Some Difficulties of a Texas Empresario
By Lester G. Bugbee
Empresario. A term applied to contractors with the Mexican government. In the context of the history of Mexican Texas, it was one who entered into a contract with the Mexican government to introduce a specified number of families into the country as colonists.
In such language Stephen Austin summed up the chief difficulties which he had to meet and overcome in his administration of the Texas colony that bore his name. It is not the purpose of this paper to deal with all the problems which were set for Austin's solving; it would require a volume to do justice to such a subject, to recount the dangers that lurked in drouth and fever, to narrate the thrilling experiences of the colonists in their frequent wars with the Indians, to explain the attitude of the settlers towards the Mexican government, and to describe the patient efforts of Austin to win and retain for his people the confidence and favor of those who ruled, or even to mention the multitude of' other and perhaps less important trials which harassed the pains-taking, conscientious founder of the colony. It will be sufficient, for the present to discuss some of the internal difficulties of the colony which arose out of the special conditions under which the settlement was made and out of Austin's dealings with "frontier republicans who felt that they were sovereigns."
The scope of this paper will be limited to the seven years from 1821 to 1828, during which Austin was the almost absolute ruler of the colony. For convenience of treatment and for the sake of greater clearness, the most important internal difficulties which confronted Austin during the years mentioned will be discussed under the following heads and in the order named: (1) The difficulties which grew out of contracts made by Austin with the first settlers in which they agreed to pay 12 1/2 cents per acre for their lands, (2) The troubles which arose from doubts on the part of some of the colonists as to the nature and extent of Austin's authority to grant lands, collect fees, and administer the affairs of the colony, (3) The dissatisfaction of certain settlers because Austin, for special reasons, made larger grants to some than to others, and (4) The danger which grew out of the appearance of certain bad characters in the colony and out of their expulsion by the empresario.
I. THE 12 1/2 CENT CONTRACTS.--When Austin first visited Texas in 1821, he submitted to the governor a plan for the distribution of lands to his followers which received that official's approval. On his return to New Orleans in the fall of the same year, he advertised his undertaking extensively and published the terms on, which he would receive intending colonists into the three hundred families that he was allowed to introduce into Texas. In all these advertisements he stated explicitly that the settlers must pay him 12 1/2 cents per acre for their land and that, in consideration of such payment, they would be relieved from all charges incidental to obtaining their titles. He and his agents drew up a great many contracts with intending settlers on these terms, and when the Americans reached their new homes in Texas it was generally understood that the contracts were valid and would be adhered to.
Austin tells us that all this was done with the knowledge of the governor of Texas; that official had received information and full details of the contracts, both by letter from Austin in November, 1821, and by newspapers sent him from New Orleans. He made no objection to any of these conditions and thus gave at least his tacit approval to the terms laid down in the contracts. For a time there seems to have been no objection to the payment of the 12 1/2 cents per acre. No titles, however, were issued to the settlers during 1822 or 1823; for these were the dark days of the settlement and Austin was in Mexico, defending his claim to the Texas grant before each of the governments which the fortunes of revolution raised to power. When he returned to Texas in the summer of 1823, he brought with him the final confirmation of his grant and instructions to the executive of Texas to proceed with the distribution of lands to the colonists. More than that, Austin had promised his followers only 640 acres of land, with additional amounts to men who came with families; he now had authority to issue titles to every family for a princely estate of more than 4,000 acres, with power to increase the amount at will. He still considered his contracts with the settlers binding. On his return to Texas in 1823, he addressed the inhabitants of the colony as follows:
Soon after writing the above letter, Austin proceeded with the commissioner appointed by the government, the Baron de Bastrop, to visit the settlements and begin the work of issuing titles. As a matter of fact, no titles were then issued as Bastrop was soon compelled to return to Bexar; what concerns us here, however, is the fact that in the few settlements then visited by the commissioner, the colonists were told that the original contracts were still in force. It thus becomes evident that at least till August, 1823, the government of Mexico approved the contracts made by Austin with his colonists and consequently raised no objection to the charge of 12 1/2 cents per acre on all lands granted.
But difficulties soon arose. The same law which provided such splendid estates for the settlers, also liberally rewarded the empresario by promising him nearly 70,000 acres of land as compensation for the introduction of each 200 families. This seemed to the settlers to be sufficient remuneration for Austin's outlay and they began to grumble and accuse him of speculation. Some went even further and accused him of imposing on the colonists by demanding payments which were not authorized by the government. Such suspicions once whispered in a community of "North American frontier republicans who felt that they were sovereigns" soon ripened into conviction in the heart of many a man who would have fought for the principle of fair trial by one's peers. It was enough that Austin would grow doubly rich from the payment by the settlers of the stipulated price for land, and from the thousands of acres lavished upon him by a prodigal government.
