Reading the papers
correspondence once housed in our nation’s
capital is giving
historians new insights into the early days of the Texas Republic.
By Mark Wright
There are no earth-shattering revelations in the recently recovered Texas Legation Papers. Nor will the 170-year-old documents dramatically reshape the way historians view Texas history. But the 272 age-worn documents do have quite a story to tell.
It’s the little things in the letters — missing for more than 160 years — that have TCU historians excited: the mostly never-before-seen collection offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the early days of the Texas Republic.
“The most significant thing is the details we learn,” said history Professor Gregg Cantrell, the Erma and Ralph Lowe Chair in Texas Studies. “It’s the missing details of small, but fascinating stories, the human dimension we learn about some of these people.”
This collection of official correspondence to and from the Texas embassy (then called a legation) in Washington D.C., is currently housed in TCU’s Mary Couts Burnett Library. With the help of donors, TCU purchased the rights to store the letters here for the next five years. After that, the papers will be sent to the Texas State Library Archives.
TRANSCRIBING tattered notes penned in hastily written 19th-century scrawl presented a host of challenges to Cantrell and his researchers, who recorded the contents of the letters on Microsoft Word documents after reading high-resolution electronic scans of the originals.
Cantrell and his team — graduate students Than Dossman, Chris Draper, Andrea Ondruch, Leah Parker, Darren Plank and Bradley Turner — transcribed and edited the body of most of the documents, excluding the few that are copies of papers found in other Texas historical archives. They are now looking for a publisher, possibly the TCU Press, to print the annotated Legation Papers.
Reading weather-beaten 170-year-old documents was as difficult as it sounds, Cantrell said. The edges of some were torn and some of the text faded. The quality of ink and paper was often poor and the handwriting slapdash. On more than one occasion, a letter writer apologizes for his deficient penmanship, as is the case in the message that William H. Wharton, Texas minister to the United States, composed to Texas President Sam Houston while aboard a steamboat:
“I am writing now on a boat which from the power of its engine shakes far more than any I ever traveled on — but I am anxious to mail this at Natchez & you must
pardon the scrawl.”
The writing style of the day, with its inconsistent punctuation, haphazard abbreviations and creative grammar at times made editing the letters an adventure, Cantrell said.
“Our general rule of thumb was to leave everything as close to the original as possible, correcting things like punctuation only when it is absolutely necessary to avoid confusion,” he said. “It’s hard to establish rules to cover the thousand-and-one situations that would arise.”
Sometimes it was just one word in a document that gave the researchers the most trouble. The team exhaustively mulled over a particularly hard-to-read word when Cantrell had a sudden moment of clarity: “I’ve got it. It’s ‘bugbear!’” Fittingly, the word bugbear — a term that has fallen out of common use — means a persistent problem or source of annoyance.
“There’s no substitute for reading original documents and learning to work with them,” Cantrell said.
Cantrell categorized the letters into four general topics: money, annexation, personal matters and inquiries into land and employment opportunities in Texas.
Cash, or the shortage of it, was the topic of many of the letters. After winning independence from Mexico in spring 1836, the Texas government was virtually penniless.
Land was the republic’s only major source of collateral and revenue in the international marketplace, but since the republic was viewed by most nations as a volatile rebel state of Mexico, there were few willing buyers.
“You get a striking picture of how desperate the financial picture was in those years,” Cantrell said. “The republic was broke. Texas couldn’t borrow a dime from anybody. We were radioactive in the eyes of the international community.”
Texas’s revenue shortage led to an assortment of problems. And few incidents are recorded in the Legation Papers in more detail than the ill-fated voyage of Texas Navy schooner The Invincible to New York City’s harbor in January 1837.
Captain Jeremiah Brown and his crew intended to have the ship repaired and re-supplied before returning to Texas. But the crew didn’t have the money to pay for the services rendered, and New York authorities impounded the vessel.
Two dozen letters in the collection deal in whole or part with the misadventures of The Invincible, including a letter from P.W. Humphrys, the ship’s 1st lieutenant, to the Texas minister to the United States, begging for money:
“I will state to you concisely our
present situation on board. Our
provisions are short many essential articles we are entirely in want of. The grocer is reluctant to furnish us farther. We are in debt to our cook who complains most bitterly our wood is barely sufficient to cook dinner, our clothes are at the washerwomans and there they will have to remain until we get money to pay for the washing … we have not even sufficient money to buy a glass of grog which only costs three cents in
New York, cash.”
The crew considered abandoning ship and returning to Texas by land. But fate intervened in the form of Samuel Swartwout, the U.S. collector for the port of
New York City and a noted Texas benefactor. Swartwout helped settle the crew’s debts and save the ship from being sold at auction.
Scholars primarily remember Swartwout for a different reason. The same year he helped free The Invincible he was accused of embezzling more than $1.2 million from the U.S. government. He briefly escaped to Europe and a life of luxury, but soon returned to the United States after reaching a plea bargain to avoid prosecution.
