Baron de Bastrop: Diplomat, Legislator, Fraud

Felipe Enrique Neri (1759-1827), a charming gentleman hailed in Texas as the Baron de Bastrop, paved the way for the first Anglo-American colony in Texas. No one knew he left his wife and five children in Holland or that he fled his country with a bounty of 1,000 gold ducats

Baron de Bastrop

Baron de Bastrop

on his head for embezzling taxes from the province of Friesland.

Neri arrived in Spanish Louisiana in 1795, claiming to be the Baron de Bastrop, a Dutch nobleman forced to leave Holland after the French invasion. After ten years of various business dealings, including settling ninety-nine colonists under a Spanish land grant, Neri appeared in San Antonio in 1806 assuming an air of gentility and posing as a loyal Spanish subject, adamantly opposed to the United States’ 1803 Louisiana Purchase. As the Baron de Bastrop, Neri opened a freighting business in San Antonio and soon gained enough respect to be appointed alcalde (mayor) in the ayuntamiento (local government).

If you read my blog on Moses Austin, you may remember that in an odd twist of fate, Austin chanced to meet his old friend Baron de Bastrop, whom he had known in Louisiana, on the plaza in San Antonio after the Spanish Governor flatly refused to even consider Austin’s request to establish a colony in Texas. In fact, the governor ordered Austin to leave San Antonio immediately. Under such contrary circumstances, it is obvious that Baron de Bastrop held considerable influence with the Spanish officials. He convinced the Spanish governor to accept Moses Austin’s grant request by arguing that Spain needed settlers occupying the country between San Antonio and the Sabine River as a cushion against the Indian threat; that Spaniards and Mexicans were not coming into Texas, rather they were leaving; and that Anglo colonization had already proven successful in Spanish Louisiana. Within three days the Spanish governor granted Austin permission to establish his colony in Texas.

After Moses Austin’s unexpected death, his son Stephen F. Austin came to Texas to apply for his father’s grant. In the meantime, Mexico had won its independence from Spain, and the Baron de Bastrop again used his influence with the Mexican authorities to negotiate an empresarial grant for Stephen to continue with the original plan to settle 300 families in Texas.

By 1823 Bastrop won appointment as Stephen F. Austin’s commissioner of colonization with authority to issue land titles. That same year, he tried and failed to establish a German colony on a site where the San Antonio Road (King’s Highway) crossed the Colorado River. However, from all accounts, he faithfully handled his duties for Austin. Even after Bastrop was chosen in 1824 as a legislator representing the new state of Coahuila and Texas, he served as an ideal intermediary for Austin with the Mexican government. He helped enact laws that were in the best interest of the colonists such as an act establishing a port at Galveston.

Mexican law required the salary of legislators to be paid by contributions from their constituents. Bastrop received such sparse payments that when he died on February 23, 1827, he lacked enough money for his burial. Despite the state of poverty in which he died, the Baron de Bastrop still claiming to be of noble birth in his last will and testament, left land to his wife and children.

After Stephen F. Austin fulfilled his original contract to settle the first 300 families in Texas, he secured another grant in 1827 for his “Little Colony,” which allowed settlement of another 100 families in the area that included the baron’s failed grant. Austin had noted in his first trip to Texas, the importance of that river crossing on the Colorado, and he named the community that developed at the site, Bastrop, in honor of his friend who had recently passed.

Although many people in his day viewed the Baron de Bastrop’s origins as suspect—some believed him to be an American adventurer—he held respect for his diplomatic and legislative work on behalf of Texas. In the past fifty years records from the Netherlands revealed the true story of his mysterious past.

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Father of “The Father of Texas”

History takes little note of Moses Austin (1761-1821). The man known for his grand plans and bold schemes and really big failures initiated Anglo settlement in Texas, which led to Texas independence from Mexico, which led to Texas annexation to the United States, which led to the Mexican War, which resulted in the United States expansion all the way to the Pacific Ocean. He died before seeing the history he set in motion, which makes it necessary to ask: Who was Moses Austin?

Moses Austin

Moses Austin

Durham Hall, Moses Austin Home, Potosi, Washington County, Missouri

Durham Hall, Moses Austin Home, Potosi, Washington County, Missouri

Born in Durham, Connecticut, the fifth generation in a long line of Austins in the United States, Moses Austin at age twenty-one didn’t look much like a mover and shaker as he began a career in the dry-goods business with his brother Stephen. Over the next seven years the Austin brothers prospered, but for unknown reasons, they moved in 1789 in a completely different direction—taking over lead mines in southwestern Virginia.

