Part 1: Texas Breaks Away
Texas and Mexico
Stephen F. Austin was the towering figure in early Texas. When the level-headed Austin gave his endorsement to the Texas revolution, the movement was legitimized in the eyes of observers back in the United States.
Prints and Photographs Collection 1985/146-1.
At the very end of the Spanish regime in Texas, the Spanish authorities had more or less destroyed the small Spanish colonies in Texas. In no position to recruit new Spanish settlers, spur economic development, or defend Texas from the Indians, they conceived the idea of repopulating Texas with Anglo-American colonists. According to the Spanish plan, the new colonists would receive generous land grants in exchange for becoming Spanish citizens, agreeing to join the Catholic Church, and investing their own money and labor to develop and defend the country.
When Mexico took over in 1821, Mexican authorities found themselves in the same boat as the Spanish: they wanted to convert Texas from a dangerous liability to a safe and civilized asset but lacked any means of doing so. They decided to adopt the Spanish idea and farmed out the job to Anglo-American empresarios, carefully screened businessmen and leaders who were charged with managing all aspects of their colonies, from recruiting and moving settlers to organizing militia to administering Mexican laws.
Like other new frontiers before and after, Texas was attractive to American settlers because of cheap land prices (four cents for an acre of undeveloped land vs. $1.25 in the United States) and the opportunity to escape debts or other problems back home. Immigration was further stimulated in 1825 when President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay opened negotiations with Mexico to try to buy east Texas. In the minds of many pioneers, it was only a matter of time before their new home would be annexed to the United States and they would be Americans once again.
By 1830, the American population of Texas had grown to around 25,000 people, and Mexico was having second thoughts. It realized that most of the colonists were drawn from the same land-hungry frontier folk who had conquered the American frontier in places like Kentucky and Tennessee. Indeed, Andrew Jackson, the newly elected U.S. president who was a famous Tennessee frontiersman and ardent expansionist, had just renewed the U.S. offer to purchase Texas.
Andrew Jackson in 1828. Jackson would have loved to preside over the annexation of Texas, but provided little more than encouragement to the rebels. Courtesy of The Hermitage.
Mexico had no intention of giving up its northern province. Instead the Mexican government decided to forbid further American immigration. To hold on to Texas, it decided on a new tack of encouraging Mexican settlement and European immigration, beefing up its military presence in Texas, and creating a strong trade along the Texas coast. These new priorities were codified as the Law of April 6, 1830.
The new policies seemed reasonable from the Mexican point of view, and in any case they were not very well enforced by the thinly stretched Mexican military and civil authority. But Americans who had sacrificed everything to build new lives in Texas were incensed by the Mexican restrictions and attempts to collect tariffs and customs while still providing no government services or protection against the Indians.
A series of incidents exploded like a string of fireworks, each one bigger than the last. Each attempt by Mexico to enforce its authority led to a meeting or small rebellion by the Americans. Each act of civil disobedience led Mexico to crack down harder. Events spun out of control, eventually resulting in the legendary Texas Revolution of 1836.
On the battlefield at San Jacinto, Texas volunteers under General Sam Houston destroyed the Mexican army. Texas independence had been won, but could it be kept? Would Mexico regroup and take back control of its rebellious province? Would the United States annex the territory as expansionists had dreamed for decades? Would European powers like Britain or France swoop in and grab off a chunk of North America for themselves? Or would the impoverished backwater republic go its own way in pursuit of new dreams of glory?