The Fight for Texas Independence

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The Fight for Texas Independence

Perhaps it was inevitable that as both the U.S. population grew and economic pressures increased, U.S. citizens looking for new horizons would turn their gaze south toward Mexico. There they saw miles and miles of unpopulated land well suited for growing cotton and grazing cattle. Tejas y Coahuila, called Texas by Americans, the part of Mexico that was closest to the U.S. border, was sparsely populated for several reasons. Located about 800 miles from the Mexican capital, Mexico City, it was difficult for either the government or the Roman Catholic Church (Mexico's state religion) to exert much control or influence over Texas. The military could not do much to protect settlers from attack by hostile Native Americans, communications were minimal, and most Mexicans were too poor to consider a move to the frontier.

Mexico attracts U.S. attention

Before Mexico gained its independence, the Spanish colonial authorities had forbidden all trade between the Mexican outpost of Santa Fe (now located in the state of New Mexico) and the United States. After the revolution, however, the new Mexican government began to encourage trade between the northern part of Mexico and the southern part of the United States. As a result, the Santa Fe Trail was established in August 1821, linking St. Louis, Missouri, to Santa Fe and extending trade as far south as Chihuahua in north-central Mexico. Mexicans in this region now began buying goods from U.S. traders.

At the same time, many in the United States realized that gaining ports on the western coast of the continent would allow access to trade with Asia and the rest of the Pacific region. The Mexican state of California, located even farther from the capital than Texas, offered several such ports. At this time there were about seven hundred Americans living in California.

An economic depression (a period of economic hardship, when many people are out of work) called the Panic of 1819 hit hardest in the most western part of the United States, especially in Missouri, Kentucky, and Illinois. Many people in these states as well as those bordering on Texas, such as Arkansas and Louisiana, were desperately looking for a place to make a new start. So it is no surprise that several hundred of them were willing to follow a man named Moses Austin into an unfamiliar land.

Moses Austin plans a colony

Moses Austin (1761-1821) was a land speculator (someone who buys and sells land in the hope of making a profit) who had lived in Connecticut, Virginia, Missouri, and Arkansas and who was now facing bankruptcy. Austin decided that Texas was the answer to his own and other people's problems. In early 1821, he convinced Mexico's colonial government to grant him 200,000 acres on which to establish a colony of U.S. settlers. In June of that year, however, Austin died unexpectedly. As result, the role of leading the U.S. settlers into Texas fell on the somewhat unenthusiastic shoulders of his twenty-seven-year-old son, Stephen.

Soft-spoken Stephen Austin (1793-1836) had been a Congressional delegate from the territory of Mississippi, but he was now studying law in New Orleans. Feeling a sense of familial duty, he agreed to take over for his father. Soon Stephen Austin was leading a group of three hundred families (including many whose farms, plantations, or businesses had failed in recent years) to an area of Texas that lies between the Colorado and Brazos rivers. The settlers worked hard to establish their colony, while Austin tried to convince the newly independent Mexican government to honor the land grants. Mexico's president, Agustin de Iturbide (1783-1824), was a self-styled emperor who did not like the idea of U.S. citizens settling in Mexico. But in 1823 Iturbide was ousted and a new president, Guadalupe Victoria (1785-1843), took power. He approved of the settlements, but with certain conditions.

At this early stage, the Mexican authorities could see the advantages of Austin's proposal. The newcomers would cultivate land that was currently uninhabited, and they could help to keep the local Native Americans under control. Eventually, it was thought, they would blend in with the Mexican people and culture around them, bringing more stability to the region. So the Mexican government agreed to let the U.S. settlers to stay, as long as they became Mexican citizens and Roman Catholics, giving up their U.S. citizenship and any other religion they may have previously followed. Austin's followers agreed to these conditions.

Trouble brewing between Mexicans and U.S. settlers

For the next few years, the colony flourished. Texas was viewed as a land of hope and opportunity, where a person who was down on his luck could buy as many as 600 acres at a very cheap price. According to Nathaniel W. Stephenson in his book Texas and the Mexican War, Texas was a powerful magnet:

"From every section, from every class, pilgrims were drawn to Texas, the very seat of fortune in the American mind during the [eighteen] twenties. Young and old, rich and poor, wise and foolish, a great host of Americans poured into the colonies of Texas."

