Oh, I’m a good old Rebel,
That’s just what I am.
And for this damned Republic,
I do not give a damn!
I’m glad I fought agin it,
I only wish we’d won,
And I don’t want no pardon,
For anything I done!
—Maj. James Randolph, CSA
Not long ago, Texas Gov. Rick Perry shocked the nation by announcing that Texas might secede from the Union. This gave rise to a chorus of wry commentary as well as outraged responses from many who regarded the notion as arcane, if not patently absurd. Most Americans felt the matter was settled in 1865. A lot of Texans took it for the braying of a none-too-bright unreconstructed rebel displaying a diehard attitude. They swallowed such nonsense with the same salty seasoning they might apply to restroom graffiti that declares, “The South’s Gonna Rise Again.”
Apart from the quasipolitical motivations of Governor Perry’s remark, though, his threat turned up the heat on a simmering pottage of identity crisis in the Lone Star State. Whether Texas is an extension of the Old South, or whether it more properly belongs to the Old West, is a volatile mixture that often boils over into acrimonious debate.
Although Texas is routinely ignored by historians who focus on the traditional environs of Dixie, the state’s cultural foundations are firmly secured in the South; but to many Westerners, Texas is nothing more than an impostor, a corn-pone nester intruding on their frontier. Just as Southerners spurn Texas’s claim on Southern heritage, Westerners tend to blackball Texas from the sorority of pioneer spirit. Both groups point to Texas and say to the other, “You take it.”
Texans themselves have long argued the point. Walter Prescott Webb, Texas’s most distinguished native-son historian, dealt with it years ago when he urged Texas to “plow around” the bitterness of the past, meaning the defeatist legacy of “The War”—as it’s still called in Texas—and to accept the Western ideal. The Southern roots so tenaciously clung to by many native Texans are fixed in a tragic and even decadent period that is best forgotten. As Perry’s ill-advised remark reveals, that’s easier said than done.
It would seem that Texans should prefer a Western identity and image. Jeans and boots, Stetsons and leather vests seem more appealing than brogans, bib overalls, and brocade, after all. One would think that the symbol of the free-spirited “cowboy” would easily trump the dispossessed hillbilly of the sweltering South. Even so, Texans drawl out their Southern accents with the broad vowels and dropped consonants of the best Dixie patois. Texas dinner tables are familiar with ham and black-eyed peas, collards and cornbread; the beverage of choice is usually sweet tea or Dr Pepper. They say “fixin’ to” and “y’all” and use yonder as a proximate distance. In their music, their art, their sport, and their social priorities, Texans may shout “Western,” but they exude “Southern,” right down to their admiration of Spanish moss and peach blossoms.
If one reads the novels of Larry McMurtry and Elmer Kelton, then works by Horton Foote and George Sessions Perry, the question has to be asked: “Are they all writing about the same place?”
The issue is less one of confused identity than it is of blended cultures, an amalgamation of both the best and the worst of the developed and staid Southern attitude and lifestyle as it mixed with wild and woolly frontier enterprise that “plowed” westward. This makes the emergent culture, somewhat obviously, Southwestern, blending the genetics of both regions.
Historically, the term Southwest denotes a cultural extension of the South to the West, not a geographic distinction. Many Southerners originally wanted to extend the regional South—and slavery, especially—to that vast, newly acquired area of the Mexican Cession mapmakers designated mostly as Desert. The failed plan was to push Southern political influence from the Rio Grande across New Mexico to the Pacific. But in practical terms, for Texans, civilization ended at the 98th Meridian that bisects Texas from the Red River to the Mexican border. This would remain both a psychological and a real barrier, seldom breached until 1875 or so. It eventually became clear that the state’s future—indeed, its hope for prosperity—lay west of that line, in the land “where the deer and the antelope play.” It was also there that the most enduring image of Texas as home to the Longhorn and six-gun-toting buckaroo would be born.
But to imagine Texas merely casting off its Confederate panoply and donning a cowboy outfit is a mistake. The underlying impulse for Texas’s Western tradition still has cultural antecedents derived directly from settlers from Georgia and Alabama, the Carolinas and Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. In almost every way, the dominant cultural force in Texas’s version of the West has always been the South.
