provided the mainstay of life. Both men and women using crude bone or wooden hoes worked the fields, which had been cleared of debris by fire. Deer, buffalo, bears, ducks, rabbits, snakes, mice, and fish caught on a trotline supplemented their diet.

They played a game much like field hockey; ruled themselves with a hereditary bureaucracy; honored an omnipotent God; and lived in round huts constructed of poles covered with grass. They made clay pots, baskets, mats, flutes from bird bones, and superior bows of bois d'arc. The division of labor between men and women was much more equal among the Caddoes than among other Indian groups, and women at times acquired influence and property within the inherited male structure of authority. The tribes of the Hasinai division, part of the larger Caddo confederation, called each other Taychas, a word for "ally" or "friend." The Spanish used the word to refer to friendly natives, and from this came the name Texas. "Friendship," the motto of the state, reflects this heritage.

Much of the Caddoan pattern of life, including the construction of rough temples on a foundation of raised earth, reflected the earlier culture of the Mound Builders of the Mississippi Valley. This civilization—noted for its large, flat-topped, square earthen mounds, agriculture, continental trade patterns, and large towns—flourished between 800 and 1350, while Europe floundered in the Middle Ages. The Caddoes at the moment of Spanish and French entry into Texas appeared to be a degenerating remainder, a shadow, of this earlier sophisticated people.

This raises a particular anthropological question about Texas Indians. The Caddoes in the east and the Jumanos in the west seem to have learned their agricultural techniques from others. The Indians who inhabited the area between them were much more primitive in their technology and did not rise above the level of hunting and gathering. If the high civilization from Central America had spread across Texas to the Mississippi, why did it not affect the people of Central Texas? Did technology transfer occur by boat travel along the Gulf Coast? Probably not, since there is little evidence of seagoing adventures by native Americans. Was it possible that the Mound Builders achieved their development on their own? Perhaps, especially if there was some contact through trade. Under any circumstance, the level of development was lower among the interior tribes than among those on the periphery.

Between the Caddoes in East Texas and the fierce nomads of the high plains lived the Wichita tribes, which served as intermediaries in trade and revealed a combination of cultural traits. Pushed southward by the military superiority of the Osages to the north, the Wichitas migrated into Texas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their language was of Caddoan origin, and they lived in the same sort of round grass huts as their eastern neighbors. They believed in a variety of deities and thought that all objects possessed a soul. The Wichitas cultivated extensive fields of corn, beans, melons, and squash and hunted buffalo. They did not eat fish, however, and the division of labor was much more like that of Indians other than the Caddoes. As the eighteenth-century observer Athanase de Mézières noted: "The women tan, sew, and paint the skins, fence the fields, care for the corn fields, harvest the crops, cut and fetch the fire-wood, prepare the food, build the houses, and rear the children, their constant care stopping at nothing that contributes to the comfort and pleasure of their husbands. The latter devote themselves wholly to the chase and to warfare."

Most North American Indians painted and tattooed their bodies, but the Wichitas were unusual in the extent of their tattoos. This was accomplished by pricking the skin with a needle until it bled and then rubbing charcoal dust into the wound. The men thus decorated their eyelids, drew lines from the outside edge of the eyes and downward from the corners of the mouth, put claws on the backs of their hands, and marked their arms and chest with symbols of victory in war. They also pierced their ears in as many as four places and hung ornaments from them. The women fashioned a line down the bridge of the nose and around the mouth to join with four parallel lines on the chin. They also placed a tattoo line along the chin and zigzags down the arms. Around each breast they drew three concentric circles, which were thought to prevent the pendulous conditions of old age.

To the west of the Wichitas on the Great Plains ranged the nomadic Comanche and Apache Indians. For settlers of the nineteenth century the Comanche was the principal enemy and the one who embodied the image of the Indian in the Texas mind. The Comanches were related to the Northern Shoshones of Colorado and Wyoming; from the mountains in small bands they followed the Arkansas Valley into eastern Colorado and Kansas. Early in 1700 they entered New Mexico, acquired horses, and by 1750 controlled the southern plains. Buffalo was their mainstay, which with horses they could follow at will, but they also hunted bears, antelope, and longhorn cattle. Along the way they gathered wild plums, grapes, mulberries, persimmons, the tunas of prickly pears, pecans, acorns, and various tubers. They traded or stole corn and tobacco, and when starving would eat almost anything, including their horses.

Always on the move, they learned to make and eat pemmican, a trail mix of dried buffalo meat mixed with nuts, berries, and tallow. They carried this in bags made from rawhide or intestines. They often ate their meat raw and delighted in uncooked liver flavored with the contents of the gall bladder. In addition, the Comanche drank the warm blood of a fresh kill, ate the curdled milk from the stomach of suckling fawns, and devoured broiled tripe, which they dragged over the grass to remove the worst of the filth.

