It’s that time of year again, that time when old-school, mainly Anglo Texans celebrate, commemorate—and in some extreme cases—reenact the fall of the Alamo, the massacre at Goliad, and the decisive victory at San Jacinto. William Barrett Travis’s letter from the Alamo is dusted off and forwarded around the Internet, along with Davy Crockett’s zinger about where you all could go (Hell) and where he was going (Texas).
Meanwhile, here in Houston, Go Texan Day has just come and gone, which found office workers nervously hoping that they could still squeeze into last year’s gingham dress or tight-fittin’ Wranglers, and schoolkids of every race, color, and creed clomping around their school halls in cowboy boots most will never wear again. Roads normally clogged with motorized traffic were instead all a-clop with the hooves of hundreds of horses, as the spur-janglin’ trail riders and trundling chuckwagons finally arrived at their Memorial Park campsite after many miles of hard riding on paved roads. Go Texan Day kicks off the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, twenty days and nights of cattle auctions, bull-riding and barrel-racing, and (mostly) country music concerts, all in honor of Houston’s venerable heritage as one of the America’s great Western cowtowns.
The trouble is, the whole thing is built on a big fat piece of historical fiction. Houston was never a cowtown, at least not in any meaningful sense, and it never even pretended to be for the first century of its existence. The same goes for Dallas, which, while only 32 miles from Fort Worth, the real Cowtown, and situated on the very edge of what we have come to see as the American West, was always, like Houston, much more about cotton than cattle—at least until Spindletop blew in.
The same went for the entire state of Texas east of what is now Interstate 35, which was where the vast majority of the people lived and was every much a part of the King Cotton economy as Alabama or Mississippi. Counties were named in honor of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, John C. Calhoun, Stonewall Jackson, and John Bell Hood. Most towns of any size sported a prominent monument to its Confederate dead, and up until the early twentieth century, Dallasites and Houstonians saw themselves as just as Southern as Memphians or New Orleanians.
Houston billed itself as “the Magnolia City” from about 1870 to 1920. From about 1900 to 1915, the city was home to a much more historically accurate yearly municipal celebration. That would be the NoTsuOh shindig (that’s Houston spelled backwards, in case you’re confused). Based on Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Mobile, each year a local bigwig was crowned King Nottoc (again, they were really into spelling words backwards) and allowed to preside over a procession of ornate, horse-drawn floats with themes like “The Shrine of Venus,” “The Home of the Butterflies,” and “The Victory of the Amazons.” Nary a buckaroo was in sight at these festivals.
“I don’t think anyone much questioned Texas’s essential Southernness until the twentieth century,” says Dr. Gregg Cantrell, Texas history chair at TCU, past president of the Texas State Historical Association, and a member of the Texas Institute of Letters. “And they started doing so as a way of distancing themselves from the late unpleasantness of the 1860’s and 1870’s. Defeat, military occupation, Jim Crow and lynching, and all of those unpleasant things that are very much a part of Texas history as a Southern state, were things that a lot of Texans would probably just as soon not talk about a lot.”