This Day in History: The “Father of Texas” passes away
On this day in 1836, the “Father of Texas,” Stephen F. Austin, passes away. Mere months earlier he had written that the “prosperity of Texas has been the object of my labors, the idol of my existence—it has assumed the character of a religion, for the guidance of my thoughts and actions, for fifteen years.”
How ironic. When he first heard of his opportunity to set up a settlement in Texas, he wasn’t so crazy about the idea.
To the contrary, it was Stephen’s father who originally wanted to go to Texas. Moses Austin’s personal finances had suffered following the Panic of 1819, and he was looking for new opportunities. He decided to seek land grants in Texas. Unfortunately, Moses passed away in the middle of the process. Thus, it was left to Stephen to take over where his father had left off.
It wasn’t easy. Ownership of Texas had changed. Although Moses had worked out a deal with Spain, the Mexican government did not want to honor it at first. Stephen traveled to Mexico City and lobbied in person, and he was eventually given permission to move forward. He was an “empresario,” with civil and military authority over the first Anglo-American settlements in Texas. More empresarios would follow, but Austin was the most successful of them, bringing as many as 1,500 families to the area. He was well-respected, and other empresarios sought his advice. As such, he found himself constantly mediating between Texan settlers and the Mexican government. You can imagine this got tricky! For instance, when Mexico banned further Anglo-American immigration into Texas in 1830, settlers were unhappy. Many had long thought that Texas would be purchased by the United States, but such a move now seemed less likely. They wanted the ban lifted. In fact, they generally felt that they should have a bigger say in their own governance. They wanted Texas to be its own state.
By 1833, matters were getting serious. Settlers wrote a list of grievances and a proposed Constitution for a new state of Texas; they elected Austin to take these items to Mexico City. Austin was worried that the move was too aggressive, but he went anyway. He ended up getting arrested for suspicion of trying to incite an insurrection. (Oops!) He wasn’t freed until July 1835.
Austin was slow to get on board with the cause of Texas independence (he preferred conciliation with Mexico), but once he was on board, he did not turn back. As chairman of a Committee of Safety, he wrote: “War is our only resource. There is no other remedy but to defend our rights our country & our selves by force of arms. To do this we must be united.”
Austin commanded Texan forces during the Siege of Bexar, but he spent much of the (relatively short) 6-month Texas Revolution in the United States, seeking support for the “Texian” cause. When Austin returned home, he discovered that his influence had been eclipsed by that of Sam Houston, the victor at the Battle of San Jacinto. Both men were candidates in the first presidential election. Houston won. Austin came in a distant third.
Austin died only 8 months after Texas had won her independence, possibly weakened by a disease that he’d contracted during his imprisonment in Mexico. Upon hearing of Austin’s death, President Sam Houston declared: “The father of Texas is no more. The first pioneer of the wilderness has departed.”
Austin, Stephen Fuller (Texas State Historical Association)
Anglo-American Colonization (Texas State Historical Association)
Eugene C. Barker, The Life of Stephen F. Austin, Founder of Texas, 1793-1836 (1926) (modern edition HERE)
Gregg Cantrell, Stephen F. Austin: Empresario of Texas (1999)
Lynne Basham Tagawa, Sam Houston's Republic (2012)
S.F. Austin, Circular of the Committee of Safety at San Felipe (September 19, 1835)