Austin, Moses (1761–1821)

By: David B. Gracy

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: November 20, 2019

Moses Austin, founder of the American lead industry and the first man to obtain permission to bring Anglo-American settlers into Spanish Texas, son of Elias and Eunice (Phelps) Austin, was born in Durham, Connecticut, on October 4, 1761. He was in the fifth generation of his line of Austins in America. Abandoning his father's occupations of tailor, farmer, and tavern keeper, Moses at age twenty-one entered the dry-goods business in Middletown, Connecticut, then moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1783 to join his brother, Stephen, in a similar undertaking. In Philadelphia he met and in 1785 married Mary Brown (see AUSTIN, MARY BROWN), by whom he had five children, three of whom lived to maturity: Stephen Fuller Austin, who accepted and successfully carried out Moses' deathbed request to prosecute "the Texas Venture," Emily Margaret Austin (see PERRY, EMILY MARGARET AUSTIN), and James Elijah Brown Austin. Moses extended his business to Richmond, Virginia, where he established Moses Austin and Company. In 1789 he secured a contract to roof the new Virginia capitol in lead, and, since the state promised to pay 5 percent above market price if the contractor used Virginia lead, Moses, again in partnership with Stephen, gained control of Virginia's richest lead deposit. He brought experienced miners and smelterers from England to improve the efficiency of his operation, and the resulting expertise and industry he introduced into the lead business established the American lead industry. Austin founded Austinville (Wythe County) at the lead mines in 1792 after he moved to the mines. When he encountered problems in roofing the capitol and in financing his enterprise, he looked for relief to the rumored lead deposits in Spanish Upper Louisiana. After visiting the mines during the winter of 1796–97, he sought and obtained a grant to part of Mine a Breton (at modern Potosi, Missouri), where in 1798 he established the first Anglo-American settlement west of and back from the Mississippi River. Imbued with the New England Calvinist belief that to those most able to manage assets should go the lion's share of them, Austin sought aggressively to expand his holdings. Using the efficient reverberatory furnace, the design of which he had learned from the English smelterers, he gained control of virtually all smelting in the region and amassed a wealth of $190,000. The second period in the history of the American lead industry is known as the "Moses Austin Period." Austin's contributions influenced the lead industry until heavy machinery revolutionized mining and smelting after the Civil War.

In his frontier settlement Austin built, in the style of a southern mansion, an imposing home that he called Durham Hall. From this seat he fought for nearly a decade with John Smith for supremacy of the mines. With few exceptions, he made it his business to win the friendship of men in prominent positions. Governor William Henry Harrison appointed him a justice on the Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions for the Ste. Genevieve District. With sales lost because of Aaron Burr's conspiracy, the War of 1812, and subsequent depressed conditions, Austin joined others seeking to increase the money supply in circulation by founding the Bank of St. Louis, the first bank west of the Mississippi River. When the bank failed in 1819, the repercussions on Austin's finances were severe. Already in 1816 he had relinquished the Potosi mine to his son Stephen, moved to Herculaneum, Missouri, a town he established in 1808 as a river shipping point for his lead, and returned to merchandising.

Unsuccessful in escaping debt through traditional business pursuits, Austin developed a plan in 1819 for settling an American colony in Spanish Texas. Characteristically, he took an aggressive tack in times when holding the line seemed best. After the Adams-Onís Treaty clarified Spanish title to Texas, he traveled to San Antonio, where he arrived on December 23, 1820, seeking permission to bring his colonists. Spurned by Governor Antonio María Martínez, he chanced to meet the Baron de Bastrop in one of the most famous turns of history in Texas. Austin and Bastrop had chanced to meet nineteen years earlier when in New Orleans on unrelated trips and had had no contact during the interim. Nevertheless, the two recognized each other. After Bastrop, a resident of San Antonio, heard the enthusiasm with which Moses spoke of his colonization plan, the baron returned with him to the governor's office to request permission to establish the colony. On December 26, 1820, Governor Martínez endorsed and forwarded the plan to higher authority.

On the trip out of Texas, Moses contracted pneumonia from four weeks of wet and cold weather; he subsisted for the last week on roots and berries. Shortly after he reached home, he learned that permission for the colony had been granted, after which he neglected his health and devoted all of his energies to the "Texas Venture." Austin lived barely two months more. Two days before he died, he called his wife to his bed. "After a considerable exertion to speak," she wrote in one of the most famous letters in Texas history, "he drew me down to him and with much distress an difficulty of speech, told me it was two [sic] late, that he was going...he beged [sic] me to tell you to take his place tell dear Stephen that it is his dieing [sic] fathers last request to prosecute the enterprise he had Commenced." Moses Austin died on June 10, 1821, at the home of his daughter, Emily Bryan, and was buried in the Bryan family cemetery. In 1831 the remains of both Moses and his wife were removed to a public cemetery in Potosi on land they once owned. In 1938 the state of Texas tried unsuccessfully to remove the remains to the State Cemetery in Austin.

Eugene C. Barker, ed., The Austin Papers (3 vols., Washington: GPO, 1924–28). David B. Gracy II, Moses Austin: His Life (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1987).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

David B. Gracy, “Austin, Moses,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 20, 2022,

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November 20, 2019