God made man — but Texas made Texans


Viceroyalty of New Spain (partial)

In 1820, Tejas (Texas) was a province of New Spain.  In that year, the population of Hispanics living in Texas was around 1,700 — mainly concentrated in San Antonio, but with a spattering of people also living in Nacogdoches and Goliad.  In two hundred years, the population of Texas has grown to more than 29-million.  It would be somewhat of an understatement to say that the story of Texas is one of human migration.

Spain’s Problem

Within the Spanish Empire, a viceroy was an official who governed in the name of and as the representative of the King of Spain.  The word, literally translated from Latin, means “In the place of the King.”  The Viceroyalty of New Spain involved a massive territory that included present-day Mexico, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, parts of Louisiana, Central America, the northern part of South America, and the Pacific Ocean archipelagos of the Philippines Islands, and Guam.  It was more land than Spain could populate or control through military conquest or colonial settlements.

Spanish officials were well aware of their problems, but they simply did not have the resources to address them.  Given the isolation of San Antonio and surrounding areas, few Spaniards were interested in settling in Texas, particularly given the frequency of Indian hostilities and Spain’s inability to protect them.

In most other areas of its New World expeditions, Spain was quite successful in conquering native populations and subordinating them to the will of the Spanish Crown — but this was not the case in Texas.  Fifty-thousand Comanche Indians living within the vast region of the Comancheria represented the most lethal and fearless mounted force in the entire area of North America’s Southwest.

Traditionally, Spain prohibited foreign settlement within its overseas territories — but the frequency of Comanche raids against Spanish settlements prompted officials to consider the proposal of their subject, Missouri resident Moses Austin.  Señor Austin suggested, given the inability of Spain to establish colonies in Texas with Spaniards, that Viceroyalty officials allow him to develop Anglo-American colonies there.  With the caveat that Moses guarantee the excellent reputation and industriousness of all American colonists and provided that they become good citizens of Mexico and convert to Catholicism, Spanish officials granted Austin’s request.  American settlers in Texas might, after all, provide a solution to New Spain’s problem.  They could, for example, transform the harsh land into productive farms.  And, if anyone had to contend with Indian hostilities, better Anglos than Spaniards.

Following Mexico’s war of independence from Spain, Mexican officials continued Spain’s colonization plan, granting contracts to American impresarios who would settle and supervise “qualified” immigrants.  Anglo migrations took place between 1821-1835.[1]

The Immigrants

Anglo settlers had several reasons for migrating to Texas.

  • At the top of this list was the availability of cheap land.  In 1821, the cost of undeveloped land in the United States was $1.25 per acre, with a minimum purchase of 80 acres ($100.00) payable at the time of purchase.  The present value of $100.00 in 1821 is $2,276.00.  But in Texas, each head of a family could claim a headright of 4,600 acres of grazing land and one labor (177 acres) of irrigable farmland at the cost of 4¢ per acre, payable over six years (total purchase price, $191.08).  Texas, therefore, was far more attractive to late-wave migrants to the United States.  First, the new arrivals didn’t have the cash for land purchases, and second, earlier arrivals claimed most of the desirable land east of the Appalachian Mountains.
  • The economic depression following the War of 1812 propelled thousands of migrants westward, making their way from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri into Texas.  Some scholars claim that the most significant period of immigration in Texas occurred between 1840-41 (others claim that didn’t happen until after the American Civil War).
  • Many Texas immigrants believed (or hoped) that the United States would purchase East Texas from Mexico one day.  If that happened, they reasoned, annexation would stimulate further migration, which in turn would provide them with buyers for their cheaply purchased lands.
  • The United States and Mexico had no reciprocal agreement governing outlaws.  Some immigrants moved to Texas to avoid debtors’ prisons and arrest warrants from other states.

Slavery was illegal in Mexico, but that didn’t stop southern slave-owners from taking bonded people to Texas.  Part of the problem was that corrupt Mexican politicians closed their eyes to slavery because they were eager to enrich themselves from the cotton trade.  Slavery was the only way Texas planters could sustain labor-intensive cotton production.

It wasn’t only Americans who were interested in migrating to Texas.  The largest non-American ethnic group in Texas were Germans, whose migrations began in 1830.  By 1850, many Germans had relocated to Texas, which some scholars now claim exceeded five percent of the overall population[2].

The economy badly needed people; to get them, Texas officials used every possible inducement to increase immigration.  The effort had nothing to do with expansion, race, or land; it was because Texas was currency deprived.  Texas existed from one year to the next based on a credit economy that hedged the future value of land, of which there was plenty.  Credit economies must expand to survive.  By encouraging immigration, the state, merchants, and landowners profited.  A concerted effort to draw people into Texas began in the 1830s.   Similar efforts continue to this very day.

