Austin and Houston

Stephen Austin’s father Moses, who knew something about lead mining, got a contract to roof the Virginia legislature building with lead. But he lost money on the deal and ended up almost broke.

The Austin family wandered into what was then Spanish territory in what’s now Missouri. Spanish and French claims in this area went back and forth during Napoleonic tumult in Europe. While the Austins were in [now] Missouri, Napoleon ended up with it. Napoleon needed money to fund various losses, including slaves taking over what’s now Haiti, so he sold these lands to Thomas Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase, and the Austins became US citizens again.

(TJ and Napoleon making a real estate deal. James Madison and marquis de Barbé-Marbois doing the agenting. Is that not one of the best dealmaking stories of all time?)

Young Stephen Austin was sent to boarding school in Connecticut and then college in Kentucky.

During his lonely years in boarding school, which he loathed, every letter from his father, which he tore open in a search for encouragement and affection, badgered him about how to become a great man.*

Meanwhile Moses Austin went broke again. His education complete, Stephen Austin left the family and became a judge in Arkansas.

Moses got the idea to head down to Texas, in what was then Spanish Mexico. He’d once been a Spanish citizen after all. Moses went to visit his son Stephen, who, though he was struggling himself, lent his dad fifty dollars, a horse, and a slave named Richmond.

A few years later, Stephen was in New Orleans. He wasn’t prospering. His dad wrote to him from Texas, and Stephen decided to join him. By the time he got to the town of San Antonio, Stephen learned Mexico had declared independence and was now a new nation. He was no longer in Spanish territory but in the Mexican state of Coahuilla-Tejas.

Stephen Austin conceived of a real estate scheme. He would become a developer. He would get land granted from Mexico and give it to Americans who would move to Tejas. Stephen taught himself Spanish out of a book and went to Mexico City to work out a contract. He got an amazing deal: he was offered 783,757 acres to distribute to 300 families. The head of each family would get 4,428 acres for ranching and 177 acres from farming.

The native Karankawa people had no say in any of this. Austin claimed these people were cannibals and should be killed on sight. He hired ten seasoned fighters and made them into a company that would ride the range. This unit is sometimes considered the first version of the Texas Rangers.

At first Austin could sort of control who came to his colony. But it got out of hand. The area between the Sabine River and the Neches, “the Neutral Ground,” had never been under the control of any government, falling between Spanish, American, and French claims. This area had become a lawless wilderness zone, a notorious hideout for murderers, convicts, outlaws, desperados of all types. Some of that element came into Austin’s zone. So too did the desperate or the ambitious from Tennessee, Louisiana, elsewhere. The word on Texas was out. “Going to Texas” became kind of a mania in the United States.

The government of Mexico tried to get a grip. They passed the Law of April 6, 1830, which banned any new American immigration into Mexican territory, including Texas (and what’s now California). The law also banned the importing of slaves into Mexico. Austin, who had good relationships in Mexico City, managed to get an exemption on this one.

It was around this time that Sam Houston showed up.

Part two to follow.

* source for that quote and much of this info James L. Haley’s Passionate Nation: The Epic History Of Texas

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