Forget the Alamo

A new breed of scholars is rewriting Texas history to debunk the myths, explore the overlooked, and find heroism in the everyday lives of women and minorities—all while fending off charges of “flabby multiculturalism.”

April 1998By Comments

With everything that T. R. Fehrenbach and David Montejano have in common, you might think they would be drinking buddies, or at least meet sometime for coffee. Both are Texas historians from San Antonio. Both have written highly praised books about the state’s past. The Texas Historical Commission’s annual prize for the best work of Texas history is named for Fehrenbach and has been won by Montejano. Yet the two authors have never even had a conversation. Mention to one of them the kind of history that the other likes to write and you will likely elicit nothing more than sardonic laughter.

Once the exclusive province of a few well-known academics (most of them at the University of Texas, such as Eugene Barker and Walter Prescott Webb) and amateur historians (ranging from Fehrenbach to folklorist J. Frank Dobie), Texas history today is flourishing—and factionalizing—as never before. History, it has been said, is what one age finds of interest in another, and the historians of our age are finding much to be interested in that their predecessors overlooked. The traditional historians tended to write sweeping, mythic sagas—none more sweeping or mythic than Fehren bach’s best-selling Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans, first published in 1968.

The new Texas historians can be found in universities throughout Texas and beyond, writing academic treatises that are changing the way contemporary Texans look at their state. The mythic historians wrote in generalities, preferred anecdote to factual detail, and focused on heroes, heroic events, and the uniqueness of Texas. The new social historians, or revisionists, as they call themselves, pore over census data and courthouse records and recreate the realities of everyday life. They concentrate on issues of race, class, and gender that are often glossed over by the big-picture historians. They share an antipathy for the mythic idea that history has a plot line, such as Manifest Destiny or Progress; instead, they see history as directionless, a continuing story of conflict and contact between groups. 

Remember the Alamo? Today’s historians would just as soon forget it—or redefine it. Fehrenbach, an honorary member of the Sons of the Republic of Texas, has participated in the group’s rituals at the Alamo, but David Montejano (he pronounces his first name Mexican-style, with the stress on the second syllable), despite his San Antonio upbringing, never set foot in the Alamo as a tourist (although he has as a scholar). The new historians don’t romanticize the frontier, they don’t pay homage to cattle drives and frontier violence, they don’t condemn Yankee carpetbaggers, and they don’t care how Davy Crockett died. Influenced by the cultural turmoil of the sixties, they study not just heroes but common people, and not just white men but women, blacks, Mexican Americans, and nonconformists—from abolitionists to labor organizers. As far as they’re concerned, the fascination with the Alamo symbolizes all that is wrong with Texas history.

Lone Star is in no danger of being consigned to the historical scrap heap. The new historians’ books are published by university presses and purchased from catalogs; most would be deemed wildly successful if they sold three thousand copies. Lone Star, meanwhile, has done about a hundred times as well and continues to be sold by major bookstores. A new edition is due out this year, the book’s thirtieth anniversary. But the cutting edge of Texas history clearly belongs to the new historians, partly because much has indeed been left out of Texas history and partly because the way for historians to get ahead in this nonheroic era is to write nonheroic history. The new historians influence not only each other and their students but also the authors of textbooks who write the official version of history that is taught in Texas schools. This is Texas history as the next generation of Texas leaders is learning it, and the effect on the way Texans view their state will be profound.

The Tejano School

The traditional view of Texas history regarding Mexican Americans is that Anglo-American society met the Spanish-Indian society head on, and the Anglo-Americans prevailed because of their cultural superiority. Webb, in The Texas Rangers, expressed the prevailing view of Mexican inferiority when he wrote in 1935: “There is a cruel streak in the Mexican nature, or so the history of Texas would lead one to believe. This cruelty may be a heritage from the Spanish of the Inquisition; it may, and doubtless should, be attributed partly to the Indian blood.”

A new breed of scholars emerged with the Chicano political and cultural movement of the late sixties and early seventies. After a century of scholarship that cast Anglos as heroes and Mexican Americans as unworthy, the early Tejano historians tended to reverse the equation in equally simplistic ways. They gave their works titles like Occupied America: The Chicano’s Struggle Toward Liberation and Foreigners in Their Native Land. In a 1978 dissertation later published as They Called Them Greasers, Arnoldo de Leon wrote that nineteenth-century Anglo Texans who saw brown-skinned murder victims often ignored them because of the common belief that the spicy diet of “greasers” rendered their corpses impervious to decay. The early Tejano scholars seemed to regard all Mexican Americans, even bandits and thugs, as victims or heroes.

