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Texas | Columns | "A Glimpse of Texas Past"

Texas Empresarios

by Jeffery Robenalt
Jeffery Robenalt

The attempts of the Filibusters to wrest Texas from the hands of the Spanish, and later the Mexicans, were largely unsuccessful, however, their efforts focused the attention of many Americans on a vast and empty land that was ripe for settlement. One of the first men to take notice was Moses Austin, an American-born Spanish citizen. Austin had originally emigrated to New Madrid in Spanish Louisiana from Connecticut to operate a lead mine and assist in the settlement of 30 families from the United States. For twenty years, Austin prospered in Louisiana, as the territory was first reacquired by France and then sold to the United States in 1803. However, with the Panic of 1819, he was suddenly faced with financial ruin and a burdensome debt.

Empresario Moses Austin
Moses Austin

To the south lay the Arkansas country, just beginning to open up to settlement, but Austin was neither a homesteader nor a cotton planter. His forte was business, and he felt sure that he could repeat his former success of bringing settlers to New Spain by again following the Spanish frontier; this time to Texas. After discussing his decision to become a Texas land empresario with his son, Stephen, Moses Austin set out on the 800 mile ride to San Antonio de Bexar.

Upon entering the old Spanish town in the fall of 1820, Austin found an atmosphere rife with ill feelings toward all Anglo-Americans. General Arredondo, Spanish Commandant of the Eastern Provinces, had recently crushed Dr. James Longís last attempt at filibuster, and he gave Governor Martinez explicit orders that no Americans were permitted to enter Texas on any pretext. Under these circumstances it was not surprising that Governor Martinez refused to speak with Austin about his plan when he learned the man was an American. In spite of producing papers proving that he had been a Spanish citizen for many years, Austin was ordered to leave Bexar before sunset or he would be placed under arrest.

Moses Austin left the governorís palace, a near broken man, his dreams shattered, but he was to find salvation in the form of an old friend, Felipe Enrique Neri, the Baron de Bastrop. The Baron had emigrated from Holland during the turmoil of the French Revolution and founded the town of Mer Rouge in Louisiana. Later, when France reacquired Louisiana, the Baron, preferring to remain a Spanish citizen, moved to Texas and founded the settlement of Bastrop. The Baron de Bastrop was always welcome at the governorís palace, and even General Arredondo liked him and appreciated his political stance in behalf of the Royalists.

Baron de Bastrop Monument
Baron de Bastrop Monument

Bastrop agreed to serve as Austinís agent and help present his old friendís petition requesting that Austin be granted authority to settle 300 families in Texas. In support of the petition, Bastrop advanced three arguments, in addition to his and Austinís reliability as long-time citizens of New Spain. First, the danger that the Comanches represented would never be addressed until central Texas and the lands adjoining the Comancheria were settled, creating a buffer between the Comanches and the Mexican settlements of south Texas. Second, for three centuries few Spanish settlers came to Texas, and in fact, many of those who had come were returning to Mexico. Finally, American settlement, if properly controlled, could succeed in Texas as it had in Louisiana.

At a second meeting with the Governor, both Martinez and the ayuntamiento, the governing council of Bexar, approved Austinís petition and forwarded it to General Arredondo in Monterey. Convinced that Austinís colonists might well serve as a barrier between the Comanches and the Spanish settlements, and that American landowners with an interest to protect could well help to prevent future filibusters, Arredondo also approved the petition.

Confident of success, Moses had already departed for the east to begin recruiting settlers for his new colony before the news of Arredondoís approval arrived. Unfortunately, he became seriously ill on the long journey home and was dying when he learned his efforts at securing a land grant had succeeded. On his deathbed, Moses asked his son, Stephen, to carry out his dream of establishing a colony in Texas.

Stephen F. Austin statue by Coppini
Stephen F. Austin statue at the Texas State Cemetery
TE Photo

In the wake of the ongoing financial panic, Stephen Austinís prospects were not much better than his fatherís had been, and he gladly put aside his plans to practice law and headed for Texas. The first thing Stephen did upon his arrival in San Antonio in August of 1821, was to meet with Erasmo Seguin, a well-known and respected citizen of Bexar, who had been appointed by Governor Martinez to assist him. After a brief discussion on the laws and customs of Spanish Texas, Seguin escorted Austin to the governorís palace. There Martinez legally transferred Moses Austinís empresario grant to his son.

Once the grant was officially transferred, Austin was free to choose the site for his colony. He spent the next three weeks in the saddle with Seguin, looking over the area south and east of San Antonio and finally selecting a strip of land that ran between the Lavaca and San Jacinto Rivers. As far as Austin was concerned, the location was perfect. The land was not heavily forested and difficult to clear like that of east Texas, although there was adequate timber, and unlike west Texas, it received more than enough rainfall to successfully raise crops. In fact, the grassy prairie between the rivers was a perfect place to grow corn, sugar cane, cotton, and other crops familiar to his future settlers.

Stephen Austinís next step was to travel to New Orleans and begin recruiting colonists. The success of his colony would rest in part on the settlers he selected. By the terms of his empresarial grant, the colonists had to be persons of good character who were either Catholic or would agree to become Catholic. They also had to pledge their loyalty to the king of Spain. Almost as important as meeting the terms of the grant, all prospective settlers had to be willing to accept hard times at first and be able to provide for themselves.

