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Texas Faces The Camera

April 2024
4min read

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

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.

Although his heyday was brief, the cowboy became the legend of Texas and of America.

Lucchese boots, such as these, are the very best. They weren’t made for walking. On his horse the cowboy was powerful and free, a romantic male figure. Afoot he was just another poorly paid hand. Born from the Mexican vaquera, the Texan cowboy flourished when great cattle herds were driven north after the Civil War. The trail drives lasted only a few years, but the cowboy endures forever, the basic American myth.

A gallery of faces from the early years.

Daguerreotypy was invented just three years after Texas became independent in 1836. Many pioneer photographers plied their trade in the American West, and much of their work ended up hidden away in scrapbooks and file drawers. The photographs on these pages were uncovered by Richard Pearce-Moses, who traveled some twelve thousand miles around the state, examining family and museum collections under the auspices of the Texas Historical Foundation. The men and women in these photographs are unremembered by more formal histories. They gaze with an almost unimaginable innocence at the unblinking eye of the camera—an eye that captured a way of life etched on these faces.

There is no such thing as a typical Texan.

Chili stands once lined the front of the Alamo in San Antonio, a reminder that its Mexican heritage, from food to language to music, has persisted. Racial and ethnic divisions, while stormy at times, are at least straightforward: a Texan is either Anglo, black, or Chicano. Most Anglos came to Texas from other states, but Texas also was enriched by German stock, with Adm. Chester Nimitz of Fredericksburg the most famous.

The dawning of modern Texas, brought in with a gusher.

Oil and Texas seem inseparable, but it was not always so. The first big strike was at Spindletop near Beaumont in 1901. For a few heady decades it seemed that oil was everywhere, even in the backyard, as in this photograph of Kilgore. The boom continued into the 1950s, but long before then Texas had become a sort of colony, its one great resource being drained to enrich the Eastern companies that quickly dominated the oil fields. The oil is almost gone now, but the society it helped create all but wiped out the earlier Texas of these photographs. Texas has become modern, urban, sophisticated, the third most populous state in America. Today it is not always comfortable with the images of cowboys and wildcatters that define Texans to the world. But if that is not what Texans are, then what are they?

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