The elder Austin, however, was a notable figure in American history in his own right. He expanded the industry of lead mining and manufacturing in the young United States, amassing wealth and influence in the Missouri Territory to which he was propelled by a combination of hearsay and pioneer instinct. Austin was a colorful figure who made fortunes and lost them, faced threats to life and limb as he traveled the frontier on horseback and on foot, launched new enterprises as others were playing it safe, and generally exemplified the American pioneer spirit.
Named Home after Hometown
A descendant of early Puritan immigrants to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Moses Austin was born in Durham, Connecticut, on October 4, 1761. His father, Elias, was a tailor, farmer, and sometime tavernkeeper. When he was 21, Austin moved to the larger city of Middletown and opened a "dry goods" shop selling a miscellany of items that might include cloth, buttons and buckles, tea, eyeglasses, and whatever else he could acquire for resale from the traders that plied Connecticut's waterways. In 1783 he followed his older brother Stephen to the bustling mercantile city of Philadelphia, and never saw Connecticut again. Yet when he built a mansion in Missouri from his lead mining earnings, he named it Durham Hall in homage to the place of his childhood.
Austin and some partners opened another store in Philadelphia, where they flourished despite boycotts of imported goods during the Revolutionary War. About a year after arriving, Austin went to Richmond, Virginia, to open a branch operation and stayed on there, establishing a new store confidently named Moses Austin and Company. By 1785 he was well enough established that he could send for a girl, Mary Brown, whom he had met during his stay in Philadelphia. The two married and had five children, three of whom lived to adulthood. The oldest of those was Stephen Fuller Austin, popularly regarded as the founding father of Texas. By 1789 Moses Austin was doing well in Richmond, had some $25,000 to invest, and was looking around for new moneymaking ventures.
The plan that he finally devised, with financial support from his brother Stephen, was a bold one: he would reopen and refurbish a disused lead mine in Wythe County, Virginia, in the mountains some 250 miles southwest of Richmond, hiring laborers and opening a smelting furnace designed according to the latest techniques from Europe. Austin claimed in a letter to Virginia's governor that he would soon be able to produce enough lead to serve the needs of the entire American lead market, most of which at the time relied on European imports. As part of the early financing of the operation, he won a contract from the Virginia legislature to install a lead roof on Virginia's new state capitol building.
As would happen throughout his career, Austin managed to realize a substantial part of his plan but then overextended himself financially. The mine was productive from the start, and by 1792 a company town, called Austinville and still in existence, boasted stores offering merchandise shipped from Richmond. Austin himself took up residence with his frontier-shocked family as the town took shape. Moses and Stephen Austin purchased the mine outright in 1793, but by that time their financing for the venture was drying up. The roofing scheme, unsurprisingly, was not a success; after repeated attempts by Austin's workmen to stop the leaks that plagued the new building, his contract was apparently revoked.
Austin, in financial trouble by the mid-1790s, responded by once again seeking out new horizons. He heard that in the northern part of the Spanish-controlled Louisiana territory, in what is now Missouri, mining lead was often as easy as picking up chunks of ore deposits lying on the ground. In December of 1796, at the beginning of an unusually cold and snowy winter in Kentucky, he set out on horseback with one man from the Austinville mines and a pack mule, crossing the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. In a letter quoted by biographer David B. Gracy II, Austin remarked on the desperate conditions faced by some of the early Kentucky settlers he met: "Nor can any thing be more distressing to a man of feeling than to see woman and Children in the Snow passing large rivers and Creeks with out Shoe or Stocking, and barely as maney raggs as covers their Nakedness, without money or provisions except what the Wilderness affords."
Observed Streams to Find Bearings in Storm
Before reaching Missouri, Austin had a desperate winter adventure of his own; misdirected by a local guide, his party lost the road in the snow. They contemplated eating their horses, but found their bearings by observing the direction in which all the small streams around them were running. When he finally reached a lead-rich site that local French miners called Mineà Breton, however, he spotted high-quality ore and immediately realized that his journey had been worth the hazard. He petitioned local officials, asking that he be given a tract of land that included the mines, promising in return (as quoted by Gracy), among other things, to furnish the King of Spain with "all the lead in rolls which he will need for the service of his navel [naval] forces in his colonies." His petition was granted, although for several years Austin still wrangled with the French miners who were established in the area. He also faced armed conflict with hostile Native American tribes. In 1798, however, near what is now Potosi, Missouri, Austin established the first American settlement west of the Mississippi that was not on the river itself.
At one point, Austin renounced his American citizenship and swore allegiance to the Spanish crown. His nationality changed twice in short order; Spain returned Louisiana to France in 1800, and Austin became an American again with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Unimpeded by far-off diplomatic maneuvers, Austin's empire grew. Through a combination of aggressive expansion and technical savvy, he amassed a fortune estimated at $190,000 over the next decade. He established a town called Herculaneum, southwest of St. Louis, and located a new lead smelting operation there (its descendants are still in operation), importing skilled smelter workers from England who were familiar with new reverberatory furnace designs. He had one major rival in the extraction and production of lead, John Smith, who was also based in Missouri. But Austin dominated the industry to such an extent that historians of lead-making refer to the phase of Austin's activity as the Moses Austin Period. Austin cultivated friends in the halls of government, and he was in turn appointed a judge of the Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions by Missouri territorial governor and future president William Henry Harrison.