By agreeing to use only Virginia lead on the roof of the new Virginia capitol in Richmond, the brothers gained control of the state’s richest lead deposit. The new lead roof leaked and had to be replaced with slate. Despite the problems, by 1791 Moses Austin had moved his family, including two-year-old Stephen Fuller Austin, to the mines and named the new community Austinville.

During this period of gigantic land speculation, the Austin brothers’ business thrived and then appears to fail rather suddenly. It is thought that the young men, not known for conservative business practices, over-extended themselves. The scant records indicate Moses Austin was impetuous, lending credence to the story of a rift between the brothers that never completely healed. Moses left his brother Stephen with the failing business and struck out west on his own to the rich lead deposits in Spanish Upper Louisiana (present southeastern Missouri). He found rich lead deposits forty miles west of St. Genevieve. Although the site lay in Osage Indian country, he obtained a Spanish land grant of one league (4,428 acres) under an agreement to swear allegiance to the Spanish crown and settle families in the area. In 1798 Moses led his family and forty whites and a few blacks to a primitive site where he established a settlement named Potosi. In the next few years, despite his personal short-comings—lack of patience, tact, and diplomacy—Moses Austin used a furnace design he learned from the English to gain control of most of the smelting in the region, allowing his family to live very well in Durham Hall their southern-style mansion.

This period in the history of the American lead industry became know as the “Moses Austin Period.” The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the transfer of government to the United States, stimulated emigration to Missouri and increased business for Moses Austin.

Fortunes changed, however, during the War of 1812, paralyzing trade and the lead mining industry in Missouri. Moses Austin tried, unsuccessfully, to use leased slave labor to expand the mining operation. Then, he helped organize the first bank west of the Mississippi in St. Louis, which failed in the Panic of 1819. Stretched beyond his capacity, Austin suffered complete financial ruin.

The following year, his eldest son Stephen F. Austin took charge of the mines and the other businesses in Potosi hoping to “free the family of every embarrassment,” but the collapse proved more than he could salvage.

As Moses searched for ways to recover from his financial loses, he kept mulling over the possibility of another daring scheme—acquiring a land grant from Spanish Texas—an opportunity to make another fortune by settling families on the Texas frontier.

Sometime in November 1820, after visiting with his son Stephen F. Austin in Little Rock, Moses set out for a meeting with Spanish officials in Bexar (present San Antonio). He traveled with a gray horse, a mule, a slave named Richmond, and fifty dollars—a borrowed cache (valued today at $850) for which he agreed to repay his son. He reached Bexar on December 23, where he claimed to be fifty-three years old (he was 59), a Catholic, a former subject of the King of Spain, and a representative of 300 families who wished to join his family in settling in Texas.

The Spanish governor turned him down without looking at his papers. Fortunately, as a dejected Moses crossed the plaza on the way back to his quarters, he met Baron de Bastrop, a man he knew from earlier years in Louisiana. The baron intervened for Austin with the governor and in three days Moses received a grant to settle 300 families in Texas.

Stories differ as to what caused Moses Austin to suffer exposure and exhaustion on his return trip to begin preparations for Texas settlement, but his body grew weak from the journey and despite ill health, he continued feverish preparations for establishing his new colony. In late May 1821 he developed pneumonia and despite his young doctor blistering and bleeding him “most copiously,” he died on June 10. With his dying breath he begged his wife to tell their son Stephen to fulfill the dream of settling Texas for the benefit of the family. Next week, we’ll look at the mirror image of Moses Austin in the life and legacy of Stephen F. Austin, “Father of Texas.”

Texas’ First Settlers: Canary Islanders

After the Frenchman René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle missed the mouth of the Mississippi where he planned to establish a colony and landed instead in 1685 on the middle Texas coast, the Spanish Colonial government became concerned about the French encroaching on Spanish Texas.  The worry led to constructing missions in East Texas with the aim of Christianizing the Indians and establishing a buffer to keep the French in Louisiana from coming into Texas.  After years of little success in converting the Indians and finally moving all the missions out of East Texas, the Spanish Colonial authorities realized that securing control of the vast area required more than missions and a military presence—civilians were needed to populate the province of Texas.  By 1718 Mission San Antonio de Valero (present Alamo) and its presidio still lacked a civilian presence.

