Texas: The Death of the Natives

The Conquest of Texas was the last book Barbara Epstein sent me for review. My words are in her honor.


Gary Clayton Anderson, author of this thunderclap of a book, lives in Norman, Oklahoma, which is just a hop, a skip, and a jump from Texas, far too close, I would think, for a scholar who has now suggested that the Texas Rangers—our heroes, our protectors—are pretty much the moral equivalents of certain paramilitary units from the former Yugoslavia—Balkan death squads, in effect. If I had made that comparison I would immediately check out the housing situation in Spitzbergen, where there’s lots of dark to hide in. Certainly I would settle as far as I could get from the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, which is in Waco, Texas, a very short distance itself from the famous ranch house where it was once suggested that Laura Bush sweep the porch.

Already Byron A. Johnson, director of the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, has come out fuming, in a review that accuses Professor Anderson of being ignorant of a host of disciplines and study areas that he ought not to be ignorant of.* Why is Byron A. Johnson fuming? Probably it’s because The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land, 1820– 1875 is the most intense and persistent attack on the character of nineteenth-century Texans, including the Texas Rangers, that I have ever read. The subtitle is important—I’ll get to it in a minute.

The Texans I know, and I live there, are almost wholly unaccustomed to thinking of themselves—much less their revered forebears—as the bad guys. Aren’t the Dallas Cowboys still America’s team? Aren’t the Mavericks improving? What could be so bad about whatever Great-Great-Grandpa did to those sneaky Indians or those avaricious Mexicans? And aren’t the old histories, books such as T.R. Fehrenbach’s Lone Star, really the best? In the old history Texans were upright and righteous people, and that’s the way it should be.

Most Texans, I think it’s safe to say, have never given a moment’s thought to historical revisionism, of the sort practiced by Patricia Nelson Limerick in The Legacy of Conquest, her revisionist classic. (When I first picked up Gary Anderson’s book I thought his Conquest might harken back to W.H. Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico and Conquest of Peru. Nope. He’s harkening back to Patricia Nelson Limerick’s conquest of triumphalism.) At one point Gary Anderson refers to David E. Stannard, author of American Holocaust, as an “excoriating revisionist”; but if Professor Anderson’s searing critique of the character and behavior of our former heroes, the Texas Rangers, isn’t “excoriating revisionism” I just don’t know what is.

To give the reader some idea of how nearly automatic the resort to violence was on the Texas frontier, here are two short descriptions of Ranger behavior. Both occurred in the spring of 1848. The captain in charge of the first group was Samuel Highsmith, said by those who knew him to be “high-strung.” Captain Highsmith was also spoiling for a fight:

In early April 1848 his scouts reported Indians.…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.