© 1997-2000, Wallace L. McKeehan, All Rights Reserved.
DeWitt Colony People & Demographics


Slavery in Early Texas

by Lester G. Bugbee, The Political Science Quarterly, vol. III, no. 3, 1898.

The history of slavery in Texas, so far as it is of interest to us, began with the year 1821, when Moses Austin received permission to plant an Anglo-American colony on the banks of the Colorado and the Brazos. There may have been a few negroes in the little towns of Bexar and La Bahia at that time, but the number must have been insignificant and limited wholly to personal servants in the families of the well-to-do. The coming of the energetic pioneers from the United States and the development of the rich bottom lands of Texas marked the beginning of a new era, not only in the history of Mexico, but in that of America; and the question of slavery in this wilderness, at that time seemingly of interest only to a few thousand farmers, was soon to engage the attention and determine the policy of the great neighboring nation.

Under the Spanish rule in Mexico negro slavery was tolerated and protected. The conditions, however, were so unfavorable that the institution never obtained a secure foothold, and was almost unknown outside of Vera Cruz and the hot lands. Even in the most favorable localities and after the introduction of cane growing, the slaves formed no considerable element in the population of the country. As late as 1793, according to Humboldt, there were not more than nine or ten thousand in all New Spain. [In a total population of 3005, December 31, 1792, there were 34 negroes and 415 mulattoes; no mention is made of slaves. Census of Texas, Texas Archives, No. 345] H. G. Ward, the British agent in Mexico in 1825-27, believed that the number did not exceed six thousand in 1793, and that it continued to decrease till 1827. So many were manumitted, and so many received their freedom during the long struggle for independence by joining the ranks of the patriot army, that Ward thought he was justified in stating that there is now hardly a single slave in the central portion of the republic. Not one could be found in the valley of Cuernavaca, or even in the Orizaba and Cordova regions, which are the great sugar and coffee districts of Mexico.3 About fifteen years later, Waddy Thompson, the representative of the United States government, did not see half a dozen negroes during his entire residence of two years in the Mexican capital.

The petition of Moses Austin for permission to settle an Anglo-American colony in Texas was officially granted in January, 1821. No mention was made of slavery in either the petition or the grant. It was the intention of Austin, however, to draw most of his colonists from the southern United States; and there can be but little doubt that he would have favored the removal of slaves to Texas as part of the capital of his planters. But it was not for him to lead the migration for which he had prepared the way. The long journey to San Antonio de Bexar, with its hardships and exposure, resulted in his death, and the work of carrying forward the colonization of Texas fell to his son. Stephen Fuller Austin, then a young man of twenty-eight, at once made an exploring tour through Texas, was recognized as heir to his father's grant, and received the governor's approval of the plan which he had drawn up for the distribution of lands. This plan, after making provision for the head of the family and allowing a liberal portion for the wife and each child, further provided for a grant of eighty acres of land for each slave belonging to the family. In approving this plan, the government of Mexico, through its representative in Texas, acquiesced in and substantially encouraged the introduction of slaves into the new settlement. A great many immigrants found their way into Texas before the summer of 1822, most of them bearing contracts signed by Austin or his agents, in which they were promised land in accordance with the plan already mentioned. They were nearly all from the southern portion of the United States, and many of them were the owners of at least a small number of slaves. Thus it was that the institution was introduced into Texas.

