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.”
Nationally, Dixie was stigmatized as a backward, ignorant, and violent hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan and religious hypocrisy. Why remain linked to all that baggage? Why not, forward-looking Texans began to think, align with the West instead? Back then, and to a certain degree today, the West was seen as optimistic, the place of second chances, the land of the golden tomorrow, a stark contrast when compared to Dixie’s melancholy and tragic yesterdays. So Texas’s politicians, educators, and ad-men went to work, Cantrell says, and have since all but totally recast the very ideal of what it means to be a Texan.
“And so what do you do? You play up the frontier, you play up the Texas Revolution and the Alamo, you play up the (in reality not-very-glorious) ten years of the Texas Republic, and then you talk about the Indian Wars and the cattle drives, all culminating in Spindletop and the discovery of oil,” he says. “All of these things made Texas seem like anything but a Southern state.”
Cantrell traces the first outlines of this marketing campaign to the turn of the century, but believes it started to kick into high gear during the governorship of Oscar Colquitt (1911-1915). “He just went crazy authorizing the building of monuments to pioneer leaders and heroes of the Texas Revolution. And you see it reflected in textbooks and all sorts of other places.” To paraphrase the last line in John Sayles’s Lone Star, Texas leaders made the conscious decision to “forget Gettysburg.”
Fortunately for the backers of this plan, there was some meat to the myth they were selling. The so-called Lost Cause so sighed over by Southerners is depressing compared to the Texas Revolution. Who needs the doomed valor of Pickett’s Charge when Texas’s darkest moment was redeemed decisively weeks later at San Jacinto? The ruthless Santa Anna made for a better villain than Grant, Sherman, and Lincoln combined.
“I don’t want to oversimplify any interpretive theme but I really subscribe to the idea that the notion of Texas as a Western state, when you really boil it down to its essence, it’s really been part and parcel of what is now a hundred-years-and-running effort to escape what C. Vann Woodward called ‘the burden of Southern history,’” says Cantrell.
Although the Texas Revolution has captured the national’s eye from time to time, it’s been mostly used for internal consumption. To captivate non-Texans, early twentieth-century Texas leaders had much more success with cowboy lore. Which is strange in its own right. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, polite Texans regarded cowboys with contempt, viewing them as unlettered ruffians with dirty jobs. In fact, evidence of this disdain for cowboy culture comes from my own great-grandfather John Avery Lomax, who claimed that his first attempt at gaining wider attention for the cowboy songs he had collected as a child in Bosque County was cruelly rebuffed. According to the story he related in his 1934 autobiography, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, in the late 1890’s English professor Morgan Callaway told him that the songs were “tawdry, cheap, and unworthy,” whereupon Lomax took his manuscript behind Brackenridge Hall and set it on fire. That reception markedly shifted a few years later when my great-grandfather attended Harvard, where professors Barrett Wendell and George Lyman Kittredge encouraged him to collect the songs and their stories, a project that led to the publication of his first book, Cowboy Songs and Frontier Ballads. The book also captivated former Harvard man Theodore Roosevelt, whose hand-written introduction for it endorsed it as a “work emphatically worth doing and one which should appeal to the people of all our country.”
But the book was just one bullet in a cattle country fusillade that romanticized cowboys as chivalrous knights-errant and exemplars of rugged American individualism. As pointed out by Austin College Texas history professor Light Cummins, author J. Frank Dobie’s works focused on the brush and the desert, the vaquero and the cowpoke, not the cottonfield or the plantation master. The regionalist imperative seized visual art at around the same time and found its Texan master in Tom Lea, maestro of Big Bend mountains, cacti, and skies.
Musicians like Bob Wills slapped on a cowboy hat, buckled on a pistol belt, ladled on the blues, and sprinkled on a few Mexican tinges to the hillbilly music of the Texas past and created Western swing. (Back in those days, there really were two kinds of music: country and western, and there remains a schism between earthy Texas country and its more polished Nashville cousin today.)