Statue of S.F. Austin Elizabet Ney at State Capitol in Austin Texas
Statue of Stephen .F. Austin by Elizabet Ney
at the State Capitol in Austin

TE photo

Austinís grant allowed him to settle 300 families in Texas. These original colonists would eventually become known as the ďOld Three Hundred.Ē Settlers who claimed to be farmers would receive one labor, or 177 acres of land, and those who professed to raise cattle could obtain an additional sito, or square league of 4,428 acres. Most colonists qualified for both. Beginning in 1821, colonists began to arrive by land through Nacogdoches on the El Camino Real, and by sea on Austinís small ship, the Lively. The Baron de Bastrop, as the Spanish government's land agent, issued titles to the settlers after Austin ensured they were fully qualified.

During the first year of the colonyís existence, 1822-23, life was difficult for both Austin and the settlers. Mexico had recently gained itís independence from Spain, and Austin was forced to travel to Mexico City to defend his empresarial grant. For a year, he pleaded his case before a revolving door of Mexican governments before the grant was once again approved. Meanwhile, in the colony, a severe drought devastated the settlersí crops, and continual raids by the Karankawa Indians practically brought new emigration to a standstill. Some families gave up and returned to the United States.

When Austin returned from Mexico in the summer of 1823, the fortunes of the colony quickly began to improve under his leadership. First, he organized the militia and drove the Karankawas entirely out of the colony. The ďranging companiesĒ Austin created were the forerunners of the Texas Rangers. He then made treaties with the Witchitas and Tonkawas which effectively ended further horse raids along the Brazos. While in Mexico, Austin learned to speak Spanish and gained the trust of Mexican officials. This enabled him to influence the passage of laws beneficial to the colony like the laws freeing the colonists from taxes, and granting them homestead rights, so their homes could never be seized in payment for a debt.

Stephen F. Austin statue,  Stephen F. Austin State Park
Stephen F. Austin Statue
at San Felipe de Austin

TE Photo

With the assistance of the Baron de Bastrop, Stephen Austin founded his capital, San Felipe de Austin on the west bank of the Brazos River at the ferry crossing on the Old San Antonio Road. The Mexican governor named the settlement to honor both the colonyís empresario and the governorís patron saint. Though it remained the center of colonial activity for many years, San Felipe never grew in relation to its historical significance. The town was later destroyed by Santa Anna during the Texas Revolution, and although it was eventually rebuilt, never regained its importance.

Austin performed many different functions for his colony, including acting as the settlersí representative to the Mexican government, issuing land grants, translating Mexican laws into English, settling minor disputes, and communicating the governmentís latest policies to the settlers. As empresario, Austin had enormous powers; he was, in fact, a dictator in all but name only, with the authority to appoint any official he chose, and to establish all the rules and regulations he thought necessary to maintain the smooth operation of the colony.

Since the colony was excused from taxes, church tithes, and customs duties, the Mexican government had little interest in it. As far as they were concerned, it was created for the sole purpose of acting as a buffer between their settlements along the Rio Grande and the Comancheria. Austin was also commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel in the Mexican army and served as the military and political commander of the colony. He was even permitted to develop and codify his own laws; an awesome power that he seldom exercised and never abused.

Map Of Coahuila And Texas In 1833
Map of Mexican province of Coahuila and Texas in 1833 showing several land grants.
click on map for large image. Wikimedia Commons

Stephen F. Austin was far from the only empresario in Texas history. In 1825, the colonization law of the state of Coahuila y Tejas provided for other individuals to apply for land grants, and by 1830, about 30 men had done so. Even Austin applied for, and was granted, additional land. The second most important empresario, Green DeWitt, received his grant in 1825. He founded a colony southwest of Austinís original grant with headquarters at the settlement of Gonzales. De Witt was granted authority to settle 400 families.

Statue of Milam in Milam Park, San Antonio, TX
Statue of Ben Milam
in Milam Park, San Antonio
Photo courtesy Sarah Reveley, April 2008

More Texas Statues

A native of Mexico, Martin de Leon, was another important empresario. De Leon settled 200 families near the Gulf Coast between the Lavaca and Guadalupe Rivers and founded the settlement of Victoria. Arthur Wavell and Ben Milam received grants in Northeastern Texas. Haden Edwards also received a large grant near Nacogdoches, but he lost the land after leading the Fredonian Rebellion. Europeans like James Hewetson and James McGloin, natives of Ireland, established colonies along the Nueces River.

Thanks to Stephen F. Austin, ďthe Father of Texas,Ē and other dedicated empresarios, the population of Texas stood at nearly 20,000 citizens by early 1830, most of them from the United States. In addition, many small communities emerged in east and south Texas, and San Felipe, Gonzales, and Victoria were now thriving towns. The old settlements of Nacogdoches, La Bahia, and San Antonio had grown considerably. However, before long, the thousands of new Anglo-American settlers would weary of a Mexican governmental system that offered very little in the way of personal liberty and basic human rights, and the stormy winds of revolution would soon begin to stir across the vast land known as Texas.

© Jeffery Robenalt
"A Glimpse of Texas Past" October 1, 2011 Column

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