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Cotton, Slavery, and How Mexico’s Far North Became the American Southwest

WIH is pleased to welcome Andrew Torget, PhD, author, and distinguished history professor at University of North Texas, to WIH. He has crafted a skillfully researched and balanced survey (from both Mexican and U.S. sources) of a fascinating part of Texas history that may be new to many Texans and other Americans. We had a few questions for him about his work and research in anticipation of his upcoming class Cotton, Slavery, and How Mexico’s Far North Became America’s Southwest.

WIH: How did Texas history become the focus of your research?

AT:  Well, I grew up in Houston, so I took 4th and 7th grade Texas history.  And I remember thinking as a kid that the Alamo was fascinating, but it always seemed so strange to me that the history of Texas was taught back then as though the rest of the United States – to say nothing of the rest of the world – didn’t play any role.  Texas was always portrayed as just all on its own.  We were different!  We were a Republic!  Which was fun, in its own way, but it also didn’t make a lot of sense to me that Texas was, somehow, always an island unto itself.  I remember eight-year-old me thinking “if Texas was always so different, it probably didn’t have too much to say or share with the rest of North America,” which took some of the fun out of it.  Texas history, in that sense, felt isolated to me, and I was interested in understanding how big changes happened not just in Texas, but across the United States and North America.  So over the years I became interested in the history of the American South, and the road to the Civil War, because that history seemed to dive to the core of broad and fascinating issues about freedom and slavery and citizenship, as well as the making of the broader United States and North America. 

To that end, I went to graduate school at the University of Virginia because that seemed like a great place to study the history of the American South.  And it absolutely was.  But while I was there, I began working on the migration of Southerners to places like Mississippi and Alabama and in the process I began noticing that some of those guys didn’t stop in Mississippi.  Some of them kept going westward, even into Mexico.  They were doing this, moreover, during the late 1810s and early 1820s.  And because I had grown up in Texas, I knew this was the same era as Stephen F. Austin and his colonists.  And I remember being in the archives in Virginia reading letters from these guys when I had a revelation: what if the same people who came to Texas with Austin were from the same crop of folks who founded the Deep South during that same period?  That was a fascinating prospect to me – and it offered new windows into Texas, Mexican, and American history that I jumped to investigate.  And so I suddenly found myself back in Texas history, but from a completely new perspective that changed everything for me.

WIH: In a review of your latest book Seeds of Empire, the Texas Monthly wrote that it is “The most nuanced and authoritative rewriting of Texas’s origin myth to date.” What do you think of this assessment?

AT:  I thought it was a very kind review!  My mom loved reading that, so it was a popular issue of the magazine at my parents’ house.  But, in all seriousness, I think that TM was reacting to how the book shows a completely different way to understand this era of Texas history, one that cuts through the mythology that tends to engulf popular perceptions of Texas and its past.  What I wrote was based on a decade of research in the archives of Mexico and the United States, and that produced a far darker, bloodier, grittier history of the transformations of Texas during the first half of the nineteenth century than most people are used to.  But it is, I hope, a deeply compelling one because it is so grounded in the historical record and, for that, offers a vision of Texas during this iconic period that is connected to all of North America and commerce throughout the entire Atlantic World.

WIH: Most people think of cattle ranching, not cotton plantations, when they think of Texas. To what do you attribute the disconnect?

AT:  I think that is due primarily to the power of TV and movies falling in love with cowboys, particularly during the Cold War.  Cotton was the dominant force in the Texas economy from the 1820s through the Great Depression.  If you drive around east Texas today you’ll see a lot of old cotton gins that bear testimony to the pervasive influence of cotton.  Cattle became important in Texas during the 1870s and 1880s, and it has a broad symbolic power for the state, but it was never as big as cotton in terms of its influence on the economy or in the numbers of Texans involved in the industry.  Oil became powerful with the discovery at Spindletop in 1901, but even by 1929 cotton was still more powerful than oil in Texas.  It was the depths of the Great Depression that finally broke the back of cotton and changed the Texas economy into a much more diverse and stable one that we’ve enjoyed since.  And it was the emergence of the great westerns of the 1950s – think of John Wayne – that cemented the cowboy as the symbol of Texas that people mostly associate with the state, as cowboys driving the range and oilmen betting it all on their next strike are far sexier symbols on TV than the image of a plodding farmer hoping it rains enough this year.

All that being said, cotton is still important in the state.  Texas today still produces more cotton than any other state in the union.  We surpassed Mississippi as the leading cotton state in the 1850s, and we’ve never relinquished that title since. 

WIH: We would love to know how you set a Guinness World Record for the “World’s Longest History Lesson,” when you lectured for 26.5 hours on Texas history in 2018! There has to be a story there…

AT:  There is, indeed, a story there!  When I was a kid, I had a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records, and my friends and I loved to go through it looking for records we could break.   We had a lot of fun, but we never broke any records.  Fast forward quite a few years and I was a professor at UNT.  And one Saturday morning in 2017, my own kids were goofing around at home on the Guinness website, looking at records they would like to set.  I told them how I had always wanted to do that myself, and then they both looked at me and said: “You should try to teach the world’s longest history class!”  That seemed crazy, but as I thought about it a plan began to form.

