19th – 20th century
Materials: Iron and wood
The scythe has been around for centuries. Scythes are used as a tool for harvesting crops, such as wheat, or cutting away unwanted weeds, or tall grass. The scythe has a curved razor-sharp iron blade attached to the end of a wooden staff that has three handholds for easier control. This tool was widely used throughout Europe since before the Middle Ages, to the present, in countries like India, Nepal and the Americas. It is believed that the sickle was replaced by the scythe because of the scythe’s ability to quickly cut crops during the harvest season, which cuts the chances of losing valued crops due to the time it took to retrieve them with the sickle.
It was not uncommon for a woman to use this tool starting in the colonial period, however, back in the 1600s it was typically a “mans job” to cut the crop and bind the cut stalks together. The women would have followed close by collecting the banded work, therefore known as gatherers. Today you can find scythe competitions, with events testing who can cut an area of grass the fastest using a scythe. There are also events that test if a person with a scythe can be faster than modern-day machines, which often ends in favor of the scythe. These competitions are found primarily in southern states.
The scythe is often depicted as the tool of the Grim Reaper, also known as death, as seen in many artistic works depicting the plague. The plague has existed for centuries. Today, it can be treated with medicine, which did not exist back then. Two of the most well-known plagues were the Plague of Justinian of 542 C.E and the Black Death of 1348, both are credited with killing millions of people. There have been other outbreaks of illnesses throughout the world. For instance, malaria, yellow fever, and cholera struck North America hard in the 1800’s. People who were infected would sometimes flee to Texas, where the climate was hotter and more humid, in hopes of escaping the illness or to heal from it. Although the climate of Texas helped with some forms of sickness, it certainly was not without its epidemics. Migrants would spread the sickness that they were trying to escape to others of their new community. Therefore, malaria, yellow fever, and cholera were still very much a problem in Texas. However, tuberculosis was one of the most dangerous diseases in Texas during the 1800s and early 1900s, killing many.
The Grim Reaper, as we know him today in popular culture is often depicted standing close by his chosen victim until he chooses to take the person’s life, or he acts as a guide to lost souls and show them the way to heaven or hell. In video games, Death normally acts as one of the many adversaries a gamer needs to defeat to move onto the next level. Death is also associated with biker gangs and military unit mascots. In the past Death would even find its way to be immortalized as statues in cathedrals. Death has always held a special place in man’s mind because of fear and respect of mortality; the inevitable end. [Arland Schnacker, edited by Kathryn S. McCloud]
This artifact at the Institute of Texan Cultures is a sharecropper’s cabin. Constructed out of simple materials around 1900, the cabin most likely served as a residence for a tenant farmer and his or her family. It’s a simple home with two rooms, windows with no glass, a tin roof and a front porch. While in the past it was someone’s home, today it stands as an example of a practice that flourished in the American South for decades.
What is sharecropping?
Sharecropping is an agricultural system where a landowner allows a farm worker (also known as a tenant farmer) to rent and use the land in exchange for a share of the expected crop production. This system of agriculture became a standard in the American South after the American Civil War. The large, newly freed African American population, were suddenly in need of employment and landowners (often former plantation-owners) were in need of employees to farm their lands.
In the Reconstruction Era that followed the American Civil War, many freedmen and their families migrated into the northern United States and Canada in hope of a better life. However, for those who remained in the South, the business of rebuilding after a devastating war was fraught with uncertainty. Usually unable to read or write, many former slaves chose to return to the work that they had practiced before the Civil War—manual labor in agriculture—in order to provide for themselves and their families.
How does sharecropping work?
A landowner or landlord and the tenant farmer come to an agreement. The landowner allows the farmer to work and grow crops—usually cotton— on their property, and in exchange the landowner claims a portion of the crop that has been produced (usually a third or half of the yearly yield). For their hard work, the tenant farmer would usually be able to live on the property and receive their own portion of the crop for their use as they saw fit. The landowner provides the tenant farmer with initial supplies: seeds, farming equipment such as a plow, etc. The farmer tends to the fields, and at the end of the year the crop is divided between the two parties.
