What could be more American than gliding along perfect roads at eighty mph, roads so perfect that the dry, rocky terrain slips past like a movie? I’ve been doing a bit of that in the past months as I have started exploring Texas.
It’s been the perfect chance to begin coming to terms with the United States.
Strangely, compared to England where I grew up, or Hawaii (part of the United States but culturally very different from the mainland) where I spent ten years, or Mexico where I spent fifteen, I never felt I understood the US in a visceral way in the mid 1970s to 80s when I lived in Pennsylvania and Virginia.
The United States is so overwhelmingly huge and diverse that coping with the move, and with marriage, and with my academic career, left no time to learn about much about it beyond the textbook stories. So driving across Texas, not a big deal for someone born and bred here, made my eyes pop and my head spin.
My sister from England was along for the ride. Her constant surprise at things I took for granted giving them a welcome freshness. We began leaving the green lands of east Texas at the little town of Junction, we were clear out of it at Sonora, and then we were eighty miles between little burgs of a few thousand people at most, Ozona, Fort Stockton and Alpine.
By then we had been in mesa and butte land for a couple of hundred miles. “There should be Indians silhouetted along the top of that mesa,” said my sister. ”There should be horsemen lying in wait to topple rocks over the canyon walls.”
This WAS the West. The place that had flickered on black and white TV screens, that had occupied the same kind of mythic space as Shangri-La or Treasure Island or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was rushing past our windows.
(Chatting a couple of weeks later with Amber O’Connor, an anthropologist friend who had taken the same trip with anthropology graduate students from London and Toronto, I discovered that they too had seen the landscape through the lens of western movies).
The Indians were no more, however. No trace of their food, even, remained. It was so different from Mexico where I had lived for the past fifteen years. There, for all the qualms of the Spanish and Mexican-born Spanish, the indigenous cuisine has survived to this day, not unaltered of course, but still based on maize, chilies, beans, and squash.
The speed with which the land that is Texas is became American is staggering. When Mexico achieved Independence from Spain in 1821, the population of Texas consisted of three small Mexican settlements, a total of perhaps three thousand people in all. It was so far from Mexico City, the land for much of the distance between them so high, barren and hostile, that communications and marketing were more or less impossible.
Unlike central Mexico where friars and priests followed soldiers, where a spiritual conquest followed a military one, the land that is now Texas, a land of blazing summers and stinging mosquitos, sharp winter cold spells, fierce thunderstorms, hail, and the odd tornado, resisted settlement. Attempts to convert the Indians were a miserable failure in a place where they had not seen the proud city of Tenochtitlan brought to its knees and where the spaces were so vast.
Anglo settlers from Kentucky, Tennessee and the plantation south began arriving in the 1830s. By 1846, the United States had declared war on Mexico.
By 1898, it was all over. Even the barren lands of west Texas and the Big Bend area, where the Rio Grande loops south into Mexico, had been mapped. Soldiers had killed or moved out the Indians. In their place were cowboys, horses, and cattle.
The war between the United States and Mexico was in many ways a predictable development, given the nearly uninterrupted series of wars against Indian peoples fought by the United States government from its earliest days. Widespread racism led many American to equate Mexicans with Indians and to conclude that the former were no more deserving of their land than the latter.*
And the cowboy-horse-cattle complex, ironically, had been inherited from Mexico.
Even as the cowboy culture was introduced from Mexico, the American policy of handing out smallish parcels of land, the cavalry, American guns, barbed wire, and maps had done what priests and huge haciendas, where cowboys had originally flourished, had failed to do.
But by now I had vertigo, all my categories were swirling in disarray. Who were the Indians? And who were Mexicans?
Mexico was by then a republic with European leadership just like the United States. True, there was more intermarriage in Mexico, but it was another colony of Europe that had acquired independence.
But that, it seems, was not how it was perceived by most Americans. In the nineteenth century, there were brown (or red) people all along a great circle from south Texas to California.
And the circle had extended out across the Pacific to Hawaii. Bingo. Suddenly I could link my experiences in Hawaii with the broader history of the United States. Anglos had arrived in Hawaii in the 1790s, earlier than in Texas.
In 1832, just as Anglos were entering Texas and long before they reached California, the Hawaiian royal family invited Mexican vacqueros (cowboys) from California to come to Hawaii. They needed cowboys to help them manage the cattle that George Vancouver had dropped off in 1790. These cowboys became known as paniolos (from españoles, Hawaiian not having an ‘s’). They worked on ranches such as the Parker Ranch on the Big Island, one of the most extensive in the United States.
They roped, branded, broke in horses, and held rodeos. When in the twentieth century, they competed in rodeos on the mainland, they could beat American cowboys.
They remain proud of their tradition to this day.
But like Texas and California, Hawaii became part of the United States. In 1898, when the frontier in Texas was declared closed, Hawaii was declared a territory of the United States, American troops raising the flag over the palace in Honolulu.
“The natives are a funny lot, half negro half malay they are intelligent and honest,” said Private Booth, one of the American troops there to see that American annexation went smoothly, as he struggled unsuccessfully to place the Hawaiians in some intelligible universe.
And Americans were curious about Indians and Hawaiians, a curiosity satisfied by anthropologists’s photographs.
- And by stereoscopic images for tourists.
Now, at least, I had a way to come to terms with American expansion in the second half of the nineteenth century. It’s pretty obvious to anyone familiar with American history of course. That’s fine. Everyone has to find a way to make history immediate, not a set of words in a book. And the cowboys and Indians, Mexicans, and Hawaiians along the southern borders and out in to the Pacific were a way for me to begin.
*Quotation from Amy S. Greenberg, A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico (New York: Knopf, 2012), xviii.