The women in the square watched as the stranger dismounted his gray horse and strode with great purpose toward the imposing palace of Antonio Martinez, the governor of Coahuila y Tejas. As the residents of San Antonio
bargained in the marketplace that day, one of the most important events in Texas history was taking place. It was 1821. The stranger was a man named Moses Austin.
After gaining its independence from Spain, Mexico was so preoccupied with domestic affairs that it had little time for matters such as exploration and colonization of the area known as Tejas. From time to time, Mexican troops or mission priests made their way to and from Nacogdoches, but for the most part the vast expanse of land remained undeveloped. Enter Moses Austin, a Missouri businessman whose dream of bringing 300 American families into Texas changed forever the face of history.
Moses met with the governor of Coahuila y Tejas in early 1821 and presented his plan for bringing a small group of families into Texas from the United States to settle and work the land. Governor Martinez was hesitant to allow foreigners into Mexico, having only recently succeeded in driving out the Spanish. The governor’s fears were allayed, however, when an advisor persuaded him that such a move would benefit the local economy.
Governor Martinez agreed to allow Moses Austin to bring 300 American families into Texas. Each family would receive at least 640 acres at low cost with no tax for six years. In return, the settlers would become Mexican citizens and convert to Catholicism. Special privileges granted to this group were the right to keep slaves and protection by the Mexican government against debts accrued in the United States before coming to Texas. Needless to say, with such incentives as these, there was no lack of applicants for a place in the “Old Three Hundred.”
Moses Austin returned to Missouri where, in June of 1821, he died of pneumonia. The one thing that did not die was his dream. In his will, he bequeathed the land grant to his son, Stephen Fuller Austin, who went on to become “The Father of Texas.”
In the autumn of 1821, the first families rode into Texas under the direction of Stephen F. Austin. They settled on the lower reaches of the Brazos River or, as the Mexicans called it, Rio de los Brazos de Dios (River of the Arms of God). The colony, known as Austin’s Colony, was made official in 1822. In 1823, Austin laid out the city of San Felipe de Austin as the colony’s seat of government.
Life in Austin’s Colony was not easy. Home to many of the settlers was a bare, windowless log cabin. Food was plentiful, but did not come in much variety – bear meat and wild turkey being the staples. With each family allotted 640 acres, neighbors were few and far between. It is said that during this time a famous Texas phase was coined, attributed to a housewife in Austin’s Colony: “Texas is heaven to men and dogs but hell for women and oxen.”
One of the most colorful individuals of Austin’s colony was the principal surveyor, Horatio Chriesman. He and three other families from St. Louis had navigated the Mississippi in a flatboat to reach New Orleans. His wife died during the trip. When the families reached the Colorado River all their supplies were stolen by Caranchua Indians. He managed to trade his brass-toed boots to a friendly tribe for enough corn to last the winter. At one point Horatio’s wardrobe became so depleted that he was forced to wear a buckskin coat all summer because he had no shirt. In 1823, he began surveying and in the ensuing years managed to survey most of Austin’s colony. He was made alcalde (mayor) of San Felipe in 1832 and died in 1878, after achieving much fame in that area of the country. His surveyor’s tools are preserved at the University of Texas in Austin.
Stephen F. Austin’s success did not stop with the Austin Colony. In 1825, a law was passed in the legislature of the state of Coahuila y Tejas that instituted the empresario system. Under this system, each developer received 67,000 acres for each 200 colonists. Each married man received one league (4,428 acres) for which he paid the state $30 over a period of six years. Settlers were required to occupy and develop their land within two years after receiving title. Austin was granted contracts to bring more people to Texas. In 1825, 500 settlers; in 1827, 100; in 1828, 300 more. By 1833, Austin had issued land grants to more than 1,000 families.
Other men quickly took advantage of the benefits of the empresario system and soon the areas around Austin’s Colony were bursting at the seams. By 1835, empresarios had managed to conduct 20,000 settlers and 4,000 slaves into Texas. Although these settlers became Mexican citizens, they maintained their own language and culture. Many top Mexican officials began to fear that Mexico would never be able to absorb so many immigrants.
Mexico soon passed the Law of April 6, 1830, which forbade the introduction of foreigners into Texas and virtually suspended the empresario contracts already granted. The Mexican Army, under General Manuel de Mier y Teran, set up a series of forts along the most widely used routes into Texas from the United States. One of these forts, Fort Tenoxtitlan, was to guard the major land route into Texas and was located on the Brazos River at the crossing of the El Camino Real, the northern boundary of Austin’s Colony.
The Mexican garrison moved into Fort Tenoxtitlan in 1830, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Francisco Ruiz. Colonel Ruiz was a good friend of Stephen F. Austin and was sympathetic to the cause of the Americans in the area. He turned a blind eye to the colonization and often reported to his superiors that he could not pursue settlers because his horses were in such poor condition.
General Teran, meanwhile, was growing more and more disillusioned with the situation in Texas. Unable to prevent settlers from entering the area, General Teran committed suicide in 1832. Colonel Ruiz and his garrison immediately returned to Mexico, abandoning the fort in their wake. A prosperous trading town grew up near the ruins of the fort and took its name. The Brazos River crossing at Tenoxtitlan was one of the points over which settlers fled to safety in the ”Runaway Scrape” after the fall of the Alamo.
Even though conditions were harsh for members of Austin’s colony, they managed to carve their little niche out of the wilderness. None of this could have been possible without settlers such as Horatio Chreisman – and, of course, Stephen F. Austin. Throughout it all, Austin never lost his idealism. Austin required every colonist to present evidence that his character was “perfectly unblemished, that he is a moral and industrious man, and absolutely free from the vice of intoxication.” Under Austin’s guidance, the colony grew and prospered, paving the way for important things to come. In 1832, a convention was held in the town of San Felipe de Austin where delegates laid the initial groundwork for the colonists’ declaration of independence from Mexico four years later.