This system doesn’t sound like a bad deal! Is it fair?
While the system sounds fair, in a majority of cases the tenant farmers were at a large disadvantage. Landowners often took advantage of the tenant farmers in various ways. One popular method involved providing the necessary agricultural supplies at a cost to the farmer. If the farmer could not afford to pay for the start-up supplies, they were given on a line of credit with high interest rates. At the end of the year, the landowners would not only take their portion of the crops but also collect on the interest. If the interest was very high and the tenant farmer could not pay it back, he had to work extra hard to cover the costs for years to come. This often trapped the tenant farmer in a cycle of poverty as they worked to pay the landowner back. Sharecroppers of all races and backgrounds were at the mercy of the landowner. Sometimes, the tenant farmers even had to pay rent on the homes they lived in― this sharecropper’s cabin at the Institute of Texan Cultures reflects one of the many styles of housing used as a sharecropper’s home.
Was sharecropping a big deal in Texas?
After the American Civil War, many recently freed men migrated to Texas hoping to settle their own land. With the majority of its farmland intact, Texas became the de facto leader in cotton production of the United States. East Texas had a very good climate for cotton and by the turn of the 20th century some figures estimate that Texas cotton produced almost one third of America’s cotton supply. To meet the employment needs, many African Americans and Hispanic Americans flocked to the East Texas area where cotton production was at its peak.
In the 1920’s, four brothers named Clarence, Steve, Tom and Harry Moore bought land near the Navasota area slightly north of Houston, Texas. In the process of constructing a thriving cotton business, the Moore brothers used a sharecropping system that employed African Americans, prison labor, and even German prisoners of war during World War II. After years of successful operations, Thomas Moore donated the cabin to the Institute of Texan Cultures and it was moved to its current location in 1979. Though it’s unknown as to whether the Moore Brothers constructed the cabin or if the cabin came with the property when they purchased it, this little house stands today as a testament to a large chapter in American agricultural history. [Caira Spenrath, Edited by Jennifer McPhail]
Byres, Terence J. 1983. Sharecropping and sharecroppers. London [etc.]: Frank Cass.
People have been raising and herding sheep in Greece for thousands of years. Sheep and their products are even featured in ancient Greek myths; Jason and the Argonauts‘ go on a quest to find the Golden Fleece, and Polyphemus, the cyclops of the Odyssey is described as a shepherd. The rocky landscapes found in much of Greece are not well suited for larger animals, like cows, but is ideal for sure-footed sheep and goats. The mild Mediterranean climate also provides an extended growing season, allowing sheep to be left out on pastures for much of the year making them easier to raise. Sheep are used for a number of different products. Wool and meat are only some of products sheep have been raised for over the years. Sheep’s milk is turned into a variety of cheeses, like feta and kasseri, and is used for traditional Greek yogurt. The leather from their hides are also used to make chamois cloth, and parchment.
Traditionally while the sheep are out grazing they are guided and protected by a human shepherd. In Greece, shepherds use bells to help keep track of their animals. Different sizes of bells are used to create different sounds, and the individual bells can be “tuned” using a hammer to alter their shape. The bells help the shepherd know where his flock is, even when he can’t see them, and can help him avoid accidentally leaving an animal behind when moving the sheep to different pastures. Bells are also used on other types of livestock, particularly cattle, around the world.
In Greece this type of bell is also used during Apokries, or Greek Carnival. There are a number of festivals held throughout Greece during the weeks leading up to the start of Lent, that make up the Apokries. Many of these festivals feature Koudounatoi, “bell wearers” or “bell ringers;” sometimes the festivities even include people dressed up as sheep themselves. The following video shows an Apokries festival on the island of Crete.
