Another Myth Shattered

Here’s the Davy Crockett of my childhood, a courageous, patriotic, yet gentle man who always said, “Be sure you are right … then go ahead.” Maybe he should have said “Be sure you are white … then go ahead.” SB SM

This, one of the strongest images of my childhood, was created on a Sunday night as the family settled into to watch the saga of Davy Crockett on the Wonderful World of Disney. If you need a refresher, the life of the “king of the wild frontier,” is summarized succinctly in this ballad:

By the way, I still have this record. SB SM

Now, I get a notice of a new book that gives an entirely different context:

Today’s selection — from Forget the Alamo by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford. In the early the late 1820s and 1830s, the lands of Texas, which were part of Mexico, became part of the mad rush to grow cotton and take advantage of booming global cotton prices. But growing cotton meant slaves, and slavery was illegal in Mexico, so the Americans that had gone to Texas to grow cotton made herculean efforts to ignore or circumvent the Mexican slavery ban. But the lack of success of those efforts soon led to the Texas was for independence in 1836:
“By the spring of 1828, [Stephen F.] Austin’s colony had built a capital of sorts in San Felipe de Austin, a muddy village of forty or fifty houses along the Brazos River’ It was here that he convened a group to con­front their future. Those in attendance had achieved a kind of miracle, in seven years transforming a corner of the Texas wilderness into cot­ton plantations that now annually shipped to New Orleans a half mil­lion bales of cotton. But without slaves, their children wouldn’t be able to do the same. Without slaves, there would be few if any more immi­grants. Without slaves, Anglo Texas was doomed.

“But what to do? The idea they came up with that day was a bit of twisted frontier genius, something that had been kicking around a few years. What if, they reasoned, a slave wasn’t technically a slave? What if they called it something else? Say, an indentured servant? Or a really, really loyal servant?

“As harebrained as it sounds today, Austin thought it just might work.

“Each incoming slave would be forced to sign an employment contract with his owner. The slave would be paid twenty dollars a year, and in return could buy his freedom for $1,200, i.e., after sixty years. The catch was, the slave would also be charged for food and housing, making emancipation all but impossible.

“To make the scheme work, they would need the Coahuilan legisla­ture to guarantee that such contracts would be honored in Mexico. Aus­tin sent a proposed bill to the Tejanos in San Antonio, who sent it on to their delegates in Saltillo, Jose Miguel de Arciniega and Jose Antonio Navarro. These two must have been real gems. Everyone involved in this scheme realized that the legislature would never pass the law if they knew its true purpose. So Navarro and Arciniega came up with an in­genious plan. It must surely go down as one of the sneakier dodges in northeastern Mexican provincial legislative history.

“In April 1828, the two rose on the floor of the legislature; at the mo­ment, its members were distracted by a debate over the budget. Almost apologetically, one imagines, Navarro and Arciniega explained that their proposal was intended to benefit a small group of American set­tlers, ‘principally those from Ohio.’ These Ohio people, they explained, had a tradition of hiring men for years at a time. They wouldn’t come to Texas unless they were sure the contracts would remain in force. Amaz­ingly, though not a word of this was true, the measure passed.

“Austin rushed the news to New Orleans, where a newspaper ran a story announcing the Texas slavery problem had been solved. And for some, it was. Across the South, would-be immigrants began signing up their slaves as indentured servants. A fellow named James Morgan walked into a Florida courthouse and signed his slaves to ninety-nine-year contracts; in return, the men were to be taught ‘the art and mystery of farming and planting,’ the women ‘the art and mystery’ of cooking and housekeeping. 

“But of course, this kind of thing was too clever by half. To many, it just seemed too risky, too complicated. As a result, it did not lead to the river of colonists Austin wanted; what he got was a babbling brook. His mail continued to sag with letters from Southerners seeking guarantees the Mexicans wouldn’t free their slaves, and for good reason. Every time Austin turned around, some Mexican politician was pushing another law to ban slavery. When the new Mexican president, Vicente Guerrero, was granted emergency powers to fend off a feeble Spanish invasion at­tempt, to Austin’s horror, he used them to announce that all slaves in Mexico were to be freed.

“When the decree arrived in San Antonio, the authorities refused to enforce or even publish it, warning the governor, José María Viesca, of ‘the fatal consequences that will result.’ Viesca rallied legislators in Coahuila, one of his allies firing off a letter of protest against ‘fulfill­ment of a tyrannical, cruel, illegal and monstrous order.’ In Texas, panic set in. ‘In the Name of God what Shall we do?’ a Nacogdoches set­tler wrote Austin. ‘We are ruind for ever [sic] Should this Measure be adopted.’

“Guerrero’s decree was a turning point. For the first time, some Texians began talking openly of rebellion. The Mexican commander at Nacogdoches overheard insurrectionary chatter and reported it. ‘Many have announced to me that there will be a revolution if the law takes ef­fect,’ he wrote a superior. ‘Austin’s colony would be the first to think along these lines. It was formed for slavery, and without it her inhabi­tants would be nothing.'”

[painting: The Settlement of Austin’s Colony” by Henry Arthur McArdle]

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