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.
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
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.
de Bastrop Monument|
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
of Mexican province of Coahuila and Texas in 1833 showing several land grants.
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.
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
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,
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.
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