As a young man, Papa had been pretty wild—or at least spirited. As the second son, he knew his chances for getting ahead in South Carolina were limited, and he wasn’t all that interested in plantation life, anyway. After coming to Texas though, I guess he grew up a little. Maybe it was the huge amounts of land he qualified for. Maybe it was the fact that he now had a growing family. Or maybe growing cotton was in his blood and he just hadn’t realized it. Whatever the reason, he applied for his headright as a colonist, imported some slaves from the states, and got into cotton in a big way.
He wasn’t alone. Colonists from all over began pouring into Texas. Some came from France, England, the Germanic States or elsewhere in Europe, but most came from the U.S.—and most of those from the cotton-producing areas. Land was cheap, and it was fertile. Of course, there were merchants and millers and blacksmiths and ferrymen and just about everything it would take to make a new land. But most were farmers.
Not all came to raise cotton. Some came to raise livestock. Some came to raise corn or wheat. And some came to raise hell.
Stephen F. Austin was a fine man. I’ve never heard tell of anyone who worked harder—not with his hands, but with his mind and with his words. He spent months in prison in Mexico just to get the right to bring settlers to Texas, and then again fighting for the rights of Texans. He promised the Mexican government that, as an empresario—the title given to those endowed with the right to colonize—he would seek only the best people. And he did.
Sure, some of them may have been in debt when they came here, but that was probably due more to unscrupulous lenders than their ability to manage their finances. But generally, Austin’s colonists were fine folks—good, hard-working, people who just wanted a chance to do well.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t always successful in weeding out the riff-raff, and some of the other empresarios almost seemed to court them. They didn’t care what kind of people settled on their land. As a result, some undesirables also came to Texas. You know the type—thieves, thugs, opportunists, politicians, lawyers, and preachers.
As I mentioned, the law said you had to be or become Catholic, and you had to swear allegiance to the Mexican government. I don’t know as how the religion was ever much of a problem one way or the other. Some folks got baptized into the Roman Catholic Church, some said they already had been, and some just ignored it. There was one Irish priest—Michael Muldoon—who was known to be tolerant of Protestants who were only nominally declaring themselves converts to Catholicism.
As far as swearing allegiance to Mexico…I really believe that the early colonists were sincere in that. I know Papa was. In their eyes the United States had sort of failed them, in a financial sense—which is what most of us really operate in anyway. Unfortunately, the Mexican government began to fail them as well.
To begin with, Mexico had not been stable for a long time. Spain had been waning as a world power for centuries, and the situation in Europe didn’t help much, what with Napoleon running roughshod over the continent. I never dabbled much in world affairs, so let’s just say that an unsteady situation in the home country of Spain, set up the situation for Mexico to gain independence. Mexicans, however, had never had anything like self-government under Spain (unlike the Americans under England), so were unprepared to establish a true republic. The Mexican government was in constant turmoil.
Now you need to realize that Mexico had tried—really tried—to get her own citizens to settle in Texas. They just weren’t interested. The Americans, however, came in droves. Well, it doesn’t take a genius to see that before long, the two cultures were bound for a clash. If you want to really get into it, read the history books. I’m telling about me, and I was just a little kid during most of this time, and blissfully unaware of the political situation.
Speaking of bliss, though…that was what growing up in those days was like. The woods were still full of game, the rivers full of fish. Most of the people I knew were either Americans or Spanish, but there were some from almost everywhere. There were even a few “tame” Indians—Caddo or Karankawas (Kronks, we called ‘em) or Cherokees who had been forced out of Georgia and South Carolina.
I learned to ride and hunt and fish and track. Tio Mano taught me how to use a reata, or rope. (Did you know that the cowboy term “lariat” comes from “la reata”? A lot of cowboy words are derived from Spanish.) He and Abuelo were rancheros, and good vaqueros as well. Ol’ Joe was great at telling stories he had heard on the plantation back east—stories about a trickster rabbit, or a dumb fox. By the time I was ten, I could ride like a Mexican, track like an Indian, and lie like a lawyer. I was getting to be a pretty good shot, too.
Once in a while a band of Comanches might drift into town to trade. We knew they raided some of the outermost settlements. Usually they just wanted horses, but they had been known to take captives. They usually just raided into Mexico, but we always watched them with a wary eye. At this point, though, they were pretty peaceful towards us. As I say, it was a blissful time—for a boy.
What I was unaware of, was how the political situation was shaping up. A ten-year-old boy just doesn’t concern himself with such. I heard Papa and Mama and others talking in low voices that showed concern. I had heard talk of a fellow named Edwards that had tried to declare his colony independent, but no one supported him. Even Austin joined the forces against him. Nothing really came of it, except to build distrust of Americans in the eyes of the Mexican government.
There was other unrest, but I didn’t really know much about it. As a matter of fact, it was pretty hard for an educated adult to keep up with it. Soldiers were stationed in Texas, revolutionaries were active in Mexico, hotheads were stirring up the colonists. Poor Stephen Austin was doing all he could to maintain peace, but it was no use. He traveled to Mexico on a peace mission and they threw him in solitary confinement—not a smart move. Santa Anna had taken control of the government and established himself as dictator. From his prison cell, Austin realized that reconciliation with Mexico was impossible.
At ten you’re not aware of things—unless they happen in your backyard. When I was 11, the war came to Gonzales. Years earlier the Mexican government had given a cannon to the town of Gonzales for protection against Indians. Fearing that it would be used against Mexican forces, a detail was sent to retrieve it, but the citizens refused. When a larger force was sent, the Texans—including papa and Tio Mano--used the cannon against them, flying a flag that said “Come And Take It”. The Mexicans fled back to San Antonio, which probably gave the Gonzales men more confidence than it should have.
An army of sorts was formed and more battles were fought. Santa Anna’s brother-in-law General Cos was run out of San Antonio in late 1835, and the Texans thought they had won—but they had reckoned without Santa Anna himself, who took the defeat of Cos and the loss of San Antonio personally.
Everybody likes to focus on the battles, but politics plays a big part in these things. I’ve never been too keen on politics, so suffice it to say that the politicians were indeed active, organizing a provisional government, appointing commissioners and what-not, and generally jockeying for position. If there was one thing they did right during this time, it was in appointing Sam Houston Commander-in-Chief of the Army—even if there wasn’t an army!
Papa had known of Houston before either of them ever came to Texas. He had run into him a time or two since Houston had arrived a couple of years before and was impressed with what he saw. He was an obvious leader of men. Papa always said he would throw in his lot with “Ol’ Sam” anytime. He got his chance and it scared us all to death.