TEXAS HAD A NAVY

Brig Invincible
Wikipedia

The Republic of Texas existed from March 2, 1836, until February 19, 1846, and during most of that time, it boasted its own navy with a history as colorful as its government. As Texas prepared to go to war for independence from Mexico, officials of the interim government realized it needed ships to bring supplies from New Orleans and to keep Mexico from blockading the Texas coast. Historians estimate that three-fourths of the troops, supplies, and money needed for the rebellion came via shipboard from the port at New Orleans.

The provisional government in November 1835 passed a bill providing for the purchase of four schooners, and they issued letters of marque to privateers authorizing them to defend the Texas coast until the navy ships could be put into service. On January 5, 1836, the Texas Navy became a reality with the purchase of a former privateer rechristened the Liberty. The Invincible, a schooner built originally for the slave trade, received its commission a few days later. The Independence, a former United States revenue cutter, which had been used to enforce customs regulations and catch smugglers, became the third purchase. Finally, the Brutus completed the Texas naval fleet.

Immediately, the little band of ships sailing the Gulf of Mexico kept General Santa Anna’s army from receiving supplies along the coast, forcing it to forage for food as it marched across Texas. The ships also captured Mexican fishing vessels, sending their supplies to the volunteer Texas army.

After Texas won independence from Mexico in the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21,1836, the Liberty escorted the ship carrying the injured General Sam Houston for medical treatment in New Orleans. That’s when the navy experienced its first setback—the Liberty remained in New Orleans for repairs and when the new Republic of Texas could not pay its bill, the Liberty was sold. Similarly, the following September the Brutus and the Invincible were in New York for repairs and when the city’s customs collector realized the Republic of Texas could not pay the bill, the gentleman paid the tab himself.

Meantime, Mexico refused to ratify the treaty that General Santa Anna signed after his army’s defeat at San Jacinto and despite not having the military strength to launch a full attack on Texas, Mexico continued to make threatening forays along the coast. The schooner Independence captured several small ships off the Mexican coast and after undergoing repairs in New Orleans in April 1837, started back to Galveston when it was forced to surrender after a four-hour gun battle with two Mexican ships.

With the loss of half its fleet, the secretary of the Texas Navy and its commodore decided that the men needed a cruise to inspire confidence. President Houston believed Texas needed the ships to patrol the coast, not to raid Mexican towns. Nevertheless, the cruise took place. When the Invincible returned to Galveston its draft was so deep that it could not cross the bar into the harbor. As it sat at anchor waiting for high tide, two Mexican ships attacked. The Brutus, which had managed to enter the harbor, sailed out to help in the fight and ran aground on a sandbar. After a daylong battle, the Invincible attempted to enter the harbor, went aground and was destroyed. The Brutus, last of the ships of the Texas Navy, was lost the following October in a storm at sea.

Although the Republic of Texas had no active navy from September 1837 until March 1839, Mexico was too preoccupied with problems at home to take advantage of the unprotected coastline, which gave Texas time to purchase six ships at a cost of $280,000. In March 1839, the republic purchased a steam packet and renamed it Zavala, followed by the San Jacinto, the San Antonio, the San Bernard, the brig Wharton, the sloop-of-war Austin, and the Archer to complete the second fleet.

Political differences existed from the beginning of the republic between President Houston and Vice President Mirabeau B. Lamar and came dramatically to the surface in December 1838 when Lamar became the second president of the Republic of Texas. Whereas Sam Houston wanted Texas to use its ships to protect the coast and ensure the republic’s increased industry and commerce, Lamar encouraged the navy to pursue an aggressive policy of raids to keep Mexico busy defending its coastline.

During Lamar’s years as president, he initiated a friendly relationship with the Yucatán that had declared itself independent from Mexico. He appointed Edwin Ward Moore, a ten-year veteran of the United States Navy, commodore of the second Texas Navy. Although Moore and Lamar agreed on the importance of defending the Yucatán, Moore had constant problems financing the repair of his ships and because paydays did not come regularly, he had trouble recruiting enough men. In December 1841, just as Sam Houston was returning for a second term as president, Lamar sent the Austin, the San Bernard, and the San Antonio to the Yucatán for its defense against Mexico. Immediately after Houston’s inauguration, he ordered the fleet to return.

