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The Texas Tradition: Its Use and Misuse

by Joe B. Frantz

The story of the Texas past is a violent story told largely by men who heroized other more violent men, who often couldn't pass a credit check, gloried over sharp speculative land deals, and would have failed a decent character test. William B. Travis kept an account journal of which an IRS examiner would have been proud. Of what items, among other things, did Travis tot up in his diary? His conquests of women, which were formidable by any standards and seem impossible in a Victorian setting. He also complained of his social disease -- I think anti-social would be a more nearly precise term. If Santa Anna hadn't felled him at the Alamo, venereal disease would have in a few years. At least four of the leaders of the Republic of Texas committed suicide, including the last president of the Republic, Anson Jones. Sam Houston's tangles with his three wives provide material for a five-foot library shelf of sizzling novels, all X-rated. According to folklore, you could retrace old Sam's walk across Texas anytime after nine months, and almost invariably you would find a blue-eyed Indian baby. If Sam had been a Texas bull, his owners would have advertised him as pre-potent.

In later years, we have the heroes of that great disaster we call the Civil War -- more violence. Then the cattle era, magnificent in its sweep and amplitude and what it did to lift Texas out of the financial bog that dogged the other ten ex-Confederate states. Again the range cattle story is pockmarked by accounts of confrontation and violence -- -fights for range, fights for water, rustling, fights between farmers and ranchers, fights against Indians, men fighting men, and men fighting nature, from the Gulf to the Mexican border and all the way to the top of the Panhandle. In the 20th century came gas and oil, followed by industrialization and wealth, often accidental, beyond almost anyone's dreams. Eight and a half decades of oil as king, 85 years or so of local deals, international deals, billion-dollar takeovers, lease sharks, slant hole drilling, hot oil bootlegging, warfare at the greasy rig, and warfare in the plush and sanitized board rooms, but always deals, deals, deals, lawsuits and confrontations.

Where was half of Texas' adult population in these multiple generations? Where were the women? In the days of the Caddo Indian, the women were riding high. Their God was a woman. Does not all life issue from woman's womb? Then, argued the Indians pragmatically, aren't we all descended from women? Therefore, wasn't the Great Originator bound to have been a woman? So God was a woman who ruled the Universe with her two daughters, and if woman is elevated enough to be God, then it follows that the Caddo frequently chose women as tribal chiefs. All of this hundreds of years before Miriam A. Ferguson (Ma Ferguson) whom Texans once honored by electing as governor. They have never bestowed the honor on another woman since.

Moving forward from the era of the Indians, the only true Texans, the remainder of us -- white, brown, black, yellow -- are all immigrants as surely as if we had waded the Rio Grande last week. The women since need to be looked at, an exercise which men seldom tire of for as long as their eyes hold up, but otherwise they don't like to acknowledge them. While the Texas male was shouldering his gun and riding or walking off in search of the unknown -- game, Indians, Mexicans, cattle, buffalo, new land -- was a woman any less heroic because she remained behind in a too hot, too cold, leaky cabin unadorned by any softness and scant comfort, raising children far from any doctor, birthing children by herself with no assistance, feeding those children, worrying about her man, knowing mostly poverty and drudgery, and knowing, too, that she would be old and worn out and stooped and hurting by the time she was thirty? Divorce wasn't frequent in those days, it didn't have to be. Men and a hostile environment wore out the women early, and a man who lasted could expect to wear out two or three women. Provisional Governor Henry Smith of Texas married and wore out three sisters in succession. I have often wondered what sister number three thought as she heard those words, "Till death do us part."

