In his book, Noah Smithwick mentioned the experience of another settler, Thomas Bell. "Bell domiciled in a little pole-cabin in the midst of a small clearing upon which was a crop of corn. His wife, every inch a lady, welcomed me with as much cordiality as if she were mistress of a mansion. There were two young children and they too showed in their every manner the effects of gentle training.
Life for settlers in Austin’s colony was often shaped by their livelihoods: farming, ranching and later commerce along the coast. When requesting land parcels from Austin's land office, they could receive at least one labor (177 acres) if they farmed and one league (4,428 acres) if they raised stock. As a result, regardless of their actual profession, everyone registered as either a farmer or rancher.
Land fees to cover Austin's costs (mapping and surveying) were levied at a mere 12.5 cents per acre. Settlers were required to develop their land by building a permanent residence, and this was their first order of business. For many, that structure was a one or two-story rough timber cabin with a middle breezeway where dogs could trot from front to back—thus the frontier parlance, "dogtrot" cabin. Much of the daily food had to be grown or hunted. With no source of linen or lace, women sewed tanned deer hide into buckskin clothing. The lucky few that had brought a spinning wheel, spun their own cotton to make fancier clothing.
"I read one account of a lady whose husband must have been just a wonder. He built her a spinning wheel, and built her a loom. And she wove the canvas sheeting that they used to cover their house!"
Handmade spinning wheelHandmade loom
"They had houses that were comparable to anything in the United States. They would go down to the beach and gather seashells. And they would burn them and then pound them down. And what they were doing is rendering the lime. And they would mix that with linseed oil or cream and they would whitewash their houses with this.
By about 1824, they were well enough off and getting enough imports in Velasco (Surfside) that they had several pre-fab, frame houses there. Remember back when Sears used to do the kit housing? You'd order a house through the catalog? Same thing."
The whole family was dressed in buckskin, and when supper was announced, we sat on stools around a clapboard table, upon which were arranged wooden platters. Beside each platter lay a fork made of a joint of cane. The knives were of various patterns, ranging from butcher knives to pocketknives. And for cups, we had little wild cymlings (squash plant having flattened round fruit), scraped and scoured until they looked as white and clean as earthenware, and the milk with which the cups were filled was as pure and sweet as mortal ever tasted." After the first colonists arrived in 1821 and built their initial homes or shelters, many began to construct—or buy—more elaborate houses.
No matter their professions, all colonists raised crops. Sugar cane, corn and potatoes were quite common, along with a good number of warm-weather fruits and vegetables. The crop that really characterized the area, however, was cotton. Noah Smithwick, a blacksmith and tobacco smuggler who lived in Texas from 1827 to 1861, recorded his life in The Evolution of a State. "This is the great crop of Texas and has, for some years, produced as much as ten thousand bales. Its staple is uniformly good, but near the Gulf it approaches, or rather equals in length and fineness, the Sea Island cotton."
“Galveston, when it finally did develop, became the demise of the great shipping port at Quintana and at Velasco. Galveston had steam-powered cotton presses, bigger than at Velasco, where I've only found animal-powered presses. You'd have this massive wooden screw, an honest to goodness screw, set up with a ram on the bottom of it, the nut for the screw at the top, stationary. And then you'd have sweeps, or long poles, come out of the screw that you attach oxen to. And they would drive that screw down to compress your cotton into a form for shipping.”
Animal powered cotton press
The practice of religion in the colony had a unique twist. A provision in the original, Mexican land grant signed by Stephen F. Austin required that all settlers be Catholic, though this was not always fully implemented. Initially most colonists accepted this as a matter of business, not a declaration of faith. Wrote one Missourian, "I know I can be as good a Christian there (in Texas) as I can here. It is only a name anyhow."
During prosperous days, the colonists were not hesitant to celebrate with friends and family, or get together for the holidays. There was a pair of hotels built in Velasco that operated from the late 1820s to the 1840s. They served arriving and departing travelers and hosted parties. Even inland residences, when they upgraded from dirt floors to wooden floorboards, were the location for many a dance or ball.
Although most settlers in the Austin colony were very happy with their new lives in Texas, reality was undoubtedly starker for one group. "Men talked hopefully of the future," writes Noah Smithwick. "Children reveled in the novelty of the present; but the women—ah, there was where the situation bore heaviest. As one old lady remarked, 'Texas is heaven for men and dogs, but a hell for women and oxen.'"
They'd put up lights (of course, lights then were lamps of the whale-oil type with a round wick to them; there was still whaling going on in the Gulf! ), lights and greenery, and things like that, and just be kind of festive, and invite people over, or go place to place for parties and meals."
"At these dances, the girls are in silk dresses, but the boys don't all have good shoes. Out of about 15 or 20 guys, there's only four good pairs of shoes. So what they'll do is when they are cutting in on the guys with the girls, they're also borrowing the shoes from each other.
And Christmas in that era was interesting. When Christmas day came around, they had improved holiday fare. Instead of the regular cornbread, pork, and beans, they had beans, pork, and cornbread—with an extra side helping of venison.
I don't think they were anywhere near as big on gifts as we are today. And the tree, remember, had not caught on yet. But they would decorate the house up.