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Riding for the Lone Star
Frontier Cavalry and the Texas Way of War, 1822â"1865
By Nathan A. Jennings
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2016 Nathan Jennings
All rights reserved.
Tribal Warfare of Colonial Tejas, 1822–1835
The story of Texas and its dynamic martial tradition began with the challenges of American colonization between 1822 and 1835. Throughout initial settlement the settlers increasingly focused on the military use of horses as they adapted to the frontier environment of Mexican Tejas. The resulting transition, from woodland infantry tactics to plains cavalry techniques, developed over two stages: early militia campaigns against proximate coastal tribes, and later offensives against more distant prairie and plains peoples of central and western Texas. This steady march of conflict reflected both relentless small-unit raiding and larger expeditions in 1824, 1826, 1829, and 1835. The final campaign on the eve of revolution, comprising entire battalions of mounted men, illustrated the colonists' full emulation of Indian mobility.
In addition to tactical adaptation, colonial leaders unleashed selective hostility that reflected adept strategic exploitation of tribal power and relations. While historian Wayne Lee's thesis that Anglo colonials generally saw natives as "true barbarians, fit targets for the most extreme forms of war" is true, he is also correct that the colonists' initial decade in Texas was defined by pragmatic "graduation of intensities for particular purposes." Empresarios like Stephen Austin swiftly recognized the population dimension as the Clausewitzian center of gravity in Tejas warfare, and thus identified domestic centers as both military targets and allies to be courted. This calculated appreciation of the human landscape often benefited from intelligence gained from indigenous sources.
The Anglo-Texan military experience under Mexican colonial rule benefited from two further enhancements outside the tactical arena. The first was the spread of societal nationalism and political unity. Collective efforts in the face of real and perceived existential threats, in addition to feared oppression by Mexico City, directly facilitated the growth of Texan militarism and kindled the fire of Lone Star patriotism. Without the initial flowering of fundamental and democratic interdependence amongst the scattered Anglo homesteads and budding towns, the formation of a unified martial tradition would have lacked impetus and participation.
Civilian activities that inadvertently trained martial skills, specifically horsemanship, firearms marksmanship, and field subsistence, emerged as a second enhancing factor on the contested frontier. Learned from Spanish and Mexican neighbors, and also from Indian emulation, Anglo settlers gradually mastered tactical riding and equine husbandry. Cattle ranching emerged as a prime commercial influence in this regard since the necessary utilization of horses while armed during grazing and longer trail drives trained cowhands in many of the basic functions of nineteenth-century cavalrymen. These vocational skills, along with galvanized political unity, unwittingly prepared the nascent society for its formative event: The Texas Revolution.
Rising militancy and nationalism north of the Rio Grande found the Anglo-Texan colonies in a unique geographical position at the confluence of North American powers. Each of the dominant societies that bordered Tejas provided direct and indirect influences that enabled military adaptation. The eastern United States' tradition in ranger and militia operations bequeathed the immigrants a useful inheritance of irregular warfare expertise and familiarity with precision marksmanship. From the north and west, native peoples of the lower plains and prairies established the mobile context for conflict in Tejas. From the south, Spanish presidios set a precedent for Euro American adaptation to Plains Indian raiding methods. Mexicans and Tejanos, in particular, shaped Anglo reactions through direct cross-pollination of tactics. These factors, when contextualized against norms of contemporary cavalry conduct, deeply informed their martial inclinations.
This amalgamation consequently earned Texan frontiersmen distinction as a peculiar model of nineteenth-century mounted arms. The Texan Democrat later summarized the confluence of tactical abilities on September 9, 1846, when it boasted that federalized Texan horsemen — who had recently gained continental fame for their performance as scouts and assault troops in the 1846 American invasion of North Mexico — could "ride like a Mexican, trail like an Indian, shoot like a Tennessean, and fight like a devil." This fusion of capabilities embraced the most effective qualities of American, native, and Spanish martial inclinations by combining mobility and firepower with desperate adaptation. The resulting tradition would inform the foundation of Texas's way of war throughout a half-century of warfare.
Initial Colonial Adaptation
The official colonization of Anglo-American Texas began in the year 1820 with Moses Austin's planned venture to establish an ambitious settlement in Spanish-governed Tejas. As a former resident of Spanish colonial Missouri, beginning in 1798, the enterprising pioneer enjoyed familiarity with the provincial government of New Spain. Austin's cultural ties to the United States likewise made him an ideal candidate to recruit American citizens for the Texas venture. Additionally, he boasted practical experience in settlement leadership and commercial enterprise since he had already founded a town and established a lead mine in Washington County of Missouri territory during its transition from Spanish to American rule.