The Hard Life

People who migrated to Texas in the 1820s and 1830s understood the risks.  The Empresarios were interested in colonizing Texas, but they didn’t need people who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) stand up to the challenges.  The immigrants already knew about back-breaking work, and they knew about the danger of hostile Indians.  They realized that starvation was possible.  In this respect, they undertook their journey with their eyes wide open — but they may not have known about the painful and deadly diseases.

The success of these Texans offers a sharp contrast between the Anglo-Texan and the Tejano-Mexican who preceded him. Not every immigrant survived, but those who did survive developed unique attitudes about life.  They were willful, stubborn, opinionated, and generally full of themselves.  They may not have always been right about issues, but they weren’t quitters, and if they believed in something strongly enough, they’d fight for it.

Porfirio Diaz

As a case in point, José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori (known to most as Porfirio Diaz) (1830-1915) was a Mexican general who served seven terms as President of Mexico.  He was a veteran of the so-called War of Reform (1858-60) and the Second French Intervention (1861-67).  After Benito Juarez’s[3] election to the presidency in 1868, Diaz resigned from his military office and retired to his home in Oaxaca.  Between 1871-76, Diaz found himself at odds with Juarez and his successor, Lerdo de Tejada.  When Diaz’s second rebellion failed in 1876, he fled to Brownsville, Texas.

While living in Texas, General Diaz made many Anglo friends — landowners, merchants, and political bosses who were suitably impressed with his intelligence and insight into Mexico’s problems.  The extraordinary thing about Diaz was that he enjoyed the support of both Tejanos and Anglos alike.  When Diaz crossed back into Mexico, President Tejada immediately relinquished his presidency and sought a safer place to live.  It was probably a wise decision; Señor Diaz was not known for his forbearance in matters of politics.

Given his long tenure as President of Mexico, Diaz remains a controversial figure in Mexican history.  From the Texan point of view, however, he was precisely what Mexico needed when they needed it.  Some today may even wish another man as capable as Diaz would step to the plate. 

Whatever the Diaz regime meant to Mexicans over three decades, his presidency was a blessing for Texans from the outset.  As with former president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, Diaz knew that he could not abolish the power of the aristocracy through liberal policies.  Like Santa Anna, Diaz turned away from his liberalist tendencies to develop practical alliances.  Unlike President Santa Anna, however, Diaz knew that the balance of power in North America had shifted toward the United States. He realized that his success in Mexico would depend on maintaining good relations with the Norte Americanos.  He once observed, “Mexico is too far from God and too close to the United States.”

Upon returning to Mexico, Diaz focused his efforts to consolidate his power.  As with every caudillo, he relatively soon, in this process, began to remove those who might later oppose his regime and even enlisted the United States government to help him accomplish it.  Joint Mexican American military operations were organized against hostile Indians, bandits, and rebels (there being little difference between the latter two)[4].

Diaz ruled in Mexico until 1911.  Texans viewed this period as a “golden age” in Mexico.  According to his Anglo backers, he ruled with great wisdom, foresight, and patriotism.  Under Diaz, life in South Texas improved — owing to his unmerciful crackdown on murderous bandits.  Moreover, Diaz believed that there was only one way to rule people when eighty percent were ignorant peasants: with an iron hand.  This worked for Diaz, and it seems to have worked out well for many of his successors, as well.

Herein lies our contrast between Texans and Mexicans: no true Texan will allow anyone to rule him without their consent.  In Mexico, the choice of the people has always been one between order and chaos.  In Texas, the only options are freedom or death.  A Texan will never tolerate tyranny if he understands it exists — a consistent and predominant character trait since 1835.  No two men epitomize this attitude more than Leander (Lee) McNelly or John B. Jones of the Texas Rangers.  Their efforts to remove hostiles, bandits, and murderous thugs from Texas soil became part of the story of Texas and the Texans themselves.

McNelly and Jones were widely known in Texas in their own time.  McNelly was widely loved and respected by hard-working farmers and ranchers, Jones less so.  Jones was an East Texas aristocrat, and he acted and dressed the part.  McNelly was a bit on the scruffy side, which is what happens when you spend months on the back of a horse in South Texas.  Jones was described as “small, handsome, and elegant.”  Most Texans couldn’t identify with this kind of Ranger but make no mistake: Jones was not someone to underestimate. 

