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

Previous page--Slavery in Early Texas by Lester Bugbee

Some alarm had been created among the American settlers by the rumor that it was the intention of the Mexican leaders to introduce into the federal constitution a clause abolishing slavery. At the invitation of the acting political chief of Texas, the inhabitants of Austin's Colony held a mass meeting on June 5, 1824, to formulate instructions for the guidance of the representative of Coahuila and Texas in the Constituent Congress. At this meeting two subjects were considered--the tobacco monopoly of the government and slavery, and a memorial on each was addressed to Congress. The memorial on slavery asked that the slaves of the three hundred families settled in Texas be exempted from any emancipation provision that might be made by Congress; it appealed to the guarantee made by the colonization law, under which most of the settlers had felt safe in bringing their slaves with them; it laid emphasis upon the fact that such labor was necessary in clearing and cultivating their farms; and assured the government that no slaves had been brought into the country for speculative purposes.

Although the Congress passed no law prohibiting settlers from bringing their slaves into Texas, the attitude of the Mexican people soon became well known in the United States and materially injured the Texas settlements. People were slow to put in jeopardy such valuable property as their slaves. Exaggerated rumors became current everywhere, and from all quarters letters came to Austin asking for more definite information in regard to the matter. The following extract from a letter from J. A. R Phelps of Missouri, to Austin will serve to show how this decree against the slave trade became distorted by the United States newspapers.

Nothing appears at present, he wrote, to prevent a portion of our wealthy planters froin emigrating immediately to the province of Texas but the uncertainty now prevailing with regard to the subject of slavery. There has been a paragraph that has gone the round of nusepaper publication in the United States, perporting to be an extract from a Mexican paper; which precludes the introduction of Negro property into the Mexican Republick, without exception; Subjecting the persons so offending to the severest penalties, and also immediate emansipation of those slaves now belonging to the citizens of the province of Texas; and freedom to the slave that touches the soil of Mexico. If this be a fact, it will check the tide of emigrating spirits at once; and indeed it has had its influence already.

Rumors even more adverse to the settlement had already become current in Alabama. A letter to Austin from George Nixon, of that state, dated November 14, 1823, had this to say:

I think It my Dutey to say to you that the Genral [General Eugenio Cortez, on his way to Philadelphia, but forced to put into Mobile for repairs], Sayes to me that all Negrow in the Provances of Mexico are free, and that Slavery will not be Premited and that you have No author to Grant Lands Nor inVite Settlers to the Provance.

The interests of the colony perhaps suffered more from partial or exaggerated reports in the two sections just mentioned than elsewhere in the United States. But from all quarters came inquiries as to the present status of slavery and the probable future legislation of the Mexican nation. It must not be understood, however, that these reports altogether stopped immigration; Texas was being peopled in spite of the uncertainty about slavery. The Mexican authorities in Texas were not ignorant of the fact that the incoming colonists were bringing slaves with them, and yet they continued to encourage immigration, not regarding the introduction of slaves by their owners removing to Mexico as a violation of the decree of July 13, 1824.

It is now time to inquire into the attitude of the state government of Coahuila and Texas towards slavery, and to follow briefly the acts of the state Congress. By the Acta Constitutiva, January 31, 1824, the provinces of Coahuila, Texas and Nuevo Leon were united into one state under the title "Eastern Internal." By decree of May 7, 1824, Nuevo Leon was made a separate state, Coahuila and Texas remaining united. The old name was dropped and the state was known as Coahuila and Texas. The federal constitution adopted five months later approved this arrangement and Coahuila and Texas continued legally united until the Revolution. The Constituent Congress of the state met in August, 1824, and remained in session till June, 1827. The colonization law - under which all the contracts in Texas, except Austin's first, were made - was approved March 24, 1825 . This was one of the most liberal invitations ever issued by a nation to foreigners. Grants of land, to which the adjective "princely" may in truth be applied, were offered almost for the asking. As those who passed the law were well aware that it was directed chiefly to the Americans, it cannot be said with any semblance of support that the Mexicans had yet come to regard the Americans with jealousy or suspicion. Nor could they have felt much alarm at the introduction of the slaves, who they knew were every day being brought across the border. The slavery question, which was inseparably connected with the colonization of the provinces, was dismissed, so far as the state colonization law is concerned, as follows:

Art. 46. In respect to the introduction of slaves, the new settlers shall subject themselves to the laws that are now, and shall hereafter be established on the subject.

