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Seat of Empire

The Embattled Birth of Austin, Texas

Jeffrey Stuart Kerr

Publication Year: 2013

In 1838 Texas vice president Mirabeau B. Lamar, flush from the excitement of a successful buffalo hunt, gazed from a hilltop toward the paradise at his feet and saw the future. His poetic eye admired the stunning vista before him, with its wavering prairie grasses gradually yielding to clusters of trees, then whole forests bordering the glistening Colorado River in the distance. Lamar’s equally awestruck companions, no strangers to beautiful landscapes, shuffled speechlessly nearby. But where these men saw only nature’s handiwork, Lamar visualized a glorious manmade transformation--trees into buildings, prairie into streets, and the river itself into a bustling waterway. And he knew that with the presidency of the Republic of Texas in his grasp, he would soon be in position to achieve this vision.
     The founding of Austin sparked one of the Republic’s first great political battles, pitting against each other two Texas titans: Lamar, who in less than a year had risen to vice president from army private, and Sam Houston, the hero of San Jacinto and a man both loved and hated throughout the Republic.

     The shy, soft-spoken, self-righteous Lamar dreamed of a great imperial capital in the wilderness, but to achieve it faced the hardships of the frontier, the mighty Comanche nation, the Mexican army, and the formidable Houston’s political might.

Published by: Texas Tech University Press

Series: Grover E. Murray Studies in the American

Front Matter

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pp. 1-6


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pp. 7-8


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pp. ix-x


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pp. 3-4

Want of political unity is the one consistent theme threading its way through the fabric of early Anglo-Texan history. Seemingly no action occurred without bitter squabbling beforehand and angry finger-pointing after the fact. That an independent Texas emerged from those hectic days, given the divided goals and loyalties afflicting the leaders of the Texas Revolution, is nothing short of remarkable. ...

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1. Mirabeau Lamar's Buffalo

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pp. 7-10

In the fall of 1838, the tiny hamlet of Waterloo, Texas welcomed the most important visitor in its brief history. At the time, the town had not yet even been incorporated, Congress not taking that step until the following January. Lying farther up the Colorado River than any other Anglo settlement, Waterloo presented a humble appearance to the dignitary and his entourage.1 Only a few log cabins scattered around the mouth of Shoal Creek greeted Willis Avery, James C. Rice, ...

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2. The Nomadic Government

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pp. 11-25

Just three years before his breakfast in Jacob Harrell’s Colorado River cabin, Mirabeau Lamar entered the Mexican territory of Texas an unknown. True, he had once occupied a seat in the Georgia state Senate, but his wife’s death and two subsequent lost elections had soured the forty-year-old Lamar on life in the Peach State. Thus, the man who followed fellow Georgian James Fannin’s footsteps west-ward across the Sabine River in July 1835 carried dual burdens of ...

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3. False Start

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pp. 26-33

On September 28, 1837, Congressman Thomas Rusk of Nacogdoches rose from his seat in the Texas House of Representatives to offer a proposal. Although he stood in the assembly hall of the national government, his gaze rested not on elegant wall hangings, intricate carpet designs, and the rich sheen of oak desktops, but on crudely assembled chairs, plank flooring, and bare walls. He spoke not to ...

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4. The Raven and the Poet

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pp. 34-47

Many of those attending the wedding of Eliza Allen and Tennessee governor Sam Houston January 22, 1829, foresaw a presidency in the ambitious groom’s future. Houston had long enjoyed the favor of President Andrew Jackson, whose meteoric ascent after the War of 1812 resulted in a position of political preeminence. The president had wielded his rising power to nurture Houston’s ...

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5. Selecting a Site

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pp. 48-58

On December 10, 1838, in the ragged town of Houston, Texas, President-elect Mirabeau B. Lamar stood in the portico of his nation’s capitol nervously awaiting the biggest moment of his life.1 An “impressive concourse of spectators,” including both houses of Congress and “most of the Elite and Fashion of the Republic” surrounded Lamar in anxious anticipation of the ceremony that would inaugurate ...

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6. Waterloo

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pp. 59-66

In April 1839 Major James Jones and his “little Army of Volunteers” paused in their pursuit of a fl eeing band of Texan Indians to camp along the Colorado River near the home of Anglo settler John Webber.1 On the 14th, in a letter to President Mirabeau Lamar, Jones expressed disappointment at not yet having engaged the enemy, but added that his men “seem delighted with the idea of pursuing them ...

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7. Road to Austin

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pp. 67-75

William Barton was worried. Peering eastward from atop a hill overlooking the Colorado River, he scanned the verdant prairie in vain for any movement that might be his son returning from a trip to Bastrop. As would any prudent Texas frontiersman, “Uncle Billy” carried a hunting rifle, not in the hope of encountering game, but as a precaution against becoming prey himself. Barton had ...

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8. Building a City

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pp. 76-91

Thomas Bell had never before seen such beautiful scenery. After crossing the Sabine River to enter Texas he and his companions rode through the Redlands admiring the “rich red soil [that] produces as fine corn and cotton as I ever saw anywhere.” Immediately west of the Trinity River the soil seemed poor, but the Brazos River bottomland overwhelmed the young Bell with its lush appearance. The ...