When Stephen F. Austin established his colony on the banks of the Brazos in 1821, there was a resonating clash of Southern and Hispanic aristocratic autocracies that were quickly emulsified. The difference between black slavery and Mexican peonage was more a matter of moral semantics than application, and Spanish patronage was not much different from antebellum agrarian organization. Initially, those who crossed the Sabine were “upper Southerners” from the trans-Appalachian region, Tennessee and Kentucky; they were quickly joined by immigrants from the Deep South proper. They brought a way of life that was unquestionably Southern to a place that was remarkably familiar. They found dense forests and lazy rivers, broad savannahs and rich black soil ideal for cotton and cane. The wealthy built plantations, dressed in the height of Southern fashion, and migrated antebellum culture as far as the shady promenades of San Antonio.
The revolt that ultimately broke out in 1836 was less a conflict of political than of cultural dominance. In one sense, it was an extension of Southerners’ visions of an expanded South; in another sense, it was as inevitable as Manifest Destiny, of which it was most decidedly a part.
From the beginning, then, Texas was primarily Southern and still is. Texans talk Southern, act Southern, vote conservative, and take pride in their Southern history. They shamefully subjugate African-Americans, are only marginally tolerant of non-Christian faiths, and proudly trace their genealogies back to Confederate generals. Certainly, in the literature, music, and other cultural manifestations—religion, customs, manners, and mores—the first century and a half of Texas’s history reflects nothing stronger than a pervasive Southern distinctiveness. “Gone to Texas” was a Southern cliché long before Sherman marched to the sea, and to many opportunity-minded individuals, Texas represented, as early as 1824, a grand chance to march the South as far as the Golden Gate.
It was not a pure Southernism, though. Hispanic culture retreated but left behind traditions, institutions, language, and customs that were modified and absorbed by the Southern émigrés. What was established, at least north of the Nueces and east of the Brazos, was a fountainhead of ethos that was rich with the same trappings of most all the antebellum states but spicily flavored by a Latino legacy.
For these dislocated Southerners to move west and embrace that emerging culture was not immediately possible. Before 1875, San Antonio or maybe Fredericksburg was as far west as they could reasonably (or safely) extend their influence. Unlike their Southern forebears who handily defeated and drove out the Creek, Cherokee, and Seminole, Texas Southerners were for half a century stopped cold by the Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache, tribes who brutally defined the western perimeter of southern Texas on that same north-south axis, known colloquially in the period as “the Indian line.”
But that was not the only problem. West of that imaginary border, topography changes. Piney forests give way to broad grasslands; trees, where they exist at all, become small, scraggly affairs; hills are rocky, flat-topped mesas infested with stinging insects and poisonous reptiles; rivers dry up to sandy roads pockmarked with quicksand pools and alkali-choked springs. Plants are thorny and sparse, and gravelly desert stands in for meadows and bottomland. Animals become shaggier, more vicious, and impossible to domesticate; the weather harshens to devastating droughts and frigid “blue northers,” complete with flash floods and catastrophic cyclones, prairie fires, and searing dust storms to offer four full seasons of misery. In addition, there were roaming bands of Comancheros, Mexican bandits, and American outlaws. In the Texas West, what was to be found was a hellish, inhospitable clime. In sum, this was the Southwest.
For most of a century, therefore, Texas looked east—to the South—not west, and it was marked indelibly by Southern heritage, Southern pride, and also by Southern despair. It was no wonder to anyone that Texas was among the first states to leave the Union in 1861, or that Texas troops became prominent in Confederate lore. When combined with an ugly oppression of blacks well into the present day, the case for Texas remaining one of the most unrepentant Southern states seems airtight.
Nowhere in the South was Reconstruction less effective than in Texas. The impact was often as harsh as it was anywhere in the South, but there was no physical devastation such as in Alabama or Georgia. The vestiges, good and bad, of the Old South were, in a way, preserved in place, then, later, were adapted for a new frontier. Wealthy planters traded slavery for sharecrop-lien systems and held on to the Democratic Party until after LBJ, at least. Then the state moved further and further toward an entrenched conservatism that reflects the same pattern of radical political philosophy found throughout the South. To Governor Perry and many others, Texas was beaten but was never bowed by that antique war. The soul of the South and the spirit of the Rebel were sustained and continue to flourish throughout the state.