The political battles over the navy continued. Texas had attracted volunteers to fight in its War for Independence by passing a bounty act on November 24, 1835, promising 640 acres as payment for two years of military service. Soon after beginning his second term, Houston vetoed a resolution as “an extravagance” that would have allowed veterans of the Texas Navy to also receive the land. He added, “generally, the seaman has no interest (except a transitory one) on shore.” An effort to reintroduce the bill and pass it over Houston’s veto met no success.

The following February, the only mutiny in the Texas Navy occurred in New Orleans. The schooner San Antonio was in port to be refitted. Apparently concerned the sailors and marines would desert, the men were confined to the ship while the officers went ashore. Liquor was smuggled aboard, the sailors got drunk, and Sergeant Seymour Oswalt led a mutiny in which a lieutenant was killed. Eventually, the men were brought to trial; three were flogged; four were hanged from the yardarm of the Austin, and Oswalt escaped from jail.

Meantime, the Zavala had been allowed to rot and was eventually sold for scrap. Houston, determined to reduce spending in his second term, withheld funds allocated by Congress for the navy. Edwin Moore, the commodore appointed by Lamar, raised almost $35,000 to repair his ships and when it became clear he could not raise enough money in New Orleans to refit the ships, Houston ordered him back to Galveston. Hearing of renewed Mexican troubles on the Yucatán, Moore took it upon himself to arrange with Yucatán to supply Texas ships for $8,000 a month. He sent the San Antonio to the Yucatán but it was lost at sea. Just when the Austin and the Wharton were ready to sail from New Orleans, commissioners arrived with orders from Houston instructing Moore to sell the fleet immediately for whatever price he could get. Further, Houston suspended Moore from command and told him to return immediately to Texas. Moore convinced the commissioners to allow him to take the vessels back to Texas, but as he embarked on the trip, he got word that Yucatán was about to surrender to Santa Anna. Commodore Moore headed, instead, for the Yucatán. The resulting battles against the much larger Mexican vessels did not produce a victory, but it broke the blockade of Campeche and allowed Texas ships to get supplies to the forces fighting the Yucatán land battle. After a week, the Mexican force sailed away, Yucatán was not retaken, and Moore believed Texas was spared the invasion that would have followed if Mexico had captured the Yucatán.

A very angry President Sam Houston claimed Moore’s trip to the Yucatán was illegal and charged him as a pirate, a murderer, a mutineer and an embezzler. When Moore reached Galveston on July 14, 1843, he was welcomed by a harbor full of boats loaded with cheering people. Houston discharged Moore dishonorably from the Texas Navy for disobedience of orders, fraud, piracy, desertion, and murder. Moore insisted on a court martial and won acquittal of all the charges except disobedience. The following year he was cleared of disobedience.

By this time, the Republic of Texas was negotiating with the United States to join the Union. As part of annexation, the Austin, Wharton, Archer, and San Bernard joined the United States fleet. Their officers hoped to be included in the transfer, but US naval officers were against the plan, and the Texas ships were declared unfit for service.

The Texas Navy was forgotten until 1958 when Governor Price Daniel established a Third Texas Navy. In October 1970 Governor Preston Smith reestablished the headquarters for the Third Texas Navy at its original base in Galveston. The new organization serves as a commemorative nonprofit, chartered by the State of Texas to assure the survival of Texas naval history.

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The Question of Santa Anna’s Leg

Display at Illinois State Military Museum, photo Sangamon County Historical Society

Display at Illinois State Military Museum, photo Sangamon County Historical Society

I usually try to tell the tale and let readers make up their own minds about the merits of the case. This time, I am admitting up front that I am siding with the state of Illinois against my own birthplace of Texas. Here’s the conundrum: The Illinois State Military Museum owns and proudly displays Santa Anna’s artificial leg and the San Jacinto Battle Monument and Museum wants it.

The story goes like this: In 1836, after General Santa Anna won the Battle of the Alamo and had the survivors slaughtered and then ordered the massacre of about 300 Texans at Goliad, he marched in glory toward San Jacinto where he expected to defeat those “land thieves,” once and for all. His hubris, his view of himself as the Napoleon of the West, caused him to leave the bulk of his army behind and rush to San Jacinto. He lost the battle at San Jacinto in eighteen minutes, which gave Texas its independence from Mexico. Actually, he didn’t lose; he ran off and was not discovered until the next day cowering among some marsh, dressed as a common soldier.

