Black Indians of Texas

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The following account provides a brief description of the contrasting status of African Americans in Spanish\Mexican and Independent Texas.

Blacks participated in the initial exploration and settlement of Texas.... Esteban, an African who was one of the four survivors of the Cabeza de Vaca expedition that shipwrecked on the Texas coast in 1528, established the pattern of black involvement in Spanish Texas. Blacks accompanied most Spanish expeditions into Texas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and they were part of the population of most Spanish garrisons and settlements in Texas in the eighteenth century. Blacks probably comprised between 15 and 25% of the population of Spanish Texas in the late eighteenth century. Furthermore, although the Spanish introduced slavery into Texas, the majority of blacks residing in the province were free. For examples, in the San Antonio area in 1778, 151 of 759 male residents were black or mulatto, and only 4 of these were slaves. Free blacks in Spanish Texas faced few, if any, restrictions on their freedom. They were accepted socially and followed whatever trade or profession that they chose. Census data lists blacks or mulattos as farmers, merchants, teachers, shoemakers, carpenters, miners, teamsters, laborers, and domestic servants. Several of them owned land and cattle.
Most of the blacks who resided in Spanish Texas were born there or even further south in what is present-day Mexico. However, beginning in the early nineteenth century, an increasing number came from the United States. This migration increased after 1821, when Mexico won its independence from Spain. Free blacks came to Texas because there was greater opportunity and much less racial prejudice under Spanish and Mexican governments than in the United States. Tex also attracted its share of runaway slaves, especially from neighboring Louisiana. Under Mexican rule, conditions that blacks faced in Texas were hospitable enough for abolitionist Benjamin Lundy to seek official permission to establish a colony of free American blacks there in the early 1830s. The Mexican government endorsed Lundy's proposal, but the project was dropped after Texas achieved its independence.

Despite the generally enlightened racial attitude of the Mexican government, the situation for blacks in Texas began to deteriorate under Mexican rule, especially when the government opened Texas' borders to colonists from the United States. When Moses Austin rode into San Antonio in 1820 seeking permission to establish a colony in Texas, he brought a black servant with him. Nearly all of the white settlers who followed Austin into Texas either brought slaves with them or strongly supported slavery. Mexican law prohibited slavery, and the Mexican government periodically attempted to apply this law. Enforcement was never effective, however, and Texas settlers rather easily circumvented the law. Consequently, slavery flourished in most Anglo communities in Texas. In 1825, for example, 69 of 1,347 residents of the Austin colony were slaveholders who owned 443 slaves. As more Anglos migrated from the United States, slavery grew; as a result, by the late 1820s slaves outnumbered free blacks in Texas for the first time. The number of slaves in the Austin colony grew to approximately 1,000 in 1835; in that year there were an estimated 5,000 slaves in all of Texas. After independence the slave population increased from 11,323 in 1840 to 58,161 in 1850 and then to 182,556 in 1860. Due to restrictions imposed by the Texas government, the free black population in the state dwindled to less than 500 by the eve of the Civil War.

Source: Howard Beeth and Cary D. Wintz, Black Dixie: Afro-Texan History and Culture in Houston (College Station, 1992), pp. 13-14.


In the 1965 article George Woolfolk argues that although Southern white settlers brought slavery to Texas, free blacks nevertheless sought the province in the 1820s and 1830s when it was still part of Mexico because the area represented a "cultural frontier" where they could easily gain land and were accepted by their German and Mexican neighbors. Part of his article is reprinted below.

Free persons of color whose connections with white parents, husbands or wives made their position untenable in Southern society [moved to Texas]. In this group would be John Bird, Negro [grandson] of General Bird of Virginia. John and his son, Henry, had "emigrated and settled in Texas under the belief that they would be received as citizens under the colonization laws of the Mexican United States and entitled as such to land. David (white) and his wife Sophia (Negro) Townes fled to Texas with their children in 1827 where they could be married legally under the Mexican regime. Samuel McCullouch came....before the Texas Declaration of Independence with Peggy and Rose, two women of color, "desiring [they] should....remain free all the remainder of their lives."