But difficulties arose, for some reason the governor of Texas declined to put the settlers in possession of the promised lands, and Austin felt that the situation demanded his presence in the City of Mexico, where Congress was in session. Apparently it is not generally understood how momentous were the consequences of that journey. He remained in Mexico for more than a year; he made himself familiar with the language and the life of the people; he became intimate with many of the leaders of the Mexican nation; and he inspired the government with a confidence in his character and purpose that greatly facilitated the growth of the infant settlement in the wilderness of Texas. Austin arrived at the Mexican capital in April, 1822, a little more than a year after the proclamation of the Plan of Iguala and about two months after the assembling of the first Congress. He witnessed in rapid succession the elevation of Iturbide to the imperial throne, the dissolution of Congress, the fall of the Emperor and the establishment of the provisional republican government. All this time he was urging, in memorial after memorial, the confirmation of the grant made to his father by the Spanish government. But his was not the only application before Congress for leave to bring settlers to Mexico and to meet this demand for lands that body very early occupied itself with framing a general colonization law. The wheels of government, however, move slowly in Mexico, and particularly was this true during that year of exciting change. Austin believed that the law would never have been passed, had he not been present and constantly urging the matter upon the attention of the lawmakers. The question of slavery presented the greatest obstacle to the passage of the law. Austin believed that at least temporary toleration of slavery was necessary to the success of his colony. It was the slaveholding population of Missouri, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Mississippi that had shown the greatest interest in his settlement, and it was from the slave states of the American Union that he expected future support in his enterprise. On the other hand, the Mexican people were at that time passing through a period of fervent advocacy of liberty. Had they not just been freed from Spain? Should they not extend this great boon, liberty, to all people within the authority of their laws? Then, too, and this was more important than all their theories of liberty and natural equality, it was merely an abstract question with them, for they had few slaves to lose by a general emancipation.

It was the opinion of some members of Congress that slavery should be made the subject of a separate law, in which other phases of the matter, as well as its relation to the colonization of the provinces, could be considered in detail; but it was of the highest importance to the interests of Austin that the matter should be settled at once. A colonization law, however liberal its terms might be in other respects, would be almost a dead letter so far as he was concerned until Congress announced its policy as to slavery. Three colonization bills were offered in Congress. One was silent on the subject of slavery except as to cities, declaring that foreigners might be allowed the privilege of founding cities only on the condition of adopting the Spanish language and freeing their slaves. Another declared outright for immediate emancipation. But the bill reported by the committee on colonization contained a clause to the effect that slaves introduced into the Empire by colonists should remain so for life, and their children born in the Empire should gain their freedom at the age of fourteen. During the debate on this subject, no member announced himself as inclined to make any greater concession to slavery.

After considerable delay, Congress finally reached the colonization bill, August 20, 1822. During the general discussion of the measure very little was said about slavery, and no objection was raised on the floor to the disposition of the matter made by the committee. The bill, however, proved unsatisfactory; and, after a discussion of only two of its thirty one articles, it was recommitted with certain instructions, none of which concerned slavery. No further progress was made in the matter. The attention of Congress soon became wholly absorbed in the approaching struggle with the Emperor; and the crisis was reached on October 30, 1822, when Iturbide drove the members out of doors at the point of the bayonet. Austin was a close observer of these events, and, as they progressed, lost all hope of obtaining even as favorable a law as the committee on colonization had reported. He very probably regarded the dispersion of Congress as a stroke of good fortune; at all events he was most emphatic a little later in his belief that no law permitting the introduction of slaves could possibly have been passed through Congress. Immediately after the dispersion of Congress, the Emperor organized a junta of thirty-five members, which succeeded to the legislative powers of the former body. Its members were at once besieged by the indefatigable Austin. On November 14, the same bill which had been reported to Congress was taken up by the junta. The article relative to slavery was reached on the 26th and provoked some discussion. All were anxious to secure total abolition as soon as possible, but all were inclined to pay due regard to the rights which masters had acquired under existing laws. Senor Parras alone presented the subject from the point of view of the colonists. He explained that there would necessarily be a great scarcity of labor in the new settlements; and said that the committee had been assured that colonists would be unwilling to remove to the Mexican provinces, unless some provision was made for protecting them in the ownership of their slaves. He thought that sufficient safeguards were thrown around the privilege extended to the colonists, in the prohibition of the slave trade and in the emancipation of all children of slaves, born in the Empire, at the age of fourteen. The article was finally passed in the following form:

There shall not be permitted, after the promulgation of this law, either purchase or sale of slaves that may be introduced into the empire. The children of such slaves, who are born within the empire, shall be free at fourteen years of age.

The passage of the colonization bill, and particularly of the article relating to slavery, was probably due to the tact and energy of Austin. In his letter of January 8, 1823, to Governor Trespalacios, he said:

I talked to every member of the Junta upon the necessity which existed in Texas, Santander and all the other uninhabited provinces, that the new colonists should be permitted to bring their slaves, and in this manner I procured the article.

