Austin, TX (Travis County)

By: David C. Humphrey

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: September 8, 2020

Austin, the capital of Texas, county seat of Travis County, and home of the University of Texas at Austin, is located in central Travis County on the Colorado River and Interstate Highway 35. Situated at 30°16' north latitude and 97°45' west longitude, it is at the eastern edge of the Hill Country and the Edwards Plateau. The city was established by the three-year-old Republic of Texas in 1839 to serve as its permanent capital, and named in honor of the founder of Anglo-American Texas, Stephen F. Austin. A site-selection commission appointed by the Texas Congress in January 1839 chose a site on the western frontier, after viewing it at the instruction of President Mirabeau B. Lamar, a proponent of westward expansion who had visited the sparsely settled area in 1838. Impressed by its beauty, healthfulness, abundant natural resources, promise as an economic hub, and central location in Texas territory, the commission purchased 7,735 acres along the Colorado River comprising the hamlet of Waterloo and adjacent lands. Because the area's remoteness from population centers and its vulnerability to attacks by Mexican troops and Indians displeased many Texans, Sam Houston among them, political opposition made Austin's early years precarious ones.

Surveyors L. J. Pilie and Charles Schoolfield laid out the new town, working under the direction of Edwin Waller, who was appointed by Lamar to plan and construct Austin. Out of the 7,735 acres they chose a 640-acre site fronting on the Colorado River and nestled between Waller Creek on the east and Shoal Creek on the west. The plan was a grid, fourteen blocks square, bisected by Congress Avenue, and extending northward from the Colorado River to "Capitol Square." Determined to have Austin ready by the time the Texas Congress convened in November 1839, Waller opted for temporary government buildings at temporary locations. The one-story frame capitol was set back from Congress Avenue on a hill at what is now the corner of Colorado and Eighth streets. The first auction of city lots took place on August 1. During October President Lamar arrived, government offices opened for business, Presbyterians organized the first church, and the Austin City Gazette, the city's first newspaper, made its appearance. Congress convened in November, Austin was incorporated on December 27, and on January 13, 1840, Waller was elected the town's first mayor. By 1840 Austin had 856 inhabitants, including 145 slaves as well as diplomatic representatives from France, England, and the United States.

Austin flourished initially but in 1842 entered the darkest period in its history. Lamar's successor as president, Sam Houston, ordered the national archives transferred to Houston for safekeeping after Mexican troops captured San Antonio on March 5, 1842. Convinced that removal of the republic's diplomatic, financial, land, and military-service records was tantamount to choosing a new capital, Austinites refused to relinquish the archives. Houston moved the government anyway, first to Houston and then to Washington-on-the-Brazos, which remained the seat of government until 1845. The archives stayed in Austin. When Houston sent a contingent of armed men to seize the General Land Office records in December 1842, they were foiled by the citizens of Austin and Travis County in an incident known as the Archives War. Deprived of its political function, Austin languished. Between 1842 and 1845 its population dropped below 200 and its buildings deteriorated. But during the summer of 1845 a constitutional convention meeting in Austin approved the annexation of Texas to the United States and named Austin the state capital until 1850, at which time the voters of Texas were to express their preference in a general election. After resuming its role as the seat of government in 1845, Austin officially became the state capital on February 19, 1846, the date of the formal transfer of authority from the republic to the state.

Austin recovered gradually, its population reaching 854 by 1850, 225 of whom were slaves and one a free Black. Forty-eight percent of Austin's family heads owned slaves. The city entered a period of accelerated growth following its decisive triumph in the 1850 election to determine the site of the state capital for the next twenty years. For the first time the government constructed permanent buildings, among them a new capitol at the head of Congress Avenue, completed in 1853, and the Governor's Mansion, completed in 1856. State-run asylums for deaf, blind, and mentally ill Texans were erected on the fringes of town. Congregations of Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Catholics erected permanent church buildings, and the town's elite built elegant Greek Revival mansions. By 1860 the population had climbed to 3,546, including 1,019 slaves and twelve free Blacks. That year thirty-five percent of Austin's family heads owned slaves.

