The Influence of Geography on the Development of Texas

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Texas is a big state, with lots of people. One thing that unites them all is a history of being impacted by the land. Let's look at Texas' history and see how it was impacted by geography.

Geography and Texas

If you're in the Texas panhandle, do you know what industry you're likely NOT a part of? Logging. You're also probably not in the commercial fishing business. Ranching, however, that's a possibility. Of course, if you're in the southeastern part of Texas, fishing and logging seem a lot more likely.

Texas is a large state, bigger than some countries, but one thing that unites all of it is the importance of geography. For as long as humans have lived in Texas, the region's weather, landforms, waterways, and natural spaces have defined the industries and cultures that thrived there. So, if you want to understand the history of Texas, look no further than the history of how people have used and lived on the land.

Amerindian Texas

The history of Texas' development begins, obviously, with the first people to live there. Texas has been occupied for about as long as any other part of North America, with evidence of ancient hunter-gatherers dating back more than 10,000 years.

Over the centuries, a number of different ethnic, linguistic, and cultural groups lived in what is now Texas, and while we don't have time to explore them all, we can see some similarities based on how they interacted with the land. Along major water systems, most notably the Rio Grande, many Amerindian societies developed agriculture in the fertile soils and built permanent homes and religious structures. The Spanish would later group these societies together under the catchall name of Pueblos. To the east, in the Mississippi River valley, Mound-builders also established permanent structures and agriculture. Between these settled societies were a number of nomadic ones that roamed the more arid Great Plains hunting animals like bison and deer and trading with their sedentary neighbors.

Petroglyphs from ancient Amerindian occupants of Texas
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Spanish and Mexican Texas

The first Europeans to arrive in what is now Texas were Spaniards, who started exploring in the 1500s. However, the land was vast, the settlements remote, and there didn't seem to be a lot of gold lying around. So they didn't quite know what to do with this newfound territory. In fact, it would take about 150 years before the Spanish really started settling Texas.

Texas landowners, most of whom got large chunks of land as grants from the Spanish king, needed a way to profit from land where crops were not as easy to grow. In the mid-1700s, they realized that the vast openness of Texas' rolling hills and prairies could be useful for something: cattle. Cattle quickly became a dominant industry in Texas. However, since Texan communities were so remote, the meat couldn't be transported to major urban centers without spoiling. So the focus was on the hides. Leather production was one of Texas' first major industries. It's also worth noting that Spanish horses were acquired by Amerindian nations in this time, which fundamentally changed nomadic cultures. Groups like the Comanche became roving hunters and raiders, and started their own empires over the plains.

When Mexico declared and won its independence from Spain, the remoteness of Texas continued to be an issue. With the deserts and huge plains to cross, it was difficult to resupply or defend. Partly for this reason, American families like the Austins were allowed to start their own cattle ranches. The idea was that these American ranchers could create a buffer that protected Spanish communities from Comanche raids. Of course, that remoteness also severed Texas from Mexico culturally, and Mexican Texans developed their own identity as Tejanos. Finally, in the 1830s the Tejanos and Texians (white Texans) united and declared an independent Republic of Texas.

Cattle have been a major part of the Texan economy for centuries
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Texas in the USA

In 1846, Texas was annexed by the USA and Americans moved to the new state to participate in the cattle industry. Thanks to new technologies, meat could now be preserved more effectively, and the cattle industry boomed. Up through the 1860s, cattle was driven sometimes hundreds of miles to market in massive cattle drives, but after the Civil War railroads were developed to better connect Texas to the rest of the USA.

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