This is a quiet way of saying that the clause referred to was probably carried through the Junta by Austin's persistent lobbying. There must have been considerable opposition in the committee to this concession to slavery. Four days before the article came up for discussion by the junta, Austin wrote to Josiah H. Bell as follows:

As the law now is, all slaves are to be free in ten years, but I am trying to have it amended so as to make them slaves for life and their children free at twenty-one years, but do not think I shall succeed in this point, and that the law will pass as it now is, that is, that the slaves introduced by the settlers shall be free after ten years. As regards all other matters there will be no difficulty.

As there had been no discussion of the matter in the junta prior to the writing of this letter, and as during the discussion the bill never received the form mentioned by the letter, the state of affairs referred to by Austin is most probably accounted for by the supposition that there was a warm debate in the committee before the subject came up in the junta. At any rate, Austin seems to have been unduly despondent, for he gained almost as much as he hoped for perhaps because of his never-ceasing representations to every member of the junta. The completed colonization law was promulgated by the Emperor on January 4, 1823. It was annulled after the overthrow of Iturbide; but, by special decree of the new government, Austin's grant was confirmed and he was allowed to go forward with its settlement under the provisions of the annulled law. Thus it was that the government of Mexico, while all buoyant with the hopes born of the Revolution and moved by theories of the equality and brotherhood of man, authorized the introduction of negro slavery into one of its fairest provinces, while it deluded itself with the belief that it was providing for the almost immediate extermination of the abhorred institution. In the mean time the Texas fever had spread rapidly through most of the slave states of the American Union, and immigration to that province became everywhere the topic of common conversation. When Austin returned to the United States, in 1821, from his exploring tour through Texas, he found nearly one hundred letters from the neighborhood of his old home in Missouri awaiting him at Natchitoches. His partner wrote him from New Orleans that you and your colony excite more interest than the assembled sages of the nation." Many propositions reached him from men who desired to become sub-contractors and who offered to introduce bodies of settlers ranging in number from ten to three hundred. Austin was elated. He addressed a letter to the governor of Texas, asking that his grant be enlarged and that all restrictions as to the number of his colonists be removed.

The great interest in the Texas colony, which was rapidly spreading throughout a large portion of the United States, also assumed a practical form. Several vessels sailed from New Orleans during the winter of 1821-22, bearing colonists and supplies; it is known that one of these vessels had on board sixty settlers, and another a few more than twenty. A great many immigrants came by land from Natchitoches. Camps sprang up along the Colorado and the Brazos, and the prospect seemed fair that a province would be peopled and civilized in a day. But Austin's long absence in Mexico, together with a number of disastrous events in Texas, served to discourage the settlers; and when he came back from the capital in 1823, he found that a large number of his followers had returned home. Unfavorable reports as to the government of Mexico, and particularly as to adverse slavery legislation, had also become current in the United States, and immigration had almost wholly ceased. Austin's return, however, brought revived hope; confidence was restored, and before the end of 1824 he had the satisfaction of seeing all but a very few of the three hundred families in possession of their land. The success of the colony was assured.

The question of slavery, however, was by no means finally disposed of by the decree of Iturbide's junta, which allowed American immigrants to bring their slaves into Texas. The Mexican people had still to speak. The national constitution, which might dispose of the matter was yet to be adopted; and, after the federal form of government was determined upon, the framing of the state constitution and of the state colonization law offered other opportunities for the destruction of the institution in Texas. The Congress which Iturbide had dispersed in October, 1822, reassembled the following March and remained in session till October 30, 1823. It made only one provision affecting slavery. By decree of October 14, the province of Itsmo was created and opened to foreigners. Immigrants were allowed to bring their slaves, but a distinct warning was probably intended in an otherwise unnecessary clause, which said that they should be subject to whatever laws might be made in future relative to such property. The Constituent Congress which framed the Mexican constitution met in November, 1823. A decree of July 13, 1824, left no room for doubt as to the attitude of that body towards at least one phase of the slavery question. It prohibited the slave trade, domestic and foreign, in the most positive terms. Infractions of the law were to be punished with the greatest severity: any vessel engaged in this traffic, which brought slaves to Mexico, was to be confiscated with its cargo; and the owner, purchaser, captain, master and pilot were to be condemned to a year's imprisonment. Slaves brought into the country by such trade recovered their freedom the moment they touched Mexican soil. A suspension of penalties for six months was, however, declared in favor of those colonists who might wish to land slaves in the recently created province of Itsmo.

