Book cover of Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850 by Andrew J. Torget. Enslaved girls with bale of cotton that they picked from the field. – Photo from the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs/courtesy of the Keystone View Company Map of the United States, 1845. – Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


The Dallas Examiner


To explain the complex history of slavery in Texas, the Friends of the Texas Historical Commission hosted The Problem of Slavery in Mexican Texas on March 9. The guest speaker during the webinar was Andrew J. Torget, author of Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850.

In part I, he explained that 40% of the population moving to Texas were enslaved Africans, many of which were forced to work in cotton fields, making the cotton industry very profitable.


The cotton revolution

By 1820, the cotton economy was steamrolling the West and creating what became known as the Deep South as it moved toward Texas.

The population in the southern states continued to grow to 153,000 people in Louisiana, 75,000 in Mississippi and 144,000 in Alabama, according to Torget.

“That’s more than 370,000 people,” Torget said. “Almost all of them have come within the last five years from 1815 to 1825, more than a third of a million people have flooded into this region. It’s why we call it the cotton revolution. If you’re in Texas, how many people in Texas that time who are non-Indians that were Spaniards loyal to the Spanish? You got 3,000 on the Texas side and 370,000 people across the Sabine River, who’s getting nervous? Mexico City in particular, the Spanish are watching all of this and they’re very nervous about what’s happening in the southern United States, because there’s nothing that could really stop all these Americans from just coming over the border and coming to Texas so they’re getting really worried.”

However, there was a shortage of horses, which was a problem because people used them for travel, especially if they wanted to move South to be part of the cotton revolution. People began negotiating with the Comanche Indians.

“The Comanches say, ‘Alright, what can you give us for these horses?’ And the Americans say, ‘We have firearms that we can get,’” Torget summarized. “They started trading horses for American firearms because the Comanches can’t make their own firearms. But it gives them the advantage over the Spaniards, over the Apaches, over any enemies they might have. So the Comanche sees a great value in this for them. And so Americans start buying horses from the beaches and they start buying as many as they can and quickly realize, the Americans will buy pretty much any horse they’ll sell them, not just the good horses. They’ll buy the land horses. They’ll buy the unbroken Mustangs. They’ll buy anything. And so the Comanche start looking for horses any which way they can find. And they realize maybe the best way to do this for them is not to just round up horses on the plains but go to Spanish settlements in Texas and in northern New Spain and steal horses. The Comanches are supplying all the horses that make this expansion of cotton in the U.S. south happening. It’s possible and it destroys the Spanish settlements in Texas.

Torget said the tens of thousands of horses that were being funneled out in Texas while the cotton revolution was bringing wealth and prosperity to Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana, was destroying the Spanish settlements at the same time.

“When Moses Austin comes, he has a crazy proposal to bring in Americans,” Torget said.

His son, Stephen F. Austin took over the enterprise. But what the Austin’s were offered, the Spaniards intent was to bring Mississippi to Mexico. They wanted to take the cotton economy and bring it here to Texas and realized that having slaves was part of the process to make profit and develop Texas.

“Americans and Mexicans are going to be living in Texas to bring the cotton economy to Texas,” he said. “It would be good for both sides. It’s not good for the enslaved people, obviously, but it would be good for the Anglo Americans. So they’re both on the same side, and they proceed going forward from it. And it turns out, they aren’t going to meet each other big time. That word reaches Texas, that the Mexican War for Independence was successful. They had overthrown Spain in 1821. They were now free, which means Texas is now a part of a new country, Mexico. And that was a little scary for Stephen F. Austin because his contract is with Spain. And now the question is Mexico gonna support Americans coming into this region? What is that gonna mean? Austin is nervous. And so this is all going to proceed forward from there pretty rapidly.”


Building a government

Mexico started building its government, which became Mexico City. In 1823, they called a national constitutional convention, and all the provinces sent representatives. There, they wrote a National Charter for Mexico. Stephen F. Austin is so nervous about this, that he travels the 2,000-mile ride on horseback to the convention to represent himself – to voice his concerns and the perspective of his colonists.

Most of the Mexican representatives had no problem with colonists settling in Texas. Many were excited about the idea because they knew about the cotton revolution in the United States and they thought would be great to have similar economic development in Mexico, especially in Texas.