Greeks began immigrating to Texas in the late 1800’s. Most left Greece due to economic difficulties, or the ongoing military conflicts in the region, often involving the Ottoman Empire. Many of these immigrants had been farmers and shepherds in their homeland but, often settled in urban areas of Texas where they could find jobs and eventually establish their own restaurants and businesses. However, one early Greek immigrant to Texas, George Caralampa (or Xarlampa), was able to famously continue herding after his arrival in Texas. Mr. Caralampa, also known as “Greek George” was recruited to come to Texas by the US Army in order to herd and care for camels. The government was interested in using camels instead of horses for its mounted troops in deserts and swampy terrain, and Caralampa was selected to help wrangle the camels for the experiment. Needless to say, this project was short lived, it was put on hold at the start of the Civil War. Some of the camels were seized by the Confederates, others escaped into the wild. At the end of the war the few remaining camels were sold, ending the US army’s camel experiment for good. [Kathryn S. McCloud]
Materials: Wood and metal
This item is a tobacco cutter used to cut the leaves of tobacco plants while processing the plant for use. In the Americas, tobacco has been used since ancient times. When Europeans first arrived they became intrigued with tobacco and later brought it back to be grown and sold across Europe. In Texas and neighboring areas, the Spanish observed tobacco use by Native Americans. They witnessed them chew and smoke tobacco out of pipes and as cigars. The Native Americans used tobacco in a various ways but it was primarily used during ceremonial rituals and prayers. Centuries later tobacco is mass produced in nearly every part of the world. In Texas, the tobacco industry thrived until World War I and the Great Depression. Afterward the one of the only tobacco companies that succeeded was Finck Cigar Company. The company was founded in 1893 by a German immigrant in San Antonio. Despite several economic recessions, the company is still in production today, manufacturing cigars, pipes, and accessories.
Tobacco, itself, is a plant that grows naturally in the Americas (North, South, Central America, and surrounding islands). What you might not know is that the tobacco plant and the use of tobacco goes back a long time. In fact it is believed that tobacco may have been domesticated over 6,000 years ago! When exactly ancient people started to use tobacco is unclear. However, we do have plenty of evidence that the ancients did use tobacco.
Much of our information on tobacco use in ancient America comes from ancient Maya sources. The Maya were a complex society, with their own writing system, organized religion, and advanced architecture. In many of the buildings they constructed they used art to represent their daily lives, their gods, and religious rituals. In the city of Palenque, Mexico at the Temple of the Cross a carving was found which shows an old man smoking tobacco from a long pipe. It is believed that this could represent a prayer to the sun god to bring rain during the dry season.
Most tobacco use among ancient Native Americans was limited to shamans, or medicine-men. Maya shamans used tobacco to encourage a trance-like state. While in this trance, they believed that they were able to contact spirits, dead relatives, or gods. Even modern doctors characterize tobacco as a drug and believe it to have some hallucinogenic properties. Ancient shamans believed that they could gain supernatural knowledge about healing, warfare, hunts, and many other things while under the influence of tobacco. The Maya also believed that their lords and gods would use tobacco to travel from the heavens and underworld to the real world. Maya art often shows these gods smoking a cigar or smoking from a pipe.
Shamans in North America also used tobacco in religious activities as well. Many Native American tribes religions included the use of tobacco in their ceremonies. Smudging is a common practice amongst many native tribes of North America. This ceremony uses smoke, made by smoldering a variety of dried plants. Smudging uses tobacco, sage, cedar, sweet grass, juniper, or other aromatic materials to heal, cleanse, purify, and and bless people, items and locations. [McKayla McCarty, edited by Jennifer McPhail]
The following video shows dancers at a modern Pow Wow being blessed by smudging as they enter the dance arena.
Driscoll CA, DW Macdonald, and SJ O’Brien. 2009. “From wild animals to domestic pets, an evolutionary view of domestication”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 106: 9971-8.
