I'm an avocational historian, which simply means that I don't have to rely on the study of past events to put bread on the table. As with many of us, my interest in history had its origins in genealogical research, which I started when in my early forties (just a few weeks ago). I have a theory that the majority of people, including myself, don't really get interested in history until one is old enough to have a history of their own. The more I studied the history of my ancestors and the events surrounding their lives; the less I studied genealogy and soon I realized that I had become completely immersed in the period of the Texas Revolution; roughly the decade of the 1830's. The problem was that in the thirty odd years since I had last studied Texas history, it had changed. That's silly. History doesn't change! Well, maybe that's the way it's supposed to work, but in my personal history, it had changed, and changed a lot.
When I was growing up in the 1950's and early 60's, the Texian rebels were all blonde-headed, blue-eyed, six-foot tall and possessed of all the highest manly virtues. Of course, we had all seen Fess Parker, John Wayne, Richard Widmark and Lawrance Harvey in the movies and TV and that was some pretty powerful stuff. We had all read the great stories of Davy going down swinging and Sam Houston's glorious victory at San Jacinto. The Texian opponents in the form of the Mexican Army were all ignorant, swarthy, dope-smoking conscripts that were only mindless minions of an evil empire. As I got a little older, this all seemed a little too patent of a story to me. It was a little too "white bread" for me.
My first real evidence of the other side of the story was when I was in fifth grade. I came home from school one day and my father asked me what I had learned that day? With little trepidation, I blurted out, "My teacher told me that all of the men that fought for Texas during the Texas Revolution were all scoundrels, scofflaws and of general ill-repute." Now, my Dad was a law enforcement officer and when he was a young man his invalid grandfather, who was the son of a San Jacinto veteran, lived with he and his mother. So, in his youth, my Dad had known a man who had been raised by one of the men my teacher had just maligned. I told him that she had said that most of the early Texas settlers were running away from the law, bad debts, bad marriages or maybe all three. After listening to my tale, my Dad thought for awhile and then, simply said, "Yep" and went back to reading his paper. Suddenly, I had confirmation that there was more to the story than the "white bread" version I had been receiving for years. Things were fixing to change and as Sherlock Holmes would say, "The game is afoot!"
By the early 1970's a movement of so called "revisionist" historians had started. The movement was characterized by a complete reversal of the respective roles of all parties involved. Suddenly, the Texians and their allies became the craven, money hungry, land speculators whose only interest was to enslave all people of color wherever they found them on the North American continent. The Mexicans, just as suddenly, became noble freedom fighters whose only motivation was to save their country from the myriad of evils, which are the sole results of great American democratic experience. What happened!? In the span of only a few years the world had turned upside down. We had gone from Wonder Bread to rye bread in less than a heartbeat. The pendulum had traversed its full arc from far right to far left in the blink of an eye and completely run over me in the process. This was just simply unacceptable.
I decided that only appropriate response was to check into things, myself, so I started studying. I read everything about the period I could get my hands on. I visited museums and research libraries across the state and read more contemporary accounts from both sides of the conflict than I care to think about. I learned rather quickly that, what most folks (including myself) think they know about early 19th Century Texas, is in reality, only about 20 per cent of the story. Luckily, I was helped in my research by a fortunate turn of events. In the early 1990's, yet another group of historians was emerging onto the literary scene. This group presented a much more balanced and rational account of the period. People were actually people. Credit was given for bravery and heroism, as well as despicable acts on both sides. The history presented by Dr. Steven Hardin, William C. Davis, Dr. Gregg Demick, Jack Jackson and many, many others was not based on the regurgitation of old, unsubstantiated opinions or fiction, but on very sound research. Some of the research was truly groundbreaking and some of the resulting conclusions, truly courageous. Their translation of previously overlooked documents, mining of little known archives and interpretation of the archeological record easily tripled the knowledge of the period and gave some indication of the amount of information we had yet to discover. With this turn of events, I felt that maybe the pendulum had swung more back to the center where I could find more of a hearty whole grain bread. I still wasn't comfortable, though.
I still had a problem. Travis, Bowie, Crockett, Houston, Bonham and all the rest were heroes of mine, yet the fact remained that they and many of the people who came to Texas in the early days were running away from something. In their early days, many had made bad decisions, had fallen on hard times or had simply been crooks. When Jim Bowie crossed the Sabine River, it was with Federal authorities hot on his heels for land fraud and slave smuggling. Buck Travis was fleeing a failed marriage, mounting debts and questionable business dealings. David Crockett, America's first great populist celebrity, was fleeing increasing indebtedness and a failed political career. AND Sam Houston! Poor, old Sam Houston. After a disastrous marriage, scandal and resigning the office of Governor of Tennessee, he ran off with a bottle of booze to live with the Cherokee Indians. Now, the Cherokees' experience with alcohol has been, as with many Native American populations, a horrific curse, and these very same people gave Houston the moniker of "Big Drunk"! These examples of the people coming to Texas in the early 19th Century are by no means rare, they are simply some of the more prominent ones, but people from the United States were not the only ones bound for Texas.
