elections are important in a democracy, but early-day Austinites went through
two elections that could have turned their city into a ghost town. At stake was
whether Austin would remain Texas’
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 per cent popular. Sam
Houston, for one, thought the city named in his honor was much more suited for
But Austin endured
as the seat of government¸ continuing on as state capital in 1845 when Texas
became part of the U.S.
has a fine situation up on the left bank of the Colorado,” Frederick Law Olmsted
wrote 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.”
Texas’ young capital city fell a little short of
“There is a very remarkable number of drinking and gambling
shops,” Olmsted continued, “but not one book store.”
The 1850s stand as
one of the most important decades in Austin
history, if not the most important. By 1855, the capital of Texas was well into
its transition from a village of log and lumber to a city of brick and limestone,
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
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 towns --
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 20 years to
measure up to their expectations. In 1870, the people - well, as least the male
property owners who could vote - would get a chance to address the question again.
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 in the west,”
Austinite William Holt wrote to an acquaintance in Mississippi.
delayed the second election on Austin’s
status as the state capital, but the matter finally went to the voters again in
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.
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.
September 16, 2010