Riley, Thomas J., Richard Edging, Jack Rossen, George F. Carter, Gregory Knapp, Michael J. O’Brien, and Karl H. Scherwin. 1990. “Cultigens in Prehistoric Eastern North America: Changing Paradigms [and Comments and Replies]”. Current Anthropology. 31 (5): 525-541.
Materials: Leather and brass studs
This item is a pair of worn leather chaps given to the museum in 1995. Chaps were and still are worn by cowboys and ranchers. This type of clothing is an essential piece of a cowboy’s attire that protect the legs of cowboys while riding horses and when walking through rough landscapes. Leather is a thick and durable material that is hard to penetrate. It makes it possible for a cowboy to walk safely through areas with thorns, burrs, stickers, and barbed wire. Chaps also help to protect the rider from friction related “saddle sores.”
During cattle drives leather chaps would have been crucial for cowboys. A cattle drive is when a herd of cattle are transported by foot from one place to another. These drives became very important in the 1840’s and 1850’s during the California Gold Rush. Due to the increase of wealth in California the demand for beef raised dramatically. Cattle from Texas was being driven and sold to California citizens for 50 to 200 dollars per head (between 1,500 and 6,000 dollars in today’s currency). Drives from Texas could last between five to six months. Later on in the 19th century, the Chisholm Trail became known. This trail is considered to have been one of the largest cattle drives in the country. At the most it is estimated that 600,000 to 700,000 cattle were driven from Texas through Oklahoma to Kansas in a single year.
On this trail a woman by the name of Mary O. Taylor Bunton (known as Mollie) made the ride with her husband James Howell Bunton, from Sweetwater, Texas to Coolidge, Kansas in 1886. Out of fear of being left alone on their ranch she decided that she would join the cattle drive. During that time it was considered inappropriate for a woman to ride on a cattle drive, making her one of the few cowgirls of the Old West. Despite speculation and doubt Mollie was determined to make the drive. She was one of few women (possibly the only) to make this drive and was named the “Queen of the Old Chisholm Trail” when it was over. Years later in 1915 Mollie made her cattle drive experiences into a book, “A Bride on the Old Chisholm Trail in 1886.” Years later in 1948 at the motion picture premier of “Red River” Mollie was honored since it was believed that she was the only woman to make it up the dangerous trail.
“Red River” is one of countless movies based on cowboy life and cattle drives. These motion pictures became extremely popular in the 20th century, later they were known as western movies. The star of this movie was the famous John Wayne, considered to some as the face of western films. Wayne’s career thrived for over 50 years, making an appearance in nearly 200 films and starring in 142 of them. Most of his movies Wayne is either a cowboy, a ranger, or something of the sort. In the early 1970’s he was offered a role in Larry McMurtry’s “The Streets of Laredo“. However, Wayne turned down the role and the film was forgotten until 1985 when McMurtry wrote a prequel novel called “Lonesome Dove.”
“Lonesome Dove” was turned into a minseries in 1989. It starred Robert Duvall and Tommy-Lee Jones as two retired Texas Rangers who decide to drive a herd of cattle from Texas to Montana. The story is inspired by the real life accounts of Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving. The tale features the two men and their partners’ experiences on the trail. They face numerous life threatening adventures including floods, snakes, and Indians. These experiences plus many more would have been incidents that other real life cowboys went through. [McKayla McCarty, edited by Jennifer McPhail]
Prior to the the Texas Revolution in 1835-1836, the Mexican government controlled the area now known as Texas. As a result, the earliest ranches in what is now Texas were formed by Mexican settlers. These settlers created ranching communities along rivers and frequently traveled routes to Catholic missions, like those in the San Antonio area. Many of these early ranches were originally formed as a source of food and resources for the mission’s inhabitants. Many of these communities, or villas, were built along the Rio Grande River, giving the early ranchers easy access to fresh water for their livestock. Over time, these small settlements became large cities and towns due to the success of the ranching industry.
