Stephen Fuller Austin
Austin's Colony
Orginally published on the
George Ranch Historical Park Hompage
Used with permission.
See Also: Austin's Colony - Brazoria County Museum

Austin's Colony was the first legal settlement of North American families in Mexican-owned Texas. Led by the Empressario, Stephen F. Austin, an initial grant for three hundred families--the "Old 300"--in 1821 opened up Texas to a flood of American immigrants, as many as 30,000 by the time of the Texas Revolution in 1835. This colonial period that brought Anglo and African settlers from the United States into contact with the governmental and ranching traditions of Spain and Mexico helped set the course for much of Texas' history in the 19th century--and was only overshadowed later by the discovery of oil in Texas in the 20th century.

The Evolution of Austin's Colony

The settlement of Austin's colony from 1821 to 1836 has been called the most successful colonization movement in American history. Many of the historical events of Southeast Texas owe their origin to this colony. Fort Bend County was one of the most heavily populated areas of the colony.

Stephen F. Austin's father, Moses, laid the foundation for this colony in Texas during late 1820 and 1821, but died before being able to implement his plans. Stephen, although hesitant at first, decided to finish what his father had begun. Austin travelled to San Antonio de Bexar, where he was declared the rightful heir to his father's grant. Austin was issued an empressario contract to settle three hundred families in Spanish Texas. The Spanish demanded the settlers be, among other things, loyal to the offical government and religion of Spain. Both the government and Austin realized the necessity of having colonists of reputable character, and both made this a prerequisite for immigration. Soon after gaining this contract, the eleven-year war for Mexican Independence ended successfully, and the new Mexican government affirmed Austin's contract to settle Texas with families from the United States.

Austin next set out to find land for his colony. He decided on the rich river bottom between the Brazos and Colorado Rivers, south of the El Camino Real. The area of Austin's Colony included land that is now contained in 19 Texas counties. Settlers began arriving during 1821 and 1822, transforming this area from an unsettled wilderness into a sparcely settled rural community. These colonists receiving the first three hundred land grants came to be called the Old Three Hundred, and over 57 of them received land in what is now Fort Bend County. One of these "Old 300" was Henry Jones, who located his league along the Brazos River south of the "Old Fort" or Fort Bend--now Richmond. Jones' league (4,428 acres) was adjoined by his brother John's quarter league. The George Ranch Historical Park is located on the John Jones Quarter League.

The promise of inexpensive land was the most prominent reason for emigrating from the United States at this time. Austin advertized in newspapers along the American western frontier, publicizing the abundant land--available for 12 1/2 cents per acre--one tenth the cost of public land in the United States. Colonists moved to the colony particularly from the states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Some came overland by horse, wagon, or foot, while many others sailed from New Orleans and Mobile to the Texas port cities of Brazoria and Matagorda. The trip by either means was dangerous.

In August, 1824, the Mexican congress, newly independent of Spain, passed regulatory authority over immigration to the states. The state of Coahuila y. Texas passed, in March, 1825, a colonization law which basically conformed to the provisions of the earlier national law of April, 1823. Austin later settled three additional grants in the same area under these state- awarded contracts, and one more in partnership with Samuel Williams. These grants were administered as one body, so by 1830, Austin had established a colony of about 1,500 families.

Once in the colony, the settlers lined up at the land office in the colonial capital of San Felipe de Austin to receive their land. Married heads of families could receive at least one labor (177 acres) if they farmed, and one league (4,428 acres) if they raised stock. Needless to say, virtually every man--whether doctor, tinsmith, or blacksmith--listed his occupation as farmer and stockraiser to receive the maximum amount of land. As the land had never been mapped, much of the 12 1/2 cents per acre that the settlers paid Austin was spent by him in surveying fees. Among the most prominent surveyors of the colony was Captain Horatio Chriesman. San Felipe, capital of the colony, is located near Sealy along the Brazos River.

With a survey and title to land safely in hand, the colonists had to settle the property and build a home. Noah Smithwick remembered Thomas Bell "domiciled in a little pole- cabin in the midst of a small clearing upon which was a crop of corn. His wife, every inch a lady, welcomed me with as much cordiality as if she were mistress of a mansion. There were to young children and they, too, showed in their every manner the effects of gentle training. The whole family were dressed in buckskin, and when supper was announced, we sat on stools around a clapboard table, upon which were arranged wooden platters. beside each platter lay a fork made of a joint of cane. The knives were of various patterns, ranging from butcher knives to pocket knives. And for cups, we had little wild cymlings, scraped and scoured until they looked as white and clean as earthernware, and the milk with which the cups were filled was as pure and sweet as mortal ever tasted."

