“Chicano Studies” departments at American universities portray the Battle of the Alamo as the triumph of the lawful rulers of Texas over a rowdy, drunken band of illegal aliens. Such a portrayal has a delicious irony to it, though it is mostly false. Almost always omitted from the Chicano version of events are several unsettling facts: Spain had established only a few settlements in Texas, and those few were clustered in a small portion of the province; the Americans were invited to settle in Texas because the Mexicans were scarcely holding their own against marauding Indians and the economy was stagnant; San Antonio, the provincial capitol, was a crude village of log and mud huts with no more than 800 people; there were only some 3,500 Mexicans in the whole of Texas, and, by 1830, Americans outnumbered them five to one; Santa Ana was despised by many, if not most, of the Mexicans in Texas.
In 1821, Moses Austin was granted 200,000 acres of land in Texas for a colony of Americans. Dying of pneumonia before he could take action, the venture was left in the hands of his son, Stephen, who got the grant increased to millions of acres and attracted Americans—first, by the dozens; then, by the hundreds—to the province. The Spanish governor of Texas, Antonio de Martinez, could not have been more pleased; he was now becoming governor of something more than an isolated, struggling, and crude frontier outpost.
With the success of the Mexican revolution, Austin was forced to travel to Mexico City to get his colony’s title confirmed by the new Mexican government. In 1823, the Mexican congress not only confirmed his colonial grant but authorized individual grants to American settlers in acreage more generous than that requested by Austin. Settlers were required only to pay a small fee for registering title to the land, and taxes were waived for six years. Austin was granted 100,000 acres for his personal use and made civil commandant of the colony. By the end of 1824, Austin had settled several hundred families—the Old Three Hundred—on the land. They were anything but illegal and hardly rowdy drunks. Austin required written testimony ensuring that a settler’s “character is perfectly unblemished, that he is a moral and industrious man, and absolutely free from the vice of intoxication.”
In 1825, the Mexican congress, now controlled by Federalists who favored decentralization, granted greater autonomy to the states, including allowing them to regulate immigration and colonization. Colonies of Americans in Texas now proliferated, until there were more than two dozen. The empresarios, those who received the grants (often millions of acres each), agreed to settle 100 to 800 families on the land within six years. By 1830, there were 16,000 Americans in Texas, while the Mexican population was not much more than 3,000. Austin’s original colony alone had more than 4,000 American settlers. The American settlements were generally peaceful, law-abiding, and prosperous. By now, they were calling themselves Texians.
In 1826, Austin organized a volunteer force of mounted rangers to control the Indians, especially the Comanche. Instead of allowing the Indians to take the initiative, as the Mexicans had, the rangers penetrated deep into Indian country and put surprised warriors to flight. The rangers served as volunteers, supplying their own horses and firearms, and were only activated intermittently. Nonetheless, they changed the balance of power on the Texas frontier and expanded the area open to peaceful settlement, something neither the Spaniards nor the Mexicans had been able to do.
Meanwhile, government authorities in Mexico City grew increasingly ambivalent about the success of the American colonies in Texas: Although a thinly populated and poor frontier province was now booming, it was becoming Americanized. The new Centralist government under Anastacio Bustamante dispatched a general to investigate. He reported that only in San Antonio and its hinterland were Mexicans in the majority. East of San Antonio, Americans outnumbered Mexicans ten to one. Moreover, noted the general, the Americans were industrious, prosperous, and ambitious.
Bustamante decided to garrison Texas with soldiers recruited from Mexican prisons who would remain in Texas as settlers after their terms of service. He also sharply reduced the autonomy of the states and declared an end to American immigration. Ironically, the first incident resulting from Bustamante’s policy was precipitated by an American, John Bradburn, serving as a colonel in the Mexican army. Late in 1831, Kentucky-born Bradburn arrived to command a Mexican garrison on Galveston Bay. Within months, he had ordered American settlers in the nearby community of Liberty off their land, declared martial law, and arrested several protesting Americans. When the Texians grabbed their Kentucky rifles and began a march on the garrison, they were attacked by Mexican troops. Ten of the Americans were killed before the settlers regrouped, killed five of the soldiers, and put the others to flight, most dropping their arms for a swifter escape. Although not understood at the time, the first shots of the Texas Revolution had been fired.
Bustamante would not be around to deal with the Texians. In January 1833, he was driven from office by Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana. Texians at first rejoiced, believing that the Federalist Santa Ana would restore the states’ rights abolished by Bustamante. Instead, Santa Ana dismantled the Federalist program, tore up the Mexican constitution, and ruled dictatorially. Santa Ana had Austin arrested, taken to Mexico City, and put in solitary confinement. Perhaps to mollify the Texians, Santa Ana allowed the resumption of American immigration. When he finally arrived in Texas with his army in 1836, Santa Ana faced, for the most part, not illegal aliens but Americans who had been invited into Texas and granted land to build an economy and pacify the frontier for Mexico. The Americans had done just that before a dictator in Mexico City decided to abolish their rights.