Giants of Texas History
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Stephen F. Austin
Stephen Fuller Austin was born at the lead mines in southwestern Virginia on November 3, 1793. Austin's father Moses was the leader in establishing lead mining and manufacturing in the United States. When Stephen was five, the family moved to Missouri where Moses Austin developed the lead industry there and amassed a sizable fortune. Stephen Austin was sent back east to be educated in Connecticut and at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. At age 17, Austin returned to Missouri and began work at his father's side, operating a general store for the mine. By age 23 he was managing the lead mine while his father moved on to other speculative ventures. Even as a young man Austin was recognized for his maturity and leadership abilities. He was adjutant of a local militia battalion and was a member of the Missouri territorial legislature.
In 1819, an economic depression and bank failure wiped out the family's fortunes. Stephen Austin looked around for a new business opportunity, eventually deciding to go to New Orleans and study law. In the meantime, his father had developed a new venture, a plan to settle American colonists in Spanish Texas. Moses had gone to San Antonio and in late 1820 won approval from the Spanish governor of Texas to bring his colonists. On his way out of Texas, Moses contracted pneumonia and died. His last wish was that his son Stephen should carry on the Texas venture.
Stephen F. Austin had not been enthusiastic about the Texas colony, but he was true to his father's wishes. He arrived in San Antonio shortly after his father's death and negotiated with the Spanish governor on the details of the proposed colony. The first colonists arrived in Texas in December 1821.
Right from the start, Austin grappled with the central problem of relations between his colony and Mexico. Mexico was in the final stages of a decades-long war for independence from Spain. Shortly after the colony was established, Austin learned that Mexican authorities were refusing to recognize the Spanish land grant given to his father. Austin traveled to Mexico City and succeeded in getting approval for a law that promoted the development of colonies. Known as the empresario system, the new law allowed immigration agents such as Austin to bring in families and provided land incentives for their success.
Under the empresario system, Austin successfully settled the first 300 families in his colony. Over the next several years, he obtained three additional contracts and settled 900 more families in the colony, plus an additional 800 in partnership with Samuel Williams.
Austin was known as a voice of caution in dealing with the Mexican authorities, as opposed to other empresarios who took a defiant stance. In the Nacogdoches area north of Austin's colony, Haden Edwards and his brother Benjamin had caused an uproar when they established their colony in 1825. Like other empresarios, Edwards had agreed to honor the rights of those already occupying the land of the colony. Edwards came on strong, posting notices that any settler who could not prove their claim would be evicted from the land and it would be subject to sale to new settlers. Feuding broke out between the old settlers and the new, and in 1826 the Mexican government yanked Edward's grant.
Outraged, Edwards and his settlers staged a rebellion, declaring the colony an independent republic called Fredonia. When the Mexican government sent troops to put down the rebellion and chase out the Fredonians, Austin sent militia from his colony to assist the Mexicans.
For the next several years Austin was occupied with inducing immigrants to come to his colonies. Although Austin had a lot of land, he also had a lot of expenses and a tremendous amount of responsibility. Austin took the initiative in establishing a system of record-keeping to straighten out the problem of conflicting land grants. He had to pay and direct surveyors, allocate grants, prepare titles and records, entertain prospective colonists, make war against hostile Indians, and keep on good terms with friendly tribes. He also took care of serious legal issues, including the status of American slaves on Mexican soil, protection of settlers from debts left behind in the U.S., and establishing trade with the United States. At the same time, he had to deal with settlers, many of whom refused to pay their fees to the empresario to help defray the expenses of the colony.
During this time, Mexico was deeply troubled politically and in almost constant upheaval. Austin continued to counsel patience and neutrality, but increasing numbers of Anglo American settlers didn't agree with his approach. As Anglo Texans grew more bold and defiant, the Mexican government grew more and more nervous about the foreign presence. Austin's policy began unraveling in 1830, when the Mexican government passed a law prohibiting further Anglo American immigration. Mexico tried to enforce the measure militarily, along with an unpopular tariff. A fight known as the Anahuac Disturbances, led by William B. Travis, was the most serious of the Anglo Texan's efforts to resist Mexican authority.
In the ever-changing world of Mexican politics, the latest advocate for reform was a general by the name of Antonio López de Santa Anna. Austin abandoned his usual policy of neutrality to back Santa Anna, who took over in Mexico in 1833. Texans held conventions petitioning the government for the reopening of immigration, exemption from the tariff, and statehood for Texas. Austin was selected to go to Mexico City and present the Texans' petitions to Santa Anna.
Austin's mission seemed to be successful. He persuaded the government to repeal the immigration ban and to agree to consider reforms in the administration of Texas. He started home in December 1833, only to be arrested on the journey and brought back to Mexico City. Austin, who had spent the last decade counseling moderation, was considered a suspect in trying to incite insurrection in Texas. He was held without charges in a Mexican prison for almost a year, but never brought to trial. In December 1834, Austin was finally freed on bond but forbidden to leave the city. Finally, he took his leave under a general amnesty, and finally made his way back to Texas in August 1835.
Austin had been absent for 28 months. He found a Texas in near-rebellion. Leading Texans were planning to call another Convention, called the Consultation, to meet in October. With his experiences, Austin had changed. He no longer believed there was a possible future for Anglo Texas as part of Mexico. As leader of the most successful of the colonies, Austin became in effect the civil head of Anglo American Texas.
The war began at Gonzales on October 1. Austin was elected to command a group of volunteers and lead them against the Mexican army at San Antonio, which he did until mid-November, when he was relieved by Edward Burleson to take up a new post as leader of a delegation to the United States. Austin traveled to New Orleans to solicit loans and volunteers, arrange credit for munitions and equipment, fit out warships, and try to secure recognition and annexation from the United States. He was fairly successful in all of these endeavors except the last.
After Texas won its independence at the Battle of San Jacinto, Austin returned to Texas. He ran for president of the new republic but lost to Sam Houston. He then accepted the post of secretary of state in the new government.
Stephen F. Austin was never a robust man, and his health was weakened by overwork, his experience in prison, and a bout of malaria. In the fall of 1836, he contracted a severe cold. He continued to try to work in spite of his illness. When the weather turned cold, Austin's illness took a turn for the worse. He developed pneumonia and died on December 27, 1836, at the age of 43. In his eulogy for Austin, Sam Houston called him, "The Father of Texas."
Portrait of Stephen F. Austin. Prints and Photographs Collection, Texas State Library and Archives Commission. #1977/166-1.