This decree was directed essentially against the slave trade; it contained no express prohibition of the removal of slaves to Mexico by their owners, whether citizens or immigrants, for purposes other than trade. The exception made in favor of the colonists on the isthmus of Tehuantepec may possibly be construed as indicating the intention of Congress to exclude the slaves of all other colonists, and may thus be regarded as an implied prohibition of the further introduction of negroes into Texas. It will be noted, however, as we proceed, that the Congress of Coahuila and Texas, which was hostile to slavery, did not so construe it, but expressly gave the colonists permission to bring in their slaves for six months after the publication of the state constitution of 1827.

Lucas Alaman (Iniciativa de ley, etc., a message to Congress, printed in Filisola's Guerra de Tejas, II, 595) takes the view that all slaves brought to Texas after this decree was published should have gained their freedom in virtue of the provision of section 2 of the decree. Professor von Holst (History of the United States, II, 553) says this decree prohibited the further importation of slaves. "But Texas was a great way off," he continues, "and the arm of the Mexican government was not long. Now, as before, settlers came with their slaves from the slave states to Texas." But he says nothing of the express permission of the constitution of Texas and Coahuila, as late as 1827, to continue this importation for six months after its publication. The importance of this decree, involving as it does the question as to whether the Texans willfully violated the federal law of Mexico, warrants the quoting of it entire:

El soberano congreso general constituyente de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos, ha tenido á bien lo siguiente:
1. Queda para siempre prohibido en el territorio, de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos el comercio y tráfico de esclavos, procedentes de cualquiera potencia y bajo cualquiera bandera.
2. Los esclavos que se introdujeren contra el tenor del articulo anterior, quedan libres con solo el hecho de pisar el territorio Mexicano.
3. Todo buque, ya sea nacional ó extrangero, en que se trasporten ó introduzcan esclavos al territorio, Mexicano, será irremisiblemente confiscado, con el resto de su cargamento; y el dueño, el comprador, el capitan, el maestre y el piloto sufrirán la pena de un año de presidio.
4. Esta ley tendrá su efecto desde el mismo dia de su publicacion; pero en cuanto i las penas prescritas en el articulo anterior no lo tendri hasta seis meses despues, respecto de los colonos que en virtud de la ley de 14 de Octubre último, sobre colonizacion del istmo de Guazacoalco, desembarquen esclavos con el fin de introducirlos en el territorio de Mexicano.

The sovereign general Constituent Congress of the United Mexican States has been pleased to decree the following:
1. Commerce and traffic in slaves, proceeding from any country and under any flag whatsoever, is forever prohibited in the territory of the United Mexican States.
2. Slaves that are introduced contrary to the tenor of the above article are free in virtue of the mere act of treading Mexican territory.
3. Every ship, whether domestic or foreign, in which slaves are transported to or introduced into Mexican territory, shall be irremissibly confiscated, with the remainder of its cargo; and the owner, the purchaser, the captain, the master, and the pilot shall suffer the penalty of a year's imprisonment.
4. This law shall take effect from the day of its publication, but the penalties prescribed in the above article shall be suspended for six months with reference to those colonists who, in virtue of the law of the fourteenth of October last upon the colonization of the isthmus of Guazacoalco, may land slaves with the intention of introducing them into Mexican territory.

Here the matter rested, so far as federal legislation is concerned. The Acta Constitutiva (adopted January 31, 1824) was silent on the subject, as was the national colonization law. The federal constitution, which was completed and promulgated on October 4, 1824, made no mention of the subject. When Congress adjourned in December, Mexico had no law prohibiting incoming settlers from bringing their slaves with them, unless, indeed, the decree of July 13, 1824, can be construed as implying such a prohibition.

Next page--Slavery in Early Texas by Lester Bugbee

© 1997-2000, Wallace L. McKeehan, All Rights Reserved.
DeWitt Colony People & Demographics