Mexican ranching techniques and methods were adopted by Anglo-Americans later in the 19th century, and these adopted techniques came to define cowboy culture. The lasso technique – looping a lariat rope around a cow’s neck – was a Mexican ranching technique developed during the 18th century to help horsemen catch cattle. In order to lasso, or rope, large animals from horseback, the rider attaches one end of the lasso to the saddle horn. The other end of the rope is made into a loop which is thrown over the head of the animal to be caught. Using this method, the strength of the horse and saddle are used to stop the animal, keeping the rider’s hands free.
The following video shows a modern day calf roping (lassoing) from horseback.
Branding cattle was another Mexican ranching tradition adopted by Anglo-Americans, as branding cattle allowed Mexican ranchers to identify the owner of individual free-ranging cattle. This was necessary prior to the widespread use of fences on the American frontier when livestock was allowed to roam freely. The early Mexican settlers of Texas were able to establish thriving communities by pioneering the ranching methods and techniques that would become iconic of cowboy culture. [Caitlin VanWie, edited by Kathryn S. McCloud]
Sáenz, Andrés, and Andrés Tijerina. 2001. Early Tejano ranching: daily life at Ranchos San José and El Fresnillo. College Station: Published by Texas A&M University Press in association with the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio.
Date: Early 20th century
Materials: Palm Straw
This object is a Japanese raincoat outfit that was typically used by Japanese farmers and fisherman to protect themselves from rain, the cool weather, and the heat. It consisted of a palm straw raincoat a conical “coolie” hat and sandals. This type of raincoat was made using either leaves from palm trees, straw, or seaweed. The plant fibers were typically folded in half and stitched together into sheets of material, the sheets were then layered and stitched in an overlapping pattern to direct rain off the wearer, similar to shingles on a roof. Raincoats and capes of this type have been used in many Asian cultures for centuries and variations of this type of garment were also used as camouflage for Japanese soldiers during World War II.
Japanese immigration to Texas started in 1902 due to overpopulation and limited farm land in Japan. At that time, Texas rice production was under developed. The Houston Chamber of Commerce and officials of the Southern Pacific Railroad asked Japanese consul general Sadatsuchi Uchida to tour the gulf coast region of Texas for areas of potential rice production. Local Texan farmers welcomed Japanese rice farmers to the area in order to advise them on how to grow and harvest rice. These early immigrants even brought a gift of rice seed with them from the emperor of Japan.
Two families successfully setup prominent rice farm sites. The Houston chamber of Commerce invited Seito Saibara to settle a community of Japanese-American Christians in 1903 in Webster near Houston and Kichimatsu Kishi had attended Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo before arriving. He founded the Kishi colony near Terry in 1907 in Orange county near Beaumont, Texas. Both Seito Saibara and Kichimatsu Kishi brought families to help work the fields and the male tenants sent for their wives. In time the two colonies prospered and attracted more Japanese who owned and operated rice farms nearby.
The introduction of imported Japanese seed in 1904 was an important development of the Texas Gulf Coast rice industry. Previously, seed rice had come from Honduras or the Carolinas, due to government regulations making Japanese import more difficult. The first three years harvest, which produced almost double the amount per acre compared with the average production from native rice seed, was sold as seed to farmers in Louisiana and Texas. Seito Saibara, along with the many of the original Japanese-Texan immigrants began rice production in Webster, TX in Harris County, and is often credited with establishing the Gulf Coast rice industry. Though Japanese-Texans also came to urban areas and had different types of jobs their biggest contribution is certainly to be credited in the development of rice patties.
The following video shows how modern rice paddies are planted in Japan.
