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?
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.”
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