Known as "The Father of Texas," Stephen F. Austin established the first Anglo-American colony in the Tejas province of Mexico and saw it grow into an independent republic.
Austin was born in southwestern Virginia, but his family moved to Missouri when he was five years old. After four years of schooling at Yale College, he returned to Missouri, where he had a mixed career as a storekeeper, manager of the family lead mining business, and director of a failed bank. He served as a militia officer and was a member of the Missouri territorial legislature from 1814 to 1820. In 1820, Arkansas' governor appointed him as a circuit judge.
It was Austin's father, Moses Austin, who took the first steps toward establishing an American colony in Mexican Tejas. In 1820, he traveled to San Antonio to petition for a land grant, and in 1821 received approval to settle 300 American families on 200,000 acres. But Moses Austin died before completing his plans and responsibility for establishing the colony fell to Stephen.
Austin selected a site on the lower Colorado and Brazos rivers, and settled his colonists there in January 1822. Almost at once he faced opposition from the newly independent Mexican government, which refused to recognize his father's land grant since it had been made under Spanish charter. Austin traveled to Mexico City to correct this situation, and using skillful diplomacy secured a new law confirming his right to colonize the land and designating him as the new colony's empresario or administrative authority.
Austin occupied a complex and difficult position as intermediary between his colonists and the Mexican government. In his role as empresario, he was responsible for controlling immigration into the region, for establishing a judicial and law-enforcement system, for allocating land according to accurate surveys, and for supervising the creation of a basic social infrastructure -- including roads, schools, sawmills, and granaries. He was also a general ombudsman to the Mexican government for the colonists' interests. In 1827, for example, he lobbied successfully against the banning of slavery in Texas, even though it had been illegal in Mexico since 1824.
Despite growing friction between the American immigrants and the Mexican government, Austin continued to believe that most disputes could be worked out within the Mexican system. Accordingly, he sought to ally himself with Mexican liberals seeking a limited but efficient government and the separation of church and state. His efforts to work out problems within the Mexican system, however, would ultimately proved futile.
In 1830, Mexican officials passed a law prohibiting further American immigration into Tejas, hoping in this way to limit American influence over the region. Austin found a loophole that allowed him to continue expanding his colony, but the law stirred resentment among his colonists, who began calling for a separate state government in Tejas, which was then under the jurisdiction of the neighboring state of Coahuila. Against Austin's advice, they framed a constitution for the proposed state of Texas at the San Felipe Convention in 1833, and had Austin carry it to Mexico City, along with a list of demands for redress of grievances.
Austin had mixed success with the Mexican government. President Antonio López de Santa Anna agreed to repeal the 1830 law against further American immigration, but he refused to grant the request for statehood. He also had Austin imprisoned for a time on suspicion of inciting an insurrection.
Even after his release in July 1835, Austin still thought an alliance with Mexican liberals was the best option for Americans in Texas, but the outbreak of the Texas Revolution at Gonzales on October 1, 1835 left him little choice but to support the drive for independence. He took command of the attack on Mexican troops led by Juan Sequin at San Antonio, and then in late 1835 began to act as commissioner to the United States, traveling to Washington to seek military support and the eventual annexation of Texas by the United States. He also sought to rally public support for Texas in speeches delivered along his route.
Austin's efforts in Washington proved unsuccessful, however, and he returned to Texas in June 1836, shortly after the Texas War for Independence had been won at San Jacinto. In the fall, he was defeated in a bid for the presidency by Sam Houston, but he served as secretary of state until his death on December 27, 1836.