DeWitt's Colony

By: Craig H. Roell

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: August 11, 2020

DeWitt's colony, one of the major colonies in the settlement of Texas, was established by Green DeWitt and James Kerr in 1825. Stirred by Stephen F. Austin's success, DeWitt petitioned the Mexican government to become an empresario as early as 1822, but was frustrated in his attempt. He was inspired to try again after the passage of the new federal colonization law of 1824 (see MEXICAN COLONIZATION LAWS) and after having met Austin, with whom he continued to have a close relationship. Austin's influence, together with Baron de Bastrop's helped DeWitt to petition the Mexican government successfully on April 7, 1825, for an empresario contract to settle "four hundred industrious Catholic families...known to be respectable and industrious," and also any equally respectable families of Mexican nationals who "shall come to settle with us." The government approved the grant on April 15 in Saltillo, Coahuila. DeWitt's colony was to be adjacent to and southwest of Austin's grant. Its boundaries were vaguely defined on the basis of inaccurate maps as the right bank of the Arroyo de la Vaca (Lavaca River) beginning at a point ten leagues from the coast (the government forbade all colonization within ten leagues of the Gulf Coast), running up the river to the Bexar-Nacogdoches road (see OLD SAN ANTONIO ROAD) and then up the road to a point two leagues west of the Guadalupe River (approximately the divide between the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers), then extending parallel to the Guadalupe River to the Paraje de las Mosquitos (a point again ten leagues from the coast), thence returning to the Lavaca River. DeWitt's six-year contract required him to respect the rights of ownership of those already settled in the area. He later found that these included all of De León's colony, which had been approved by the Mexican government more than a year earlier and settled successfully by October 1824 around the town of Guadalupe Victoria by the Mexican empresario Martín De León. Not surprisingly, DeWitt and De León had numerous disputes. The contract also required that all official correspondence be in Spanish and that the empresario establish schools with instruction in Spanish, organize and command a militia, and establish a Catholic church with a resident priest.

Even before his contract was approved, DeWitt had appointed James Kerr as surveyor general. Kerr's role was crucial to the success of the colony. In the summer of 1825 Kerr, along with Erastus (Deaf) Smith, Brazil Durbin, Geron Hinds, John Wightman, James Musick, and a Mr. Strickland, set out to select a site for the colony's capital. In August they chose the junction of the Guadalupe and San Marcos rivers and built crude cabins on what later became Kerr Creek. Despite being hampered by Indians, Kerr drew plans for the new town and named it Gonzales in honor of the provisional governor of Coahuila and Texas, Don Rafael Gonzales (this site was about a mile east of the present city). Some weeks after the party finished surveying and erecting cabins the Francis Berry family arrived, raising the population of Gonzales from August 1825 to July 1826 to fifteen; they were also visited by Henry S. Brown, Edwin Morehouse, Elijah Stapp, and Frost Thorn. DeWitt arrived in October 1825 to inspect the site, then returned to Missouri, his home state, by year's end or by early 1826 to promote his colony. In July 1826 Indians attacked the budding settlement on a horse-stealing raid. Whiteman was killed and others fled to Austin's colony on the Colorado River. The vulnerability of Gonzales to Indian attack induced Kerr to find another site nearer the coast. He established "Old Station" near the mouth of the Lavaca River, about six miles inland on the river's west bank, as a landing point for the colonists. Although the jefe político in San Antonio, José Antonio Saucedo, granted permission to establish a port to receive colonists, he also stressed that Old Station could not become a permanent settlement since it lay within the ten-league coastal area forbidden to colonization. He did allow temporary settlement there until enough colonists gathered to ensure the safety of Gonzales, however.

