99 Years of Tracking Texas
Texas State Historical Association's Publishing Division
It's that inherent awareness of state history that makes a group like the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA) so rich with avenues of exploration -- and scholars willing to explore those avenues in writing, research, and photo essay projects.
"What makes this organization interesting and fun is the broad mix of people involved," said George Ward, assistant director of the University of Texas-based, 99-year-old association. "We get a healthy share of academics, yet we have people from all walks of life involved. There are many members who aren't from traditional academic backgrounds, yet turn out first-rate scholarship. Us Texans are uniquely interested in our own history. There's an immediate interest for the average citizen, for many have grandparents or great-grandparents who were involved in that history."
Although the group is largely Texan in composition, there are affiliates throughout the Southwest and Mexico intrigued in how the various collision of cultures and national interests have impacted the entire region. Ward notes the group's 3,500 members include doctors, lawyers, and businessmen, and the presentations at the group's annual spring meetings range from traditional looks at history to more revisionist perspectives.
One of the primary missions of the group is publishing, and Jack Jackson's Imaginary Kingdom, offering new perspectives on Spanish military expeditions in Texas through the 18th-century diaries of expedition leaders Pedro de Rivera and Marqués de Rubí, is only one example of the breadth of THSA's vision of Texas. Ward sees the book as valuable on several different counts. Not only did the book unveil Rubí's diary, a previously unknown work found by Jackson among THSA archives, but it offered a chance, as Ward put it, "to see what would become Texas through the eyes of very different people."
"Texas, to the Spaniards, was important as a buffer," Ward said. "But it became clear that it was so remote and unsettled that it was a kingdom in name only, peopled by various native Indians, and not easily controlled." Ward sees connections between this book and one of THSA's most recent reprints, Emory's U.S. Mexican Boundary Survey, which was researched by mid-19th-century U.S. military expeditions. Ward characterizes the Emory book as "one of the great sourceworks in Western U.S. history," for it details ethnologists' and biologists' observations on Texas specific to that period. Both books are similar in that they give the perspective of nations who had their own designs on, and ideas of, what Texas was and could potentially be for them.
One of the association's most ambitious projects, completed this past May, is the New Handbook of Texas, a six-volume encyclopedia intended to be a comprehensive guide to Texas past and present. Ward said "every county and every creek," as well as a number of influential people and events, were covered by 2,000 contributing authors, many of whom volunteered their time, energy, and research skills to assemble the project. The association published its first version of the encyclopedia in 1952, yet it only encompasses a mere fraction of the New Handbook's size and scope.
The association also places great emphasis on books which explore the intersections of art and history. Sam Chamberlain's Mexican War, authored by UT history professor William Goetzmann, examines the paintings and associated tall tales of Chamberlain, a painter and veteran of both the Mexican and Civil Wars, historically seen as both a scoundrel and legend. A follow-up book by Goetzmann, to be released later this year, My Confession: Recollections of A Rogue, focuses on Chamberlain's personal writings, and reminds Ward of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Several of the association's recent notables include photo essays on the everyday lives of notable individuals and communities. The award-winning Watt Matthews of Lambshead, by Laura Wilson, looks at life at the Lambshead ranch along the Clear Fork of the Brazos River; Behold the People, by Dallas photographer R.C. Hickman, focuses on the black community in south Dallas during the late 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s; and Picturing Texas, a collection culled from the Library of Congress' Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information archives, features photos by noted 1930s and '40s photographers Dorothea Lange and Alfred Rothstein, including but not limited to their famed documentation of the Dust Bowl years.
In addition to the six to eight book titles the association releases each year, TSHA also publishes the Southwest Historical Quarterly, an academic journal which has gained a niche among noted scholarly historical publications. The journal, published since the association's founding in 1897, deals with the same wide range of historical topics and authorial perspective as the group's publishing wing.
Ward sees the organization, gearing up for its centennial next year, as committed to the group's original mission of collecting, preserving, and researching Texas history. What makes the organization current and pertinent, in Ward's view, is the desire to find valuable and original views on Texas history. "When looking at proposals for articles and books, I always come back to the `So what?' question," Ward said. "We look for a meaning as well as story, something that will illuminate and tell us something significant. We look beyond what will give us just another detailed look at a piece of history." n Frequent Chronicle contributor Phil West is also a member of Austin's nationally ranked Poetry Slam Team.