By 1827, there were twelve thousand U.S. citizens in Texas, while the area's Mexican population numbered only five thousand. Problems, however, were already developing. Austin had made his bargain in good faith, promising that the settlers would obey Mexican laws, follow the Catholic religion, and, in effect, attach themselves to the community and culture that had allowed them inside its borders. But that is not what happened.

One big issue of tension was slavery. Many of the U.S. settlers were slaveholders, and they insisted on bringing their slaves with them to Texas even though the practice was frowned upon in newly independent Mexico. In 1829, the Mexican government actually passed a law banning slavery, but the Texans ignored it. Many also broke the Mexican law that required them to register their guns; the settlers regarded such a law as a direct assault on their personal freedom. In addition, few of them bothered to learn Spanish or become Roman Catholics. Most kept themselves apart from the local people, whom they considered racially inferior to themselves. Meanwhile, the local Mexicans resented their new neighbors for ignoring the government's laws. In addition, many of them believed that the U.S. settlers, and U.S. citizens in general, held religion in contempt and were especially hostile to the Roman Catholic Church.

Mexicans frustrated by yanqui arrogance

By the middle of the 1830s, the profile of the average Texas settler had changed somewhat. In the early days of the colony, most of the Texans had been poor farmers or bankrupt merchants with families, eager to make a new and honest start. Over the years a somewhat rougher, tougher, and extremely independent crowd had poured into Texas, and these people felt even less inclined to blend in with the local culture. The Mexican government was getting increasingly frustrated and concerned about these upstart yanquis (the Mexican version of "Yankees," a nickname for Americans that originated in the days of the American Revolution) and what their ultimate intentions might be. Some Mexicans suspected that the U.S. government might even be harboring a secret plan to take over all of Mexico. Still, there was not much the government could do. The region was too remote, separated from Mexico City by 800 miles of mountains, deserts, and more than a dozen rivers. And the Mexican government was plagued by instability, as presidents came and went every few years.

Hoping to stem the flow of U.S. immigrants, President Anastasio Bustamente (1780-1853) urged in 1830 that the government put in place strong restrictions on how many would be allowed into Texas. The resulting law, however, was hard to enforce and led to increased tensions as settlers were occasionally imprisoned. There were even a few shoot-outs between Mexican authorities and U.S. settlers. That led to another law custom-made to infuriate the Texans. Anyone caught with an unregistered gun would be considered a pirate, an unauthorized person who had obviously come to Texas only to make mischief and commit crimes, and would be immediately executed. However, the fiercely independent, gun-toting Texans refused to comply.

Hoping to propose a solution to this volatile situation, Austin went to Mexico City in 1833 to ask the government to allow Texas to become a separate Mexican state. Then at least Texans would have a say in the making and enforcing of laws. The Mexican government turned down this suggestion, and Austin headed home. But then the Mexican authorities found a letter in which Austin recommended that the Texans revolt if they were not allowed to form a state. As a result, Austin was thrown in jail for eighteen months, during which period the anger of his followers neared the boiling point, despite his efforts to keep them from resorting to violence.

Santa Anna heats up the conflict

A big shift in the Mexican political scene spelled even more trouble for the Texans. In 1834, the celebrated war hero Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794-1876; see biographical entry) became president of Mexico. The conservative Santa Anna immediately put into place a centralist government that took power away from the individual Mexican states. Regarding the troublesome Texas colony, Santa Anna was adamant: no nonsense would be allowed! In 1835, Santa Anna made a major show of force by sending troops under General Martín Perfecto de Cos (1800-1854) to forts all along the Rio Grande, a river south of the Nueces River, which formed the border of the Texas colony. The borders were heavily patrolled, and troops kept up a very visible presence in Texas towns.

