Late 19th Century Texas: Background information when reading News of the World

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News of the World

by Paulette Jiles

News of the World by Paulette Jiles X
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
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    Oct 2016, 224 pages
    Jun 2017, 224 pages

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Beyond the Book:
Late 19th Century Texas

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Paulette Jiles' News of the World takes place in late 19th century Texas. Much of the state's land was untamed and rugged, but in this time between the end of the Reconstruction and the beginning of the Progressive Era, Texas changed and grew, as did much of the western frontier and the New South.

Longhorn DriveIt was the era of cotton, cattle and railroads, and it was a time of economic growth. Cotton was the most common crop grown for profit, and corn was the most common food crop. In fact, agriculture dominated the state economy, and much of it centered on ranching. Texas had always been cattle country, but after the Civil War, the economic importance of livestock grew. Wild longhorn cattle could be sold in the northern United States for up to six times what they went for in the South, so ranchers caught them and organized drives to get them up there, sometimes all the way up to Canada. Cowboys would travel for weeks at a time on trails with these wild cattle, thus creating the iconic vision of the Texan cowboy – fiercely independent and rugged – that has become a lasting symbol of the state. The growth of the railroad system vitalized commercial farming as well as ranching (but ended the golden era of the cowboy) – lumber was carried from east Texas. Cattle were carried from west Texas. Crops were also carried from farms all over the state, and people were able to travel to newly developing cities. In 1901, petroleum was found near Beaumont, Texas and became, at that time, the most productive oil well in the world. Oil discoveries continued after that, heralding in the oil boom, which permanently transformed and grew the economy of Texas.

Poster about Land for SaleBlack and Latino communities emerged during the late 19th century too, separate from one another and from the dominant white population and, not surprisingly, they faced much discrimination. The population in Texas grew fast during this time – from over one and a half million in 1880 to over three million by 1900. People came in from other states, especially from the South, and immigrants from Mexico and Germany added numbers too. Most Black Texans worked as sharecroppers, tenant farmers who had to pay the landowner part of their crop as rent to use the land. Some also herded cattle, worked on the railroads, in lumber camps, on seaport docks, or as craftsmen. A few acquired their own land and opened their own businesses. The Colored Farmers' Alliance was organized in the 1880s. Schools and churches were segregated, and funding was scarcer for those black institutions than for their white counterparts. Latino Texans had a similar experience. Some owned ranches and small businesses, but most herded sheep or cattle, or did manual labor like working on the railroad. Mexican immigrants took the place of black slaves on many cotton plantations. They worked for very little money and, just as before the Civil War, the white landowners were the primary beneficiaries of the cotton industry, which was booming. Being a sharecropper was an incredibly hard life. After accounts to the landowners were settled, sharecroppers rarely had money left over. Families, including children as young as four-years-old, worked together for long days, from sun up to sun down.

Sutton GriggsThe Democratic Party dominated politics in Texas after the Reconstruction. Interestingly, being a Democrat in this time period meant standing for retrenchment, white supremacy and states' rights on racial issues, while the Republican Party favored expanding the rights of minorities, improving education, and developing economically. Texas music in the late 19th century included folk songs, religious spirituals, and the influences of black, Latino and German culture. Cowboy songs were popular too.

Sutton Griggs, a black Texan native, social activist, and Baptist minister, became a famous novelist in the 1890s. His best-known work, Imperium in Imperio (State Within A State), was a utopian story that imagined a separate African-American state within the United States.

Painting of a cattle drive through a Mexican pueblo, courtesy of lrnarts
Poster offering cheap farmland to immigrants
Sutton Griggs, courtesy of

This article was originally published in October 2016, and has been updated for the June 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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