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the conquest of texas

22 july 2021

A few miles from where I live, a historical marker commemorates Edward Tarrant. In the spring of 1841, Tarrant led a gang of armed Anglo men on a search-and-destroy mission down a nearby creek. Tarrant was looking to shoot Native Americans and steal their stuff, a pastime that became more and more fashionable in Texas as Natives became less numerous and less able to defend themselves.

As Gary Anderson puts it in The Conquest of Texas (2005), "soon Tarrant (somewhat like Custer in a later age) recognized that he had taken on more than his force could handle" (193). The complex of Native villages that he had stumbled on, along what is still called Village Creek, held thousands of people, the last representatives of the farming cultures of the Caddo and Wichita. Tarrant and his men killed some Indians and took some plunder, but also lost a raider named John Denton to quickly-organized resistance. Then Tarrant, unlike Custer, retreated. He would live to see the surrounding area become a county named after him. The next county to the north is named Denton.

As you've probably guessed, the inhabitants of Village Creek were later evicted, somewhat more peacefully than many Texas Natives but just as inexorably. The creek they lived beside still winds south and east of Fort Worth till it dissipates into various water features – a manmade lake, some canals in a high-end subdivision, a water-treatment plant – on its way to join the Trinity River. Almost no sign that a large Native community once lived there persists. Apparently many archeological sites are buried under the lake, as if to hide them from historical memory as well as from sight. A scrap of linear park suggests the old settlement, but for the most part it is now as if it never had been.

My university is considering a land acknowledgment to be read aloud and incorporated in official documents, recognizing that our campus sits on lands expropriated from Caddo and Wichita peoples. As recently as 200 years ago, Native Americans were a substantial majority of the population in what is now Texas. That would change drastically in the ensuing half-century, the subject of Anderson's groundbreaking history of the ethnic cleansing of the state.

Ethnic cleansing, Anderson stresses, not the sometimes adduced "genocide." As Ronald Grigor Suny argues in writing about the Armenian Genocide, that term is best reserved for the removal of an ethnic group by killing them. Genocide involves mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and the related "ethnocide" (the destruction of a culture with its language and tradition) but mass murder can exist without an ethnic motive, and ethnocide and ethnic cleansing can exist without systematic killing. Forced assimilation is a form of ethnocide; Indian removals and expropriations were a form of ethnic cleansing; but not inevitably murder. Murder could become an object at times in the ethnic cleansing of Texas, but usually was incidental. That's hardly a comforting reflection, but "genocide" overstates what Texans did.

Anderson's account is largely a military history. The army is where the archives are, and any documentary history of the ethnic cleansing of Texas must rely on the records of the various services involved. But most Texas Indians were not killed directly in battle or massacre. In fact, federal troops had relatively peaceful, often supportive contact with Natives – not all the time, but by contrast, Anderson argues, to undisciplined Texas rangers. By the time the US Army arrived (after statehood in 1845), however, the Natives of west Texas had been ravaged by the old story: smallpox, drought, and the decline of the bison herds they depended on.

Anderson starts his narrative around 1820, as the process of winning Mexican independence from Spain was coming to fruition. In the new and politically turbulent Mexico, Texas was a far hinterland, the vast northeastern section of the state of Coahuila. Spanish settlement there had never been very extensive, confined to the Rio Grande valley, scattered coastal outposts like Copano, and the inland missions in San Antonio, Goliad and far-northeast Nacogdoches. A few Anglos had already arrived, and more would come with Stephen F. Austin in the 1820s. But most of the people of Texas were Natives.

These Natives were as diverse as the geography and extent of Texas itself: from displaced eastern "immigrant" Indians in east and northeast Texas, to the remnants of coastal Karankawa people already much reduced by contact with Spanish people, to the Caddo and Wichita farmers of the central regions and Comanche hunters on the western plains.

The Texas Revolution of 1836 played out in the context of these Natives. Many Natives were too far from the action to care, but Texan success depended on at least striking truces with the immigrants and "native" Natives who lived near the east-central districts they were trying to wrest from Mexico. Sam Houston, in Anderson's account, comes across as an opportunist but usually a friend to Indians, seeing the value of peace and respect for Indian land rights if it meant that he could concentrate on winning the war against Mexico.

