In Texas, where did the Native American communities go?
In most western states, indeed in several eastern ones, indigenous peoples and their cultures, modern and traditional, are present and visible in the public sphere.
Texas, on the other hand, is home to just three surviving small reservations, two of which, the Alabama-Coushatta in East Texas and the Kickapoo on the Rio Grande, were set aside for immigrant Native Americans, meaning the remnants of tribes what were forced into Texas from their original homelands in the eastern United States.
Even the Tiguas, who control the state’s third reservation — this one in the El Paso area — were actually immigrants in a sense from what is now New Mexico, having left their homelands after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.
What happened, then, to the Caddos, Comanches, Wichitas, Kiowas, Apaches, Karankawas, Tonkawas, Coahuiltecans, Jumanos and other indigenous Texas tribes?
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Their full and tragic stories have unfolded very slowly for later Texans in part because English-speaking Anglo-Americans mythologized the invasion of the West. They also proved to be incurious about Native American points of view on these struggles.
Years ago, during a packed book signing in Austin, a reader asked a famous Texas author what the Native Americans thought about the frontier wars of the late 19th century.
Famous author: “We don’t know because they didn’t write it down.”
Sitting in the back of the hall, I choked back my alarm at such an offhand response, because I, like millions of Americans, had read “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the West.”
In 1970, archivist Dee Brown shook the ground with his detailed account of the systematic displacement and massacre of Native Americans, whose words had been copiously recorded at council meetings, treaty parlays, trade encounters, journalistic interviews and so forth. Some historians took issue with some of Brown’s conclusions, but his remains a powerful book today.
So, yes, we know what they thought. Yet for decades, historians had simply ignored this wealth of primary material.
In 2005, following a research path similar to the one taken by archivist Brown, Gary Clayton Anderson, a University of Oklahoma professor, put out “The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land, 1820-1875.”
I recently read it for the first time. All my childhood questions about the dearth of Native American presence in Texas were answered in fewer than 400 pages of briskly told and thoroughly enthralling history.
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From the earliest human times, people have methodically and forcefully removed or killed members of other religious, racial or ethnic groups. Yet the current term for the practice was not born until the Balkans wars of the 1990s.
Anderson correctly employs this term, “ethnic cleansing,” in his subtitle, and his book is a calm, careful prosecution of the larger Anglo-American project to exterminate or clear out as many of the indigenous and immigrant Native Americans as possible.
From Sam Houston on, there always were those Texans who preferred to live in peace with Native Americans, or at least the ones whose stable agricultural lives somewhat mirrored theirs. That more pacific point of view did not win out.
Anderson starts with demographics. While Native Texans were dying from Eurasian diseases and their traditional hunting and farming lands dwindled, Texians, as the new settlers were called, arrived in droves, many of them with enslaved persons, no matter the shifting legality and politics of slavery under the Mexican national and state governments. (For a closer look at those legalities and realities, read the new book, “South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War” by Alice L. Baumgartner.)
“Nearly 30,000 Anglo-Americans arrived in the decades of the 1820s and 1830s,” Anderson writes. “The population jumped to 160,000 by 1845 and to an astonishing 600,000 by the Civil War. People moved to early Texas because they thought they could acquire land easily, get out of debt and prosper.”
Meanwhile, indigenous populations numbered only about 30,000 in 1820. Maybe an additional 10,000 American Indians — who had been driven out of the South and Midwest — joined them. On this latter point, Anderson is very helpful, especially since some of these immigrants splintered off with renegades of all ethnicities, often the culprits of inflammatory depredations, for which otherwise peaceful Native Americans were blamed and mercilessly punished.
And thus, the endless exchanges of revenge escalated.
If standard histories of the Old West and hundreds of Hollywood movies showed Native Americans primarily as raiders who randomly and viciously attacked vulnerable settlers and travelers, modern history has, with copious documentation, demonstrated that the Texians, especially the Texas Rangers, used those exact tactics, proudly running down and killing women, children and elderly men, while burning their possessions and crops and scattering their livestock.
Similarly brutal tactics, including extrajudicial killings, were used on Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the southern part of the state.
“Texans remained in a virtual state of war for nearly 50 years,” Anderson writes, “the longest continuous struggle of its kind in American history. Indeed, the fighting subsided only with the defeat of the Comanche and Kiowa during the Red River campaigns of 1874-1875.”
Anderson is careful to say that not all Texas Rangers were war criminals.
“Some rangers were fine troops: well-mounted, well led and disciplined,” he writes. “Successful ranger captains such as John Coffee Hays refused to take ruffians. Hays maintained a healthy respect for the law, and his men gave good service.”
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Anderson proceeds to give a blow-by-blow account of the strained interactions among Mexicans, Tejanos, Anglo-Americans, African Americans, European immigrants and Native Americans, both indigenous and immigrant. Like Brown, he takes full advantage of those archives full of documents that record the countless promises made to the American Indians that were subsequently and repeatedly broken, including the Council House Massacre on March 19, 1840, when Comanche envoys seeking an agreement with the Texians were mowed down in and around the very place of diplomacy.
The Anglo-Americans, in particular, tended to believe that Texas was a “Promised Land,” and that those who lived here before them had little or no claim to it.
The terms under which Texas joined the U.S. complicated matters. The new state held on to all public lands, so federal forces, which inherited direct relations with the tribes, could not easily do what they had in other western jurisdictions: offer land for reservations. Briefly, several reservations were established, particularly along the Upper Brazos River, but settlers pushed closer and closer, and traders vied to supply Native Americans with arms and alcohol.
Texas newspapers poured gasoline on the flames. They repeatedly misrepresented the behavior of Native Americans and then demanded that the federal government take action. Short of that, the state government, or even sometimes posses rounded up by county officials, sought rough justice, often on bands that had no hand in the bad behavior.
Eventually, the strategy of ethnic cleansing, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, won out.
This short digest of Anderson’s book does neither the author nor the reader justice. Be assured, I’ll return to specific scenes from this compulsory Texas reading in future columns.
• “Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas” by Stephen Harrigan
• “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the West” by Dee Brown
• “The Comanche Empire” by Pekka Hämäläinen
• “Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers” by Doug J. Swanson
• “The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas” by Monica Muñoz Martinez
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