elections are important in a democracy, but early-day Austinites participated
in two elections that could have turned their city into a ghost town.
At stake was whether Austin
would remain Texas’ capital.
Though President Mirabeau B. Lamar had chosen what would become Austin
as the site of the Republic of Texas’ capital in 1839, that decision
had never been 100 percent popular. Sam
Houston, for one, considered the city named in his honor much
more suitable for the role. But despite an ill-fated attempt by Houston
to seize the republic’s archives in 1841 and remove them to Houston,
Austin endured as the seat
of government, continuing as state capital in 1845 when Texas
became part of the United States.
“Austin has a fine situation
up on the left bank of the Colorado,” Frederick Law Olmsted wrote
after a visit in 1854. “Had it not been the Capitol [sic] of the state…it
still would have struck us as the pleasantest place we had seen in
Texas. It reminds one somewhat of Washington;
Washington, en petit, seen through a reversed glass.”
Still, Texas’ young capital city fell
a little short of paradise.
“There is a very remarkable number of drinking and gambling shops,”
Olmsted continued, “but not one book store.”
By 1855, the capital was well into its transition from a village of
log and lumber to a city of limestone and brick, but that almost didn’t
happen. At the beginning of the decade, in Texas’
first federal census, enumerators found only 629 people in Austin.
In fact, the population had declined 26.5 per cent since 1840. Most
of those people lived in the original mile-square town site first
surveyed by Edwin Waller in 1839.
What changed Austin happened
on perhaps one of the most important but least-remembered dates in
its history March 4, 1850. On that date, two days after celebrating
the 14th anniversary of Texas’ independence
from Mexico, Texas voters allowed as
how they thought Austin
should continue as the state capital.
By a two-to-one margin, Austin
won over four East Texas
The Limestone County town with that hard-to-pronounce name came in
second with 3,142 votes to Austin’s
7,679. To put the importance of this election in perspective, in barely
a decade, both Tehuacana
had practically vanished. The same thing could have happened to Austin.
Even though Austin got the
most votes, just to hedge their bet, the electorate gave the city
only twenty years to measure up to their expectations. In 1870, the
people – well, as least the male property owners who were the only
citizens then qualified to vote – would get a chance to address the
Assured of at least two decades of stability, Austin
soon began its first boom. “Upwards of 100 residences have been completed
in the last four months,” the Texas State Gazette reported in the
spring of 1851. “This is, if providence should hold out, agoing to
surpass eney citty [sic] in the west,” Austinite William Holt wrote
to an acquaintance in Mississippi.
Reconstruction delayed the second election on Austin’s
status as the state capital, but the matter finally went to the voters
again in 1872. In an election held Nov. 5-8 that year (voters had
to be given ample time for travel to the polls), 63,377 Texans agreed
that Austin should be the
permanent seat of government. Houston,
the second-place contender, got 35,143 votes while 12,776 citizens
cast their ballot for Waco.
One hundred one other voters wrote in their preference for various
other cities, including 10 who thought Bryan
should be the capital.
Four years later, the Constitution of 1876 made Austin’s
status as the seat of state government part of Texas’ organic law.
Assuming future generations don’t tamper overmuch with the state’s
charter, Austin will be
the capital of Texas for as long as there
is a Texas.
© Mike Cox
- September 16, 2010 column, Revised July 24, 2014
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