How Appalachia Created the State of Texas & Why Its Influence Remains

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PHOTO: Morning mist on Steinhagen Reservoir, Martin Dies Jr. State Park, Texas, courtesy of Plazak
PHOTO: Morning mist on Steinhagen Reservoir, Martin Dies Jr. State Park, Texas, courtesy of Plazak

After having just lost his reelection to the United States Congress, famed Appalachian explorer Davy Crockett angrily told his constituents, “You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.”

Making good on his promise, Crockett said goodbye to the Volunteer State in the fall of 1835 with three other men and headed into the vast wonderland of Texas.

His youngest child, Matilda, later wrote that she distinctly remembered the last time she saw her father, “He was dressed in his hunting suit, wearing a coonskin cap, and carried a fine rifle presented to him by friends in Philadelphia… He seemed very confident the morning he went away that he would soon have us all to join him in Texas.”

Born in what is now Greene County, Tennessee, Crockett was the son of Scots-Irish mountaineers who settled the rugged region of Western Carolina and East Tennessee, and they did so on purpose. In those days, the steep Appalachian Mountains that cut through the young nation honored rugged individualism and placed miles between its inhabitants and the ruling authorities back east.  Life in those mountains was hard and men were their own law — exactly as they would have it to be.

In his first campaign for Congress, Crockett found himself in a debate with his opponent, a learned and slick orator who was discussing issues concerning tariffs and the national bank. “Crockett knew little or nothing about either subject, but he was in no wise disconcerted. When it came his turn to speak, he made a few friendly remarks, then asked his all-male audience if they would like to wet their whistles. Their response was said to have been a spontaneous and cordial ‘Yes.’ It was Crockett who won the election,” writes Fred DeArmond.

Unfortunately for the mountain man turned politician, by the 1830s, even the once free and untamed Appalachian Mountains had begun to show the early signs of being tamed — or at the very least — captured; a reality that was only reinforced when the influx of new Tennesseans selected a refined criminal-lawyer over Mr. Crockett as their representative to Congress.

What was a free spirited Scotsman left to do?

The same as his grandparents had done two generations earlier: Go west in search of that great frontier; that final holdout of individualism, and in the mid-1830s Texas was that place.

In the days ahead, Crockett and a host of other men would find their way into Texas mythology when they gave their lives defending a remote mission that would come to be known simply as “The Alamo”.  The event marked a turning point in the Texas Revolution and served as a rallying cry that would soon lead to the creation of the Republic of Texas.

Among the men who fought alongside Crockett at the Battle of the Alamo, were 17 Virginians, 30 men from Tennessee, 17 from Kentucky and 14 were from the Carolinas.

Appalachia’s influence in creating the State of Texas, however, long predates the arrival of Davy Crockett and the Alamo by many decades.

The two most instrumental men in the creation of Texas were Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston.

Austin, who would secure his place in history as being known as the “Father of Texas”, was born on the banks of the New River in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia in 1793, just outside of what is now Wytheville, Virginia.

According to local historians, Austin’s father and uncle were “excellent shot makers and miners”, but terrible businessmen.  Burdened by debt, the brothers are said to have looked westward, beyond the mountains of their home for a fresh start.

Nearly two decades later, the Austins relocated to the largely unsettled expanse of Texas.

Stephen’s father had hopes of colonizing the region in the days ahead, however, he died in 1821 having never realized his dream of settling the vast territory known as “Tejas.”

Persuaded by a letter from his mother, Austin set out to fulfill his father’s dream: settling Texas.

Under Austin’s leadership, the Texas colony grew from three-hundred to over 11,000 by 1832, the overwhelming majority of which came from Appalachian states.

Growing fearful of the region’s American demographic change and unfettered immigration, the Mexican government that controlled Texas began viewing the influx of white Americans with fear.  Soon the colonists who had settled in the territory found themselves in a state of war with Santa Anna’s Mexican government and rushing to their aid were men of the mountains.

After the dust had finally settled and citizens of the newly created Republic of Texas went to the polls to elect their first President, Rockbridge County, Virginia, native and Tennessee lawyer Sam Houston beat out the New River Valley’s Stephen F. Austin for the highest office in the Texas nation.

In the face of continuing hardship and increasingly authoritative governments in the Appalachian Mountains, a countless number of mountaineers would say goodbye to their beloved homes and follow in the footsteps of Crockett, Bowie, Austin and Houston.

“Gone to Texas” became a well-known phrase throughout the mountains during the 1800s as farmers, miners and a host of other working men would simply paint “GTT” on the front doors of their abandoned homes and fenceposts to let everyone know they had “Gone to Texas”.

Historian Colin Woodard has studied the common culture, ethnic origin, dialect, artifacts and symbols of the various people groups that originally settled America and according to the Maine writer, the Greater Appalachian influence stretches like a pathway from Central Virginia to far-eastern New Mexico, engulfing nearly all of West Texas, the Texas Panhandle and most central regions of the state.

Often folks are quick to reference the “Texas accent”, however, upon closer examination, the listener will discover that what has been described as “Texan talk” is really nothing more than a transplanted version of the Appalachian dialect.

Despite being some 1,200 miles apart, Appalachian-English is still alive and well in multiple Texas localities.  There, in the Lonestar State, you’ll hear phrases such as “Like’t’a”, “backer”, “mater” and “tater”, all of which can be traced to the “hollers” and hills of Appalachia.

If you’ve ever taken the time to actually think about it, Texans are a lot like the rugged mountaineers back east — they’re fiercely independent, proud and strong, proving that you may succeed in taking a man out of Appalachia, but you’ll have a hard time taking the Appalachia out of the man.

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: 2017: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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