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  • Making Sense of Texas and Its History
  • Walter L. Buenger (bio)

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These portraits, one of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and the other of Franklin D. Roosevelt, illustrate the countervailing cultural influences often at work in the Texas past. As the lyrics of Don Williams’s 1980 hit song “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” written by Texan Robert Lee “Bob” McDill suggests, young Texans—especially Anglo Texans—often went to bed underneath the quintessential image of southern honor and the Lost Cause, “a picture of Stonewall Jackson.” Yet they also “learned to talk like the man on the six o’clock news.” Texans of all types often modeled their behavior and aspired to be like national voices such as FDR. Particularly after 1900 they lived in a bordered world that moved them from southern norms to American patterns, but never completely. Lyrics from [Accessed April 20, 2017]. Stonewall portrait: “Stonewall” Jackson, from a photograph from life, printed by H. Peters, c. March 26, 1864. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. FDR portrait: head-and-shoulders portrait, c. December 27, 1933, photographed by Elias Goldensky. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

In the classroom and at the computer keyboard I have long tried to make sense of Texas and Texas history. Most especially I have struggled to explain how and why persistence and change existed together at the same time, but at long last I have come to a central argument.

Clarity alternated with chaos in the Texas past. In essence, Texas since 1810 has been marked by periods of multiple borders and nebulous identities separated by tipping points from times of diminished borders and clearer identity. Over that long view of borders and identity, passing through tipping points meant the direction and character of change became clearer, but shadows of old identities and borders remained. Persistence and change always coexisted, but to varying degrees.

Human interaction across borders offers a clue as to why these patterns represented in the diagram on the next page occurred. Three types of borders have existed across Texas history: the obvious physical borders represented by lines on a map, the divisions among cultural and demographic groups and genders, and the permeable membrane between memories of the past and realities of the present. All three of these borders have divided and connected at the same time. When new population groups such as Anglos and African Americans from the South, especially the Lower South, crossed the border into Texas after 1810, they brought change. At some point about 1850, their numbers and the cultural transformation [End Page 1] they brought with them passed a tipping point and helped move Texas and all Texans into a Lower South orbit. These southerners brought change not only to Texas but they brought change to the groups they found there, and they in turn were changed by those groups. Germans became cotton growers. Comanches were pushed west. In Anglo eyes, Tejanos became people of color. But those from the Lower South were also changed by the bordered environment of Texas, by interaction with other groups and by the conditions on the ground. Gender roles varied, and slavery diverged slightly from a typical Lower South pattern in the most bordered regions of Texas. Most interestingly new memories developed, such as ones of the Texas Revolution. These memories lay largely dormant for decades after the 1830s but sprang to full life in the early twentieth century to help push and pull Texas and Texans into the American mainstream. Late in the twentieth century the arrival of new people and cultures from a variety of American states and Central America helped create a more nebulous time. As demography and cultural patterns have changed further in the twenty-first century, clarity returned. Over time interactions across borders have repeatedly moved Texans into new eras and new identities.

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This diagram should help you visualize the long view of tipping points, shifting borders, and changing identity, and it concisely introduces the patterns of...


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pp. 1-26
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