Waking up in Texas in the autumn of 1831, at least one New Englander glimpsed a second Eden. New Haven, Conn., author Mary Austin Holley (1784-1846), whose first book was an 1828 memorial to her late husband Horace, had leapt at cousin Stephen F. Austin’s proposal to visit the area and consider resettlement. She had lived in Louisiana and Kentucky, but it was Texas that prompted Holley to tackle more serious historical inquiry.
An ardent supporter of annexation who implored Austin to “be firm against slavery,” Holley was part of a corps of antebellum women historians who crafted local histories resonant with nationalist goals. She made three trips to Texas (in 1831, 1833, and 1835) but she never settled there, succumbing to yellow fever. As Holley sketched out her first notes on Texas, the land’s raw beauty, and its promise, filtered into her diary. She was smitten by the “splendid country—an enchanting spot,” as she lavishly described it in what became the first English-language history of the region, Texas: Observations, Historical, Geographical, and Descriptive, in a Series of Letters Written during a Visit to Austin’s Colony, with a View to a Permanent Settlement in That Country in the Autumn of 1831.
“Ones feelings in Texas are unique and original, and very like a dream or youthful vision realized. Here, as in Eden, man feels alone with the God of nature, and seems, in a peculiar manner, to enjoy the rich bounties of heaven in common with all created things,” Holley wrote. Her mission on the page was, like that of many guidebooks writers of the era, to encourage settlement. Parceling together her memories of her trip with the unfolding American history that Holley longed for Texas to join, she wrote: “With regard to the state of society here, as is natural to expect, there are many incongruities. It will take some time for people gathered from the north, and from the south, from the east, and from the west, to assimilate, and adapt themselves to new situations. The people are universally kind and hospitable, which are redeeming qualities. Every body’s house is open, and table spread, to accommodate the traveller.”
In the spirit of that hospitality, as we make our way to Texas this week for what promises to be a terrific ninth annual meeting of USIH, here is one page to bookmark plus a few links to savor en route. You can register here for the conference, and get info about our home base for the next few days, the Dallas/Plano Marriott at Legacy Town Center. We’ll have paper programs ready at the registration desk, or you can download a .PDF file of the program via this link. Check out opportunities for mentor meetups, and how to access the hotel wifi here, too. Browse this handy guide to the neighborhood, with food and drink recommendations, and please remember to use the #USIH2017 hashtag if you choose to tweet. There’s lots of fantastic posts to catch up on right here at the USIH blog, betwixt and between your travels, too. Finally, if Mary Austin Holley’s history has hooked your interest, take a deep dive into the many digital resources that public historians have made available to reveal Plano’s past: amazing photo collections at Plano Public Library’s Collin County Images; the Texas State Historical Association’s roundup of key people and places; and the ever-evolving Portal to Texas History. Please feel free to share your Plano finds or ask conference questions in the comments below.
Safe travels, and see you all soon!