Stephen F. Austin, the founder of Anglo-American Texas

Stephen F. Austin

Stephen F. Austin

It’s hard to avoid the name of Stephen F. Austin in Texas. The state capital is named after him, as are Austin County, Austin College, Stephen F. Austin State University, Stephen F. Austin State Park and numerous schools, buildings and associations. He has been called the father of Texas and the founder of Texas. Austin led the Anglo-American colonization of Texas, paving the way for the state’s independence from Mexico, although this was not something he initially wanted.

Moses Austin’s plan

Stephen Fuller Austin was born in southwestern Virginia on November 3, 1793, the son of lead mine owner Moses Austin and his wife Mary Brown Austin. In 1798, after his business in Virginia faltered, Moses Austin moved his family to what is today Potosi, Missouri (it was then part of Spain’s Louisiana Territory). Moses started a new lead mining operation there. Stephen was sent to good schools in Connecticut and Kentucky. By the time he returned to Missouri in 1810, the family business was again in trouble. Moses tried putting Stephen in charge of the mine, but it didn’t help. The Austins were ruined in the financial Panic of 1819.

Stephen F. Austin moved to Arkansas, and then to Louisiana, intending to study law at New Orleans. Meanwhile, Moses Austin headed for Texas, in Spanish-ruled Mexico, to apply for a grant of land and permission to settle 300 families there. Though his request was approved, Moses was unable to carry out his plan. He died on June 10, 1821, shortly after returning to Missouri.

Settling the wilderness

In accordance with his father’s dying wishes, Stephen F. Austin took up the colonization project. He arrived in San Antonio in August 1821 and received permission from Texas Governor Antonio Martínez to start a colony on his father’s grant. Austin chose a tract of land between the Colorado and Brazos Rivers. He began advertising for colonists in newspapers along America’s western frontier. Austin had no trouble finding takers. At 12.5 cents per acre (paid to Austin, as a fee for his services), the land was one-tenth the cost of land in the United States. The first settlers arrived in late 1821. In the meantime, however, Mexico had achieved its independence from Spain. The new government wanted to regulate immigration through a general colonization law. It hesitated to acknowledge the Spanish land grant to Moses Austin.

As described in my post about Josiah Hughes Bell, in 1822 Austin travelled to Mexico City to lobby the Mexican government. This is where Austin is when Napoleon helps out his colonists in Napoleon in America.

In April 1823, Austin received a contract to introduce 300 families to Texas as an empresario. Subsequent colonization laws passed by Mexico and the new state of Coahuila and Texas continued the empresario system. By 1825 Austin had fulfilled his initial contract, having brought in 300 families (1,800 people, including 443 slaves). He obtained three more contracts – in 1825, 1827 and 1828 – to settle 900 additional families in the area. He also received a contract, in partnership with his secretary, to settle 800 families in western Texas. By August 1828, Austin’s colony contained about 8,000 inhabitants. The previous non-Indian population of Texas had never exceeded 4,000.

According to Stephen F. Austin, when he first arrived in Texas, it

was entire wilderness with the exception of the old Spanish posts of San Antonio de Bexar and La Bahia, and they were poor and inconsiderable villages reduced to wretchedness and misery by the arbitrary and cruel measures of the Spanish general in 1813 after the defeat of the Republicans on the Medina; and by the subsequent Indian war, with the Comanches and other savages. Between the Sabine [River] and San Antonio, a distance of 400 miles, there was not twenty souls of civilized inhabitants, and the country was occupied in every direction by wandering bands of the Comanches, Lipans, Tancawas, Wacos, Tawacanys, Karankaways, and other Indians. The government at this period (the winter of 1821-22) was unsettled, all Mexico was in revolution. The Spanish power was prostrated, but much doubt and uncertainty prevailed as to the final result – public opinion and parties vacillated between monarchy, aristocracy, and Republicanism; and it would seem that even these flattering hopes could have offered few inducements to enter Texas with families of women and children, under such circumstances. … The alarming and exaggerated rumors that went abroad relative to the sufferings of the first settlers greatly impeded the progress of the new settlements, and increased [my] difficulties in procuring emigrants. True it is, the first adventurers suffered greatly. They did not taste bread for six months; their only hope for subsistence was the game of the forests until they raised a crop; and they were constantly harassed by Indian depredations. The vessels sent round from New Orleans…with provisions and supplies were lost on the coast and plundered by the Indians and many other casualties occurred; but great as the obstacles were that opposed their settlements in this wilderness, their fortitude and perseverance was still greater, and success has fully rewarded their toils. (1)