In addition to his own finances, DeWitt used the profit from the sale of his wife's property in Missouri in the colonization scheme. Settlement of the colony was slow, though in 1826 DeWitt entered a four-year contract with the fifty-ton schooner Dispatch under captain William Jarvis Russell to bring in supplies and colonists. By April 1826 DeWitt and a small party of colonists set out for Texas: the Stephens, Locklands, and Reynolds families, along with DeWitt's wife, two sons, and three of four daughters. The party traveled from Missouri down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and arrived at the mouth of the Lavaca River by a schooner that, owing to the difficulty of navigating the Gulf, anchored only in July. DeWitt sent word to Kerr at Old Station for assistance and for protection against Indians. By October more colonists had arrived, bringing the population of Old Station to some forty people, who built cabins and planted crops. Although the Mexican government could issue no titles since the settlers were inside the forbidden zone, Saucedo did appoint James Norton as temporary alcalde. Kerr was made attorney for the colony in July 1827, thereby becoming DeWitt's official agent, a powerful position allowing him to administer the colony and freeing DeWitt to recruit more colonists.

DeWitt returned in September 1827 to find that the Mexican government had ordered the colonists to leave Old Station, a result of a boundary dispute with De León's colony. The edict resulted from the increasing suspicion that DeWitt's colonists were engaged in contraband trade and were permanently relocating the colony in an illegal place, as well as a growing distrust among Mexican officials of all foreigners. In October 1825 the Mexican government had granted preference to Martín De León in the legal battle over the boundary issue, which was inflamed by the Old Station settlement, on the grounds that De León's contract predated DeWitt's and DeWitt's contract required him to respect previous settlement. De León's status as an influential Mexican national no doubt played a role as well. Relations had deteriorated further in October 1826, when the schooner Escambia arrived at the mouth of the Lavaca with contraband tobacco belonging to Thomas Powell in its trade merchandise. Powell wished to settle in DeWitt's colony. Mexican officials discovered the infraction through a mysterious Doctor Oldivar (or Oliver), a fellow passenger purportedly of French origin but claiming to be a Mexican officer, who won Powell's confidence. The jefe político at San Antonio ordered De León, with the aid of the La Bahía garrison under command of Rafael A. Manchola-who happened to be De León's son-in-law-to seize the contraband. Fueled by Kerr's suspicions that Oldivar had been bribed by De León, rumors spread that De León and Manchola were out to kill Anglo-American settlers as far as the Colorado River and that the Mexican empresario would return with DeWitt's head tied to his saddle. With little incident, however, De León and Manchola seized the contraband, as well as the colonists' guns, and arrested DeWitt, whom they took to La Bahía for trial. Apparently Austin's intervention finally quieted the matter, but not without irreparable damage to the De León-DeWitt relationship.

Complicating the effects of the boundary dispute and the illegal trade controversies, the Mexican government's suspicion of foreign settlers increased after the Fredonian Rebellion in December 1826 at Nacogdoches. Although DeWitt colonists condemned the incident and drew up resolutions proclaiming their loyalty to Mexico, many Mexican officials made no distinction between the Anglo-Americans of DeWitt's colony and those of Haden Edwards's Prompted no doubt by De León, who was also forbidden to settle within the ten-league coastal zone, the captain general of the Provincias Internas, Anastasio Bustamante, mindful of the possibility of recurrence of smuggling on the Lavaca River and suspicious that DeWitt was trying to relocate his colony, ordered Saucedo in San Antonio to remove DeWitt from Old Station in August 1827. Upon learning of the order, many colonists threatened to resettle in Austin's colony, so DeWitt applied for an extension, which was granted until December 1. Governor José María Viesca extended the date to June 1828. DeWitt probably was not intending to relocate his colony, since he had sent a party to Gonzales in January 1827 to build a fort, though the work had to be stopped because of Indian hostilities between the Comanches and their enemies, the Lipan Apaches and Tonkawas. Nevertheless, the fort was completed by April. By December DeWitt abandoned Old Station as ordered and took his forty colonists to Gonzales.

