The first legal rights to colonization in Texas by U.S. citizens were obtained by Moses Austin on January 17, 1821. Moses had previously amassed a fortune in lead smelting, but lost much of it after a series of bank failures in 1819. As a way out of debt, he formulated a plan to settle an American colony in Spanish-governed Texas.
At that time, he lived in Herculaneum, Missouri and the nearest seat of Spanish government was in San Antonio, Texas, 900 miles away. During his long trips into Texas for negotiations, the 59-year old Austin became so exhausted that by June of 1821 he contracted pneumonia and died.
His son, Stephen F. Austin, a partner in his father's lead business had similarly fallen onto hard times. After a series of unsuccessful ventures in land speculation, mercantile activities, and a brief stint as a circuit judge, he moved to New Orleans to study to become a lawyer. His father entreated him to join him in San Antonio for more colonization talks, but Stephen was conflicted, having just started his own efforts towards a law degree. While in Natchitoches, Louisiana, where he had decided to wait to link up with Moses on his trip back to San Antonio, he learned of his father's death in Herculaneum.
Mary Brown Austin, Moses's wife, wrote of his deathbed wish, "He drew me down to him and with much distress and difficulty of speech, told me it was too late, that he was going. He begged me to tell you to take his place. Tell dear Stephen that it is his dying father's last request to prosecute the enterprise he had commenced." And so, at the age of 28, Stephen F. Austin began his journey of 300 miles from Natchitoches to San Antonio with the intent of reauthorizing his father's grant in his name.
Austin received permission from Governor Antonio María Martínez in August 1821 to carry on the colonization enterprise. He then spent several months exploring the coastal plain between the San Antonio and Brazos rivers to select a site for the proposed colony. Upon return to the United States and New Orleans, Austin advertised the availability of land. The financial panic of 1819 and changes in the land system of the United States made settlers eager to take advantage of the offer. Three hundred families answered his ad and joined him to begin a new life in Texas.
Two groups travelled to the Texas territory in December of 1821: one by land, led by Austin, and the other, by ship. The ship was the Lively, and it had aboard 20 colonists and all the supplies required for the permanent settlement. Both parties planned to meet at the mouth of the Colorado, but the Lively, as some stories recount, landed at the mouth of the Brazos instead, mistaking it for the Colorado.
Austin would find himself continually negotiating with governments that controlled Texas. On September 16, 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain, and the provisional government refused to approve the Spanish grant to Austin. Austin travelled to Mexico City for more talks and finally succeeded in obtaining a new agreement on January 3, 1823. Later he negotiated for rights to settle an additional 900 families (approximately 5000-6000 people) in the area of his first colony. The lands selected by the colonists were along the rich bottomlands of the Brazos, Colorado and San Bernard rivers, extending southward from the vicinity of present-day Brenham, Navasota and La Grange to the Gulf of Mexico. Early attempts at commerce foreshadowed a vibrant future economy that included corn and cotton farming and salt production along the coast.
As time passed Austin found himself pulled between his allegiance to the Mexican government and the growing restlessness of the colonists who desired more say in their affairs. He often interceded in disputes on the Mexican side, as his first concerns were to protect the hard-fought progress he had achieved for the colonies. "There is no degradation in prudence and a well tempered and well timed moderation," he wrote in a letter to his secretary. But even the loyal Austin would experience a change of heart about fealty to Mexico after a trip to discuss a new Mexican law passed on April 6th of 1830 halting immigration from the United States all together.