In the world of childbearing without facilities, without help except from a smelling oaf of a husband who was present only if the squirrels weren't running or the cattle didn't need looking after, in this world in which she could expect to lose a newborn babe one time in three, in a such a stark world, who, I ask you, are the heroes in the Texas heritage? Which braved more? The men at the Alamo and San Jacinto, who faced only quick release from life and are victors to be cherished and bragged about forevermore, or the wives who died a little, a little but noticeably, day after day after seemingly endless days till their souls shriveled and their bodies gave up? Who's the hero -- James Bowie, big dealer, alligator wrestler, some-time drunk, frontier brawler, who died heroically at the Alamo. Maybe, or maybe it was his Spanish-Mexican wife, Ursula who, with her two children, surrendered to cholera while her husband was wheeling and dealing more than a thousand miles away?

Now I'm not here to make a pitch for women. Lord knows they don't really need male assistance in assuring their status. They are certainly better organized as a sexual set. But I do think we need to reevaluate our past to deter-mine whether we have focused too clearly on some events and people and left areas of Texas history fuzzed up and out of focus. I started with women because they constitute our majority group. I could just as well have opened with the Indian, or Spanish, or Mexican, or Black. If you saw the recent PBS series called "Lone Star," narrated by Larry Hagman, once out of Weatherford and now on "Dallas," you may remember that it opened with A.C. Greene, once of Clyde and Abilene, stating that the Texas tradition began with the coming of the Anglo-Americans into Texas with Stephen F. Austin. Despite his position as one of Texas' leading critics, Greene speaks nonsense. We received our name from the Indians. The Hasinai, a Caddo group, who greeted the Spanish with the word "Taysha." There are various spellings and various pronunciations of that, but that's what the Spanish thought they were saying. The word meant "friend," but the Spanish misunderstood it and thought the tribe was identifying itself. They called the tribe Tayshas, which they misspelled as Tejas. The Spanish then corrupted "Tejas" into "Texas" and spoke of the land in which the Tejas lived as Texas.

We are a friendly people. We like to talk, gabble even, with strangers. If a Texan isn't friendly, he must be a recent import from Manhattan. No one expressed it better than former Governor Preston Smith when he ordered the sign "Drive Friendly." We don't, but it expresses how we feel. Once we were friendly because we were lonely, or as "Badger" Clark observed, we loved our neighbor best when he was scattered some. Now we are often congested, and some of us wish our neighbors would move back where they came from, but only if they'd leave their money behind. But most of us still behave less rudely than the harried folks in New York, Miami Beach, and Paris, possibly the three worst mannered towns in the world. The Hasinai gave us a heritage when they called us Taysha, "friend," and the world has never been the same since.

Texas is sharp, punchy, easily identifiable, along with its derivatives, Texan and Tex. It fits headlines, it gives instant identity. Thus, Texas oilman, Texas Ranger, Texas billionaire. A character named Tex in a movie or novel is already limbed before he actually appears. He is tall, gangly thin, quiet or garrulous as his mood dictates, gentle and bashful with good women, hell on wheels with soiled doves, slow to anger and quick to revenge, can shoot a hummingbird in a huisache thicket at a hundred yards, and leaves no enemies alive. Don't mess with Texas, nor with Tex.

The hand-me-down result of all this is that, deep down, many Texans -- usually in three-piece suits in petroleum clubs in Amarillo or Houston -- truly believe that you could send 200 Texans, other than themselves, to Nicaragua or Beirut or Afghanistan, and they could clean up the whole mess in a few days. The greater truth is more like what happened to me. During World War II, I joined the British Navy on loan, as you can see me now. The only difference now and then is that I was younger and 25 pounds thinner. So the first day I stepped into the ward room of His Majesty's Ship, Wager, a new limey shipmate looked up and said, "Oh jolly good, here comes Tex. He can teach us how to drink, play poker, shoot, make love (that's a euphemism) to the girls in the Pacific." I was a total failure in all categories, but my failure is unimportant. The point is I was branded before I arrived, simply because I was a Texan. Ordinary size, small-boned, not too loud, although talkative, but they were looking for Gary Cooper and John Wayne, in one body, and I was neither. I was a real Texan, but Tex and Texas prevailed.

