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"A Glimpse of Texas Past"

Land Policy and
Foreign Settlement in the
Republic of Texas

by Jeffery Robenalt
Jeffery Robenalt

The Republic of Texas emerged from the Revolution buried in debt and with practically no assets, save for its vigorous population and vast, unsettled public lands. However, a heavy burden of debt was not the only problem facing the new Republic. The western frontier was constantly ablaze from savage attacks by hostile Indians, and the border along the Rio Grande suffered from the need to fend off worrisome incursions by Mexican troops and occasional raids by Mexican bandits. Yet in spite of these problems, a wave of optimism swept the new country. The people of Texas were suddenly free to establish their own institutions and make the most of every opportunity that presented itself, and free to form their own government based on American, not Mexican ideals and traditions. Moreover, with an end to Mexican immigration barriers, a rising tide of new settlers would soon pour into the Lone Star Republic to assist in the task of building a new nation.

Republic of Texas Map

Map of the Republic of Texas
Wikimedia Commons

The primary problem facing the citizens of the Republic was how to finance the new government they had just created, let alone pay off the debts that had accrued during the Revolution. Unfortunately, most citizens were so cash-poor they had to get by chiefly on barter, and paying taxes was out of the question. Customs duties on imported goods brought in some hard cash, but so little that the Texas army had to be disbanded in favor of an inexpensive militia system. Like the Congress of the United States, the Texas Congress hoped to eventually finance the Texas government by selling public land to homesteaders, but before the Republic could hope to compete with their wealthy northern neighbor in the sale of land, potential settlers would have to be lured with a much better deal.

The bargain that the Republic of Texas eventually offered to newcomers was practically irresistible: a huge grant of absolutely free land. Every family was given an incredible 1,280 acres and each unmarried man received 640 acres. Though the amount of free land was gradually reduced over the next few years, after 1844 new settlers still received 320 acres, whether married or single, which was twice the land a settler could hope for in the United States. With the advent of the land giveaway, the population boomed. In 1838, the Houston Telegraph and Texas Register reported, “A gentleman who lately arrived from Bastrop County states that immense numbers of immigrants are constantly arriving in the section,” and the Matagorda Bulletin related that, “The Colorado River, up to the base of the mountains, is alive with the opening of new plantations, and towns and villages seem to be springing up spontaneously along its banks.”

Most newcomers who poured into the Republic were southerners from the United States. Included in their ranks were well-to-do land speculators, slave owning planters, and merchants whose sound American dollars would stretch a lot further in Texas. They were joined by much-needed blacksmiths, carpenters, millers and other craftsmen eager to take up the offer of free town lots in addition to their land grants. However, the majority of the new settlers were frontier farmers; hardy, restless, stubborn, and independent men whose only answer to being crowded in by new neighbors was to continually move west.

Packing only the possessions they deemed necessary or too precious to jettison into a wagon, or two if they were fortunate, the land-hungry immigrants plodded southwest over roads that were no more than deep wagon ruts; swampy quagmires during the spring rains and buried in choking clouds of dust in deep summer. Usually armed with a letter from a friend or relative who came to Texas before them, the majority of settlers arrived with a general idea of where they intended to settle. The first step upon reaching their destination was to appear before a board of county commissioners. From the board, the settler received a certificate authorizing him to select his land entitlement from anywhere in the public domain. With so many prime locations available, many newcomers found the choice difficult, but once a site was selected, the settler only had to get the land surveyed and send a description of the boundaries and his land certificate to the capital. The General Land Office would then issue a title.

The simplicity of the entire process led to an ongoing market in transferable land certificates. Some settlers sold their certificates to speculators as soon as they were issued and then squatted on public land. Some were unable to work their entire grant, so they filed on only a portion of the land and received a title and a remainder certificate, which could then be used to claim the remaining land at a later date or immediately sold to a speculator. As a consequence of the Republic’s desperate money policy, much of the land passed through the hands of at least one speculator before it was finally settled. In addition, since there was no gold or silver to guarantee the currency, the Texas government issued paper scrip backed by public land. The currency could then be redeemed upon demand at the rate of one acre for each 50 cents of face value.

Not all settlers immigrated to Texas from the United States or followed the same familiar path to land ownership. Many newcomers were European, most of them German, but smaller groups also emigrated from France, England, Ireland and other countries. Substantial, well-educated Germans, who were seeking personal freedom and business opportunities, dominated this migration. The old empresarial system was adopted in 1841 to attract foreign immigrants to Texas. Among the new empresarios were Frenchman Henri Castro and the German partnership of Henry Fisher and Burchard Miller.

Henri Castro, a man of scholarship and exceedingly great energy, was granted a contract in February 1842 to settle 600 families or single men on 1.25 million acres of land west of San Antonio near the Medina River. Between 1843 and 1847, Castro chartered 27 ships to bring a total of 2,134 German-speaking Alsatian farmers and fruit growers from France, establishing his first colony at Castroville in September 1844. Subsequently, Castro founded the village of Quihi in 1845, the town of Vandenberg in 1846, and the village of D’Hanis in 1847. Much like Stephen F. Austin, the original Texas empresario, Castro established a successful colony without significant financial gain for himself. Investing $200,000 of his own money for the good of his people, he furnished them with livestock, tools, planting seed, medicines and whatever else they needed that he was able to procure.