However, Mexicans objected to the labor system that the colonists brought with them – slavery. So Stephen F. Austin wrote letters to the other colonists to let them know about the issues they were having, Torget explained.

He said Stephen F. Austin wrote, “There’s basically only two things they can really agree on: one, they were going to be Catholic. That was non-negotiable. The other thing though, is that almost all Mexicans across almost all of Mexico all agree that now was a really good time to make slavery illegal in their new country of Mexico.”


Mexico disapproves of slavery

“They had just fought and won a war of independence and they had won their liberty and their freedom. … so it looks really bad to them, endorsed slavery in your country,” he said. This is the same contradictions that the founders of the United States faced, openly faced, and debated and discussed.… So that’s reason one.

“Reason number two is that these politicians could look around all of Mexico and say, ‘We really don’t have chattel slavery of African Americans or Africans,’ they would say. ‘In Mexico right now, anything where, we don’t have slavery the way they have in the United States.’”

Torget emphasized that Mexico did import large numbers of enslaved Africans to work in the mines, silver mines in Central Mexico during the 1500’s and early 1600’s. But by the 1820’s, Mexico has transitioned from much of the slave trade industry to exploiting Indian labor because it was faster and cheaper. However, there were a few enslaved people of African descent in Mexican states. But in 1823, as they debated the Constitution, most Mexicans felt it was the time to make chattel slavery illegal. And since there was not much economic investment in it, it was an easy sacrifice.

“The third and final reason is the most important, which is this,” Torget explained. “Mexico is a new nation, and they need international friends, who is the biggest, most powerful, most economically influential nation in the world at this time – Great Britain. Which nation owns the vast majority of Mexican debt when Mexico becomes independent? Great Britain. And which nation happens to also be by the 1820’s, the leading anti-slavery nation in the entire Atlantic world? Also Great Britain.

“So if England is the British, if the Mexicans are going to make nice with the British, it is really good if they get out. And honestly, they really almost can’t afford not to because they need trade treaties with the British. So most Mexican politicians agree that they’ve got to get rid of slavery. There’s only one part of Mexico where you hear anybody else saying anything even remotely different – this crazy little Northeastern corner over here in Texas where you have a different perspective being voiced by Stephen F. Austin, and by the two hands. And both of them were emphatically saying you’ve got to keep slavery alive. And they said this in a lot of different places. Stephen F. Austin, I mean, he had all of these very, very long petitions that explained why slavery was important and we keep it and all this stuff, but it all boiled down to this sentence right here, where he says the primary product that will elevate us from poverty is cotton. And we cannot do this without help – the help of slaves.”

The new national constitution of Mexico known as the Constitution of 1824 didn’t mention anything about slavery.


The price of slavery

In 1830, there’s about 10,000 Americans in Texas. In 1835, five years later, there’s 21,000.

“So in five years, it more than doubled. And at the exact same time, Mexico is trying to clamp down on the border and prevent Americans from flooding into Texas,” Torget said. “So if you want to think about the road of the Texas Revolution, the big story really is this massive migration of Americans following the cotton trail into Texas at the same time Mexico is trying to reassert control in the region up until Mexico erupts in the civil war in 1836. That is what leads ultimately to the Texas Revolution.

“The Texas Revolution in your mind changes everything. Doesn’t just change, it changes North America. But the Republic is gonna be born. Texas will be its own country for nine years and will join the United States. All of this will lead to war with Mexico that will bring in all the rest of this land, sea, all this land between Texas and California includes the Mexican cessions. It’s a massive quantity of land. It draws the modern boundaries for the United States and Mexico that we have to this day, which I mean to remind you guys order is always in the news like that modern division of power North American comes back to this story. It’s the place that we’re in and talking about and it will forever change both countries, especially the United States.”

The fight over political power – including the battle chattel slavery and battles throughout the 1850’s ultimately led to the American Civil War.

“The bloodiest war in all of American history that will end legalized slavery, the United States free 4 million men, women and children and redefine citizenship and how we function in these United States,” Torget concluded. “That again, comes back to this story of Texas. This story is about fighting over the questions, problems about slavery and the complexity that it brought both to Americans and Mexicans during this period.”

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