The story of how Texas became the 28th state of the United States of America didn’t begin in Texas. In fact, it didn’t even begin in America. The roots of Texas annexation can be found much earlier, in the clash of three European empires to conquer North America.
Beginning in the 1500s, the great powers of Europe began to explore and claim vast regions of North America. Eventually, the British ended up with most of the eastern seaboard of the continent, where they established successful colonies. The French claimed most of the territory from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains, a territory they called Louisiana. And the Spanish, in addition to their vast dominions in South and Central America, claimed the Southwest, Oregon, and California.
France placed little emphasis on colonization in North America, preferring to exploit the territory for natural resources that brought money into the royal coffers back home. Spain had large operations only in Mexico, where the profits from silver mining comprised a huge portion of the Spanish government’s income, and New Mexico, where it ran a profitable trade along the Santa Fe Trail.
Spain was anxious to defend the silver mines and Santa Fe trade from any ambitious French or British scheming. In 1716, Spain built a mission and presidio along the San Antonio River as a first step to making the vast territory north of Mexico into a buffer zone against other powers. San Antonio de Valero Mission, later known as the Alamo, became the nucleus of the village of San Antonio de Béxar, the most important town in Spanish Texas. A few years later, Spain founded its first colony in Texas, sending fifty-five settlers from the Canary Islands to set up homes near the new mission.
Over the years, Spain built other mission complexes at Nacogdoches, near the Texas coast, and along the Rio Grande. The Spanish population eventually grew to about 3500 people, mostly small farmers and ranchers. Small groups of peaceable Indians also settled among the Spanish and intermarried with them. Outside of these outposts, Texas was the realm of the Apache Indians and their rivals, the even more fearsome Comanche.
In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte, the absolute ruler of France, made a decision that would change everything for Spanish Texas. Needing money to fund his various enterprises and anxious to get rid of territory he could neither develop nor defend, Napoleon sold off the enormous Louisiana Territory to the United States. An active and aggressively expansionist United States was now on Spain’s doorstep, and soon the Americans seemed poised to kick in the door. President Thomas Jefferson claimed that the Louisiana Purchase extended all the way to the Rio Grande, entitling the U.S. to take possession of Texas by right of purchase.
Now Spain was really alarmed. Unable to respond militarily, the Spanish went to the bargaining table. In 1806, Spain and the United States signed the Neutral Ground Agreement to establish temporary borders. Finally, in 1819, the two countries signed the Adams-Onís Treaty, fixing the U.S.-Spanish border at the Sabine River. The United States gave up any further claim to Texas in exchange for the cession of Florida.
But the treaty came too late to do Spain any good. Its hold on Mexico had been crumbling since 1810, when Mexicans began a decade-long revolt against Spanish rule. To the extent Texas was involved, the war of Mexican independence was an utter disaster. The Spanish authorities carried out bloody purges against anyone suspected of being a rebel. As the last Spanish governor of Texas wrote, the king's soldiers “drained the resources of the country, and laid their hands on everything that could sustain human life.” The Spanish population of Texas, already tiny, plummeted.
Mexico finally ousted the Spanish and achieved independence in 1821. Among the many problems bequeathed to the Mexicans by their former overlords was Texas—huge, harsh, and in constant danger of being lost to Indian attacks or takeover by American adventurers, who were continually involved in smuggling activities with the local people.