Advice to Texas Settlers in the 1830s

During the time in which Napoleon in America is set, Texas was part of Mexico. There were two major settlements: San Antonio de Béxar, the administrative center of the province; and La Bahía del Espíritu Santo, an outpost southeast of San Antonio. The entire non-Native-American population of Texas numbered no more than 4,000. In 1823, Stephen F. Austin received permission from the Mexican government to establish a colony in Texas between the Colorado and Brazos Rivers. By 1828, Austin’s colony contained about 8,000 inhabitants. In 1831, Austin’s widowed cousin, Mary Austin Holley, visited Texas with a view to settling there with her family. She was 47 years old, cultured, well-educated and adventurous. Austin described her as “this very superior woman.” (1)

Mary Austin Holley wrote a book about her experience, entitled Texas: Observations, Historical, Geographical and Descriptive, published in 1833.

Many persons, disposed to emigrate to this fair portion of the earth, needed assurance, that the natives do not kill and eat people there, nor always insult and rob them….in this beautiful and fertile country, where the greatest abundance of all valuable and substantial possessions, are the easy and certain reward of industry and perseverance…. (2)

Here is some of her advice to prospective Texas settlers.

How San Antonio looked to Texas settlers in 1849

San Antonio, Texas, by Seth Eastman, 1849. Source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

When to arrive

The best month to arrive in is October. The first impression at that time is delightful, as well as just, and there is less inconvenience and trouble at that time, than at any other season. It is also the most favourable season on account of health. The change to the hot months of the succeeding year is then gradual. Those persons who come from the northern states, or from Europe, in the spring and summer experience too sudden a change, and are always more or less, affected by it. (3)

What to bring

I would advise all who take this [sea] voyage to carry a liberal supply of oranges with them. This fruit is most refreshing to the lips, and has a relish, when every other article of food seems insipid. (4)

No foreigner is admitted into the country [Mexico], without a passport. Careful attention must be given to these particulars, to prevent detention, and an examination by no means agreeable on arrival. It should be stated in the passport whether the person be really an emigrant or a trader, as the former is allowed some privileges over the latter. (5)

Unfortunately, cooks do not grow on trees. The epicure, therefore, who brings with him his morbid appetites, must also bring his cook. (6)

House-keepers should bring with them all indispensable articles for household use, together with as much common clothing (other clothing is not wanted) for themselves and their children as they conveniently can. Ladies, in particular, should remember that in a new country they cannot get things made at any moment, as in an old one, and that they will be sufficiently busy, the first two years, in arranging such things as they have, without occupying themselves in obtaining more. It should also be done as a matter of economy. (7)

Those who must have a feather-bed had better bring it, for it would take too long to make one; and though the air swarms with live geese, a feather-bed could not be got for love or money. Every body should bring pillows and bed linen. Mattresses, such as are used universally in Louisiana, and they are very comfortable, are made of the moss, which hangs on almost every tree. They cost nothing but the case and the trouble of preparing the moss. (8)

Every emigrant should bring [mosquito] bars…. They are indispensable in the summer season, and are made of a thin species of muslin, manufactured for the purpose. Furniture, such as chairs and bureaus, can be brought in separate pieces and put together, cheaper and better, after arrival, than they can be purchased here, if purchased at all. But it must be recollected that very few articles of this sort are required; where houses are small, and building expensive. … Tables are made by the house carpenter, which answer the purpose very well, where nobody has better and the chief concern is to get something to put upon them. The maxim here is; nothing for show, but all for use. A few well selected standard books must not be forgotten. (9)

What to expect

In Texas, most domestic business is transacted in the open air. There has not been time to attend to the supernumary wants of convenient kitchens. The most simple process is used for culinary purposes, and one is often reminded that hands were made before tongs, shovel and poker, as well as before knives and forks. … [P]ots, kettles, and frying-pans, in playful confusion, greet the eyes of visitors and enjoy the benefit of fresh air, as well as of severe scrutiny. (10)

[I]t is the common practice with settlers here to cut away every tree of a clearing and to substitute, for the noble giants of the forest, those of a diminutive size and ephemeral growth; whether with a view to shade or ornament, I know not; but it certainly is a very mistaken policy, as well as most wretched taste. … How would Europeans be astonished to be told that almost every settler in Texas hews or burns down the fine live oaks that grow about his door, and thus, in this sunny climate, leaves his roof without a shelter form the rays of the sun. (11)

The people of Texas, as yet, have little time for trade. Every body is occupied with his domestic arrangements and plans for supplying his immediate wants. It is found to be easier to raise or manufacture such articles as are needed in the family, or to do without, than to obtain them from abroad, or to employ an individual to scour the country in search of such as may be desired. People live too far apart to beg or borrow often, and few trouble themselves to send any thing to market, though they have ever so much to spare. They had rather give to you of their abundance, if you will send to their doors. The towns are too distant to obtain supplies from them; while some are too proud, some too lazy, and most too indifferent, to trouble themselves about the matter. If they want any article of first necessity, coffee, for instance, which is much used, they will send some of their chickens, butter, and eggs to a neighbouring family newly arrived, and propose an exchange as most new comers bring with them some store. There is much of this kind of barter, provisions being so much more plenty than money. Nobody, however, fares very sumptuously; the new comers have not the articles, and the older residents have grown indifferent to the use of them.  (12)