After agreeing to terms of settlement under the imperial administration in San Antonio de Bexar, the administrative center of Tejas, Austin proceeded to enlist support for Anglo colonization. The "Contract for Emigration to Texas," which he offered to potential settlers, stated they were "about to commence a settlement at the mouth of the River Colorado near the bay of San Bernardo in the province of Texas." The document also specified that the colonists would be "under the protection of the Spanish Government." This promise of security, which would prove to be perilously hollow, portended dire consequences for relations between the American immigrants and Mexico City.
Stephen Austin, the son of Moses, assumed leadership as official empresario of the Tejas program upon his father's unexpected death on June 10, 1821. This title allowed him legal authority to allocate land grants to individual American colonists in the name of the Spanish government. After some hesitation, the young adventurer renewed the contract for settler recruitment, stating that he was "forming a Colony under the authorities of the Government of New Spain." He also warned each candidate to be prepared to explore "the coast, and mouths of the Rivers from Galveston to the Mouth of the Guadeloupe River," and to expect to "assist in the building of Cabbins and a Stockade." The young leader further required that each man arrive with "his own arms" and "Farming tools, Oxen, or Mules, and Provisions and Seeds."
Austin would become known as the "Father of Texas" and emerged as the most influential American in Texas prior to the Texas Revolution. More significantly to the development of Texan mounted arms, his militia policies pioneered the first Anglo-Texan use of dedicated and mounted counter-guerrilla forces to "act as rangers for the common defense." The Missourian's inspired recognition of the need for mobility on the frontier initiated a century of continuous and versatile service by Texan horsemen.
The turbulent secession of Mexico from Spain in the summer of 1821 forced Austin to visit Mexico City to renew his contract with the new government. The young entrepreneur then spent almost a year in the capital of the new Mexican Empire, establishing political alliances and currying favor for the empresario program while advocating for a broader imperial colonization act. When the Mexican Federalist Party overthrew Agustin de Iturbide, the short-lived Emperor of Mexico, in the spring of 1823, Austin reported that the new "Sovereign Congress and Supreme Executive" had repealed the "Colonization law in total ... except as refers to me." The newly formed United Mexican States had fortuitously approved Austin's request as an individual agreement in the absence of comprehensive legislation. Contract in hand, the pioneer returned north to Tejas, leaving behind an unstable and divided Mexico.
Anglo-American settlement of Texas under the Mexican banner from 1823 to 1835 reflected the general continuation of previous Spanish contracts. The subsequent series of national governments, under both liberal and conservative leadership, typically included the empresario territorial contracts within the newly federalized Department of Tejas. Yet the republican change existed in name only; Anglo settlements along the Colorado and Brazos river valleys remained completely colonial. Left to construct their own towns and defenses, they developed in geographical, economic, and military isolation from Mexico City. Throughout the period the colonies retained the peculiar distinction of legal and organizational sanction by the Mexican Republic, while receiving immigration, cultural stimulation, and material provision from the United States.
Both Anglo settlers and Mexican officials in pre-revolutionary Texas emphasized the colonial status of Tejas in their letters. Austin, as the leading Anglo official, consistently referred to the settlement area as "the Colony" until secession in 1835. Individual settlers, such as William Dewees and John Jenkins, also utilized the same term to describe the developing society. Dewees emphasized how the "Empresarios" issued land titles under "the terms of the Colonization Laws" in his letters. Even Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the Mexican President and commander of the failed Mexican reconquest campaign in 1836, called the rebels "colonists" when describing their resistance. These statements, by both leaders and settlers, indicated shared understanding of the settlements' remote position on Mexico's northern frontier.
Colonial isolation held far-reaching consequences for the future of Tejas as it practically placed the colonists outside the military protection of the national government. Throughout the period of Mexican sovereignty, the national government never installed federal administrators, Hispanic immigrants, or presidio soldiers directly in the Anglos' administrative center at San Felipe. Political and military instability throughout the Mexican Republic, both provincial and national, ensured Tejas neglect. Though Mexico eventually deployed small army garrisons to Anahuac, Velasco, and Nacogdoches to complement the Bexar presidio and enforce customs duties, settlement defense rested entirely on Anglo militia. The resulting settler mobilizations, under very limited Mexican supervision, catalyzed the development of nationalistic arms to combat Indian competitors.
The movement of American settlers westward from the United States territories and states to isolated frontiers forced the pioneers to negotiate marked transitions in continental terrain. These changes generally unfolded along the ninety-eighth meridian, where the forests of eastern North America gradually ended. While the territories of western Tejas offered expansive plains and prairies mostly devoid of mountains, forests, and swamps, the vegetation of the eastern province provided woodlands reminiscent of the American South. Dewees, who usefully recorded his experiences as a pioneer and militiaman beginning in 1823, wrote of southeastern Tejas in 1830 that "the greater part of the timber is immediately on the water courses." Further west, the unfamiliarity of the Great Plains barrier, and the corresponding lack of water and construction material, convinced the immigrants to settle along fertile river systems that led to the Gulf.
