About a week ago I heard a podcast on the NPR show Fresh Air in which two Texas natives discuss the Alamo. Dave Davies interviews Bryan Burrough, one of the three authors (all of them from Texas) of the new book Forget the Alamo.
As a boy in the 1950s I had a coonskin hat in emulation of my hero, Davy Crockett. I saw the Disney TV series starring Fess Parker and the film The Alamo, in which Crockett was played by John Wayne. My father, a Navy pilot, took my brothers and me to visit the Alamo.
I recommend that you listen to the podcast at the link above and read the book. It not only shines a new light on my own and most Americans’ view of Texas history, it explains a lot about what is going on in Texas politics today.
Here are some extended excerpts from the book which give an outline of the book’s main subject:
On March 6, 1826, during what’s been known for almost two centuries as the Texas Revolution, around two hundred men were killed by Mexican troops at an old Spanish church outside San Antonio known as the Alamo. On this we can agree. But after that, pretty much everything—who died, how they died, why they died, and what they represented—has been a topic of debate ever since.
At its roots, the Texas Revolt was about money, how Texans made it, and why the Mexican government objected. This line of thinking is neither far-fetched nor dry nor boring. It is solidly grounded in facts, especially the fact of why almost every American came to Texas in the first place: to make money. And make it in a specific way: planting and selling cotton.
The story of Texas’s first fifteen years as an Anglo colony is the success story of a band of misfits and dreamers who came to forge sprawling cotton plantations. In just a scant few years, Texas cotton was being made into clothing as far away as England. The “Texians,” as they called themselves, revolted because they believed a new Mexican government threatened this economic model.
What was it they feared losing? In the pamphlets and newspaper articles that swirled through the revolt, it was always called “property.” The inarguable fact is that there was only one kind of property the Mexican government ever tried to take from its American colonists, and it tried to do so repeatedly. In the ten years before the Alamo, this single disagreement brought Texians and Mexican troops to the brink of warfare multiple times. So, what did the Mexicans want to take? It wasn’t the cotton. Or the land it was grown on. It was the third leg of the Texas economic stool, the “property” in which Texas farmers had invested more money, more working capital, than any other asset.
As hard as it may be to accept, Texas as we know it exists only because of slave labor. Southerners—and most Texians came from the South—wouldn’t immigrate to Texas without it. Thousands didn’t, in fact, worried that the Mexican government’s ingrained opposition to slavery put their “property” at risk. For Mexicans, newly freed from Spanish oppression, abolishing slavery was a moral issue. For the American colonists, it was an issue of wealth creation. In the early years, as we’ll see, each new Mexican effort to ban slaves got Texians packing to head back to America.
In later years, many put away their suitcases and took out their guns.
For more than a century, historians tiptoed around the importance of slavery to the state’s early development. Not until the 1980s did serious academic study of the subject really get under way, led by professors like Randolph B. Campbell at the University of North Texas and Paul D. Lack at Stevenson University. And not until recent years have historians taken the next step, arguing that the need to protect slavery was a driving force behind the Texas Revolt. The most notable book to support this hypothesis, Andrew J. Torget’s groundbreaking 2015 Seeds of Empire, proved enormously influential to our thinking. In these opening chapters, we draw heavily on its conclusions and research.
To understand what happened, as Torget demonstrates, it helps to understand how cotton and slavery transformed Texas almost overnight from a blood-drenched semi-wilderness—that’s no exaggeration—into a place where fortunes were made. Talking about the U.S. economy back when this all got started, in the late 1700s, in the era before factories, is a short conversation. There was shipbuilding and whaling in New England, production of things like glass and iron ore in the mid-Atlantic states, and a smattering of plantations farming sugar, rice, tobacco, and indigo in Georgia and the Carolinas. None of it was wildly profitable.
And then two sets of inventions forever changed America and its economy, especially in the South. The first came in Britain, where advances in cotton spinning, steam power, and iron furnaces led to the first true textile factories, which turned out cotton clothing for people around the world. Then, in 1793, an American tinkerer named Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, a machine that removes the seeds from cotton; “gin” is short for “engine,” by the way. Before the cotton gin, a single person using her fingers could clean and produce a pound of cotton a day. Using a gin, she could generate up to fifty pounds a day.
The pairing of British textile mills and the cotton gin produced an industrial big bang whose shock waves shook economies around the world. Nowhere was its impact more dramatic than in the American South, whose long, hot summers and fertile river bottoms made it perhaps the single best place on earth to grow cotton. Thanks to the insatiable British appetite for raw cotton—by midcentury, textiles accounted for 40 percent of all its exports—American cotton production exploded.
Suddenly all anyone in the South wanted to farm was cotton. Between 1794 and 1800, as Andrew Torget notes, “virtually every tobacco planter in the territory around Natchez, Mississippi, converted his farm to cotton, and in only six years the Natchez District increased its cotton production from 36,000 pounds annually to more than 1.2 million.” But production only truly took off after the War of 1812, when Andrew Jackson defeated the Creek Indians and made Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana safe for commerce. When the gun smoke cleared, the government put up for sale fourteen million new acres of prime cotton land—half the size of Alabama—at bargain prices. The price of cotton, meanwhile, soared.
This was the beginning of the “Gone with the Wind” South, of landed gentry building columned mansions and plantations. Cotton money made New Orleans the nation’s largest slave port and third-largest city. Natchez was home to more millionaires per capita than New York or Boston. And of course, it was the birth of the slave boom. In 1800, America held almost 900,000 enslaved Black people. By 1860, there would be almost four million. Hundreds of thousands were marched in chains from the mid-Atlantic states to the Gulf Coast to pick King Cotton.
Every year more people trundled down the Natchez Trace seeking their share of this fabulous new wealth. Eventually the best land was all taken. What to do? Everyone in the South knew what needed to be done. There were thousands of acres of prime cotton land still available, after all, and all of it could be had for a song. It was right there, so close you could see it, just across the Sabine River on the western edge of Louisiana. In Spanish Texas.
Forget the Alamo was written by three Texas reporters who, like me, heard nothing about the Texas revolt when they were kids except the myth: the story told in the Disney show and the John Wayne movie. All three of them are also white guys, like me, and I think we all wanted to believe the myth anyway, because we were the same color as the heroes of that story. They were talking about the Alamo at breakfast one day when one of them, Chris Tomlinson (whose family had lived in Texas for more than four generations), said “Everything you think you know about the Alamo is flat-out wrong.” That’s kind of how the idea for the book got started.
Here’s something they say in the book’s introduction:
We intend this book to be a serious look at the Alamo and its legend, but we’ve tried not to take ourselves too seriously. We come in the spirit of patriotic Americans who prize their native land but still aren’t quite sure that, you know, George Washington literally chopped down that cherry tree. We grew up with the myths and legends of Texas history, and we savor them for what they are: myths and legends. But as writers, we also love facts, especially the facts of history, and we don’t believe knowing the truth about Texas history makes the state any less unique or important.
The book is extremely well-researched and takes the story of the Alamo right up to the present day. Goveror Greg Abbott is not the first Texas politician to try to restrict what Americans can know about Texas history. John Steinbeck wrote in his book Travels With Charley: “I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion.”