From 1861 to 1865 the Civil War dominated life in Austin. In February 1861 Austin and Travis County residents voted against the secession ordinance 704 to 450, but Unionist sentiment waned once the war began. By April 1862 about 600 Austin and Travis County men had joined some twelve volunteer companies serving the Confederacy. The Austin-based Tom Green Rifles served with Hood's Texas Brigade in Virginia. Austinites followed with particular concern news of the successive Union thrusts toward Texas, but the town was never directly threatened. Like other communities, Austin experienced severe shortages of goods, spiraling inflation, and the decimation of its fighting men. The end of the war brought Union occupation troops to the city and a period of explosive growth of the African-American population, which increased by 57 percent during the 1860s. During the late 1860s and early 1870s the city's newly emancipated Blacks established the residential communities of Masontown, Wheatville, Pleasant Hill, and Clarksville, organized such churches as First Baptist Church (Colored), started businesses, and patronized schools. By 1870 Austin's 1,615 Black residents composed 36 percent of the 4,428 inhabitants.

On December 25, 1871, a new era opened with the coming of the Houston and Texas Central Railway, Austin's first railroad connection. By becoming the westernmost railroad terminus in Texas and the only railroad town for scores of miles in most directions, Austin was transformed into a trading center for a vast area. Construction boomed and the population more than doubled in five years to 10,363. The many foreign-born newcomers gave Austin's citizenry a more heterogeneous character. By 1875 there were 757 inhabitants from Germany, 297 from Mexico, 215 from Ireland, and 138 from Sweden. For the first time a Mexican-American community took root in Austin, in a neighborhood near the mouth of Shoal Creek. Accompanying these dramatic changes were civic improvements, among them gas street lamps in 1874, the first streetcar line in 1875, and the first elevated bridge across the Colorado River about 1876. Although a second railroad, the International and Great Northern, reached Austin in 1876, the town's fortunes turned downward after 1875 as new railroads traversed Austin's trading region and diverted much of its trade to other towns. From 1875 to 1880 the city's population increased by only 650 inhabitants to 11,013. Austin's expectations of rivaling other Texas cities for economic leadership faded.

Austin solidified its position as a political center during the 1870s and 1880s and gained a new role as an educational center. In 1872 the city prevailed in a statewide election to choose once and for all the state capital, turning back challenges from Houston and Waco. Three years later Texas took the first steps toward constructing a new Capitol that culminated in 1888 in the dedication of a magnificent granite building towering over the town. In 1881 Austin emerged as a seat of education. In a hotly contested statewide election, the city was chosen as the site for the new University of Texas, which began instruction two years later. Tillotson Collegiate and Normal Institute, founded by the American Missionary Association to provide educational opportunities for African Americans, opened its doors in 1881. The Austin public school system was started the same year. Four years later St. Edward's School, founded several years earlier by the Holy Cross Fathers and Brothers, was chartered as St. Edwards College.

In 1888 civic leader Alexander P. Wooldridge proposed that Austin construct a dam across the Colorado River and use water power to attract manufacturing. The town had reached its limits as a seat of politics and education, Wooldridge contended, yet its economy could not sustain its present size. Proponents of the dam won political control of Austin in 1889. Empowered by a new city charter in 1891 that more than tripled Austin's corporate area from 4 ½ to 16 ½ square miles, the city fathers implemented a plan to build a municipal water and electric system, construct a dam for power, and lease most of the waterpower to manufacturers. By 1893 the sixty-foot-high Austin Dam was completed, impounding Lake McDonald behind it. In 1895 dam-generated electricity began powering the four-year-old electric streetcar line and the city's new water and light systems. Thirty-one new 150-foot-high "moonlight towers" illuminated Austin at night. Civic pride ran strong during those years, which also saw the city blessed with the talents of sculptor Elisabet Ney and writer William Sydney Porter (O. Henry). But it turned out that the dam produced far less power than anticipated, manufacturers never came, periodic power shortfalls disrupted city services, Lake McDonald silted up, and, on April 7, 1900, the dam collapsed.