Their homes, which were tepees made of poles and tanned buffalo hides, were easily moved and set up. They were circular, twelve to fourteen feet high, and tied with a leather rope at the top where the poles crossed. The entry hole as well as the vent at the top faced away from the prevailing wind, and inside was a fireplace for cooking and warmth. Women holding on to stakes driven into the ground and assisted by other women gave birth in the tepees or in special brush shelters. Skins were utilized for sitting and sleeping, and supposedly the Comanche tepee gave more protection from the weather than did the log cabins of Anglo pioneers.

The men fought and hunted with spears and short bows and arrows tipped at first with stone, later with iron or steel. They carried painted bison-hide shields which could turn away enemy arrows and sometimes a glancing bullet. The rim of the shield was decorated with feathers, scalps, horse tails, and bears' teeth. They hunted on horseback and could drive an arrow all the way through a buffalo. In warm weather boys and men wore breechclouts, leggings, and moccasins while girls and women wore skin gowns, skirts and blouses, and moccasins. In cold weather they put on leather shirts and buffalo robes. In earlier times the warriors wore headdresses of buffalo horns, and in the nineteenth century adopted feather war bonnets. The men plucked out their facial hair, including eyebrows, and wore an array of silver, brass, or shell rings in their pierced ears. Both sexes used a plenitude of body paint, the men even decorating their horses and the women accenting their eyes with yellow or red lines, their ears with red insides, and their cheeks with a circle or triangle of solid red-orange.

Decisions were made by the common consent of the male leaders in council, but they respected independence and freedom of action. Every band recognized a principal war chief, and warriors held the position of highest status. Anyone, nonetheless, could lead a war party, and individuals, often during a full moon, rallied camp mates to follow their lead. Like other Texas Indians, they struck in small groups to loot, kill, and withdraw. They divided their booty quickly and, if pursued, they split apart, each warrior fleeing alone. Their goal most often was the theft of horses, but after the Civil War they profitably sold stolen Texas cattle to New Mexicans. This brought them into permanent warfare with the ranchers and the state.

War was a necessity of life for the Comanches. It gave them command of the southern plains, and it was the only way for them to hold the rich bison country against the encroachment of settlers or other Indians. Stealing horses from an enemy camp, scalping an opponent under dangerous circumstances, and touching a live adversary were considered among the bravest of acts. A warrior could "count coup," similar to an award of merit, for these events at tribal meetings. With the advance of Anglo-American civilization and the destruction of the buffalo herds after the Civil War, however, the end was unavoidable. The Comanche moon rose no more. After years of sporadic outbursts, the exhausted and defeated Comanches left the plains in the 1870s for the reservations of Oklahoma. Their legacy, however, was an indelible image like that recorded in 1845 by German traveler Ferdinand Roemer, who once observed a Comanche tribe on the move: "According to Indian custom, they rode single file, the men in advance, dressed in their best, looking about, dignified and grave; the lively squaws following, sitting astride like the men, each usually carrying a black-eyed little papoose on her back and another in front of the saddle. At the same time they kept a watchful eye on the pack horses which carried the skins and the various household goods."

The eastern tribes of the Apache nation, which lived in West Texas prior to the invasion of the Comanches, gave way to the fierce intruders from the north. The Jicarillas retreated westward to mix with Pueblo tribes, and the Kiowa Apaches along with the Kiowas became so much like the Comanches that they formed an alliance with their ferocious overlords in the last years of the eighteenth century. The Lipan Apaches, however, were pushed southward and crushed between the Comanches to the north and the Spanish in the south. Their gardening villages were but loosely linked, and the Comanches eliminated them one by one.

Lipan Apaches wore simple buckskin clothing decorated with beads and brass ornaments. The men cut their hair short on the left side of the head in order to show off multiple earrings and tried to remove all facial hair, including eyelashes. Frederick Law Olmsted met Castro, a chief, in the 1850s and described him wearing a beaded buckskin shirt, a wreath of fresh oak leaves on his head, heavy brass earrings, and a vermilion stripe painted across his face. Olmsted thought "his face was not without some natural dignity and force, but the predominant expression was wily and brutal."

The Lipans depended upon buffalo, antelope, and turkeys more than the produce of the women's gardens or the wild agave and sotol plants they gathered. They suffered from lice, but took advantage of the condition. As an observer noted: "The lice laid their eggs, or nits, in the seams of their clothing. It was amusing to see them take a garment and fold it with the seam exposed and pass it between their teeth biting the nits. You could hear them pop, and from the greedy manner in which they would lick their lips it was evident that they liked the taste of the nits." By 1750 the Lipan Apaches had been forced into the more desolate parts of western Texas and northern Mexico where little agriculture was possible. Their poverty conditions reduced their numbers and changed them from once proud and independent people into beggars.

The Apaches believed in supernatural spirits, as did the Comanches, and it was the Mescalero Apaches who painted the pictographs on the rock walls at Hueco Tanks near El Paso. Victorio, a Mimbres Apache, rallied the warriors of the Texas-New Mexico and Mexico borders to a fatal stand in the Tres Castillos Mountains of northern Mexico in 1880. That event, along with one more raid in 1881, gave the Apaches the honor of being the last Indian remnant to fight on the Texas frontier.

