Most of the states that make up the United States today were once territories that the US acquired over time and gradually admitted to the Union. Texas was the only state that existed as an independent republic before it joined the Union, which had won its independence from Mexico in 1836. American settlers led the fight for Texan independence as they chafed at Mexican rule.
Learn about the events and conflicts that happened when Texas was part of Mexico and how they eventually led to a movement for independence.
Mexico Gains Independence from Spain; Settlers Move to Mexico
When Mexico gained independence from Spain, the population of Texas was dominated by Native Americans. Feeling threatened by the natives and worried that the United States would try to take Texas, the Mexican government made mandates to move more settlers into the area to help implement control over the region. Texas was then called Tejas, a province of Mexico.
The Mexican government worked with empresarios who worked as land agents as Tejas. The empresarios brought settlers who would develop Tejas for the Mexican government, and in exchange, the settlers would receive title to land.
In search of new opportunities in the unsettled territory of Tejas, American impresario Moses Austin hoped to bring 300 families into the Mexican province in 1820. With the help of Baron de Bastrop, Austin received approval from the Spanish governor to bring settlers into Tejas. However, he died in 1821, so his son Stephen F. Austin inherited the land grant for 300 families. The 300 families settled in Texas are sometimes called the “Old Three Hundred.” Each family was offered vast tracts of land measuring 4,605 acres. They settled along the Brazos River in 1822, which lies on the present-day Houston to Dallas.
The record of Austin’s colony still exists today in the archives of the General Land Office in Texas. They offer a personal connection to some of the early settlers of Tejas, who are mainly Anglo-Americans who renounced their citizenship in the United States to move to Texas. Most of them were cotton farmers who began to develop rich bottomlands along the Brazos and Colorado Rivers. Many of them brought slaves to work in their new lands.
During Austin’s time in the capitol, he impressed various important people in the government by offering to draw a map of Texas to help remove the sediment obstructing the navigation of the Colorado River. He also promised to carry out an Indian pacification campaign. In 1823, Austin established San Felipe de Austin as the new headquarters for his colony.
Later on, the grant was ratified by the Mexican government, with 23 other empresarios bringing settlers to the state. The majority of settlers came from the American South, and only one colony was settled by Mexican nationals and two by European immigrants.
Mexico Encourages Foreign Settlers in Texas and Formation of State Government
In 1821, about 3,500 settlers lived in Tejas, concentrated mainly in San Antonio and La Bahia. Indigenous people in the province outnumbered the settler population. To increase the number of settlers, Mexico enacted the General Colonization Law in 1824, enabling all heads of household to acquire land in Mexico. The law allows them to acquire land regardless of race, immigrant status, or religion.
In 1823, the people of Mexico elected congressional representatives who would create a new constitution. Erasmo Seguin represented Texas in Congress. The Mexican government adopted a new constitution on October 4, 1824, making the country a federal republic with 19 states and four territories. As they ratified the constitution, they also joined Coahuila and Texas, forming a unified Mexican state named “Coahuila y Tejas.” With the passage of the Coahuila-Texas Colonization law, Mexico encouraged foreign settlers to buy land in the territory with a $30 down payment without needing to pay taxes for ten years after that.
Texas had originally asked to become a territory if its statehood was denied, but after realizing that the states controlled their own public lands, Seguin decided not to request territorial status. Congress allowed Texas the option of forming its own state as soon as it felt capable of doing so. Back then, the new state was the poorest in the Mexican federation, covering the boundaries of Spanish Texas but not including the area around El Paso.
Austin was granted the rank of a lieutenant colonel of the militia and was given absolute authority over all justice, excluding the sentencing for capital crimes. To maintain order, he issued the first Anglo-American law code in Texas on January 22, 1824: The Instructions and Regulations for the Alcades.
Under the terms of the contracts of colonization, the empresarios are responsible for providing security for their lands. In 1823, Austin created a company of men that would patrol the colony and protect it from Native attacks, which became the precursor to the Texas Rangers. After Karankawa repeatedly attacked the settlers, he organized a militia to fight back, almost annihilating the whole tribe.
Comanches were a great threat to some colonies. Green Dewitt, whose colony is west of Austin’s, has experienced the biggest attack. In July 1826, his headquarters was burned to the ground, and all but one colonist escaped. They returned to rebuild the colony the following year.
Conflict on the Horizon
Settlers in Texas weren’t ready to embrace their new identity as Mexicans upon moving to the country. Largely, they didn’t see themselves as Mexican nationals and referred to themselves as Texians. Most of the Anglo-Americans refused to be naturalized and tried to isolate themselves from the Mexicans.
Additionally, many of the settlers came from the American south and brought slaves with them, ignoring the slave reforms passed by the state. Many Mexicans wanted to abolish slavery, but there were fears of an economic crisis if all the enslaved people were simultaneously freed.
In 1823, Mexico forbade the selling or buying of slaves and required that the children of slaves must be freed when they reached 14. However, a census of Austin’s colony in 1825 showed that out of the people of African descent present in the community, only a small number of them were free.
Many of the Americans who settled in Texas were from the American South, where slavery was a central institution that formed the basis of political, social, and economic life. The abolition of slavery angered the immigrants and other colonists in the Texas area.
Mexico Bans US Immigration
Mexicans viewed Anglo-American colonists as non-subordinate, while the Anglos viewed Mexicans as foreigners and intruders. Because of the Anglo-American settlers’ lack of allegiance to Mexico, Mexican officials began to encourage more migration from Mexicans in the area. Further immigration from Texas from the United States was further prohibited, though Anglos are welcome in other parts of Mexico. As Mexico feared losing control of Texas, the government banned further immigration from the United States on April 6, 1830.