The Indians gave us some names and identity. Mobeetie, is one example, as are Nacogdoches, Tawakoni, Waco, but the Spanish and Mexicans left the state dotted with names that compel -- Amarillo, Palo Duro, Colorado, San Antonio, Chisos, Uvalde, Laredo, Palo Pinto, Hondo, Alamo, Seguin, Anahuac, Aransas, Corpus Christi, Anacostia, Brazos, Neches, Nueces, Rio Grande. They give us names that we have corrupted in pronunciation, also, but they still suggest romance. All these names conjure up feelings against names like Mineral Wells, Dallas, Houston, Austin, Coleman, Eden. Also, the Spanish gave us more -- discovery and exploration for example, as in the incredible saga of Cabeza de Vaca.

The Cabeza de Vaca quartet, three Europeans and one Black, walked eight years across Texas, New Mexico, the southeast corner of Arizona and Sonora until they met other Spaniards near the Pacific side of Mexico. En route, barefoot and naked, often starving and bleeding, they nonetheless endured, shedding their exposed flesh like snakeskins and then freezing in the winters. Along the way, they cured the primitive Indians of their ills, though they knew no cures except the Sign of the Cross and Hail Mary. In the Big Bend, Cabeza de Vaca performed the first recorded successful surgery in North America. Prints of Tom Lee's painting in El Paso of the Spaniards removing a serrated arrow from an Indian's heart hang in medical schools all over the nation. Cabeza de Vaca knew nothing of the importance of sanitation, probably didn't have any water, but he made a knife from the bone of a deer, for sutures he used thongs made from dried deer gut, and the Indian got well. Unlike some of the stories some Texans dwell on, this is a story of life, not of death.

The Spanish gave Texas its first military protection, its first brush with Christianity, and its first taste of civil administration. The Spanish brought the first cattle, horses, and sheep into Texas. They gave us the round-up, branding, the rodeo, tending cows on horseback, the sombrero, the spur, the chaps, the saddle with a high pommel and supported back, the high-heel boot, a love of leather, and the branding iron, most of the gear we still utilize today. The Spanish also gave us our currency, the Spanish dollar, often split into two bits, four bits, six bits, none of that queer English money of pence, shillings, pounds, and guineas that we don't understand even yet. Spanish money we could understand and distribute. When we became a republic and then a state, we continued our Spanish ways. Texas was the first state to enact a homestead law, derived from the Spanish who held that even the most unfortunate entrepreneur should be left with his house, his land, and his tools so that he could try again to succeed. The British simply threw the debtor into prison and confiscated everything.

Another Texas brag, Spanish derived, is that we led the way in community property laws. Despite the alleged Spanish tendencies to machismo, the Spaniard valued women as the heir-apparent of the family. To keep the family intact after death. Spaniards passed laws stating that a man's esposa automatically shared in the estate simply by marrying. The British clung to the notion that property passed down to male heirs. Texans bought the Spanish version. Spain also held that illegitimate children and adopted children have the same rights as children of a legal marriage and should share equally in the family inheritances. Texas continued the rule about rights of adopted and illegitimate children after Spain was no longer around. In time, Texas went even further, again leading the nation in becoming the first state to rule that there are no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents. The small baby lying there is innocent. It had nothing to do with the circumstances of its conception, but before Texas acted on Spanish precepts, the babe would be damned forever by having "illegitimate" stamped across its birth certificate. We have quit that practice now for 65 years.

The Spanish influenced our attitude toward water law. They held that running streams belonged to the people, all the people, not to the person who got there first or who managed to wrest it from some farmer or some former owner. Although Spanish-speaking lawyers and translators remain in demand in those parts of Texas where old Spanish land grants remain viable, in general, Texas has followed the Anglo-Saxon belief that water rights belong either to the strong or the early. As our water table continues to drop, however, the state leaders press ever more strongly for cooperative arrangements to assure sufficient water for those who have to have it. The Spanish view may prevail yet.

