Happy Texas Independence Day!
I know that most of you out there probably don’t celebrate this momentous holiday when the Republic of Texas threw off the shackles of Mexican rule and assumed its just place among the powers of the earth and began a bloody struggle for freedom. But it’s a holiday here in Texas – at least for state employees – and in many ways it is a day worth remembering, if only because of the unique personalities associated with the struggle to make all Texans free.
The establishment of Texas as an independet republic was in many ways an act of desperation by people who had moved into Mexican territory with unrealistic expectations that the US government would come in and ‘liberate’ them the way that they had settlers in Florida in the 1820s. The chaotic situation in Mexico and the rapid growth of Texas attracted opportunists and scoundrels of every stripe, all of them looking for a way to make a fortune or a legend. For many of them that seemed increasingly difficult under the repressive Mexican government. Add to that the fact that successive Mexican administrations had been exiling all their dissidents to Texas and you had an explosive situation where everyone with land, an education or any ambition in Texas wanted radical change and wanted it quickly. A succession of weak administrations in the United States proved unwilling or unable to step in and resolve the situation as Andrew Jackson had done in Florida. Well, the ill-fated Tyler administration tried, but when the USS Princeton arrived at Galveston with the US ambassador on board they fired off a greeting shot from one of their cannon and it blew up and shredded the ambassador who was standing on deck next to it – a perfect microcosm of Tyler’s presidency. So with no help coming, Texans decided to take measures into their own hands.
The opportunity embodied in the chaotic frontier dynamic attracted adventurers from all over to the cause of liberating Texas. Rather than go through the whole history of the war – go watch The Alamo if you want dry history – I thought I’d illuminate a few of the most colorful characters of the period and look at some aspects of their lives which aren’t necessarily remembered by those who like to keep the legend of the Texas Republic unsullied.
Jim Bowie started his career as a slave trader in Louisiana, working with legendary pirate Jean Lafitte to bring slaves out of Louisiana and sell them in Texas. It was during this early career that Bowie acquired his famous custom-made fighting knife and his name has been attached to knives in a similar style ever since. Bowie moved into Texas looking for larger opportunities and began speculating in land, buying land claims from local Mexicans and selling bogus land titles from Arkansas to unsuspecting westerners. To advance his political prospects, he courted and married the daughter of the Mexican governor of Texas, converted to Catholicism and became a Mexican citizen. During this period he launched a variety of money making schemes, including trying to start a textile milling industry in San Antonio and searching for mythical silver mines in the area around San Saba. Bowie earned quite a reputation as an indian fighter, but was reluctant to command regular troops as the Texas Revolution broke out. Nonetheless he was persuaded to take command of the small contingent of troops at the Alamo with the objective of stopping Santa Ana’s advance into Texas. His role at the Alamo was limited because he had contracted Pneumonia as a symptom of Yellow Fever and was bedridden and dying throughout the siege. Although most commonly remembered for his knife, Bowie was basically a con man and specualtor, a slave trader, an associate of pirates, a sometime professional gambler, and a very slick character with a lot of ambition whose career which was cut short by going against his own best judgement and accepting command of the Alamo.
William B. Travis was a lawyer and failed newspaper publisher from Sout Carolina who moved to East Texas in the 1820s, abandonning his wife and children. He basically hated Mexicans and the Mexican government. He was a bizarrely contentious man who was always looking for a fight. One time during a trial he pulled a knife on the opposing lawyer and threatened his life, though that incedent ended embarassingly since the other lawyer had a gun. Travis was a sex addict who had relations with scores of women and maintained a log book of every woman he had sex with in which he wrote critiques and ratings of the experience. He made it his personal mission to precipitate a war between Texas and Mexico by any means possible. To this end, before the Texas Revolution broke out he raised a private army sailed it down the coast into northern Mexico and began raiding, pillaging and burning Mexican villages, disappearing by boat before the Mexican army could respond. In the course of these raids he and his men raped and murdered numerous Mexican civilians and seemed to make great sport of the activity. Because other Texas leaders saw the volatile Tavis as a liability to their cause, he was sent to share command of the Alamo with Bowie. At the time Travis already knew he was dying of the last stages of syphillis and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to go out in a blaze of glory.
Davy Crockett came to Texas late in his career. He was drawn to the Texas Revolution because there was nothing else going on, he was getting old, and people were starting to forget about him despite his shameless self-promotion. Some have criticized Crockett as being somewhat dimwitted, but I prefer to think that he had just become delusional. Crockett had been the great folk figure of the early 1800s and was one of the first men to be immortalized as a semi-fictional character in his own lifetime by being written about in a series of ‘penny dreadful’ novels which took the nuggets of his genuine frontier adventures and inflated them into legendary tales of almost superhuman heroism. Crockett’s problem was that he had been reading his own press – or more likely having it read to him, as he was barely literate – and had come to believe that he was the legendary superman rather than the resourceful frontiersman who had inspired the literary character. So when he heard that reporters were gathering in Texas – and it was one of the first wars to have newspaper reporters sending back stories from the field – he figured that was where he needed to be to revitalize his once-lucrative career as a touring living legend. The catch with this plan was that the place to earn the most legend points was The Alamo, and neither Travis nor Bowie had bothered to tell him that no one was getting out alive, perhaps because they were both dying and it wasn’t a major consideration for them.
Sam Houston built on the sacrifice of Bowie, Crockett and Travis at the Alamo and won the Texas Revolution. He won against ridiculous odds, outsmarted and outmaneuvered Santa Ana at every turn, and did it with untrained, undisciplined and contentious troops. Houston was a genius and many would argue that he was also stark raving mad. He was born in Virginia and moved out to the western frontier at a very early age where he lived among the Cherokee Indians. He had no formal education, but learned to read and write and became surprisingly literate. He began his public career as a military protege of Andrew Jackson, and fought with him in several Indian wars. He then spent 13 years off and on living among indians on the frontier, taking an Indian wife and essentially going native. Then, at the urging of Jackson he ran for governor of Tennessee, served in that office and then served a term in Congress where he became famous for his interminable speeches. After an incedent where he beat another congressman into unconsciousness with his cane Houston decided to move to Texas and eventually joined up and ended up leading the Texas Revolution. In the course of this varied career Houston became a practicing bigamist, marrying a white woman mainly for political purposes while still married to his Cherokee wife. The marriage was short lived because apparently Houston’s sexual practices were so abhorent to his wife that after one night together she refused to even live in the same house with him. Houston was also famous for his penchant for dressing in womens clothing, particularly expensive lingerie which he had imported from France. This was apparently a practice acquired from the Cherokee who liked to decorate their clothing with lace and fancy fabric accents. Houston would wear girdles, corsets and other items of lingerie on the outside of his clothing, a practice which must have raised a few eyebrows, but which was overlooked in the wake of his great military successes.
Houston summed up the nature of the men who founded Texas when he said “All new states are invested, more or less, by a class of noisy, second-rate men who are always in favor of rash and extreme measures, but Texas was absolutely overrun by such men.” He clearly had the measure of men like Travis, Bowie and Crockett and a hundred lesser known men of similar character. Strange he may have been, but Houston was also remarkably perceptive, and his leadership in war and in the early years of statehood kept Texas free and politically functional despite all the ambitious fools and scoundrels who infested it. Ironically, at the end of his life while he was dying of tuberculosis, he fell into disfavor with many in Texas because he supported the Union against the Confederacy and argued that Texas had joined the wrong side in the war.
So when you hear that popular slogan “Don’t Mess With Texas,” remember that these are the men whose spiritual descendants you’ll be messing with, and you never know when a later day Travis will flip out and start a revolution.