[Detail] Joan Barnett Kilpatrick, Austin’s Colony 1821–1836, Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1993, Map #1675, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Teaching Texas History: Boundaries on Maps and of Character

Most people think of a successful classroom as primarily a place where subject content is introduced, applied, and tested to a standard. While this is certainly one goal, the real foundation for success in any classroom hinges on the teacher’s ability to provide a safe, civil environment to build on. As any teacher (or student) will tell you, a class without rules can get ugly fast. Boundaries of behavior are essential and teachers are always mindful of this fact. Things get accomplished when kids buy in to the rules.

This commemorative map of Austin’s Colony depicts the boundaries of Austin’s empresario contracts.

This idea has significant context in Texas history, as boundaries were also on the mind of the Spanish Governor of Texas when, in August of 1821, he drafted a foundational letter to Stephen F. Austin. He wrote to announce that the young lawyer had been given permission to fulfill his father’s dream of establishing a colony of American settlers in Texas. The goal of his letter, an important document held in the Spanish Collection of the GLO Archives, was to demonstrate Spain’s concern for its territories by setting physical and behavioral boundaries for the upstart colony.

As he collected his thoughts, Governor Antonio María Martinez must have felt a bit apprehensive in his government’s permitting Americans to settle lands in New Spain’s most eastern province of Texas. Almost two decades earlier, the Louisiana Purchase had opened the west to restless pioneers from the United States, and more than a few brazen American filibusters had made illegal incursions into Spanish territory. Now in just a few months, a group of North Americans would be allowed to enter legally and settle permanently. The Spanish governor was well aware Texas needed vibrant settlements populated by loyal citizens to help stabilize the region and provide a deterrent to foreign occupation, but the success of the colonization venture was far from a sure thing.

Governor Martinez began his letter by issuing a few important procedural directives to Austin regarding things like transportation arrangements, the location where American families would settle, and the distribution of lands. The geographical boundaries of Austin’s colony were established along the banks of the Colorado River. In the second half of the letter, Governor Martinez wrote of boundaries of another kind: those of conduct and character, which, while less tangible, were vital to the interests of the Spanish government. On the importance of the character of the new settlers, he wrote:

“As the tranquility of this province under my command…require[s] that the immigrants for who permission has been granted should be honest, virtuous, peaceable and industrious…I expect you will devote the greatest care and attention to this important object…and reject those who appear to be idle, unsteady, or turbulent.”

The Spanish government had high expectations of these American colonists. Lazy, unreliable, and violent people don’t make good neighbors, and they don’t make for a stable, lasting community. As proof of good character, Governor Martinez required a certificate of recommendation from each settler, a practice that became part of the Colonization Law of Coahuila y Texas in 1825.[1] Finally, Governor Martinez stated that Austin would be held personally responsible for their conduct.

Governor Antonio María Martinez writes to Stephen F. Austin. Click here to view an English translation of the letter.

Despite the overwhelming responsibility on his part, Austin must have shared the Governor’s concern. Building American settlements on the frontier probably seemed an easier task than making sure the colonists behaved themselves, but it was a challenge Austin accepted. These new arrivals needed to prove that they were up to the task, or the colony would fail. While the early Texian pioneers were certainly not all saints, overall they were able to create enduring communities that became part of the foundation of Texas as we know it.

This letter of recommendation describes potential colonist John Shannon as an “honest civil industrious and usefull [sic] citizen.” Francis Holland, Letter of Recommendation for John Shannon, 27 January 1831, Box 28, Folder 10, Records of the Spanish Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Boundaries of conduct were as important then as they are today. Whether in the classroom, at work, at play, personal responsibility and proper behavior can be the difference between cooperation and success or chaos and failure. This letter provides an excellent first-hand resource for teachers to use in the classroom to help students realize that the lessons of yesterday are equally valuable today.

To learn more about the General Land Office’s commitment to enhancing Texas History education, including additional primary source documents and free TEKS-based lesson plans please click here.

[1] 1825 Colonization Law, State of Coahuila y Texas, Art. 5: … settlers who present themselves for admission, must prove their Christianity, morality and good habits, by a certificate from the authorities where they formerly resided. http://www.tamu.edu/faculty/ccbn/dewitt/cololaws.htm