- Historic Sites
Texas Faces The Camera
The Lone Star state as it once was—proud, isolated, independent, the undiluted essence of America forever inventing itself out of the hardscrabble reality of the frontier
February/March 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 2
The Texans on these pages are a vanishing species, born of the vast and varied geography of the toughest frontier. The Republic of Texas was wrested from Mexico one hundred and fifty years ago, and its brief history as a separate nation helped convince Texans that they were a special breed of Americans.
For such a place, one history is not enough. East Texas is part of the South: magnolias and plantations carved from the pine forests, the dark legacy of slavery and the Lost Cause. South of the Nueces River is a border empire of great ranches, vaqueros, and the uneasy meeting place of America and Mexico. The Panhandle belongs to the Great Plains, the land of buffalo and Comanche, blizzards and wheat. West Texas is part of the Llano Estacado and the New Mexico desert leading into the southern Rockies. Each place has its own experience, but the whole has been held together by the thread of an idea—the idea of Texas.
For most Texans, life was a hard struggle in a vast, unyielding land.
Our image of the rich Texan is of recent origin—and the more powerful because most Texans have always been poor. For every wildcatter who struck it rich, there were hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who struggled against a hard and difficult land, hot, windswept, yielding a bare living as reward for constant toil. The geography often dwarfed its people, as eloquently rendered in the photograph of the woman holding a baby, above, in West Texas. Until after World War II, Texas was a rural culture, but in half the state not enough rain fell to support traditional farming. The reality of this frontier existence bred in these early Texans a hard, ascetic way of life, relieved by simple pleasures few and far between.
Texans with money took their fashions from the East, but for blacks, money wasn’t enough.
Always, it seems, Texans have been proud and insecure—witness how they constantly remind the world, and themselves, of how Texas has the biggest, best, and most of everything. But when a newly wealthy Texan left the state, he always had a fear of being thought a rube. Neiman-Marcus solved that problem by clothing Texans in the best Eastern fashions, including woolens and furs manfully worn in terrible heat. The fashion models illustrate this look for the 1930s, as do the West Texas dandies for an earlier generation.
Deep East Texas was another world, part of the Old South and not the West. This prosperous black family dressed for a drive was the exception, and until the 1960s, segregation in East Texas (note the photograph of the laundry billboard) was as complete as in Mississippi.
Tightrope walking, Bible thumping, and other entertainments.
Before the days of television and air conditioning, Texans amused themselves with the simple pleasures of community life. And they did amuse themselves, as in the photograph of a dance at a gasoline station and the one of the members of the Galveston Cotton Exchange gathered around a bullfrog with a gavel in its mouth. Traveling circuses made regular rounds, as did actors, opera singers, and snake-oil salesmen. Religion was of course a serious matter, but revivals by traveling preachers were big entertainments. This particular preacher, George Mayfield Daniel, was the grandfather of Price Daniel, who excelled in another favorite amusement, politics, and became governor of Texas.
On the frontier it was not always easy to tell the lawmen from the outlaws.
Portrayed above is Butch Cassidy (and his gang, who supposedly sent a copy of this picture to Allan Pinkerton with a note reading, “Come and get us.” The photograph at top on the opposite page shows a group of Texas Rangers. Outlaws and lawmen were, in fact, cut from much the same cloth—even if the outlaw’s cloth appears the better tailored. Justice on the frontier was impatient of technicalities. It tended to get right to the heart of the matter: Did he do it? Such forthrightness helped make the frontier, in spite of all the myths, a more law-abiding place than the city.