Thoughts and Perspectives

The Nature of History, History as Entity vs. Example, and Texas History

Teaching Texas History for the first time this semester has provided much to think about, especially questions revolving around both “What is Texas History?” and “What makes something ‘Texas History’”?

Another way of looking at these questions is to ask, what gives a place its own history?

Take the boundaries of the geopolitical area called “Texas.” Unlike boundaries in European nations or even pre-contact Indian settlements—which were fought over and defended and the result of years and years and years of slow building and which resulted in various alliances and conflict groups—the boundaries in Texas were artificially (i.e., politically) created by pen and paper one day.

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Parts of Louisiana, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming were part of the geopolitical area claimed as “Texas” at some point. (The coast of Texas was originally part of Florida, too!) Last night I googled, “when Colorado was part of Texas” and got this interesting result. This article brings up interesting questions about what it really means to be a Texan. Consider how different Texas is to someone living in Houston v. El Paso v. Brownsville v. Amarillo v. Dallas (v. Fort Worth!) v. Midland. Texas is a huge place with many identities and peoples. The default narratives of Texas History (the myths) leave much out.

Some of these areas and boundaries were disputed, but the United States stole everything it claimed and more from Mexico during the Mexican American War of 1846-1848. The Compromise of 1850 gave Texas its present-day shape, but this could have easily been different.

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While the southern border with the Rio Grande is a true example of a borderland and how areas frequently develop political boundaries, not so much for the rest of Texas. How does the subjective nature in which Texas came into existence challenge what we call Texas History and what is the domain of Texas history?

A similar problem also occurs when we look at the shape of counties. Most are just square boxes. These do not represent any kind of human boundary created for reasons that typically result in boundaries when looking at the course of World History.

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Straight lines and ninety degree angles are rarely meaningful when it comes to discussions of human differences and associated causes and effects! These boundaries do not represent blood and tears for hopes and fears.

Another question I have been thinking about is Texas History as the study of examples of what happened in Texas, compared to Texas History where Texas is its own entity per se. For example, the KKK and destruction of Native Americans is part of Texas History because it happened in Texas, for sure. But the same things happened in every other state in the nation. In Dallas there was a KKK Day at the state fair in 1923, but what makes this Texas History and not United States History or Southern History, the History of any other city, county, state, or other geopolitical area?

For sure, when teaching Texas History I want students to know (and hopefully internalize) that slave auctions did happen in Texas – we do this by looking at around a dozen different newspaper clippings. I also want them to realize that the KKK did operate in Texas, that Women did demand rights in Texas, but these are part of much larger historical trajectories.

Students come into Texas History expecting narratives that historians largely consider mythological and not worthy of serious attention, so to speak. And these myths are shared by people across the United States as being Texas. Legends of cowboys and Indians and stories of the “Old Wild West” are extremely overstated and still don’t contribute toward something that could be a Texas cannon of History.

Texas as an entity of its own really comes into play recently with all of the textbook battles, since Texas controls a large part of the national education industry. These battles result from the ways in which the State Board of Education operates in Texas – but even still all of the United States are so interconnected (and connected with the World) that it is hard to say this is Texas History.

The process of constructing History is somewhat easier with the United States because it is more of a full entity per se. Take Gold Diggers of 1933 -it clearly reflects themes of the Great Depression and speaks to hopes and fears of its day to those living in the United States at that time, but does it reflect the hopes and fears of those people in Texas specifically? It does, perhaps not as much as some other places considering how rural Texas was at the time, but the United States as a geopolitical area is the important reference point.

It is almost as if Mexico and all or almost all of the other states make the borderlands of Texas. Texas interacts on a very real, everyday level with peoples, ideas, and institutions in New York, California, and many other cities, states, and even countries.

There are for sure important stories that would show Texas as its own entity by looking at why Texas has so many large cities–but then again we get into questions that Texas was basically just created, not an area fought over and defended per se.

On another note, people in Texas frequently like to embrace Texas Nationalism and express hopes that Texas will be its own nation again one day. For all practical purposes, Texas never was its own nation, really. And today many cities in Texas fall into the “Any City, USA” box given how homogenized everything is – homes, businesses, roads.

Texas is seldom its own entity. Conflicts and memories associated with the Alamo are presumably more Texan than anything else in Texas History. Even when it is, the Alamo is associated with a series of events in one very small part of what became Texas.

During the Civil War, people in the South brought around 40,000 enslaved peoples to Texas for “safe keeping.” What does Texas mean in this case? They clearly did not go all the way to El Paso, for instance.

Pardon all of the hypothetical questions posed here. And sorry for the disorganized nature of these thoughts. I’m basically just really interested in how the ways in which Texas History can help us understand the larger nature of how History is constructed and remembered and then in turn, how the shape of an area influences what we call History. Texas was created by documents and wars between federal governments in a very short period of time.

Institutions in Texas–such as enslavement and basic governmental structures–were transplanted to Texas using preexisting templates in the United States and New Spain/Mexico. The subjective and quick ways in which Texas came to be provide some good examples of how the trajectory of history could have easily been very different. How different would a Texas History course be if, for instance, one of the other proposals for the shape had been favored?

Studying and teaching about Texas makes me realize how very much Texas is connected to the United States. It’s very hard to separate narratives about the two. And that makes me wonder how much more than I have realized the United States is connected with events around the world.

Another different thing about United States and Texas History is that, in terms of World History, there isn’t very much of it. A large part of why there isn’t very much History is because 90% of Indians died within a generation or two after 1492. People in European countries and other places around the world have been where they are for many more hundreds and in cases thousands of years.

Broader questions relate to and seemingly point to that the History in a given place is more about examples in that place vs. that place as its own entity since there are so many common themes across the World. With different examples and stats, my Industrialism lesson would work in most any course because I focus on broad themes and consequences. So the lesson here is that we’re all very connected. In other words, there are very few specific geopolitical areas–especially in the Modern world–that constitute an example of History and place as entity.

So (and I think this is the second place I am planning to write a conclusion for this blog!), studying and teaching Texas History has given me new insights into how much everything is interconnected and how problematic per se it is to study a subjectively organized area of land. Nothing can be taught in a box! None of this should be taken as criticism of Texas History but as another layer of concepts to be relayed in such courses that speak to the power and construction of History. We can also ask when and how does isolating a series of events to Texas (such as a book looking at the Civil Rights Revolution in Texas) help or hurt our understanding of such events.

If you made it this far, thank you! Please reply with your own thoughts.

4 replies »

  1. Great post. As soon as I saw it, I was reminded of a class I took as an undergrad about Texas and the American West. We tackled topics such as, is Texas Southern? Midwestern? Western? South-Western? and so on. It really does depend on where you are standing, where you are from, and who you ask. One book I found fascinating in that class was ‘The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land’ by Gary Clayton Anderson. It has an obvious agenda, but it was the first book that introduced me to the history of Indians in Texas. Another good one was ‘The Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier’ by Scott Zesch. It tells the story of the Indians from a less sympathetic light, but both are great reads, very interesting, and brutal because the material is brutal. You may have heard of each of them, but I mention them because borders caused a lot of strife for Texans and Americans, especially where Indians were concerned. It was a true culture clash in every sense, but especially because the Indians did not really recognize political boundaries and saw white men almost as they saw themselves, as members of different tribes. The Comanches did not understand why people in San Antonio were upset about people captured up north around Dallas. Anyway, I really liked your post and it’s always great to read about history from another historian.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment. We’ve talked some about whether Texas is a southern state or western state. Your comment gave me the idea of maybe strutting the course next semester with three or four major themes – one for the different geo-cultural areas of Texas. Thanks also for the book recs! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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