Instead of intimidating the Texans, however, this action just made them more angry. Settlers began firing on Mexican troops, who returned fire. Soon the Texans had formed an armed resistance group, or militia, that was small in number but big in spirit. In early October 1835, this militia took control of the towns of Gonzales and Goliad, and by the end of the month they had arrived at the fortified town of San Antonio, where there were 400 troops stationed under the command of Cos. The Texans, including about 100 from the original militia plus about 300 new volunteers, spent the next six weeks trading shots with the Mexicans, mounting a major seize on the fort in early December. On December 10, having lost 150 of his soldiers, while the Texans lost only 28, Cos surrendered San Antonio. He and his troops were stripped of their weapons but, after they promised not to fight the Texans again, they were allowed to march back into Mexico.

About a month earlier, the U.S. settlers had sent Austin to the United States to try to drum up some support for the Texan rebellion. U.S. president Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) sympathized with the Texans, but he did not feel he could offer more than moral support. Already there had been talk of statehood for Texas, but such a development would surely upset the delicate balance of states in which slavery was either legal or illegal. For now, the U.S. government could send no money or troops to help the Texans, but that restraint did not apply to individual U.S. citizens. Inspired by what they saw as a freedom struggle, and often hoping they would be rewarded with free land when the conflict was over, many people, especially those from border states like Georgia and Louisiana, began volunteering to help fight the Mexicans, while others sent guns, supplies, and money to Texas.

Santa Anna received the news of the Texans' rebellion with fury. In early 1836, convinced that he must teach the U.S. settlers a lesson—and also send a warning to the U.S. government, which he believed was involved—Santa Anna sent six thousand experienced troops on the long march to Texas. With his usual bravado, Santa Anna bragged to the British ambassador to Mexico that if the yanquis gave him any trouble he would plant the Mexican flag in Washington, D.C.

At San Antonio, the conquering Texans were under the command of Colonel J. C. Neill. As December drew to a close, 200 of the more restless volunteers had left San Antonio with the ambitious intention of taking Matamoros, a Mexican town located on the Rio Grande. Marching under the command of Colonel James Fannin (1804-1836), a Texas settler and slave trader who had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, these men stopped in the Texas town of Goliad. (Others would gradually join to bring their number to about 350.) That left only a little more than 100 men at San Antonio, and these were short of food, medicine, horses, and adequate clothing for the surprisingly cold weather they faced. Still, most were in good spirits and fully convinced that the Mexicans would not return until spring. The Texans thought that the Mexicans would not make such a long, difficult journey over terrain made even rougher by winter.

Volunteers gather at San Antonio

Meanwhile, about 100 miles north of San Antonio, a big, friendly, feisty frontiersman named Sam Houston (1793-1863; see biographical entry) had taken charge of the effort to organize a real Texan army. But this force was not yet fully formed or trained, and Houston let the leaders of the resistance fighters at San Antonio and other small towns know that they would have to stand on their own for a while. At San Antonio, more volunteers were slowly trickling in, including such notable figures as Davy Crockett (1786-1836)—a legendary soldier, frontier scout, and former Congressman who carried a rifle named "Betsy"—and Jim Bowie (1796-1836), who was known for the big hunting knife he carried, and which would forever after bear his name. Crockett arrived with a dozen of his fellow Tennessee volunteers, wearing his usual buckskins (a rugged frontier outfit made from deerskin) and asking, according to Don Nardo in The Mexican-American War, "Where's the action?"

On February 2, command of San Antonio passed from Neale (who left to attend to family matters and also gather supplies for the town) to Colonel William Barrett Travis (1809-1836), who had just arrived with twenty-six volunteers. Tension between Travis and Bowie was resolved when the two agreed to a joint command. As the month progressed, the Texans received word that the Mexican army was on the march and moving fairly quickly. Sure enough, on February 23, a church bell alarm rang out when a sentry spotted a force of fifteen hundred cavalry (soldiers on horseback) approaching San Antonio. This was merely the advance guard of the six thousand troops Santa Anna was leading north.

Travis ordered the town of San Antonio abandoned, and he and Bowie, who was suffering from a bad case of pneumonia, led their 150 defenders across the San Antonio River to the Alamo, a deserted fort that had once been a Spanish mission (religious center). The Alamo consisted of a number of buildings set around a three-acre plaza (central, open area). The Texans mounted rifles as well as their fourteen cannons along the mission's high walls, and they also raised their new flag, which featured a single, large, white star mounted on a blue background.

