One of the things that you learn working in the field of archives and special collections is how powerful artifacts and historical resources are in illuminating the past in new and dynamic ways. Beginning a journey with a primary source helps position us to understand the context of past culture and societies in ways we might not have otherwise done. Written by the so called “Father of Texas,” Stephen Austin, and printed in November of 1829, the Translation of the laws, orders and contracts on colonization : from January, 1821, up to this time, in virtue of which Col. Stephen F. Austin has introduced and settled foreign emigrants in Texas, with an explanatory introduction., is an 85 page monograph (which is a fancy term for a specialized piece of writing on a single subject), that provides insight into the development of Texas, both in terms of its economic growth as well as its social structures.

Figure 1. From the first Congress of the newly independent Mexico, 1821.

Austin’s ‘Translation of the laws, orders and contracts on colonization’’ is one of many sources for Mexican history at the Sutro Library, that help tell the story of Mexico’s development under Spanish rule, the Empire that followed, and finally the Republic that was born.  The Mexican collection contains manuscripts, maps, over 30,000 pamphlets and broadsides, some of which don’t exist elsewhere, and monographs. The Sutro also has an extensive collection of British and American pamphlets, Civil War source material, and parliamentary debates on slavery.

Figure 2. Broadside 1821 with summary of Indulgences with official seals.

Colonization of Texas 1821-1829

Stephen Austin wrote the ‘Translation of the laws, orders and contracts on colonization’ to provide information to potential settlers on the legality of Austin’s colonization project. Prior to 1821, Texas, then on the northeastern borderland of New Spain, was an unstable and sparsely populated frontier.  There was little, if any, support from Mexico City, and the perils faced by Tejanos (cultural descendants of Spain) who lived in the area in what was called Tejas now Texas were many: lack of infrastructure, starvation, floods, droughts, and settlers intruding onto lands owned by Native Americans. Most Tejanos lived in abject property. To underscore how dire their situation was, in San Antonio in 1810 most settlers didn’t even have shoes.

Tejanos sought to improve the economy and were thus eager to support colonization from the United States. In 1821 Moses Austin (Stephen Austin’s father) was officially granted a contract by the government in Mexico City to settle in Texas.  He, along with his son Stephen Austin were to recruit 300 families to relocate to Texas and be given land to cultivate. However, Moses Austin passed away that same year and so the contract was given solely to Stephen Austin. Translation of the laws, orders and contracts on colonization is part of this history.

Figure 3. “Austin’s Settlement,” Daily National Journal, August 10, 1829.

Historians sometimes talk about immigration in terms of push and pull. What events ‘push’ people to leave their homes to go to a different country, and what is the ‘pull’ of the country to which they are emigrating to. And what motivated Anglo Americans to leave and become Mexican citizens in the early 1820s was a recession followed by a market that prevented most from buying land. The pull was the fertile grounds near and close to the cotton trade center of New Orleans, as well as a global explosion in the demand for cotton. Stephen Austin used newspapers and advertising to entice Americans and had others attest to the opportunities to be had.  He wanted to show he had legal sanction to settle colonists, United States citizens, with huge tracts of land for plantations that were near several rivers, and adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico’s Atlantic trade centers.

Figure 4. From collection of Civil War envelopes at Sutro Library.

Cotton Markets

“The primary product that will elevate us from poverty is Cotton and we cannot do this without the help of slaves” – Stephen Austin, 1824

Along with sugar and tobacco, cotton was one of the first luxury commodities.  Austin knew the land in Texas would be fruitful for growing cotton, and along with its close proximity to trading ports along the Gulf Coast, made it highly enticing.  The phrase “Cotton is King” was one that communicated cotton’s growth as a global industry, becoming the first mass consumer product.   The importance of cotton in the early part of the Industrial Revolution was twofold:  its comfort and its affordability. These factors created high demand for the textiles that were being produced from Great Britain.  “English mill owners, as a result, began buying as much of the fiber as they could (British imports soared from 56 million in 1800 to more than 660 million by 1850) as the plant became one of the most valuable commodities in the entire Atlantic world.” 

However, as leading scholar Andrew Torget noted,

“at precisely the same moment the cotton revolution made slave labor more profitable than ever, the rising power of global antislavery forces put that labor system under sustained  political attack for the first time in human history.  That remarkable confluence, in turn, produced a series of escalating battles between pro- and antislavery forces that polarized politics within the United States and drove an ever-widening divide between the northern and southern halves of the country.” 

Figure 5. Circa 1824
Figure 6. Broadside Sutro Mexican collection. Santa Anna was a key figure in Mexico’s revolutions and political upheavals.

Mexico Empire to Republic

Political instability marked 1820s Mexico. After Mexican Independence from Spain was achieved in 1821, Mexico became an empire ruled by Don Agustin de Iturbide. This constitutional monarchy was dissolved in 1823, and the First Mexican Republic was established, lasting until 1835. The first republic was set up as autonomous states governed by a constitution.  Mexico was transformed again under General Santa Ana, and became the Centralist Republic of Mexico.  During this pivotal moment in Mexico’s history, the project of colonization was being undertaken by Stephen Austin, and he had to lobby leaders in Mexico City to allow him to continue his settlement of Americans in Texas, and to also be able to have these settlers bring their slaves. Tejanos fought to allow slavery into their constitution in order to improve the economy and establish trade with the United States, but to no avail.

Figure 7. From collection of Civil War envelopes at Sutro Library.
John Bull is the British version of what Uncle Sam means in the United States. They represent the personification of the government and the country.  The Civil War crippled the English textile industry and these images reflect the fear of Northerners that Britain might support the Confederacy.
Figure 8. From collection of Civil War envelopes at Sutro Library.

Debates over Slavery, 1824-1830 

In 1827 Article 13 of Mexico’s Constitution dealt the final blow to Austin, his Anglo colonists, sympathetic legislators, and Tejanas, who wanted a system of slavery in the settling of northeastern Texas. It stated that black children born on Texas plantations would be free citizens at birth, making Stephen Austin’s goal to settle more families and increase his own wealth almost impossible.

Figure 9. Article 30. from the Colonization Law of 1823 printed in Stephen’s Austin’s ‘Translation of the laws, orders, and contracts on colonization.”

This monograph provides insight into Mexico’s turbulent 1820s as itstruggled to define what it was that made them a free republic. Debates on centered in Mexico’s political arena were solidly anti-slavery and the Enlightenment’s ideals of liberty and freedom were counter to allowing slavery to exist in Mexico. Stephen Austin introduced slavery into Mexico at a unique moment in the history of cotton and labor.  His ‘Translation’  gives us a unique opportunity to discuss the intersection of culture, cotton, international trade, slavery, and American westward expansion.

Figure 10. From Sutro pamphlet collection.
Figure 11. From Sutro pamphlet collection.

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