More poignant still was the plight of the free persons of color whose wives and children were slaves. When the master moved to Texas, ties...pulled these husbands and fathers after their own. Single men and women who were either emancipated or bought their freedom in the old South [also] fled to Coahuila and Texas to remain free. Nelson Kavanaugh, a barber freed in Richmond, Kentucky was to find such sanctuary in Houston as did Zylpha Husk and child, one of a number of extraordinary Negro women who found both freedom and opportunity on this cultural frontier.

Land hunger....pulled free persons of color to Texas.... Land was not only an item of wealth, but also a badge of citizenship. Samuel Hardin and his wife came to Texas "under laws that invited their emigration and acquired rights and property..." William Goyens "accumulated considerable property in land.... The fabulous Ashworth clan moved from Louisiana into Coahuila and Texas, and, by taking advantage of every homestead and headright provision, acquired vast holdings that reached from Jefferson County on the Southeast to Angelina County in deep East Texas. Both black and mulatto free Negroes brought to the Texas cultural frontier the full range of [old South] skills. Free Negroes....engaged in stock raising and serving as herdsmen. A goodly representation of domestic servant, artisan and diversified laboring skills were to be found in this group; and there were a few professionals.

Few urban free Negroes chose the plantation areas of East Texas. The Mexican area below the German barrier [area of heavy German settlement] was the locale of the urban Free Negro with the towns of Galveston, San Antonio, Brownsville, and Austin being preferred. Free Negro farmers were concentrated in the plantation area of East Texas running roughly from Nacogdoches County to the Galveston-Jefferson County region. Stock-raising Free Negroes tended to concentrate in Jackson County, an old area for cattle. Artisans, servants and some agricultural laborers also found the German-Mexican areas of central-south Texas more hospitable and concentrated there....

Source: George R. Woolfolk, "Turner's Safety-Valve and Free Negro Westward Migration," Journal of Negro History, 50:3 (July, 1965), pp. 193-196.


While most histories depict the Texas Revolution of 1835-36 as the struggle of liberty-loving Texans against a brutal Mexican dictator General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the black slaves of the province clearly understood that their personal freedom rested with the success of the Mexican Army. In the account below, historian Paul Lack describes the relationship between the antislavery sentiments of Mexico and black liberation.

Mexico did not officially invite a slave rebellion. In fact its army marched northward without a clear policy regarding slavery. As late as February, 1836, Santa Anna queried government officials in Mexico: "Shall we permit those wretches to moan in chains any longer in a country whose kind laws protect the liberty of man without distinction of caste or color?" At the end of the month F. M. Diaz Noriega replied that the contract system of Texas was an illegal pretext for slavery. In fact, those "unhappy people became free solely by the act of stepping into our territory," and he advised recruiting blacks for the army so they could discover and claim their own freedom.... Minister of War Jose Maria Tornel wrote Santa Anna on March 18, agreeing that the "philanthropy of the Mexican nation" had already freed Texas slaves. He advised Santa Anna to grant their "natural rights," including "the liberty to go to any point on the globe that appeals to them...."

Whatever hesitation may have been shown in published Mexican policy, the Mexican army had an actual disposition toward black freedom. The ranks of the first troops to arrive in Bexar even included some black infantrymen and servants. Until March the location of the fighting limited contact between Mexican soldiers and slaves, but the army's basic attitude became clear when Joe, a black servant of William B. Travis, survived the slaughter at the Alamo, the only male to do so. During the six week interval that followed this victory, the Mexican army moved east of the Colorado and then the Brazos River and thus into the region where most Texas bondsmen lived. General [Sam] Houston attempted to secure the slave property of those who fled but did not always succeed in preventing blacks from "joining the enemy," as one observer described it. Slaves often seized the opportunity of running away, frequently in group ventures, and gained refuge with the invaders. Fourteen slaves and their families became free by fleeing to the command of General Jose de Urrea near Victoria on April 3, 1836. Even in retreat the Mexican forces attracted runaways: a Matagorda resident who returned to his home in early May discovered that at least thirteen blacks had "left my neighborhood" with the southbound army. He complained, too, that many cattle and eight wagons loaded with provisions, property that he valued at a total of $100,000, had been taken by the enemy. According to General Vicente Filisola, at least some of the plundered goods were taken by slaves who robbed houses in their flights for liberty. The Mexicans found these fugitives often ready to serve as well as to seek protection. Blacks aided river crossings, acted as messengers, and performed other chores for their liberators.

