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Behind the Curtain of the Lone Star

Unsettled Land, Book Cover

Unsettled Land: From Revolution to Republic, the Struggle for Texas
By Sam W. Haynes

New York: Basic Books, 2022.
496 pp. $29.79 hardcover.

Reviewed by
John Mckiernan-González

The 1619 Project is part of a broader curiosity regarding exclusions in public memories of the distant past and an interest in life available in archives and the first drafts of history. People in Texas have been part of this re-appraisal. The ambitious rhetoric, failed ambitions, and violence that shaped Mexican independence from Spain and similar ambitious rhetoric, failed ambitions and violence that defined the slave-holding secession movement in Coahuila y Tejas seem ideal reasons to publish another account of the trajectory of the Republic of Texas in light of a more democratic, inclusive and engaged reading public. 

   The Texas legislature—knowing the popular appeal of origin stories yet reluctant to recognize the central role of enslavement, eradication, racial displacement and internationally recognized military weakness that accompanied the mere eleven years of the Republic of Texas—established the 1836 project to explain why, “where three hundred years of indigenous, Spanish and Mexican control had seen Tejas as a problem province, incoming Americans saw a land of boundless opportunity.” In Unsettled Land, Haynes tracks how key Cherokee, Black, Native, Mexican, and Anglos (mostly men) sought to create opportunity for themselves, their communities and their allies in a wide swath of land during the emergence of an independent Mexico and an expanding United States.  Rather than cede the memory of the time of the Republic of Texas to “popular historians,” Haynes has brought the weight of scholarship on enslavement, social history, and ethnic and indigenous scholarship to bear on the three decades that shaped the emergence and collapse of the Republic of Texas.

   This book rewards readers’ curiosity regarding the multicultural reality of Texas, regularly pointing out how deeply dependent different “Texians” were on the actions of Cherokee and Plains communities, on the labor of enslaved smuggled African workers, on the military skills of Mexican landowners, politicians, and entrepreneurs, on political conflicts in Mexico and on the economic and political aid provided by people in the United States. If there is a usable past in this account, it surely lies in the ongoing perils of overreach and the unrecognized importance of alliances and persistent diplomacy. This is a timely book. Its size demonstrates the scale of difficulty required to tell a multi-ethnic story about nineteenth century Texas.

   To me (a scholar of the twentieth century), the three most original parts of this book are the diplomatic negotiations by Richard Bowls Duwali and Western Cherokee communities with Mexican officials; the importance of Nacogdoches for understanding the place for a multi-ethnic future in Texas; the rich and textured connections of political leadership in Texas to the circuits of political power in Mexico and the United States. Hayes puts the origins of the Republic of Texas in the displaced Cherokee who move south of the Red River and start establishing farms and trading with the existing native, black, and Mexican communities already living in the greater Nacogdoches area. The expulsion of the Five Civilized Tribes from what is now the Deep South (the Trail of Tears) forced local Mexican officials to start negotiating with a community in formation who refused to submit to U.S. commands to settle in Indian Territory. Hayes recreates negotiations and entreaties between Bowls and federal officials in North Texas and Mexico City to demonstrate how refugee communities sought to build a stable legal environment and farmland in exchange for military labor and Mexican citizenship. They sought—and almost achieved—being given empresario status in a manner analogous to the Austin patriarchs. The Western Cherokee, Wichita, and others became key military allies in fostering rebellion and—more important—in countering rebellions and riots by white Americans. Their decisions not to intervene during the mobilizations by Texas-Mexicans and Anglos for a measure of independence gave insurrectionists enough space to move supplies south and west from Missouri and Arkansas. When the political importance of native diplomacy is conjoined to the military might and economic prowess of different Comanche leaders, the rise of the Republic reads even more tragically when the importance of native allies to an independent Texas turns into the importance of the eradication of native allies for an independent Texas.

