Subtitle: From Prehistory to the Present, the People, Politics, and Events That Have Shaped Texas
Author: T.R. Fehrenbach
Year: 1968, 2000
Publisher: Da Capo Press
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On the heels of reading a Sam Houston biography which I enjoyed, I took up reading T.R. Fehrenbach’s Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans. With 725 pages of tightly packed text and very little else — only a handful of maps, and zero photos, charts or lists — it’s a daunting volume for the casual reader, but full of information that would interest a Texan or even the merely curious.
The bulk of the book was written in the 1960s; the 2000 edition was updated slightly with an extra chapter and a few sprinkled mentions of high-tech industry and population shifts. Fehrenbach makes no bones about this in the Foreword, where he says: “Texas, through the last half of the twentieth century, has suffered little ‘history’. There has been enormous growth and a splendid record of economic development, which are not the same thing.” In other words, the author holds that the important part of Texas history occurred before modern times.
I do agree with his assertion that “those who edit ‘history’ to popular taste each decade will never understand the past”, since long-past events can best be understood in their original context and often are misunderstood when read in today’s context. Interestingly the parts added in 2000 are in a slightly different typeface so they’re noticeable.The book was informative, fun, and sometimes startling in its portrayal of the development of Texas, beginning many thousands of years ago with the migrations of the “Paleo-Americans” — the race that predated the Indians, and then the “Amerinds” (as he calls them), which we called “American Indians” or “Native Americans” today. Quickly, he moves on to the explorations of the Spaniard Coronado in the early 1500s, during which the Spanish contacted Caddoan Indians, calling them “Tejas”, the native word for “friends” or “allies”, a word that later was often spelled with an X, thus giving the state its eventual names.
(Despite this early Spanish exploration, a European base wasn’t established here until the late 1600s, by the French, which spurred the Spaniards to increase their presence in Texas, starting several missions and eventually a few small towns, though they didn’t colonize Texas.)
But the bulk of the book covers what’s commonly known as “Texas History”, the Anglo settlement of the late 1700s and early 1800s, and the various wars in the 1800s — mainly the Texas Revolution (1835-6), the Indian Wars (1820-75), and the War Between the States (1861-65). Pages 81-592 deal with this period, leaving only slim portions of the book for “pre-history” and the 125 years that followed Reconstuction and the Indian Wars.
Despite having had Texas History class in school (about 27 years ago), I’ll confess there were many things about which I remained ignorant. For example, I didn’t know (or hadn’t remembered) that the Spanish had only a few failing missions in all of Texas before they began allowing Anglo settlement from the north and east. I knew much about the revolution and involvement in the War Between the States, having just read the Sam Houston biography, but still felt greatly informed by Fehrenbach’s Lone Star.
As with all history books about various Americans or parts of the United States, it’s almost impossible to place it completely in context. Those of my generation can never fully understand how our forbears behaved and felt toward Hispanics, Native Americans, or African-Americans — nevermind how large a part of history it is. We were born after desegregation and grew up in an era of multi-color families on television. Our basketball and football stars were black and many of our baseball and music stars were Hispanic. Many of us, aside from occasional confusing and hurtful incidents, have never had bad relations with minorities. And a lot of us helped elect the first non-white President.
So, while we might be able to envision a family on a wide-open prairie erecting a house of sod — we can empathize with their loneliness, despair, backbreaking work, or sense of pride — it’s nearly impossible to be fully empathic with other parts of Texas history.
But I appreciated Fehrenbach’s attempt to explain some of it. His biggest excuse was that the worldviews of the Anglos were too different from that of the Amerind and that of the Mexican. Can we rationalize away the racism of the past by saying they were unable to see past different worldviews? Especially in light today’s struggles between Muslim, Christian and secular nations. If they couldn’t do it then, what makes us think we can do it now? (And it looks like we’re not going to.)
Also, the author explains away much of history as “inevitable”, given a set of circumstances. While I tend to lean further toward that school of thought as I age, I still insist that the choices of individuals are to blame for much of the wrongs of the world, even if those choices are made en masse.
Fehrenbach notes in the Foreword to the 1968 edition: “Because this is a general work, I have not interrupted the flow with irritating footnotes”, but there were places when I would have appreciated footnotes, or at least endnotes, but there weren’t any. When the author cited numbers or facts — such as “Kennedy and Johnson carried the state by a marginal 46,000 votes, out of 2,000,000 cast” — it’s easy to imagine a concrete source for it. But occasionally the narrative sounded less like facts, and I wondered where the information came from. For example, the author frequently noted that “The Texan” felt a certain way about Negroes or Mexicans. In those cases, I was looking for a source. Was it his assumption, or had there been an opinion survey?
I’d recommend this book to anyone who has time for a 725-page journey through Texas history.
(Disclaimer: Like the author, I’m a resident of Texas though I’m not native. Had I been born in Texas, my children would be sixth-generation Texans.)