Lorenzo de Zavala, José Antonio Mexia and many others fled to Texas in an effort to escape the civil war raging across Mexico in the mid 1830's and lent aid and support to the Texian forces fighting against the centralist regime in Mexico. Zavala served as the first Vice-President of the Republic of Texas and Mexia led numerous forays into Mexico trying to dislodge Santa Anna's iron grip. From the other side of the Atlantic, a young Herman Ehrenberg joined fellow Germans, as well as Danes, Scots, English, Irish and other Europeans who were fleeing hide-bound and rigid societies to fight in Texas. Ehrenberg, after surviving the Goliad Massacre, was recaptured by a different unit of the Mexican Army who bought his story of being a German tourist who had gotten lost on the prairie. (It didn't hurt that the Mexican Colonel he surrendered to was a German named Holzinger) After San Jacinto, he returned to Germany, wrote a book about his adventures and later returned to North America and more adventures.
One unlikely group of immigrants was captured at the Battle of San Jacinto. When the Texas Army routed Santa Anna's forces on April 21, 1836, they took over 600 hundred prisoners. Having no way to imprison or feed or care for the men, they were eventually turned loose. Many of the Texas soldiers allowed the prisoners to return home with them to their plantations, where they were employed by their previous enemies. I have no doubt that there are still Hispanic families in the Houston area that can trace their lineage back to those captured Mexican prisoners. The point is that when given the choice, they chose to stay in Texas.
So what's the upshot of all this historical meandering and odd bits of information? The first thing I've learned is that history, precisely because it is the story of life, is not simple. It is complicated and multifaceted and the instant we assume we have the whole story is the very same instant that we will be proved wrong. The second thing I've learned is that as we study and learn and understand, our story; our history must be revised to fit what we've learned. To do otherwise is to hold onto nothing more than smoke. There is an old cliché: "God makes history, but only historians can change it." Like all clichés, there is a reason it is a cliché. That's a historian's job: to honestly study and weigh all available information and place it in the historical context in a logical way. The place where I believe some historians have fallen short is in making history relevant to present day life and in that effort I came to grips with my heroes being flawed people. I realized that the early Texas settlers were not running away from anything. They were running toward something.
Europe, the East Coast of North America and the valley of Mexico had been settled for hundreds of years by the 1820's. The social and economic structure had been set and was very inflexible. If a person could not conform to those societies; if a person longed for a better life; if a person tried and failed, there was little hope of redemption. A very short boat ride from New Orleans was Texas. The frontier. Freedom to try again. That is what Texas was: "The Land of the Great Second Chance."
The only place Travis, Crockett, Bowie, Houston and thousands of others had any hope at all of turning their lives around was Texas. It was a place where hard work, personal integrity, individual initiative and taking responsibility for one's actions were traits that were not simply needed, they were essential for survival. Anyone who came to Texas and either had or adopted these traits was rewarded with opportunities. There were too many enemies, too much work and disaster too close to worry about a man's past. The only thing that was important was "Can I depend on the man standing next to me?"
When I think about it, that is the way it's always been in Texas. From the Canary Islanders who founded San Antonio in 1731, through the First Texas Revolution against Spain in 1812, to the last Texas Revolution in 1836. People have always tried to build a better life. This continued past the Battle of San Jacinto, too. Albert Sidney Johnston, after a career in the United States Army, came to Texas in 1836 and in August of that year was appointed Adjutant General of the Texas Army. Later he served as Senior Brigadier General and still later as Secretary of War for the Republic of Texas. After the War Between the States, Texas had not suffered the damage to the economy and infrastructure that many of the eastern states had, and thousands of immigrants from the North and the South flocked to Texas to start their lives over. This influx of people continues to this day. When John Connally and his wife, Nellie, (who are buried over here on Republic Hill) were forced to declare bankruptcy in the 1980's, Connally said, "If you have to start over, there is no better place to do it than in Texas."
There is another old saw that says "Some people are born to greatness, others have greatness thrust upon them." I would submit that there is a third group: those who choose greatness. All of the monuments in these sanctified twenty-two acres are monuments to the lives of people who took the opportunity to start over. Their failures were the foundations from which were built their successes. These are monuments to people who had the courage, fortitude and tenacity to reinvent themselves into people future generations could look up to and call heroes. They are also monuments to this "Land of the Great Second Chance" which they built and we maintain. I salute you for honoring them and keeping their story, our history, alive. And May God Bless Texas.