Another wave of Japanese-American families came from the west coast driven by a rising anti-Japanese movement in California and the west coast. They settled mostly in Cameron and Hidalgo Counties in the lower Rio Grande Valley, while some chose El Paso and Bexar Counties. At first these Japanese immigrants were welcomed but by April 1921 the Texas legislature, following other western states, passed a law prohibiting the owning or leasing of land by foreign-born Japanese. Discrimination against Japanese-Texans would continue for many years, reaching its height during World War II when many Japanese-Texans were imprisoned in Internment Camps, along with others deemed a danger to national security. After the war ended anti-Japanese sentiment in Texas began to fade, partly due to the renowned efforts of the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) in saving the 1st Battalion of the 36th Infantry Division, Texas National Guard, the so-called “Lost Battalion.” Their heroic efforts were credited with saving more than 200 Texans in southern France. Additionally, Japanese immigration to Texas was once again allowed by the G.I. Fiancées Act (1946) and the McCarren-Walter Act (1952). These acts allowed American soldiers who had married Japanese women while stationed in Japan to bring their wives back with them to the United States.
Nowadays the importance of Japanese-Texan influence and tradition can be seen and celebrated in events such as the Asian Festival at the Institute of Texan Cultures. [Brian Foor, edited by Kathryn S. McCloud]
Materials: paper, leather
This Catholic prayer book was donated by the granddaughter of Joseph Schwartz, a Czech immigrant who came to Texas from Austria in 1892. Mr. Schwartz and his family came to Texas by passing through Galveston Island, which was a port for immigrants coming from Europe during the late 19th century, similar to Ellis Island in New York, City and Angel Island in San Francisco. He and his wife Sophia Loika had more than 15 children, and spoke fluent German and Czech. According to the donor, the Schwartz family lived in the house they built for over 70 years, until its demolition in 1969, which is when the prayer book was found.
During the late 19th century, Czech immigrants who came to Texas came mostly from the Moravia and Bohemia regions that now make up modern-day Czech Republic. During the 19th century though, these regions were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Austria-Hungary, German was the dominant language, yet the prayer book that belonged to the Schwartz’s was written in the Czech language. This reflected how Schwartz and his family kept their culture and ethnic identity during Austrian-Hungarian rule.
The Schwartz family settled in Moravia, Texas, a farming community mostly settled by Czech immigrants in the late 1800s. Many Czech immigrants that came to Texas started out their new lives as farmers. In Europe the technology boom of the Industrial Revolution made it more difficult to make a living by farming. As a result, many Czech farmers and their families immigrated to North America, looking for new opportunities in farm land.
When the first Czech immigrants came in the 1850s, many settled in the Gulf-Coast region of Texas, starting out as tenant farmers. Tenant farmers would farm small plots of land for a landowner. The landowner typically provided the tenant with food, housing, seeds and the equipment needed to bring in the crop. After harvest, the landowner would sell the crops produced by the tenant. After deducting the costs of the materials provided to the tenant, the landowner would share the profits of the crop with the tenant. This system of farming is also sometimes referred to as “sharecropping.” The early Czech immigrants typically farmed mostly cotton andcorn as their cash crops. In addition to their cash crops, these early farmers used gardens to grow food for their families. Over time, the Czech communities in Texas were able to buy their own property and farm their own land, while still raising and sending their crops to market.
As more families became property owners, the Czech community grew into thriving towns. By the time the Schwartz family came to Texas, Czech communities like Moravia, Texas provided support for new immigrants joining their community. As early as the 1880s, support networks had been organized in order to help the Czech communities hold onto their cultural and ethnic identity brought with them from Europe. These helped to integrate Czech-Texans into their new country. To help this process, children were taught English in school and use of the Czech language was primarily confined to church activities and in the home. Luckily the Czech community in Texas was able to maintain many aspects of their culture through religion, music and dance.
The following video shows one of the few remaining Czech dance halls in Texas.
Several fraternal societies were created in order to advocate and maintain Czech cultural and ethnic identity. These fraternal societies focused on their local Texas communities, but their projects included publishing books and journals in the Czech language, as well as providing insurance and financial services for Czech-Texans. [Caitlin VanWie, edited by Kathryn S. McCloud]