Stephen F. Austin, Empressario of Texas

ADP: This is the first major work covering the life of Stephen F. Austin since Eugene C. Barker published The Austin Papers and The Life of Stephen F. Austin in 1928. What inspired you to write a new biography of Austin?

Cantrell: Back in the early 1990s, I served on a committee at Sam Houston State University that was charged with planning the big celebration of Sam Houston's 200th birthday. While serving on that committee, we learned that there were no fewer than four new biographies of Houston being written. As a teacher of Texas history, I knew that Houston and Austin were both born the same year--1793--and I wondered what was being done on Austin. The answer, as it turned out, was nothing! I was hooked.

ADP: Is this your first book?

Cantrell: No. My first book, published by the University of Illinois Press in 1993, was Kenneth and John B. Rayner and the Limits of Southern Dissent. It is the story of Kenneth Rayner, a powerful Whig congressman from North Carolina and leader of the Know-Nothing movement of the 1850s, and his mulatto son, John B. Rayner, who became the leader of the black Populists in Texas in the 1890s. One of those Faulknerian interracial southern families--except that it was all true.

ADP: Were you a little intimidated to tackle such a project knowing it would fall under the microscopic scrutiny of the Texas History community?

Cantrell: Absolutely. Everybody seems to have an opinion about a figure like Stephen F. Austin. And the degree of public interest is amazing to me. The early reviews have all been positive, but I'm prepared for the inevitable criticism when the scholarly reviews begin to appear.

ADP: How does your biography of Austin differ from Barker's?

Cantrell: To begin with, Barker's book was only a study of Austin's public career. There is almost nothing in that very fine book about his private life, his personality, or his motives. It was not the fashion in the 1920s to write "warts-and-all" biography, so Barker is never critical of Austin; he never points out Austin's mistakes or shortcomings. As a result, Barker's Austin is a somewhat bland, colorless figure--a sort of cardboard cut-out. I've tried to portray him as the complex human being that he was.

ADP: Does your biography expand on Barker's or have you written something that will stand on its own?

Cantrell: Well, both, I think. I didn't want to "reinvent the wheel," so to speak. Barker's book was a masterpiece of research in some very difficult source materials, and he got a great many things right. There are many times in the book where I will say, in a footnote, that if the reader wants greater detail about some topic, he should consult Barker. This is particularly true of such matters as the government of Austin's Colony. Barker admitted in his preface that his book wasn't really so much a biography of Austin as it was a history of the era, with Austin as the vehicle for telling that history. So Barker spends a great deal of time on the general history of Texas in the 1820s and 1830s (and Austin often disappears from view). I like to think of myself as standing of the shoulders of Barker--using his work without duplicating it, and then writing the book that I wanted to write. In short, my book stands on its own, but Barker's book still does some things that mine doesn't do. They are very different books.

ADP: How long have you been working on this project?

Cantrell: From start to finish, about eight years.

ADP: Were there obstacles to your research?

Cantrell: The biggest obstacle was my inadequate command of Spanish. Many of the pertinent letters and documents are in Spanish, and although I studied the language in graduate school, I was by no means fluent.

ADP: How did you overcome such a deficiency?

Cantrell: By the time I had read and digested the published Austin Papers, I had gotten pretty well "up to speed" on reading the bureaucratic 19th-century Spanish that characterizes these documents. Still, there were times that I needed lots of help with precise translations, and I will forever be indebted to friends and colleagues such as William B. Taylor, Frank de la Teja, Caroline Castillo Crimm, David Weber, and Galen Greaser for helping me decypher these sources.

ADP: What was your major source of information?

Cantrell: The published Austin Papers, edited by Barker and published in the 1920s, is still the most important source for studying not only Austin but this whole period of Texas history. The Papers Concerning Robertson's Colony in Texas, edited by Malcolm D. McLean, is probably second in importance, and it fills in many of the gaps in the Austin Papers. A sizeable body of unpublished Austin papers--most of which are in the Center for American History at U.T.-- are also important.

ADP: Did Barker overlook these sources?

Cantrell: Barker purposefully chose not to examine the papers held privately by the descendants of Sterling Robertson, because he didn't want to be beholden to them when he exposed Robertson as the scoundrel that he was. But Barker was extremely thorough, and most of what he didn't use were sources that were simply unavailable to him in the 1920s. Many of the documents that I have used to flesh out Austin as a human being were available to Barker (he published many of them in the Austin Papers); it's just that Barker wasn't very interested in them.

ADP: I'm very curious about the motivations that led both Moses and Stephen Austin to Texas. Stephen F. Austin's father, Moses Austin, was born under the rule of an English king and lived through the American Revolution to see the birth of a new nation and a new form of government. He made his fortune in the lead industry. However, prior to his venture into Mexican colonization, he experienced some financial difficulty. Was his move to colonize Texas prompted by economics or had he simply become disillusioned with the American form of government under Jeffersonian Democracy?

