Gone to Texas: On Sam W. Haynes’s “Unsettled Land”

By Aaron GwynJune 3, 2023

Gone to Texas: On Sam W. Haynes’s “Unsettled Land”

Unsettled Land: From Revolution to Republic, the Struggle for Texas by Sam W. Haynes

WHEN ANGLO-AMERICANS first arrived in Texas in 1825 after being invited by the Mexican government, the region had a serious military foe: the Comanche.

The Comanche call themselves Nermernuh, “the People,” and were once the fiercest light cavalry ever to gallop upon the earth. They took a zero-sum approach to adversaries, especially the Mexicans and the Spanish. When a land speculator named Moses Austin showed up in San Antonio with his son, Stephen, the authorities offered them a deal: the Austins and 297 families would be allowed to colonize the country between the Sabine and the Nueces rivers, each granted farmland and pasture. In return, the Anglos would convert to Catholicism, improve the land, and cultivate it.

Much has been written about the Anglo settlers of Texas, the revolution they started in fall 1835 against the nation that had granted them their land, and Texas’s 10-year stint as an independent and impoverished republic. In his book Unsettled Land: From Revolution to Republic, the Struggle for Texas (2022), historian Sam W. Haynes provides another account with a particular focus on Native and Black people. There is strong evidence for his view of prerevolution Texas as a multicultural province, and many of the remarkable passages in Haynes’s book contrast today’s political rhetoric with that of the 1830s. Mexico’s leaders were the first to worry about illegal immigration as Americans who were not connected with Austin’s “Old Three Hundred” families began flooding into the region. These officials feared that the newcomers would wrest Texas out of Mexican control, which is precisely what happened.

Haynes writes movingly of Cherokee leader Richard Fields; of the “free person of color” William Goyens, “one of only three of four hundred unenslaved African Americans in Texas”; and of Muguara, famed chieftain of the Penateka Comanche. He is less convincing, however, when writing about famous figures and events of the Texas Revolution, particularly the Battle of San Jacinto, where a Texan army of roughly 900 soldiers, led by General Sam Houston, virtually annihilated the larger Mexican force of about 1,300, losing only 11 men in the process. The Mexican commander, General Antonio López de Santa Anna, was himself taken prisoner and forced to sign a document recognizing Texas’s independence from her mother country. Haynes recounts the battle with a single paragraph:

Lorenzo [de Zavala Jr.] started running, too, back down to his boat at the water’s edge. By the time he got across, the Texans had overrun the Mexican breastworks. Santa Anna’s poorly trained troops broke in total confusion. In a complete rout, blue-coated [Mexican] soldiers fled toward the San Jacinto River, described by one Mexican officer as “a bewildered and panic-stricken herd.” It was all over in less than twenty minutes.

In the next paragraph, Haynes recounts the Anglo-Texans’ slaughter of the Mexican soldiers. Some of the Texans refused to use bullets and simply beat their enemies’ brains out with rifle butts. Missing from this account is the entire reason that a group of irregular Texan troops was able to rout a professional army: roughly half the Mexican soldiers had been marching to this killing field for a full 24 hours without food or sleep, and once they arrived, their commanders kept them awake to build a breastwork. Completely exhausted, these poor men were allowed to take a midday siesta, and when one of Sam Houston’s scouts reported that the Mexicans were napping, Houston ordered a charge. The Texans literally rode over these sleeping soldiers.

Does Haynes omit these crucial facts for fear of making the soldados seem clownish or of playing into racist stereotypes about Mexican indolence? If so, by withholding the only details that explain this unlikely Anglo victory, he only makes the Mexican soldiers seem incompetent or, worse, cowardly. The truth is that they were brave men, pushed past their breaking point: a circumstance that their adversaries naturally exploited to win the battle and Texan independence.

Even more troubling is Haynes’s apologist depiction of Santa Anna. Haynes decides that the general’s “reputation as a tyrant has been greatly overstated” and that Santa Anna “was not a dictator, at least not in the modern sense of the term.” His reasoning? “Mexico lacked the most basic levers of state power needed for authoritarian rule. The country was a patchwork of distinct cultural regions; perhaps as much as one-third of its population consisted of unassimilated Indians who spoke no Spanish.”

Santa Anna was a military despot who carried out an extermination campaign against the innocent people of Zacatecas during that region’s 1835 revolt. The notion that he could not have been a dictator because a third of those he ruled were “unassimilated” Indigenous people who did not speak a European language should be exposed as nonsense. We certainly don’t think of Andrew Jackson’s cruel and inhumane policy of Indian Removal as any less tyrannical than it was because it was enacted against “unassimilated” people who didn’t speak the same language as he did.

The problems with Haynes’s account grow out of a noble and necessary desire: to counter the “traditional narrative of the revolution,” a well-worn story “in which outsized figures, all white males, crowd the stage, elbowing aside everyone and everything else.” It is long past time for a more inclusive origin story of Texas, one that features a cast of characters much larger than James Bowie, David Crockett, William Barret Travis, and Sam Houston. But surely this can be done without attempting to rehabilitate the reputation of a mass-murdering dictator like Santa Anna or omitting the details that are necessary to understanding foundational moments in the story of Texas.

T. R. Fehrenbach’s one-volume history, Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans (1968), was once considered indispensable, but many of his conclusions make contemporary readers wince. Of course, Lone Star does not make us recoil as much as The 1836 Project or Governor Greg Abbott’s reactionary response to Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project, and it doesn’t provide apologies for despots. In time, a rich and comprehensive account of Texas’s origin will emerge, one which tells the important stories of Native and Black people, as well as those of Anglo-Texans. We are still waiting.


Aaron Gwyn is the author of four books of fiction, most recently All God’s Children (Europa Editions, 2020), winner of the 2021 Oklahoma Book Award and finalist for the 2021 Reading the West Award. He currently reviews for Publishers Weekly and is an associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

LARB Contributor

Aaron Gwyn is the author of four books of fiction: Dog on the Cross (Algonquin Books, 2004), finalist for the 2005 Young Lions Fiction Award; The World Beneath (W. W. Norton, 2009); Wynne’s War (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014); and most recently, All God’s Children (Europa Editions, 2020), winner of the 2021 Oklahoma Book Award and finalist for the 2021 Reading the West Award. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared on NPR.org and in Esquire, McSweeney’s, The Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, Virginia Quarterly Review, Poets and Writers, and numerous other magazines and journals. He currently reviews for Publishers Weekly and is an associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!