Biography of Austin, Stephen F.
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It seems that on account of the long distance and slow transmission of mails in those days, that Stephen F. Austin, busy at New Orleans doing the work his father had entrusted to him, was not aware of the fatal illness and death of his father until some time after that sad event. Where the father, however, laid down the work the son took it up. The application of Moses Austin was approved by General Arredonda at Monterey on the 17th of January, 1821, a few days after the departure of Austin from San Antonio. This action of the Commanding General was in due time officially communicated to Provincial Governor Martinez at San Antonio, and he dispatched Don Erasmo Seguin to the United States with instructions as special commissioner to inform Austin of the success of his application and conduct the first band of immigrants into the country. Being apprised of the arrival of Seguin at Natchitoches, and the particulars of his mission, Stephen Austin hastened from New Orleans to meet him. Here the devoted son learned, either by mail or mesenger, of the death of his father and of his wish that he should carry out his plans.
At this time Stephen F. Austin was 28 years of age, and had served as a member of the Territorial Legislature of Missouri, entering that body in 1813 and being regularly re-elected until 1819, when he removed to Arkansas for the purpose of establishing a farm to be used as an immigrant depot.
He remained in the Territory of Arkansas part of the years 1819-20. Moses Austin on his way to Texas in 1820 proceeded to Little Rock, where he met his son. It was then decided to give up the farm project and for Stephen to go to New Orleans and there await the action of the Mexican or Spanish government upon the application for a colonial grant.
Stephen F. Austin was born in Virginia and reared in Missouri. He attended school in Connecticut for a short time and completed his studies at Transylvania University, Lexington, Kentucky. Of good habits, clear mind, industrious, patient, his reputation was such as to inspire confidence of success.
Accompanied by the Commissioner, Don Erasmo Seguin, he left Natchitoches for San Antonio on the 5th of July 1821, to confer with Governor Martinez, secure a transfer of the grant made to his father, and ask permission to explore a portion of the country and select a district in which to locate his colony. Besides himself and Seguin, the party consisted of fourteen persons, all of whom became settlers, to-wit: Erwine, Barre, Marple, Beard, Belew, W. Smithers, Edward Lovelace, Henry Holstein, Neil Gasper, William Little, Joseph Polly, James Beard, William Wilson, and Dr. James Hewitson. Polly, Holstein, Beard and Little afterwards settled in Fort Bend County. On the first day of August 1821, they encamped at the old San Antonio and Nacogdoches crossing of the Brazos, and on the 12th of the same month they arrived at San Antonio. Governor Martinez extended a cordial welcome to Austin, recognized him as successor to his father’s rights, and manifested a sincere desire to encourage his enterprise. Austin submitted to the Governor a plan for granting land to immigrants, the plan promising a section of 640 acres to each man over twenty-one years of age, half that amount to each married woman, 160 acres to each child and eighty acres to owners of slaves for each slave introduced. This plan was approved by the Governor, but was afterwards changed to a league and labor to each head of family, and 640 acres to single men. A league of land contains 4428 acres and a labor 177 acres. The league could be taken up in one place and the labor in another.
Austin hastily examined the country along the lower waters of the Guadalupe, Lavaca, Navidad, Colorado, Brazos and San Jacinto Rivers, and also along the Gulf shore. Selecting a site for his colony in that rich, alluvial region, he repaired by land to New Orleans. Before leaving, however, Austin selected a great bend in the Brazos River, where Richmond is now, and left five young men there to build a fort, the nucleus of .a large settlement which gathered in due time. These five young men were the first installment of the “Old Three Hundred,” and their names and manner of building the fort, from which Fort Bend County took its name, will be given later on.
The groundwork of the edifice was now laid and it remained to erect the superstructure. This was a trying period in the life of Stephen F. Austin. The great responsibilities which he had assumed were such as to call out the great mind and will which he possessed, constancy of purpose and ability as a leader. To carry out his plans he stood in great need of money, and, for a time, it worried him not a little, but in New Orleans he found Joseph L. Dawkins, an old schoolmate, and in him also found a, friend; who not only Raid plenty of money, but was willing to help him. Through his aid a schooner called the “Lively” was loaded with provisions and farm implements and dispatched to the mouth of the Brazos. Here the supplies were hid and the vessel returned to New Orleans. It was, however, soon sent back with another cargo of supplies and eighteen immigrants, and now comes a sad statement in regard to these unfortunate would-be settlers. The little ship or its passengers were never heard from any more. Whether they went down in a storm or were captured by pirates, none could tell.
In November 1821, when the “Lively” sailed on her second voyage, Austin left New Orleans to lead the first body of immigrants into Texas. He reached the Brazos on the 31st day of December, 1821, crossed to the west side of that stream, and on January 1st, 1822, pitched camp on a creek in what is now Washington County and named it New Year’s Creek, which it still bears. Andrew Robinson and others settled in that vicinity and some came on down the river and settled at Fort Bend. Many immigrants still continued to arrive and formed settlements wherever it suited their fancy. Thus began the permanent settlement of Texas by the Anglo-Saxon race.
