Teaching Texas History: Telling a Story with Historic Documents
There’s nothing quite like a dramatic, compelling story is there? That’s why so many of us read books and magazines, watch TV, attend movies, even gossip! Regardless of the source, we’re drawn to a good story; it’s just human nature. We can find these stories in real life if we know where to look, and fortunately for us, the Texas General Land Office Archives has plenty to offer.
This may be news to some students, but there are dramatic and compelling moments in history that rival anything they can find on TV. Getting “buy in” from kids can be a real challenge in a media and internet-dominated culture like ours where students are continually bombarded with topical, fast-paced information. Stories take time to unfold. A good story can move us like nothing else, and what moves us most often are the things we can relate to: interesting characters, relationships, conflict, and moral dilemmas, to name a few. Amidst a good story, students can find themselves in the middle of a moment in time. This engagement can provide the spark that moves them away from low level memorization of names and dates to a world of human experience they can relate to, internalize, and truly learn. Here’s just one story found in the Spanish Collection of the GLO’s Archives, a set of records that detail the history of the public lands of Texas under the jurisdiction of Spain and Mexico.
In December of 1829, the Commander of the Mexican 12th Permanent Battalion in Nacogdoches found himself in a predicament. Colonel José de las Piedras and his garrison were outnumbered by American settlers in east Texas by a considerable margin. Troubled by this new reality, Piedras wrote to his commanding officer Colonel Manuel de Mier y Terán, to inform him of the situation. He complained that Americans were pouring into Texas — illegally, armed, and unaccountable: “more than two hundred armed persons…have entered the Country destined for the Brazos and Trinity rivers…None are friends to our government although many appear to be so.” Piedras was deeply suspicious of American motives, noting that “There is no other conversation on this frontier but of the views of President Jackson to take possession of Texas.”
Students can imagine the psychological effect of this uneasy existence as Piedras and his men bore the brunt of American hostility as they patrolled the streets of Nacogdoches or had a meal at an inn. They felt the tensions and mistrust of a people whose language, culture, and values were at odds with those of the Mexican nation they swore to defend. Piedras described “the hate they bear us, which is so public in this town, that it has already caused difficulty between the troops and the residents.”
Piedras’s helplessness was further reinforced by distance from military aid and his own meager resources. He stated: “I do not count on any help nor could I possibly make a retreat, being at the mercy of those who wish to cut me off, Your Excellency knows the country, knows distances and knows how few people live here and should know that this force is exposed.” Piedras and his men felt like prisoners in their own country, and he requested action on the part of his government.
Now, is this a compelling story or what?
There’s a lot here for students to think about and discuss, and it’s all in the context of history! Involve the students by asking them a few questions:
● What would you do if you were Mier y Terán? How would you react to this letter and what would be your course of action?
● What recommendations would you make to the Mexican government to solve this problem?
● Is there a solution?
● Make a prediction as to what will happen next and write about it.
Spoiler alert! This conflict ultimately lead to one of the most infamous laws enacted during the Anglo colonization period, the Law of April 6, 1830, which, among other things, banned further immigration of settlers from the United States into Mexican Texas. The law was the catalyst for further escalation of tensions, and ultimately, Revolution.
Piedras had good cause to feel apprehensive, as history proved. In a few short years Piedras and his men lost the struggle with American settlers at the Battle of Nacogdoches in 1832, effectively ending Mexican rule in east Texas.
This story and many more are waiting to be unfolded and shared at the Texas General Land Office Archives. For a look at additional free TEKS-based resources available for teachers, please check out the GLO’s Education homepage.
For other entries in our Teaching Texas History Series, please check out the links below:
 Robert Bruce Blake, Handbook of Texas Online, “Piedras, Jose De Las,” accessed December 01, 2016, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fpi07. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
 Col. José de las Piedras to Col. Manuel de Mier y Terán, 1 February 1830, Box 125, Folder 1, Records of the Spanish Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.
Curtis Bishop, Handbook of Texas Online, “Law of April 6, 1830,” accessed December 01, 2016, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ngl01. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on May 10, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
 Archie P. McDonald, Handbook of Texas Online, “Nacogdoches, Battle Of,” accessed December 01, 2016, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/qen01. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.