Henri Castro
Wikimedia Commons

Although Castro was a generous, learned man, with unbounded faith in the capacity of intelligent men for self-government and fairness, his faith was not returned in kind by his colonists. Though the new immigrants had agreed to cede Castro half their land grants in payment for the funds he had expended in establishing the colony, when a land commissioner arrived in 1850 to issue titles, the colonists refused to give Castro the land they had earlier promised. Ultimately, Castro’s colonists were issued 299,846 acres of land, less than ten percent of the amount his empresarial contract had authorized him to settle. After a long and fruitful life dedicated to Texas and his colonists, Henri Castro died in Monterrey, Mexico in 1865 on his way to visit France.

Henry Fisher and Burchard Miller were also granted an empresarial contract in 1842 to settle 600 German, Swiss, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish families on three million acres located between the Llano and San Saba Rivers. The contract was modified in 1844 to permit 6,000 families or single men to apply for grants. That same year, Fisher arrived in Germany and met with officials of the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas. The Society, founded by twenty-five German nobleman and headed by Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, planned to channel German immigration to Texas into one cohesive colony. The noblemen raised $80,000 for the project and believed their efforts would provide homes for deserving German workers, establish markets for German manufactured goods, and develop a trade network between Germany and Texas.

Prince Karl of Solms Braunfels
Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels
Wikimedia Commons

The Society planned to charge each family $240 in exchange for 320 acres, ship passage to Texas, a house, farm tools and enough supplies to last until the first harvest. In June 1844, the noblemen of the Society purchased a four million acre tract from Henry Fisher for $9,000 that Fisher described as “ideal for their purposes.” Unfortunately, when Prince Carl arrived in Texas to ease the path for the initial migration of German colonists, he discovered that Fisher had misrepresented his empresarial grant. Instead of lying near the Gulf coast, the grant was 250 miles inland. Not only was the grant too isolated for convenient trade or easy colonization, it was also situated on land that was controlled by the fierce, war-like Comanches. The first wave of 439 German immigrants arrived at Matagorda Bay in December without a destination.

Not a man to be daunted by such hardship, Prince Carl left the settlers well taken care of, with unlimited credit to draw against the Society’s funds, and set off to locate a tract of land suitable for colonization that could serve as a halfway station between the coast and the original proposed colony. By the time the Prince purchased a 9,000 acre tract for $1,111 in March 1845 that was located twenty-nine miles northeast of San Antonio, the Society’s funds were nearly depleted. Prince Carl named the site New Braunfels after his German estate and settled the colonists in late April. The land was rich and promising, and the settlers immediately set to work building homes and a protective fort, however, by the time they were finished, they deemed it too late in the season to plant crops. Prince Carl, unconcerned that the colonists expected to be fed for another year, regarded his mission as accomplished and returned to Germany.

German immigrants on the way to New Braunfels TX

German immigrants on the way to New Braunfels
Wikimedia Commons

John O. Meusebach, the former Baron von Meusebach, had the unfortunate responsibility of stepping into Prince Carl’s shoes. Meusebach was shocked when he learned that the Society’s funds were exhausted, with another 4,000 more colonists due to arrive in December. In response to Meusebach’s urgent request, the Society provided an additional $60,000, and the former Baron managed to settle not only the 4,000 newcomers, but also 3,000 more. Pushing eighty miles northwest, Meusebach founded the town of Fredericksburg in 1845 and the village of Castell on the original Fisher grant in 1847. The Society eventually declared bankruptcy, but Meusebach remained in Texas to live out his life as a respected farmer and legislator. Though Prince Carl may not have been totally successful, his efforts began a floodtide of immigration that ultimately brought 35,000 German settlers to Texas, making them second in population only to the Anglo-Americans.

John O. Meusebach
John O. Meusebach
Wikimedia Commons

In spite of the hardships endured by the new settlers, the Texas frontier continued to march west toward the dangers of the Comancheria in an uncharted but logical pattern. Behind the westward movement, towns and settlements increased in size and number and changed in character as well, from simple supply centers established to support the farmers, to commercial centers that developed the excitement and variety of city life. The Texans may well have shaped the land, but the land also helped to shape the Texans. The steady advance west left considerable distances between settlements, and the size of the land holdings left expansive distances between neighbors. These conditions forged the Texas character. Isolation built self-reliance and an appreciation for neighbors that were seldom seen, and braving solitude as well as the constant threat of Indian attack made most Texans self-willed in the extreme, impatient with unnecessary laws, and resistant to any restraints on their freedom.

© Jeffery Robenalt, September 1, 2013 Column
"A Glimpse of Texas Past"

Related Article:
The Story of our Texas' German Pilgrims: or Death March to Comal County by W.T. Block

References for "Land Policy and Foreign Settlement in the Republic of Texas"

  • Biesele, Rudolph L., The History of German Settlement in Texas, 1831-1861, (Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1930; rpt 1964).
  • Biesele, Rudolph L. “FISHER-MILLER LAND GRANT,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/mnf01, accessed July 15, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
  • King, Irene M., John O. Meusebach, German Colonizer in Texas, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967.
  • Siegel, Stanley, A Political History of the Texas Republic, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1956).
  • Williams, Amelia W., “CASTRO, HENRI,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fca93, accessed July 16, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
  • Karl of Solms, Prince, Voyage to North America, 1844-45: Prince Karl of Solms’ Texas Diary of People, Places, and Events, (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2000).
  • History of Texas Public Lands, www.glo.Texas.gov/what-we-do/history-and-archives/-documents/history-of-texas-public-lands. pdf.

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