Austin, Stephen F.

views updated

Austin, Stephen F.

Born November 3, 1793

Wythe County, Virginia

Died December 27, 1836

Columbia, Texas

Diplomat and colonizer of Texas

"I make no more calculations except to spend my life here, [whether] rich or poor, here (that is in this colony) I expect to remain permanently."

Stephen F. Austin earned the title "Father of Texas." For almost two decades, Austin worked, to the exclusion of almost everything else, to create an American colony in Texas. But unlike other western heroes, Austin was not a hardy soul using his muscle strength to carve out civilization. Instead he was a slight man who suffered severe depression and continual bouts of sickness and who won his fame as a savvy diplomat. Austin shrewdly nurtured friendships with people of various political leanings who could push through the policies he wanted. The result of Austin's efforts culminated in a revolution that won Texas its independence from Mexico.

Groomed to be a businessman

Austin grew up on the American frontier. But unlike many of his peers, he grew up in the lap of luxury. Stephen Fuller Austin was born on November 3, 1793, in Wythe County, Virginia, where his father operated a lead mine 250 miles from Richmond. By the time Stephen reached his third birthday, his father Moses entertained the idea of moving into Spanish territory, which would eventually become the state of Missouri, upon word of large lead deposits there.

Moses Austin was a very successful businessman and planned to make his son one too. After successfully negotiating with Mexican authorities, he described his actions to his son in a thirty-eight-page letter that would be the blueprint from which Stephen Austin would later conduct his business dealings. According to biographer Gregg Cantrell, author of Stephen F. Austin: Empresario of Texas, the elder Austin advised "maintaining proper appearances, going through official channels, courting influential officials ... [and] appealing to the national interests of a foreign government."

An education fit for a gentleman

Moses moved his family to the Spanish territory on June 8, 1798. The family lived in a two-and-a-half-story mansion called "Durham Hall," which was comparable to the grandest southern plantations. Around 1804, Austin traveled East to get a proper education and learn to be a gentleman. Austin entered Bacon Academy and began studying to be a "man of business" as his father wished, according to Cantrell. For years, Austin kept a letter from his father that said, "I hope and pray you will improve Every moment of time to the utmost advantage and I shall have the satissfaction [sic] of seeing that my expectations are not Disappointed," according to Cantrell. Within three years, Austin passed his examinations and continued his education at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1808 or 1809. But within about a year, Moses called for Stephen to quit school and join him at his mine.

Dedication to family

Instead of getting an education to make his own way in the world, Austin got an education to further his family in the world. He never flagged in his commitment to the Austin name. He would dedicate his entire life to preserving his family's name, never even taking the time to marry and start his own family. When Austin returned to his family in 1810 at the age of seventeen, he quickly proved an adept manager and took on more and more responsibility at the mines over the next few years. By 1817, Moses granted Stephen full control over the mines for a five-year period while Moses nurtured other financial opportunities. The mines suffered greatly over the next few years, and the Austin family fell deeply in debt.

As the family business flagged, Stephen Austin developed his political talents and joined the Missouri legislature. But by 1819, with an economic crisis called the Panic of 1819 making money scarce, Austin decided to close the mines in Missouri and buy nine thousand dollars' worth of Arkansas land on credit to develop a town. His scheme was designed to free his family from debt, but it failed; other speculators had purchased the best land. On March 11, 1820, Moses Austin was jailed for his debts, and his mines were sold at auction. In Arkansas, Stephen Austin won an appointment as a circuit court judge, but the salary could barely begin to repay his family's debts. Mortified that he could not help his family, Stephen began looking for more lucrative opportunities.

Moving to Texas

In February 1820, Moses had traveled to Texas, which was at the time Spanish territory, to investigate emigration possibilities. In the meantime, Stephen moved to Louisiana, where a wealthy friend, Joseph Hawkins, gave him room and board and provided him with a legal education. Austin regarded Hawkins as an adopted brother and would soon get his help to start colonizing Texas.

In Texas Moses quickly obtained a grant to permit him to settle three hundred families on the Colorado River. Moses returned home to persuade Stephen to join him in the venture. Soon after notifying his son of his plans, Moses succumbed to an illness he had been battling and died on June 10, 1821. Stephen and his younger brother Brown left for Texas and publicized the venture in newspapers throughout the United States. Arriving in the Texas countryside, Austin declared it to be "the most beautiful I ever saw," noted Cantrell. Once Austin learned of his father's death, he decided to fulfill his father's dying wish to create an American colony in Texas.

Becoming "empresario"

As Austin entered Texas, he noticed rejoicing Mexicans who were celebrating Mexico's independence from Spain. Austin quickly offered his allegiance to the new government and went about securing sole authority to offer settlers permission to emigrate into the area. The Mexican government granted him the title of "empresario," giving him authority over the settlers as his colony's highest ranking official. As "empresario" Austin would be granted large tracts of prime land and, for some of his contracts over the years, would be able to charge a fee for the settlers' land. He and his brother Brown would soon establish a system for providing the steady influx of immigrants with land.

