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Mapping Texas: From Frontier to the Lone Star State — Stephen F. Austin’s Connected Map

This post was underwritten by a generous contribution from the Texas Historical Foundation.

In the nearly four hundred years that it took for Texas to take its current shape, the space changed from an extensive, unexplored and sparsely settled frontier under the Spanish Crown to its iconic and easily recognizable outline. Mapping Texas: From Frontier to the Lone Star State traces the cartographic history of Texas from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. Over fifty rare maps from the collections of the Texas General Land Office and the personal collection of Frank and Carol Holcomb, of Houston, are on display. Additional maps are on loan from The Bryan Museum in Galveston and the Witte Museum in San Antonio. This exhibit runs at the Houston Museum of Natural Science through October 8, 2017.

Stephen F. Austin and James Franklin Perry, Connected Map of Austin’s Colony, 1837, 1892, Map #1944, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Connected Map of Austin’s Colony, 1837 (1892 tracing)

Statement of certification by Commissioner McCaughey on the 1892 tracing.

In 1892, GLO draftsman F. G. Blau produced a tracing of the 1837 Connected Map of Austin’s Colony. This enabled Austin’s original, a priceless document, to be archived. Texas Land Commissioner William L. McGaughey, after an inspection of the two maps, certified Blau’s tracing as “substantially a facsimile of the same, the only difference being in the style of writing and that the streams on this are colored blue, whi[ch] on said original, they appear to be nearly all in black ink, and that all legible names and figures at this date are shown thereon.” This tracing became the official working map in Texas of the areas of Austin’s Colony.

Often called the “Father of Anglo-American Texas” for his contributions to the establishment of the empresario system and the Anglo colonization of Texas, Stephen F. Austin (1793–1836) also deserves credit as the first modern cartographer of Texas. With an eye towards commercial success, Austin first charted the rivers and bays of Texas in order to locate the land best suited for his colony. Once he accomplished that, he produced maps of Texas that became the primary cartographic references for the territory for a decade, promoting further immigration to and the colonization of Texas.

[left] Detail of the 1837 map showing some of Stephen F. Austin’s personal land grants on the Bayous Flores and Austin in Austin’s Colony. Each plat is labeled with the grantee’s name and the dimensions in varas. [right] Detail of the same area on Blau’s 1892 tracing. The dramatic difference in the readability of the two maps is why the tracing is so important to the GLO.

In 1833 Stephen F. Austin tasked Gail Borden, Jr. (1801–1874), a land surveyor and close confidant in Austin’s land office, to create a map of the lands granted through the empresario’s contract. The enormous undertaking included all land grants between the San Jacinto and Lavaca Rivers, an area covering approximately 15,400 square miles in nineteen present-day Texas counties. The original colony plats (or drawings of the divisions of the land) were drawn on a scale of 2,000 varas to the inch. Borden reduced the scale to 4,000 varas per inch when he realized the larger scale would render a final map measuring over fifteen feet square.

The Town Tract of San Felipe de Austin is shown on the original [left] and the tracing [right], surrounded by several grants as well as large amounts of unclaimed land.

The Texas Revolution, and the events leading up to it, disrupted the work being done on the map. On March 24, 1836, fearing the destruction of records by Santa Anna and his troops, Robert Peebles (1798–1852), the acting land commissioner of Austin’s Colony, packed up all of the colony’s papers and other important materials and sent them via wagon to Fort Jessup, Louisiana, where they remained until October of 1836.

Unfortunately, Austin did not live to see the map of his colonies completed. After his unexpected death on December 27, 1836, Austin’s brother-in-law and the executor of his estate James F. Perry (1790–1853) took up the task of overseeing the project of the connected map. Perry asked Borden to hire as many assistants as he needed to complete Austin’s map. Borden enlisted the help of his brothers Thomas and John P. Borden, with John, who was later named first Commissioner of the General Land Office, ultimately taking the lead role on the massive project. Assisting John was a nephew of Austin’s, Moses Austin Bryan, and Robert D. Johnson, a Virginia lawyer recently immigrated to the Republic. It is unknown who actually drew the map as all three Borden brothers are credited on the document. Based on handwriting comparisons from other maps, it is generally accepted that Thomas H. Borden was the primary cartographer.

Detail of the title block of the map listing both Stephen F. Austin and James F. Perry as the compilers and the three Borden Brothers as the map draftsmen on the 1837 Connected Map of Austin’s Colony, [left]with Blau’s name appearing subtly below on the 1892 tracing [right].

On November 3, 1837, Perry submitted to the Senate of the Republic of Texas the report it had requested of the land grants issued in Austin’s Colonies. The connected map provided striking visual evidence of these grants. The majority of the grants are one league or quarter-league tracts of land. Within each surveyed area is the name of the original grantee and the dimensions of the grant in varas.

The compass rose, a notable artistic element from the original map [left], was also reproduced on the tracing [right].

Commissioner McGaughey’s 1892 Report to the legislature mentions that a large number of maps had been lithographed and recompiled when describing the work of the Draftsman’s Department. Specifically, “the old map of Austin’s Colony made in 1837…which is in a dilapidated condition, has been renewed on good, heavy mounted paper, which will preserve that important map for many years.” McGaughey, perhaps for the first time at the Land Office, made a decision to preserve the information found on important historical maps with this project. He said, “there is much work of this kind that ought to be done, as many of the old district maps are badly worn and surveys fast disappearing from the same through constant handling. The examination of claim for patenting consumes a great deal of the time of the draftsmen, which is necessarily slow work on account of the bad condition of most of the maps, and the difficulty in getting requisite data from county surveyors in the way of connecting line and other information required to reconcile the many discrepancies continually met with in that class of work. The recompilation of many old map is a work of much importance that it should be kept up and carried on as fast as possible.”[1]

Through a series of events unknown to us today, the 1892 tracing by Blau was stored, rolled atop a map cabinet until the early 1980s. A 2002 donation from the Texas Association of Counties provided its much-needed conservation. In 2012, a generous donation from the Daughters of the American Revolution allowed for this manuscript map’s digitization.

Can’t make it to Houston? You can view the majority of the maps in this exhibit in high definition on the GLO’s website where you can also purchase reproductions and support the Save Texas History Program.

[1] W.L. McGaughey, “Report of the Commissioner of the General Land Office State of Texas, September 1, 1890 to August 31, 1892,” General Land Office Reports: Commissioner’s Reports #38, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

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