Once again, however, Austin fell on hard times. Lead sales were hurt by a series of political events several years apart. In the middle of the first decade of the nineteenth century, former Vice President Aaron Burr was arrested and charged with treason after rumors surfaced that he was trying to raise an army to seize much of the new Louisiana Purchase and install himself as king or emperor. The War of 1812 was followed by several bad economic years, and Austin and other Missouri leaders pressed the national government for a freer monetary supply policy. Austin took matters into his own hands by founding the Bank of St. Louis, the first U.S. bank west of the Mississippi River. He moved to Herculaneum, leaving the mining operation in the hands of his son Stephen.
As the bank's finances deterioriated, Austin once again found himself besieged by debt. And, as he had always done under those circumstances, he looked around for new opportunities. He made inquiries about a perpetual motion machine that a Philadelphia inventor claimed to have built. Austin hit rock bottom after the Bank of St. Louis failed during the Panic of 1819, and he began to act on a plan he had been mulling for several years: he intended to petition Spanish administrators for permission to establish a settlement in what was then the sparsely populated and largely unproductive Spanish province of Texas (Mexico had declared independence from Spain in 1810, but the country's war of independence lasted until 1821, and Texas was still under Spanish colonial control.) Austin won over his son Stephen, who had moved to Little Rock, and Stephen agreed to provide financial support for his 59-year-old father's overland trip to San Antonio de Bexar, the modern city of San Antonio. Austin, traveling via Natchitoches, Louisiana, arrived there on December 23, 1820, and presented himself to the provincial governor, Antonio María Martínez.
Found Help After Chance Encounter
The meeting was a disaster. Military tensions between the United States and Mexico were already beginning to rise, and Martínez had been ordered to keep foreigners out of Spanish lands. Austin spoke no Spanish, and the governor no English; they communicated imperfectly in their only common language, which was French. Austin's argument that he himself was a former Spanish citizen had no impact, and the governor ordered Austin to leave the premises. A despondent Austin made immediate plans to begin the grueling thousand-mile winter trip back to Missouri.
Before he left, however, and by sheer coincidence, he encountered a man who called himself the Baron de Bastrop. Bastrop in reality had no noble background but had committed small-time financial crimes in his native Netherlands and made his way to New Orleans, where Austin had met him on a business trip 20 years before. Despite the long interval, the two recognized each other, and Austin explained his situation. Bastrop, who lived in San Antonio, spoke Spanish, and was well acquainted with the Spanish authorities there, agreed to help Austin make a repeat attempt to present his plan to Martínez. He rewrote Austin's petition, adding the rhetorical flourishes and flattery that would be expected by a representative of Spanish royalty. This time the outcome was different: Martínez agreed to forward the plan to colonial authorities.
Elated, Austin once again set out for Missouri. But this was to be his last long journey. Austin and a slave named Richmond acquired a traveling companion who, Austin learned, was a dealer in stolen mules. That in itself threatened the success of Austin's Texas enterprise, but Austin's situation went from bad to worse when he became a victim himself: the mule dealer made off with Austin's own horses, mules, and gear one night while he was sleeping. Austin and the slave continued on foot, living on whatever nuts and berries they could find in midwinter. The slave, unable to continue, left the road when he met someone he knew, and Austin walked for more than a week toward Natchitoches, "undergoing," he wrote in letter quoted by James L. Haley in Texas: An Album of History, "everything but death." He finally arrived in Natchitoches and spent several weeks recuperating at an inn there, but his health was permanently ruined.
Back in Missouri, Austin briefly experienced a revival of his flagging spirits when he learned that the Spanish authorities had agreed to permit him to establish his new colony. Pioneer families had already expressed an interest in moving to Texas, and Austin stood to receive thousands of dollars in fees. But he was suffering from pneumonia, likely contracted on his long trek from San Antonio, and as he pushed himself to launch the new venture his health worsened. Realizing that his time was short, he urged his son Stephen to carry on the work he had started. "Raise your spirits," he wrote in a letter quoted by Haley. "Times are changing, a new chance presents itself." He died on June 10, 1821, at the home of his daughter, Emily Bryan, in Hazel Run, Missouri. The state capital of Texas still bears the name of the Austins, father and son.
American pioneer and entrepreneur Moses Austin (1761-1821) is best known to historians for having laid the plans for American settlement of Texas that were carried out by his son Stephen F. Austin, and for having conducted the initial negotiations necessary to bring those plans to fruition.
- Cantrell, Gregg, Stephen F. Austin: Empresario of Texas, Yale, 1999.
- Gracy, David B., II, Moses Austin: His Life, Trinity University Press (San Antonio), 1987.
- Haley, James L., Texas: An Album of History, Doubleday, 1985.
- "Austin, Moses," Handbook of Texas Online, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/AA/fau12.html (October 22, 2008).