Austin now proceeded to the coast to meet the “Lively” and to secure the other supplies left at the mouth of the Brazos. Here was a sore and sad disappointment for the brave and energetic Austin. The Craunkaway Indians had found the supplies and carried them away and the ill-fated schooner never came. After long and anxious waiting Austin realized that the “Lively” had been lost at sea, and with a sad heart went back to his colony, and on arriving there found that many additions had been made. Among these was his brother, James Brown Austin, Josiah H. Bell and his young wife, formerly Miss Mary McKenzie, of Kentucky. Her son, Thadeus C. Bell, born later in the year, was the second child born in the colony, having been preceded a few weeks by a child of Henry Jones, who had settled further down the Brazos about the time Mr. Bell and his wife reached Texas.
About this time (of the first installment) and a little later on, came Henry Jones, Randall Jones, James Jones, William Little, David Fitzgerald, David Bandon, Styles, Spencer, the Mortons, the Thompsons, the Kuykendalls, William Stafford, Dr. Johnson Hunter, M. M. Battle, Randolph Foster, Darst, Beard, Polly, Holstein, Wiley Martin, Eli Fenn, and others, whose names will be brought out as we proceed with the history, and all of whom settled in Fort Bend County.
Having proceeded thus far, Austin deemed it proper to report his progress to the Governor at San Antonio, and accordingly set out, with his mind full of his plans and exalted hopes of future prosperity. On arriving in San Antonio he was greatly surprised and disappointed to learn that a change had taken place in Mexico on account of a successful revolution, and that it would be necessary for him to go to the City of Mexico and procure from the new government a renewal of the authority and privileges granted. He accordingly left Josiah H. Bell as his agent; and with Dr Robert Andrews as a companion, rode out of San Antonio on the 20th of March, and made the trip to the City of Mexico a distance of 1200′ miles in 36 days, safely reaching the capital on the 29th of April, 1822.
Late in March of 1822 the schooner “Only Son,” commanded by Capt. Benjamin Ellison, from New Orleans, entered Matagorda Bay with a number of immigrants seeking homes in the new colony. The vessel also had aboard supplies of provisions, household effects, and farming implements. She was owned by two of the immigrants, Kinchaloe and Anderson, and sailed from New Orleans on the 7th of February with a total of ninety colonists and prospectors, among whom were Abraham Clare, George Helm, Mr. Bray and his son-in-law (Charles Whitson), and a Mr. Morgan, with their families, and Greenup Hayes, of Kentucky, a grandson of Daniel Boone. During this voyage a considerable number of the passengers died of yellow fever, and were buried at sea. A few days after the arrival of this schooner another vessel from New Orleans came to anchor in Matagorda Bay. Among the passengers on this boat were Samuel H. Williams,
afterwards the famous secretary of Austin’s Colony, and Jonathan C. Peyton and wife. The immigrants from both vessels were landed on the west bank of the Colorado River, at a point three miles above the mouth of that stream. James Cummings conducted the newcomers into the interior–some to his camp, and some to a crossing on the Colorado River a few miles below where the town of Columbus is now situated.
When Stephen F. Austin reached the capital, politics were at a fever heat, and he found it impossible to secure immediate consideration of his claims.
Hayden Edwards, of Kentucky, Robert Leftwick, of Tennessee, Green DeWitt, of Missouri, and Gen. James Wilkinson, late of the United States Army, were also in the capital seeking permission to establish American colonies in Texas.
The first Congress summoned after the accession of Iturbide to power was still in session. The application to it by so many people wanting to introduce colonists led to the appointment of a committee to draft a general law on the subject. Austin very justly asserted and insisted that his claim was peculiar in its merits, and should receive consideration aside from general legislation intended to control future concessions. The committee, however, submitted to Congress a general bill. On the eve of its enactment into a law, October the 30th, 1882, Iturbide dispersed Congress, and appointed in lieu thereof a Junta composed of thirty-five members, and the question of colonization was referred to that body. Under the inspiration of its imperial master, the Junta passed a law, and Iturbide, approved it on the 4th of January 1823. This was different in regard to land grants from the first contract which Austin made with the former government, and reads in substance as follows:
“To encourage the immigration of foreigners, the government promises to give out of the public domain not less than a labor of land to each farmer, and not less than one league (4,428 acres) to each stock raiser. Immigrants might come on their own account, or be introduced through empresarios.”
These empresarios, or contractors, for each 200 families introduced, ‘were to receive fifteen leagues and two labors (66,774 acres); but, however great the number of immigrants introduced by them, they could not acquire more than a total of forty-five leagues and six labors (200,332 acres). Each empresario was required to have his lands settled and cultivated within twelve years from the date of his concession, and to sell or dispose of two-thirds within twenty years.
