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


Two years after his death in 1687, explorer, fur trader, Frenchman, and visionary René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle deserves credit for the government of New Spain’s decision to construct missions in East Texas.

The story springs from the massive colonization and exploitation of the New World by powerful European countries.  Although Norse explorers reached the Canadian mainland as early as A.D. 1000, Spain, beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1492, undertook the most aggressive campaign of colonization, spreading after 1500 from the Caribbean islands to the interior of North, Central, and South America.  Although Portugal acquired what is present Brazil, the Spanish didn’t have serious competition until the 17th century when the English, French, and the Dutch began their incursions into the New World.

The Spanish discovery of rich silver mines in Northern Mexico in the last half of the 16th century, led to settlements in the region.  When dreams of finding riches in present New Mexico and Texas did not materialize, Spanish interest lagged until England began exploring the New World.  The threat of competing empires prompted the Spanish crown to commission Juan de Oñate in 1595 to colonize present New Mexico.  When Oñate reached El Paso, he claimed for Spain all the land drained by the Rio del Norte (present Rio Grande). For almost 100 years as Franciscans established more than twenty missions in New Mexico and travelers made the journey through El Paso, the Spanish government ignored the interior of Texas.

All that changed in 1685 when Spanish officials heard that the Frenchman, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle landed on the Texas coast.

La Salle began his adventures in 1666 at age twenty-two when, with a small allowance from his family, he sailed from his home in Rouen, France to Canada to join his brother Jean, a Sulpician priest.  La Salle worked in the lucrative fur trade, which led to his exploring the river systems connected to the Great Lakes and to his dream of establishing trading posts along the Illinois River and down the Mississippi.

Originally believing the Mississippi flowed into the Gulf of Mexico and offered a western passage to China, he canoed in 1682 to the mouth of the river, named the territory La Louisiane in honor of Louis XIV, and claimed all the lands drained by the river for France.

Upon his return to France in 1683, La Salle obtained the king’s blessing for a voyage to the mouth of the Mississippi to establish a colony, secure French Canada’s access to a warm water port for its fur trade, and challenge the Spanish Empire’s claim to all the land from the coast of Florida to Mexico.

La Salle departed France on July 24, 1684, with four ships and 300 colonists. Plagued from the beginning with misfortune–pirates captured one ship in the West Indies, and recent discoveries of early documents indicate La Salle’s “lack of geographical understanding” caused him to miss the mouth of the Mississippi and sail another 400 miles to Matagorda Bay on the mid-Texas coast.

As the expedition entered the mouth of the bay on February 20, 1685, the rough waters of Pass Caballo sank the storeship Aimable. Her crew and several disenchanted colonists returned to France on the naval vessel Joly.  Before La Salle’s colony moved off Matagorda Island, their numbers dwindled to 180.  Malnutrition, Indian attack, and overwork reduced their numbers even more after they moved inland and constructed Fort St. Louis on Garcitas Creek in present Victoria County.

The following October La Salle left Fort St. Louis to explore the region and determine his exact location.  Upon his return in March 1686 La Salle learned a winter storm wrecked La Belle, the colonists only remaining ship. Finally realizing the bay they entered lay west of the Mississippi, La Salle made two marches back toward East Texas into Hasinai, or Tejas Indian territory hoping to find the Mississippi and reach the fort he had established on the Illinois River.  On March 19, 1687, during his second march on which he took seventeen colonists with him, a dispute in a hunting camp resulted in the death of seven of his followers. Then one of La Salle’s own men asassinated La Salle.  Six of the survivors finally reached Canada and eventually returned to France to tell their story.

About twenty women, children, handicapped, and those out of favor with La Salle remained at Fort St. Louis. One of the children later recounted the story of all the adults being killed in a Karankawa attack around Christmas 1688.  Karankawa women saved the children whom the Spanish eventually rescued and sent as servants to Mexico.

When Spaniards learned of La Salle’s intrusion into Spanish Texas, they began the search–five sea voyages and six land marches–in pursuit of the French intruders.  They found the wrecked Belle and parts of Aimable on April 4, 1687, but it took another two years before Alonso De León discovered the destroyed settlement.

The French arrival in Spanish Texas, coupled with concern over French intrusion into East Texas from Louisiana, prompted Spanish officials to establish six missions in East Texas to Christianize the Indians, turn them into good Spanish citizens, and establish the region as a buffer against French Louisiana.  The first, Mission San Francisco de los Tejas opened in 1690 and lasted only three years before the padres fled.  The endeavor taught the Spanish about the land, the Indian culture, and convinced them future missions must be accompanied by presidios and civilian settlements.  The East Texas missions by 1772 moved permanently to San Antonio.

Today a statue of La Salle looks out into Matagorda Bay near the ghost town of Indianola and streets, cities, counties, hotels, causeways, and schools bear the explorer’s name from Texas to the Canadian provinces.

In 1995 the Texas Historical Commission led an archeological excavation in the muck of Matagorda Bay to raise La BelleHer artifacts, which the commission holds in trust for France, are displayed in nine Texas museums.  The wreckage of L’Aimable has not been found.