Source: Paul D. Lack, "Slavery and the Texas Revolution," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 89:2 (October 1985), pp. 193-194.


While the vast majority of African American slaves in Texas favored a Mexican victory over the Texas insurgents, at least one black woman, Emily (West) Morgan, claims a place in ensuring the opposite outcome. Morgan "occupied the attention" of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at the beginning of the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836 and according to some sources accounted for the surprise victory of the Texans led by Sam Houston over a much larger Mexican Army. The victory at San Jacinto established an independent Texas. The vignette below attempts to place Emily Morgan, and the state song she inspired, "The Yellow Rose of Texas," within the larger context of Texas and African American history.

I would venture to say that most Americans are familiar with the folksong, "The Yellow Rose of Texas." If they cannot recall all of the lyrics, there is still a resonant quality about the song. I would also venture to say that few of those Americans--Texans notwithstanding--have reflected overly long on the implications of the fact that the song is not just about a woman, but about a black woman, or that a black man probably composed it. Scholars such as Martha Anne Turner have linked the song to its contextual origins--that of the Texas war for independence from Mexico in the 1830s and a specific incident in 1836--and others have argued its irrelevance to that event. It was only in 1989, however, when Anita Richmond Bunkley published Emily, The Yellow Rose, a novel based upon the presumed incidents that spawned the fame of the yellow rose, that the fictionalized expansion of the facts encouraged a larger and perhaps different audience to become aware of the historical significance of Emily D. West, the hypothetical "Yellow Rose of Texas." This publishing event certainly re-centered the song and the incident in African-American culture, for over many years and numerous versions, the song had been deracialized. Bunkley, herself an African-American woman, researched the complex history of another African-American woman and imaginatively recreated and reclaimed it.
The presumed historical facts are simple and limited. Emily D. West, a teenage orphaned free Negro woman in the northeastern United States, journeyed by boat to the wilderness of Texas in 1835. Colonel James Morgan, on whose plantation she worked as an indentured servant, established the little settlement of New Washington (later Morgan's Point). When Santa Anna and his troops arrived in the area, he claimed West to take the place of his stay-at-home wife in Mexico City and the traveling wife he had acquired on the way to Texas. The traveling wife had to be sent back when swollen river waters prevented him from taking her across in the fancy carriage in which she was riding. Santa Anna was either partying with West or having sex with her when Sam Houston’s troops arrived for the Battle of San Jacinto, thus forcing him to escape in only a linen shirt and “silk drawers,” in which he was captured the next day. West's possible forced separation from her black lover and her placement in Santa Anna's camp, according to legend, inspired her lover to compose the song we know as "The Yellow Rose of Texas." Publicity surrounding the hotel in San Antonio that was named after Emily Morgan asserts that West was a spy for Texas. Other historians claim there is absolutely no tie between West and the events of the Texas war for independence from Mexico. Still others claim that it was only West's heroic feat of keeping Santa Anna preoccupied that enabled the Texas victory. Broadening perceptions of how texts are created and the purposes to which they are put provide the context, during the course of this paper, from which I want to explore West’s story and take issue with assigning heroic motives to her adventure.

Source: Trudier Harris, “The Yellow Rose of Texas: A Different Cultural View,” in Francis Edward Abernathy and Carolyn Fielder Satterwhite, eds., Juneteenth Texas: Essays in African-American Folklore (Denton, 1996), 316-17.

Dr. Quintard Taylor, Jr.
Scott and Dorothy Bullitt
Professor of American History

Blk History 313 
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