Holley, Mary Austin (1784–1846)

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Holley, Mary Austin (1784–1846)

Texas writer and land speculator. Born Mary Phelps Austin in New Haven, Connecticut, on August 30, 1784; died in New Orleans, Louisiana, on August 2, 1846; the first of two daughters and fourth of eight children of Elijah Austin (a merchant) and Esther (Phelps) Austin; attended local schools; married Horace Holley (a Congregational minister), on January 1, 1805 (died 1827); children: Harriette Williman Holley (b. 1808); Horace Austin Holley (b. 1818).

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1784, Mary Holly was related on her father's side to Moses Austin and Stephen F. Austin, the founders of Texas. Her father died when she was ten, and Mary was taken in by a well-to-do uncle, Timothy Phelps. On January 1, 1805, she married Horace Holley, a young Congregational minister who had just completed theological studies at Yale University. Horace headed a congregation in Fairfield, Connecticut, and then was called to Boston, where he and Mary eventually succumbed to the more liberal atmosphere of the city and embraced Unitarianism. In 1818, when Horace was offered the presidency of the new Transylvania University, the couple and their two children moved to Lexington, Kentucky. Although Mary hated the lack of culture in what was then the frontier, she endured for nine years, during which time the couple's liberal practices frequently came under fire. In 1827, Horace resigned his post to found a new college in New Orleans. On a return voyage to New England, both he and Mary contracted yellow fever, and although she recovered, Horace died.

Holley was left with little money and took work as a governess in order to support her young son (her married daughter remained in Kentucky). Although she enjoyed her job, her desire to be near her family drew her to Texas, where her brother had reserved land for her on Galveston Bay. In 1831, she made her first visit to the region, gathering material which she turned into Texas: Observations Historical, Geographical and Descriptive (1933). The book, the first of its kind in English, not only proved to be a valuable source of information on the politics and social conditions within the State, but was written with such style and wit that it stimulated immigration to the territory.

Holley visited Texas again in 1835, then moved to Lexington, Kentucky, to be near her daughter and to take care of her widowed brother's children. In 1835, at the request of Stephen Austin, Holley prepared Texas (1836), an expanded version of her earlier work, designed as an immigrants' guide to promote annexation efforts.

The promotional nature of Holly's writings were, at least in part, motivated by her need for money. It was her hope that with the settlement and annexation of Texas, her land holdings would rise in value, enabling her to pay off debts and achieve some financial security. However, despite return trips to Texas in the late 1930s and early 1840s, she made little profit from her holdings. In 1845, she returned to Louisiana to take another job as governess. Mary Austin Holley died of yellow fever in 1846.


Edgerly, Lois Stiles. Give Her This Day. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Holley, Mary Austin (1784–1846)

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