Austin, by contrast, was a key figure in developing the "ranger" system of local militias devoted to killing or chasing away Indians from coveted lands; Austin was instrumental in clearing the southeast of Texas of its remaining Natives. Later on, Mirabeau Lamar and many another Hero of Texas come across in stark contrast to Sam Houston. Once independence was won, and increasingly after eastern Anglos flooded in with statehood in 1845, these leaders agitated for the removal of Indians from any area vaguely useful to Anglos – and with the constant pressure of new white immigration, more and more areas were considered useful.

Many of the "immigrant" Natives in the northeast left quietly for Indian Territory to the north – ostracized in Texas, frequently cheated and expropriated, they figured the relative preponderance of Indians in what would become Oklahoma would be a better situation. Caddos and Wichitas began a gradual retreat up the rivers of Texas to less and less desirable farming areas (Village Creek, in the pleasant Cross Timbers where I live now, being one of the last substantial communities). Increasingly, of course, Indians out beyond the ever-advancing "frontier" simply died of disease or famine.

Anderson's narrative becomes a long but sharply individuated series of local conflicts like the one commemorated here in Tarrant County. Often "conflict" is not even the right word. Texans were convinced that wild Indians were always ready to pillage their homes and rape their women, and seized every pretext to go out and kill Indians in pre-emptive revenge.

Indians occasionally did pillage, though Anderson insists that rape was taboo. Comanches in particular lived by raiding. Anderson treats raiding as a lifeway worthy of respect, but I think it must have been a scary annoyance, at the very best, to any neighbors of the Comanches. Apaches, Kiowas, and Wichitas had perhaps gotten used to Comanche raiding over the centuries, but intertribal conflict maintained a certain equilibrium. When the Comanches' hunting and raiding territories were invaded by an implacable wave of white settlers, true conflict did break out and both sides truly did terrible things. But the Comanches too were dying from sickness and hunger, and the whites inflicted far more direct terror on Comanches than Comanches ever did on them. Only in the rhetoric of the wild-West yarn did these Indians pose any existential threat to white Texans. In fact, Anderson argues, the typical frontier atrocity was committed by white outlaws against other white people, and blamed on Indians.

The turning point in Texas-Comanche relations came in 1840 at the Council House in San Antonio. Various Comanche leaders came to town to parley; they were used to negotiations being under sacrosanct truce. Their Texan hosts promptly butchered them. In Heroes-of-Texas mythology, this is called the "Council House Fight," but no less an authority than the Texas State Preservation Board admits that "'fight' probably isn't the best word for what happened there. Massacre might be a better word." Comanches never after trusted Texans, and Texan efforts – tempered sometimes more, sometimes less, by federal Indian agents and the U.S. Army – devolved into attacking Comanches on sight.

For a while in the 1850s, a system of federal reservations kept the peace; this system eventually broke down during the Civil War. Meanwhile, Caddos, Wichitas, and the remnants of other tribes gradually crossed into Indian Territory. At war's end, there was hope that new federal authorities might permanently cede the Texas Panhandle, dry and inhospitable, permanently to the Comanches; but even that then-useless territory proved too hard for Texans to resist, and they cleared Comanches from it, with the Army's help, in a series of attacks and massacres.

In stark contrast to nearly every other state west of the Sabine and Missouri Rivers, there are now just two Indian reservations in Texas, and both are tiny: the Alabama-Coushatta lands, a relic of the 1850s so deep in the piney woods of east Texas that no white people must ever have wanted them; and the Kickapoo Traditional lands along the Rio Grande, a vestige of times when that tribe, along with some Seminoles equally far from their ancestral homes, sought refuge in Mexico.

Oklahoma's 2019 edition of The Conquest of Texas comes in a laminated hardcover like an old-fashioned school textbook; it's a big heavy illustrated volume with good maps that I reckon sees adoption in many a college course on regional history. To the dismay, perhaps, of Texas state officials who are wedded to the Heroes narrative; but to the benefit of students who have grown up with "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." It helps to print the fact – or if you insist that all facts are interpretations, at least to print the documentary evidence that leads to alternative interpretations.

Anderson, Gary Clayton. The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic cleansing in the promised land, 1820-1875. 2005. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019. F 395 .A1A53