From the Mexicans we received incredibly generous land grants, about 4500 acres for each head of family. For this we paid negligible fees which many of us refused to honor, but like the Spanish and then the Mexicans, we came to be an excessively land-minded people so that many of our scandals over the past 150 years have evolved from land hunger. Not for us the tidy parcels of land generation after generation, as in France, England, and Germany, or in New England and along the Atlantic coast. We like the attitude of James MacFadden who came to Texas ahead of Stephen F. Austin. MacFadden made the statement, "All I want is my land and what's next to it." In time he owned most of Jefferson County, including Spindletop, from which his family began to profit mightily after 1901. Sam Houston, ever the sharp critic of his people, spoke of the animating pursuit of land speculation which infested the Anglo-Texan newcomer, while the only scandal which ever threatened the mild Austin involved a giant speculative scheme in which he and his secretary, Samuel May Williams, became involved. As of October 1986, you still can't invite the descendants of Austin and Sterling C. Robertson, another empressario, to the same symposium. Their antecedents fell out over rival land claims in the 1830's. Their feud remains a heated affair, a mite amusing to us bystanders, but deadly serious to their great-great-great, however many generations of grandchildren they left behind.

The Texas Revolution and the subsequent Republic of Texas gave us our overweening pride. For a decade we ran our own affairs, and some Texans will argue today that we should have remained on our own. Certainly Texas has never really joined the Union spiritually. It remains an affiliate member, an entity that wants to share an association, but wants to cling to its mother church wherever that is. Sam Houston saw Texas stretching all the way to the Pacific, embracing today's north Mexican states of Coahuila, Chihuahua, and Sonora, and the future United States areas of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California. We would have had a tie-up of all the mineral wealth in the United States. If we had pulled off such a dream of an empire, we would have been equal in size to Mexico and the United States, a third major power in a pivotal position on this continent.

Mirabeau B. Lamar, our second president and our most literary leader, wrote and spoke frequently about Texans as a new race of people. Texans, then and since, have brought a super-nationalistic message, causing J. Frank Dobie to observe that Texans are the only people in history who can increase their numbers without sexual propagation. We received our boundaries from the Spanish, the Mexicans, war, and negotiation. In return for certain boundary concessions, we retained our own public land, a fact which added to our feeling of self-esteem and independence.

The Civil War could have devastated us as it did the other ten Confederate states who had to wait until the 20th century to catch up to where they had been in 1860. Thanks to a 26-year-old commission man in Illinois, we won another lottery ticket, the range cattle industry, with all that development has meant to the Texas mystic and ego. Joseph G. McCoy in Illinois provided the idea, God provided the water, albeit stingily, and Uncle Sam and the Texas government provided the grass. We prospered and thought we had done it all ourselves. While our downtrodden neighbors to the east faced a world without tools, without seed, without fertilizer, without viable roads, and without a single solvent financial institution, we brought home hard cash from Kansas buyers, and except for an occasional economic recession, never knew truly hard times in the sense that the old Confederacy did.

When the range cattle industry began to play out, then came oil. After Spindletop, we became increasingly an industrial state. There, then, arose the loud-mouthed, overbearing Texas oil tycoon who made a caricature out of all of us solid, hard-working, God-fearing people, who tried to pay our debts, rear our children, and plan for a better life. If the Texas tycoon was so rich, why wasn't he smart? Well, he wasn't. Instead, he displayed a high type of low cunning in which he took advantage of the Texas people's indulgence, while giving little back. With its luck and resources, Texas should have shown the remainder of the nation its heels and diversity in development, in income, in education, and in promoting the Constitutionally-mandated general welfare. So there we are -- on the threshold of the 21st century caught in a crisis, no longer an agricultural state, the third most urbanized state in the Union, wondering how to recapture our past glory and how to manage our present and future. How do we restore and recapture the intimations of our greatness, and our humanity, that dot the Texas past?