This was understood to amount practically to a declaration of at least temporary toleration, not only of slavery, but also of the further introduction of slaves by incoming settlers. It is true that this view is open to objection if we regard the national law of July 13, 1824, as does Professor von Holst, as excluding the introduction of slaves into all other colonies, by making a special exception of the isthmus of Tehuantepec. The matter need not, however, be discussed at this point, since the interpretation put upon that law a little later by Austin and the state Congress will perhaps aid us in passing final judgment.

The Congress made slow progress in the matter of framing the constitution of the state; but it soon became known that the body was hostile to slavery. The alarm was sounded through Texas; and, as usual, exaggerated rumors flew from settlement to settlement, until many of the slaveholders actually began to make preparations to return to the United States. Even Austin seems to have been much affected by the panic, as he faced the possibility of losing his most valuable colonists, and in consequence was plunged into one of those fits of gloom which sometimes settled heavily upon his heart. He drew up a strong memorial, which was pronounced by his Bexar friends to be algo duro and forwarded it through the political chief to Congress. The Americans in Texas, of course, warmly supported Austin's view. The Spanish leaders in Bexar were but little behind in endorsing the sentiments of the empresario. There has been, it appears, a general misapprehension as to the relations existing at that time between the Spanish and American elements in Texas. Instead of being hostile to the interests of the colony, the citizens of Bexar were willing to go almost as far as the American settlers in asking the government to grant toleration to slavery. When an adverse report on this subject was made to Congress in the form of the first draft of the thirteenth article of the constitution, the Bexar authorities at once interested themselves to have the objectionable article eliminated. Austin's brother, then in Bexar, wrote as follows:

The Ayuntamiento of this place presented a memorial to the Legislature as soon as the project arrived praying that the discussion on that important point might be suspended until they could have time to consider upon it, and inform the other Ayuntamientos of the Department that they might do the same. Since then they have given it the attention it merited - and by the last mail have sent up a representation couched in the strongest language they could express in favor of the admission in the New Colonies - they declare it to be indispensable for the prosperity of this Department; in fact they have said all they can say as to the project of freeing the slaves of the 300 families they declare it to be an unjust abuse of the rights of the Colonists.

In such language the brother of the empresario expressed his satisfaction as to the attitude of the Mexican officials in San Antonio. Austin felt that a crisis had been reached. Writing to one of his agents, who was making contracts for him in the United States while the matter was pending in Congress, he insisted that it be explained to the families who were then about to start to Texas, and said that he would in no manner be held accountable or censurable for embarrassments arising from the slow action of the government. The constitution, he explained, was under discussion and the slavery question was yet undecided; he believed that the unrestricted admission of slaves would not be permitted, though most probably those then in the colony would remain slaves for life.

In addition to his exhortations addressed to the Texas representative and the memorial which he directed to Congress, Austin felt that a personal agent in the capital was necessary to the interests of Texas. His brother, James Brown Austin, was selected for this mission. After remaining for some time in Bexar, probably with good effect, Brown Austin reached the capital in September. He found Congress almost unanimous on the subject of slavery, and was at once convinced that "the most that can be obtained is permission for the three hundred families to hold their slaves." The anti-slavery men were led by the deputy Carrillo, who seems to have been the controlling spirit in the body. It was believed by Brown Austin that all the members except Bastrop and one or two others had been bought by this aspiring leader. At all events, they were under his control. The only man in the body that defended the slave interest was the Baron de Bastrop, the Texas representative; and nobly did he work for what he believed to be the welfare of his adopted section. "The Viejo is very warm on the subject," wrote Brown Austin from Bexar to his brother, after having seen a letter from Bastrop to Cavallos, which in some way had fallen into the hands of the political chief of Texas; "I know not what would have been our fate if he had not been a member of the legislature. Our situation would have been a deplorable one indeed."