Texas leaders had designs on statehood from the republic’s earliest days — a fact that might surprise many present-day Texans, but not historians. When the Texas founding fathers gathered in December 1836 to elect a constitutional government, they held a referendum on whether to seek immediate annexation by the United States. The motion passed by an overwhelming margin: 3,277 yeas to 91 nays.
“That speaks volumes of what the Texans thought about Texas national pride,” Cantrell said.
Wanting to be annexed would mean nothing if the United States wasn’t interested in casting its lot with Texas. The Union had compelling reasons to ignore its fledgling neighbor. Admitting Texas would mean adding another slave state at a time when the slavery issue was beginning to divide the major political parties along regional lines. And then there was Mexico, which considered another country recognizing Texas independence tantamount to declaring war on Mexico.
Texans believed they had an ace in the hole: President Andrew Jackson.
Considered a mentor to Tennessee native-turned-Texas hero Sam Houston, many believed that Jackson would move swiftly to annex Texas as soon as the smoke cleared from the Battle of San Jacinto.
Instead, Jackson dragged his feet on the matter. It was his last week in office in March 1837 when he decided to formally recognize Texas independence. But he stopped short of calling for the United States to annex Texas.
“The Texans felt betrayed by Jackson,” Cantrell said. “I don’t think those words are too strong.”
The Legation Papers provide historians with deeper insight into the Texans’ anger toward Jackson. Their wounded pride is evident in a January 1837 letter from prominent Texas lawyer Henry Percy Brewster to Congressman Waddy Thompson of South Carolina, an advocate of Texas’s bid for annexation:
“I witness the tone of the President’s message with feelings of the deepest humiliation. He seems alike indifferent whether the cause of truth, justice, or human liberty be promoted … and what is most deeply to be deplored is, that the power of the Executive has grown so gigantic, that little is to be hoped [for] from the representatives of the people themselves. . . ”
Lorrain Thompson Pease feared the worst.
A Connecticut judge whose two sons joined the Texas fight for independence, Pease had already learned his younger son’s fate — escaping execution at the hands of Mexican General Santa Anna only to die a short time later — but he didn’t yet know what had befallen his older son.
The father’s despair is evident in his letter to Wharton, the Texas minister to the United States, dated Dec. 24, 1836:
“His long silence has given me no little anxiety & his mother already heart stricken at the loss of our dear son and is greatly alarmed for the fate of the other. If you can give us any intelligence in regards to my son E.M. Pease … you will much oblige his anxious parents. Whether he was in health or
otherwise at your departure from Texas & if in health, how he was employed.”
History records that his son, Elisha Marshall “E.M.” Pease, was indeed alive, well and — as is every father’s hope — gainfully employed. At the time a government clerk for the young republic, E.M. Pease went on to serve two terms as governor of Texas, in the 1850s and during Reconstruction in the late 1860s.
The Pease letter was just one of dozens in the collection from Americans inquiring about loved ones in Texas or asking about opportunities for making a new life there, such as this one from a would-be Texas planter from Virginia:
“I am anxious to remove to Texas as soon as I can make preparations to do so,
provided I hear of an opportunity of
getting pleasantly situated in that
delightful country. We have heard so much of the best lands being monopolized by New York & other large land companies, that I am almost led to fear that the actual settler would be compelled to locate himself on inferior lands or to pay a high price to those companies.”
The deeply personal letters lend a human touch to the history of Texas. It’s one of the reasons the Legation Papers are such a valuable resource.
“I think that having the letters here is a clear indication that TCU is serious about maintaining and enhancing its reputation as one of the leading places for the study of Texas history,” Cantrell said.
After 170 years, the founders of a republic and a state live on in the yellowed pages, their stories waiting to be told.
The journey of the Texas Legation Papers from the Texas embassy in Washington, D.C. to the Mary Couts Burnett Library at TCU is a story 161 years in the making.
When Texas joined the United States in 1845, the legation was closed and the legation papers were catalogued and archived and prepared for shipment to the state capital in Austin.
But they remained in a Washington office until 1859, when Sam Houston, retiring after two terms from the U.S. Senate, had them shipped back to Texas along with his personal effects. But instead of to Austin, the papers were inadvertently sent to Houston’s home.
After Houston died in 1863, the collection was passed along to various Houston family members and non-relatives in South Texas. The papers endured a fire, a hurricane and several months in the trunk of a car.
The documents finally resurfaced at the estate sale of a private owner in 2004, and the Texas attorney general determined the collection was the property of the state.
When the right to borrow and display the documents was put up for auction in 2006, Mary Ralph Lowe ’65, the Lowe Foundation and Houston oilman J.P. Bryan put together a bid, with some funding also coming directly from TCU, to acquire the papers for TCU.
For more information, call Special Collections at 817.257.7108.
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