The official census of 1828 recorded an increase to seventy-five colonists-eleven families and twenty-seven single men. They were primarily from the Upper South, especially Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky, though some came from Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New York. One was from England. In time the population became more balanced with colonists from the Lower South. By mid-1829 the colony's population more than doubled to 158-thirty families and thirty-four single men, most apparently brought by Byrd Lockhart. By the year's end 186 colonists were recorded. The greatest increase in population occurred in 1830, when twenty-six families (160 people) and thirty-one single men joined the colony, bringing the total population to 377. The areas of settlement were primarily along the Guadalupe and San Marcos rivers, but also on the tributaries of the Lavaca River. Having reached the required minimum of 100 families, the colonists were allowed to receive land titles. To this end José Antonio Navarro was appointed land commissioner in January 1831, and with DeWitt and Kerr became one of the most important members of the colony. As his surveyor Navarro appointed Byrd Lockhart, who had acted as Kerr's deputy in Gonzales since 1827. Most of the surveying was done in 1831 and 1832; 189 titles were issued. The Colonization Law of March 24, 1825, allowed families a sitio and a labor of land if they engaged in both stock raising and farming. A single person received only a fourth as much, though he could acquire the remainder upon marriage. Corn was the basic grain of the colony, water and game were plentiful, and colonists also raised hogs and cattle. Slavery was not prevalent. Of the original colonists only Kerr had slaves, though a few later settlers apparently brought slaves with them. The colony had neither church nor priest, despite the stipulation in DeWitt's contract to supply them. Instead, religion was practiced within the family and the colony was occasionally visited by the Cumberland Presbyterian missionary Sumner Bacon. Green DeWitt himself performed marriages. The absence of church and priest hindered the development of formal education in the colony; indeed, until David Barnett Edward arrived in 1831 and established "Gonzales Seminary," no institution existed.

Indians remained troublesome, but not serious. By 1827 a campaign against the Karankawas was launched by Austin's and De León's colonies, assisted by Mexican federal troops under General Bustamante, then in Texas to squelch the Fredonian Rebellion. The Karankawas were defeated and a peace treaty signed on May 13, 1827, in La Bahía by Bustamante, Martín and Fernando De León, Jacob Betts for Austin, DeWitt, and Kerr, and by Father Miguel Miró and chief Antonito for the Indians. DeWitt colonists were also able to negotiate a peace with the Tonkawas. But they were still subject to Comanche raids, which were particularly bad in 1830. The Indians generally stole livestock from outlying settlements; Gonzales itself was probably never attacked after 1826. Despite DeWitt's prompting, the Mexican government was unable to send troops or establish a garrison at Gonzales because the few available soldiers were concentrated at La Bahía and San Antonio, which suffered raids more frequently. Only with the growth of contraband trade between San Antonio and San Felipe did the government order regular patrols of the area and deliver an artillery piece to DeWitt, in March 1831, though the troops were withdrawn to San Antonio in September after a defeat by the Comanches. Nevertheless, there was relative peace; from 1825 to 1836 only ninety-seven people were killed by Indians around San Antonio, La Bahía, and DeWitt's colony combined.

Gonzales remained the only town in the colony. In April 1831 the jefe político ordered Navarro to resurvey the town because Kerr, DeWitt's original surveyor, had not made provisions for public squares in 1825. By 1836 Gonzales had thirty-two structures, twenty of which were built before 1831. The colony's growth, however, was halted upon the passage of the Law of April 6, 1830, which prohibited further foreign immigration into Texas. Although DeWitt's colony was excluded from this ruling through Austin's influence, immigration was affected and finally ended anyway; no new arrivals were recorded after April 1, 1831, though immigration during the first three months of that year increased the colony's population to 531. DeWitt's contract expired on April 15, 1831, which also contributed to his failure to bring in the 400 families stipulated in his contract; he petitioned for an extension, but was unsuccessful. Since the greater portion of his grant was still unoccupied, the vacant lands reverted to the government to grant to any empresario it wished. Hence, grants were issued to Martín de León and another Mexican empresario, Juan Vicente Campos, though they too had to respect the rights of previous settlers. For the most part the colony was materially and financially a burden to DeWitt, and the citizens of Gonzales failed to make the town a commercial hub. Still, DeWitt's colony is generally considered after Austin's the most successful of the Anglo-American colonies in Texas.