It would be interesting to follow the debates on this topic, but the want of the printed journals leaves us to conjecture as best we may the various forms assumed by the thirteenth article of the constitution before it was finally incorporated in that instrument. Certainly a movement was on foot to abolish slavery altogether, even to the extent of emancipating the slaves of the first settlers. "At all events, if it comes to the worst," were the words of Brown Austin, "and the slaves of the 300 families are freed, we have a right to appeal to Congress - where I am convinced all will go right." Bastrop's tireless exertions, the presence of Brown Austin in the capital, and the strong remonstrances which came from a united Texas, probably had considerable effect in moderating the demands of the extreme party. The Baron even went so far in his loyalty to Texas as to threaten that he would withhold his signature from the finished constitution, if it contained an article freeing the slaves of the Texas colonists. Brown Austin reported that the representation of his brother so clearly demonstrated the injustice of such an act "that the Author of the Article himself [Carrillo] asked permission to withdraw it." The substance of the article thus withdrawn is not stated; but perhaps we should not fly wide of the mark if we should guess that it was a clause emancipating all slaves in Texas. The withdrawal of the article, whatever it may have been, by Carrillo seems to have marked the crisis in the discussion of the matter. The slaves then in Texas were not to be freed. It remained to settle the status of the children born of slaves after their removal to the state, and to pass upon the question of the further introduction of slaves by incoming settlers.

The leaders of the Texas party seemed to have realized, from the first, that it would be useless to contend for the continuation of their property rights in the generation born of slave parents in Texas after the publication of the constitution. They did try, however, to claim as much service from that generation as possible. Brown Austin urged Congress to consider the wisdom of retaining the children under the master's supervision until they had acquired some "useful branch of industry whereby they might gain a livelihood - instead of becoming vagabonds and rogues." He believed that no such useful branch of industry could be acquired if they were freed at birth or fourteen, and suggested instead that they should be compelled to remain with their masters till they were twenty one or even twenty-five. He laid emphasis, too, upon the injustice of compelling the master to maintain the children of the slaves during the period when their support could be little less than a total loss, without providing some means of compensation, as by extending their period of compulsory service till the owner had been remunerated. He found the members inclined to listen to his arguments, and he left Saltillo indulging the pleasing thought that he had probably been instrumental in preserving to the Texas settlers the labor of the next generation of negroes till they had reached the age of twenty-one or twenty-five. His hopes proved wholly unfounded; the thirteenth article provided that after the promulgation of the constitution the children of all slaves should be free at birth.

Bastrop had early come to the conclusion that a further introduction of slaves into Texas would be strictly forbidden. We have as yet no knowledge of the considerations which moved Congress to postpone the effective operation of the thirteenth article for six months after the publication of the constitution, during which time slaves might be freely brought into the republic. Probably it was urged upon the notice of that body that many settlers were on their way to Texas, who might reach the border before hearing of the new constitution, and would then be compelled either to return or to lose their slaves. Simple justice required that ample notice be given to intending immigrants. The thirteenth article, as it was finally adopted and as it appeared in the constitution, which was published March 11, 1827, reads as follows:

Art. 13. From and after the promulgation of the Constitution in the capital of each district, no one shall be born a slave in the state, and after six months the introduction of slaves under any pretext shall not be permitted.