Cantrell: It was mainly economics. Moses Austin was so broke by 1820 that he could never dig himself out from beneath the mountain of debt he was buried under. He had even been jailed briefly for debt in Missouri. Moses Austin didn't care much one way or another what government he lived under, as long as he could enjoy the elite status and lifestyle that (he believed) were part of the Austin birthright.

ADP: Would you consider the Austin colony a prime example of American westward expansionism?

Cantrell: Well, that was certainly Barker's main thesis. But I think we have to be careful in pointing to Moses or Stephen Austin as self-conscious U.S. expansionists. Both Austins were fully prepared to leave behind the United States forever and live under an old-world monarchy (first Spain, and later, imperial Mexico). Even as late as 1830s, Stephen Austin preferred Texas independence over annexation, if life under Mexico became unbearable.

ADP: On the matter of slavery, didn't the Austin family own slaves? If so, how did this factor into the requirement for Mexican citizenship?

Cantrell: They did own a few slaves, and Stephen Austin utilized a large force of leased slaves in the family's Missouri mining operation. But the Mexican government seemed little concerned about that during his early years in Texas. The state of Coahuila y Texas repeatedly found ways to allow Texans to import and hold slaves, and when Mexican president Vicente Guerrero abolished slavery nationwide in 1829, Austin was able to pull strings to have Texas exempted from the law.

ADP: Do you think it was always Austin's intent to introduce slavery to Mexican Texas?

Cantrell: Not as an end in itself. Austin clearly would have preferred a Texas without slavery. But the prosperity of Texas was always his foremost goal, and he understood that the economic development of Texas required slavery. It was Austin's great moral shortcoming that he was willing to countenance something that he knew was morally wrong in order to achieve his other objectives.

ADP: Stephen F. Austin appears to have been a fiercely loyal Mexican citizen even in the face of adversity. Were his loyalties truly to Mexico or was his allegiance to his vision of a separate Mexican state?

Cantrell: Neither. His loyalty was to Texas, period. Or, to be more precise, to achieving his lifelong calling of transforming Texas from an poor, depopulated, underdeveloped region into an important, prosperous, population center--with Stephen F. Austin as its leading citizen. If that could be achieved under Mexico, under the U.S., or as an independent republic, he was for it.

ADP: How did Austin and his colonists perceive Teran's attempt to establish military outpost on the frontier?

Cantrell: The colonists as well as Austin thought it was a terrible idea, so long as the apparent purpose was to collect customs duties, enforce antislavery laws, or restrict immigration. I think they would've welcomed troops on the western frontier to provide protection against Indians, but that was not the purpose. Austin always argued--to Teran and others in the Mexican government--that "Texas must be ruled by moral force," not by military coercion.

ADP: How would you describe Austin's friendship with José Francisco Ruiz, who was at the time commandant of Ft. Tenoxtitlán?

Cantrell: They were friends as well as political allies, because Ruiz was part of Bexar's Tejano elite who united with the Anglo-Texans in supporting federalism and autonomy for Texas. Their friendship may not have been as personal as the friendships that Austin developed with Erasmo Seguin or Jose Antonio Navarro--or we simply may not have the documents to establish it one way or the other.

ADP: How instrumental to you think this friendship was toward the further colonization of Texas and the ultimate failure of Teran's plan?

Cantrell: Austin took pains to cultivate the friendship of all important Mexicans, including military commanders like Ruiz or Jose de las Piedras, the longtime commander of the Nacogdoches garrison. In the case of the commanders, Austin made sure that they recognized the importance of liberal immigration policies, and to the extent that he succeeded in that, he also frustrated Teran's plans to de-Anglicize Texas.

ADP: Why do you think Austin never married?

Cantrell: As far as I can tell, he never found time. Austin was a driven man--what we would today call a workaholic--and his guiding passion in life was the settlement and development of Texas. That didn't leave much time for marriage and family. Moreover, women were relatively scarce on the frontier, and Austin was rather discriminating in the company he kept. Perhaps he just never met Miss Right at the right time in his life. I'm surprised at how often I'm asked if Austin was homosexual. The only answer I can give is that there is simply no evidence of it, and some evidence to the contrary. Failure to marry by age 43 (his age at death) is certainly no indication of sexual orientation one way or the other (I didn't marry until age 39!). He was charmed by women and loved their company, and he often spoke of his desire to someday marry and settle down to life as a landed gentleman. Believe me, it would have done wonders for the sale of this book if the title had been "Stephen F. Austin, Gay Father of Texas." But that would have amounted to cheap sensationalism based on the flimsiest sort of speculation. No responsible historian would do that.

ADP: How would you describe his relationship with his cousin, Mary Austin Holley?

Cantrell: This is one of those pieces of "evidence to the contrary" that I mentioned above. Austin was utterly captivated by his sophisticated and still-beautiful (in her late forties) first cousin when she visited him in Texas in 1830. Was it true love? Read my book and find out . . . .