The Promised Land
The land was enough to excite any man's lust, and perhaps emotions more deadly. Geology and climate had shaped the region of Texas between the Gulf of Mexico and the Balcones Escarpment almost as if they had human settlement in mind. Like most of the North American continent, this land formed beneath the sea, from sediment drifting down through tepid waters inhabited by prehistoric crustaceans and bony fish. The bones and shells mixed with mud to form the chalky limestone that would characterize much of Texas when it surfaced. Eventually the sea bottom rose, as it did all across proto-North America, but where in other parts of the continent the rising was rapid and disruptive, producing the jagged highlands of the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada, in Texas it was measured and calm. A handful of minor volcanoes spread lava across the landscape, but for the most part the emergence involved little more than a gentle tilting of the seafloor, with the northwest rising slightly more than the southeast.
The placid nature of this process, and its undramatic outcome, had two important results. First, it left Texas with no dominant river--nothing like the Mississippi or the Ohio or even the Delaware or the Hudson. Instead, Texas had (and has) several more or less equal rivers, all relatively small, running roughly parallel from northwest to southeast. In the age before motorized land travel, rivers were the key to crossing continents; with no large rivers, Texas held the key to nothing besides itself. To find Texas, one had to be looking for it; consequently Texas remained off the beaten track for many decades after neighboring regions were explored and settled.
Second, the gentle gradient and modest flow of the Texas rivers meant that their valleys retained most of what their waters eroded. Unlike such large, powerful rivers as the Missouri, which transports its silt hundreds of miles before depositing it in the delta of the Mississippi, the slow, small rivers of Texas drop their burden along their own banks, in bottomlands of wonderful fertility. In the early nineteenth century, when farming formed the mainstay of the American economy (and the economies of nearly every other country), fertile land was money in the bank; it was the pride of the present and the hope of the future; it was what separated the haves from the have-nots; it was what made democracy possible and America different from Europe. Many immigrants to Texas came from Tennessee, where the stony ridges and thin soil tested the patience of even the Jobs among the plowmen; at first feel of the deep black earth along the Brazos and Colorado and Guadalupe, these liberated toilers fell in love.
Love wasn't what drew the Austin family to Texas. Moses Austin and his son Stephen responded to emotions more mercenary. Neither was a husbandman; they came not to plant but to extract. Yet they were happy to exploit the land lust of their contemporaries--indeed, their plans depended on such passion.
In another respect, though, Moses Austin was typical of the Americans who settled Texas in the 1820s and 1830s, even archetypal. Failure in the States drove many to this border province of Mexico, and no one's failure was more spectacular than Moses'.
He was born in Connecticut in 1761, when Texas was part of the Spanish empire and Connecticut part of the British empire. He came of age amid the American Revolution, a conflict that left him an orphan with an inheritance of seventy pounds sterling, which he invested in the dry-goods trade. He practiced briefly in Connecticut before relocating to Philadelphia; the commercial (and recurrently political) capital of the new republic, where he partnered with his elder brother Stephen (for whom Moses' son would be named). But Philadelphia was a tough market to crack, and Stephen a hard man to live with, and Moses soon continued south to Richmond, the new capital of Virginia. The young city showed promise, between its location at the head of navigation on the James River and the construction that must accompany the establishment of a seat of government. Unfortunately, the promise remained unfulfilled during Moses' first years there. "As to business," he lamented in the summer of 1787, "nothing can equal it for badness."
Moses didn't discourage easily, and at twenty-six he was willing to seek new outlets for his ambitions. A principal item of inventory for any eighteenth-century dealer in dry goods was lead. In later generations this humble metal would be superseded for many purposes by substances more durable and less toxic, but in Moses Austin's time (as for the preceding couple of millennia), lead seemed a marvel of nature. It was used in plumbing (the Latin for lead was plumbus
), in painting (as an ingredient in various pigments), in printing (type was cast in lead), in hunting and war (for lead bullets and shot), in ceramics (pigments again), in tableware and buttons (as a constituent of pewter), in construction (as roofing material and in windows), and in dozens of other ways. Thomas Jefferson praised lead in his Notes on the State of Virginia
and pointed to a large deposit on the upper reaches of the Great Kanawha River near Virginia's border with North Carolina. "The metal is mixed, sometimes with earth, and sometimes with rock, which requires the force of gunpowder to open it," Jefferson observed. But despite the difficulties of extracting the metal, Jefferson suggested that money could be made, and American society benefited by the exploitation of this deposit.