Canary Islands

Canary Islands

Originally the Spanish crown planned to move 400 families from the economically distressed Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa to establish a civilian community near the Mission San Antonio de Valero and its presidio.  The King of Spain intended to completely fund the move from the Canary Islands through Havana and on to Vera Cruz, including all the necessities for the journey.  However, after six years of planning, the original numbers were deemed too large and the transportation too expensive.  By the time the Islanders actually sailed for America in 1730, there were only twenty-five families, fifteen of whom stopped in Cuba and only ten traveled all the way to Vera Cruz on the Mexican coast. As they followed the route laid out for them by the Spanish government up through the center of Mexico, they

Route through Mexico

Route through Mexico

stopped at places like San Luis Potosi and Saltillo where they received food and clothing.  At Presidio San Juan Bautista on the Rio Grande they left their worn-out horses and continued their trek on foot to the banks of the San Antonio River. The journey of almost a year brought heartache, including deaths that left two widows as heads of large households and the three Cabrera children–Ana, José, and Marcos—whose parents died on the trip.  Marriages along the way increased the entourage to fifteen families—fifty-six people—reaching their new home on March 9, 1731.

Each family received generous land grants, including the three Cabrera orphans.  They named their pueblo “Villa de San Fernando” in honor of the prince, Don Fernando, who became King Ferdinand in 1746.  By August the Islanders, “Isleños,” had finished plowing and planting and had elected civilian officials to legally establish the first chartered civil government in Texas. Because of their position as the first civilian settlers, the Isleños had permission from the crown to carry the title of “hidalgo,” or son of noble lineage.  For years they represented the political and socioeconomic elite of the community.

Tensions arose between the three communities—the Isleños, the military in the presidio, and the Franciscans in the nearby missions—over access to water, which had to be delivered by acequias or irrigation canals, the use of the land, and the management of livestock.  As continued harassment from marauding Comanche, Apache, and other roving tribes made it difficult for farmers to work in their fields and sometimes even cut off communication with authorities in New Spain, the lines of differences began blurring between the groups and a cohesive community emerged as they banded together against the outside threat.

Church of San Fernando

Church of San Fernando

The Isleños laid the cornerstone in 1738 for the Church of San Fernando, the first parish church in Texas and completed its construction in 1750.  Over the years the church was enlarged and in 1874 Pope Pius IX named San Antonio a diocese with San Fernando as its cathedral.

The first formal census, dated December 31, 1788, refers to the “Villa of San Fernando” and the mission and its presidio as “San Antonio de Béxar.”  After Mexico won independence from Spain, San Antonio de Béxar served as the capital of the province and when Texas finally won independence from Mexico in 1836, the city became known as San Antonio.

The dome of the original San Fernando Church served as the geographic center of the city and the point from which all mileage was measured to San Antonio.  When Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo) was secularized in 1793, its congregation became members of San Fernando.  Finally in 1824, after missions Concepcíon, San José, and Espada were all secularized, their members joined the San Fernando parish.  Jim Bowie married Ursula de Veramendi, daughter of the Governor of the State of Coahuila y Tejas at San Fernando in 1831.  The Battle of the Alamo began when General Santa Anna raised the flag of “no quarter” from the tower of the San Fernando church.  It is claimed that a sarcophagus or marble coffin at the back of the sanctuary holds the remains of Davy Crockett, William B. Travis, and Jim Bowie who died at the Alamo.  Today, the cathedral

Marble coffin said to hold remains of Alamo heroes

Marble coffin said to hold remains of Alamo heroes

plays a major role in San Antonio as it continues to function as a religious institution while hosting symphonies, concerts, television specials, and the constant arrival of tour buses carrying visitors eager to see one of the oldest cathedrals in the United States that began as a parish church for Canary Islanders.

San Fernando Cathedral

San Fernando Cathedral

Texas Capitol Paid For in Land

The Texas Constitution of 1876 set aside three million acres in the Panhandle to fund construction of the state’s fourth capitol.  Big land giveaways in Texas started in 1749 when the Spanish Colonial government began establishing villas along the Rio Grande.  Mexico continued the practice of granting empresarial contracts to establish colonies in Texas.  The Republic of Texas issued land grants to pay its debts, including payment to the army and volunteers for their service in the war for independence from Mexico.  After Texas joined the Union and negotiated to keep its public land, the state offered land to encourage development of farms and ranches, to attract new industry, to fund its public schools, and to entice railroad construction.  So, it makes sense to use land in payment for the state’s fourth capitol.