"I shall never surrender or retreat."

That same day, the Mexicans took possession of the town of San Antonio and surrounded the Alamo. Santa Anna sent a messenger carrying a white flag (the universal signal for a pause in hostilities or aggression) and a message demanding that the Texans surrender. The Texans responded with a cannon shot that almost hit the messenger, an act that shocked and disgusted the Mexicans. The Mexicans now raised the red flag. This meant that they would take no mercy on their enemies, and their musicians began playing the ancient Spanish song "Deguello," which is a call for bloodshed. Then the Mexicans began what would turn out to be an almost two-week-long bombardment of the Alamo.

On the morning of February 24, Travis wrote a desperate plea for help that a messenger boy managed to carry past the Mexican line and north to Sam Houston. As quoted by Lon Tinkle in The Alamo, he addressed his message to "the people of Texas and all Americans in the world," reporting that he was surrounded by Santa Anna's troops but that, despite twenty-four hours of bombardment, he had not yet lost any men. "Our flag waves proudly from the walls—I shall never surrender or retreat," continued Travis, but he needed reinforcements. "I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due his honor and that of his country—Victory or Death!"

The bombing continued, but it was becoming clear to both sides that the Mexicans would have to launch a direct assault on the Alamo if they wanted to break this stalemate. On the evening of March 1, thirty-two volunteers from the town of Gonzales managed to slip through the Mexican lines undetected, bringing the number of defenders inside the Alamo to a little more than 180. Although none of the Texans had even been injured so far, they were running out of ammunition. The situation looked hopeless, for how could this tiny group possibly hold out against Santa Anna's massive, and still growing, force? On March 3, Travis told his men that this would be a fight to the death, and he offered each of them the chance to leave, with no honor lost. It is usually reported that none accepted Travis's offer, though some claim that one Texan did choose to leave.

A new battle cry: Remember the Alamo!

The end came on March 6. At about five o'clock in the morning, Santa Anna's cannons smashed two huge holes in the Alamo's walls, and somewhere between twenty-eight hundred and three thousand Mexican soldiers stormed the old mission. As they scrambled through the holes and over the walls, the Mexicans shouted, "Viva Santa Anna!" (Long live Santa Anna!). Travis is said to have turned to his men at this frightening point and urged them to "give 'em hell!" For a short time the Texans managed to keep up a steady and very damaging rain of bullets and cannon fire, but the struggle soon broke down into hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets and knives. Travis was shot as he was trying to load a cannon, and Crockett, after running out of bullets, was using his beloved "Betsy" as a club when he was finally surrounded and killed. Bowie died in the hospital bed he had been too sick to leave, but still managed to kill several of his attackers with his famous knife.

Within a half hour, the fight was over. One hundred eighty-two of the Alamo's defenders were killed in the battle, and five more who survived were shot soon after the battle. Their bodies were burned. The Mexicans allowed Susana Dickinson, the wife of a Texan soldier who had been nursing Jim Bowie, and her baby to leave, as well as several Mexican women nurses and two slave boys. Meanwhile, the Mexicans had paid a high price for their assault on the Alamo. Although estimates of their losses vary, most historians agree that about six hundred Mexican soldiers lost their lives.

Even before the Mexicans' main assault on the Alamo had begun, an important meeting took place in a black-smith's shop at Washington-on-Brazos, a town located about 150 miles northeast of San Antonio. There, on March 2, representatives from various parts of the colony had declared Texas independent from Mexico. This new nation was to be called the Lone Star Republic. Modeling their constitution closely after that of the United States, the Texans named David Burnet (1788-1870) their temporary president, and made Sam Houston commander of their army. That army would soon have a powerful rallying cry, for news of the massacre at the Alamo reached them several days after the battle took place. Now Texans would yell "Remember the Alamo!" as they faced their enemy, and the old mission would become a symbol of sacrifice and the struggle for freedom for the Texans and their sympathizers.