In no country, with the usual attention to the arts of life, could more luxuries for the table be furnished. At present, vegetables, fruits, eggs, butter, and chickens, sell very high in Brazoria; though they are yielded in every season of the year, in a profusion unexampled in any part of the world. The new comer has but to plant his seeds in the ground, and collect a first supply of live stock to begin with. They need but little or no care afterwards, and the increase is astonishing.” (13)

Money is scarce, in Texas; but all that money can purchase, and much that it can never buy, is plenty. The poor man of industry should know that he can get along without it; or at least, with very little. Those who are so fortunate as to have it, loan it, at a very high interest, on real estate security. Fifteen and twenty per cent is the common rate of interest. (14)

The people are universally kind and hospitable, which are redeeming qualities. Every body’s house is open, and table spread, to accommodate the traveller. There are no poor people here, and none rich; that is, none who have much money. The poor and the rich, to use the correlatives, where distinction, there is none, get the same quantity of land on arrival, and if they do not continue equal, it is for want of good management on the one part, or superior industry and sagacity on the other. All are happy, because busy; and none meddle with the affairs of their neighbours, because they have enough to do to take care of their own. They are bound together by a common interest, by sameness of purpose and hopes. As far as I could learn, they have no envyings, no jealousies, no bickerings, through politics or fanaticism. There is neither masonry, anti-masonry, nullification nor court intrigues. (15)

The common concerns of life are sufficiently exciting to keep spirits buoyant, and prevent every thing like ennui. Artificial wants are entirely forgotten, in the view of real ones, and self, eternal self, does not alone fill up the round of life. Delicate ladies find they can be useful, and need not be in vain. Even privations become pleasures: people grow ingenious in overcoming difficulties. Many latent faculties are developed. They discover in themselves powers they did not suspect themselves of possessing. (16)

Who should come

Those persons…who are established in comfort and competency, with an ordinary portion of domestic happiness; who have never been far from home, and are excessively attached to personal ease; who shrink from hardship and danger, and those who, being accustomed to a regular routine of prescribed employment in a city, know not how to act on emergencies, or adapt themselves to all sorts of circumstances had better stay where they are….

He whose hopes of rising to independence in life by honorable exertion have been blasted by disappointment; whose ambition has been thwarted by untoward circumstances, whose spirit, though depressed, is not discouraged; who longs only for some ample field on which to lay out his strength; who does not hanker after society, nor sigh for the vanished illusions of life; who has a fund of resources within himself, and a heart to trust in God and his own exertions; who is not peculiarly sensitive to petty inconveniences, but can bear privations and make sacrifices of personal comfort – such a person will do well to settle accounts at home, and begin life anew in Texas. He will find, here, abundant exercise for all his faculties, both of body and mind, a new stimulus to his exertions, and a new current for his affections. (17)

Mary Austin Holley

Mary Austin Holley

Mary Austin Holley visited Texas four more times between 1835 and 1843. She continued to write about the province, including a history of Texas published in 1836. Her work persuaded many to move to Texas and aroused sympathy for the colonists during the Texas Revolution. Although Stephen Austin secured land for her on Galveston Bay, Mary could never afford to move there. She died of yellow fever in Louisiana on August 2, 1846, at the age of 61.

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  1. Joe Holley, “Stephen F. Austin’s favorite cousin was accomplished in her own right,” Houston Chronicle, March 16, 2018, https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/columnists/native-texan/article/Stephen-F-Austin-s-favorite-cousin-was-12759997.php.
  2. Mary Austin Holley, Texas: Observations, Historical, Geographical and Descriptive, In a Series of Letters, (Baltimore, 1833), p. 13.
  3. Ibid., p. 123.
  4. Ibid., p. 23.
  5. Ibid., p. 126.
  6. Ibid., p. 118.
  7. Ibid., pp. 123-124.
  8. Ibid., pp. 124-125.
  9. Ibid., p. 125.
  10. Ibid., p. 41-42.
  11. Ibid., pp. 48-49.
  12. Ibid., pp. 116-117.
  13. Ibid., p. 117.
  14. Ibid., p. 126.
  15. Ibid., pp. 127-128.
  16. Ibid., pp. 128-129.
  17. Ibid., pp. 129-131.

2 commments on “Advice to Texas Settlers in the 1830s”

  • John F. MacMichael says:

    I may say I find a certain historical irony in her advice to Americans thinking of immigrating to what was then Mexican territory that they should be careful to comply with Mexican law and have their paperwork in order.

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The most simple process is used for culinary purposes, and one is often reminded that hands were made before tongs, shovel and poker, as well as before knives and forks.

Mary Austin Holley