Texas State Capitol

The third capitol burned on November 9, 1881, increasing the urgency to name a contractor for construction of the new building.  By 1882 the State of Texas initiated one of the largest barter transactions in history to pay wealthy Chicago brothers, John V. and Senator C. B. Farwell, three million acres of Panhandle land in exchange for building the $3 million State Capitol at Austin.

Owners of Granite Mountain, a solid rock dome about fifty miles northeast of Austin, donated enough “sunset red” granite to construct a Renaissance Revival design modeled after the national Capitol in Washington.  Convict labor hauled the huge blocks of granite to a newly built narrow-gauge railroad that carried 15,700 carloads of granite from the quarry to the building site in Austin. Upon completion of the 360,000 square foot capitol in 1888 and the placing of the statue of the Goddess of Liberty atop its dome, the building reached a height of 311 feet—almost fifteen feet taller that the National Capitol.

Goddess of Liberty Intended for the Capitol Dome

Since the land used to pay for the capitol stretched across the unsettled Texas Panhandle from present Lubbock to forty miles north of Dalhart, the capitol syndicate decided to establish a ranch until the land could be sold.  Representatives went to England in 1884 to secure $5 million from British investors to finance the purchase of cattle, fencing, and the entire infrastructure for the huge enterprise.

Trail boss Abner Blocker drove the first herd to the ranch in 1885 only to discover that a brand had not been selected.  Trying to create a design that could not be easily changed, Blocker drew “XIT” in the corral dust with the heel of his boot, and it stuck as the brand and ranch name.  In later years the story spread that the brand stood for “ten (counties) in Texas” because the ranch spread into ten counties.  Other folks speculated that it meant “biggest in Texas.”

The vastness of the operation required dividing the ranch into eight divisions with a manager over each.  A 6,000-mile single-strand wire fence eventually enclosed the ranch, the largest in the world at that time.  By 1890 the XIT herd averaged 150,000 head, and the cowboys branded 35,000 calves a year.  Fences divided the ranch into ninety-four pastures; 325 windmills and 100 dams dotted the landscape. Cowhands received pay of twenty-five to thirty dollars a month.  XIT men and their “hired guns” sometimes formed vigilante groups to combat problems of fence cutting and cattle rustling.  Wolves and other wild animals took a heavy toll, especially during calving season.  Lack of ample water, droughts, blizzards, prairie fires, and a declining market resulted in the XIT operating without a profit for most of it years.

The schoolteacher wife of one of the managers, Cordia Sloan Duke, kept a diary, writing notes on a pad she carried in her apron pocket while she “looked after” her own family and the 150 cowboys who worked the ranch.  She successfully encouraged eighty-one cowboys and their families to keep diaries.  Eventually, she and Dr. Joe B. Frantz published a book, 6,000 Miles of Fence: Life on the XIT Ranch of Texas.  Through Mrs. Duke’s efforts, an authentic account of the work and lifestyle of that early phase of American life has been preserved in the cowboys’ own language.

With British creditors demanding a positive return, the syndicate began selling the land for small farms and ranches.  Although the cattle had been sold by 1912, the last parcel of land was not sold until 1963.  One hundred years after the land exchange, the tax value on the property reached almost $7 billion.

The XIT Ranch, built on land that served as payment for building the largest state capitol in North America, is remembered at the annual Dalhart XIT Reunion where a horse with an empty saddle honors the range riders of the past.

Horse With an Empty Saddle, Dalhart Reunion

Baron de Bastrop: Diplomat, Legislator, Fraud

Felipe Enrique Neri (1759-1827), a charming gentleman hailed in Texas as the Baron de Bastrop, paved the way for the first Anglo-American colony in Texas.  No one knew he left his wife and five children in Holland or that he fled his country with a bounty of 1,000 gold ducats on his head for embezzling taxes from the province of Friesland.

Baron de Bastrop

Neri arrived in Spanish Louisiana in 1795, claiming to be the Baron de Bastrop, a Dutch nobleman forced to leave Holland after the French invasion.  After ten years of various business dealings, including settling ninety-nine colonists under a Spanish land grant, Neri appeared in San Antonio in 1806 assuming an air of gentility and posing as a loyal Spanish subject, adamantly opposed to the United States’ 1803 Louisiana Purchase.  As the Baron de Bastrop, Neri opened a freighting business in San Antonio, and soon gained enough respect to be appointed alcalde (mayor) in the ayuntemiento (local government).

