Sunday, November 2, 2008

Texas Forever -- Day 2 -- Chapter 3, 4 A little history


I admit that I am proud of being a Texan. It’s a great state with a great history—the only state that functioned as a Republic for nearly ten years. The first Europeans of record to see what we now call Texas were the Spanish—only logical since it was an Italian sailing for Spain that found out there were two entire continents here that no one knew existed.

Well, sure the folks living here—the Indians and those who came before them—knew it was here, but that never mattered much to the Europeans. Cortez conquered Mexico shortly after the place was “discovered”, and then the Spaniards got serious about settlement—or at least getting what they could from this new land.

Now, as far as I know, the first white man to actually set foot in Texas and leave a written record of it was a fellow named Cabeza de Vaca. His name means “head of a cow” which is not a name I would want to be saddled with, but maybe it didn’t bother him. What did bother him was that he was shipwrecked and abandoned on the Texas coast amongst the Karankawa Indians who were known to be cannibals. Can’t say I blame him about being a little miffed at that. Anyway, he survived and traveled over a good bit of the southwest, which strengthened Spain’s claim on the area. (There again, the fact that people were already living here didn’t cut much ice with those explorers.)

After he got back to New Spain—or Mexico—he told stories about cities made of gold. Now, they way I understand it is that Ol’ Cow-head didn’t actually say he had seen these villages, but he had heard tell of them, and that was good enough for the next round of fellows who were called “Conquistadores”, or conquerors. Well, one of these Conquistadores was a character that we know as Coronado, though his real name was Francisco Vasquez, and believe it or not, he is one of my ancestors on my mother’s side. I don’t know as how I’m proud of that, in particular, considering that he seemed to be sort of mean and not to smart (cities of gold?), but he—wherever he is—may not be too proud of me either, so we’ll let it go at that.

Now, while Spain claimed Texas, they weren’t doing too much about holding on to it. The French had been working in Canada and thereabouts and discovered the upper reaches of the Mississippi River. A fellow named La Salle traveled all the way down it and came out in the Gulf of Mexico. He determined that the French ought to settle the area, so he went to France to round up some folks who didn’t have anything better to do than risk their lives trying to wrest a wild country away from the folks who had lived in it for centuries. But then again, that’s what the Europeans were good at.

So Ol’ La Salle gets some ships and some settlers and supplies and sets out from France for the Mississippi River. (This is about 150 years after Cabeza de Vaca, so you can see things weren’t happening too fast.) That rascal sails right past the Mississippi and lands on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Now, there is some doubt as to whether he did this on purpose or not, but I don’t think so. The mouth of the Mississippi is not like the mouth of the Brazos, for example, and trying to measure distance on water in those days was pretty tough. At any rate, I’ll give him a little credit, since he was at least trying to make use of the country, not just ravage it like Ol’ Coronado.

I’ll bet you’re expecting me to claim that La Salle was my ancestor, too. Well, not quite. Apparently, though, La Salle was not really a great leader. Think about it. He didn’t know where he was. He missed where he was going. The people he was trying to serve ended up hating him. Sounds like a politician to me.

As I say, his people wound up hating him. Can’t say as I blame them as he has terribly misled them, gotten them lost, and couldn’t get them out. He was lured into an ambush by a fellow named L'Archeveque. Yep, you guessed—that is another of my ancestors on my mother’s side. He swore allegiance to Spain once he got to Mexico, and moved to Santa Fe, where the name became Archibeque. Needless to say, France’s grip on Texas was not a strong one, and nothing came of it—except me, of course!

To say nothing came of it is not exactly right, as it made the Spanish authorities sit up and take notice. They began to get serious about colonizing Texas, and made several attempts—San Saba, Nacogdoches and San Antonio to name a few. Some were successful, some were not. There were also a few attempts by Americans to make incursions into Spanish territory, but they were definitely failures.

By the early 1800s, Texas was looking pretty good to lots of Americans who liked the idea of free or cheap land. The U. S. had gone through some financial troubles and a lot of folks were in a bind. Also, repeated cotton farming was wearing out the land in the southern states. Texas looked mighty appealing.