However, the ban did not stop US citizens from illegally migrating to Texas by the thousands. The initiative angered the Texans, who pushed for self-rule. By 1934, about 30,000 Anglos lived in Texas compared to only 7,800 Mexicans.
Texans Respond to Mexican Laws
During the invasion of the eastern coast of Mexico in 1829, the Mexican Congress granted war powers to President Vicente Guerrero, making him essentially a monarch. This alarmed the Anglo colonists, who were used to the separation of powers.
At the Convention of 1833, 56 Texas delegates drafted a resolution requesting Mexico to roll back many of the changes in Mexican law in 1830. Texas wanted Mexico to allow US immigration, exempt Texans from anti-slavery laws, provide more protection to natives, and separate Texas from Coahuila. Austin and Dr. James B. Miller presented the proposals to General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Austin was imprisoned in Mexico City for a year as the government accused him of inciting insurrection. Eventually, Mexico repealed the Law of 1830 but did not grant statehood to Texas.
Santa Anna becomes President of Mexico
In 1832, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna led a successful insurrection against Mexican president Anastasio Bustamante. Many of the Anglo settlers in Texas sided with Santa Anna and followed General Jose Antonio Mexia, who led Texan soldiers against Bustamante. Texans sided with Santa Anna because he supported the constitution of 1824, which was a lot similar to the US Constitution.
However, after Santa Anna was elected as president in 1833, he nullified the 1824 Constitution in favor of a more centralized government and was no longer supportive of Texas self-rule. He began consolidating his power, enacting new laws that were seen as extremely strict, and federalists revolted in different parts of Mexico. Many efforts to rebel began, and one of those movements was in the state containing Texas.
Hundreds of Mexican soldiers were sent to the Texas region to subdue the angry citizens. As part of the cracking down on Texas, the Mexican government wanted a cannon returned to them that had been loaned out to the Texan people. A Texas militia force commanded by Austin banded together to protect the canon, while Sam Houston was placed in charge of the volunteers. On October 2, 1835, the first violent incident happened at the Battle of Gonzales.
Soon after being victorious at Gonzales, the Texas army that formed moved against several Mexican troops at Fort Lipantitlan. In November, Mexican troops abandoned the fort to the Texas forces, making it another victory in the growing revolution in Texas. Around the same time, Austin worked to transform the different militia groups in Texas into coherent armies. That same month, leaders from across the Texas region gathered together to form a provisional government. Henry Smith was hailed as the first governor, and Sam Houston became the commander-in-chief of the nascent Army of Texas.
While Texans were preparing for war, Santa Anna decided to leave his force to command an army against the Texas forces. Santa Anna wanted to bring Texas back under Mexican control by a show of brute force, so he intended to oversee the efforts by himself. His expedition posed challenges of logistics, manpower, supply, and strategy. Many of the soldiers in Santa Anna’s army, called the Army of Operations, were either drafted or were former convicts and derelicts, as well as Indians who couldn’t understand Spanish commands. He gathered nearly 7,000 men before marching north towards the Army of Texas.
However, his army suffered from the cold as they expected tropical weather, and they also experienced shortages in supplies, even lacking horses, mules, cattle, and wagons. Because of his weak staff system, Santa Anna was oblivious to the challenges and became overconfident that a show of force and massacres would have the rebellious Texans begging for mercy.
When Santa Anna’s army reached San Antonio, the Texas soldiers there were forced to retire into an old Spanish mission known as The Alamo. Realizing that they had an opportunity for victory, Santa Anna and his forces started a two-week-long siege of the Alamo, resulting in an attack that overran the fort on March 6, 1836.
At the Battle of the Alamo, Santa Anna’s forces killed 189 Texan insurgents. The Alamo became a rallying cry for Texans to gather to the cause for independence. On March 27, more than 342 Texan prisoners were executed at the Goliad Massacre.
Texas Declares Independence and the Battle of San Jacinto
Before the Alamo fell, Texas leaders gathered on March 1 for the Convention of 1836 at the Washington-on-the-Brazos. They drafted the Texas Declaration of Independence, making the cause official in their eyes and the eyes of the world. They also drafted the Texas Constitution, outlining their plans for the new Republic.
But despite the declaration of Independence, the situation looked dim for many in Texas following the Alamo. After the loss at Alamo and Goliad, Houston drew criticism for not having yet attacked Santa Anna’s advancing army.
The Mexican army’s victory at the Alamo bought some time for General Houston and his Texas forces. The Texas Navy plundered ports along the Gulf of Mexico, gaining more weapons and ammunition. Despite Houston’s challenges experienced in controlling the Texan army, they completely routed Santa Anna’s army at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836.
Outnumbered and facing impossible odds, Houston ordered an attack on the Mexican army. With shouts of “Remember Goliad, Remember the Alamo!” the ragtag militia descended upon the Mexican army.
Santa Anna was highly confident that his superior numbers would ensure their victory and the destruction of the Texans. But on April 21, the Texas army attacked and surprised Santa Anna and his army. It was widely believed that the soldiers had an afternoon siesta and were not ready to face the attack, so the battle lasted only 18 minutes. Being caught off-guard, the Mexican army was overrun – they were killed, wounded, or taken as prisoners. Santa Anna himself was captured, as the Texan army found him dressed in a dragoon private’s uniform.
The Republic of Texas
After Santa Anna was captured and the Texans won the Battle of Jacinto, the war officially ended. And so began the Republic of Texas, with Sam Houston quickly elected as the first president and Stephen F. Austin appointed as Secretary of State.
It was remarkable that Houston could keep Texans from killing Santa Anna since they were furious at him for slaughtering the men of the Alamo and Goliad. In the ensuing Treaties of Velasco, Santa Anna promised he could convince the Mexican government to recognize Texan Independence.