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My Life at the Land Office

By Jesús F. de la Teja

Today’s Throwback Thursday is a guest post by Dr. Jesús F. de la Teja, Regent’s Professor of History and Jerome and Catherine Supple Professor of Southwestern Studies at Texas State University, who served as both archivist and director of archives at the GLO between 1985–1991.

In September 1985, while I was still working on my dissertation, I went to work for the GLO. It was the second-best professional decision I have ever made after accepting a position in the history department at what is now Texas State University. At the time, Commissioner Garry Mauro was trying to make the agency’s archives a centerpiece of what the agency was about, and he tasked Arnold Gonzales, a former state representative from Corpus Christi and deputy commissioner for central administration, to oversee the Archives and Records Division. Under this professionalization plan, the Land Office had also hired Mike Hooks as its first archivist and brought on Galen Greaser as Spanish translator. In 1985, what they were looking for was someone to help with the conservation and reorganization of the Spanish-language records. That’s where I come in.

Newly-minted Ph.D. Jesús F. de la Teja celebrates a successful dissertation defense with his wife Maggie and their children on March 23, 1988. Photo courtesy of the author.

In early 1985, I had been to the GLO to do research for my dissertation, since published as San Antonio de Béxar: A Community on New Spain’s Northern Frontier. A few months later, I got a call from Galen asking if I’d be interested in interviewing for the position of assistant archivist. Well, it’s not often that a job like that falls in your lap. I met with Mike Hooks and Arnold Gonzales, and I was offered the job.

One of the great things about working at the GLO was that Mike, Galen, and I, and the entire staff, were taking Archives and Records in a new direction. On the conservation side, a systematic project had begun to get the millions of folded-up files flattened, cleaned, sleeved, and placed in acid-free folders. With regard to the Spanish Collection, the problem was a bit trickier. Many of the land grant records from the Mexican period, which made up the bulk of the collection, had been gathered in bound books. In the 1950s those documents had undergone a preservation process — cellulose acetate lamination — which consisted of heat-pressing documents between sheets of translucent film. Well, the process was long ago discontinued because of the potential for long-term damage it could do to the finished product. By the 1980s, many documents that had been rebound into books that required manhandling.

The Spanish Collection (red boxes, left side) and land grant files (right side) of the GLO. Under de la Teja’s direction, the Spanish- and Mexican-period documents were removed from the bound volumes and rehoused into boxes and acid-free folders. De la Teja’s efforts to reorganize, index, and describe the records has made them significantly more accessible to genealogists and historians interested in pre-1836 Texas land grants.

The job I was hired to do was figure out how to preserve the Spanish Collection. Undoing the lamination process was out of the question, both because of the risk it posed to the documents and because of the expense. What seemed obvious was that the documents should be removed from the bindings, which would at least ensure that pages were not constantly subjected to needless handling. I proposed that each land grant and every other individual document be placed in an acid-free folder, and that the folders be placed in archival boxes. Each collection, e.g. the Austin Colony, the De León Colony, the Galveston Bay and Texas Land Company, as well as the documentation regarding the missions and government activities going back to the eighteenth century, would be properly inventoried, described, and indexed.

GLO publications produced with the help of Dr. de la Teja.

I also participated in other projects documenting Texas land grants and the work of the agency. Soon after arriving at the agency I was asked to help Carlos Morton, another doctoral student working for Arnold, produce a collective biography of the GLO’s leaders through the years. The product was The Land Commissioners of Texas: 150 Years of the General Land Office (1986) which also included the efforts of other office staff and Will Todd, the project’s technical writer. Two years later, Galen and I completely revised and expanded former Spanish translator Virginia Taylor’s Index to Spanish and Mexican Land Grants. We titled our little book Guide to Spanish and Mexican Land Grants in South Texas to more accurately reflect the limits of the work.

I also produced more traditional scholarly publications based on our work. In 1987 I published a brief article, “A Short History of the General Land Office Seals,” in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly. Two years later, Mike Hooks and I published “The Texas General Land Office: Preserving East Texas Land Records,” in the East Texas Historical Journal. And, although it appeared after I had left the Land Office, Galen and I collaborated on “Quieting Title to Spanish and Mexican Land Grants in the Trans-Nueces: The Bourland and Miller Commission, 1850–1852,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly. Although its original effort met with disaster, the work of the Bourland and Miller Commission is preserved in hundreds of files documenting Spanish and Mexican titles in that part of Texas that had been part of Tamaulipas, which is known as the San Patricio Land District. These records are a boon for genealogists and historians of south Texas.

Reports of Wm. H. Bourland and James B. Miller, Commissioners to Investigate Land Titles West of the Nueces,” 1850, title page, Records of the Spanish Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX. Dr. de la Teja and GLO Spanish translator Galen Greaser drew on the “Bourland and Miller Report” to write an important scholarly article on the incorporation of the trans-Nueces region into Texas’s land system after the Mexican American War.

During my six years at the Land Office, I was continually nurtured and supported. The intrinsic value of the Spanish language records and the vital importance of the Spanish and Mexican periods in understanding our collective Texas past was appreciated all along the chain of command. I was encouraged to attend Hispanic genealogy and local history meetings, create exhibits on the materials, and work to make the agency’s collections, both documents and maps, better known and appreciated. I had an opportunity to work with a variety of scholars who came in to do research, and professionals in other state agencies, particularly as Garry’s representative to the now abolished Texas Antiquities Committee, of which board he was an ex-officio member.

Needless to say, I am not only proud of what was accomplished during my tenure at the GLO, I am equally proud of what it continues to achieve and represent with regard to preserving the state’s Spanish and Mexican land heritage. It was my first professional home, and the people I worked with, those mentioned above and others such as Susan Dorsey and the reference staff made coming to work fun. After Arnold returned to Corpus and Mike left for an archival position in California, I became archivist, and during my last year at the GLO, 1990–1991, I became director of Archives and Records. In many ways, my success as a historian is the direct result of having learned so much of Texas history while working at the GLO. To this day, when I speak about the Land Office I often catch myself saying “we.” I hope in some small way, they feel the same.

Dr. Jesús F. de la Teja, image courtesy Texas State University.

Jesús F. de la Teja is Regent’s Professor of History and Jerome and Catherine Supple Professor of Southwestern Studies at Texas State University, where he has taught Texas and borderlands history since 1991. The inaugural state historian of Texas, he has served as president of the Texas State Historical Association and is a member of the Philosophical Society of Texas and the Texas Institute of Letters. A longtime student of San Antonio’s early history, he is the author of San Antonio de Béxar: A Community on New Spain’s Northern Frontier (1995) and Faces of Béxar: Early San Antonio and Texas (2016), among numerous other publications.

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Texas General Land Office

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