How Texas Became Western

Farewell to Dixie, hello to the Texas Republic


A great piece in Texas Monthly looks at how the Lone Star State moved out of the South and into the West. Here's an excerpt:

"I don't think anyone much questioned Texas's essential Southernness until the twentieth century," says Dr. Gregg Cantrell, Texas history chair at TCU, past president of the Texas State Historical Association, and a member of the Texas Institute of Letters. "And they started doing so as a way of distancing themselves from the late unpleasantness of the 1860's and 1870's. Defeat, military occupation, Jim Crow and lynching, and all of those unpleasant things that are very much a part of Texas history as a Southern state, were things that a lot of Texans would probably just as soon not talk about a lot."

Nationally, Dixie was stigmatized as a backward, ignorant, and violent hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan and religious hypocrisy. Why remain linked to all that baggage? Why not, forward-looking Texans began to think, align with the West instead? Back then, and to a certain degree today, the West was seen as optimistic, the place of second chances, the land of the golden tomorrow, a stark contrast when compared to Dixie's melancholy and tragic yesterdays. So Texas's politicians, educators, and ad-men went to work, Cantrell says, and have since all but totally recast the very ideal of what it means to be a Texan.

"And so what do you do? You play up the frontier, you play up the Texas Revolution and the Alamo, you play up the (in reality not-very-glorious) ten years of the Texas Republic, and then you talk about the Indian Wars and the cattle drives, all culminating in Spindletop and the discovery of oil," he says. "All of these things made Texas seem like anything but a Southern state."

Cantrell traces the first outlines of this marketing campaign to the turn of the century, but believes it started to kick into high gear during the governorship of Oscar Colquitt (1911-1915). "He just went crazy authorizing the building of monuments to pioneer leaders and heroes of the Texas Revolution. And you see it reflected in textbooks and all sorts of other places." To paraphrase the last line in John Sayles's Lone Star, Texas leaders made the conscious decision to "forget Gettysburg."

There's much more to the argument, and it's full of broader lessons about the ways the past is constantly reimagined to fill the needs of the present. Read the whole thing here.