And after all, it was the government, not Austin, who gave them their land; why should they pay him for it? So, many of the settlers grew more and more dissatisfied until May, 1824, when the political chief of Texas issued an order practically annulling all the contracts between Austin and his colonists and substituting a schedule of fixed fees for defraying the cost of issuing the titles. According to this schedule the colonists were now required to pay $192.50 in fees to secure complete title to a tract of 4,428 acres, whereas the same land at 12 1/2 cents per acre would have cost nearly three times that amount. Austin felt that a blow had been dealt to the material interests of the colony. He knew the "sovereigns" with whom he had to deal so well that he regarded any kind of taxation for local purposes, at least for the present, as impracticable. He found himself the head of the colony with almost absolute power, and responsible to the Mexican government for the efficient administration of its affairs; and now he saw himself deprived of his only source of revenue. The expenses of governing the colony were necessarily heavy; he was compelled to provide expresses to carry messages to Bexar and to his subordinates on the Brazos and the Colorado; he was forced to play at diplomacy with the Indians while the colony was weak and presents were necessary to keep those troublesome neighbors in good humor; in the event of a campaign against the Indians he was frequently called upon to furnish ammunition and provisions for the expedition; he paid a secretary and clerk; he kept open house and entertained all prospectors who came to inform themselves about Texas; he furnished guards for criminals and suspects who were ordered out of the colony or who were held subject to the orders of his superiors at Bexar; and "besides these expenses," said Austin, "there are many others which cannot be mentioned," probably presents to officials whose Spanish slowness was thus quickened to the advantage of the colony. One other source of expense should be mentioned here to Austin's credit. He asked and received special permission from the Mexican government to introduce into the colony the American method of recording deeds. He paid a draughtsman out of his own pocket to plot the tract of land called for in each deed, and the latter was copied into the record without charge by the secretary, Samuel M. Williams. The great expenses which Austin thus voluntarily incurred--estimated by him at $4,000 per year---must forever free him from the charge of unjustly speculating on his colonists. At any rate, we can sympathize with his feelings, when, with such a budget, he found himself deprived of the only income he had any right to regard as certain.
He was at first inclined to hold out against the political chief for the payment of the 12 1/2 cents per acre; he drew up a lengthy justification of his course emphasizing the fact that on more than one occasion the government's agent had recognized his contracts as valid; he was even disposed to question the right of the authorities to interfere---if they could cancel one private contract, why not another? how could the settlers feel secure in the enjoyment of any rights and privileges conferred on them?
The matter was finally adjusted, however, to the satisfaction of all concerned. The largest item in the schedule of fees, which took the place of Austin's contracts, was $127.50 on each sitio, which, under the name of "judicial taxes," was turned over to Commissioner Bastrop as compensation for his labors. The commissioner agreed to relinquish one-third of this sum to the empresario, and this arrangement was finally accepted by Austin; there the matter should have ended.
II. AUSTINS AUTHORITY QUESTIONED.--But it did not end there. The seed of suspicion once planted in the hearts of "North American frontier republicans" grows rank and soon bears fruit in discord or even open strife. As many of his settlers looked at the matter, Austin had been rebuked by the government and forced to give up illegal profits which he would have swept into his private purse. Some became confirmed in the belief that he had acted without the authority of the government in demanding payment for lands; and if he acted without authority in one instance, they reasoned, who could be certain that he was not imposing on the people in other matters? Might not this very schedule of fees be a trumped up affair created for the profit of the empresario and commissioner?
Alcalde John P. Coles wrote to Austin when he heard that a letter had informed McNeel of the governor's interference. Thus the very letters which Austin wrote to his settlers informing them of the annulling of the contracts were used, as Coles said, "to Injure your standing and establish more perminantly the doubts of your authority...........and further to Intimidate the Respectable and prudent Emigrant who would allways prefer keeping himself and famely out of difficulty that might be Expected from such reports." Such doubts soon created considerable stir in the colony and seriously threatened it with division and ruin.