If you read my blog on Moses Austin, you may remember that in an odd twist of fate, Austin chanced to meet his old friend Baron de Bastrop on the plaza in San Antonio after the Spanish Governor flatly refused to even consider Austin’s request to establish a colony in Texas.  In fact, the governor ordered Austin to leave San Antonio immediately.  Under such contrary circumstances it is obvious Baron de Bastrop held considerable influence with the Spanish officials.  Bastrop convinced the Spanish governor to accept Moses Austin’s grant request by arguing that Spain needed settlers occupying the country between San Antonio and the Sabine River as a cushion against the Indian threat; that Spaniards and Mexicans were not coming into Texas, rather they were leaving; and that Anglo colonization had already proven successful in Spanish Louisiana.  Within three days the Spanish governor granted Austin permission to establish his colony in Texas.

After Moses Austin died and his son Stephen F. Austin (blog of October 5) applied for his father’s grant, Baron de Bastrop again used his considerable influence to secure permission for Stephen to continue with Moses Austin’s grant to settle 300 families in Spanish Texas.

By 1823 Bastrop won appointment as Stephen F. Austin’s commissioner of colonization with authority to issue land titles.  From all accounts, the baron faithfully handled his duties even after he was chosen in 1824 as a legislator representing the new state of Coahuila and Texas.  He served as an ideal intermediary for Austin to enact laws that were in the best interest of the colonists such as an act establishing a port at Galveston.

Mexican law required the salary of legislators be paid by contributions from their constituents, resulting in such sparse payment that when Bastrop died on February 23, 1827, he lacked enough money for his burial.  Despite the state of poverty in which he died, the Baron de Bastrop, still claiming to be of noble birth in his last will and testament, left land to his wife and children.

Although many people in his day viewed his origins as suspect—some believed him to be an American adventurer—he held respect for his diplomatic and legislative work on behalf of Texas.  In the past fifty years records from the Netherlands revealed the true story of his mysterious past.

Stephen F. Austin, “Father of Texas”

Stephen F. Austin fits the image of a reluctant father.  He came to Spanish Texas in response to his own father Moses Austin’s deathbed wish for Stephen to continue with Moses’ dream of settling 300 families in Texas.  Like many apprehensive fathers, Stephen F. Austin embraced his responsibilities and spent the remainder of his life lovingly guiding his colony and all of Texas toward the best opportunity for success.

Austin understood and admired the adventurous, hard-working settlers willing to move to a wilderness and carve out a new life because he grew up around the French Canadian, Spanish, and American mine workers in the primitive, lead mining towns his father founded in western Virginia and Spanish Louisiana (present Southeast Missouri).  Unlike Moses Austin whose quick temper and need to challenge those with whom he disagreed, Stephen embraced patience, tact, willingness to compromise, and the diplomacy necessary to work with the independent-minded settlers and the tangles of Spanish and Mexican government bureaucracy.

Stephen reached San Antonio in August 1821, secured authority to continue with Moses Austin’s colonization grant, and arranged for allocating 640 acres for each man, plus 320 acres for a wife, 160 acres for each child, and eighty acres for each slave at a cost of twelve and a half cents per acre to be paid to Austin for administering the surveys and expenses of establishing the colony.

Settlers eagerly grabbed the land offer as Austin scrambled to find financial partners.  From the beginning of his colony, Austin insisted all land grants be carefully recorded in bound volumes to preserve a permanent record—a wise decision in light of the news of Mexico finally winning its long battle for independence from Spain.

The first test of Austin’s diplomatic prowess came in December 1821—the first settlers were already arriving—when Mexican authorities refused to approve Austin’s Spanish land grant.

Austin left immediately for Mexico City, and after patient negotiation, the Mexican government established a new empresarial policy offering each married man a league of land (4,428 acres) and opened colonization to several more empresarios, agents like Austin who received permission to bring settlers into Texas.  The law denied empresarios the right to charge administrative fees, providing instead 67,000 acres for settling each 200 families. However, empresarios received their land only after settling all the families.  Selling the land proved difficult since colonists were getting free land.

Despite the loss of administrative fees and personal debts mounting as he bore more and more of the unforeseen costs of establishing the Austin Colony, by late 1825, Austin’s colony reached 300 families—known today as the “Old Three Hundred.”  Between 1825 and 1829, Austin settled an additional 900 families.