After talking brother Stephen into joining him in the venture, Moses persuaded the Virginia legislature to lease the Kanawha mine to the two of them. In 1789, just as George Washington was taking the oath of office as the first president of the republic established under the new federal constitution, Moses Austin embarked on a career as a frontier industrialist. Whether by design or afterthought, this coincidence became part of Austin's business plan. Explaining how essential lead was to American security and independence, the Austin brothers lobbied the federal government to provide tariff protection for domestic lead against imports. Jefferson, now secretary of state, disapproved of protective tariffs on the principle that they taxed the many to enrich the few, but Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson's arch-foe and the apostle of assistance to industry, endorsed the Austins' argument. President Washington sided with Hamilton, and when Congress joined the president and the Treasury secretary, the Austin brothers got the duty they desired.
A knack for working the border between the public and private sectors would become an Austin family trademark. For now it gave Moses and Stephen the confidence to invest heavily in their new venture. The brothers borrowed to lure laborers to the mines, including some English experts who commanded premium salaries. They built a town--Austinville--to house the workers and provide the services they required. They aggressively hawked their product line--sheet lead, rolled lead, powdered lead, lead ingots, lead shot--in nearly every state, in the belief that while the American market should be shielded from foreign competition, that market ought to belong to the Austins.
In 1785 Moses wedded Mary Brown of Philadelphia. Two years later Maria, as Moses called her, bore a daughter who lived barely a month. In 1790 the couple had another daughter, who died after a half year. Perhaps they thought Richmond was jinxed, for they moved to Austinville, where in 1793 Maria gave birth to a son, Stephen Fuller Austin. This child encountered the usual infant maladies but clung to life. A sister, Emily, similarly resilient, arrived two years later.
By then the restless Moses was looking farther west. The price of lead rose and fell on rumors of war with Britain or France, which had renewed their ancestral struggle and appeared bent on entangling the United States. The commercial turmoil bankrupted the Austins' customers, leaving the brothers holding worthless notes and having to ask their own creditors for grace. Stephen traveled to England to try to unload the mine, only to be imprisoned for debt.
Moses sought salvation in the opposite direction. In the same passage of his Notes on Virginia
that praised the mines of southwestern Virginia, Jefferson had mentioned still richer mines "on the Spanish side of the Mississippi, opposite to Kaskaskia." Moses had felt the influence of the Spanish mines in the competition their lead afforded his own for the growing market of Kentucky and Tennessee. During the late autumn of 1796, as cold weather and snow brought operations at Austinville to their winter's halt, he set out to visit the Spanish mines and see how rich they really were.
The route west was called the Wilderness Road, and though few travelers disputed the first part of that label, many questioned the second. The road--a trail, actually, as often as not--crossed the Cumberland Gap, the natural gateway between the uplands of Virginia, where rivers flow to the east, and the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, where streams run west and south. White travelers first found the gap in the middle of the eighteenth century; Daniel Boone went through in 1769 and spent the next two years roaming Kentucky. He subsequently returned with his family and other prospective settlers, but the party was ambushed by Indians at the gap and forced to turn back. Yet Boone persisted and subsequently laid the route for Boone's Trace, the path that became the Wilderness Road.
By the time Moses Austin embarked on his journey, Kentucky was a state. During the milder seasons of the year, travel along the road wasn't especially arduous, even if long stretches remained sparsely inhabited. But during the winter, the going was difficult to the point of dangerous. Moses left Austinville in the second week of December, accompanied by Joseph Bell, an employee at the mine. Despite severe cold and heavy snow, the pair made rapid progress, as much as thirty-five miles a day. The harsh weather kept them from camping out--although some nights Austin and Bell wished they had stayed out of doors. Austin characterized conditions in one hut where they took refuge as "abominably bad." Seventeen travelers crammed into a space a mere twelve feet square, forcing all to jostle and jab for elbow and knee room.
Moses' journey that winter opened his eyes to something he had generally sensed but never fully appreciated: the lengths to which his contemporaries would go to acquire land. "I cannot omit noticing the many distressed families I passed in the wilderness," he recorded in his journal.
Nor can anything be more distressing to a man of feeling than to see women and children in the month of December traveling a wilderness through ice and snow, passing large rivers and creeks without shoe or stocking, and barely as many rags as covers their nakedness, without money or provisions except what the wilderness affords. . . .
