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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Remembering Austin

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
The gilded lettering on the cover is faded, and the green cloth binding bears some staining, but my copy of a Congressional document with the typically governmental title of “Proceedings of the House of Representatives on the Occasion of the Reception and Acceptance from the State of Texas of the Statutes of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin – February 25, 1905” is still quite readable after more than a century.

Forty years prior to the document’s publication, on July 2, 1864, Congress passed an act to turn the original House chamber into a hall of statuary, with each state able to contribute only two statutes, the same number of senators it can have. To be made of either marble or bronze, the statues were to honor figures “illustrious for their historic renown or from distinguished civic or military services…”

As of early 1905, only 20 states had furnished statues for the hall. Today, all 50 states have their statues in place.

The 143-page House document includes the arcane legislation authorizing acceptance of the two Texas statues, plus official copies of all the Congressional oratory connected to their unveiling. Those speeches, while flowery, included a history of Texas and the biographies of the men being honored.

In fact, the volume stood as one of the better sources for information on Austin’s life until the publication in 1925 of Dr. Eugene C. Barker’s biography, “The Life of Stephen F. Austin.”

While its value as a reference has been considerably lessened over the year, the Congressional document’s title is revealing of a long-standing inequity that still stands today: Ole Sam gets more attention than Austin, the man Houston himself called “the Father of Texas.”

By all measures of logic and grammatical correctness, the document’s title should list Austin first and Houston second. For one thing, “A” obviously comes before “H.” For another, Austin came to Texas more than a decade before Houston, establishing an Anglo colony in 1821.

Of course, Houston always got more and better press than Austin. One reason is that Houston lived longer (he died at 70 in 1863, Austin at 43 in 1837). Too, Austin did not win the decisive battle at San Jacinto that assured Texas’ independence from Mexico or have as colorful and controversial a life. Finally, Houston was a much more colorful character than Austin.

Still, it would be hard to argue against the notion that had it not been for Austin, Houston would not have won immortality – at least not in Texas.

The elected speech makers taking part in the 1905 statue dedication understood this.

“Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston!” gushed Rep. Samuel Bronson Cooper of Beaumont. “The founder and the preserver! Each the complement of the other. Without [an] Austin to build States no Houston would be needed to liberate them from oppression or to defend them from aggression; and without the sheltering and conserving genius of a Houston, vain would be the work of those who lay the foundations of States amid the solitude and savagery of the desert.”

Another speaker, Rep. Oscar W. Gillespie of Fort Worth, put it this way:

“Austin’s life embodies hope; Houston’s, courage.”

The two statues dedicated that winter day in Washington were copies of the statues sculpted by Texas artist Elisabet Ney that had been placed in the Texas state house in 1903.
Statue of S.F. Austin Elizabet Ney at State Capitol in Austin Texas
Statue of S.F. Austin by Elizabet Ney
at the State Capitol in Austin
TE photo
Texas had been much slower to recognize Austin than Houston. Not until 1910 did Texas lawmakers finally decide Austin’s grave deserved to be in the state cemetery in Austin rather than at Peach Point Plantation in Brazoria County.

With family members and state officials on hand, Austin’s grave was opened on Oct. 18, 1910 and his well-preserved bones exhumed and brought by train to the Capital City for reburial.

A military escort first bore the remains to the Capitol, where they lay in state until being moved the following day to their final resting place at the highest point of the state’s burial ground.

The monument over Austin’s new grave notes he was born Nov. 3, 1793. Texas honors Jefferson Davis’ birthday, Lyndon B. Johnson’s birthday and Caesar Chavez’, but not the day Austin started life.

On the other hand, Houston has his holiday, even if it does not formally commemorate his birthday – Texas Independence Day. He was born March 2, 1793. Forty-three years later, at Washington-on-the-Brazos, Texas declared its independence from Mexico. The legislature made March 2 a holiday observed each year with a parade and various ceremonies.
Stephen F. Austin statue,  Stephen F. Austin State Park
Stephen F. Austin statue. TE Photo
Stephen F. Austin State Park
Despite the lack of a Stephen F. Austin Day, the empresario has his giant-sized statue near Angleton. Earlier, a towering statue of Houston went up at Huntsville.

More recently, on Oct. 28, the Tarrant County Commissioners Court in Fort Worth proclaimed Nov. 3 as Stephen F. Austin Day in that county. When the Legislature convenes in Austin in January, maybe it’s time for Texas lawmakers to finally designate Nov. 3 as a state holiday honoring Austin.

Even if the legislature continues to ignore Austin’s birthday, as one of the 1905 speech makers noted, “geographical monuments” are more enduring than marble or granite, brass or bronze, oil on canvas.

“So long as the counties of Houston and Austin are on the map,” declared Rep. James Beauchamp Clark of Missouri, “so long as the ambitious cities of Houston and Austin lift their spires to heaven, the names of those twain will linger upon the tongues of men.”


© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
November 6, 2008 column
Related Story: Stephen F. Austin State Park
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