Between 1880 and 1920 Austin's population grew threefold to 34,876, but the city slipped from fourth largest in the state to tenth largest. The state's surging industrial development, propelled by the booming oil business, passed Austin by. The capital city began boosting itself as a residential city, but the heavy municipal indebtedness incurred in building the dam resulted in the neglect of city services. In 1905 Austin had few sanitary sewers, virtually no public parks or playgrounds, and only one paved street. Three years later Austin voters overturned the aldermanic form of government, by which the city had been governed since 1839, and replaced it with commission government. A. P. Wooldridge headed the reform group voted into office in 1909 and served a decade as mayor, during which the city made steady if modest progress toward improving residential life. In 1918 the city acquired Barton Springs, a spring-fed pool that became the symbol of the residential city. Upon Wooldridge's retirement in 1919 the flaws of commission government, hidden by his leadership, became apparent as city services again deteriorated. At the urging of the Chamber of Commerce, Austinites voted in 1924 to adopt council-manager government, which went into effect in 1926 and remained in the 1990s. Progressive ideas like city planning and beautification became official city policy. A 1928 city plan, the first since 1839, called upon Austin to develop its strengths as a residential, cultural, and educational center. A $4,250,000 bond issue, Austin's largest to date, provided funds for streets, sewers, parks, the city hospital, the first permanent public library building, and the first municipal airport, which opened in 1930. A recreation department was established, and within a decade it offered Austinites a profusion of recreational programs, parks, and pools.

By 1900 segregation of Blacks and Whites characterized many aspects of city life, and the lines of separation hardened in the early twentieth century. Despite a two-month streetcar boycott organized by Blacks, the city implemented an ordinance in 1906 requiring separate compartments on streetcars. While residences of Blacks had been widely scattered all across the city in 1880, by 1930 they were heavily concentrated on the east side of town, a process encouraged by the 1928 city plan, which recommended that East Austin be designated a "Negro district." Municipal services like schools, sewers, and parks were made available to Blacks in East Austin only. At mid-century Austin was still segregated in most respects—housing, restaurants, hotels, parks, hospitals, schools, public transportation—but African Americans had long fostered their own institutions, which included by the late 1940s some 150 small businesses, more than thirty churches, and two colleges, Tillotson College and Samuel Huston College. Between 1880 and 1940 the number of Black residents grew from 3,587 to 14,861, but their proportion of the overall population declined from 33 percent to 17 percent. Austin's Hispanic residents, who in 1900 numbered about 335 and composed just 1.5 percent of the population, rose to 11 percent by 1940, when they numbered 9,693. By the 1940s most Mexican Americans lived in the rapidly expanding East Austin barrio south of East Eleventh Street, where increasing numbers owned homes. Hispanic-owned business were dominated by a thriving food industry. Though Mexican Americans encountered widespread discrimination—in employment, housing, education, city services, and other areas—it was by no means practiced as rigidly as it was toward African Americans.

During the early and mid-1930s Austin experienced the harsh effects of the Great Depression. Nevertheless, the town fared comparatively well, sustained by its twin foundations of government and education and by the political skills of Mayor Tom (Robert Thomas) Miller, who took office in 1933, and United States Congressman Lyndon Baines Johnson, who won election in 1937. Its population grew at a faster pace during the 1930s than in any other decade during the twentieth century, increasing 66 percent from 53,120 to 87,930. By 1936 the Public Works Administration had provided Austin with more funding for municipal construction projects than any other Texas city during the same period. The University of Texas nearly doubled its enrollment during the decade and undertook a massive construction program. Johnson procured federal funds for public housing and dams on the Colorado River. The old Austin Dam, partially rebuilt under Mayor Wooldridge but never finished due to damage from flooding in 1915, was finally completed in 1940 and renamed Tom Miller Dam. Lake Austin stretched twenty-one miles behind it. Just upriver the much larger Mansfield Dam was completed in 1941 to impound Lake Travis. The two dams, in conjunction with other dams in the Lower Colorado River Authority system, brought great benefits to Austin: cheap hydroelectric power, the end of flooding that in 1935 and on earlier occasions had ravaged the town, a plentiful supply of water without which the city's later growth would have been unlikely, and recreation on the Highland Lakes that enhanced Austin's appeal as a place to live. In 1942 Austin gained the economic benefit of Del Valle Army Air Base, later Bergstrom Air Force Base, which remained in operation until 1993.

Between the 1950s and 1980s ethnic relations in Austin were transformed. First came a sustained attacked on segregation. Local Black leaders and political-action groups waged campaigns to desegregate city schools and services. In 1956 the University of Texas became the first major university in the South to admit Blacks as undergraduates. In the early 1960s students staged demonstrations against segregated lunch counters, restaurants, and movie theaters. Gradually the barriers receded, a process accelerated when the United States Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations. Nevertheless, discrimination persisted in areas like employment and housing. Shut out of the town's political leadership since the 1880s, when two Blacks had served on the city council, African Americans regained a foothold by winning a school-board seat in 1968 and a city-council seat in 1971. This political breakthrough was matched by Hispanics, whose numbers had reached 39,399 by 1970–16 percent of the population. Mexican Americans won their first seats on the Austin school board in 1972 and the city council in 1975.