Since the late seventies, however, the Tejano School has concentrated more on disputing some of the old myths, such as the political passivity of Mexican Americans. University of Houston historian Guadalupe San Miguel, Jr., has shown how Mexican Americans challenged the segregation of their children in public schools, and Texas A&M professor Julia Kirk Blackwelder has written about women labor organizers on the West Side of San Antonio during the Depression-era pecan shellers’ strikes. The Tejano School is no longer the exclusive province of Mexican American historians, or of Texans, for that matter.

The most influential work remains David Montejano’s Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836—1986. Published in 1987, it is the book that won the Fehrenbach prize for its author, who is the director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at UT-Austin. Montejano holds a doctorate in sociology, but his work is unmistakably historical. Anglos and Mexicans examines the two groups’ economic, social, and race relations and demonstrates that not all Anglos discriminated against Mexican Americans and that not all Mexican Americans suffered the same level of discrimination. Much depended upon how long a Mexicano or an Anglo had lived in Texas, what he or she did for a living, as well as social status. Montejano discovered, for example, that during the height of labor and social segregation in early twentieth-century Laredo, Anglo merchants and politicians favored equality for Mexican Americans more than farmers and ranchers did because equality was good for business.

Montejano sees his mission as writing a truer history than works such as Webb’s The Texas Rangers, in which heroic Rangers confront border residents who are described as a “Mexican horde,” a “mob,” and “bandits.” In the photograph of Montejano that appears on the jacket of his book, he poses with his best ironic grin and a copy of The Texas Rangers in hand. When he signs copies of his book, he has been known to write, “Cuando reclamamos nuestra historia, reclamamos nuestro destino”: When we claim our past, we claim our future.

The Southern Revival School

Traditional Texas historians have always found it painful to associate the state with the vanquished, humiliated South. Before the Civil War, Texas was a relatively prosperous state with a thriving cotton-based economy. For years afterward, it was one of the poorest. During the Depression, historians seized on the optimism of the West and tried to put distance between Texas and its Confederate past. This was the era when Texas began to be regarded as Western rather than Southern—a state shaped by ranching instead of farming, cattle instead of cotton, oil instead of timber, the scarcity of water instead of its abundance, the rough egalitarian frontier instead of the genteel planter aristocracy, and of course, heroes instead of losers.

Robert Calvert gets irritated by such talk. “Texas is Southern,” the A&M history professor says. “I could never relate to the ranching part of Texas history. Ranching wasn’t my background. My family started out like most Texans, as landholders involved in the cotton economy. But by 1890, more than half the population, including whites, were reduced to sharecropping. My grandfather was one of them.”

Calvert’s voice is so edged with good ol’ boy twang that it is hard to imagine him involved in a revisionist flap. But that is what happened a few years ago. Local school board members were considering naming a campus for William Barrett Travis, and Calvert, according to the local paper, had objected that the legendary Alamo martyr was a womanizer, a slave trader, a reputed murderer, and a sufferer of venereal disease. Although the critic was actually one of his colleagues, Walter Buenger, Calvert later endorsed all of the charges. (The school board gave in and named the school for a black educator.)

It seems astonishing that today’s Texas historians have to labor to prove Texas’ Southern ties. Virginia native Randolph “Mike” Campbell expected to miss his home state when he arrived at the University of North Texas in Denton three decades ago to teach history. But, he recalls, “I didn’t notice any difference between the attitudes you hear people express in Virginia when it comes to schools, the role of state and national government, and race, and the attitudes they communicate in Texas. When I started listening to my students, I realized they don’t have any idea that this is a Southern state or that slavery was really important here.”

Campbell tried to remedy the situation by writing An Empire for Slavery, published by LSU Press in 1989. He points out that on the eve of the Civil War, more than a quarter of Texas families owned slaves, and human chattel composed 30 percent of the state’s population—figures that match antebellum Virginia’s. An Empire for Slavery is replete with footnotes, which, if you were to follow them to their source, would take you to the newspaper morgues and county courthouses of many a Texas town. There he unearthed the moldering skeletons of the slave economy: yellowed probate records in which farmers bequeath slaves to their sons and daughters, receipts that tally the rental of slaves to other farms, and records showing how the income from leased slaves paid white children’s tuition at fancy schools.

