Biography of Stephen F. Austin, Founding Father of Texan Independence

Stephen F. Austin

 Wikimedia Commons

Stephen F. Austin (November 3, 1793–December 27, 1836) was a lawyer, settler, and administrator who played a key role in the secession of Texas from Mexico. He brought hundreds of U.S. families into Texas on behalf of the Mexican government, which wished to populate the isolated northern state.

Fast Facts: Stephen F. Austin

  • Known For: Key role in the US colonization of Texas and its succession from Mexico. 
  • Born: November 3, 1793, Virginia.
  • Parents: Moses Austin and Mary Brown Austin.
  • Died: December 27, 1836, Austin Texas.
  • Education: Bacon Academy, Transylvania University.
  • Spouse: None.
  • Children: None.

At first, Austin was a diligent agent for Mexico, but later 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

Stephen Fuller Austin was born in Virginia on November 3, 1793, the third child and first of two sons of Moses Austin and Mary Brown. Moses was a businessman and lead mine owner, and he began his working life in Philadelphia, where he met in 1784 and married Mary Brown, known as Maria. Moses ran a mercantile business in Richmond, Virginia with his brother Stephen. Moses and Mary's first daughter, Anna Maria was born and died in Richmond in 1787. In 1788, Moses and Stephen and their families moved to Wythe County, Virginia to own and operate a lead mine. In a settlement which would become known as Austinville, Moses and Mary had Eliza (1790–1790), Stephen (1793–1836) and Emily (1795–1851).

In 1796, Moses Austin traveled to the Spanish colony of St. Louis on the Mississippi River now in eastern Missouri, where he finagled permission from the commandant to search for a new lead mine near Ste. Genevieve. He moved his family to Ste. Genevieve in 1798, where the last Austin sibling, James Elijah "Brown," was born (1803–1829).

Education

In 1804, Stephen, age 11, was sent off by himself to Connecticut, where relatives found him a good school to attend: the Bacon Academy in Colchester, where he studied English grammar and writing, logic, rhetoric, geometry, geography and a little Latin and Greek. He graduated in 1807 and was then sent to Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, where he studied math, geography, and astronomy, then left in 1810 with a certificate.

Stephen arrived back in Ste. Genevieve in 1810, where his father put him in a prominent role in the mercantile business. For the next several years, Stephen Austin's informal education included time spent in New Orleans with a shipment of lead during the War of 1812, as a militiaman harassing Native Americans in what is today central Illinois, and taking over the lead mine when his father grew too ill to continue. In New Orleans, he contracted malaria, which he never fully recovered from. And, in 1815, Stephen Austin ran for a seat in what was now the Missouri territorial legislature, taking his position in the lower house in December. 

Moses Austin eventually lost his fortune in lead mining and traveled westward to Texas, where 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. Moses fell ill and died in 1821: His final wish was that Stephen completes his settlement project.

Settlement of Texas

Stephen 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.

Although Austin remained staunchly pro-Mexican, Texas itself was becoming more and more American in nature. By 1830 or so, mostly Anglo-American 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 leave Mexico and become part of the US or independent.

The 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, Austin was arrested, brought back to Mexico City and thrown into jail.

Austin was in jail in Mexico City for a year and a half: he was never tried or even formally charged with anything. It is perhaps ironic that the Mexicans jailed one Texan who was at least initially inclined 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. When push came to shove, Austin would choose Texas over Mexico.

The Texas Revolution

Not long after Austin's return, Texas 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, where 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 after 1812 bout with malaria, 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 the Texas envoy to the United States, 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 and Death

Austin made his way to Washington, stopping along the way at key cities such as New Orleans and Memphis, where he gave speeches, encouraged volunteers to go to Texas, secured loans (usually to be repaid in Texas land after independence), and met with officials. He was a big hit and always drew a large crowd. Texas effectively gained independence on April 21, 1836, at the Battle of San Jacinto and 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

Austin was a hardworking, honorable man caught up in times of sweeping change and chaos. 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 to the job. Austin was only 43 when he died: the young Republic of Texas could have used 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 in Texas were rebelling. 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.

Sources:

  • Brands, H.W. "Lone Star Nation: The Epic Story of the Battle for Texas Independence."New York: Anchor Books, 2004.
  • Cantrell, Gregg. "Stephen F. Austin: Empresario of Texas." New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1999.
  • Henderson, Timothy J. "A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and its War with the United StatesNew York: Hill and Wang, 2007." .