Virtually all of Austin's Colonists planted crops on their land. "The soil and climate are best adapted to the growth of Cotton, Sugar, Corn, potatoes &c, which grow very luxuriantly. Fruit peculiar to this climate or latitude can be raised without any difficulty--the peach, pear, plumb, fig, grape, pomegranite, quince, apricot, orange, lemon, banana &c. &c. are at present growing in the colony and I am informed do remarkably well--for melons, pumpkins, squashes, cucumbers, and all vines it surpasses any country I ever saw--you have but to plant them and you have almost a certainty of a plentiful harvest.--"

"Among the productions which may be considered as natutally [sic] adapted to the soil of Texas, and which will form important articles of commerce, cotton stands pre-eminent. This is the great crop of Texas and has, for some years, produced as much as ten thousand bales. Its staple is uniformly good, but near the Gulf it approaches or rather equals in length and fineness, the Sea Island cotton. It needs not to be planted oftener than once in three or four years, to yield a crop superior in quality and quantity to the annual plantings of Louisiana. One acre of ground well cultivated will yield from two thousand to twenty- five hundred pounds, at an average price of eleven cents per pound."

"The sugar cane is beginning to be extensively cultivated, and will prove a most valuable article to Texan agriculturists. It grows luxuriantly throughout the whole level region. Neither Arkansas nor Louisiana can rival Texas in the production of this cane. The stalk grows much larger and taller, and possesses the saccharine matter in larger proportions and greater purity in the latter than in the former States, and is said to sweeten a fott and a half higher up than the Louisiana cane. Its manufactures always find a ready market at a good price. There are two sorts of cane known as the ribin and Creole cane, which differ very little as to intrinsic value, the latter perhaps being rather inferior. The former however must be planted every three years, while the latter continues to grow from the roots for ten or fifteen years, producing good crops."

"That invaluable article of bread-stuff, maize or Indian corn, is produced abundantly in every district of this country. Two crops are annually gathered, yielding in all about seventy- five bushels of shelled corn, worth one dollar and fifty cents per bushel at the farms. The first crop is usually planted about the middle of February, and the second about the 17th of June."

Stephen F. Austin. Translation of the Laws, Orders, and Contracts, on Colonization ... San Filipe [sic] de Austin: Printed by Godwin B. Cotten, 1829. (title page) From the Texas Collection Library, The Center for American History. 

The first book printed in Texas, this is Stephen F. Austin's account of the establishment of the first Anglo-American settlement of Texas and an English translation of the laws and documents relating to the founding of the colony.

 Immense herds of wild horses and cattle ranged the plains of Texas, a result of livestock lost by 18th century Spanish missions and ranches. Many of Austin's colonists--true to their claim of being farmers and stockraisers--began integrating the Hispanic ranching tradition into their own Southern livestock practices; from this cross-cultural development emerged the famous Texas ranching industry that spread throughout the western United States. Henry Jones began raising stock on the prairies of his brother's quarter league grant during the period of Austin's Colony. From these beginnings emerged a longhorn cattle herd of 7,000 head by 1861, participation in the famous cattle drives of the 1870's and 1880's, and the development of the 23,000 acre George Ranch in the early 1900's.

Religion was a topic of much controversy in Austin's Colony. The Mexicans, fearing the aggressive land-hungry Anglos, tried to keep them under control with laws and restrictions. The original provisions of the grant from Mexico required that all settlers be Catholic--though this requirement was not always fully implemented. Most colonists, at least initially, accepted this as a matter of business, not a confession of faith. Wrote one Missourian, "I know I can be as good a Christian there as I can here. It is only a name anyhow." There was much criticism of the Mexican Catholic clergy, and the need for their official blessings of marriages and baptisms before the government would recognize the event.

Austin initially encouraged his settlers to comply with the laws. His cousin's guidebook, Texas, likewise defended the need for compliance with the established Catholic religion, but suggested that private devotions could take any form or denomination: "The introduction of protestant preachers was contrary to law, and had it not been so, the contests of sectarians would have destroyed the country." Several illegal camp meetings and Protestant preachings were held in Colonial Texas, but despite preachers' best efforts, Texans never placed high priority on organized religion. Indeed, "by the end of 1845, not more than one-eighth of the entire white population was either an active or nominal member of a Texas church."

Up to about 1829, the colonists, largely as a result of Austin's influences, were satisfied, loyal Mexican citizens. The Mexican government feared losing Texas to these Norteamericanos, which led to the sending of a military expedition under Mier y. Teran to Texas in 1829 to observe the actions of the colonists. Teran's report led to the enactment of the Law of April 6, 1830, which attempted to slow down emigration from the United States, and balance these Anglos with Mexican and European settlers. The law was extremely unpopular in Texas. Austin, however, was able to secure an exemption for his colony from the provision limiting immigration. Yet the publication of the Law of April 6, 1830 caused great apprehension, and fueled dissent that led to conventions in 1832 and 1833, and eventually the outbreak of the Texas Revolution in 1835.