Texas declared its independence from Mexico on March 2, 1836.
For many people, the words “Texas Independence” call to mind images of James Bowie, William Travis and Davy Crockett bravely defending the Alamo against Mexican troops, fighting for freedom despite being vastly outnumbered.
Many Texans today have a fascination with the idea of independence. In recent years, any perceived overreach by the federal government has been met with calls for Texas' secession by a very vocal minority.
But this emphasis on total independence didn't always exist.
“Texas has constructed for itself a very unique culture and a unique kind of mythology around independence,” said Angela Diaz, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in Texas history for the Texas Tech University Department of History. “The idea of an independent Texas nation, I think, is more valued today than it was in the 1830s and 1840s.”
What's so special about the 1830s? Ironically, that's when Texas achieved its independence.
In the early 1830s, Texas was a Mexican state. Mexico had outlawed slavery in 1829, a move that brought slave-owning Texans nearly to the brink of revolution.
“Independence isn't necessarily about frontiersmen going out and taking this new land; it's about Mexican politics,” Diaz said. “People in Texas wanted a particular outcome and they wanted more rights for their state in Mexico. One of the things Anglos wanted was to protect the institution of slavery. The war is very much about protecting their rights as a state, protecting slavery, and as people against an overreaching tyrant like Antonio López de Santa Anna. Then, it quickly spiraled into fighting for independence.”
The Texas Revolution began in October 1835 with the Battle of Gonzales. Within the next three months, Texans drove out all Mexican army troops. But in January 1836, Santa Anna returned to put down the rebellion. On March 2, Texas officially declared its independence from Mexico and became the Republic of Texas. Just four days later, the Alamo fell after a 13-day siege by Mexican troops, and all of the Texan defenders were killed.
“Remember the Alamo” would become a rallying cry against Mexico. The Texans defeated Santa Anna's army at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, and Santa Anna was captured the following day, effectively ending the war.
But the new Republic of Texas didn't necessarily want to remain independent, Diaz said.
“Texans were very invested in being annexed into the United States,” she said. “Being an independent nation is very difficult, and they were heavily in debt and vulnerable to being taken over again by Mexico or several other countries interested in gaining territory in North America. Today, we have a notion of the Texas Republic as something that marks us as a different kind of place than other parts of the United States. That's one of the Texas Revolution's legacies, this cultural mythology of a frontier type place. It's really the birth of Texas culture in many ways.”
Diaz said the reason she initially began studying Texas history was the interesting convergence of disparate groups in one place: Mexicans, European immigrants, southern whites, African-Americans and Native Americans.
In combination with the Mexicans in Texas at the time, many people were emigrating from Europe. Immigrants tended to shy away from southern slave states before the Civil War, so the fact that immigrants still came to Texas fascinated Diaz.
“Many white southerners tended to see immigrants as possible abolitionists or a possible threat to them, and there just wasn't the type of work that was available up north for them, so those two populations in a place with slavery is very interesting,” she said. “Southern whites in Texas had to try to not only enforce their power over enslaved black people, but also these other groups and Native Americans.”
That unlikely meshing of peoples contributed in large part to Texas' success in gaining its independence.
“In some ways, Texas became independent because there were a lot of Anglo-Americans present in Texas who always thought Texas would become a part of the United States, so independence in their minds is a part of that,” Diaz said. “Independence also comes from the fact that Tejanos, or Mexican-American people living in Texas, saw themselves as Tejanos first and Mexican citizens second. They saw themselves as very far away from Mexico City. Their interests aligned, in this moment, with the interests of Anglos who were immigrating to Texas in the 1830s.
“It's both of those groups who worked together to secede from Mexico, and they actually managed to do it successfully. I often tell my students it's the only southern state that actually seceded successfully from anyplace.”
Diaz said she's most interested in the extent to which Mexican-Americans are always part of Texas history.
“Oftentimes, we think they disappeared after the Texas Revolution, but they're always there, as a part of society, Texas politics, culture and economics,” she said. “One of the things I like to remind my students is that, of those involved in the Texas Revolution, the only people who were actually born in Texas were the Tejanos. Everyone else was a recent arrival to Texas. So their story is as much a part of the Texas Revolution as Davy Crockett.”