Those trends percolated from the bottom up. There was also a top-down imperative, coming from the state’s business leaders, politicians, and history professors, who began to cast the settlement of Texas in terms of the settling of the American West, rather than the expansion of the slaveocracy. All of this culminated, in Cummins’s view, at the 1936 Texas Centennial celebration, in Dallas. In those pre-mass media days, such events—this was sort of a World’s Fair of Texas, with dignitaries and tourists coming from all over American and the world—were the best way to advertise and get your audience “on message.”
And in 1936, that message was essentially, “Welcome To Texas, We Are Not the South,” all at the behest of a purpose-built state entity called the Centennial Board of Control. Its mission: to secede Texas from the lingering remnants of the Confederacy. (Note the absence of the Confederate flag in the poster above.)
In Cummins’s essay “History, Memory and Rebranding Texas for the 1936 Centennial,” he writes that they were to seize “the opportunity to highlight Texas progress to the rest of the nation and thus advance the state’s commercial prospects,” via showcasing Texas as Western and not Southern.
Cummins points out that the Art Deco architecture at Dallas’s Fair Park (built for the Centennial) was an intentional distancing from Dixie modes, one that sent the message that Texas was keeping up with the times and not harking back to the past of Greco-Roman columns and such. The Tom Lea murals and a thicket of cowboy statuary played up the Western theme, and the likenesses of the heroes of the Texas Revolution like Houston, Fannin, and Austin were presented in frontier attire, rather than the frilly suits the men actually wore. The event’s logo featured, in Cummins’s words, “ten-gallon hats, six-shooters, high-heeled boots, Texas Rangers, bluebonnets, and sex,” the last nodding to the cowgirls and Rangerettes on parade.
And it worked. Journalists returned to New York and Chicago and filed copy about their trip out West. At the same time, Texans came to view themselves more Western than Southern. Or a mixture of both. Or neither.
After all, Texas is just different. It always has been. There’s a certain unity to Southern culture stretching from Virginia all the way to the Mississippi River. Most of Dixie is African American and English and Scots-Irish, whereas Texas always had significant number of Tejanos and Mexican Americans, Cajuns and Creoles, and Germans and Slavs. Texas is the only former Confederate state with an international frontier, and the only one with mythic western landscapes and mountainous deserts. Chili, Tex-Mex, and chicken-frieds: the Carolinas do none of these well. Of the former Confederate states, only Louisiana stands as much varied from the rest, and thanks to its border with Texas, it has long contributed to Texas’s straying from the cultural norms of, say, Tennessee and Arkansas.
But for most Texans, reveling in cowboy culture as a birthright or ancestral heritage is a fiction. Dallas was never a city of Mavericks, Mustangs, or Cowboys, and though ever a violent city, Houston nodded to reality when it changed the name of its baseball team from the Colt .45s to the Astros. (When Major League Soccer came to town, “Houston 1836” was shot down as the team name due to protests that honoring the Texas Revolution was insensitive to Hispanics.)
Houston’s gargantuan rodeo celebration is perhaps even more out of sync with its history as it is with its present and future, considering it’s now a cosmopolitan metropolis in which more than ninety languages are spoken.
“When modern Texans in cities such as Houston put on their boots and Stetsons and head for the rodeo or hearken back to the days of movie westerns that portrayed their state as cowboys, rustlers, and gunfighters, they are drawing on a collective memory that, although it has a basis in fact, is not the essence of Texas,” writes historian Randolph B. Campbell.
“In so many fundamental ways, Texas has so much in common with the Deep South,” he says. “All you have to do is look at our regulations, look at our politics. We certainly have a lot more in common with Mississippi than we do with California, alright?”
(Texas history mural: Texas State Library; “Southwest” mural by Tom Lea, 1956, El Paso Public Library, via Wikipedia; Centennial poster: Briscoe Center for American History, UT-Austin.)