Volume 17 - 2008
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Texas History Research



Preserve, Provide Depth
for State's Rich Legacy

Nancy Kolsti

Mention "Texas history" to someone living in another state, and that person will probably picture the Alamo, cowboys and oil wells.

That's exactly what the Texas Centennial Commission had in mind as it planned the 1936 celebration marking 100 years since Texas became a republic. The commission focused on Texas as a Western state, ignoring its heritage as a slave state and a member of the Confederacy.

It's little wonder, then, that Texas as a Southern state "was lost in the popular memory," says Richard B. McCaslin, University of North Texas professor of history. He points out, however, that two-thirds of Texans today live not in West Texas, but in what he terms "Southern Texas — east of Interstate 35."

McCaslin and several other UNT history faculty members research and write about little-known periods and subjects of Texas history to provide Texans and others with a complete history of the state.

The breadth of their research was the major factor in the Texas State Historical Association choosing UNT as its new home earlier this year. Located at the University of Texas at Austin since it was founded in 1897, TSHA is the oldest organization dedicated to furthering the appreciation, understanding and teaching of Texas' unique history. Regarded by historians as the nation's most dynamic regional history association, TSHA has more than 2,200 members, including several UNT faculty who are association fellows.

A closer relationship between TSHA and UNT will allow the extensive Texas-focused research at the university to have an even greater impact on the state and beyond.

Texas State Historical Association

Photo by: Jonathan Reynolds

Fran Vick, second from right, is president of the Texas State Historical Association and former UNT Press director. Welcoming the association to campus this fall are TSHA fellows and UNT history faculty, from left, Donald Chipman, F. Todd Smith, Richard B. McCaslin and Randolph "Mike" Campbell.

During the past two decades, UNT's history faculty members have published more than 20 books about Texas history, as well as some 50 articles and book chapters. Their subjects include everything from Texas' Native American populations to slavery and woman suffrage.

The Great Hanging

Like several of the UNT faculty members, McCaslin didn't originally plan to research Texas history. A native of Mississippi, he entered UT-Austin for a doctoral degree in Latin American history. He was without a mentor there until he met L. Tuffly Ellis, then the director of TSHA.

"I had always been interested in Texas history," McCaslin says. "Then, Tuffly became my dissertation advisor. I soon discovered that I had been adopted by the perfect mentor, and he was connected to this great group of people who loved Texas as much as I had grown to love my adopted state."

For his dissertation, McCaslin researched the hanging of Union supporters in Gainesville in 1862. He learned about it from a TSHA reprint of an 1885 personal account of the event.

McCaslin turned his dissertation into Tainted Breeze: The Great Hanging at Gainesville, Texas, 1862. The book received TSHA's Tullis Memorial Prize, which is given to the best book about Texas, and a Certificate of Commendation from the American Association of State and Local History.

"The hanging was big news through about 1870. Then it was quickly forgotten in Texans' big rush to leave the Civil War behind," McCaslin says.

Slavery in Texas

Randolph B. "Mike" Campbell, Regents Professor of history, started his career by researching Southern history, particularly Virginia's history. After coming to UNT, he learned that little had been written about slavery in Texas.

"The cotton industry couldn't have developed without slave labor. It was key to Texas' emergence as an agricultural economy," he says.

Campbell is the author of An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865. The book is regularly used in university history courses around the state and received the Tullis Memorial Prize and several other awards.

The "empire for slavery" hadn't even begun to reach its potential in Texas by the end of the Civil War, Campbell says. Still, he adds, "the slave population in Texas grew faster than the free population" in a decade.

"The census counted more than 182,000 slaves in 1860," he says.

Ignored Subjects

F. Todd Smith, professor of history, researches another population in Texas history that previously had been ignored — Native American tribes, particularly the Caddos and Wichitas. He has published four books about the tribes.

The Caddos, who lived in what is now East Texas, called their friends "Tejas," and the Spanish began to call them by that name, Smith says.

"Eventually, the whole province was called ‘Tejas,' which became ‘Texas,'" he says. He notes that many current Texas cities and lakes, including Waco, Tawakoni and Comanche, have Native American names.

Elizabeth Hayes Turner, associate professor of history, uncovered the story of woman suffrage in Texas in her book, Women, Culture and Community: Religion and Reform in Galveston, 1880-1920, another Tullis Memorial Prize winner.

Although she has a master's degree in European history, she began researching the topic as a doctoral student.

"I became fascinated with the South while teaching in North Carolina, and when I went to Rice, I decided to study Southern women after the Civil War. My advisor suggested Galveston as a case study," she says.

Turner now hopes to write a book about Texas' observance of Juneteenth, the day in 1865 that Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to take possession of Texas and enforce the emancipation of its slaves.

"Many children's books have been written about Juneteenth, but not a scholarly monograph," she says.

A Full History

This focus on little-known areas and figures in Texas history, now a hallmark of UNT's scholarly activity, continues with new publications. McCaslin's book on John S. "Rip" Ford, a Texas Ranger and participant in the last battle of the Civil War near Brownsville, will be published in 2009.

While Ford isn't a "larger-than-life Texas hero" like Sam Houston, he is "there at very interesting moments in history that define what Texas was going to be," McCaslin says.

"He came from humble origins," he says, noting that during one Texas Ranger campaign against the Comanches, Ford had his father drive a wagon for him.

"I think that people may connect better with someone like Ford, who actually gets in lots of trouble. You look at him and think, ‘I know people like that,'" he says.

McCaslin says that just as all areas of Ford's life deserve notice — not just his Texas Ranger exploits — all eras of Texas history should be preserved, not just the Western images.

Smith agrees: "The history of Texas isn't just Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston and LBJ, but a whole wide group of different peoples."

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Web Extras

Texas State Historical Association

The Texas State Historical Association, the state's oldest such organization, was founded March 2, 1897, on the 61st anniversary of the signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence. TSHA members include individuals who write and research Texas history as a hobby as well as those who teach it professionally.

The current TSHA president, Fran Vick, is a former director of the UNT Press. In addition to UNT's Texas history faculty experts, publishing opportunities with the press attracted the association to UNT in its move from the University of Texas at Austin. Digitization capabilities in the UNT libraries' Digital Projects Unit also influenced the decision. The unit created and administers the Portal to Texas History, which provides unprecedented digital access to materials from Texas archives, historical societies, libraries, museums and private collections.

Texas history books
by UNT history faculty
since 1987


President's Note

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