Six months later the Congress issued a decree for carrying into effect the provisions of the above article. The municipalities were ordered to make a list of all slaves within their limits, the deaths and births were to be reported to the state government every three months and a careful register of the same was to be kept by the ayuntamientos. In addition several provisions were incorporated in the law which were intended to ameliorate the condition of the blacks: a tenth of the slaves must be emancipated whenever ownership changed, which, of course, could be only by inheritance; the ayuntamientos were also required to provide for the best education that can be given "the emancipated children." A little more than two months later an additional article to this decree was passed, which allowed the slave to change his master, provided the new master would indemnify the old.

It will be seen from the above that the Congress of Coahuila and Texas did not even consider the proposition, advanced by Alaman and accepted by Professor von Holst, that the law of July 13, 1824, prohibited the further introduction of slaves into Mexico. Not once was it intimated by the younger Austin in his long letters to his brother that this view had been accepted by even the most radical opponent of slavery. Congress was not occupied with discussing the advisability of enforcing a law already in existence, but provided for the first time the proper regulations for introducing and holding negro slaves in Texas. It did not accuse the Texans of having trampled upon the federal law, but specifically granted them an extension of time during which the prohibitory clause in the newly made constitution should be suspended. The letters and documents above referred to establish beyond question, it seems to me, that the Congress of Coahuila and Texas, as well as the citizens of Texas, did not regard the bringing in of slaves by immigrants as contrary to either state or federal law.

The prohibition in the constitution undoubtedly operated to the temporary disadvantage of the colonies. During the discussion of the matter by Congress, few men were willing to risk the possibility of losing their slaves by carrying them into Texas; and after the prohibition went into effect, it was some time before the ingenious plan of evading the law became well known in the United States. It was not long, however, before slaves were again crossing the border with their masters, in spite of the seemingly rigid prohibition contained in the constitution. The Texas settlers developed a method of evading the law which was more in accord with Mexican institutions; and while it just as effectively secured to the master the absolute control of the servant's labor, it left unmentioned the obnoxious word "slave," and thus did not outrage the Mexican's theory of the equality of men. The system adopted by the Texans was the peonage common throughout Mexico. As has been said above, it is hard to believe that the thirteenth article was inserted in the constitution out of any motives of jealousy or hostility towards Texas on the part of the leaders of Coahuila: too many exclusive privileges and temporary exceptions were granted to Texas by the same Congress to permit such a view. It was more than likely that the abstract theorizing of a non-slaveholding people who had just won their independence had aroused opposition to slavery. For a few years following the publication of the constitution the attitude of the successive state Congresses was favorable to Texas. Many grants of monopolies in trade were made to Americans, and special laws or exceptions to laws were passed from time to time in favor of the Texas settlements. So it happened that when the question of introducing and controlling negro labor was again laid before Congress without the mention of the word "slave," the members did not feel that violence had been done to their principles, but proceeded to undo practically all that the constitution had done in favor of emancipating the slaves brought into the colonies.

The harmless-looking decree of May 5, 1828, which again opened Texas to slavery, reads as follows:

The Congress of the State of Coahuila and Texas, attending to the deficiency of workingmen to give activity to agriculture and the other arts, and desiring to facilitate their introduction into the State, as well as the growth and prosperity of the said branches, has thought proper to decree: All contracts, not in opposition to the laws of the State, that have been entered into in foreign countries, between emigrants who come to settle in this State, or between the inhabitants thereof, and the Servants and day laborers or workingmen whom they introduce, are hereby guaranteed to be valid in said State.

If we would fully understand to what extent there was a "deficiency of workingmen," and in what character it was desirable to facilitate their introduction into the State, we must consider a few other facts in connection with the decree just quoted. The laborers needed in Texas were for the opening and cultivation of the great plantations along the river bottoms, for the settlers of Texas at that time regarded the prairies and uplands as suitable only for cattle-raising. In these bottoms negro labor could be employed to far greater advantage than white labor, owing to that peculiar physical characteristic of the negro which renders him almost secure against attacks of the all-prevalent malaria. These plantations are worked to this day almost exclusively by black labor. It was negro laborers, then, that the decree regarded as especially desirable.