San Felipe de Austin emerged as the first Anglo colony and town in the new frontier. Located on the west bank of the lower Brazos River, it served as an informal capital for the network of homesteads and colonies until its destruction in the Texas Revolution. Initially a group of approximately 300 families, this center and others soon expanded under Austin's supervision to rival and surpass the preexisting Spanish and indigenous populations in number and ambition. Examination of land contract records reveals that immigrants came in order of greatest proportion from Louisiana, and then Missouri, Arkansas, and Mississippi in equal share. These frontiersmen naturally arrived familiar with rural, woodland survival in the American South.
Ambitious pioneers soon emulated Austin's success in Tejas. Dewees again recorded that, "upon the passage of the colonization laws of Mexico and the State laws of Coahuila and Texas, the attention of many men of enterprise was directed to the example of Austin, and contracts were taken out for colonizing the whole surface of Texas." This wave of new American empresarios contracted land tracts across the southern and eastern portions of the province to create settlement clusters. The most successful programs included Robertson Colony, De Leon Colony, Edwards Colony, the Irish Colonies, and the later DeWitt Colony, amongst numerous unsanctioned homesteads.
By 1827 a total of twenty-five Anglo colonies with a population of 8,000 had scattered throughout Tejas. This expanding population more than tripled in the next five years, thus establishing a capable militia reservoir to protect gains and facilitate further expansion. The resulting combination of rising American density and rapid intensification of Anglo-Indian hostility in the absence of sustained Mexican intervention compelled the settlers, according to Austin, to organize a "system of defense for this section, until the Government can adopt measures for the protection of the whole frontier of Texas." The challenges of confronting native cavalry, decentralization of command, and long distances between homesteads necessitated the transition of these militias from infantry to mounted companies.
A constellation of contentious tribes surrounded the American settlement zone near the Gulf Coast and across the greater Tejas expanse. Tribal raiding cultures created a non-linear battle zone, lacking the population density, fortifications, and combined arms armies of the eastern United States and central Mexico. Unlike the conventional focus of most idealized European conflicts, rapid raids and guerrilla warfare defined combat north of the Rio Grande.
Most initial Anglo-Texan engagements oriented against the Karankawas, an aggressive coastal people that excelled in dismounted and brown-water combat in rivers and coastal waters. These warriors stood predisposed for aggression against the colonists due to past conflicts with European pirates and explorers. Since their camps were located within marching distance of San Felipe, and because the Karankawa did not use horses for tactical mobility, the first colonial skirmishes occurred as light infantry affairs.
Austin stated after his first exposure to the coastal hunters that "an American population" would be "the signal of their extermination, for there will be no way of subduing them but extermination." These intolerant views enhanced the intensity of Anglo retaliation and provided moral justification for territorial aggrandizement. In contrast, the less warlike Tonkawa and Tawakoni peoples further inland and near the colonial footprint, experienced mixed relations with the settlers. The Tonkawa in particular would adapt to serve as valuable scouts for militia companies since the colonists lacked topographical familiarity in the early years.
Further west and north, the prairie-based Waco became the primary threat to the colony after the Karankawa. As a cavalry-centric culture, these horsemen compelled the initial mounted response from the colonists between 1824 and 1829. This tribe's use of cavalry speed and operational reach in raiding operations required the settlers to reciprocate with mobile parity for settlement defense. French observer Jean Louis Berlandier, who surveyed Mexican Tejas in 1830, described the Waco armament: "They have excellent horses and possess firearms, although they are very expert with the bow, the lance, and the dagger." He also wrote that "travelers on the road from Bexar to the Trinity, west of Austin, are often attacked by members of this nation." Despite the Wacos' adept use of horses for transportation in warfare, they did not employ cavalry with the unrivaled skill of the feared plains peoples to the west and north.
Excerpted from Riding for the Lone Star by Nathan A. Jennings. Copyright © 2016 Nathan Jennings. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction Texans and Nineteenth-Century Warfare,
Chapter 1 Tribal Warfare of Colonial Tejas, 1822–1835,
Chapter 2 The War for Texian Independence, 1835–1836,
Chapter 3 Conflicts of the Early Texas Republic, 1836–1838,
Chapter 4 Conflicts of the Middle Texas Republic, 1838–1840 Photos and Maps,
Chapter 5 Conflicts of the Late Texas Republic, 1841–1845,
Chapter 6 The Mexican-American War, 1846–1848,
Chapter 7 Conflicts of Antebellum Texas, 1846–1861,
Chapter 8 The War for Confederate Independence, 1861–1865,