What's the Story Behind Gone to Texas?

Gone to Texas
Photo by Marsha Miller.

In a few days, on the eve of their first day of class, thousands of excited freshmen will gather in front of the Tower for “Gone To Texas,” a huge celebration of all things UT. It is the official start of Longhorn life and a celebration mirrored at graduation.

But the phrase “Gone To Texas” has a long and colorful history — and one that might just surprise you.

In the 1820s and early 1830s, when Texas was a sparsely inhabited territory of Mexico, Americans in the South saw it as a place of opportunity, a place to start over. Many of them were in debt and running from creditors after the Panic of 1819. Others were escaping a variety of problems — legal and personal.

In 1830, William Dewees wrote to a friend, “It would amuse you very much could you hear the manner in which people in this new country address each other. It is nothing uncommon for us to inquire of a man why he ran away from the States! But few persons feel insulted by such a question. They generally answer for some crime or other which they have committed; if they deny having committed any crime, and say they did not run away, they are generally looked upon rather suspiciously.”

Many others were not outlaws but came for the free land offered by the Mexican government, which was trying to attract Americans to help settle this wild country.

When Southerners began leaving their homes, many would simply scrawl “GTT” with chalk on their cabin doors or fence posts — for "Gone To Texas." In time, GTT became shorthand for “at outs with the law.” Frederick Law Olmsted wrote that residents of other states “appended the initials to the name of every rascal who skipped out.” In 1884 Thomas Hughes observed, "When we want to say that it is all up with some fellow, we just say, ‘G.T.T.’ as you'd say, ‘gone to the devil,’ or ‘gone to the dogs.’ ”

Today, nearly two centuries later, “Gone To Texas” is a phrase used with pride by those accepted to The University of Texas at Austin, also known as “Texas.” Instead of debtors from Tennessee or outlaws from Kentucky, it now is used by new Longhorns across the state and around the world, excited for what lies ahead.

Certainly, you can still be “Gone To Texas” from Tennessee, but you can also be Gone To Texas from Amarillo, or Laredo, or Lufkin. You can be Gone To Texas from New Delhi or Seoul, Berlin or Nairobi.

No matter how different the meaning is, though, one part of this story has not changed: Now as then, “Texas” is a place of opportunity, of fresh promise, of a bold new start.