Ask these pilgrims what they expect when they get to Kentucky; the answer is Land. Have you any? [Austin inquired.] No, but I expect I can get it. Have you anything to pay for land? No. Did you ever see the country? No, but everybody says it's good land.
Can anything be more absurd than the conduct of man? Here is hundreds, traveling hundreds of miles, they know not what for nor whither, except it's to Kentucky, passing land almost as good and easy obtained, the proprietors of which would gladly give on any terms. But it will not do. It's not Kentucky. It's not the Promised Land. It's not the goodly inheritance, the Land of Milk and Honey.
The desperate search for land was astonishing to behold, and Austin, though not a farmer himself, couldn't help being moved by its power. Perhaps unconsciously, he filed a mental note.
A heavy snow fell on the second day of 1797, trapping Austin and Bell at Vincennes on the Wabash River. For forty-eight hours they waited, with Austin chatting up townsfolk and fellow travelers. But his patience ran out, and, despite warnings that he would lose his way among the drifts and be frozen, Austin decided to press on. He hired a guide, a weathered Frenchman named Basidon, and the trio plunged into the storm.
The first two days went well enough, although the nights--spent in the open, huddled around large fires that required constant stoking and sank slowly in the snow--were uncomfortable. On the third day out, they lost the road beneath the drifts. Then the weather warmed and, paradoxically, their situation grew more dangerous. The moisture that had been falling as snow turned to rain, which soaked the travelers and their mounts and coated the bushes with ice, preventing the horses from browsing the leaves. Basidon and Bell began to wonder what Austin had gotten them into, but Austin cheered them by saying that if the worst came, they could eat the horses and mule. And if they kept moving west, they couldn't miss the Mississippi. Yet even Austin had his worried moments, and when they finally stumbled upon a small village not far from the great river, he was most relieved. "None but those who have been in a similar condition can have an idea of our feelings," he wrote. "Had the everlasting trumpet sounded our eternal happiness I do not think it would have been more agreeable."
In 1797 the Mississippi formed the boundary between the United States and Spanish Louisiana. The Mississippi Valley had been explored and claimed by the French in the seventeenth century, and it was one of the prizes of the subsequent wars among the Europeans and their American kin. When the French lost the French and Indian War (also called the Seven Years' War, despite lasting nine years), Britain took the eastern half of the valley and Spain got the western half. When the British lost the American Revolutionary War, the United States acquired the eastern half, with Spain keeping the west. Yet French interest hadn't vanished, nor had French influence. The French language was still commonly spoken along the Mississippi, and many officials of the government of Spanish Louisiana, headquartered at St. Louis, were in fact French.
St. Louis, founded a century earlier by Robert Cavelier de La Salle, showed the benefits of location in commanding the trade of the Missouri, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers. "It is fast improving and will soon be a large place," Austin wrote upon arrival. The prospect piqued his desire to see the mines he had come so far to examine. Francis Valle, the commandant of the district, was at Ste. Genevieve, on the river a day's ride south; Austin went there and made such a good case for himself that Valle provided fresh horses for the final forty miles.
Knowing the mining trade, Austin could see almost at a glance that the tales he had heard of Spanish lead deposits weren't exaggerated. "I found the mines equal to my expectation in every respect." The ore was close to the surface and was of "better quality than any I have ever seen." The deposit was called Mine ^ Breton, after its discoverer, a French soldier named Breton who was said to have chased a deer into the district, fallen over a rock, and detected a remarkable resemblance between the rock and his ammunition. Austin was more impressed by the recent history of the place, starting with the production just that last summer of four hundred thousand pounds of lead, and by the inefficiency of the miners' techniques, which meant that the deposits would be even more productive in the hands of someone who knew what he was doing. Observation and brief experiment convinced Austin that he could triple the mines' output.
Returning to Ste. Genevieve, Austin presented a plan to Valle whereby Spain would grant Austin land and mineral rights in exchange for his commitment to develop the mines and furnish Spain with the lead shot and sheets its army and navy required. With Spain enmeshed in the wars of the French Revolution, Austin guessed that this strategic angle would appeal to Valle. It did--almost as much as Austin's offer to cut Valle in as a partner. Valle endorsed Austin's plan and sent it south to his superiors in New Spain.
Austin returned to Virginia to await the verdict of the Spanish government. Six months later it arrived. Austin was awarded less land than he had asked for--one league instead of sixteen--but, given that he had requested far more land than he needed, he was happy to accept Spain's terms.
Copyright © 2004 by H.W. Brands. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.