Passionate Nation: The Epic History of Texas

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9780684862910: Passionate Nation: The Epic History of Texas

Texas has become the most American of all the states. Texas's politics has taken over in Washington, and Texas's passionate sense of itself as a nation is echoed by the fervent patriotism of tens of millions of Americans. Texas is also our most outsized hodgepodge -- of Latino, black, white, Asian; of characters who transcend any category. In so many ways, America today is Texas writ large.

In Passionate Nation James L. Haley offers a comprehensive and definitive history of this singular and singularly American state, a history that explains how Texas became Texas, even before it became such a central national symbol for America. Haley peers through the lens of the extraordinary "ordinary" men and women who have streamed to Texas from its beginnings, and created it in their own contradictory, uncontrollable image.

He recovers elements bowdlerized by previous and more prudish generations, such as the discovery, by sixteenth-century explorer Cabeza de Vaca, of Indian warriors living in conjugal relationships with male eunuchs. He presents documents never before published, such as a rare appeal for aid from the town of Gonzales on the eve of the Texas Revolution. He restores to the history important figures who have been allowed to drop from the usual recitation, such as Benjamin Lundy, who almost single-handedly prevented the Texas Republic from being annexed to the United States for nearly a decade. He corrects the record at every turn, starting with the fact that Jane Lundy was not the "mother of Texas." Throughout, he uses great stories to present the passion of people who lived and worried and suffered and laughed.

The first Indians settled in Texas in about 10,000 B.C.; the first Europeans arrived in the early sixteenth century. Since then, the land that is now Texas has belonged to six powers at eight different times: Spain (1519-1685), France (to 1690), Spain again (to 1821), Mexico (to 1836), the Republic of Texas (to 1845), the U.S.A. (to 1861), the Confederacy (to 1865), and the U.S.A. to stay. From Jim Bowie's and Davy Crockett's myth-enshrouded stand at the Alamo to the Mexican-American War to Sam Houston's heroic failed effort to keep Texas in the Union during the Civil War, the transitions in Texas history have often been as painful and tense as the "normal" periods in between. Here, in all of its epic grandeur, is the story of Texas as its own passionate nation, a history that shows that circumstances can radically change, yet culture and character can last for centuries.

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About the Author:

James L. Haley grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, and graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington with a degree in political science. His works of history include Sam Houston: A Life (2002), which won nine historical and literary awards, The Buffalo War (1976), and Apaches (1981). He is also the author of four novels.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: Smiling Captors

In light of the subsequent history, it is only right that European contact with the area that became Texas began with jealousy and intrigue. In 1518 Diego Velásquez, the Spanish governor of Cuba, caved in to pressure from an ambitious retainer named Hernán Cortés and allowed him to form an expedition to explore and conquer that portion of the interior of New Spain that lay directly westward of Cuba. Velásquez believed that any riches plundered from the steaming mainland jungles should be his, and he was naturally suspicious of Cortés' thirst for power.

It was a time in which political stewardship meant control of wealth -- only in later eras would this be called corruption -- and just a quarter century after the landings of Columbus, Spanish governors in the New World were already snapping at each other like wolves over a kill. Velásquez soon thought better of the commission and revoked it, but Cortés sailed anyway, with ten cannons and six hundred men, landing in Mexico in March 1519. Cowing coastal Indians, he hacked his way into the heart of the Aztec empire, where he was welcomed as a god in fulfillment of prophecy and he became the conquistador he had always dreamed of being. As Velásquez suspected, Cortés threw over his allegiance and established his own government. Not all of Cortés' men were in agreement, and Cortés burned his fleet to keep loyalists from carrying word of his coup back to Cuba.

Late in the year, at Cortés' coastal headquarters of La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, there appeared the ships of Alonso Álvarez de Pineda, who had just mapped the whole curve of the Gulf of Mexico for the first time, proving that Florida was not an island; he had sailed west through the great freshwater discharge of an enormous river, certainly the Mississippi, then southwest and finally south, until he dropped anchor at Villa Rica. Álvarez de Pineda, however, was sailing in the service of the governor of Jamaica, and Cortés arrested his envoys as soon as they came ashore. Álvarez quickly weighed anchor and withdrew back to the north, seeking shelter and starting his own colony near the mouth of the Pánuco River, in the vicinity of later Tampico. Sending his ships back to Jamaica for supplies, Álvarez stayed at Pánuco with several dozen of his men. Local natives, who thanks to Cortés had seen all they needed to see of the Spanish, devastated the settlement. Returning ships ferried the survivors to Cortés' Villa Rica; Álvarez was not among them, but his map, the first to show the coast of Texas, still exists, with its imprecise squiggles of speculative rivers.

Back in Cuba, Velásquez finally learned that Cortés' actions justified his earlier apprehension, and he sent an army under his lieutenant governor, Pánfilo de Narváez, to arrest the recreant and bring him home. Narváez reached Mexico in April 1520; Cortés learned of his arrival, and after entering his camp at night, talked most of the invaders into defecting, and captured Narváez. There was a fight, in which Narváez got an eye put out, and that was the end of Velásquez' ambition to control Cortés, who three years later was confirmed as governor and captain general of New Spain. (He did have his own downfall, later.) Narváez returned to Spain to recover, where he became a favorite of that country's young King Charles I, the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella. Tired of being a pawn serving greater men's games, Narváez began angling for his own expedition to explore and conquer. The king, feeling perhaps that the immensity of the New World must be capable of embracing at least one more breastplated egomaniac, commissioned him to explore "Florida," a name that then covered the entire curve of the Gulf north and east of Cortés.