DeWitt's personal influence in his settlement seems to have been comparatively weaker than Austin's was in the Austin colonies, and though he represented the Gonzales District in the Convention of 1833, he never held an elected office in the colony's government. While at Old Station the colony was too small to have its own ayuntamiento, so it fell under the direct supervision of the jefe político at San Antonio. From October 1828 to November 1832, the colony fell under the ayuntamiento of San Felipe (no one in the colony was proficient in the Spanish language) and known as the District of Gonzales. The only government official then living in the colony was the comisario of police, Fielding Porter and later James B. Patrick. In November 1832 Navarro called together a convention to elect the colony's own ayuntamiento. Ezekiel Williams was elected the first alcalde. A month later another election was held to comply with the Constitution of Coahuila and Texas; James B. Patrick was elected the new alcalde. One of the first acts of the new government was to establish a ferry on the Guadalupe River and set its rates. James C. Davis was elected alcalde in December 1833, and Andrew Ponton in December 1834. Also in 1834 the Mexican government divided Texas into three departments, and moved DeWitt's colony into the Department of the Brazos under the jurisdiction of the jefe político of San Felipe (rather than of San Antonio).

As dissatisfaction grew among many living in Texas toward the Mexican government, DeWitt's colony remained moderate in view, sympathetic with Austin's colony but loyal to Mexico, though delegates were sent to the Convention of 1832 and the Convention of 1833. During the hostilities between Saltillo and Monclova over the location of the government of Coahuila and Texas, DeWitt was in Monclova, probably to buy land, which the Mexican government was fraudulently selling to speculators to raise money for defense. While in Monclova DeWitt died, probably from cholera, on May 18, 1835. Following Antonio López de Santa Anna's suppression of Zacatecas and of the Coahuila and Texas legislature, DeWitt's colony, like other settlements in Texas, established a committee of safety and correspondence, though it professed loyalty to Mexico, especially after William B. Travis's capture of Anahuac in June 1835 (see ANAHUAC DISTURBANCES). This incident, however, caused Gen. Domingo de Ugartechea in San Antonio to fear armed rebellion in the various colonies, and provoked him to recover the cannon given the Gonzales residents for protection against the Indians. In an irony of history, DeWitt colonists, despite their professed loyalty to Mexico, defended their right to the Gonzales "come and take it" cannon in what became the first battle of the Texas Revolution, the battle of Gonzales. Since the jurisdiction over the colony had been moved in 1834 to the Department of the Brazos, alcalde Ponton argued additionally that the order to give up the cannon had to come from San Felipe, not San Antonio (though he knew that the jefe político of the Brazos department, James B. Miller, would have let the colonists keep the piece). As the revolution progressed, DeWitt colonists served the Texas cause in every major engagement. Susanna W. Dickinson, wife of colonist Almeron Dickinson, verified rumors of the fall of the Alamo when she returned to Gonzales after surviving the battle of March 6, 1836. The news led Sam Houston to order the town evacuated and burned. Its citizens and the growing number of volunteers gathered there to follow him east in the Runaway Scrape, in order to regroup for the defense of Texas against Santa Anna. After the battle of San Jacinto DeWitt colonists returned to their lands and rebuilt their capital. By the end of 1836 much of the colony was organized into Gonzales County. In 1846, after annexation, DeWitt, Guadalupe, and Lavaca counties were also formed out of the old colony lands, as was Caldwell County in 1848. See also ANGLO-AMERICAN COLONIZATION.

Eugene C. Barker, ed., The Austin Papers (3 vols., Washington: GPO, 1924–28). Eugene C. Barker, The Life of Stephen F. Austin (Nashville: Cokesbury Press, 1925; rpt., Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1949; New York: AMS Press, 1970). Henry Putney Beers, Spanish and Mexican Records of the American Southwest: A Bibliographic Guide to Archive and Manuscript Sources (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1979). Bexar Archives, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Carlos E. Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas (7 vols., Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1936–58; rpt., New York: Arno, 1976). Edward Albert Lukes, DeWitt Colony of Texas (Austin: Jenkins, 1976). Ethel Zivley Rather, "DeWitt's Colony," Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association 8 (October 1904). Texas General Land Office, An Abstract of the Original Titles of Record in the General Land Office (Houston: Niles, 1838; rpt., Austin: Pemberton Press, 1964). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin (Green C. DeWitt; Gonzales, Texas). David M. Vigness, The Revolutionary Decades: The Saga of Texas, 1810–1836 (Austin: Steck-Vaughn, 1965).

Time Periods:
  • Mexican Texas

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

Craig H. Roell, “DeWitt's Colony,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 07, 2022,

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August 11, 2020

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