On the approval of this law on the 4th of January 1823, Austin, who had been in the city over nine months, pressed his suit for a special confirmation of the grant held by him. He had one warm friend, Herrera, Minister of Foreign and Internal Relations, under Iturbide. He advocated the claims of Austin, and on the 18th day of February the grant was confirmed. But when Austin, a few days later, was about to leave for Texas, another revolution occurred, which drove Iturbide from power, and he found it necessary to postpone his departure.
Unwilling to await the meeting of the new Congress, ordered to convene in the succeeding August, he pressed the merits of his claim upon the attention of Victoria Bravo and Negrete, heads of the provisional government, and on the 14th of April, 1823, they ratified the action previously taken by Iturbide.
Austin’s grant contained no limitation as to territory, nor was a time fixed in which to colonize the 300 families as specified in the contract. Austin left for home on the 28th of April 1823, invested with all powers necessary for the civil and military government of his colony.
In his absence many immigrants had arrived from the United States to make their homes in Texas. In the valleys and on the prairies their cabins arose, from the Colorado to the San Jacinto, and the wandering Indian from his lurking place saw household fires glowing upon Anglo-Saxon hearthstones, and, bewildered, beheld the dawning of a civilization that was to redeem the wilderness and cause it to blossom like the rose.
On the 17th of July 1823, Governor Garcia of Texas appointed the Baron de Bastrop to act with Austin to set apart lands and issue titles to the colonists.
In an official order issued on the 2 ith of July 1823, the Governor gave the name of San Felipe de Austin to the capital of the colony. San Felipe, or St. Phillip, was the Governor’s patron saint. The name of Austin was added as a compliment to the empresario.
No land titles were issued until 1824, but during that year 247 were recorded. Austin’s colony steadily increased in numbers, among whom were such talented men as William H. Wharton, Judge R. M. Williamson, Francis W. Johnson, David G. Burnett, John H. Moore, Jesse Grimes, William J. Russell and others.
We cannot go into all of the particulars of the life of Stephen F. Austin, but only enough to clearly define the status of affairs, so that our history, so far as it relates to Fort Bend County, will be better understood. The trouble with the Mexicans which culminated in the battle of Velasco in 1832, and the long journey which Austin again had to make to the City of Mexico, where he was thrown into prison, can only be incidentally mentioned.
The Texans wanted a separate state government. They had been attached to Coahuila, but now in 1833 the population was sufficient, they thought, to form a state. Three commissioners were selected to convey a memorial of these wants and aspirations of the colonists to the City of Mexico, but Austin, who was one of them, was the only man who would undertake the mission. Always ready to aid his colonists in any way that he could, he made the long and tedious journey, but, on arriving at the capital, an-other successful revolution had just ended, and Santa Anna was President of Mexico. Austin’s papers were referred to a committee, and during the long and vexatious delay he became impatient, and urged his suit with such importunity that the Mexican officials became offended, and having also learned that he had written a letter not complimentary to them, they became more offended, and finally threw him into prison. Here for two years he was confined, and then allowed to return to Texas in September 1835. He was welcomed back by his colonists with great rejoicing. The old pioneers who had come with him to Texas gathered around him and received him as one arisen from the dead.
The Texas Revolution soon broke out, commencing in DeWitt’s Colony, at Gonzales, where a fight occurred over a little cannon which the Mexicans attempted to deprive the colonists of. The Mexicans were defeated, and went back to San Antonio and reported to General Cos, who was in command there, and had sent after the cannon. A volunteer army was at once raised and Austin elected as commander. He marched upon San Antonio, and after the battle of Mission Conception turned the command over to General Ed. Burleson, and went to the United States to try and enlist aid in men and money to assist the Texans in the war against Mexico, and was in Washington City when the battle of San Jacinto was fought.
Under the new order of things, when he returned to Texas he was made Secretary of State, and entered at once upon his duties. A prime measure of the administration was to secure the annexation of Texas to the American Union, and one of the first acts of the Secretary was to prepare instructions for the diplomatic agents to be sent to Washington. He spent the greater part of three days and portions of the nights engaged in this work. The accommodations for the government at Columbia were very poor. The weather was cold, and Austin was compelled to write in an unfinished building, without a fire. Exposure in this unfurnished room brought on a cold, which developed into pneumonia, of which he died at the house of George B. McKinstry in Columbia December 27th, 1836.
The following order was at once issued from the War Department:
“The father of Texas is no more! The first pioneer of the wilderness is dead! Stephen F. Austin, Secretary of State, expired this day at half-past twelve o’clock at Columbia. As a testimony of respect to his high standing, undeviating moral rectitude, and as a mark of the nation’s gratitude for his untiring and invaluable services, all officers, civil and military, are requested to wear crape on the right arm for the space of thirty days. All officers commanding posts, garrisons or detachments Will, as soon as information is received of this melancholy event, cause twenty-three guns to be fired, with an interval of five minutes between each, and also have the garrison and regimental colors hung with black during the space of mourning for the illustrious dead.
“By order of the President.
Wm. S. FISHER. “Secretary of War.”