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Austin Will

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Austin real estate agent Susanne Lee has fond memories of the house in Houston she grew up in, but until recently she never knew it had much of a history.

Actually, it's the ground beneath her childhood home - and its succession of owners - that amounts to a history of Texas.

Built in 1937, the two-story house at 4340 Leeland St. was one of thousands of houses that went up as Houston grew in importance as a seaport. Following World War II, the city continued to grow exponentially, leaving the house on Houston’s near east side with a comfortable old-neighborhood feel.

With a purchase price of $17,000, Gene and Hedy Lee started making mortgage payments on the house in 1962. They had met when Gene Lee, an Asian American, was in the Army stationed in Germany and married there. Moving to Houston in 1955, they opened a small grocery at 3404 Leeland, living above their business before they bought their own house nine blocks down the street.

Susanne Lee's first inkling of the significance of the lot her parents own came when her mother handed her a 157-page abstract of title prepared in 1922 by the Harris County Abstract Co.

The legal-size pages, while not the most compelling reading, amount to a capsule history of Anglo settlement in Texas. Legally, the document is a deed history of "All of Blocks Nos. Forty Nine (49) to Sixty Two (62), Inclusive, of Eastwood, an Addition to the City of Houston, on the South Side of Buffalo Bayou." More specifically, Lot 10.

The Lee family's piece of land first saw transit and tripod in 1824 when Texas was a province of the newly formed Mexican government.

On July 29 that year, a young settler named Luke Moore signed a document before Stephen F. Austin's "Honorable Commissioner," the Baron de Bastrop. Austin had gained permission to locate 300 colonists in the province.

In the paperwork, Moore said he was a native of the United States, a resident of the Mexican province of Cohuilia and Texas, having come to Texas "with the intention of settling myself permanently in the colonial establishment permitted by the Superior Government of the Mexican Nation to the Empresario, Don Stephen F. Austin."

The same day, Austin signed a document attesting that found Moore "worthy of the favor which he solicits and can be admitted as a resident of this new colony on account of his good qualities and circumstances, and well known application to agriculture, stock raising and industry and in consideration of this you can concede to him a league of land."

Moore's land lay along Bray's Bayou, a branch of Buffalo Bayou, in what would become Harris County. The land began on the south side of the bayou "where a landmark was planted at the distance of nine varas from an Ash tree to the south eighty-six-and-a-half degrees west, and of ten varas from a white oak…."

Whether Austin took Moore to see his land or whether his assistants John Austin and Samuel M. Williams handled the chore is not clear from the paperwork, but true to Spanish and then Mexican custom, an unusual ceremony took place:

As Austin's document averred: "We put the said Luke Moore in possession of said tract, taking him by the hand, leading him over it and telling him in loud and distinct voices that in virtue of the commission and of the powers we have and in the name of the Government of the Mexican Nation, we put him in possession of said track…and…Moore in token of finding himself in real and personal possession of said track without any contradiction whatever, shouted aloud, pulled up herbs, threw stones, planted stakes, and performed the rest of the necessary ceremonies."

The most interesting verbiage included in the abstract is Austin's will, written in 1828 as the empresario prepared to "depart on a journey to the City of Mexico on a mission to procure the approbation of the National Congress for the admission of Texas into the Mexican Union as a State, and considering the uncertainty of life and the casualties of such a journey…."

In the event of his death, Austin stipulated that his land on Bray's Bayou would go to his sister, Emily M. Austin Perry. Austin survived his trip to Mexico, but neither he nor Moore would live to old age.

Meanwhile, on March 10, 1829 - for reasons not stated in the paperwork -- Moore sold Austin the western half of his Harris County land for $165.

Little is known of Moore, other than he was one of the so-called Old Three Hundred. Eleven years after coming to Texas, he helped fight for Texas independence from Mexico, participating in the siege of Bexar in 1835. Though he survived the revolution, by December 1837 he had died. The administrator of Moore's estate had the rest of his land up for sale.

By then, Austin, too, had died, losing a struggle with pneumonia on Dec. 27, 1836. At the time of his death at 43, Austin still owned the Bray's Bayou land he had purchased from Moore.

The land remained in Austin's estate until March 10, 1862 when the family sold it to pay off some of the estate's creditors who had been "importunate in their demands for payment."

After that, the land, as duly recorded in the yellowing abstract now owned by Susanne Lee, passed through a succession of owners both individual and corporate. Eventually platted and subdivided, Lot 10 became the home of a 20th century couple who, like Austin and Moore and many others, came to Texas as immigrants hopeful of better lives.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - June 8, 2006 column

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