My Own True Love and I recently spent a week in Austin, Texas. The reason for the visit was a family wedding. It was everything a wedding should be, full of love, creativity, and open-hearted hospitality. (Not to mention great food and dancing.) We ate, danced, mingled,* toasted the newlyweds, and danced some more
I’m sure it doesn’t surprise you to hear that we left ourselves plenty of time for history nerd side trips.
Our first stop was the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum: three beautifully designed floors of Texas history, from the arrival of the Spanish (1528) through the Apollo 11 moon landing (1969), with a few random events on either side of that time line. We planned to spend the morning and stayed most of the day.
The museum won my heart in the first few minutes with a single exhibit heading that upended the normal way we tell colonial history: “Coastal Indians Discover the Spanish”. The rest of the museum wasn’t quite so radical, though it kept our attention for five hours. The first floor concentrated on European settlement through Mexican independence. The second floor told the story of the Texas war of independence against Mexico and the Republic of Texas’s subsequent admission to the United States. The third floor covered the period after the American Civil War. I think it’s a fair statement that the history grew less nuanced with each floor. By the third floor, narrative disappeared altogether, replaced with a series of themes in the style I think of as “just one dang thing after another”. **
If you already know a lot about Texas history, this probably isn’t the museum for you. Personally, I was shocked to discover how little I know about the early history of the American West in general and Texas in particular, though I know more than I did ten days ago. Here are some of the historical bits that caught my imagination at the Texas State History Museum:
- It’s no coincidence that New Orleans and San Antonio were founded the same year. The Spanish settled Texas as a buffer zone against those pesky French, who were moving west along the coast from the Mississippi.
- After gaining its independence in 1821, Mexico put systems in place to encourage immigration and settlement in the open plains of “Tejas”. Foreigners poured in from Germany, France and the southern United States. (The land deals were so good that some Americans walked away from existing homesteads leaving signs on the door that said simply “GTT”: Gone To Texas. Evidently text-speak isn’t new.) By 1830, Anglos (loosely defined) outnumbered native Tejanos by as much as 10 to 1 in some parts of the region.
- Independent Mexico built its army with equipment purchased from Great Britain, which had a surplus of gear after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Great Power supplies small/new country with arms. Hmm, sounds familiar.
- A great motto from the Women’s Club of Waco, Texas: “If we rest, we rust.” I’m tempted to paint that on the wall of my new office.
I would have liked more about native cultures in the regions prior to the arrival of the Spanish and about the forces that drove Europeans to Texas. But neither of those would have fit into the avowed mission of the museum: Texas state history.
Next stop: the LBJ Presidential Library
* Or at least tried to mingle. I’m better at dancing.
**In all fairness, the closer you get to the current day the harder it is to create a meaningful large scale narrative. There is too much to choose from and it’s difficult to identify what items are truly meaningful.