By the mid-1870s, Texas endured thirty years of border wars, civil war, reconstruction, Indian depredations, dangerous outlaws, and the emergence of the biggest crooks of all: the cattle barons.  For three decades, the Texas Frontier stood as a clearly defined line, north to south.  Then in 1875, after the Indian Wars, the Texas frontier acquired an immense new dimension in breadth and depth.  Cattle interests, once confined to east and south Texas, seemed to burst outward toward West Texas —and there was nothing about this phenomenon that improved social cohesion in Texas.

Texas Rangers went from fighting hostile Indians and border-area Mexican bandits to policing an enormous frontier area.  Policing was a far more difficult job because, after 1875[5], the “enemy” was not so easily defined[6].

As with every former confederate state, the Civil War brought substantial changes to Texas.  Gone were the cotton plantations with Negro slaves, but ignoring the harshness of Reconstruction, almost everyone continued to live as they had in 1860.  Thousands of small farms in east and central Texas continued raising cotton and corn.  Most farmers had a few cows or sheep, some hogs, and domestic fowl.  The smarter folk had gardens to feed themselves; they used corn to provide their livestock and cotton cash.  Because money was scarce, Texans resorted to bartering bacon for denim or smoked hams for flour.  The game was still plentiful in Texas in 1870, of course, so most families served themselves venison, duck, turkey, wild hogs, and squirrels.  Farmers still used oxen to plow their fields, seeds were planted by hand, and furniture for the homestead was handmade.  Texas was rural.  How rural?  It was so rural that the largest county in Texas in 1870 had no economically significant towns.

The harsh reality of Texas in the 1870s was that it was not a healthful place to live, particularly along the Gulf coast and especially among the simple people.  Cholera, typhus, and yellow fever were widespread, with frequent epidemics of cholera.  Typhus was brought to Texas by European immigrants; German settlements, such as at New Braunfels and Fredericksburg, were ravaged by the disease.  Influenza killed thousands.  Common treatments included laudanum, boiled peyote water, brandy, cayenne pepper, and mustard.  Some people wore copper amulets to ward off disease, none of which were very effective —except, perhaps, brandy taken in large doses.  However, educated Texans were able to associate cholera with filth and took preventative steps to protect themselves.  Yellow fever and malaria were the worst, however.  At Fort Brown (present-day Brownsville), some two thousand soldiers died from yellow fever (then called yellow jack); the worst epidemic occurred in 1882.

Moreover, Texas land was an exasperating challenge to everyone, but especially along the western frontier.  True, Texas land was beautiful to look at, but it is also challenging to produce a living on this land.  In the 1870s, two factors made this so:

            First, in the post-war period, farmers could not find the labor they needed to plant and harvest crops.  To solve this problem, having learned nothing from their experience with slavery, some Texas officials argued for the importation of Chinese.  A few Chinese were brought to Texas to work as farm laborers, but most of these people were too clever to take up that thankless burden.  When Chinese importation didn’t work, state officials began a campaign to bring in ruined whites from the post-Reconstruction south.  They envisioned that these people would become tenant laborers on the idle cotton fields or homesteaders in the western lands[7].  One popular myth that aided the campaign was that everyone who moved to Texas became a wealthy landowner.  Most of the people who showed up in Texas were from Tennessee and Georgia.

            Second, the climate and weather patterns in Texas made land production extremely difficult.  People who migrated to Texas thinking of it as the land of milk and honey were sorely disappointed.  No matter how good the farmers and ranchers were, they could not make it rain or stop raining, and they could not control the devastating storms that ravaged the Texas plain.  Moreover, they didn’t understand the ecology of the Great Plains.  There was a joke in Texas: a teenager commented to a stranger that he’d seen snow once; his younger brother piped up with, “Yeah, and it rained once, too.”

Uninformed migrants could plow the land, but they couldn’t sufficiently irrigate it to maintain crop growth over the long term.  Environmental conditions were so bad in some locations that entire families starved to death.  Many of these late immigrants had placed their entire stake and hopes for the future on what state publicists told them; it turned out to be a very sharp —very severe learning curve.

Ten thousand people bound for Texas passed through Memphis, Tennessee, in 1870-71.  By 1872, 100,000 newly arrived white immigrants lived in Texas.  Economic conditions in the United States pushed double that number into Texas in the year after that.  The arrival of whites lowered the percentage of freed blacks living in Texas; it pushed these people further down the economic ladder.  Blacks were forced back to the back-breaking conditions of field labor, but this time as desperately poor tenant farmers/sharecroppers.  They were joined there by poor whites, who also became sharecroppers.  For many, if not most of these immigrants, Texas became a devastating disappointment.