Dealing with the Mexican government required constant compromise.  The slavery issue presented a continuing challenge since most settlers came from slave-holding states and the original colonization law allowed them to bring their chattel into Texas.  When the new constitution of the state of Coahuila and Texas prohibited slave importation, an uproar spread through the colony.  Austin’s personal beliefs (he owned a slave woman he described as old and not worth anything) seemed to shift.  As with other issues he felt represented the best interest of the colonists, he negotiated a scheme allowing settlers to free their slaves at the Texas border and make them indentured servants for an indefinite time.

Recognizing the plight of many colonists who came to Texas without paying their debts in the United State, Austin secured a law closing the courts for twelve years to debt collectors and permanently exempting land, tools, and implements used in business and farming from creditors—an early version of the homestead exemption law.

Austin located his colony in fertile farmlands with access to transportation along the Colorado and Brazos rivers, and then lobbied the Mexican congress to legalize the port of Galveston and to allow trade through ports at the mouth of the Brazos and other rivers.

Despite Austin’s efforts to ease tensions between the differing cultures and remain aloof from Mexican government intrigues by encouraging the colonists to “play the turtle, head and feet within our own shells,” outside forces kept Mexican officials on the defensive.  Several offers from President Andrew Jackson for the United States to buy Texas resulted in an 1830 law halting further colonization by settlers from the United States.  Austin wrangled an exemption for his and for Green DeWitt’s colony, and by the next year succeeded in getting the law repealed.

However, when Haden Edwards, in an effort to win Texas independence from Mexico tried to drag Austin’s beloved colonists into the Fredonian Rebellion, Austin sent a militia to put down the revolt to save his settlers from the wrath of the Mexican government.

The colonists’ dissatisfaction with Mexican President Anastacio Bustamente’s heavy-handed immigration controls and introduction of tariffs finally led to Austin joining the colonists in supporting Antonio López de Santa Anna in Mexican presidential elections.  Santa Anna soon proved not to be the liberal leader of his campaign, but a dictator who clamped down on the increasingly independent-minded colonists.

Austin did not favor the conventions held in 1832 and 1833 to express Texan grievances, and believed they would not serve the colonists’ best interests, but he attended each event hoping to moderate the actions of the increasingly dissatisfied settlers.  Despite his efforts to temper the resolutions, the delegates, even those who disagreed with Austin, recognized his influence with the Mexican authorities, and elected him to present their petitions to the government in Mexico City.

Austin’s negotiations resulted in important reforms, but as he headed back to Texas, Santa Anna ordered him arrested and held until July 1835—an absence from Texas of twenty-eight months.  Without Austin’s calming presence, the war clouds in Texas grew beyond his control; strong factions organized a consultation to begin the process of declaring independence.  The consultation delegates selected Austin and two other men as emissaries to the United States to solicit loans and volunteers and arrange credit for munitions and other equipment, including warships.  They also charged the men with getting a commitment of recognition of Texas independence and eventual annexation to the United States.

By the time Austin returned to Texas in June 1836, the celebrated Battle of San Jacinto on April 21 had decisively won Texas war for independence from Mexico.

Sam Houston

Austin “offered his services” as president of the republic in the September election, but it was not to be.  Sam Houston, the man who marched across Texas with the army, the flamboyant general who led the troops in the winning Battle of San Jacinto, won the contest.  President Houston appointed the quiet and unassuming Austin to the office for which he was well suited—Secretary of State.  Despite failing health and no money to heat his tiny office and living quarters, Austin worked diligently to set up the state department of the new Republic of Texas.

As he lay near death with pneumonia on December 27, 1836, he roused from a dream with these last words:  “The independence of Texas is recognized.  Didn’t you see it in the papers?”

Austin died at age 43 without knowing his beloved Texas, which he nurtured and guided with such patience, would become the twenty-eighth state to enter the Union, and that annexation would trigger the Mexican War (1846-48).  Like dominoes falling across the historic landscape, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending that conflict stretched the United States borders to the Pacific Ocean, adding nearly a million square miles and increasing the size of the nation by almost one third.

