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Madmen, Scoundrels and Fools

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Happy Texas Independence Day!

I know that most of you out there probably don’t celebrate this momentous holiday when the Republic of Texas threw off the shackles of Mexican rule and assumed its just place among the powers of the earth and began a bloody struggle for freedom. But it’s a holiday here in Texas – at least for state employees – and in many ways it is a day worth remembering, if only because of the unique personalities associated with the struggle to make all Texans free.

The establishment of Texas as an independet republic was in many ways an act of desperation by people who had moved into Mexican territory with unrealistic expectations that the US government would come in and ‘liberate’ them the way that they had settlers in Florida in the 1820s. The chaotic situation in Mexico and the rapid growth of Texas attracted opportunists and scoundrels of every stripe, all of them looking for a way to make a fortune or a legend. For many of them that seemed increasingly difficult under the repressive Mexican government. Add to that the fact that successive Mexican administrations had been exiling all their dissidents to Texas and you had an explosive situation where everyone with land, an education or any ambition in Texas wanted radical change and wanted it quickly. A succession of weak administrations in the United States proved unwilling or unable to step in and resolve the situation as Andrew Jackson had done in Florida. Well, the ill-fated Tyler administration tried, but when the USS Princeton arrived at Galveston with the US ambassador on board they fired off a greeting shot from one of their cannon and it blew up and shredded the ambassador who was standing on deck next to it – a perfect microcosm of Tyler’s presidency. So with no help coming, Texans decided to take measures into their own hands.

The opportunity embodied in the chaotic frontier dynamic attracted adventurers from all over to the cause of liberating Texas. Rather than go through the whole history of the war – go watch The Alamo if you want dry history – I thought I’d illuminate a few of the most colorful characters of the period and look at some aspects of their lives which aren’t necessarily remembered by those who like to keep the legend of the Texas Republic unsullied.

Jim Bowie started his career as a slave trader in Louisiana, working with legendary pirate Jean Lafitte to bring slaves out of Louisiana and sell them in Texas. It was during this early career that Bowie acquired his famous custom-made fighting knife and his name has been attached to knives in a similar style ever since. Bowie moved into Texas looking for larger opportunities and began speculating in land, buying land claims from local Mexicans and selling bogus land titles from Arkansas to unsuspecting westerners. To advance his political prospects, he courted and married the daughter of the Mexican governor of Texas, converted to Catholicism and became a Mexican citizen. During this period he launched a variety of money making schemes, including trying to start a textile milling industry in San Antonio and searching for mythical silver mines in the area around San Saba. Bowie earned quite a reputation as an indian fighter, but was reluctant to command regular troops as the Texas Revolution broke out. Nonetheless he was persuaded to take command of the small contingent of troops at the Alamo with the objective of stopping Santa Ana’s advance into Texas. His role at the Alamo was limited because he had contracted Pneumonia as a symptom of Yellow Fever and was bedridden and dying throughout the siege. Although most commonly remembered for his knife, Bowie was basically a con man and specualtor, a slave trader, an associate of pirates, a sometime professional gambler, and a very slick character with a lot of ambition whose career which was cut short by going against his own best judgement and accepting command of the Alamo.

William B. Travis was a lawyer and failed newspaper publisher from Sout Carolina who moved to East Texas in the 1820s, abandonning his wife and children. He basically hated Mexicans and the Mexican government. He was a bizarrely contentious man who was always looking for a fight. One time during a trial he pulled a knife on the opposing lawyer and threatened his life, though that incedent ended embarassingly since the other lawyer had a gun. Travis was a sex addict who had relations with scores of women and maintained a log book of every woman he had sex with in which he wrote critiques and ratings of the experience. He made it his personal mission to precipitate a war between Texas and Mexico by any means possible. To this end, before the Texas Revolution broke out he raised a private army sailed it down the coast into northern Mexico and began raiding, pillaging and burning Mexican villages, disappearing by boat before the Mexican army could respond. In the course of these raids he and his men raped and murdered numerous Mexican civilians and seemed to make great sport of the activity. Because other Texas leaders saw the volatile Tavis as a liability to their cause, he was sent to share command of the Alamo with Bowie. At the time Travis already knew he was dying of the last stages of syphillis and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to go out in a blaze of glory.

