Many historians have called Stephen F. Austin the “father of Texas” for his efforts to bring the first settlers from the United States into Texas. But the story begins with his own father, businessman and visionary Moses Austin, who in his own way became the “grandfather of Texas.”
Moses Austin was born in Connecticut in October 1761, already part of a pioneer tradition. His ancestors arrived in the early waves of settlers from England in the early 17th century. His father, Elias Austin, was a man of many trades and had worked as a tailor, tavern owner and farmer. He thus learned from his father’s business sense and soon wanted to step out into more lucrative trades.
Austin had a sharp eye for business. In 1784, he joined his older brother, Stephen Austin, in a successful dry goods business in Philadelphia. Here, Moses Austin married Mary Brown in 1785, the daughter of a wealthy iron mine owner, and the two would have five children.
Eager to build on their success in Pennsylvania, the Austins moved to Virginia to expand their dry goods business and move into mining. In 1789, the brothers assisted with the construction of the Virginia State Capitol building, designed by Thomas Jefferson. The Austins, through their lead mining business, constructed the original roof for the building. The two soon expanded their mining operations into southwestern Virginia. They founded the small community of Austinville to support their lead and zinc mines in the area. However, the mine played out within a few years. With money problems mounting, Moses Austin moved to Missouri in 1798 to establish a new series of mines.
By the time the United States purchased the region from France in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase, Austin was already an established business leader in the area. He made a fortune in the mining business and founded several communities along the Mississippi River. While in Missouri, he and a group of business partners formed the Bank of St. Louis, which was the first bank established west of the Mississippi River. While the effort did not last long, the bank helped solidify St. Louis’s position as a major center of commerce.
The Panic of 1819 wiped out Moses Austin’s mining fortune. Deeply in debt and frustrated, he began looking for new outlets to repay his business partners and creditors. His vision turned toward Texas colonization.
At the time, Spain struggled to hold onto its vast empire in the New World. Its territories, running from California to Texas to South America in 1819, were thinly settled in many areas and difficult to defend or develop. Austin’s proposal to bring American settlers to the area and develop new communities was met with deep skepticism in December 1820. After an initial rejection by the Spanish governor in San Antonio, Austin convinced the respected local businessman, Felipe Neri, Baron de Bastrop, to appeal on his behalf. Because of the baron’s appeals, the governor reluctantly agreed. Eventually, several thousand acres were offered for settlement.
The trip to Texas exhausted Austin. In his already weakened state, he obsessively worked to make his Texas settlements a success when his frail health collapsed. Determined that his Texas dream would continue, he enlisted the support of his son. With his dying strength, he had his wife write a letter to their son begging him to continue his father’s work. Moses Austin died in June 1821. Their son, the always loyal and devoted Stephen F. Austin, accepted his father’s mission and soon charged into his destiny, leading the way for the first American settlements in Texas.