In 1824, Austin founded San Felipe de Austin as the unofficial capital of his colony. Austin initially had complete civil and military authority over his colonists. He allowed them to elect militia officers and alcaldes (local mayors/justices of the peace). He drew up a civil and criminal code. He served as a lieutenant colonel of militia. He also surveyed land and allocated it to applicants, trying to keep conflicts among the colonists to a minimum. The Baron de Bastrop served as his initial land commissioner. Since any fees Austin was able to collect from the colonists were eaten up in public expenses, all of which he had to bear himself, he was unable to make much money. His wealth consisted in the 67,000 acres of land he was personally given for every 200 families he brought in. This was not necessarily of much value, given that settlers could essentially obtain Texas land for free through him or other empresarios, or could simply settle illegally in Texas. Unlike some of his peers, Austin was meticulously honest and did not engage in land speculation.

A fortune I have not made, on the contrary, except my land I am poor, but am satisfied, for I have fully succeeded in the main object. If speculation had been my object I should now have been dashing in wealth in Europe or where I pleased, worshipped by the thousands and despised by the two’s or three’s (two or three out of a 1000 is perhaps a low estimate of those who would be governed by principle alone when placed in opposition to wealth). Texas would have remained to this day what I found it, a wilderness and many of the capitalists of the U.S. and of England would have been gulled out of their money. (2)

Austin recognized that his colony’s success depended on the good will of Mexican officials. Under the terms of the grant, all settlers were required to profess the Roman Catholic faith and to respect the government and laws of Mexico. Austin insisted that his colonists become loyal Mexican citizens. He frequently reminded them of the benefits they received from Mexico’s liberal colonization policy. He hoped that Texas would develop into a prosperous Mexican state. Some people thought this pragmatic approach was too cautious. In February 1831 Austin wrote:

[In] my intercourse with this govt. I have followed a few fixed rules from which I have never deviated since 1821 when I first entered the country. In the first place I came with pure intentions. I bid an everlasting farewell to my native country, and adopted this, and in so doing I determined to fulfill rigidly all the duties and obligations of a Mexican citizen. I have endeavored to keep all the officers with whom I was in direct communication in good humor, and to make friends of them. I have excused and even invented plausible reasons to justify or explain away all the political errors of my adopted countrymen. I have been silent as to all their defects, and lavish of praise where there was the least pretext for bestowing it, but at the same time decisive and unbending where a constitutional or vested right of vital importance was direction attacked. Rights of minor consideration I have paid no attention to, for bad feeling might be engendered about trifles, that would jeopardize an important interest….

My native countrymen are blunt republicans, and do not always reflect sufficiently, and some of them have accused me of debility, want of firmness, temporising, etc. It was my duty to steer my precious bark (the Colony) through all the shoals and quicks[ands] regardless of the curses and ridicule of the passengers. I knew what I was about – they did not. (3)

Some of these “shoals” included hostile Indians, the issue of slavery (the colonists favoured it; Mexico didn’t), and the colonists’ increasing desire for self-government. In 1827, Austin helped put down the Fredonian Rebellion, an attempt by fellow empresario Haden Edwards and his settlers to secede from Mexico.

Texas independence

In 1833, Stephen F. Austin travelled to Mexico City in an unsuccessful attempt to petition the Mexican government to separate Texas from Coahuila and make it a Mexican state in its own right. He also sought other reforms, including the repeal of a law that attempted to halt immigration from the United States. On his way back home in January 1834, Austin was arrested in Saltillo on suspicion of trying to incite insurrection in Texas.