Sam Houston

Sam Houston (1793–1863) had earned quite a reputation before he moved to Texas. Serving under Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; see entry) in the War of 1812 (1812–14; a conflict between the British and the Americans over the control of the western reaches of the United States and over shipping rights in the Atlantic Ocean), Houston distinguished himself in battle and became a general of the Tennessee militia. He then became a congressman and governor, a post he resigned after a public humiliation over his failed marriage. He exiled himself to live among the Cherokee before going to Texas in 1832 to practice law and dabble in politics. A charismatic man, Houston quickly gained the confidence of Texans and stirred their enthusiasm for independence.

Houston would serve two terms as president of the Republic of Texas. After the annexation of Texas to the United States, he served as a senator for thirteen years. Then in 1859 he was elected governor of Texas. He was ejected from office in 1863 when he refused to swear allegiance to the Confederacy.

Immigration to Texas proved very popular in the United States. Starting in 1820 settlers had to pay cash up front for land in the United States. But in Texas, land was cheaper and settlers could buy on credit. Most immigrants to Texas needed credit; most settlers left the United States because of bad credit. Austin himself owed nearly ten thousand dollars to creditors in the United States.

Winning influential friends

Austin moved quickly to make sure the policies he needed to successfully encourage people to move into his colony were approved by the appropriate government officials. He applied for Mexican citizenship and would arrange to meet with influential men in his territory, including the various Mexican presidents over the years. He gained the friendship of many people who helped him continue with his colonization plans as Mexico established its independent government. In April 1824 Texas became part of a state of Mexico. By this time Austin had decided to spend his life in Texas. He wrote to his sister saying, "I make no more calculations except to spend my life here, wheither [whether] rich or poor, here (that is in this colony) I expect to remain permanently," according to Cantrell.

During this time of political upheaval, Austin freely and frequently wrote to his friends and advised them on policies of import to him. The policy most important to Austin was the ability to allow settlers to bring slaves into Texas. Although Austin felt slavery was "that curse of curses" he considered it to be a business necessity and held slaves himself. When Mexican officials threatened settlers' ability to keep slaves, Austin spoke out, demanding that "Texas must be a slave country." He wrote that "color forms a line of demarcation between [blacks] and whites. The law must assign their station, fix their rights and their disabilities and obligations—something between slavery and freedom, but neither the one nor the other. Either this, or slavery in full must take place."

By 1828, Texas had more white inhabitants than Tejanos, or Spanish Mexicans. And in the next two years the population of Texas would more than double. Mexican officials noted that Texas was largely populated by foreigners and began to hedge on their approval of continued immigration. The Mexican government passed the Law of April 6, 1830, which prohibited further immigration of Anglo-Americans into Texas. Austin did not take the news well. The cash flow from the fees he was able to levy on the settlers' land provided Austin with enough wealth to start repaying his debts. And Austin was committed to the colonization of Texas to such an extent that it took on, as he described it, the "character of a religion," according to Cantrell. Austin found a loophole in the new law and won the right to continued immigration into the colony.

Pushing for independence

Events in the early 1830s pushed Mexico into a state of chaos, as President López de Santa Anna (1794–1876) forcefully changed the role of government. Austin found the president a "sort of Mad Cap difficult to class" and continued courting allies of opposing political views. But in December 1831, Austin became persuaded that Texas should "go for Independence, and put our trust in our selves, our [rifles], and –our god," according to Cantrell.

By 1832, Austin had repaid his debts and began making plans to retire. But Cantrell notes that "private matters could never come first" for Austin; he quotes an acquaintance of Austin who claimed that Austin was a "kind of slave" and that Texas was his master. Public outcries came for Texas to push for independent statehood, and Austin heard the call. Austin served as president of the first convention to discuss the possibility of independence. More conventions followed, and soon the settlers had drafted a proposal for the Mexican government. These conventions were illegal in Mexico, and Austin was arrested and jailed for a year for his part in the affair.

While Austin was in jail, immigrants flooded into Texas. Cantrell estimates that the population of Texas reached nearly thirty thousand. Upon Austin's return to the colony, Austin's nephew reported that Austin was greeted "as one risen from the dead," according to Cantrell. Shortly after arriving home, Austin assessed the situation and declared that "war is our only resource" on September 19, 1835. The Texans went to war with Mexico to win their independence. Austin served for a short time commanding troops, but his weak body was prone to illness and he soon proved to be more of a diplomat than a soldier. Sam Houston (1793–1863) took over command of the army, and Austin became a commissioner to the United States. He traveled to the United States to win money for the Texas cause.

Meanwhile after American forces suffered terrible defeats at Alamo and Goliad, Houston captured Santa Anna at a battle at San Jacinto on April 23. Austin returned to Texas and quickly prepared to run for president of the new republic. He appeared to be the most qualified of the candidates, but the victorious general Houston entered the race late and won by a landslide. Houston did appoint Austin secretary of state, but Austin's health soon failed him and he died on December 27, 1836. His last words were: "The independence of Texas is recognized! Don't you see it in the papers?" according to Cantrell. Houston publicized the news of Austin's passing as "the Father of Texas is no more!" and insisted that government officials wear black armbands for thirty days "as a mark of the nation's gratitude for his untiring zeal, and invaluable service," according to Cantrell.

For More Information

Cantrell, Gregg. Stephen F. Austin: Empresario of Texas. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

About this article

Austin, Stephen F.

Updated About content Print Article