The massacre at Goliad

After their victory at the Alamo, the Mexicans pressed on through Texas, intending to subdue the colony town by town. At Goliad, Fannin received orders from Houston to abandon the town, for his garrison of less than four hundred troops would soon be a target. On March 19, Fannin led his men out onto the nearby prairie. While they were taking an ill-advised rest in an open area (convinced that Mexican soldiers were no match for his own, Fannin had ignored advice to move the troops to a more sheltered spot), the Texans were attacked by about seven hundred Mexican cavalry led by General José Urrea (1797-1849). Another large force estimated to be between twelve hundred and fifteen hundred quickly surrounded them. Although the Texans managed to move their wagons into a protective circle and put up a surprisingly strong resistance, their situation was clearly hopeless.

The next day, Fannin agreed to surrender on the condition that his troops be treated as regular prisoners of war and not executed. The Texans were taken back to Goliad and imprisoned in a small chapel and yard. On March 27, the unwounded men were marched out of town, assuming that they were going to be sent home. But nothing could have been further from the truth. Even though Urrea and other Mexican officers believed the prisoners should be treated mercifully, Santa Anna had ordered that they all be shot as pirates who had baldly defied Mexico's law against unregistered weapons and who must now face the penalty. Reluctantly, Urrea directed his soldiers to carry out the order, and the guards who had led the Texans out of town turned and let loose a rain of bullets. In the largest single loss of lives during the Texas Revolution, 333 men died (about 20 managed to escape). About 80 Texans whose skills would be useful to the Mexicans, including medical personnel, carpenters, blacksmiths, and wheel-wrights, were allowed to live.

The Battle of San Jacinto

Like the defeat at the Alamo, the Goliad massacre became a source of inspiration both for soldiers marching into battle and for those hoping to recruit volunteers to fight the Mexicans. Both of these events boosted Sam Houston's army-building efforts, and his tiny force of four hundred soldiers doubled in size within a few weeks. Now Houston began playing a game of cat and mouse with Santa Anna as the Mexican army moved around Texas, trying to catch up with the leaders of the newly formed Lone Star Republic and its army. Some of Houston's men were frustrated by their commander's cautious approach, but Houston was waiting for Santa Anna to make a mistake and give the much smaller Texan army an advantage. Finally the moment for action came. In late April, Houston learned that Santa Anna himself was in command of a small unit of the Mexican army near the town of New Washington, located on the San Jacinto River. Arriving on the scene with about nine hundred troops, Houston took up a position outside the town. The Mexicans began calling in reinforcements, so the Texans decided to strike before their opponents could gather an even stronger force.

The Texan attack that came on April 21, was a surprise for two reasons. First, a hill blocked the Mexicans' view of the Texans' approach, and second, the Texans timed their assault for late afternoon, when the Mexicans were enjoying their traditional siesta (rest). Unprepared and panic-stricken, many of the Mexican soldiers fled. The Texans won the battle in about twenty minutes, but even when it was over, many of them continued to brutally slaughter every Mexican they could find until their officers urged them to stop. More than 600 Mexican soldiers were killed and another 730 captured, while the Texans had only 9 killed, and 30 wounded.

Santa Anna was able to escape the battle on horseback, riding into nearby marshes and later making his way on foot through tall grass. At some point he changed into the uniform of a low-ranking foot soldier to make himself less recognizable. He was picked up the next day by Texan army scouts and taken into the Texan camp, where the Mexican prisoners gave away his identity by rising to salute "El Presidente" (The President).

Now Houston had to decide what to do with Santa Anna. With the bitter memories of the massacres at Alamo and Goliad still fresh in their minds, many of his men favored executing the Mexican president and general. Houston, however, thought he was more valuable alive. In the end, Santa Anna was held until November, and during those months he was forced to sign a treaty that recognized Texas as an independent state. After Santa Anna's release, the Mexican congress rejected the treaty he had signed, proclaiming it completely invalid since Santa Anna had been a prisoner when he signed it. For a while Santa Anna was in disgrace, but it would not be long before he made another return to public life and widespread acclaim.

In what came to be known as the Texas Revolution, a hastily assembled army of U.S. settlers had succeeded in chasing the Mexican army away from Texas. The Lone Star Republic would exist for the next ten years, but during that period its claim of independence would never be accepted by Mexico. Despite the joy the news of the victory at San Jacinto brought to some, the battle signified not an end to the conflict, but a warning of more bloodshed to come. Mexico was merely waiting for a chance to reclaim its territory, while across the border, voices were calling for the United States to make Texas part of the Union.