From 1940 to 1990 Austin's population grew at an average rate of 40 percent per decade, from 87,930 to 472,020. By 2000 the population was 656,562. The city's corporate area, which between 1891 and 1940 had about doubled to 30.85 square miles, grew more than sevenfold to 225.40 square miles by 1990. During the 1950s and 1960s much of Austin's growth reflected the rapid expansion of its traditional strengths—education and government. During the 1960s alone the number of students attending the University of Texas at Austin doubled, reaching 39,000 by 1970. Government employees in Travis County tripled between 1950 and 1970 to 47,300. University of Texas buildings multiplied, with the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library opening in 1971. A complex of state office buildings was constructed north of the Capitol. Propelling Austin's growth by the 1970s was its emergence as a center for high technology. This development, fostered by the Chamber of Commerce since the 1950s as a way to expand the city's narrow economic base and fueled by proliferating research programs at the University of Texas, accelerated when IBM located in Austin in 1967, followed by Texas Instruments in 1969 and Motorola in 1974. Two major research consortiums of high-technology companies followed during the 1980s, Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation and Sematech. By the early 1990s, the Austin Metropolitan Statistical Area had about 400 high-technology manufacturers. While high-technology industries located on Austin's periphery, its central area sprouted multistoried office buildings and hotels during the 1970s and 1980s, venues for the burgeoning music industry, and, in 1992, a new convention center.

Austin's rapid growth generated strong resistance by the 1970s. Angered by proliferating apartment complexes and retarded traffic flow, neighborhood groups mobilized to protect the integrity of their residential areas. By 1983 there were more than 150 such groups. Environmentalists organized a powerful movement to protect streams, lakes, watersheds, and wooded hills from environmental degradation, resulting in the passage of a series of environmental-protection ordinances during the 1970s and 1980s. A program was inaugurated in 1971 to beautify the shores of Town Lake, a downtown lake impounded in 1960 behind Longhorn Crossing Dam. Historic preservationists fought the destruction of Austin's architectural heritage by rescuing and restoring historic buildings. City election campaigns during the 1970s and 1980s frequently featured struggles over the management of growth, with neighborhood groups and environmentalists on one side and business and development interests on the other. In the early 1990s Austin was still seeking to balance the economic development it had long sought with the kind of life it had long treasured.

Austin Human Relations Commission, Housing Patterns Study: Segregation and Discrimination in Austin, Texas (Austin, 1979). Kenneth Hafertepe, Abner Cook: Master Builder on the Texas Frontier (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1992). David C. Humphrey, Austin: An Illustrated History (Northridge, California: Windsor, 1985). David C. Humphrey, "A 'Muddy and Conflicting' View: The Civil War as Seen from Austin, Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 94 (January 1991). Paul D. Lack, "Slavery and Vigilantism in Austin, Texas, 1840–1860," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 85 (July 1981). Stuart MacCorkle, Austin's Three Forms of Government (San Antonio: Naylor, 1973). Anthony M. Orum, Power, Money and the People: The Making of Modern Austin (Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1987). Texas Cities and the Great Depression (Austin: Texas Memorial Museum, 1973).

  • Communities

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

David C. Humphrey, “Austin, TX (Travis County),” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 30, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 8, 2020

Currently Exists
Place Type
Town Fields
  • Has post office: Yes
  • Is Incorporated: Yes
Belongs to
  • Travis County
  • Williamson County
Associated Names


  • Latitude: 30.30239720°
  • Longitude: -97.76190700°
Population Counts
People Year
629 1850
3,494 1860
4,428 1870
11,013 1880
14,575 1890
22,258 1900
29,860 1910
34,876 1920
53,120 1930
87,930 1940
132,459 1950
186,545 1960
251,808 1970
345,496 1980
472,020 1990
656,562 2000
790,390 2010
974,581 2019
Great Texas Land Rush logo
Adoption Status: ⭐
This place has been adopted and will not be available until May 6, 2026
Adopted by:
Tommy and Sandy Hughes