My favorite class to teach was Texas history, so I figured:  what if I taught ALL of it in one straight nonstop lecture?  I could start with cave people and come up to the present.  As it happens, UNT’s library also maintains the biggest and most incredible online archive of Texas history documents in the world – known as the Portal to Texas History – so I went to the library and pitched them on setting the record as a fundraiser for the Portal.  I thought they would tell me I was nuts, but UNT likes to reach for audacious goals.  They thought it was a great idea and suddenly we were off and running.

I had no idea how much work it would take to pull this off.  It took us an entire year to do all the planning and preparation, with about a hundred volunteers supporting us.  Guinness gave us a giant rulebook with what seemed like a thousand different requirements.  We needed an entire crew just to run the technology, especially because we planned to broadcast the event live on YouTube and Facebook.  Guinness required us to have at least ten students who would be “learning” from me the entire time, so we recruited fifty students to make sure at least ten could go the distance and we then planned for feeding and supporting that many people for the duration. 

I also spent a long time preparing myself.  I cut out coffee and caffeine to preserve my vocal chords.  I am a runner so I went on longer runs, trying to get my body prepared.  More than anything, I practiced my lectures over and over and over again.  I had 600 pages of lecture notes to review and I spent the entire summer leading up to the attempt practicing in four-hour blocks and then six-hour blocks.

The day finally came on August 24, 2018.  We did it in a massive lecture hall at UNT and when I got there two hours before our scheduled start time I could see the fifty students getting into place, dozens of crew members setting up cameras, sound equipment, running logistics, and preparing to broadcast the whole thing.  We also had news crews from NBC, ABC, and CBS covering the event live.  I walked out onto that stage knowing that everyone was depending on me to deliver, and I was nervous.

At 9am, it all began.  I distinctly remember being only 40 minutes into the whole thing and thinking to myself, “Oh, maaaaaaan!  This is going to be hard!”  It was that moment of self-doubt that always comes when you are doing something difficult.  But all my preparation and practice began paying off.  As the hours ticked by I kept pushing myself – we had to make it at least 24 hours to set the record.  The students pushed themselves tremendously hard — they could not go to sleep or stop paying attention or Guinness would disqualify them – and by 3am we were losing some students to pure exhaustion.

We successfully set the record the next morning at 26.5 hours.  I found out later that people all over the world had tuned in online to see what UNT was doing.  Boston TV stations ran news stories about us and people as far away as Ireland watched the attempt live.  In the end, news of the event reached 26 million people around the world and we raised $30,000 to support the amazing work of the UNT library.  Best of all, we had earned our way into the Guinness Book of World Records.

WIH: The University of North Texas has just honored you with another teaching award: The Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. What do you enjoy most about teaching?

AT:  I love connecting with my students and pushing them to think hard and write well.  I get deeply excited about the kinds of history that I get to teach, and the students tend to feed off that energy in the lecture hall.  But I have found that the most important and powerful teaching usually happens outside the classroom.  What gives me the greatest satisfaction as a teacher, for example, are those times when a student is struggling and comes to me for help on a paper assignment or in preparing for an exam, and we’ll work together on revising drafts or outlining material during and after office hours.  Sometimes that’s the most difficult, but also most effective, teaching – when you are truly pushing someone beyond what they think they can achieve.  And when they do succeed – writing an outstanding essay after ten drafts, for instance – I have seen how powerfully that can change how students see themselves and their abilities.

WIH: You were the founding director of the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond. What is digital scholarship? How is it changing research and collaboration?

AT:  Digital scholarship is, at its base, doing history with digital tools, which is exciting because it opens possibilities for seeing and interacting with the past that were never before possible.  The biggest change in historical research is that the vast digitization of resources, which are now suddenly accessible like never before.  My own university, for example, has digitized more than 7 million pages of historical newspapers from Texas.  That’s an insane amount of information!  And it is wonderful if you are searching for a needle in a haystack – such as looking for one particular person or event in the newspapers.  But there is also a challenge that comes with that kind of abundance – what do you do with too much information?  What do you do, for example, if you go looking for mentions of Abraham Lincoln in the historical newspapers and then get 35 million results?  You need new methods for sorting that massive amount of information. 

So my digital scholarship lab is focusing on trying to adapt methods developed in computer science toward humanities research.  We take methods in data visualization, for example, and use them to analyze historical newspapers, looking for insights and patterns that you could not discover just by reading them one word and one page at a time.  And the results are sometimes astounding – so, in my opinion, this is one of the most exciting times to be doing and writing history, and I feel very fortunate to be part of that work.

WIH: Before you go, please leave us with one of the most surprising discoveries you have made in Texas’s history?

AT:  The one that has been the most exciting to me was that while I was on a trip to Galveston, I happened upon an old safe in a historical section of town that happened to contain about 6,000 pages of historical records documenting the history of early Galveston.  These records came from the nineteenth century and no one had seen them since – and no historian has ever gone through them.  It was one of those amazing pieces of luck that you cannot plan and I am so grateful for, because these records offer a front-row seat to the creation of Galveston during that era, when Galveston became one of the richest and most influential cities in the United States.  The book I am writing right now is about the rise and destruction of nineteenth-century Galveston, with these newly discovered documents as the foundation.  I think it will completely change how we think about Galveston and its role in the history of the American Southwest.

Cotton, Slavery, and How Mexico’s Far North Became America’s Southwest will be offered on Tuesday, October 13 at 1:00 p.m. Live Webinar with Q&A. $25.