Not quite a year after the passage of the decree under consideration, Austin, in a letter to Wharton, said emphatically that "the men now in power in this state wish to tolerate slavery," and that settlers might bring their negroes without fear. Again, in a letter to Ellis, Sutherland, Winston, Royal and others, written at a time when Austin believed that enough slaves had been admitted to Texas, he stated that the object of the decree of May 5, 1828, was "to permit families to bring the necessary and indispensable house servants and laborers."

If any doubt yet remains as to the spirit of the decree, one more instance may serve to resolve it. Early in 1830 the legislature of Louisiana ordered the expulsion of all free negroes and mulattoes who had illegally entered that state since 1825. Here seemed to be a good opportunity to secure the needed workingmen for the Texas plantations. Instead, however, of offering inducements to these laborers to emigrate to Texas, we find the Mexican vice-consul in New Orleans publishing notices that such negroes are strictly forbidden to enter Texas, and that shipmasters will not be allowed to land them on the Texas coast. The free negro was not wanted in Texas.

In the light of these facts, we are driven to the conclusion that the Congress of Coahuila and Texas, after a harmless salvo in honor of abstract principles, quietly solved the practical difficulty by a decree which was intended to reopen Texas to negro bondage, now disguised under the more pleasing name of contract labor. That the Texans evaded the law prohibiting the further introduction of slavery is an undoubted fact, but it must be added that they did so with the express consent and connivance of the state government.

The form of contract under which the negroes were brought into Texas after the decree of May, 1828, was unique. I regret that the limits of this paper forbid my introducing it here in full. Prior to leaving the United States, the master and the slave appeared before a notary public, or some other official whose seal would give validity to such documents, and in the most formal manner gave their adhesion to the agreement, which was duly signed and witnessed. The document usually begins with the statement that the negro is held as a slave under the existing laws of the state in which the contract is drawn up; that he is worth so much; that he desires to accompany his master to Texas, where he will receive his freedom on entering the state; and by way of compensating his master he agrees to pay in labor the sum at which he is valued, plus the cost of removal to Texas. The necessary cost of clothing, etc., is to be deducted from his wages as a first charge. The wages named in a blank form found among Austin's papers is twenty dollars per year.

And furthermore [says the contract] the said E. F. [the slave], being desirous that his child (or children) should enjoy the benefits of the laws of said state of Coahuila and Texas, and that he (or they) should be removed to the same by said C. D. [the master], therefore, as parent and natural guardian, he, the said E. F., contracts and agrees with the said C. D. that his child or children shall serve on the same terms as the father, wages to begin when the child reaches the age of eighteen.

The contract even anticipates the birth of other children after removal to Texas, and provides that they shall serve the master till they are twenty-five without wages

this being in consideration of the benefits they receive from the laws of that state in consequence of the removal of their parent, E. F., by said C. D., and which they never could have enjoyed unless it had been secured to them by this contract, under which said C. D. was induced to remove said E. F. to said state of Coahuila and Texas.

After the expiration of the twenty-five years, the children born after removal are to continue serving on the same terms as the father, until all debts due the master are paid. The master is held bound

to instruct said children in some useful branch of industry that will make them useful members of the community. . . . And said E. F. generally contracts and agrees with the said C. D. faithfully to serve him or his representatives as a servant and laborer as above stated, and to be obedient and submissive as a good and faithful servant should be, and faithfully to comply with this contract under the penalty of . . . dollars.

Such a contract, properly signed by the parties concerned and certified by the notary's seal and the signature of two witnesses, made the negro thus brought into Texas as truly a slave as if his master had remained in the United States. It was of course a hopeless dream to think of ever paying the debt acknowledged in the agreement, or even that contracted from year to year for clothing and other necessaries. Under this legalized evasion of the law the Texas immigrants continued to bring in their slaves, and the agitation of the subject subsided for a year or two.


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