April 21, 1836 – Texas General Sam Houston’s forces defeated those of Mexican President Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto, paving the way for Texas’ independence from Mexico.
In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain. At that time, Mexico’s northern territories, known as Tejas and New Mexico, had few Mexican citizens living there. These Mexican citizens, known as Tejanos, faced constant raids by Apache and Comanche Indians. The new Mexican government, broke and far away, could not afford to send any military help.
The new Mexican government made a decision it would soon regret: it decided to try to attract American settlers to the territory in order to stabilize it. The government offered a deal that was hard to pass up: each American family that immigrated there would receive nearly 200 acres of free land for farming and over 4,000 acres for cattle grazing. In exchange, the Americans would have to agree to learn Spanish, convert to Catholicism, and become Mexican citizens.
The first group to take up the offer was about 300 white families led by Stephen Austin, who arrived in 1822 to start a “colony.” These first settlers, mostly from the southern United States, brought their slaves with them and soon prospered. Their success brought thousands more American settlers, and by 1830 there were nearly 25,000 American immigrants living in Tejas. They called themselves “Texians” and outnumbered the original Tejanos nearly 6 to 1.
The large number of American immigrants began to concern the Mexican government. Most of the newcomers had refused to learn Spanish, become Mexican citizens, or convert to Catholicism. Additionally, there were instances of Americans taking land that belonged to Tejanos. It looked as though the offer was backfiring on the Mexican government.
As a result, in 1829 the Mexican government ordered a halt to all new immigration from the U.S. The government also imposed new property taxes on the settlers, and tariffs on imported goods from the United States. The American settlers, of course, resented these actions, and tension between the Mexican government and the settlers began to rise.
This tension was exacerbated by Mexico’s further decision in 1829 to outlaw slavery in all of its territories. Texans were ordered to comply with this new law or face military intervention. Many colonists cynically complied with the law by legally converting their slaves into “indentured servants for life.” Others simply called their slaves indentured servants without actually bothering to legally change their status. Most, however, still simply ignored the law and continued to illegally bring slaves into the state. By 1835, there were still approximately 5,000 African-American slaves in Texas.
In 1833 Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was elected President of Mexico. Within a year he had torn up the country’s constitution, given himself dictatorial powers, and massacred the citizens of Zacatecas when they protested. He also did away with local government in Tejas, which further exacerbated tensions with its residents. The last straw was the jailing of the American leader Stephen Austin in 1834 after he travelled to Mexico City to make the case for Texas statehood.
In the fall of 1835, Texians and Tejanos joined together and revolted against Mexican rule, declaring that Texas was now independent. Their volunteer militia, under the command of Austin and Sam Houston, chased all Mexican troops out of Texas. A formal Texas Declaration of Independence was eventually signed on March 2, 1836. The Republic of Texas had been born.
In 1835 Santa Anna crossed the Rio Grande with over 6,000 soldiers to squash the rebellion. As the Texans were signing their own declaration of Independence on March 2, 1836, Santa Anna bore down on his first target: the town of San Antonio, the political center of the new Republic. The towns’ defenders – about 200 men – waited for Santa Anna in the town mission, known as the “Alamo.”
This force, outnumbered more than 10 to 1, held out for 13 days before the Alamo was finally taken by Santa Anna’s forces. Nearly all of the defenders were killed (two African slaves, women, and a few Tejanos were spared), but not before inflicting at least 600 casualties on Santa Anna’s men. Although the defense of the Alamo was militarily unimportant, “Remember the Alamo!” became a rallying cry for the Texas rebels.
From the Alamo, Santa Anna spread out his forces out across Texas. His strategy was to locate and force a decisive battle with the Texian Army led by General Sam Houston. Two weeks after the fall of the Alamo, Santa Anna’s troops captured about 350 Texians under the command of Colonel James Fannin in Goliad, Texas. The Texians, who had surrendered, believed that they would be freed, as was typical in such cases. Santa Anna, however, ordered that they all be executed as traitors.
On March 27, 1836, all 350 unarmed Texian prisoners were marched out into the open and fired upon at point-blank range by Mexican soldiers. The wounded and dying were then clubbed and stabbed. Those who survived were run down by the Mexican cavalry. Colonel Fannin was the last to be executed, after seeing his men butchered. A few soldiers feigned death and managed to escape, bringing the news of the Goliad Massacre to General Houston. As with the Alamo, Santa Anna’s brutality only served to intensify the Texans’ anger and will to fight.
After Goliad, Santa Anna continued to chase Houston’s army as it retreated towards the U.S. border. Houston’s 900 man army had become the last hope for Texas independence, but Houston continued to retreat from Santa Anna’s forces, much to the disgust of his men, many of whom openly considered Houston a coward. Luckily for Houston, however, Santa Anna, believing that the rebellion was nearly over, became over-confident and made a classic mistake: he split up his forces to try to conduct a wider sweep to find and pin Houston down. In so doing, Santa Anna had no more soldiers with him than Houston did.
In a stroke of luck, Houston’s men captured a Mexican courier and discovered not only that Santa Anna had divided his forces but also that Santa Anna was camped nearby with only about 700 men. Now that the odds were more favorable, Houston ordered an attack on Santa Anna’s camp at the San Jacinto River.
On April 21 Santa Anna, who had received 500 reinforcements and now was aware of the American presence, was still taken by surprise by Houston’s assault. Even though Santa Anna’s forces now outnumbered Houston’s, the Texians routed the Mexicans in less than half an hour, shouting “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember Goliad!” as they chased down and killed retreating and surrendering Mexican soldiers. Over 600 Mexican soldiers were killed, with the rest wounded or captured.
Santa Anna was captured the next day, hiding in the marsh by the river, and brought as a prisoner to the Texian camp. After weeks of negotiations, Santa Anna signed two treaties, known as the Treaties of Velasco, in which he agreed to persuade the Mexican government to recognize Texas’ independence and consider the Rio Grande as the border between the two countries.
Unfortunately, Santa Anna had been deposed as President during his absence from Mexico, and the Mexican government never recognized the Treaties of Velasco or Texas’ independence. Not wanting to provoke a war with Mexico, the U.S. Congress refused Texas’ initial request to join the U.S. as a new state. Texas remained an independent nation, the Republic of Texas, until finally annexed by the U.S. in 1845.