Stephen F. Austin has been called the "Father of Texas" for his role in bringing Anglo Americans to the Mexican province of Texas beginning in the 1820s. While this title ignores the community-building of the Tejanos who settled the area prior to Austin's arrival, it is certain that Austin was the founder of Anglo Texas.
Born during George Washington's presidency, Stephen Austin was the eldest son of an ambitious father, Moses Austin -- a self-made man who grew rich buying lead mines in Missouri. Stephen enjoyed the privileges of wealth, including a New England prep school education and a degree from Yale College.
A Father's Wish
The Panic of 1819 caused the Bank of St. Louis, which Moses had helped fund, to collapse. For Moses Austin, it meant the end of his empire. Stuck in debt, he conceived a way to make a profit by establishing an American colony in Spanish Texas. He succeeded in obtaining permission from the Spanish government, but before he could put his plan into effect, he caught pneumonia and died. According to the papers of his wife, Mary Brown Austin, his dying wish was for his son to carry out the "Texas venture."
Haven for Debtors
Shouldering his father's outstanding debts, Stephen set out to remake himself and his family in Texas in 1821. He convinced the newly established Mexican government to honor the colonization contract that had been approved under the Spanish regime. Under the new contract, the Mexican government authorized an empresario system in which pre-approved agents received 67,000 acres of land for every 200 families introduced as colonists. The heads of families received 4,605 acres in addition to receiving protection from the debts they had incurred in the United States. Austin soon found that many who had suffered in the Panic of 1819 were eager to start over in Texas. The Mexican government's stipulations that they become Mexican citizens and Catholics were little hindrance.
Tejanos and Anglos
Throughout the negotiations to establish his colony, Austin forged relationships with the influential Tejanos of San Antonio de Béxar. His intellect and political sympathies melded well with the erudite Erasmus Seguin and José Antonio Navarro. The two Tejanos, who had suffered under Spain's colonial rule, wished to see Texas grow and prosper. They viewed the arrival of Austin and his colonists as a step toward the future. Toward this end, Austin and Navarro frequently communicated on the state of affairs in Texas and encouraged trade and cooperation between the Tejanos and the Anglo newcomers.
Struggle for Autonomy
As tensions between Texas and Mexico City flared, Austin found it more difficult to act as a mediator. With Mexican leader Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna's rise to power, and his subsequent limiting of state autonomy, Anglo colonists feared for their property. In 1833 Austin traveled to Mexico City to request that Texas become a separate Mexican state. On his way home, Austin was arrested. He had written a letter to the Tejano leaders of San Antonio advocating the the formation of an unauthorized separate state government for Texas. The letter was turned over to the Mexican authorities. Santa Anna held Austin as a prisoner until 1835, during which time war and peace factions emerged in Texas. By the time he returned in the summer of 1835, many in his colony were vying for independence. Austin, knowing that those in favor of war were being led by hotheaded recent arrivals to Texas like William B. Travis and Sam Houston, gravely considered the oath he had taken to the Mexican government. For him, independence was the very last resort in the fight for Texas.
Looking to the U.S.
Austin commanded volunteer troops during the Siege of Béxar in November of 1835. After the rebels ousted Mexican troops from the Alamo, a provisional government elected Austin to serve as commissioner to the United States in order to win support for Texas independence and to secure a commitment to U.S. annexation once it was achieved. Austin traveled East to persuade officials in Washington and financiers in New York and Philadelphia of a Texas victory. Having heard of Santa Anna's defeat at the Battle of San Jacinto, he returned to Texas without any promises in hand in June of 1836.
Offering himself to the Texas Republic as its first president, Austin was defeated by nearly 5,000 votes that went to San Jacinto battle hero Sam Houston. Austin reluctantly took the secondary position as the Republic's first Secretary of State. While in this office, he died of pneumonia at his home in Columbia, Texas, on December 27, 1836. In 1841, Mirabeau B. Lamar, Texas' second president, requested the letters that Austin had written José Antonio Navarro for a proposed history of Texas. Along with the letters, Navarro sent a note that serves as a fitting epitaph to Austin's life:
They contain little relative to the history that Your Excellency intends to write, but to me (and many others who knew well the generous soul, the noble and profound beliefs of that Texas patriarch) it seems to me that every word and stroke from his honest and truthful pen was an expression of pure and upright sentiments and an inextinguishable and personified desire for peace, liberty and prosperity, primarily for the people of his beloved Texas, his adopted country.
-- Letter from José Antonio Navarro to Mirabeau Lamar, May 18, 1841