Davy Crockett came to Texas late in his career. He was drawn to the Texas Revolution because there was nothing else going on, he was getting old, and people were starting to forget about him despite his shameless self-promotion. Some have criticized Crockett as being somewhat dimwitted, but I prefer to think that he had just become delusional. Crockett had been the great folk figure of the early 1800s and was one of the first men to be immortalized as a semi-fictional character in his own lifetime by being written about in a series of ‘penny dreadful’ novels which took the nuggets of his genuine frontier adventures and inflated them into legendary tales of almost superhuman heroism. Crockett’s problem was that he had been reading his own press – or more likely having it read to him, as he was barely literate – and had come to believe that he was the legendary superman rather than the resourceful frontiersman who had inspired the literary character. So when he heard that reporters were gathering in Texas – and it was one of the first wars to have newspaper reporters sending back stories from the field – he figured that was where he needed to be to revitalize his once-lucrative career as a touring living legend. The catch with this plan was that the place to earn the most legend points was The Alamo, and neither Travis nor Bowie had bothered to tell him that no one was getting out alive, perhaps because they were both dying and it wasn’t a major consideration for them.

Sam Houston built on the sacrifice of Bowie, Crockett and Travis at the Alamo and won the Texas Revolution. He won against ridiculous odds, outsmarted and outmaneuvered Santa Ana at every turn, and did it with untrained, undisciplined and contentious troops. Houston was a genius and many would argue that he was also stark raving mad. He was born in Virginia and moved out to the western frontier at a very early age where he lived among the Cherokee Indians. He had no formal education, but learned to read and write and became surprisingly literate. He began his public career as a military protege of Andrew Jackson, and fought with him in several Indian wars. He then spent 13 years off and on living among indians on the frontier, taking an Indian wife and essentially going native. Then, at the urging of Jackson he ran for governor of Tennessee, served in that office and then served a term in Congress where he became famous for his interminable speeches. After an incedent where he beat another congressman into unconsciousness with his cane Houston decided to move to Texas and eventually joined up and ended up leading the Texas Revolution. In the course of this varied career Houston became a practicing bigamist, marrying a white woman mainly for political purposes while still married to his Cherokee wife. The marriage was short lived because apparently Houston’s sexual practices were so abhorent to his wife that after one night together she refused to even live in the same house with him. Houston was also famous for his penchant for dressing in womens clothing, particularly expensive lingerie which he had imported from France. This was apparently a practice acquired from the Cherokee who liked to decorate their clothing with lace and fancy fabric accents. Houston would wear girdles, corsets and other items of lingerie on the outside of his clothing, a practice which must have raised a few eyebrows, but which was overlooked in the wake of his great military successes.

Houston summed up the nature of the men who founded Texas when he said “All new states are invested, more or less, by a class of noisy, second-rate men who are always in favor of rash and extreme measures, but Texas was absolutely overrun by such men.” He clearly had the measure of men like Travis, Bowie and Crockett and a hundred lesser known men of similar character. Strange he may have been, but Houston was also remarkably perceptive, and his leadership in war and in the early years of statehood kept Texas free and politically functional despite all the ambitious fools and scoundrels who infested it. Ironically, at the end of his life while he was dying of tuberculosis, he fell into disfavor with many in Texas because he supported the Union against the Confederacy and argued that Texas had joined the wrong side in the war.

So when you hear that popular slogan “Don’t Mess With Texas,” remember that these are the men whose spiritual descendants you’ll be messing with, and you never know when a later day Travis will flip out and start a revolution.

