My Top Texan in Texas History
James Harkins is the Manager of Public Services for Archives and Records at Texas General Land Office.
This March, the Texas General Land Office (GLO) is hosting its second annual Top Texan Tournament, which is a 64-person bracket designed for voters to determine the Top Texan in Texas History — it’s March Madness for Texas History lovers!
The GLO asked the public to submit their suggestions for who should be included, and we received over 200 nominations. We’ve pulled from the worlds of history, politics, civics, and culture to create a balanced lineup of Top Texans from all walks of life. Nominations ranged from people you would expect, like Sam Houston & Stephen F. Austin, to some names that you think should be on there, but maybe aren’t the first to come to mind, like Howard Hughes or Buddy Holly. There were even some names suggested that you definitely wouldn’t think of — as it turns out, Harambe the Gorilla, a Texan who launched 1,000 internet memes in 2016, was from South Texas, and was one of the nominations. No, Harambe will NOT be in the tournament. After consulting with our Top Texan Tournament Selection Committee, we were able to narrow down the massive list to the top 64 Texans in Texas history — which was an incredibly difficult job. Dozens of deserving Texans were voted off the proverbial Texas history island for this tournament, and there is a lot of second-guessing going on, which you’ll see over the next several paragraphs.
In working on this tournament, I started to wonder: who is MY Top Texan? Over the next few weeks, we’ll ask a couple historians, and people who know their Texas history, who their Top Texan is, and on April 4, we’ll see if they got it right, and were able to determine who all the bracketeers would select.
Would it be the winner from last year, Sam Houston? Seems too obvious. But come on — the guy did EVERYTHING! But no, I don’t think he’s going to be my choice this year. What about Stephen F. Austin? Austin seems like a good choice. After all, he can be credited for modernizing Texas. He was a prolific writer, and involved with many of the most important decisions in Texas prior to the Revolution. He was also a prolific cartographer, and I like maps. But no, that seems like too obvious a choice too. What if I go with someone that is often overlooked in Texas history, Col. Edward House? After all, he was crucial to the diplomatic ending to World War I, and 2017 is the centennial of American involvement in the Great War. But no, he was just outside of the Top 64, so it can’t be him.
Then there’s people who had an effect on our Texan hearts like Clara Driscoll and Adina de Zavala, without whom we wouldn’t have the Alamo. Talk about a great legacy for Texas history. But it’s hard to choose between these two because of their feud. Or, I could go in a different direction, and pick someone like Dr. Denton Cooley or Dr. Michael DeBakey, who both pioneered open heart surgery — talk about an impact that will stand the test of time and have an immediate affect on countless millions of people across the world. But these two also had a long-standing feud that would make it difficult to choose one over the other.
There’s Chief Bowles, the Cherokee principle chief who negotiated a treaty with Sam Houston in 1836. Who knows what kind of impact he would have had on Texas history had he not been killed during the Battle of the Neches? There’s Barbara Jordan, who had a huge impact on Texas as the first African American woman from a Southern state to serve in Congress and was an important figure during the 1974 Watergate hearings as a member of the House Judiciary Committee. But I’m not sure if either of these figures are who I would consider the Top Texan when there are multiple presidents, generals, revolutionaries, business and social leaders, war heroes, and more that are also vying for the top spot.
This decision is not getting easier as I go through the listing. When trying to clear my mind, I sometimes listen to music. Maybe listening to Clint Black, Buddy Holly, Willie Nelson, or Selena will help me make this decision…RATS! All of these people, each appealing to a different part of my music-loving soul are on the list too! What’s a person supposed to do? Instead, I’ll listen to an old standby— Waylon Jennings — to clear my mind and help me make this decision. (By the way, why isn’t he on this list?) When in doubt, turn to Waylon. Mr. Jennings solved this problem long ago, when he said, “It don’t matter who’s in Austin, Bob Wills is still the King.”
Turns out the King of Western Swing didn’t make the cut either. I can’t even pick Bob Wills. Fine. I’m picking Sam Houston to repeat.
Voters are going to have a hard time figuring this out. Good luck to all who take the time to fill out a bracket to determine the Top Texan in Texas History! There are lots of great prizes thanks to our sponsors: the Texas State Historical Association, the Alamo, the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, and Texas Humor.
 Handbook of Texas Online, Thomas H. Kreneck, “Houston, Samuel,” accessed February 16, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fho73.
 Handbook of Texas Online, Eugene C. Barker, “Austin, Stephen Fuller,” accessed February 16, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fau14.
 Handbook of Texas Online, Charles E. Neu, “House, Edward Mandell,” accessed February 16, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fho66.
 Handbook of Texas Online, Dorothy D. DeMoss, “Driscoll, Clara,” accessed February 16, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fdr04.
 Handbook of Texas Online, L. Robert Ables, “Zavala, Adina Emilia De,” accessed February 16, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fzafg.
 Handbook of Texas Online, Deborah Cummins, “Heart Transplants,” accessed February 16, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/sdh01.
 Lawrence K. Altman, M.D., The Feud, The New York Times, November 27, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/27/health/27docs.html (Accessed February 16, 2017).
 Handbook of Texas Online, Hampson Gary and Randolph B. Campbell, “Neches, Battle of The,” accessed February 16, 2017,http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/qen02.
 Handbook of Texas Online, Mark Odintz, “Jordan, Barbara Charline,” accessed February 16, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fjoas.
[Engraving of Stephen F. Austin], artwork, December 16, 1836; (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth11276/m1/1/?q=stephen%20f%20austin: accessed February 17, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Palestine Public Library.
[Photograph of Michael DeBakey holding equipement]. Photograph, NASA, uploaded 2006. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michael_DeBakey.jpg .
Sam Houston. Apr. 27, ca. 1848. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2003656937/. (Accessed February 21, 2017.)
[Selena, during her sell out 67,000+ attendance record breaking concert in 1995]. Photograph, cc-by-sa-4.0, uploaded 2016. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/ File:Selena_houston_astrodome.jpg
Bain News Service, Publisher. Mrs. Clara D. Sevier. [between and Ca. 1915, ca. 1910] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ggb2005013007/. (Accessed February 21, 2017.)
[Photograph of Adina de Zavala]. Photograph, ca. 1910. Retrieved from Center for American History at the University of North Texas, http://www.cah.utexas.edu/exhibits/WinedaleStory/blue2/blue2b.html.
[Buddy Holly publicity picture of Brunswick Records]. Photograph. Brunswick Records, ca. 1957. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Buddy_Holly_Brunswick_Records.jpg
O’Halloran, Thomas J, photographer. [Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, head-and-shoulders portrait, possibly seated in a Congressional chamber / TOH]. Apr. 7, 1976. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2003688128/. (Accessed February 21, 2017.)