After “The War,” once the Indians were driven out, civilization was carried west into the ranch and farmlands of that portion of the state that the Spanish had labeled “tierra despoblado” and had written off two centuries before. Texans brought their Southern identities with them. Rebel images are common in the shape of Stars and Bars flags as high-school emblems, and Confederate memorials guard courthouses of counties that weren’t even organized in 1865. One can find as many Southern symbols in Abilene as in Beaumont, and committed “states’ righters” litter the prairie all the way from Brownsville to Dalhart. So many Western novels and motion pictures have as their hero an unreconstructed rebel that it would appear that El Paso and Fort Worth, Lubbock and Amarillo, the most stereotypically “Western” of Texas locales, were more staunchly Confederate than were Richmond or Atlanta.
The period of time popularly defined as the “Old West,” or the trail-drive-dominated, big-ranch era of Western history, lasted just over two decades, from the late 1860’s until the early 1890’s; but it was long enough to establish the archetypes of the West as synonymous with Texas in the nation’s, if not the world’s, geographic and cultural idiom. No individual in New York or Nuremberg who ever appeared in the garb of a cowboy has failed to find himself called “Tex.” And wherever icons of Texas are displayed, one find spurs, chaps, branding irons, ten-gallon hats, and barbed wire. But more appropriate symbols of Texas’s historical identity would be represented by the horse-collar, the plow, the cotton bale, the hoe. The romantic image of the lone cowboy, surveying the horizon from the “hurricane deck of a Spanish pony,” as Charlie Siringo put it, was less significant to Texas than the “sod-buster,” the “clod-hopper,” the sharecropping farmer sweating to eke out a living from a hardscrabble holding that provided less rain and more hazard than any arable land in North America. As much as “Big Tex,” “Old McDonald” should properly stand as the image of the heroic Texan. His was the legacy of the Deep South, the American agrarian working in a new and harsher rendition of the American grain.
Far more than the grassy prairies of West Texas that would attract some of the largest cattle ranches in history, the greater incentive for immigration from the East to the West was farmland, and plenty of it. Settlers brought along with them elements of Southern lifestyle and culture that took root and grew as certainly as cotton, wheat, and alfalfa, mules and hogs, okra and squash. The geography and topography and its sparse rainfall, shallow topsoil, and vast, empty plains bore little resemblance to the “Old South”; but the immigrants, emerging from a staid Southern heritage, enthusiastically embraced the wilderness and expansive braggadocio of West Texas. There, the plantation became the ranch and farm, a combination of the Southern plantation and the Spanish hacienda; Spanish Catholicism yielded to fundamentalist Protestantism, and the tenets of conservative stasis were augmented by an ability to “ride out,” to find a place of one’s own in an enormously empty and apparently limitless land. This was the West, but quickly it was utterly reflective of Southern culture, modified and adapted, flavored by Hispanic heritage, mixed with the harshness and hostility of the frontier.
In this exodus of culture from one place to another, the South becomes the West, for it is here that the values that eventually would harden themselves into the “Code of the West”—Texas style—would be formed. Its resemblance to the antebellum ideals of “Southern chivalry” is in no way accidental.
The Southern legacy—positive and negative—therefore made its own way to the West, and it is in that inexorable migration that the modern Texas image is formed. Certainly, oil eventually replaced cattle and cotton as a principal enterprise; the banker replaced the stockman, and the roughneck joined with the cowboy and plowboy; and the Southern belle cum saloon girl and rancher’s daughter became the cheerleader-homecoming queen cum “Honkytonk Angel.”
Today, a new transition is evident, with golden-glassed office buildings and high-tech industries rising to offer new archetypes, and money and manipulation offering a bromide for Texans’ spiritual needs. But overall, there remains a connection between the old Southern planter or recalcitrant rebel and easy-flowing way of life, and the West Texas image of the footloose cowboy and grimly determined rancher, sunbaked farmer, or wildcat oil man. And it is in that connection that the accurate identity of Texas is forged into something that is, unmistakably, the Southwest.
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