Gregg Cantrell has tackled a sacred cow and come out unscathed. His new book, Stephen F. Austin, Empresario of Texas is a meticulously researched and carefully written profile of a man we only thought we knew.
Our knowledge of Stephen Fuller Austin, is gleaned largely from the work of Eugene C. Barker. His 1925 tome, Life of Stephen F. Austin, painted this renowned figure as "The Father of Texas"...and rightly so. However, the Austin we see in Barker's work is a flat two-dimensional character lacking much of the humanity needed to explain the heroism behind the hero.
Though technically accurate, Barker provided little to help us understand the motivations behind Austin the man or of the dynamic forces that led to the making of a republic.
In Stephen F. Austin, Empresario of Texas. Gregg Cantrell brings to life the real Stephen F. Austin with all of his strengths and foibles. We learn in some depth how Austin was destined for greatness, a direct product of his father's influence. His father, Moses Austin, at one point was quite wealthy and wielded a powerful hand in creating his son in his own image. He wanted him to be a gentleman living in the world of high finance. Who Stephen F. Austin was and the way he thought all bear the mark of Moses Austin's influence.
When the younger Austin grew into manhood, his father put him in charge of various business ventures within the Austin empire. Stephen's training paid off as he showed himself to be adroit at business. Unfortunately, an economic depression and several bad business dealings (mostly initiated by the elder Austin), left the family buried in overwhelming debt.
By 1820, Moses Austin saw a possible way to get his head above financial water. He became the first Anglo to get permission to colonize Spanish Texas. Unfortunately, he died before realizing his goal. His deathbed request was that Stephen bring the colony to fruition. Under a sense of instilled familial loyalty very characteristic of the young Austin, he reluctantly abandoned his own course to obey his father's wishes.
When Mexican independence became a reality, Stephen F. Austin skillfully navigated through the waters of the diplomatic intricacies to which he had been thrust. He began to see that building his colony was a way to repay the enormous debts the family had accumulated and to restore a measure of honor to his father's name. He would make his fortune through land. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the work of colonizing Texas and it soon became clear that it was not just another business venture but a mission. This mission would eventually be to create an independent Texas by any means.
Austin earned the title "Father of Texas" by overseeing every aspect of the colony and the lives of those under his care. He became a fierce advocate for the rights of his colonists and worked tirelessly for many years (many times to his own detriment) to ensure the success of the colony.
His was not an easy task. The central government in Mexico was in a constant state of turmoil. Cantrell shows us that one of Austin's biggest strengths was his ability to forge alliances with the powers at the heart of Mexico and the Tejano elite of Texas. Men like Don Erasmo Seguín and Lorenzo de Zavala had the deepest respect for Stephen F. Austin and shared his vision of Texas. He even earned the respect of those who opposed him.
Throughout the book, Cantrell discusses Austin's struggle with his personal demons. All through his life, Austin was plagued with self-doubt and self-pity. He also experienced bouts of deep depression. His physical stature was not great and sometimes even frail due to chronic illness. What set Stephen F. Austin apart was that he pushed himself to the limits of human endurance and set his own interests aside many times for the good of others. Therein lies his heroism. He persisted when lesser men would have quit.
Our tendency with heroes is to deify them and negate their humanity. Cantrell pulls no punches in revealing the full human nature of Stephen F. Austin. It was surprising to this reader to learn Austin's attitudes toward blacks and toward Catholics. Though in theory, Austin opposed the institution of slavery, he himself owned slaves. He fought diligently for his colonists to keep their slaves and not to free slaves already living in Texas. He feared that if blacks were freed, their number would increase. His vision was for a Texas populated predominately by whites.
He looked upon Catholicism as gross 12th century ignorance, a yoke of oppression that retarded Mexico's progress into the 19th century. Austin seldom voiced these feelings except to a few close friends. It would not have faired well in his diplomatic relations.
Stephen F. Austin was indeed human. He wasn't perfect. He made mistakes; but until his death at age 43, he never faltered in his devotion to Texas.
Stephen F. Austin, Empresario of Texas brings a clear understanding of the events that led to the Texas Revolution. If you have ever wondered why there was an Alamo, Goliad or San Jacinto, then you should read this book.
The narrative is clear and well written and it held my attention from page one. I highly recommend this book.
Randell Tarin, Managing Editor
Alamo de Parras
See Also: Interview with Gregg Cantrell 10/99
Book Description: Stephen F. Austin, Empresario of Texas
In Alamo de Parras Biographies: Stephen Fuller Austin, Father of Texas by Eugene C. Barker from New Handbook of Texas ©TSHA.