In 1528, a Spanish expedition was shipwrecked on a small island off the Texas coast near present-day Galveston. One of the explorers, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, became separated from the others and was forced to begin a new life among the Karankawa Indians. He became a medicine man and the first European trader in Texas, swapping Karankawa seashells and mesquite beans for skins and red ochre from inland tribes. Eight years later, Cabeza de Vaca and three other castaways finally made an epic walk to Mexico, the only survivors among some eighty men. The book published by Cabeza de Vaca and the others about the experience was the first ever written about Texas and the first description of Texas Indians.
For more than three centuries to come, relations between whites and Indians would occupy a central place in Texas life. For the Indians, the arrival of Europeans changed their lives in ways they could have never anticipated. Many of the tribes that dominated Texas when Spanish and French explorers first arrived would vanish from history before details of their cultures could even be recorded, victims of inter-tribal warfare and European diseases. Others, most notably the Comanches, adapted to the arrival of the whites with such skill that they waged war successfully for decades. Most tribes tacked between two courses, sometimes warring with the whites, at other times seeking compromise, always trying to find a way to preserve a way of life that had served them well since the beginning of time.
For the whites—Spanish, Mexican, and American—Texas was a harsh but promising frontier. Like the Indians, the whites required large amounts of land and the freedom to do as they pleased. Like the Indians, the whites were prepared to wage war to extend their way of life into Texas. As more and more white Americans made their way into Texas, the stage was set for an epic clash of cultures.
The Texas State Library and Archives is home to a massive collection called the Texas Indian Papers. This collection, supplemented by others, forms the basis for this exhibit. The Texas Indian Papers are administrative government papers and, as such, tell the story of frontier defense from the point of view of white Texans, primarily from the 1830s to the 1850s. The Indian point of view is largely absent from these records, as is any cultural information about the tribes. Through these papers, we can learn about the world as it looked to Texas frontiersmen and their leaders. These papers document harsh feelings and hard, sometimes brutal, events. They also tell the story of men of good will who tried to bring about a peaceful solution, ultimately without success.