Calvert’s A&M colleague Walter Buenger addresses the problem of why, fifteen years after Texas voted overwhelmingly to join the Union, it voted overwhelmingly to secede. He looked at the secessionists and found many recent immigrants from the South. But there were also immigrants with no tradition of slavery who didn’t aspire to own slaves. And Anglo farmers near the Red River also had no stake in slavery because they couldn’t ship cotton to market; they raised crops like corn that did not require the help of slaves. By 1861 so many Texans were fighting over slavery and secession that portions of the state were close to their own civil war.

Buenger uses an unlikely metaphor to describe the misuse of Texas history: the Alamo. “Originally it had an absolutely flat roof,” he says. “Then, in the 1840’s, they added that characteristic limestone arch you see now. By the 1890’s the building was in ruins, but when preservation started, instead of going back to the original flat roof, they went back to the added roof. That, to me, is how Texas history works. You never go back to the real thing; you go back to what’s been added on after the fact.”

The Mild West School

To many of the new historians, the real frontier heroes were the unknown ones. In Austin, St. Edward’s University professor Paula Mitchell Marks has found that cloth reveals culture. “One scrap of homemade fabric can tell us much about the realities and nuances of a woman’s life, of a community’s life, in nineteenth-century Texas,” she writes in her introduction to Hands to the Spindle: Texas Women and Home Textile Production 1822—1880. Marks discovered that Stephen F. Austin favored homespun cloth over mass-produced fabric at his nascent colony so that everyone would appear to be on the same economic level. The newspaper of Austin’s colony warned that manufactured cloth would produce “damsels” who guarded their fingernails and sought “gaudy dress.”

In archives and libraries, Marks has ferreted out diaries and letters, as well as accounts of frontier Texas trade in everything from homespun cloth to hens’ eggs. The documents reveal that many frontier women were the economic mainstays of their families. They were endlessly busy with food production, spinning, weaving, and other tasks that helped support their families. This female labor, Marks says, made possible the war making, politicking, land speculating, and other male wheeling and dealing that occupy the traditional history books.

The Texas frontier historians are more than multiculturalists; they are also debunkers of the myths. Take the notion that frontier towns were hotbeds of gun-toting violence: Can any idea have been more central to Hollywood’s idea of the West? East Texas State University historian Ty Cashion has found that the violence has often been overstated. Fort Griffin, a settlement near Abilene that once served as a pit stop for Dodge City—bound trail drivers during the 1870’s and 1880’s, enjoys a reputation among frontier history buffs as a hell town of honky-tonks, gambling, prostitution, and random violence. The saloons and the prostitutes, with names like Polly Turnover and Slewfoot Jane, were an important part of life in Fort Griffin, but the police and court records Cashion examined show that wanton killing was relatively rare. When it did occur, it was generally carefully investigated, swiftly prosecuted, and strictly punished—unless the victim was a member of an ethnic minority.

The Urban School

The traditional historians had little use for cities or for the post-frontier period of Texas history. Fehrenbach allots 45 pages of a 719-page book to a chapter called “The Twentieth Century.” The word “Spindletop” does not appear in his index. Cities hold no fascination for him. To the new historians, the glorification of the rural culture at the expense of the urban is a serious omission in Texas history. Char Miller, who moved from Miami to San Antonio in 1981 to teach history at Trinity University, notes that the most celebrated moment in Texas history, the Battle of the Alamo, was an urban event. As small as it was, San Antonio de Béxar was the biggest settlement west of the Mississippi in 1836, which, Miller says, is precisely why the Texans chose the mission as the best place from which to harass the enemy. Nevertheless, Miller notes, the Alamo became a symbol for rural virtue and valor.

Miller coedited a collection of historical essays called Urban Texas. He introduces it to his students by handing out copies of a short story written by Stephen Crane at the turn of the century, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.” Crane describes the drunken gunslinger who arrives in a Wild West town near the Rio Grande as “[a] man in a maroon-coloured flannel shirt, which had been purchased for purposes of decoration, and made principally by some Jewish women on the East Side of New York.” To Miller, the passage’s deliberate connection between frontier and metropolis shows that the West was never isolated from the city. “Boots, clothing, barbed wire—they all came from manufacturers in cities,” he says. Portrayals of cattle drives as purely rustic are belied by their routes, which took them through cities; the Chisholm Trail ran along San Antonio, Austin, Waco, and Fort Worth because these cities were not only collection points for cattle but also outfitting centers for saddles, ropes, and groceries.

