Books: Wednesday, December 07, 2005
Author Gary Clayton Anderson says that Texans tried to systematically wipe their ‘Promised Land’ clean of Indians.
The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land 1820-1875, by Gary Clayton Anderson\r\nUniversity of Oklahoma Press\r\n$29.95\r\n458 pps.
Ethnic Cleansing in Texas

A new book recounts the years of battle that resulted in the deaths of several thousand indigenous Americans.


The Conquest of Texas is one of the most important books on Texas history ever written. Through painstaking research, author Gary Clayton Anderson methodically uncovers the lies, manipulation, distortions, racism, treachery, and murder used to “cleanse” Texas of American Indian people and, to a smaller extent, Tejanos (original Mexican-Texans), who were in the way of total Anglo-Texan consumption of this promised land. Civilization was to be marked by one ideal: People who exhibited any otherness (or could not be coerced into service of that conquest and consumption, such as black slaves or traitorous Indian scouts) were to be forcibly removed or killed. The author writes, “As violence toward blacks, Indians, and Tejanos escalated, racial hatred became compatible with honor. Indeed, the white man’s honor, the black man’s slavery, the Indian’s savagery, and the Tejano’s passivity and backwardness became embedded in this evolving Texas creed.”

This book might be uncomfortable reading for people who grew up believing in the southern, hallowed, and nationalistic myth of Texas as an archangel’s triumph of good over evil, but it’s not a polemic. The University of Oklahoma professor’s writing style is calm and understated. A story largely written in grass and rivers, this is legendary history played out on an incredibly magnificent, varied landscape. Anderson doesn’t provide much sense-of-place color in the telling. Readers may have to rely on their own knowledge of natural Texas to fully view the story.

Anderson writes that “Texas remained in a virtual state of war for nearly fifty years, the longest continuous struggle of its kind in American history.” He makes a distinction between genocide and the newer concept of ethnic cleansing, a lesser charge based on removal by any means. But the author’s research repeatedly undercuts that distinction, as volunteer militias, incited by politicians’ racist oratory, hunt down and kill Indian people on sight for sport, honor, glory, and plunder. These paramilitary groups became known as the heralded Texas Rangers. The “Texas Creed” (replicated in varying forms all over the American West) was thus enshrined. Indians were at best subhumans who “had no right of soil” and savaged pure, noble, and innocent settlers. Killing Indians became government policy when second Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar prescribed “an exterminating war” of “total extinction.”

The problem is that the most destructive Indian raids on record, between 1836 and 1838, “resulted in eighteen deaths and the carrying into captivity of a dozen women and children.” The total number of Anglo-Texans killed by revenge-seeking Indians (mostly Comanches) during the entire historic period is just a sliver of the thousands of Indians, including women and children, directly slaughtered by whites. Entire tribes like the Karankawas were killed to extinction. Indian towns up and down the coast, river valleys, prairies, plains, Hill Country savannahs, and Trans-Pecos desert grasslands were destroyed. People were burned alive in their “dens,” their belongings looted, horses stolen or shot, and all remaining items and houses set on fire. Regarding the supposed rapes of white women by Indians, before or during war, there existed very strong taboos among Texas Plains tribes against any contact by warriors with women, even their own. The occasional white woman taken captive was tied up, rarely even spoken to, and handed over to the Indian women who “seasoned” and sometimes beat her until she got acclimated to working life in the villages. In contrast, recorded and documented raping and mutilation of Indian women after massacres by Texas Rangers was as common as their lucrative pillaging.

While Indian people — already weakened by disease, killings, and starvation (as their farms and the buffalo were wiped out) — lost more of their homeland and sought to defend themselves, the Texas press grew massively complicit in fanning the flames of hatred and hysteria, and printed outright lies and serial distortions. It all spelled ultimate doom, even for those immigrant and native Indians who first helped Texans kill other Indians, only to find bullets left over for them, too, in the end.

The Conquest Of Texas reveals some information not commonly known. Before Texas broke from Mexico and became an independent country, it banned slavery for a moment until “Anglo Founding Father” Austin stepped in. Sam “Big Drunk” Houston and William Barrett Travis were illegal immigrants into Texas. President (and San Jacinto battle hero) Houston was a moderate compared to the likes of Lamar and murderous Edward Burleson and John R. Baylor (of Weatherford, who published the rabid newspaper The Whiteman and whose family helped found Baylor University). And lawless Anglos raiding white settlements often disguised themselves as Indians, using bison hair and painting their skin dark so Indians would be blamed.

While methodical, the writing comes alive in descriptions, like that of the drought years and intense blizzards; fierce Granny Parker, who was left in only her undergarments after her woven clothes (preferred over deerskin) were stolen by Indian raiders; General Tarrant’s somewhat Custer-like appearance in a large Indian town just south of Fort Worth; the cowardly retreat of 300 Rangers after a thwarted attack on the meager catch-all reservation established on the upper Brazos; and the tense, final removal under federal army protection of reserve Indians north into Indian Territory.

Reading this book is like watching footage of a terrorist attack. We basically know what happened, but this lets you see the truth and details unfold. The experience is cumulatively traumatic and works a slow burn into the subconscious, even into dreams at night. Perhaps this is because the Texas culture of greed, violence, and murder was always a choice. Perhaps because the wanton ruin of Texas’ environment, watersheds, and wildlife, including the herds of bison, antelope, and elk, did not have to happen. Perhaps because so much of this history happened right here in the former Garden of Eden – fertile, familiar territory at our feet, with places, streets, and towns named after Indians or the people who committed heinous atrocities against them. You may find yourself haunted by thoughts of the hapless and purposely peaceful Waco Wichitas, their yellow grass huts and domestic river gardens of corn, melons, beans, and pumpkins. Every time they moved, they got attacked, shot, and burned. One desperate Waco woman, taken captive by Burleson’s rangers, seeing her town burned again and more relatives murdered, “killed her infant daughter and tried desperately to commit suicide.” “[A] ranger dragged her to a [Trinity] riverbank, forced her to kneel and cut off her head.” They threw her into the river.

This is grass and riverbanks that we know.

How much of the Texas creed, that hatred of otherness, still exists, not only here, but across the American West? Witness the current energized attacks on gay and lesbian Americans. Or the ongoing aerial gunning and poisoning of native animals. This book gives us raw history. The question is: What are we going to do now? Here in Texas, in Colorado, across the American West, you may occasionally see elements of that hatred in people’s eyes, the feeling that in a moment, if current systems broke down, they could easily be given over to murder and, with advanced firepower ... sure of their power ... .

Texas is now a minority-majority, very multicultural state. History is not over. It’s time for a new Texas Revolution, but this time the only killing that needs to be done is that of the hatred. It’s time to kill that shit right out of the land.

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