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Texas History: How Texans passed their days during the Republic

Welcome to Think, Texas a weekly column about Texas history

By Michael Barnes
When it came out in 1946, William Ransom Hogan's "The Texas Republic: A Social and Economic History" broke the tradition of focusing on military or economic history as well as profiles of Texans and adventure stories. It told, instead, how Texans passed their days.
Michael Barnes

Almost all formal histories of the Republic of Texas published between 1845, when Texas joined the Union, and 1945, when World War II ended, consisted of military or political chronicles, with a few profiles or adventure stories thrown in for color.

Then in 1946, William Ransom Hogan put out “The Texas Republic: A Social and Economic History.” This historian surveyed an enormous number of personal memoirs and letters, newspaper reports, public records and much more to lend the reader a sense of how citizens of the short-lived nation actually passed their days.

How did Texans put together the basics of food, clothing and shelter? How did people, livestock and goods move on those intractable traces that sufficed for roads? What did they do for fun, and how did they learn about the world beyond their lean-tos, cabins and scattered formal housing? How did they grapple with illness, faith and culture as well as attempts to establish law and order?

An accumulator of details rather than a sweeping storyteller, Hogan brought many of these Texas stories to light for the first time. Sometimes his findings — such as his indulgent chapter on Texas tall tales and another on “rampant individualism” — supported widespread assumptions about Texans held during the 20th century. He treats other subjects — such as the suffering of women and children and the difficulties experienced by the faithful who wanted to introduce religion to the rough frontier — in a more nuanced manner.

So valuable was Hogan’s book that the Texas State Historical Association brought it out in paperback in 2007, the version most history buffs can get their hands on. Gregg Cantrell, one of the state’s leading historians, contributed a new and necessary foreword to the book.

“Naturally ‘The Texas Republic’ is a product of its time,” Cantrell wrote in 2006. “If written today, it would undoubtedly pay more attention to African Americans, Tejanos and women. The generally lighthearted tone of the book would probably be tempered with a more serious discussion of slavery and racism. But it is remarkably free of the overt racial stereotyping that one might expect to find in books written in the era of segregation and disenfranchisement.”

In fact, in a preface to the 1969 reprint edition, written 23 years after the book was first published, Hogan addressed similar criticisms that the book had received during the intervening years.

We offer here today two detailed extracts — it’s all about the details — from the book. We’ll save some other insights for later Think, Texas columns. The volume is a true treasure trove. Both deal with how immigrants reached Texas from the United States.

According to Hogan, the principal land route to Texas was the road from Natchitoches in Louisiana to San Augustine and Nacogdoches in Texas, crossing the Sabine River at Gaines Ferry (now submerged below Toledo Bend Reservoir at the terminus of Texas 21). An overland trek that took immigrants to Texas by this or any other road was not prohibitive in cost, Hogan writes. In the early 1840s, two families numbering about 15 people, along with 50 enslaved people, removed from Alabama to Texas by wagon and horseback at a total expense of $120, a considerable part of which was spent for ferry fees and repairs to three wagons.

The ordinary family or single man also traveled with a very small outlay of money; in 1833 Asa Hoxey wrote from San Felipe de Austin: “The expenses of removing to the country are much less than I expected. It did not cost more than $10 a head.”

One of the largest caravans was that of Jared E. Groce, Hogan writes, who migrated from Alabama to Texas in 1821-1822. Quite an impressive sight was his train of more than 50 covered wagons, some carrying the women and children and others the furniture, spinning wheels, looms and provisions; men on horseback, herding horses, mules, oxen, cows, sheep and hogs; and finally Groce and his son, mounted on thoroughbred horses and accompanied by their personal body servants.

Hogan writes that immigrants also reached Texas by sea, usually embarking in New Orleans, whence schooners, sloops and steamboats ran more or less regularly to Galveston beginning in 1837.

“The first well-equipped steamboat to enter this trade,” Hogan writes, “was the Charles Morgan steam packet, Columbia, which could accommodate more than 30 cabin passengers and an equal number on deck. Either service was better or the passengers more tolerant than on Red River steamers, for one cabin passenger, a woman, reported that the vessel’s accommodations were excellent.”

“The captain a gentleman — always at the head of his table — set out in the best style — silver forks, or what looks like silver — large & small, with ivory knives,” the passenger writes. ”... waiters, neat and orderly — French cook ... & bedding the finest and whitest linen — water closets — & lady-like chamber made everything nice.”