Narváez returned to Cuba and in April 1528 crossed the Straits of Florida with about three hundred men, including his treasurer, another young noble who had gained the king's favor, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. His name derived from a maternal ancestor, who saved the day in a thirteenth-century battle by marking a strategic pass with a cow's skull. In dignity-conscious Spain, he chose to live by his mother's name, which carried higher rank than his father's. He was soon, however, to begin measuring dignity by very different standards.

Narváez' leadership skills were negligible. He landed his men on the west coast of Florida, and made it clear to the local natives that he was seeking gold. Establishing a pattern that held for decades, the Indians realized they could get rid of the invaders by pointing to some place over the horizon and promising all the gold they desired. Narváez took the bait and split his command, leaving the ships to find a secure anchorage, and leading the men off to collect the gold; he soon got them hopelessly lost. Even more stupidly, he believed they were only a jaunty sail from Pánuco on the east coast of Mexico. By the time he reached what is now the Florida Panhandle, fifty of his men had died or been killed, and he had the remainder construct five crude barges with the intention to sail west, hugging the coast, until they should reach the settlements. A month into their voyage, they crossed the discharge of the Mississippi, still looking for civilization, a lark turned desperate. Their boats separated in a storm, the food was almost gone, and they were numb from exposure. On the evening of November 5, 1528, the officer of Cabeza de Vaca's boat passed command to him, "as he was in such condition," wrote de Vaca, "that he believed he should die that night."

Shortly before sunrise he thought he could hear surf. He awakened the master, and "near the shore a wave took us, that knocked the boat out of water the distance of the throw of a crowbar." The violent jar roused the nearly insensible survivors. Finding themselves near the shore, they crawled through the surf on hands and feet, reaching the shore and finding shelter in some ravines. "There we made fire, parched some of the maize we brought, and found some rain water."

The strongest of the survivors, Lope de Oviedo, climbed a tree and descried that they were on an island, probably Galveston or one of the small islands just to the west of it. He found an Indian village, apparently deserted, and helped himself to some mullets and a pot. Regaining the Spanish camp, the castaways saw that he was followed at a distance by what they took to be a hundred warriors armed with bows. Defense was impossible, for as Cabeza de Vaca related, "it would have been difficult to find six that could rise from the ground." Rummaging in their stores, he gave the warriors beads and hawkbells, receiving arrows in exchange as a sign of amity. The natives signed that they had no food with them, but would return in the morning.

"At sunrise the next day...they came according to their promise, and brought us a large quantity of fish with certain roots, some a little larger than walnuts, others a trifle smaller, the part got from under the water and with much labor." More food arrived that evening, along with native women and children to have a look at the strangers. The Spaniards gave them more beads and hawkbells, thus ensuring their hospitality for a time longer.

Somewhat recovered and with no sign of survivors from the other four barges, the Spaniards began digging their boat out of the sand where the surf had largely buried it. With enormous effort they got it back into the water and made to resume their journey toward Pánuco and safety, but "at the distance of two crossbow shots in the sea we shipped a wave that entirely wet us. As we were naked, and the cold was very great, the oars loosened in our hands, and the next blow the sea struck us, capsized the boat." Three men drowned, and the rest were cast back on the shore, "naked as they were born, with the loss of all they had." No wonder they named the place Isla de Malhado, the isle of misfortune.

With no other recourse, Cabeza de Vaca appealed to the Indian benefactors to take them to their village for shelter. This alarmed the other survivors, who feared that they were pushing hospitality too far. To their surprise, the Indians "signified that it would give them delight." Moreover, the natives asked the Spaniards to wait a short time while preparations were made. Along the trail to their village they made several large fires at which the freezing Europeans warmed themselves, and on reaching the village, they discovered that the Indians had built them their own large hut, with numerous fires in it.

The Spaniards -- or as they referred to themselves, the Christians -- took up life with these natives, eventually encountering other survivors of the Narváez expedition until they numbered some eighty. Again they tried to sail away but the boat, Cabeza de Vaca noted laconically, sank simply from its unfitness to float. The Indians among whom they found themselves were Karankawas, a tribe now extinct. They were a people surprisingly tall and powerful to have lived in an environment that was so poor of sustenance that they had to move camp constantly to find seasonal foods in turn -- turtles, shellfish, fish, roots. The men were skilled warriors, their principal weapon a longbow of cedar as tall as themselves. They were cannibals, although there was a religious element to their human consumption that rendered their cannibalism somewhat less orgiastic than that of natives farther inland. (In point of fact, Karankawas would eat only enemies; when they learned that other survivors of the Narváez disaster had turned to cannibalism to keep from starving, the Indians expressed their mortification and declared that if they had known the Spanish were capable of such an abomination, they would have been slaughtered on the beach.)

Karankawa men wore simple skin breechcloths, or just as often nothing at all. Protected from mosquitoes by a smear of alligator grease, their bodies ...

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