When the Mexican government heard of the fiasco, the officials promptly kicked him out of office as president of Mexico and commander of the Mexican Army. Consequently, Mexico claimed that Santa Anna did not have the authority to sign the peace treaty that declared Texas independence.

Santa Anna was not done. After a time of exile in the United States, he made his way back to his hacienda in Veracruz. In December 1838, the Mexican government had refused to compensate French citizens for their financial losses in Mexico, and the French Army landed in Veracruz demanding payment. Mexican officials called on none other than the disgraced Santa Anna to defeat the French, using any means necessary. The assault failed, and as the Mexican Army was retreating, cannon fire hit Santa Anna in the leg, shattering his ankle. His leg had to be amputated, and that was the vehicle Santa Anna rode on his return to Mexican politics. Despite Mexico having to meet the French demands, Santa Anna turned defeat in victory by having his amputated leg buried with full military honors. He never again allowed his countrymen to forget his great sacrifice.

Santa Anna turned to the only man in the United States that made artificial legs. Charles Bartlett, a former cabinetmaker from New York City, crafted for $1,300, a prosthetic leg of cork covered in leather.

Santa Anna's $1,300 cork leg with leather cover.

Santa Anna’s $1,300 cork leg with leather cover.

While serving as acting president of Mexico in 1841, he helped overthrow the government. After four years under his dictatorship, during which he sent military expeditions into the Republic of Texas, his autocratic rule caused so much resistance that he was forced into exile in Cuba. Santa Anna was not done. At the beginning of the Mexican-American War in 1846, Santa Anna made a deal with President James Polk to enter Mexico through the U.S. naval blockade in exchange for negotiating a reasonable price for the sale to the U.S of the disputed land. While dealing with President Polk, Santa Anna arranged with Mexico’s president to lead an army against the northern invaders (that is the United States). Both presidents agreed to Santa Anna’s deals, and as soon as he reached Mexico he declared himself president and began leading the Mexican Army in its unsuccessful fight against the United States.

On April 18, 1847, in the midst of the Mexican-American War, Santa Anna was sitting in his carriage enjoying a chicken lunch a safe distance from the fighting, when Company G, 4th Regiment of Illinois Volunteers surprised him. The General got away, but he left behind his cork leg and $18,000 in gold. The story is that the men finished off the chicken, turned the gold over to their commander, and took the leg with them back to Illinois at the end of the war. For years they charged the curious, ten cents a viewing of the leg. In 1922, it was donated to the state.

Today, Santa Anna’s leg is the central attraction in the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield. The challenge came in April 2014 when the San Jacinto Battle Monument and Museum launched a petition on the White House website seeking 100,000 signatures to get the leg moved to Texas. There were not enough takers to qualify for the White House to look into the cause, however, it is hard to imagine that a president from Illinois would step into a move to take a prize from his state and send it to Texas.

If I had been asked to vote, and I was not, I would say Santa Anna’s artificial leg belongs to Illinois. While Santa Anna was a bitter enemy of Texas and continues to be held in low esteem, he had both his good legs while he was in Texas. Those Illinois volunteers found that leg eleven years after Santa Anna foolishly led his men to defeat at San Jacinto.

Don Martin De Leon, Empresario

Soon after winning independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico began issuing empresarial grants, contracts allowing men to bring settlers into Mexico’s northernmost state of Texas.  Ironically, of approximately thirty empresarial grants issued between 1821 and 1832, only one went to a Mexican.  Don Martín De León and his wife Doña Patricia De León were wealthy descendants of

Don Martin De Leon

Don Martin De Leon

aristocratic Spanish families who had immigrated to New Spain in 1750.  De León received his empresarial grant in April 1824 to settle forty-one Mexican families “of good moral character” on the lower Guadalupe River.  He had been in Texas since 1805, operating ranches along and south of the Nueces River and driving huge herds of cattle to market in New Orleans.

Map of Texas Colonies

Map of Texas Colonies

De León’s grant lay southwest of Stephen F. Austin’s, the first and most successful of the colonies.  De León named his settlement Guadalupe Victoria, after the first president of the Republic of Mexico.  The first twelve families arrived by October and the others, delayed by drought and floods in Northern Mexico, arrived the next spring.  Each family received a town lot, one league (4,228 acres) of land for grazing, and a labor (177 acres) for farming.  Upon completion of the colonization the empresario received five leagues.

