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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 409

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This is the grave of Stephen F. Austin.

Born in 1793 in Wythe County, Virginia, in 1798 the family moved to eastern Missouri, which was the extreme frontier at that time, really well beyond where most whites would go. But his father Moses Austin had developed connections with the Spanish government after going out to explore some mines in Spanish owned land during the brief period when that nation owned what would soon be known as the Louisiana Purchase. In exchange for allegiance to Spanish government, he was deeded some lead mines. Moses did pretty well and when Stephen was 11, he was sent east for education. He went to private academies in Connecticut and then to Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky for college. He graduated in 1810 and became a lawyer the next year. He went back to Missouri and was elected in 1814 to the state legislature, only 21 years old. But his own economic possibilities blew up with the Panic of 1819. He decided to start over in Arkansas Territory. He bought a bunch of land in what was about to become Little Rock. But land claims in the South were often highly contested, which was a big part of the reason for the Northwest Ordinance to make splitting up the Old Northwest rational. Austin suffered this fate. Others claimed the land, he lost the case, and left Arkansas, this time for Louisiana to go back into the law.

At the same time, Moses Austin was busy again with Mexico City. Spain and then Mexico had some big problem on its northern frontier. They faced an ever-expanding United States coming in from the east and the domination of the Comanche over the entire region. The former was a more existential threat in 1821, the latter was very real. The Comanche simply ruled northern Mexico. Using their amazing skill with horses, they were based in what is today west Texas and eastern New Mexico but were raiding hundreds of miles into modern, post-U.S. theft of the northern half, of Mexico, taking horses, food, and captives. This devastated small communities as far south as Durango. So Mexico City decided to listen to Moses Austin’s idea to bring a bunch of American settler families into Tejas, on the northeastern frontier. This could have the benefit of them serving as a buffer for the Comanche raids instead of real Mexicans, while theoretically creating Mexican citizens who would later resist American encroachment.

To say the least, this did not work out for Mexico.

Moses Austin died just as this was all being settled, in 1821, which was the same time that Mexico won its war of independence. So the land grant Moses received to bring 300 families to Tejas went to Stephen at the same time the latter would have to figure out if it was still good. He really wasn’t that interested in the idea, but he had to follow his father’s legacy. So he agreed to go west. He headed out to San Antonio to reup the grant. He made friends with some of the Mexican leaders, explored some of the area of southeast Texas not far from the Gulf, and advertised in New Orleans for settlers. But at the same time, Mexico City was unhappy with the grant and wanted to revoke it. Austin traveled to Mexico City in 1823 to lobby for the project. He finally locked this down in 1825. The project was on.

Of course, there were Native people in east Texas, particularly the Kanrankawa. Austin simply called for total genocide against them, ordering them murdered on sight, convincing other Native peoples to kill them or each other, he didn’t care; making up stories about how they were cannibals, etc. Whites needed little incentive to murder Indians and did so with aplomb. But this was some bad, bad, bad stuff. In the long history of genocide against Native people, Austin is one of the worst villains.

Now, Mexico was not a strong nation and a lot of the early policy decisions, especially for distant colonies, happened at the state level, which in the case of Texas was in Coahuila, whose capital was Saltillo. Mexico was making fits and starts toward a complete abolition of slavery. Coahuila was on board with this. The white Texans, led by Austin, freaked out. The settlers said they would leave if they could not have their slaves. Moreover, the settlers themselves more or less hated Austin. The idea behind the whole enterprise was that as the head of the grant, the settlers would pay Austin, as happened frequently in land grants. But white people were not going to pay another white person tribute. So Austin made no money and faced constant tension with the Louisianans moving out there. Basically, these were aggressive, violent southern slaveholders, with the dueling and drinking culture that entailed. These are your famed Old Three Hundred of Texans, legends in the state’s folklore, but generally some pretty nasty people.

Anyway, Austin pleaded before the Coahuila government for the slaves, or at least a gradual emancipation. About 25 percent of Austin’s settlers were actually slaves at this time. First, he argued that his original 300 colonists be allowed to keep their slaves forever or at least get reparations. That went nowhere. In 1827, Coahuila passed Article 13 that freed all children of slaves at birth and then freed all slaves within six months. Austin and the white Texans were furious. How dare someone deny them their human property! But what Austin did succeed in doing is banning all free blacks from the territory and that slaves did have to work for their former masters to pay off all “debts.” Moreover, enforcement was pretty well non-existent and Austin told his settlers to just say all the slaves were “workers,” not “slaves.” In essence, not much changed.

The next few years saw Austin, Saltillo, and Mexico City engage in games of trying to keep or eliminate the slaving. Austin tried to get a law passed the next year that would call all the slaves “indentured servants” instead of slaves. Nope. Finally, in 1835, Mexico City had enough. Mexico was to be a free nation and the Texans would have to live with it.

Or they could commit treason in defense of slavery.

While Austin had pretty fair relations with a lot of Mexican leaders, their patience were wearing thin. Not only were the Texans not giving up their slaves, they also weren’t learning Spanish or converting to Catholicism. Basically, Mexico realized too late that their plan to fortify the frontier was actually likely to lead to its secession. When Austin traveled to Saltillo in 1834, he was arrested and taken to Mexico City under suspicion of wanting to secede and become part of the United States. In fact, Austin was interested in this, but only if the U.S. wold guarantee slavery. No charges were filed. Basically, Mexico City wanted to keep an eye on him is all. He was finally allowed to go back to Texas in 1835. He was all in on the Texas Revolution when it finally happened later that year. Committing treason in defense of slavery was completely fine with Austin.

After Texas decided to commit treason in defense of slavery, Austin was sent to Washington to meet with the U.S. government and see what could be worked out. But when he discovered that Santa Anna surrendered, he turned around and came home to run for president of Texas. But Sam Houston won that race by a landslide. In fact, Austin finished third. He was not seen as much of a leader by the newer arrivals to Texas, who had kept coming with their slaves despite Mexico’s orders to stop the migration. But Houston, not a dumb man, named Austin as Secretary of State. Then he caught a cold, it turned into pneumonia, and he dropped dead in December 1836, only 43 years old.

The battle over Texas annexation and statehood set the United States on the path to the Civil War. Texas would enter the U.S. finally in 1845 under circumstances of great dispute and having gone a long way to destroying the Second Party System. Then, Texas would commit treason in defense of slavery again in 1861. Who knows what Austin would have done. You’d think that he would wholeheartedly support that, but Houston was a unionist, even if he was a stark minority. So who can tell.

My favorite part of my time on the early internet was making Josh Trevino go absolutely nuts when I talked about Texas committing treason in defense of slavery against Mexico. He would get so freaking angry. He would call me America’s Worst Historian. It was really funny. His other reasons for the Texas Revolution were basically as compelling as those of Confederacy defenders who say the Civil War was about anything but slavery. I will give him this–it wasn’t only slavery that drove Texas whites to commit treason. It was also that they hated Mexicans. Still not sure which foreign government was paying him to say this stuff.

Stephen F. Austin is buried in Texas State Cemetery, Austin, Texas. As Austin really wasn’t a place in 1836 (named after him later), he was initially buried in Brazoria County, but moved there in 1910.

This grave visit was funded by LGM readers. I am extremely grateful. If you would like this series to visit other people mentioned in this post, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Moses Austin is buried in Potosi, Missouri and Sam Houston is in Huntsville, Texas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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