Dave

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About Dave Nalle

  • http://www.antequeravillarental.com alienboy

    What a surprisingly fascinating article! Thanks to you Mr Nalle.

    I wonder how the current Texan leet think of Sam Houston and the others?

    I wish there were more like Houston around in the contemporary political scene.

    Hmm, I wonder if the current low levels of voter turnout are because the politicians are essentially boring?

    Houston’s honesty and intelligence are particularly striking.

    Did he found the city of Houston or did it come later? And does the city reflect his personality? lol

    Thanks again Dave, great work

  • http://www.diablog.us Dave Nalle

    Actually, Houston was outraged by the idea that they might name a city out of him, absolutely forbade it, and so they waited until after he was dead and did it anyway.

    Dave

  • Eric Olsen

    history rules, even in Texas, known the world over for beers steers and queers – quite fascinating, thanks Dave!

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    I have to make some use of my now mostly superfluous years of training as a historian, so it comes out in my blogging from time to time.

    Dave

  • SFC SKI

    I lived in Texas for a few years, and there is surely a lot of history there, most of it very interesting. Do any other states besides Texas teach their own history as a course?

  • sydney

    Most of us certainly don’t “mess with texas.”… for fear of getting killed and raped up the bum. ‘Its real ruff country down thar.’

  • SFC SKI

    Sydney, if I’d written what you wrote above about another country, you’d be all over shouting about how ignorant Americans are.

  • http://www.diablog.us Dave Nalle

    Ironically, when Sydeny writes that about Texas most Texans will take it as a mark of pride and nod sagely. Texans are like Americans, only moreso.

    And yes, some other states do have state history requirements, though usually one semester rather than the 2 we have here in Texas.

    Dave

  • sydney

    …unless I thought it was clearly just a joke, as my comments were, in which case I would laugh heartily and move on.

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ

    “I lived in Texas for a few years”

    Wichita Falls?

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ

    “Do any other states besides Texas teach their own history as a course?”

    Florida does. It’s mostly about Spainiards and Native Americans. St. Augustine, Cedar Key, etc.

  • Eric Olsen

    I recall a lot on California history back in elementary school – those missions and all that

  • http://www.antequeravillarental.com alienboy

    i hated history at school but have come to realise the benefits of knowing some of our collective back story. posts like this help to bring history alive.

  • JR

    Nassim Nicholas Taleb said it best: “We are good at fitting explanations to the past, all the while living in the illusion of understanding the dynamics of history.”

    “My claim is about the severe overestimation of knowledge in what I call the ‘ex post’ historical disciplines, meaning almost all of social science (economics, sociology, political science) and the humanities, everything that depends on the non-experimental analysis of past data. I am convinced that these disciplines do not provide much understanding of the world or even their own subject matter; they mostly fit a nice sounding narrative that caters to our desire (even need) to have a story… You do not gain much by reading the newspapers, history books, analyses and economic reports; all you get is misplaced confidence about what you know. The difference between a cab driver and a history professor is only cosmetic as the latter can express himself in a better way.”

    …Give or take the odd particularly juvenile history professor.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    IMO teaching history is entertainment of a sort. It’s telling stories about things that happened in our past – the kind of thing that tribal storytellers would have done around the campfire a thousand years ago, but now you have to get a degree and you get paid for doing basically the same thing.

    Dave

  • SFC SKI

    no, JR, the difference is that a cab driver dives a cab, and a history teacher teaches history. I will admit that most history follows a certain narrative thread, it has to because every step is a step toward something but away from something else, and each footfal sends ripples that effect change on everything else somewhere down the line. That is why hisotry for young children is a bit streamlined, to get to the end you have to get started and move forward, not stopping to look at every little thing. In something as specific as the history of Texas, you could teach it every year of a child’s school life, examining a different aspect or angle, and still not get it all. Now expand that to US history, Western Civ, or world history and see what a challenge, and what a rich field it is.
    I love history, but it takes a good teacher to spark a person of any age into loving it.

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