by John O. Lumpkin
A brilliant sun-drenched field of bluebonnets; the shade of a century-old pecan tree; the march of migrating monarch butterflies; the 95-gallon cowboy hat atop the statue of Big Tex at the State Fair of Texas; an armadillo skittering across the asphalt from one bar ditch to another; the singeing chords of modern blues singer Stevie Ray Vaughan’s electric guitar; a regal Longhorn bowing to graze on prairie grass.
These are prisms through which the culture and history of Texas can be seen and experienced. They are also reflected in the list of 76 official state symbols adopted by Texas legislatures since 1901, and that’s not counting the state flag.
“Our state symbols represent Texas’ rich cultural and natural resources,” says Margaret Koch, director of the Bullock Texas State History Museum. “They help unite communities and instill pride in and care for our history, traditions, legislative process and incredibly diverse surroundings.”
The native bluebonnet, designated in 1901, was the first state symbol, but it wasn’t the only flower in the running. A Texas contingent of the Colonial Dames of America persistently promoted the bluebonnet for state flower—they even decorated legislators’ desks with bluebonnet bouquets. The bluebonnet prevailed over two other candidates, the cotton boll and the prickly pear cactus.
Next, in 1919, was the designation of a state tree: the stately and prolific native pecan, which furnished Native Americans and Texas pioneers with sustenance, lumber, and heat. Along the way, the monarch butterfly became the state insect, the cowboy hat our state hat, the guitar the state musical instrument, and the armadillo the state small mammal.
Professor Curby Alexander of Texas Christian University’s College of Education, believes state symbols “can serve as a starting place for some engaging questions about history and culture.” He adds, “Any artifact or symbol from our past can stimulate curiosity when we invite students to ask why certain symbols and natural resources emerged as ‘official’ and others did not.”
The list of official state symbols, which require passage in both the Texas House and Senate and the governor’s signature, grew sporadically until the 1980s. Since 2000, designations have exploded. Nearly half of the 76 symbols on record by 2021 were adopted in the past two decades.
Some are obvious, like our “large state mammal,” the Longhorn; state fabric, cotton; footwear, the cowboy boot; and pepper, the jalapeño. Others, not so much. We have a state waterlily (nymphaea Texas Dawn), state mushroom (Texas Star); and a state epic poem, the largely unread and perhaps underappreciated 390-page “Legend of Old Stone Ranch,” approved in 1969. Texas even has a state domino game, “42,” courtesy of Gov. Rick Perry’s signature.
Some other designations have raised questions. The official bird of the Texas Ornithological Society is the indigenous scissor-tailed flycatcher instead of the more common mockingbird, our official state bird and that of four other states. And is the horse more worthy historically than the Longhorn for “large mammal”? Legislators partially rectified that 1995 decision by naming the American Quarter Horse the official state horse in 2009.
Something similar happened in 2013. Pecan pie became the state pie, though a notable contender could be made with Texas peaches. So, we got peach cobbler as the official state cobbler the same year.
Generations of Texas students have sung the official state song, “Texas, Our Texas,” and pledged allegiance to “thee, Texas” and to the flag of Texas, our most visible and sustaining state symbol since 1839.
“I’ve long been amused by the official state symbols resolutions,” says Ken Herman, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and legislative correspondent for the Associated Press, Houston Post, and Austin American-Statesman. “Every time I thought all those bases were covered, somebody came up with something else. … These are, more or less, moments of whimsy, though they can be important to various constituencies. Every city would like to be the Official Something of Texas.”
How State Symbols Are Designated
For a complete list of official state designations by the Texas State Library, go to: https://www.tsl.texas.gov/ref/abouttx/symbols.html
About The Author
John O. Lumpkin, author of the narratives in our Texas Symbols project, is a Texas Highways contributing writer with a history in Texas journalism beginning in the late ‘60s as a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He was Texas bureau chief for Associated Press from 1982 to 2003, retiring in 2009 as an AP vice president. As bureau chief, he supervised AP staff in bureaus around the state and worked with the state’s newspapers and broadcasters, traveling extensively.
He has crossed the Rio Grande at Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo, Del Rio and El Paso and waded in its tributary to enter Boquillas Canyon in the Big Bend. He has stood astride Texas and Arkansas in the middle of a street in downtown Texarkana, embraced the only existing international border marker between the Republic of Texas and the United States at the Louisiana state line in Panola County and traveled by boat from Oklahoma into Texas and back on Lake Texoma. He has waved goodbye to Texas at Texline in the Panhandle and hell0 at Waskom on Interstate 20 and Orange on Interstate 10 on its eastern border.
He has ordered red snapper from the Gulf of Mexico in Port Isabel, Port Aransas and Gaido’s in Galveston, catfish in Uncertain and Etoile, caldo de pollo in Jourdanton, barbecue on butcher paper in Taylor, a cheeseburger at the Forestburg Country Store, fried chicken at Allen’s in Sweetwater and a 35-ounce Porterhouse at the Lowake Steak House, which moved to Rowena. He has viewed the sun sinking behind Gomez Peak from the hood of a vintage Land Rover in the trans-Pecos, sunrise from over his shoulder on the eastern rim of Palo Duro Canyon and the havoc reeked by tornadoes and hurricanes, the latest being Harvey. He has hiked past the ruins of the Butterfield Stage station in Guadalupe Mountains National Park and to the top of Old Baldy in Wimberley. His only pair of boots were bought at Luskey’s in downtown Fort Worth in 1969, bruised but still wearable.
Lumpkin wrote West Texas, A Portrait of Its People and Their Raw and Wondrous Land, with the late Associated Press correspondent, Mike Cochran. He lives in Richardson with his wife Eileen, a sixth generation Texan. His work on Texas State Symbols is dedicated to schoolchildren across Texas who use the symbols to study Texas history and culture and who, along the way, inspired the adoption of several of them.