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The Conquest of Texas

A column by DuWayne Smith about the history of the state of Texas and its unfair treatment of American Indians.

Indian Country Today Media Network staff recently posted a video of Cindy Jacobs (scroll to bottom), a self-appointed prophet of a militaristic Christian group, who claimed that Texas had been cursed by indigenous people who had once lived in the state.

She states that Native Americans in Texas had been “cannibals” and were “murderous,” and prayer was required to break the “curses over the land” brought about these indigenous peoples. She was thankful Rick Perry had “instigated” The Response, a prayer confab attended by 35,000 of the faithful. Although she did not claim it—this is what we might call an example of Texas exceptionalism.

Professor Gary Clayton Anderson of the University of Oklahoma addresses this sinister side of Texas exceptionalism in his book, The Conquest of Texas (University of Oklahoma Press, 2005). This is a dark book, a history of what Anderson calls “ethnic cleansing” in Texas, a cleansing inspired by “a driving sense of ‘exceptionalism’, the sense that such an ordained race could do no wrong.” The book is essentially a history of the eradication and ethnic cleansing of Indian peoples in Texas during the 19th century. The book is also an indictment of the Texas Rangers. Anderson is clear about the Rangers—“Rangers killed indiscriminately, they robbed, and they raped. Their goal was to spread terror so that neighboring Native groups would leave.”

Critical of historians who have written Texas history in heroic terms and glorified Texas Rangers in the past, Anderson claims that both textbooks and general histories have distorted the history of native peoples in Texas. Newer texts have not provided a remedy.

Professor Anderson states that the most widely read general history of Texas continues to be T.R. Fehrenbach’s Lone Star: A History of Texasand the Texans ( Da Capo Press, 2000). Fehrenbach has a section on the Texas frontier, giving it the title of “Red Niggers, Red Vermin”. According to Anderson, the author of Lone Star basically argues that early Texans were justified in taking the land, an act that “cannot be fairly rejected or criticized by those who failed to share the Texan experience.” Fehrenbach commonly uses the term “savage” in describing Texas Indians. “In all fairness,” Anderson states, “Fehrenbach’s popular study represents an approach that most academics have long since relegated to unused bookshelves. Yet general studies of the conflict over the promised land of Texas that would replace Fehrenbach’s volume have not appeared.”

Anderson is an historian, and does not mention anthropological books about native peoples of Texas. An ethnological book, W.W. Newcomb, Jr’s The Indians of Texas: From Prehistory to Modern Times (University of Texas Press, 1993) is readily available in Texas libraries. The publisher describes the book as “a classic work on the indigenous peoples of Texas.” The book is available in 169 public libraries in Texas and is probably the most readily available on the subject.

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Newcomb provides his rationale for the book, an approach that draws upon his anthropological background and his conviction that we should gain knowledge about others in the world. “Such knowledge”, he says, “sets the stage for a more intelligent and rational appreciation of other peoples in the world. To some it may seem odd, even grotesque, that a knowledge of savage Karankawas or blood-thirsty Comanches can be of help in this respect.” This is in the third paragraph of the foreword to his book. The reader, from the very foreword, is alerted to this author’s point of view about the Indian people who lived in Texas during the 19th century.

The author digs the hole a little deeper. It is important for him to tell us that all races have about the same “capabilities”, but he qualified his belief by stating, “this does not necessarily mean that human races are exactly equal in inherent intellectual capabilities. The members of some races, on the average, may be inherently superior or better able to perform certain activities than the average members of another race.” Texas exceptionalism? Newcomb ends his foreword to the book by justifying his use of “savage” and “barbaric”: these terms “are used to indicate levels of technological productivity and are not meant in a disparaging sense.” Again, this book is readily available in Texas public libraries and was reissued by the University of Texas Press as recently as 1993 with a note that it is “a classic work.”

Newcomb approaches the practice ofcannibalism with reference to a number of Texas tribes. This book may have been the source of information used by Cindy Jacobs on the video referred to earlier.

Regarding one Texas tribe, Newcomb states, “the Tonkawas have been traditionally characterized as savage and treacherous cannibals. The allegation is true to the extent that on occasion they did ritually consume the flesh of their enemies.” Yet, while offering this qualification, the author continues to provide the narratives of two 19th century Texans regarding Tonkawan cannibalism, giving very lengthy and graphic descriptions of body parts roasting in fire pits, etc. A serious reader would question the credibility of these anecdotes, but Newcomb offers no comments regarding possible exaggerations typical of 19th century frontier writers and genres.

So, there you have it. These two books are readily available for public reading in Texas. While we shouldn’t indict Texas public education in general, the books may provide some insight as to why Cindy Jacobs and her peers would have such derogatory views of Native peoples. The tone of these books may also give us a better perspective on how some people in Texas may continue to view cultural and racial diversity.

DuWayne Smith is retired from the U.S. Department of Labor where he was a manager of disability and rehabilitation programs. He was a Vista Volunteer and teacher in Native communities during the 1960s and early 1970s, received an M.Ed. in Indian Education from Arizona State University in 1968, and continues to have an interest in Indian Country.