GEORGIA O’ KEEFFE WOULD HAVE BEEN A TEXAN. Santa Fe and Taos would make Texas art known to the world. Texas would be famous for World Cup skiing in Aspen and Vail. The mention of Tex-Mex food would call to mind blue-corn enchiladas instead of No. 1 dinners. French separatists might be agitating for independence in the Hill Country. Wyoming’s Medicine Bow Mountains would be our northern frontier. Even California might be part of Texas—as it once was, at least according to Texas law. This could have been Texas’ destiny, had it remained a sovereign nation instead of joining the United States. A hundred and fifty years ago this month—February 19, 1846, to be exact—Texas president Anson Jones lowered the Lone Star flag for the last time, saying, “The final act in this great drama is now performed. The Republic of Texas is no more.” It’s too late to change history, but it’s never too late to wonder if we made a mistake.
How might the map of North America look today if Texas had kept the territory it claimed as a republic? Texas’ shape would resemble the profile of a buffalo, with Big Bend as the beard, a massive head covering the eastern half of New Mexico, a horn sticking up through Colorado into Wyoming, and the rest of Texas as its shoulders and forelegs. The western boundary would follow the Rio Grande to its source in the San Juan Mountains east of Durango, Colorado, and then run north to the forty-second parallel. The east side of this new Texas Panhandle would follow the Arkansas River to its source and likewise continue north into Wyoming. Carlsbad Caverns would be in Texas, and so would the Great Sand Dunes of southern Colorado. The Oklahoma Panhandle would be obliterated, and Liberal, Kansas, would be known as Conservative, Texas. In 1842 the Congress of the republic extended Texas’ western boundary to the Pacific, incorporating all of present-day Utah, Nevada, California, Arizona, and New Mexico, as well as Baja California and part of northern Mexico. It was fanciful, of course—a year earlier an expedition to evict the Mexican authorities from Santa Fe ended disastrously—but certainly Texas had a better claim to the land than the United States. Had Texas remained independent, the U.S. would not have fought the war with Mexico that enabled it to take control of the American Southwest.
From our vantage point, the joining of Texas and the United States seems inevitable. But it wasn’t, even though a referendum in 1836, the year of San Jacinto, on whether to seek statehood passed, 3,277-91. Nine years later, when Texans—or, as most citizens of the day preferred to say, Texians—approved the annexation, the vote was almost as overwhelming—4,254-257. Yet, for most of the time in between, statehood was an unlikely prospect. The United States didn’t want us. In 1837 a resolution to recognize Texas as a nation survived defeat by one vote in the U.S. Senate. A year later, a bill of annexation died in the House. Spurned, Texas formally withdrew its offer, and Mirabeau B. Lamar, succeeding Sam Houston as president of the republic, said in his inaugural address, “I cannot regard the annexation of Texas to the American Union in any other light than as the grave of all her hopes of happiness and greatness.” By 1844 Sam Houston had regained the presidency and was pursuing annexation again, but this time the U.S. Senate voted down the treaty that had been negotiated. Northerners opposed Texas for three reasons: slavery (“All who would sympathise with that pseudo-republic hate liberty and would dethrone God,” said the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison), fear of provoking a war with Mexico, and a general feeling that Texas was populated by land speculators, deadbeats, and criminals.
The reason most Texans wanted annexation was that Texas had no money, no industry, and no secure borders to the south or the west. It couldn’t afford to pay an army, but without one, it couldn’t repel a Mexican invasion or