The origins of Texas’s proud independent streak

After fighting a revolution against Mexico, the Republic of Texas was briefly a sovereign nation. Self-rule wouldn’t last long—but its legacy has endured.

When Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced an end to the state’s mask mandate and other coronavirus restrictions on March 2, he drew criticism from across the nation and from leaders in several Texas cities. But Abbott also was making a point about Texans’ legendary tendency to go their own way: The governor’s announcement was on Texas Independence Day, the anniversary of the state’s declaration of independence from Mexico in 1836.

Texans have a unique sense of pride in the history of their state, which was a nation itself for nearly 10 years after it won independence from Mexico. The pride is no accident: In schools and elsewhere, generations of young Texans have been taught that their state is special in its history and independence.

In Texas’s public schools there is a statewide mandate that children be taught Texas history. For decades, the youngest schoolchildren in Texas began their morning by singing the state song, “Texas, Our Texas,” along with reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag. More recently, elementary and middle school children—many of whom attend schools named after early Texas leaders—start the day by reciting a pledge of allegiance to Texas’s flag in addition to the U.S. pledge. The recognition of Texas’s history goes well beyond that: Cities across the state bear the names of the state’s founders, as do colleges such as Sam Houston State University and Stephen F. Austin State University.

“Texas has constructed for itself a very unique culture and a unique kind of mythology around independence,” writes Angela Diaz, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the Texas Tech University Department of History. But the reality of the state’s revolutionary history is complicated. Here’s what really happened.

Immigration and slavery fuel tensions

Long before Texas declared its independence in 1836, it was a region of Mexico controlled by Spain. During this time, Texas was comprised of Mexican-born residents, immigrants from the United States, and Europeans seeking to build new lives on a frontier where clashes between new settlers and Native Americans were still common. Spain allowed newcomers to buy land for cheap.

In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain. It initially encouraged immigration to Texas, but the Mexican government soon started to worry about the influx of settlers from the United States, which had begun to expand west of the Mississippi River when Louisiana, a state that allowed slavery, was admitted into the Union in 1812. In 1829, the Mexican government banned slavery to discourage further immigration among Anglos, many of them slave owners. But the ban was not well enforced.

The tipping point for many Texans came in 1830, when the Mexican government ordered a ban on most legal immigration from the United States and again banned any further introduction of slavery. With that, the relationship between Anglo settlers and the Mexican government began to collapse. (Enslaved people in Texas were the last to learn about Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

Texans began to consider seceding from Mexico and becoming part of the United States. To avert that outcome, Mexico initially gave Texas greater independence. In 1834, Mexico granted the region more delegates in the state government, introduced trial by jury, and authorized English as a second language.

But a new Mexican president erased these reforms. In April 1834, President Antonio López de Santa Anna suspended the Mexican Constitution and assumed dictatorial powers. That is when the tides truly began to turn between the settlers, who were outraged by the suspension of the constitution, and the Mexican government, which became determined to get the rebellion under control.

War breaks out

In October 1835, amid rising tensions, Mexican troops tried to retrieve a cannon that had been given to the city of Gonzales to protect Texan colonists from Native American attacks. Gonzales residents unfurled a banner daring the Mexican troops to "come and take it,” and the ensuing clash is considered the opening battle of the Texas Revolution.

The Mexican soldiers retreated from the confrontation, fueling pride among the Texans. They began forming armed militias throughout the territory and engaged in a few skirmishes with Mexican forces.

In late February 1836, Santa Anna led thousands of troops across the Rio Grande into what is now known as San Antonio, to attack Texas troops occupying the Alamo, a former Spanish mission that had become a military compound. For 13 days, the Mexican army laid siege to the Alamo. As the siege raged, on March 2, Texas revolutionary leaders met more than 160 miles away at Washington-on-the-Brazos, where they officially declared independence from Mexico. Four days later, Santa Anna ordered his troops into the Alamo, killing nearly all of the roughly 200 Texas soldiers, including legendary frontiersman Davy Crockett and the Alamo’s commander, William B. Travis.

Meanwhile, a smaller force of Mexican troops was making its way north to Goliad, about 90 miles southeast of San Antonio. On March 27, they executed nearly 350 Texan prisoners, including their commander James Fannin, in what became known as the Goliad massacre.

It seemed as if the Texans had nothing left in the fight, but the losses at the Alamo and Goliad became the Texans’ motivation to keep pushing for independence. On April 21, 1836, nearly a month after Goliad, about 800 Texan troops led by Sam Houston surprised the Mexican army at San Jacinto, near present-day Houston. The Texas were reported to have shouted, “Remember the Alamo,” as they swamped the Mexicans in a battle that lasted only 18 minutes.  

The Texans not only were victorious, they captured Santa Anna the day after the battle. Texas achieved de facto independence with the surrender of Santa Anna, who ordered his battered troops to retreat and agreed to support recognition of Texas independence.

Seeking U.S. statehood

With Texas now an independent nation—called the Republic of Texas—in September 1836 colonists began to set up a new government and national constitution, electing Houston as their first president. They also debated the question of annexation to the United States, a proposition that Texans overwhelmingly favored.

Santa Anna had renounced all guarantees he had made to the Republic of Texas after returning home from captivity. Not knowing how or when he would try to regain control of the territory, Texans saw U.S. annexation as a form of protection.

In 1837, the Republic of Texas began taking steps to join the United States. In January, a resolution to recognize Texas was introduced in the U.S. Senate and approved two months later. But annexation was a different question. Many members of the U.S. Congress didn’t want to admit another slave state to the union and feared war with Mexico.

From 1838 to 1845, Texas officials made multiple failed attempts to gain annexation to the U.S. Finally, in March 1845—after the election of expansionist President James Polk—the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution to annex Texas, which officially became the 28th state on December 29, 1845.

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