One of De León’s sons-in-law platted the town and the empresario designated the main street “La Calle de los Diez Amigos” (The Street of Ten Friends) for the ten homes of citizens who were charged with the welfare of the town from 1824 to 1828.  Three of the ten friends were his sons-in-law and two were his sons.  From 1828 to 1835 alcaldes (mayors) governed the colony.  De León served as the first alcalde followed by two of his relatives.  Not all the colonists were Mexicans; sixteen families, primarily Irish immigrants, also settled in the colony.  A devout Catholic, De León brought in priests from La Bahía (present Goliad), Nacogdoches, and San Antonio until the founding in late 1824 of St. Mary’s Catholic Church.  The colonists built a school and a fort, organized a militia, and started a courier service with the neighboring Austin colony.

Victoria quickly became a cultural center as the family maintained contact with friends who were kings, emperors, and both military and political leaders in the United States.  The children and grandchildren were sent to schools in the major cities of Europe and the business of the colony was considered among the most substantial.  Cattle, horses, and mules were the primary business and the family corralled wild Longhorns and mustangs by the thousands.10friends650x335

De León’s five-league ranch, which spread along Garcitas Creek in present southeastern Victoria County, probably included the land where the Frenchman La Salle built Fort St. Louis in 1685.  Many claim DeLeón’s cattle brand, which he had registered in 1807, was the first in Texas.  It consisted of a connected E and J meaning “Espiritu de Jesús, the brand used by Jesuits for hundreds of years and adopted by the De León family in Spain.

De Leon Cattle Brand

De Leon Cattle Brand

From the beginning of his colony, De León, a wealthy and cultured man, looked with disdain at the Americans in surrounding colonies.  His attitude and the preferential treatment he received as a Mexican citizen added to tensions among the neighboring settlements.  The boundaries of his colony were not clearly drawn and in disputes with other colonies, the Mexican courts usually sided with De León.  The ensuing squabbles led to hatred and mistrust between De León and Green DeWitt whose colony at Gonzales lay just to the north.  And De León tried unsuccessfully to have the government annul the grant for an Irish colony to the south.

De León died at age 68 in the 1833 cholera epidemic, leaving his wife and ten children an estate of about a half million dollars.  His sons completed the settlement, which made the De León and the Austin colonies the only two in Texas to fulfill their empresarial agreement.

The family members were strong Federalists and as troubles brewed with the Centralists government under the Mexican Dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna, the De Leóns sided with the Texans who supported independence.  The De León’s took part in all the plans for the revolution; they served in the army or helped in other ways to aid the Texas cause.  They contributed so substantially to the war that when Gen. José de Urrea occupied Victoria after the massacre at Goliad, the De Leóns were arrested as traitors.

Despite their contributions, after Texas won independence, Anglo-Americans began coming into Texas looking for land and charging the De Leóns as Mexican sympathizers.  After the murder of one son and the severe injury of another, the family, one of the wealthiest in Texas, left all behind and fled to safety in New Orleans. Three years later, the oldest son Don Fernando De León returned to Victoria and spent the remainder of his life in unsuccessful litigation for the return of the family’s property.

In 1972 a Texas historical marker was placed in Victoria’s Evergreen Cemetery honoring the De León family.  Attendees at the dedication included Patricia De León, great-granddaughter of the empresario, and Dr. Ricardo Victoria, great-grandson of President Guadalupe Victoria for whom the town is named.

Map Legend:  De Leon’s Colony — Blue

Austin’s Colony — Yellow

DeWitt’s Colony — Orange

Irish Colonies — Green

Mystery of the Twin Sisters

In November 1835, three months before Texas declared its independence from Mexico, war clouds had grown into a full rebellion and the citizens of Cincinnati, Ohio, eager to lend support, began raising money to purchase two cannons for the looming battle.  Since the United States remained neutral throughout the war, the two iron six-pound cannons were secretly shipped down the Mississippi River labeled as “hollow ware.”  Stories abound about how they actually reached General Sam Houston’s volunteer army camped about seventy-five miles up the Brazos River from its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico.