The Texas tribes to the south and along the Gulf Coast were the least developed of the Indians. They all hunted, gathered wild plants, and fished, but practiced no agriculture. The numerically weak Tonkawas searched for allies, even courting the Spanish by asking for missions. They ate almost anything, including rats, skunks, and rattlesnakes, but preferred buffalo when they could get it. Their family organization was matrilineal, and mothers after giving birth in special grass huts placed their babies in cradleboards in order to flatten their foreheads.

Like other Indians, the Tonkawas practiced ritual cannibalism. At one time John H. Jenkins, a soldier and writer, observed them celebrating with yells and dancing while cooking and eating the hands and feet of a Wichita warrior. Such action supposedly gave them the spirit power of the dead and served as an insult to the enemy. They also seemed to enjoy the feast; Europeans applied the label "cannibal" to such coastal groups.

Coahuiltecans, another tribe of South Texas whose focal point was San Pedro Springs, now a park in San Antonio, were so primitive in their skills that anthropologists speculate that they represent the remainder of an earlier Indian culture that was swept to the least habitable part of Texas by technically superior invaders. Cabeza de Vaca found them capable of running after deer for an entire day, protective of their territory, and willing to eat almost anything available, including spiders, ant eggs, rotten wood, and deer dung.

They were mainly vegetarians, however, who ate mesquite beans mixed with dirt and enjoyed an intoxicating drink, mescal, which they made from agave leaves. They existed in small family groups and, nearly naked, roamed their territory as various seasons made food available. They used peyote in religious ceremonies, responded well to Spanish missionaries, and readily died of European diseases. By 1800 most of the Coahuiltecans in southern Texas had disappeared, and by 1900 the acculturated groups in northern Mexico had also vanished.

Sharing the bottom of the technological scale with the Coahuiltecans were the Karankawas and Atakapans of the Gulf Coast. Little is certain about the Atakapans of southeast Texas, but the group extended across the Sabine into Louisiana, lived mainly by hunting, and ate their enemies on occasion. In the Choctaw language their name meant "man-eater."

The Karankawas, similar to their neighbors, wore few clothes and subsisted by frequent moves in search of food. They were tall and well built but often hungry. The men wore pieces of cane through their lower lips and nipples, and both sexes used tattoos and body paint. In addition, to fend off mosquitoes they coated their bodies with shark or alligator oil, which gave them a particularly repulsive odor. They ate oysters, clams, turtles, fish, porpoises, the bulbs of underwater plants, berries, deer, bears, and bison if available. They used crude dugout canoes propelled with poles, nets to catch fish, and long cedar bows for hunting. They wove baskets and waterproofed them with natural asphalt that washed up on shore.

Because of the lack of food, they roved in small bands and allowed their children to suckle until twelve years of age, when they were declared self-sufficient. They were the first Texas Indians to meet Europeans, and they saved the lives of the shipwrecked Spaniards who first appeared on the shore. With disease from the newcomers and an example of Spanish cannibalism, however, the Karankawas turned away from the alien civilization. Hard experiences with the Spanish and others, including Jean Laffite's pirates, made them implacable enemies.

Since this was the earliest point of settlement by Europeans, the Karankawas were among the first Indians eliminated. Although they were said to be cannibals, eyewitness reports were rare, and there was no one to tell the Indian side of the story. As their numbers thinned, the Karankawas drifted toward Mexico and in the 1850s became extinct. "The Karánkaways are gone," wrote Roy Bedichek, the Texas naturalist of Karánkaway Country. "Only bitter memories of them remain. In the minds of our people they are eternally damned, largely because they refused a culture we offered, resisting our proffered blessings to the last."

Such might well be the epitaph for all Texas Indians. At present there are no original Indian cultures left in the state, although there are three small reservations for tribes that came later—the Alabama-Coushattas in the east, the Tiguas in the west, and the Kickapoos in the south. Various other tribes—Shawnees, Delawares, Seminoles, Cherokees—were refugees from the westward rolling Anglo frontier who sought sanctuary in Texas, but most of them failed in their quest. The Indians lost because of disease, destruction of the buffalo, fewer numbers, and the superior technology of the newcomers. This technology included not only the repeating firearms that came in the nineteenth century—weapons capable of matching the rapid fire of a bow and arrow—but also the technology of farming, communication, and transportation.

The Indians faced an informed, united, and determined opponent which in the long run overwhelmed them. The various Indian groups did not all work together like their enemies, nor did they possess the means of communication to take advantage of such situations as the Civil War. They lost to a stronger foe, just as earlier Texas Indian groups had lost to others who invaded the land. The Indian peoples were caught in the flood tide that carried Anglo-American civilization from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific. It was an inevitable defeat.


“Contrary to popular belief, there is more to Texas history than the Alamo and oil gushers. This book takes us from the early Indians of the area through to modern times when people began to realize the exploitation of natural resources and pollution were ruining the state’s natural beauty. The author offers many stories and an ample helping of anecdotes and folklore to paint an accurate portrait of the state and the people who have made it great.”
American West


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