A fellow from Missouri named Moses Austin decided to do something about it. He wasn’t going to invade like others had tried. He just wanted to colonize the area. He went to the Spanish authorities in Mexico City and eventually got permission to bring settlers into what is now Texas. Unfortunately, two things happened to throw a wrench in the works: Ol’ Moses died, and Mexico won her independence from Spain, making all agreements null and void. (The Mexicans had been trying since 1810, and in 1821 Spain said “You can have it!”)

You might wonder why either Spain or Mexico would encourage settlement by a group of people who obviously had hungry eyes when it came to land. Well, the fact was that the folks in Mexico knew the American colonists would be fighters, and they saw “Tejas” as a buffer zone between them and the Indians—particularly the Comanches and Apaches who were quite skilled at raiding. The Comanches is particular did not amount to much until they were able to get their hands on Spanish horses, and then they become the terror of the Plains.

Moses’ son Stephen took up his papa’s torch and succeeded—though it wasn’t easy—to get a similar agreement with Mexico that Moses had with Spain. The Mexican government remained unstable however, and the colonization laws were continually being rewritten. Things sort of settled down in 1824 when the Mexicans wrote a new constitution and new colonization laws to go with it.

One of the quirks of one of the laws was that a rancher would receive more land than a farmer—a lot more. The idea was that stock needed much more grazing land than crops needed to grow. It may have been a good idea on paper, but new settlers could see the flaw in that pretty easily, and Papa always laughed at how many “cotton ranchers” there were—he being one himself.

There was one other incident in 1824 that eclipsed all of the others that you won’t find in any history book.


On April 29, 1824 an event happened that changed the history of Texas—well, let’s go on and say the world—forever…at least from my perspective. On that bright spring morning, in Austin’s colony, Angela Maria Archibeque-Vasquez Miles gave birth to a strapping baby boy--ME! Now Papa wanted to name me after Andrew Jackson or maybe Stephen Austin. Mama wanted a name she could pronounce, and her being a good Catholic I had to have the name of a saint. The way I heard it, they argued over it a good bit but finally compromised on Jackson Francisco Miles. Papa got his hero, Mama got her saint, her ancestor, and her beloved husband included. (Papa would never have stood for another “Francis” but he gave in on “Francisco”.) And I got a hell of a name.

Actually several names. Papa called me Jack or Jackie…or “Turd Head” when he was teasing or irritated. Mama called me “Pancho” or “Panchito”—Spanish for Frank or Frankie. Mama’s brother, Tio Mano, who never got over his sister marrying a “Texican” (the word “gringo” was way in the future”), sometimes called me “Playa del sol”—or roughly translated, “sunny beach”, one of the few English terms he used with any regularity. Somewhere along the way, almost everybody—except mama and Tio Mano—started calling me “Dusty”. I guess because it went so well with “Miles.” And after all the years I spent on various trails, it fit, too.

Speaking of mama’s family…they had mixed opinions about her marrying someone from the United States. I think what bothered her father was not the fact that Papa was an American, as much as it was that he appeared to have no pedigree. Papa felt like a man ought to be measured on his own merits, but when it looked like he might lose his raven-haired beauty—or at least have a fight on his hands—he admitted that he was kin to the Rutledges, and they were a big deal in South Carolina. One of them had even signed the Declaration of Independence.

That was good enough for Abuelo—I mean Grandfather. At any rate, he realized the determination of the young man, and didn’t want to see his daughter hurt, so he backed off. As I said, Tio Mano was never really comfortable with it, though he got to where he didn’t make a big deal of it, for his sister’s sake.

You’re going to have to excuse me for using Spanish terms now and again. First of all, I was born in a Spanish-speaking country, as Texas was then a Mexican state (and only half of one, at that!) Also, my mother spoke very little English, and it was from her that I learned my early speech. (She never did learn how to say “Jackson”, and “Dusty” always came out “Doosty”, so to her I was always Pancho or Mijo.) Sometimes I have to think what the English words are for something I have always said in Spanish. And sometimes it’s better not to translate.

As I said, Papa came to Texas for the land. All he really knew was raising cotton and Texas was prime for that, so he started a “cotton ranch”—that is, a plantation. Having grown up in the Deep South he had no quarrel with slavery. There was no way to grow cotton without it. The Mexican government did not allow slavery, but servants were permitted. Papa was able to acquire a lot of servants.

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