He wrote to his friend, Mexican senator Rafael Llanos:

I have been accused of having magnificent schemes for Texas, and I confess that I have had them…. To suppose that the Mexican nation in its present situation, immersed in clouds of prejudice, and backward in every thing, can advance rapidly of itself alone and reach the level of other nations without drawing learning, industry, and population from abroad is almost the same as to imagine that the Mexicans of the time of Cortés could have advanced to where they now are without knowing any other people or having had communication with any other nation in the world…. [Texas] is depopulated; I wish to people it. The population that is there is backward; I wish it to be advanced and improved by the introduction of industrious agricultural settlers, liberal republicans. I want the savage Indians subdued; the frontier protected; the lands cultivated; roads and canals opened; river navigation developed and the rivers covered with boats and barges carrying the produce of the interior to the coast for export in exchange for foreign products, thereby saving the precious metals which are now our only medium of exchange…. These are the magnificent, and as it now appears, visionary, plans which I have held for Texas, and for all this frontier; and if there is a Mexican who does not wish to see them realized, I must say that he does not love his country; neither wants to see her emerge from the darkness of the fifteenth century nor shake off the chains of superstition and monastic ignorance which she is still dragging along….

I entered Texas in 1821 an enthusiastic philanthropist and now at the age of forty I find myself on the verge of misanthropy, tired of men and their affairs, and convinced that I wished to finish in a few years the work of a century….

I was not born in a wilderness, and have not the patience of the Bexareños [the residents of San Antonio] and other inhabitants of this frontier who are daily enduring the same dangers and annoyances that their fathers and grandfathers and perhaps their great-grandfathers suffered, without advancing a single step or even thinking of advancing. Death is preferable to such stagnant existence, such stupid life. (4)

Austin was held as a prisoner in Mexico City until July 1835. This experience convinced him that negotiating with the central government was no longer the way to secure Texas’s well-being. He supported the organization of a local provisional government for Texas. When he learned that Mexican troops were advancing towards Texas, he told the colonists:

War is our only resource. There is no other remedy but to defend our rights, ourselves, and our country by force of arms. (5)

Despite his lack of military training and combat experience, Stephen F. Austin was elected the first commander of the Texans’ volunteer army. He successfully led them in the Siege of Béxar in late 1835. A regular Texas army was created, with Sam Houston as commander-in-chief. Texas declared its independence from Mexico on March 2, 1836. On April 21, 1836, the Texian Army defeated Mexican forces at the Battle of San Jacinto, effectively ending the independence war.

Stephen F. Austin stood as a candidate in the election for president of the new Republic of Texas. In July 1836 he wrote:

I am nothing more than individual citizen of this country, but I feel a more lively interest for its welfare than can be expressed – one that is greatly superior to all pecuniary or personal views of any kind. The prosperity of Texas has been the object of my labors, the idol of my existence. It has assumed the character of a religion, for the guidance of my thoughts and actions, for fifteen years. (6)

Austin lost to Sam Houston, who was inaugurated on October 22, 1836. Houston appointed Austin as secretary of state. Austin served for only two months. He died of pneumonia on December 27, 1836 at the age of 43, in the new Texas capital of Columbia (now West Columbia). By then, the wilderness he had settled had been transformed into a relatively advanced and populous country, thanks in large part to his patient, hard work.

Stephen F. Austin never married, and he had no children. He was originally buried in Brazoria County, Texas. In 1910, his body was reinterred at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.

You might also enjoy:

Texas pioneer Josiah Hughes Bell

The charmingly deceptive Baron de Bastrop

Texas Revolutionary José Francisco Ruiz

Texas Priest Francisco Maynes

Texas Governor José Félix Trespalacios

Presidio Commander Francisco García

Jim Bowie before the “gaudy legend”

Texas entrepreneur Ben Milam

The Extinct Karankawa Indians of Texas

  1. Eugene C. Barker, “Descriptions of Texas by Stephen F. Austin,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Oct. 1924), pp. 101-102.
  2. Eugene C. Barker, ed., Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1922: Vol. II: The Austin Papers, Part 2 (Washington, 1928), pp. 678-679.
  3. Ibid., pp. 600-601.
  4. Ibid., pp. 1029-1031.
  5. Eugene C. Barker, The Life of Stephen F. Austin (Nashville & Dallas, 1925), p. 481.
  6. Ibid., p. 520.

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I came with pure intentions. I bid an everlasting farewell to my native country, and adopted this, and in so doing I determined to fulfill rigidly all the duties and obligations of a Mexican citizen.

Stephen F. Austin