Biography of Stephen F. Austin:
Stephen Fuller Austin was a lawyer, settler and administrator who played a key role in the secession of Texas from Mexico. He brought hundreds of families into Texas on behalf of the Mexican government, which wished to populate the isolated northern state. At first, Austin was a diligent agent for Mexico, nobly playing by the “rules” (which kept changing). Later, however, he became a fierce fighter for Texas independence and is today remembered in Texas as one of the most important founding fathers of the state.
Early life of Stephen Austin:
Stephen was born in Virginia on November 3, 1793, but his family moved west when he was still young. Stephen's father, Moses Austin, made a fortune in lead mining in Louisiana only to lose it again. Traveling west, the elder Austin fell in love with the ruggedly beautiful lands of Texas and secured permission from Spanish authorities (Mexico was not yet independent) to bring a group of settlers there. Stephen, meanwhile, had studied to be a lawyer and at the age of 21 was already a legislator in Missouri. Moses fall ill and died in 1821: His final wish was that Stephen complete his settlement project.
Austin and the Settlement of Texas:
Austin’s planned settlement of Texas hit many snags between 1821 and 1830, not least of which was the fact that Mexico achieved independence in 1821, meaning he had to re-negotiate his father’s grant. Emperor Iturbide of Mexico came and went, leading to further confusion. Attacks by Native American tribes such as the Comanche were a constant problem, and Austin very nearly went broke meeting his obligations. Still, he persevered, and by 1830 he was in charge of a thriving colony of settlers, nearly all of whom had accepted Mexican citizenship and converted to Roman Catholicism.
The Texas Settlement Grows:
Although Austin remained staunchly pro-Mexican, Texas itself was becoming more and more American in nature. By 1830 or so, mostly American Anglo settlers outnumbered Mexicans in the Texas territory by almost ten to one. The rich land drew not only legitimate settlers, such as those in Austin’s colony, but also squatters and other unauthorized settlers who simply moved in, selected some land, and set up a homestead. Austin’s colony was the most important settlement, however, and the families there had begun raising cotton, mules and other goods for export, much of which went through New Orleans. These differences and others convinced many that Texas should be part of the USA or independent, but not part of Mexico.
Trip to Mexico City:
In 1833 Austin went to Mexico City to clear up some business with the Mexican Federal government. He was bringing new demands from the Texas settlers, including separation from Coahuila (Texas and Coahuila were one state at the time) and reduced taxes. Meanwhile, he sent letters home hoping to placate those Texans who favored outright separation from Mexico. Some of Austin’s letters home, including some telling Texans to go ahead and begin to declare statehood before the approval of the federal government, made their way to officials in Mexico City. While returning to Texas, he was arrested, brought back to Mexico City and thrown into a dungeon.
Austin in Jail:
Austin rotted in jail for a year and a half: he was never tried or even formally charged with anything. It’s ironic that the Mexicans jailed the one Texan with the inclination and ability to keep Texas part of Mexico: as it was, Austin’s jailing probably sealed Texas’ fate. Released in August of 1835, Austin returned to Texas a changed man. His loyalty to Mexico had been ground out of him in prison: he realized now that Mexico would never grant the rights his people desired. Also, by the time he returned in late 1835, it was clear that Texas was on a path destined for conflict with Mexico and that it was too late for a peaceful solution: it should surprise no one that when push came to shove, Austin would choose Texas over Mexico.
The Texas Revolution:
Not long after Austin's return, Texan rebels fired on Mexican soldiers in the town of Gonzales: the Battle of Gonzales
, as it came to be known, marked the beginning of the military phase of the Texas Revolution. Not long after, Austin was named commander of all Texan military forces. Along with Jim Bowie
and James Fannin, he marched on San Antonio, where Bowie and Fannin won the Battle of Concepción
. Austin returned to the town of San Felipe, were delegates from all over Texas were meeting to determine its fate.
At the convention, Austin was replaced as military commander by Sam Houston
. Even Austin, whose health was still frail, was in favor of the change: his brief stint as General had proven decisively that he was no military man. Instead, he was given a job much better suited to his abilities: he would be an envoy to the United States of America, where he would seek official recognition if Texas declared independence, purchase and send weapons, encourage volunteers to take up arms and head to Texas, and see to other important tasks.
Return to Texas:
Austin made his way to Washington, stopping along the way as keep cities such as New Orleans
, where he would give speeches, encourage volunteers to go to Texas, secure loans (usually to be repaid in Texas land after independence) and meet with officials. He was a big hit and always drew a large crowd: the people of the USA knew all about Texas and were applauding its victories over Mexico. Texas effectively gained independence on April 21, 1836 at the Battle of San Jacinto
: Austin returned not long after. He lost the election to be the first President of the Republic of Texas to Sam Houston, who appointed him Secretary of State. Austin fell ill of pneumonia and died on December 27, 1836.
Legacy of Stephen F. Austin:
Austin was a hardworking, honorable man caught up in times of sweeping change and chaos. He proved to be excellent at everything he did: he was a skillful colony administrator, a canny diplomat and a diligent lawyer. The only thing he tried that he did not excel at was war: after "leading" the Texas army to San Antonio, he quickly and happily turned command over to Sam Houston, who was much more suited for the job. Austin was only 43 when he died, and it is a pity that the young Republic of Texas did not have his guidance in the years of war and uncertainty that followed its independence.
It is a little misleading that Austin's name is usually associated with the Texas Revolution. Up until 1835, Austin was the leading proponent of working things out with Mexico, and at that time his was the most influential voice in Texas. Austin remained loyal to Mexico long after most men would have rebelled: only after a year and a half in jail and a first-hand look at the anarchy in Mexico City did he decide that Texas must set out on its own. Once he made the decision, he threw himself wholeheartedly into revolution.
The people of Texas consider Austin one of their greatest heroes. The city of Austin is named after him, as are countless streets, parks and schools, including Austin College and Stephen F. Austin State University.
Brands, H.W. Lone Star Nation: the Epic Story of the Battle for Texas Independence. New York: Anchor Books, 2004.
Henderson, Timothy J. A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and its War with the United States.New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.