- Texas Land Grants, 1750–1900: A Documentary History by John Martin Davis Jr
Land grants played an outsized role in Texas’s historical trajectory. They underwrote the missionary enterprise, laid the foundation for the Tejano ranching culture of South Texas, and lured empresarios and settlers to the perilous frontier. Strapped for cash, the Republic of Texas issued grants to encourage settlement and reward soldiers. And after annexation in 1848, Texas further parceled out its public domain to fi nance a host of internal improvement projects. In Texas history, then, land is king. Yet, since the publication of Thomas Lloyd Miller’s comprehensive The Public Lands of Texas, 1519–1970 (University of Oklahoma Press, 1972), historians have shown little interest in critically reevaluating the Texas land grant as a historical institution.
While John Martin Davis Jr.’s new book does not attempt such a critical reevaluation, it does offer Texas history buffs a sense of the scope and complexity of the state’s land grant policies and a glimpse at the diverse array of documentation they generated. Comprising 55 pages of text and 101 original documents from the author’s collection (reproduced in black and white), Texas Land Grants attempts to synthesize 150 years of Texas land grant history, from the allotment of the Rio Grande porciones in the mid-eighteenth century to the exhaustion of the public domain circa 1900. The author has organized the narrative fi rst half of the book by grant type (empresario, bounty and donation, scrip, etc.), an attempt to highlight patterns that cut across traditional chronologies. This approach captures something of the complex, even chaotic nature of the state’s various land grant programs and illustrates Texas offi cials’ near-constant struggle against fraud and speculation. Indeed, the book’s fi nal chapters read like a litany of speculative ventures, fraudulent and abortive projects, and contested claims.
The book’s second, documentary half is the main attraction, and the author’s collection is impressive. The archives of the General Land Office are the first stop for agrarian historians in Texas: They contain the official records produced by Texas governments in the implementation of various land grant programs. Many of the documents collected in this volume [End Page 507] (testimonios, field notes, headright and scrip certificates, etc.) can likewise be found in the GLO’s holdings. Yet Davis’s collection goes beyond the GLO in some areas, particularly in its inclusion of ephemera from abortive land grant programs and instruments to which the sovereign was not a party. Among the more interesting pieces are a land certificate for Haden Edwards’s failed empresario colony (figure 13) and a “Hedgecoxe Deed,” issued before the obscure “Hedgecoxe War” of 1852 (figure 56). A testimonio for a town-lot grant in the doomed villa of Bagdad, Tamaulipas, is equally fascinating (figure 66). Lengthy captions contextualize each document. Though the book will appeal more to collectors than academic historians, its thorough bibliography points would-be researchers in the right direction.
Davis’s book is not without defect. The early chapters sometimes mischaracterize aspects of Spanish and Mexican history. That “most [Spanish land grants] were simply abandoned” (9) would be news to the many descendants of Spanish grantees, for example. The claim that San Antonio residents “became landowners beginning in 1834” (16) erases nearly a century of Bexareño landholding. Like many non-specialists, the author also tends to treat titles, patents, and deeds interchangeably, though these are three distinct legal instruments. These issues notwithstanding, the book’s primary purpose is to share the author’s extensive document collection, and in that it succeeds. Indeed, this collection should remind historians that there are plenty of raw materials available in both public and private collections with which to update the history of Texas public lands.