This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
On Jan. 17, 1821, the military governor of Texas finally granted Moses Austin’s wish and gave the bankrupt banker the exclusive right to import Anglo-American families into the Spanish territory.
Moses Austin was a Connecticut native, who could trace his New World roots back to the early 1600’s. A rainbow chaser, who pursued every opportunity under the sun, he moved to Philadelphia and Virginia before settling in Spanish-controlled Missouri in 1798.
Austin helped to found the town of Potosi, where he became a respected and well-to-do citizen. Life was good for the next 20 years, until the depression that followed the War of 1812 climaxed in the economic calamity of 1819. Austin’s bank went under wiping him out at the age of 54.
From friends in Louisiana he learned land was dirt cheap and plentiful in Texas. Driven by the dream of a fast fortune, he rushed to the northernmost Mexican province arriving at San Antonio de Bexar in December 1820.
Austin wasted no time in asking Gov. Antonio Maria Martinez for permission to bring Americans by the hundreds to Texas. But a series of intrusions by armed adventurers had convinced the Spaniard that all gringos were up to no good, and he told the petitioner to clear out.
His hopes shattered, Austin was preparing to leave when he bumped into an old acquaintance. Felipe Enrique Neri, the self-styled Baron de Bastrop, was a crafty Dutch opportunist who wandered Europe and North America always one step ahead of the authorities. Touched by Austin’s tale of woe, he prevailed upon Martinez to change his mind and to forward the empressario application to his superior in Monterrey.
Although Gen. Joaquin de Arrendo was a tough Spaniard from the old school with a deep-seated hatred of Americans, he nevertheless issued the land grant to Austin. This seemingly contradictory decision arose from very practical concerns.
Neither Mexicans nor their Spanish masters showed the slightest interest in migrating to Texas, where their combined numbers were steadily shrinking. The Anglo-American settlement of Louisiana, on the other hand, had been an unqualified success without satisfying their voracious appetite for land.
Last but hardly least, there were the Comanches who controlled the Texas countryside and regularly raided San Antonio itself. Thousands of combative Americans could be counted upon to rid their hosts of the Indian menace at little or no cost to the government.
But the return trip to Missouri turned into a fatal nightmare for Moses Austin. He ran out of supplies, was waylaid by bandits, came down with a bad cold and reached home just in time to die.
The sad news of his father’s death caught up with Stephen Fuller Austin in New Orleans. He hurried across the Sabine, and a few months later was recognized by the Spaniards as the legitimate heir to the grant. Fickle fate could not have made a better choice.
The younger Austin had received the finest education money could buy at elite private schools in the East. Following graduation from a Kentucky college, he served as a director of the family bank and won election, while still in his teens, to a seat in the Missouri territorial legislature. During Moses’ Texas quest, Stephen was appointed a circuit judge in Arkansas.
Displaying a level-headed maturity far beyond his years, the younger Austin cleared the difficult hurdles posed by the foreign bureaucracy and Mexican politics. As the site for his grant, he shrewdly selected the fertile coastal plain between the Colorado and Brazos rivers. The rich bottom land was not only ideally suited to a plantation economy but also a safe distance from hostile tribes.
The settlers of the original Austin grant, known today as the Old Three Hundred, got the deal of a lifetime. Those that declared their intention to raise livestock rather farm, which all but 20 did, received a full legua — 4,428 acres. The new Texans were required only to swear a paper allegiance to their adoptive country and to pay a tenth the price of public land in the United States.
Until 1828 Stephen F. Austin was the sole empressario in provincial Texas and as such held absolute authority over the affairs of the colonists. Under the circumstances a lesser man might well have degenerated into a tyrant but not Moses’ remarkable son.
Austin lacked the political savvy and personal charisma of a Sam Houston, two deficiencies which cost him dearly during the Lone Star Revolution, but his integrity and administrative skill rarely came into question. Even though his short life would end on a disappointing note just eight months after the Battle of San Jacinto, he truly deserves to be remembered as the “Father of Texas.”
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