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Austin
Texas’ Capital

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

All 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’ 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 per cent popular. Sam Houston, for one, thought the city named in his honor was much more suited for the role.

But Austin endured as the seat of government¸ continuing on as state capital in 1845 when Texas became part of the U.S.

Austin 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.”

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.”

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 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 towns --
Tehuacana, Palestine, Huntsville and Washington-on-the-Brazos. 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 and Washington-on-the-Brazos 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.

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 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.


© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" September 16, 2010 column

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