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9. There will be a Public Sale of Lots

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pp. 92-104

Edwin Waller, of course, did not actually build the city of Austin. He organized a mountain of supplies, recruited scores of “mechanics,”2 procured building materials, arranged armed protection, and planned a city from scratch, but he swung no hammer, sawed no plank, hauled no lumber, shod no horses, nor dug any wells. He hunted ...

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10. Lamar's Triumph

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pp. 105-116

Even without a full load the heavy iron chest would have been too much for one man to handle. But crammed full of navy department papers, office supplies, various kitchen utensils, coffee, salt, and other miscellany, the trunk stubbornly resisted the exertions of several strong men. Four black laborers dripped sweat in the September heat as they dragged the chest outside to the dusty Houston street, then with a triumphant grunt heaved it onto the wagon bed indicated by ...

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11. The Fourth Congress

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pp. 117-127

Like many of his fellow citizens, merchant and devout Presbyterian James Burke strove to introduce his own version of civilization to early Austin. Born in South Carolina, the “Sunday School Man” grew up in Tennessee, ran a fl ourishing business in Natchez, Mississippi, moved to Texas in 1837, and followed Edwin Waller from Houston to Austin in the summer of 1839. He bought six city lots at the first ...

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12. Frontier Capital

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pp. 128-137

One winter day in 1839 two men rode west out of Austin, Texas. One rider loomed tall and imposing in the saddle, sitting comfortably atop his mount while admiring the scenery with curiosity. This was Sam Houston. The other carried himself with equal confidence, but presented a less dashing appearance due to his unusual right leg. ...

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13. Moccasin Tracks

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pp. 138-147

Sometime during the 1810s a Georgia schoolboy named Mirabeau Lamar took up his pen while pondering the question, “Were the Europeans Justified in Conquering and Taking Possession of America in the Manner They Did?” The idealistic youth began by noting, “It must be acknowledged . . . in the conquest of America many daring and outrageous acts of barbarity were committed by the Europeans.” ...

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14. The Pig War

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pp. 148-159

Pity poor Eugene Pluyette. The unlucky French servant could not have been thrilled to follow his employer, Alphonse Dubois de Saligny, chargé d’affaires of the Kingdom of France to the Republic of Texas, to the backwater town of Houston in 1839. Now, two years later, he found himself in even more disagreeable surroundings on the very edge of civilization. He and his master had reached Austin only ...

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15. Fiasco

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pp. 160-167

After months of wallowing in a Mexican prison, Hugh McLeod craved something stronger than water to quench his thirst. He stepped off the Rosa Alvina’s gangplank onto a Galveston pier and scanned the waterfront for possibilities. A group of similarly parched Texans, all veterans of the failed Santa Fe Expedition led by McLeod, accompanied the happy man. Following their former commander into ...

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16. Return of the Raven

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pp. 168-173

Mirabeau Lamar had reason to feel satisfi ed with his presidency as it wound to a close in the fall of 1841. His eviction of the Cherokee from Texas represented a major step toward his goal of cleansing the nation of its indigenous people. Only two years from its founding an already thriving Austin seemed about to become a major commercial and political center. And the recently departed Santa ...

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17. Chaos

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pp. 174-188

Austin residents in the early 1840s did not relish the prospect of braving city streets at night. Methodist preacher Josiah Whipple, while claiming divine protection, nevertheless wrote, “And although man may be immortal until his work is done, I have concluded not to travel after night in the Indian range after this.” Swiss-born John Wahrenberger, however, was out of meal. The trip to the mill proved safe ...

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18. Desolation

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pp. 189-198

Edwin Waller built the city of Austin on the site of Mirabeau Lamar’s successful 1838 buffalo hunt. After shooting the large beast, Vice President Lamar had allowed himself an admiring view of nature’s handiwork before turning his eye toward a prosperous future of man’s creation. The buffalo herds, which for millennia had crisscrossed the Texas prairie, occupied no place in Lamar’s vision. ...

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19. Salvation

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pp. 199-215

If westerners could have read Anson Jones’s private diary in 1844, they might not have feared the prospects of a Jones presidency quite so much. As President Sam Houston’s secretary of state, Jones was widely held to be a member of the Houston party. Voters therefore assumed that, if elected, Jones would continue the policies of his predecessor. But months before the election of September 1844, ...

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pp. 217-221

Austin survived two state-wide elections to finally gain official recognition as the permanent seat of government of Texas. The constitutionally mandated election of 1850, in which voters were to pick a capital for the next twenty years, resulted in an easy victory for the city. The pace of work involved in reorganizing the state after the Civil War delayed the 1870 vote by two years, but in 1872 Austin ...

Back Matter


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pp. 223-265


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pp. 267-275


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pp. 277-294

E-ISBN-13: 9780896727830
E-ISBN-10: 0896727831
Print-ISBN-13: 9780896727823
Print-ISBN-10: 0896727823

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 38
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Grover E. Murray Studies in the American