Most accounts say the guns traveled from New Orleans aboard the schooner Pennsylvania to Galveston where Dr. Charles Rice’s nine-year-old twin daughters Elizabeth and Eleanor were invited to be part of the official handing over of the cannons to Texas.  Since the ceremony consisted of twins presenting the two cannons, the six-pounders became known as the “Twin Sisters.”  The Pennsylvania continued to the mouth of the Brazos River and traveled inland about eighteen miles to Brazoria.  It was still nearly sixty miles upriver to Houston’s camp and according to an account taken from General Houston’s correspondence and orders, worry over the terrible condition of the roads and concern that Santa Anna’s army might intercept the Twin Sisters, the cannons were shipped back to Galveston.  Over the next eleven days the guns moved through Galveston Bay and up Buffalo Bayou to Harrisburg (near present Houston) and then ox-carts, pulled by horses, slogged through the rain, mud and fiercely cold weather to General Houston’s campsite on the Brazos River.

As soon as the Twin Sisters arrived, nine men drew assignment to each cannon and the drilling and firing began as the Texan Army moved back east along the very route the Twin Sisters had just covered.

Sam Houston’s army of about nine hundred men set up camp on April 20 in a thick growth of timber where Buffalo Bayou flowed into the San Jacinto River.  The Twin Sisters spent the afternoon in their first combat dueling with Santa Anna’s Mexican cannon.

The following afternoon the Twin Sisters led the charge across the rise in the prairie toward Mexicans who, convinced the Texans would not dare attack, were enjoying their usual siesta.  At 200 yards the two little cannon opened fire with the Texans’ only ammunition–handfuls of musket balls, broken glass, and horseshoes.  The battle cry of the Texans’ split the air with “Remember the Alamo, Remember Goliad.”  In eighteen minutes the startled forces of Mexico’s superior army of over 1,200 men had been defeated. The carnage did not stop, however, as the Texans continued to use rifle butts and bayonets to kill the enemy in a furious retaliation for the brutal deaths of almost 600 Texans at the Alamo on March 6 and the massacre at Goliad on March 27.

Although the Twin Sisters secured their place in history, their travels did not end at San Jacinto.  After being moved to Austin, probably to help protect the frontier capital from Indian attack, the two cannons appeared again on April 21, 1841, when they were fired to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto.  Later that year as Sam Houston kissed the Bible at the conclusion of his inauguration for his second term as president of the Republic of Texas, the cannons roared to life in a salute to the new president and hero of the Battle of San Jacinto.

The Twin Sisters made no further public appearances and became part of the property—fortifications, barracks, ports, harbors, navy and navy yards, docks, magazines, and armaments–ceded to the United States in 1845 when Texas joined the union.  All Texas’ military stores were moved to the federal arsenal at Baton Rouge.

When secession talk reached full tilt with the election in 1860 of Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin McCulloch who as a young man had served on the crew manning the Twin Sisters and was destined to become a general in the Confederate Army sent a letter to then Governor Sam Houston asking him to bring the Twin Sisters back to their home in Texas.  In the years after the cannons reached the federal arsenal in Louisiana, the Twin Sisters had been sold as scrap iron to a foundry.  An investigation found that one cannon remained at the foundry in poor condition and the other had been sold to a private individual.  The Louisiana legislature purchased and repaired the cannons at a cost of $700 and returned them to Texas on April 20, 1861, the twenty-fifth anniversary of their first skirmish with the Mexicans at San Jacinto.

The Twin Sisters performed again at the January 1, 1863, Battle of Galveston in which Confederate forces regained Galveston Island.  Ironically, Lt. Sidney A. Sherman, son of Sidney Sherman one of the heroes at the Battle of San Jacinto, was killed while commanding one of the Twin Sisters.

Stories abound about what happened to the Twin Sisters after the Battle of Galveston.  One account says they were sent to Colonel John “Rip” Ford in San Antonio as he prepared to recapture the Rio Grande from federal troops, but no record exists of the cannons reaching San Antonio.  Some veterans claim to have seen the Twin Sisters at various locations around the Harrisburg area of Houston.  Another account claims that several Confederate veterans, concerned the Twin Sisters would fall into the hands of the federal troops during Reconstruction, buried the cannons in an area hugging Buffalo Bayou.  For years history buffs and souvenir hunters have searched without success for the burial site.

