The Imprisonment of Stephen F. Austin

By: Amelia White, Alamo Program Development Specialist

1834 opened with the arrest of Stephen F. Austin for treason as a result of an inflammatory letter he had written in October 1833 while in Mexico City petitioning the federal government on behalf of the Texan colonists. Arrested in Saltillo, Austin was then transported back to Mexico City where he was imprisoned in an old Spanish Inquisition prison. Although originally placed in solitary confinement with limited access to the outside world, Stephen F. Austin’s prison correspondence and journals reveal much about the political climate in Mexico and the state of Texas in the year leading up to the revolution. By the time Austin returned to Texas in September 1835 the political situation in Mexico had changed dramatically and Texas was on the brink of war.

Austin’s trip to Mexico City in 1833 was colored by Mexico’s on-going political turmoil. He had repeatedly expressed his frustration with the speed at which the government was moving and the lack of apparent interest over the state of affairs in Texas. This frustration, coupled with the belief that unrest amongt the Texas populace, prompted Austin to write a letter on October 2, 1833 to the ayuntamiento of Béxar urging the government there to begin the process of organizing a separate state government. It was this letter that formed the basis for Austin’s arrest.

The initial months of Austin’s imprisonment were quite dismal. He was placed in solitary confinement in a cell that he described as a dungeon. He was occasionally allowed to walk the prison for exercise, but otherwise remained isolated in his cell. Austin was given meager food and no access to reading or writing materials. Initially his only visitors were Father Michael Muldoon, an Irish priest who had spent time in Texas during 1831–32, and his appointed counsel, which changed three times in a matter of weeks. Father Muldoon acted on Austin’s behalf in order to gain reading material. Austin’s condition improved somewhat in May 1834 when his solitary confinement was lifted and he was allowed to interact with his fellow prisoners. Austin was discharged from jail on December 25, 1834 on bail with the promise that he would not leave the city.

While Austin was imprisoned, Mexican Vice President Valentín Gómez Farías sent Colonel Juan Nepomuceno Almonte on an inspection tour of Texas. Almonte’s public instructions were to reassure the colonists about the stability of the Mexican government, and to hear their complaints and transmit them to the federal government. In addition, Almonte also had private instructions to both note the numbers and the distribution of arms in Texas and to cultivate relationships with loyalists. Austin believed Almonte’s report on Texas would have an impact on his situation, and although Austin initially believed the report would not be positive, he was pleasantly surprised to find out that Almonte’s report was actually quite favorable to both Austin and Texas.[1] Even though his official report was encouraging, on May 20, 1834, while still in Texas, Almonte wrote a letter in which he advised that Austin be held until 2,000 troops could be moved to Texas to maintain the peace there.[2]

Austin’s letters to Texas cautioned the colonists to keep quiet and abandon any revolutionary talk. For the most part, the Texan colonists followed Austin’s advice. As a result of the 1832 Anahuac Disturbances, Texans had begun identifying politically with one of two factions — the War Party and the Peace Party.[3] The War Party favored armed conflict with Mexico and many also called for independence. The Peace Party favored a more moderate response to the conflict between Texans and the increasingly centralized Mexican government and colonists who identified with this faction generally wanted Texas to remain part of Mexico. Stephen F. Austin was a vocal advocate of peace, which had made his arrest in Saltillo all the more remarkable. Fearing for Austin’s safety, members of the Peace Party advocated strongly throughout 1834 and 1835 for Texan colonists to remain calm in the face of Santa Anna’s centralization of the Mexican government. Members of both parties rejoiced at Austin’s return to Texas, as Gail Borden remembered nine years later, “At the time it was known in San Felipe that Austin had arrived on our shores, both the war and peace party hailed the event as one which would unite the people and produce one course of action whatever that might be — They said ‘if Col Austin is for peace, we are for peace, if he is for war we are for War.’”[4]

Austin’s experiences in Mexico had a profound impact on his feelings regarding the Mexican government and the future of Texas. Upon his arrival back in Texas he gave a speech at a dinner in Brazoria hosted to celebrate his homecoming. In his remarks Austin detailed the problem facing the people of Texas:

“The revolution in Mexico is drawing to a close. The object is to change the form of government, destroy the federal constitution of 1824, and establish a central or consolidated government. The states are to be converted into provinces. Whether the people of Texas ought or ought not to agree to this change, and relinquish all or part of their constitutional and vested rights under the constitution of 1824, is a question of the most vital importance; one that calls for the deliberate consideration of the people”[5]

Furthermore, Austin expressed his belief that the constitution of 1824 gave the people of Texas “special and defined rights” and that these rights could not be relinquished “unless expressly authorized by the people of Texas”.[6] Austin therefore echoed the call that had been made by others for the people of Texas to hold a general consultation to determine whether or not they agreed with the restructuring of the Mexican government from a republican to centralized nation.

Plans were made for a general consultation to be held in San Felipe de Austin on October 15, 1835. Before the delegates could meet, however, hostilities came to a head on October 2, 1835 in the town of Gonzales when colonists faced off against federal troops sent to retrieve a cannon. The consultation eventually met in November 1835 and issued a Declaration of Causes upholding their commitment to the Constitution of 1824 and rejecting the centralization of the Mexican government. Independence would be declared four months later.

[1] Stephen F. Austin.”Austin to Thomas F. McKinney.” in The Austin Papers, Vol 3, edited by Eugene Barker (Austin: University of Texas, 1927), p.11.

[2] Eugene Barker. The Life of Stephen F. Austin. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1926), p. 384.

[3] Although Texans began identifying with the political philosophies of the War and Peace parties as early as 1832, these terms are not formally used until 1835.

[4] Gail Borden, Feb 6, 1844. In The Austin Papers, Vol 3, edited by Eugene Barker (Austin: University of Texas, 1927), p.115.

[5] Stephen F. Austin.”Speech of Colonel Austin Delivered on the 8th of September, 1835, at a public dinner in Brazoria, given in honor of his return to Texas.” in The Austin Papers, Vol 3, edited by Eugene Barker (Austin: University of Texas, 1927), p.117.

[6] Ibid, 118.