For More Information


Bredeson, Carmen. The Battle of the Alamo. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1996.

Downey, Fairfax. Texas and the War with Mexico. New York: American Heritage, 1961.

Kalman, Bobbie. Mexico: The Culture. New York: Crabtree, 1993.

Nardo, Don. The Mexican-American War. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books,1991.

Nevin, David. The Mexican War. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1978.

Sanford, Charles L., ed. Manifest Destiny and the Imperialism Question. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1974.

Stephenson, Nathaniel W. Texas and the Mexican War. New Haven, CT:Yale University Press, 1921.

Tinkle, Lon. The Alamo. New York: New American Library, 1958.

Web Sites

Descendants of Mexican War Veterans. The U.S.-Mexican War: 1846-1848. [Online] Available (accessed on January 31, 2003).

"The Mexican-American War." Social Studies for Kids. [Online] Available (accessed on January 31, 2003).

PBS Online. U.S.—Mexican War: 1846-1848. [Online] Available (accessed on January 31, 2003).

Davy Crockett: A legend meets his end

Raised in the backwoods of Tennessee, Davy Crockett enjoyed dual careers as both a politician and a frontier hero. Famous during his own lifetime and legendary ever since, Crocket died when the Mexican army attacked a small group of Texan fighters holed up at the Alamo, an old Spanish mission at San Antonio.

Crockett was born to debt-ridden, impoverished parents in Greene County, Tennessee. He attended school for only very brief periods and went to work herding cattle when he was twelve. After running away from this job, Crockett made his own way in the world for three years. He learned to read by trading his labor for lessons with a Quaker teacher. In 1806, he married Mary "Polly" Finley, only a few months after another young woman had spurned him.

In 1813, tensions that had been brewing between white settlers in southern Alabama and the Creek Indians who lived in that region finally erupted. About five hundred settlers were killed when a band of Creeks attacked them at Fort Mims. This incident inspired Crockett to join a militia (small army made up of volunteers) formed to fight the Creeks. He served for three months as a scout, later enlisting for another six months of service.

In 1816, he traveled to Alabama to investigate the territory taken from the Creeks. On his return trip he contracted malaria and, thought to be near death, was left along the road. Crockett survived and made it home. When told of the rumors about his death, Crocket quipped, "I know'd that was a whopper of a lie, as soon as I heard it."

Crockett became a justice of the peace and court official in 1816. The next year, he was elected lieutenant colonel in his local militia, followed by a job as town commissioner. In 1821, he ran for the Tennessee state legislature, using a campaign strategy that featured short, entertaining speeches followed by gatherings at nearby taverns. Crockett won the election, working during his term to help the poor, propertyless farmers and settlers of the West.

Crockett was re-elected to the state legislature in 1823. Defeated in an election for U.S. Congress in 1825, he ran again in 1827 and won. Initially a supporter of Democratic president and fellow westerner Andrew Jackson, Crockett found himself increasingly disagreeing with Jackson's policies. Losing his re-election bid in 1831, Crocket again ran in 1833 and won. Upon losing re-election in 1835, Crocket ended his political career.

Crockett's next, and last, adventure took place in Texas, the Mexican territory to which many U.S. citizens were flocking in search of a fresh start. Planning to explore the area's possibilities, he traveled there with four friends. By early 1836, Texans had decided to launch a rebellion against Mexico and establish their own republic. Crocket joined the volunteers and, dressed in buckskins (clothing made from animal hides) and toting his beloved rifle he named "Betsy," showed up at the Alamo in February.

On March 6, all of the Alamo's 189 defenders, including Crockett, were killed by a large Mexican force under the merciless Mexican general, Antonio López de Santa Anna. Crockett's death at the Alamo cemented his reputation as an authentic American hero. To this day, he is remembered as the ideal westerner: rugged and rough-hewn, but also courageous, strong, and noble.

Sources: Davy Crockett Biographical Sketch, [Online] Available (accessed on January 31, 2003); Frazier, Donald, ed. The United States and Mexico at War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

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The Fight for Texas Independence

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