   Hayes turns Nacogdoches into a symbol of an ethnically diverse, open, free-wheeling, and entrepreneurial Texas. In his words, “a motley assortment of Anglo-Americans, French Creoles and runaway slaves, while Indian refugees like the Cherokees also became part of the life if the town.” The story of multi-ethnic Nacogdoches rests on the fate of William Goyens, a blacksmith, mule-train organizer, and local political leader, who also happened to be black, multi-lingual, and fluent in Cherokee. Goyens becomes key to understanding the complicated negotiations between Mexican officials and Cherokee communities, for marshalling local support against white American settlers, and for pointing out the complicated multi-ethnic terrain of East Texas. The rise of Nacogdoches as a trade hub between Mexico and the United States maps nicely with the egalitarian ambitions of liberals in Mexico. However, this is not where the story ends. When Texas legislators move decisively to exclude any Black person from participating as citizens in the economics or the politics of Texas, Goyens begins a long challenge to these laws. Using his status as a property owner, a respected businessman and an entrepreneur, Goyens sues for the same privileges and land headrights recently arrived white migrants from Louisiana receive from the Republic of Texas and loses repeatedly.  Hayes describes Goyens’ diminishing ability to politically defend his rights and his property, while pointing to his ability to still hold property under the Republic of Texas and the State of Texas as proof of individual persistence and dogged community resistance to the state drive to make every Black person in Texas a piece of working property.

   A key innovation in Unsettled Land lies in Hayes’s decision to place Lorenzo de Zavala, Sam Houston, and José Navarro on complementary arcs. All three had strong connections to elite politics in their countries. Houston worked closely with Andrew Jackson, before deciding to abandon his political career in Kentucky and make his way to Mexican Texas. Lorenzo de Zavala became a kingmaker in political circles in Mexico City, before deciding to go into a self-imposed exile in upstate New York. Navarro becomes an avid defender of autonomy and then independence and then a legislator in the Republic. The discussion of developments in Mexico City that push Navarro and de Zavala out of political relevance bring out the importance of complicated political allegiances in Mexico to the history of Texas. Houston’s role in propagandizing and fund raising for the cause of U.S. settlers in Northern Mexico in defending slavery (they called it fighting the tyranny of abolition) demonstrates the importance of both abolition and pro-slavery arguments to the political culture of the Antebellum United States. All three end up defending the importance of alliances forged during the war of secession, weakly and unsuccessfully defending the rights of Mexican and native individuals who contributed to the independence and stability of Texas. While Houston ends up successfully negotiating the annexation of Texas to the United States and becoming governor, all three lay at the borders of an aggressive white supremacist Texas identity that believes—despite repeated military failures in campaigns against Mexico and native communities—that only violence can lead to economic stability and political success.

   Though the political narrative and rhetorical conflict between Mirabeau Lamar, Thomas Jefferson Green, and Sam Houston is entertaining, Unsettled Land points out the inability of the Republic of Texas to mount a sustained military campaign against Mexico or the Comanche. Moreover, military leaders among the Comanche and in Mexico regularly organize successful raids deep into San Antonio and the Gulf Coast and despite the rhetoric of “savage Indians” and “tyrannous Mexicans,” the much-vaunted Texas Rangers are unable to stop these incursions. In Unsettled Land, the key contribution of the Republic of Texas to the history of Texas is in establishing slave-holding cotton plantations and sugar enclaves on land once held by Cherokee and Caddo and Karankawa communities. It is a gripping story, with multiple complicated protagonists, and a framework that makes Mexican, indigenous, and black protagonists key to the origin of Texas.

   Unsettled Land is both a synthesis of earlier work on the Republic of Texas and a gripping elaboration of Sam W. Haynes’s groundbreaking work on the military and diplomatic history of Mexico, Texas, and the United States. The book is deeply grounded in archives in Mexico City, Coahuila, as well as the southern United States. Hayes uses these archives set up situations that set up the violence and desolation that will haunt you long after you finish this book. This work will reward the efforts of Texas history buffs as well as people seeking a comprehensive and inclusive understanding of a key part of Mexico and the United States.

John Mckiernan-González is the Director of the Center for the Study of the Southwest, the Jerome and Catherine Supple Professor of Southwestern Studies, and an Associate Professor of History at Texas State University.  His first book, Fevered Measures: Public Health and Race at the Texas-Mexico Border, 1848-1942 (Duke, 2012), treats the multi-ethnic making of the U.S. medical border in the Mexico-Texas borderlands.”