Land acquired after the Mexican War

Father of “The Father of Texas”

History takes little note of Moses Austin (1761-1821).  The man known for his grand plans and bold schemes and really big failures initiated Anglo settlement in Texas, which led to Texas independence from Mexico, which led to Texas annexation to the United States, which led to the Mexican War, which resulted in the United States expansion all the way to the Pacific Ocean.   And, like dominoes continuing to fall, anger over the slave issue led to the Civil War.  He died before seeing the history he set in motion, which makes it necessary to ask: Who was Moses Austin?

Moses Austin

Born in Durham, Connecticut, the fifth generation in a long line of Austins in the United States, Moses Austin at age twenty-one didn’t look much like a mover and shaker as he began a career in the dry-goods business with his brother Stephen.  Over the next seven years the Austin brothers’ dry-goods business prospered, but for some reason they moved in 1789 in a completely different direction—taking over lead mines in southwestern Virginia.  By agreeing to use only Virginia lead on the roof of the new Virginia capitol in Richmond, the brothers gained control of the state’s richest lead deposit.

They did not enjoy all smooth sailing.  The new lead roof leaked and had to be replaced with slate; however, by 1791 Moses Austin moved his family, which now included two-year-old Stephen Fuller Austin, to the mines and named the new community Austinville.  During this period of gigantic land speculation, the Austin brothers’ business thrived and then appears to fail rather suddenly.  It is thought that the young men, not known for conservative business moves, over-extended themselves.  The scant records indicate Moses Austin was impetuous, lending credence to the story of a rift that never completely healed after Moses left his brother Stephen in Virginia trying to salvage the business.

Moses Austin struck out west on his own to the rich lead deposits in Spanish Upper Louisiana (present southeastern Missouri).  He found rich lead deposits forty miles west of St. Genevieve.  Despite the site being in Osage Indian country, he obtained a Spanish land grant of one league (4,428 acres) under an agreement to swear allegiance to the Spanish crown and settle families in the area.  In 1798 Moses led his family and forty whites and a few blacks to a primitive site where he established a settlement named Potosi.  In the next few years, despite his personal short-comings—lack of patience, tact, and diplomacy—Moses Austin used a furnace design he learned from the English to gain control of most of the smelting in the region, allowing the family to live very well in Durham Hall their southern-style mansion.

Durham Hall

This second period in the history of the American lead industry became know as the “Moses Austin Period.”  The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the transfer of government to the United States, stimulated emigration to Missouri and increased business for Moses Austin.

Fortunes changed, however, during the War of 1812, paralyzing trade and the lead mining industry in Missouri.  Moses Austin tried, unsuccessfully, to use leased slave labor to expand the mining operation.  Then, in an effort to increase the money supply in circulation, he helped organize the first bank west of the Mississippi, River in St. Louis.  It failed in the Panic of 1819.  Stretched beyond his capacity, Austin suffered complete financial ruin.

The following year, his eldest son Stephen F. Austin took charge of the mines and the other businesses in Potosi hoping to “free the family of every embarrassment,” but the financial collapse proved more than he could salvage.

As Moses searched for ways to recover from his loses, he kept mulling over the possibility of another daring scheme—acquiring a land grant from the Spanish government in Texas—an opportunity to make another fortune by settling families on the Texas frontier.

Sometime in November 1820, after visiting with his son Stephen F. Austin in Little Rock, Moses set out for a meeting with Spanish officials in San Antonio.  He traveled with a gray horse, a mule, a slave named Richmond, and fifty dollars—a borrowed cache valued at $850 for which he agreed to repay Stephen F. Austin.

He reached San Antonio on December 23, claimed to be fifty-three years old (he was actually 59), a Catholic, a former subject of the King of Spain, and a representative of 300 families who wished to settle with his family in Texas.

The Spanish governor turned him down without looking at his papers.  Fortunately, as a dejected Moses crossed the plaza on the way back to his quarters, he met Baron de Bastrop, a man he knew from earlier years in Louisiana.  The Baron intervened for Austin with the governor and in three days Moses received an Empresarial grant to settle 300 families in Texas.

Stories differ as to what caused Moses Austin to suffer exposure and exhaustion on his return trip to begin preparations for Texas settlement, but his body grew weak from the journey and despite ill health, he continued feverish preparations for establishing his new colony.  In late May 1821 he developed pneumonia and despite his young doctor blistering and bleeding him “most copiously,” he died on June 10.

With his dying breath he begged his wife to tell their son Stephen to fulfill the dream of settling Texas for the benefit of the family.

Next week, we’ll look at the mirror image of Moses Austin in the life and legacy of Stephen F. Austin, “Father of Texas.”