In 1985 two graduates of the University of Houston’s College of Technology supervised the making of replicas of the Twin Sisters.  They stand today on the San Jacinto Battlegrounds waiting for the mystery to be solved that will return the original Twin Sisters to the site where they made Texas and world history.

Replica of Twin Sisters at San Jacinto Battleground

Replica of Twin Sisters at San Jacinto Battleground

Houston: The Second Choice

Houston reigns as the largest city in Texas and the fourth largest in the United States, but it hasn’t always enjoyed top billing.

In 1832 brothers Augustus C. and John K. Allen came to Texas from New York and joined a group of land speculators.  During the 1836 Texas War for Independence from Mexico, the Allen brothers outfitted, at their own expense, a ship to guard the Texas coast and to deliver troops and supplies for the Texas army.  Their operation along the coast offered an opportunity to look for a good site for a protected deep-water port.

Some stories claim that after Texas won independence from Mexico in April 1836, the brothers tried to buy land at Texana, a thriving inland port at the headwaters of the Navidad River located between present Houston and Corpus Christi.  Despite a generous offer, the landowner countered with a demand for double the price.  One of the brothers reportedly became so angry that he climbed on a nearby stump and declared, “Never will this town amount to anything.  I curse it.  You people within the sound of my voice will live to see rabbits and other animals inhabiting its streets.”  (Today, Texana rests under an 11,000-acre lake, a recreational reservoir on the Navidad River that is part of Lake Texana State Park.)

Lake Texana State Park

Lake Texana State Park

Soon, the Allen brothers discovered a site on the west bank of Buffalo Bayou, a muddy stream that wound its way for fifty miles to Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.  They purchased about 6,500 acres for $9,500 and wisely named the new town for Sam Houston, the hero of the Texas War for Independence and the future president of the republic.  By August 1836 the brothers placed newspaper ads claiming the new town was destined to be the “great interior commercial emporium of Texas.”  The ads also said that ships from New York and New Orleans could sail to the door of Houston and that the site on the Buffalo Bayou offered a healthy, cool sea breeze.  They did not mention the heat and humidity and that Buffalo Bayou was choked with tree branches and logs.

The Allen brothers had the town laid out with wide streets on a grid pattern parallel to the bayou to accommodate their

Original Plan, 1869 map

Original Plan, 1869 map

future port, sold town lots at a brisk rate, and generously donated property for churches and other public institutions. The first small steamship arrived in January 1837 after a fifteen-mile journey that took three days during which passengers helped clear logs and snags from the channel.  The travelers found a “port city” of twelve inhabitants and one log cabin.

The Allen’s slickest advertising ploy turned out to be their bid to get the government of the new Republic of Texas to relocate in Houston by offering to construct, at their own expense, a capitol and to provide buildings for public officials at a modest rental of $75 a month. It worked.  By the time the government moved to Houston in May 1837, the town boasted a whopping population of 1,500 and 100 houses.

When travelers arriving in Houston found food and accommodations in short supply, the Allen brothers opened their large home, free of charge.  Their accountant estimated the hospitality cost the Allen brothers about $3,000 a year, but the expense brought rich returns.

The brother’s deal to provide the capitol and all the official office space carried the stipulation that if the government moved from Houston, the property reverted to the Allen brothers.  In 1839 the Texas government moved again from the bogs along the coastal prairie to Waterloo, a tiny wilderness town on the edge of Comanche country in Central Texas that was renamed Austin.

With the loss of the capital, Houston plunged into financial turmoil that threatened to bankrupt the city.  Multiple yellow fever epidemics hurt the town’s image along with a growing reputation for drunkenness, dueling, brawling, and prostitution.  In the midst of it all Houston welcomed the Masons, Presbyterians and Episcopalians organized churches, and the town became the seat of county government.   Businessmen invested in the cotton trade, small steamboats ferried supplies to and from the thriving seaport at Galveston and enterprising merchants used ox wagons to haul goods to settlers in the interior and to return with cotton and other farm commodities.jackson

Following years of regular dredging and widening of Buffalo Bayou to accommodate larger ships, the Houston Ship Channel finally opened in 1914, creating a world class waterway that helped Houston become the “great interior commercial emporium of Texas” just as the Allen brothers advertised in 1837.BuffaloBayouFile:Houston_Ship_Channel

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