The new urban historians have made some surprising findings about the development of Texas cities. Texas Southern University’s Cary Wintz has used turn-of-the-century census data to outline the development of residential segregation in Houston. The same data, however, also showed that white and black families often lived on the same streets in those days and even roomed and boarded with each other. The rigid residential patterns of later years, Miller’s research has shown, were the result of the growth of suburbs, where property was expensive and deeds often had racial exclusions.

Miller thinks it is silly for any rural symbols to define Texas today. Since 1950, most Texans have lived in urban areas, and for most of the twentieth century, cities were gaining population at a faster rate than the country. But when traditional historians write about Houston or Dallas, they focus on entrepreneurial giants and their virtues of rugged individualism. “Dallas, San Antonio, Houston—they’ve all grown by intense government and business cooperation, drawing heavily on federal money,” Miller says. San Antonio was subsidized by military bases, Dallas by defense industries, Houston by a ship channel, federal investment for wartime petrochemical industries (arranged by Houston’s Jesse Jones, who was both Secretary of Commerce and head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation), and NASA. “I doubt,” says Miller, “that the Marlboro Man could have swung those deals.”

The Last Traditionalist

The one area in which traditional historians are no match for their mythic predecessors is the ability to bring history alive. Lone Star is, above all, a great read. “The Texans,” Fehrenbach writes, “came closest to creating, in America, not a society but a people. . . . The closest 20th-century counterpart is the State of Israel, born in blood in another primordial land.” Into this holy territory, Sam Houston leads the charge at San Jacinto, “his heart thudding in a tremendous passion, cooly, cooly with his soldier’s brain, knowing no power on earth was going to stop this headlong charge.” Melodramatic sometimes to a fault, Fehrenbach colors his language in the hues of an earlier time: The Indians are “Stone Age savages,” blacks after the Civil War “lacked motivation.”

But one can also find in Lone Star some of the very research of which the new social historians are so proud. To cite one such passage: “The entire existence of this glittering cotton empire was based on the subordination and labor of the Negro slaves. There were 182,000 blacks in bondage in Texas, approximately one-third the entire population. Slavery was not completely popular. It was disliked by most free farmers, on racial, social, and competitive grounds.” Nor was Fehrenbach hostile to the cultures that the Texans conquered; he has written admiring histories of both Mexico and the Comanche. His great difference with the social historians is that he does not approach nineteenth-century attitudes with a twentieth-century sensibility.

Today, at 73, Fehrenbach apologizes for the stale cigar smell of his office, but he makes no apology for his version of history: “Rangers, cattle drives, Injuns, and gunfights may be mythology. But it’s our mythology.” These romances, he says, are vital to Texans’ ability to see themselves as a people and to confront the future of the state. Nonsense, retort the revisionists. Let the old myths die so we can get on with the modern world, a world in which very soon the majority of Texans will be what are now called “minorities.” Now if only someone would write a revisionists’ version of the history of Texas.

“I’m optimistic that someone could do a book that would say to the public, ‘Hey, look how far history has come! Look how many different stories we have today,’” says Paula Mitchell Marks. But, she cautions, “It’s going to require tremendous care to include all the different groups who made the history and their various viewpoints. The danger is that in trying to address everything, the book could become clunky and pedantic.” To all this Fehrenbach shrugs. Common people will never accept the attempt to demythologize Texas—“Especially,” he says, “if the alternative is flabby multiculturalism.

“I have no real use for the present,” he allows. “I don’t believe in social science or all those tables and statistics. All the great historians have been great writers. But most of the new ones write small things. Hell, I read three pages of their work and my eyes dull.” Lone Star, he says, “represented the worldview of the native Texan of mid-century, of my generation. Now, whether it makes sense for the youth of the nineties, I couldn’t tell you. Every generation has to rewrite its history—that’s a normal, psychological reaction against the fathers. But the book has lasted almost thirty years. That’s longer than I ever dreamed.”

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