Stephen Fuller Austin

Stephen Fuller Austin (1793-1836) was the founder of Anglo-American Texas and son of Moses Austin. Stephen Austin worked for his father in the lead business. He was a member of the Missouri territorial legislature, in which he helped get the charter for the Bank of St. Louis. He moved to Arkansas and became a circuit judge of the first judicial district of Arkansas. He left to study law. At the same time, Moses Austin was applying for the land grant in Texas to settle 300 families.

Stephen was not enthusiastic about the Texas settlement, but he helped his father by getting a loan from a friend and he was preparing to go to San Antonio to help his father. It was then that Stephen learned about his father’s death. He went to San Antonio where Governor Antonio Maria Martinez approved Stephen to move ahead with the colonization under his father’s grant. Stephen arranged with Martinez to offer land to settlers in quantities of 640 acres to the head of a family, 320 acres for the wife, 160 acres for each child, and 80 acres for each slave. Austin might collect 12.50 cents an acre in compensation for his services. Martinez warned Austin that the government could not help the colonists and that Austin would have to be responsible for their behavior.

Austin went back to New Orleans, published the terms of the colony, and invited colonists, telling people that the settlements would be located on the Brazos and Colorado Rivers. After the long depression and the panic of 1819, settlers were excited to take advantage of the offer, and the first colonists began to arrive in Texas in December 1821. However, the temporary government set up after Mexican independence refused to approve the Spanish grant to Moses Austin, choosing to control colonization by a general immigration law.

Austin went to Mexico City and convinced the congress to complete an immigration law. It offered heads of families 4,605 acres (a league) and allowed empresarios to promote immigration. For his service, the empresario would get 67,000 acres of land for each 200 families he brought to Texas. Immigrants were not required to pay fees to the government. This law was cancelled when Iturbide resigned, but in April 1823, Austin convinced congress to grant him a contract to bring 300 families under the same terms. In August 1824, a new congress passed an immigration law that assigned the administration of public land in the states and authorized them to make laws for settlement. In March 1825, the legislature of Coahuila and Texas passed a law continuing the empresario system and offered each married man 4,428 acres. In exchange, he had to pay the state thirty dollars within six years. Austin had fulfilled his contract to settle the first 300 families, and went on to get three contracts to settle a total of 900 additional families around his first colony, plus a contract with his secretary, Samuel M. Williams, for the settlement of 800 families in western Texas.

Austin had complete civil and military authority over his colonists until 1828, when there was a small amount of supervision by the officials at San Antonio and Monterrey. He allowed them to elect militia officers and local judges. As the lieutenant colonel of the militia, he planned some attacks against Indians.

Austin also surveyed the land and prepared recorded titles. In the past, the Mexico had issued land titles without a permanent record, which caused confusion. Austin asked and got permission to record titles in a bound book that was as valid as the original.

All the work involved cost a lot of money. Austin’s only resource was to charge the colonists fees. A political chief in San Antonio proclaimed a fee bill that allowed the land commissioner (Baron de Bastrop) to charge $127 a league for signing titles. Austin made a private arrangement with Bastrop to split the fee. A provision to the state law of 1825 allowed empresarios to reimburse themselves for costs and services, and under this law Austin required colonists to pay first $60 and later $50 a league. Much of the money Austin collected went for public expenses.

The status of slavery was a difficult problem, and Austin’s opinion about it was inconsistent. Austin pushed the congress to legalize slavery in the imperial colonization law because there was no free labor to be hired and most of the colonists came from slave states. The Constitution of Coahuila and Texas prohibited immigrants from bringing slaves, but the legislature passed a law at Austin’s suggestion that bypassed the constitution by legalizing labor contracts with technically freed slaves. Congress then prohibited immigration with the Law of April 6, 1830, and Austin tried to convince the colonists that the long-term interest of Texas would be served by the prohibition. The colonists did not agree with the law, and Austin declared that Texas must be a slave state in 1833.

The colonists were also concerned about being protected from creditors who were trying to collect debts they had before they moved to Texas. Austin worked with the local officials and representatives in the congress to secure a state law that closed the courts to debt collectors for twelve years.

Austin regularly urged the establishment of ports and the temporary legalization of coasting trade in foreign ships. He told officials that the coasting trade would establish ties between the colonists and Mexico and enable Mexico to balance imports from England by exporting Texas cotton. Congress legalized the port of Galveston, but the coasting trade was not established. As a result, external trade was confined to the United States.

It was necessary for the colonies’ success to get along with the state and federal authorities. Austin never allowed the settlers to forget the benefits that they got through the liberal colonization policy or their obligation to obey the laws and to become loyal Mexican citizens. By 1832, Austin’s various colonies comprised 8,000 people. Other empresarios had many settlers too, but they were less likely to listen to Austin. The Mexican leaders were feeling anxious due to the rapid growth of the colonies and the efforts of the United States to buy Texas. The Mexican leaders tried to stop immigration, which caused a rebellion, and the continued friction led to revolution and independence.

Source: Stephen Fuller Austin
Copyright © Texas State Historical Association

Back to top