INVITING IN THE ANGLOS
When Mexican authorities allowed Anglo settlers into Texas in 1821, they believed it would be in their best interest. By letting outsiders develop land that the Spanish settlers did not want, the state would benefit from the cotton and cattle industries that were so prevalent in the southern areas of the United States. It seemed like an amicable arrangement, but Mexico got more than it bargained for.
For the most part, Mexico had a “no foreigners” policy, but they saw nothing wrong in allowing foreigners to populate remote areas. They adopted an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude toward the new settlers. This attitude was nothing new. In 1790, Anglo settlers moved to Spanish-owned Upper Louisiana. They were looking for a new life, and the Spanish were looking for people who could keep the Comanche and Kiowa at bay. There were three requirements for newcomers: They had to be Catholic, hardworking, and willing to become Spanish citizens. In 1821, when Mexico won its independence from Spain, the new government adopted the same policy.
Anglo settlers came from all over the United States, enticed by cheap land and the promise of a better future. Back home, they had to pay dearly for land. The going rate in the United States was $1.25 per acre for a minimum of eighty acres. In Hispanic-owned Texas, settlers could purchase land for $0.04 per acre. In addition, the head of the family, whether man or woman, could claim 4,605 acres. The $184 needed to purchase the land could be paid over a six-year period.
As if this alone weren’t reason enough to lure settlers into Texas, there were others. Back in the United States, many settlers suffered foreclosures due to crop failures, or they were seriously in debt. Since there were no extradition laws between Mexico and the United States, people could escape their creditors by moving and settling in Mexican territory. Like the settlers on previously owned Spanish lands, new settlers in Texas had to become Catholic, and they had to take an oath of allegiance to Mexico. To most this seemed a small price to pay for a new life with a clean slate.
One man in particular, Moses Austin, saw great potential to make money by applying for an empresario grant, which involved bringing in new settlers. He planned on charging each settler $0.125 per acre and using the profit to restore his family’s finances. He received permission from the Spanish government to settle 300 families in Texas. Unfortunately, Austin died before he could even get the ball rolling on the venture. So, his son, Stephen F. Austin, inherited the contract.
After going through a great deal of bureaucratic red tape, the younger Austin finally received the go-ahead to bring families across the border. He encountered problems shortly after the colony settled. Texas had a shift in government. The Mexicans won independence from Spain in 1821. The former Spanish territory became Mexican owned. The settlers had a whole new government to deal with. The new government did not carry forward every policy.
For example, the African slave trade had been banned in Mexican-held lands. This posed problems for the white settlers in Texas who were used to making their profits off the backs of the African slaves. The settlers found a loophole. They were allowed to bring their family slaves into Texas, where they bought and sold them. This practice continued for years until it was finally banned. When the settlers heard rumors that the slaves might be emancipated altogether, they took the precaution of having their illiterate slaves sign ninety-year indenture contracts. They need not have worried. In 1829, when President Vicente Ramón Guerrero finally emancipated the slaves, Austin spoke to his politically savvy Mexican friends and got a government exemption for his settlers.
Austin’s payback for his attitude toward the slaves came in the form of a financial letdown. It turned out that empresarios did not own the land within their land grants and therefore were not allowed to make a profit from the land. So, the plan of charging settlers $0.125 per acre was foiled. He did find another way to make money. The perk of being an empresario came with the bonus of 23,000 acres per each 100 families that settled. By 1834, near the end of the empresario era, Austin settled 966 families and received 197,000 acres in bonus land. Since the bonus land legally belonged to him, he could sell it to the highest bidder.
Austin was not the only empresario in Texas. Many others came but were not willing to follow the restrictions laid down by Mexican authorities. You know the saying “Give them an inch and they take a mile”? Well, the white settlers took more than a mile. They treated the Mexican inhabitants as foreigners in their own land. They used any excuse they could to incite the Mexican government and cause trouble. However, credit must be given where due. Austin did send a militia group to help the Mexicans put down one rebellious empresario.
The Mexicans grew more and more nervous about the growing number of settlers coming into Texas. So, in 1830, the Mexican government passed a law prohibiting any further Anglo immigration. They also taxed the settlers heavily. This was likely to encourage as many as possible to leave again. All over Texas, settlers protested. Although Austin had usually sided with Mexico during these hostilities, he was arrested outside Mexico City. He had been petitioning the newly appointed general, Antonio López de Santa Anna, to reopen the borders to immigrants and lower the taxes. Austin spent almost a year in a Mexican prison for trying to incite insurrection.
Santa Anna proved to be a vindictive despot who antagonized just about everyone in Texas, regardless of race. When he arrived back in Texas in 1835, Stephen Austin found the state in near rebellion. Even though he had occasionally sided with the Mexican authorities, spending a year in prison established his credentials. Leading landholders held a convention and appointed Austin as their leader. After many battles against their Mexican overlords, the Anglo settlers finally won their independence at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836.
Mexico lost a lucrative province when it lost Texas. They lost it because the majority of its residents had no loyalty to that country. Even in protest to Santa Anna’s restrictions on their liberties and high taxes, without the American settlers there would have been little chance the province would have separated. Perhaps instead of paying Anglos to settle Texas, they should have offered better incentives to their own people. It was a mistake that cost Mexico the territory of Texas and turned the United States’ gaze on that nation’s other northern territories. The world would be very different if everywhere from Texas to California were still part of Mexico.