Famers weren’t alone in this depressing environment; there was yet another tragedy[8].  The explosion of the cattle industry divided cattlemen into two categories: the cattle kings and everyone else who owned cattle.  The wealthy landowners/cattlemen, often backed by foreign investors, drove the small cattleman off the land and out of business.  And then, of course, there was the invention of barbed wire[9].  It was probably barbed wire that changed Texas more than any other historical event.  Cattlemen used it to close off the “free-range,” but farmers used it too to protect their crops from roaming mavericks.  Barbed wire changed the role of the Texas cowboy forever; it took him off the backs of their horses and (as one old hand once observed) into a life of wading in cow shit.  With closed ranges and railroad systems in place, there was no longer a need for prolonged cattle drives or men to move them along the dusty trail.      

Ultimately, although many thousands of people migrated to Texas, many of whom were defeated by its harsh climate, weather patterns, numerous floods, alternately prolonged droughts, pestilence, disease, bandits, outlaws, and murdering hostile Indians.  The most potent enemy of all may have been the Texas economy, which just as effectively destroyed struggling families.  The people who remained in Texas, who weathered it all, became — and remain Texans.  Their willfulness, sturdiness, and steadfast refusal to quit are what we most admire and prefer to remember about these people —these Lone Star Texans, who were among the toughest of our ancestors.


  1. Webb, W. P.  The Great Plains.  Boston: Ginn Publishing, 1931.
  2. Fehrenbach, T. R.  Lone Star: The History of Texas and Texans.  Kindle Online.
  3. Clifton, R. T.  Barbs, Prongs, Points, Prickers, and Stickers.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.
  4. McCallum, H. D., and Frances T. McCallum.  The Wire That Fenced the West.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.


[1] Texas settlement wasn’t the first time Spain opened up its territory to Anglos.  In 1790, white settlers were invited to settle Upper Louisiana (Missouri) for much the same reasons.

[2] In 1990, there were 2.9 million Germans living in Texas, of either those claiming direct or indirect ancestry, or about 18% of the total population.  There were also immigrants from Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and Italy.  

[3] Modern-day Mexicans regard Benito Juarez as a hero of the Republic of Mexico—a progressive reformer dedicated to democratic ideals on behalf of the Mexican people.  Advocating for liberal reform is one thing; seeing it through to fruition is quite another.  At the time of Juarez’s untimely death (a heart attack), the nation lacked democratic and institutional stability.  Vice President Tejada was no improvement.  Principally non-Mexican historians regard Juarez as a failure because he did not deliver on his promise to “save” Mexico from itself.  His unfulfilled promises left the Mexican people hopeless and dispirited.  Juarez left the peons behind in 1872—their situation remains much unchanged even today.

[4] In one instance, Diaz arrested and ordered shot the notorious bandit (and rebel) Juan Nepomuceño Cortinas.  Cortinas did declare his loyalty to Diaz, but Diaz knew that Cortinas was untrustworthy.  Cortinas would have been executed were it not for the intervention of former Texas Ranger Major John “Rip” Ford.  Thus, rather than sending Cortinas to the afterlife, Diaz instead had Cortinas placed under house arrest, where he remained until his death in 1892.

[5] Reconstruction ended in 1877.

[6] Scholars identify three aspects of the old Texas Rangers that made them unique: their esprit de corps, their ruthlessness, and how deeply they were admired by the people of Texas.  There is a popular signpost in Texas that speaks to more than roadside cleanliness: Don’t Mess with Texas.  If one has it in their minds to “mess with a Texan,” then the best advice would be to bring along a lunch.  It’ll be a long confrontation.  This prevalent attitude in Texas may be a reason why so many people have uprooted and moved there.

[7] Texas officials needed whites to populate former Indian lands.  Several Texas counties were organized before there were any whites to live in them.

[8] State officials and railroad barons conspired to conceal the truth about West Texas and state newspapers rarely commented on true weather/climate patterns.  Rather than reporting on the scarcity of rain in a particular region of Texas, journalists simply stated that the area was “less humid” this year.  The draughts often lasted seven to ten years, interspersed by a few years of plentiful rain.  The word “arid” was never used.

[9] See also: Ira Aten and The Texas Fence-Cutting Wars.  Fencing materials were in short supply in West Texas and it was expensive to bring in wood posts, and backbreaking work to dislodge stone.  Hedging wouldn’t grow in the arid west and best of all, Barbed Wire was cheap and durable.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in CIVIL WAR, FRONTIER, HISTORY, LONE STAR, NATIVES, OUTLAWS. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to God made man — but Texas made Texans

  1. Mustang says:

    Posted to me via email from my good friend Andy, whose ancestors were among the early Texans:

    Without question, one of my favorite essays. Early Texas history has a flavor seldom found In other areas. I think you brought this out vividly in this piece. Well done, my friend, very well done.

    Be well and stay safe.


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