It should be kept in mind, too, that these suspicions grew into murmurs and almost into open rebellion in spite of repeated and formal assurances by the government that Austin possessed all necessary power, civil and military, for the administration of the affairs of the colony. On August 9, 1823, the inhabitants of the Colorado district had been called together by the commissioner, Bastrop, and Austin had been formally invested with the powers conferred on him by the general government; on this occasion Bastrop, who could speak English, explained the nature of those powers and read the official documents conferring them.
Again, in May, 1824, at the very time when the 12 1/2 cent contracts were cancelled, the political chief of Texas visited San Felipe de Austin, the capital of the colony, and, in an official proclamation clarified the role of Austin:
This visit of the political chief, however, seems to have produced new confusion, for a rumor soon got abroad that he had come to San Felipe to deprive Austin of all authority. This rumor elicited another proclamation (below) from the chief, in which he said, ".......and I now positively assure you that said Austin is completely authorized by the Superior Government to found this Colony.....and.......he will continue to exercise the Civil and Military powers be now has until the organization of the Colony is completed."
It was in the face of such assurances as these that the reports spread that Austin had no commission from the government and was collecting fees without authority. Some explanation of the boldness of such reports may be found in the fact that the colonists were scattered from the San Jacinto to the Lavaca and from the Gulf to the San Antonio Road, a territory embracing many thousand square miles. Besides, none of the settlers understood Spanish and some of the more rabid were inclined to question the accuracy of Austin's translations, or even to go further, and accuse empresario, commissioner, and political chief of unlawfully combining to defraud the people;---it sounds like sarcasm to speak of defrauding the people out of $192.50 in return for more than four thousand acres of the richest land in Texas. But "North American frontier republicans" will fight to the death about a trifle, if they believe they are being imposed on. Of course the discontent spoken of above, and the accusations against Austin were confined to a minority of the colonists; but the faction steadily increased until it grew to be what we should now call quite a respectable minority. Austin's friends urged him to take vigorous measures against the malcontents, but he hoped that a little time for reflection would bring the people to their senses and declined to interfere. But his forbearance was, he says, interpreted as a confession of limited authority or of violated instructions, and so produced an effect the very opposite of what was hoped for. The discontented grew bolder and bolder, and finally brought the matter to an issue in an act which Austin could not overlook.
Early in June, 1825, Aylett C. Buckner and Alexander Jackson, two leaders of the opposition, quietly posted notices in portions of the colony, denouncing the empresario, the commissioner, and even the political chief, and calling a meeting for the purpose of taking action. The notice recommended that accusations be addressed to the governor of the state of Coahuila and Texas against each of the three officials named above---against the political chief for having issued the schedule of fees and authorized their collection from the settlers; against Austin for having collected fees according to the schedule; and against Austin and Bastrop for having given more land to some colonists than to others. The people were called upon to "shake off the Yoke and disperse that dark cloud that has so long kept the settlers in darkness." It required great audacity to accuse officers to their superiors of doing the very things that they had been appointed to do, but no bolder, or blinder, or braver creatures ever lived than the particular class of "North American frontier republicans" to which Buckner and Jackson belonged.
But Austin felt that the time had come for action. There was a law in Mexico against unauthorized assemblies, which would be clearly violated by this meeting; and on this pretext, he ordered the arrest of the two leaders and the dispersion of the meeting. At the same time, he addressed a long statement to the inhabitants of the colony, explaining his powers in detail and appending nearly ten pages of translated official documents in support of his assertions. He explained in this statement that he was ready at any time to join the people in asking an official investigation of his conduct, but he felt that in cases of insubordination such as Buckner's and Jackson's his duty was plain, hence he had arrested them and would turn them over to the government at Bexar for trial and sentence. At the same time, Austin wrote to the political chief asking a public investigation of his acts and vindication of his conduct; he recommended, too, that Buckner and Jackson be severely punished, and warned the political chief that new comers should not be allowed to "set themselves up in opposition to the constituted authorities of the government and to insult its officers."
The arrests were made but the prisoners were not sent to Bexar. Austin had an audience with them on the 11th of June and after he had explained the extent of his powers to them they made a complete surrender and declared that thenceforth "they should remain content and obedient;" all the blame was shifted on the shoulders of Madame Rumor, who had deceived them. They were accordingly released and Austin wrote the political chief, "thus I have the satisfaction to say that this difficulty has been settled." (See Correspondence next page) It is not to be understood, however, that all the faction were satisfied with Austin's explanation; but at least the crisis was past and the discontent gradually subsided as other affairs occupied the attention of the settlers. Buckner remained a leader to the last; as a captain of militia he led his company on many Indian campaigns and was at last killed in the attack on Velasco in 1832.