Holley, Mary Austin (1784–1846)

By: Curtis B. Dall

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: November 30, 2017

Mary Austin Holley, author and teacher, daughter of Elijah and Esther (Phelps) Austin and cousin of Stephen F. Austin, was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on October 30, 1784. She attended New Haven schools and studied music and languages before her marriage, on January 1, 1805, to Horace Holley. They were parents of a son and a daughter. Horace Holley was a minister at Greenfield, Connecticut, from the fall of 1805 until 1808. During that time S. F. Austin was attending Bacon Academy in Colchester, Connecticut, and visited in the home of his cousin. In July 1827 Holley died of yellow fever and was buried at sea. Back in New England, Mrs. Holley prepared biographical and explanatory notes for a book to be a memorial to her husband, A Discourse on the Genius and Character of the Reverend Horace Holley (1828).

In April 1829 she became governess to the Hermogene Labranche family in Louisiana. After her brother, Henry Austin, settled in Texas, she communicated with him and with Stephen F. Austin concerning possibilities that she had long considered of gathering her family around her in Texas. The empresario made arrangements to reserve lands for her on Galveston Bay, and in October 1831 she visited the Austin colony. As a result she wrote Texas: Observations, Historical, Geographical, and Descriptive, in a Series of Letters Written during a Visit to Austin's Colony, with a View to a Permanent Settlement in That Country in the Autumn of 1831, which was published in Baltimore in 1833. During her first Texas visit she also planned a book to be called "Travels in Texas" and composed a "Brazos Boat Song," illustrated with a vignette of Bolivar House, which was her Texas residence.

Back in Louisiana Mary Holley continued her teaching, made plans for a future in Texas, and planned a biography of Stephen F. Austin. In 1833 she returned to Lexington, Kentucky, to provide a home for Henry Austin's children; she did not get back to Texas until May 1835, and subsequently remained only a few months. Her manuscript diary of that trip, like her charming family letters, is a valuable picture of the Texas scene. She continued to give good publicity to Texas and to arouse sympathy for the colony during the period of the Texas Revolution. The ladies of Lexington met in her home to sew for volunteers for the Texas army. Her book Texas, a history, was at the press by May 1836 and on the market by November 1836. It was the first known history of Texas written in English. After its publication, Mrs. Holley began to work for Texas annexation. Despite her sorrow over the death of Stephen F. Austin and worry over Henry Austin's financial losses, she hoped to be able to derive some income from her Texas lands and in December 1837 was on her way back to Galveston, where she wrote letters to her daughter describing the changes made with the establishment of the Republic of Texas. On this trip she made a number of pencil sketches of the Houston area, thus providing the earliest pictorial documentation of the first Capitol building, the homes of several prominent citizens, and the Long Row. She made a trip to the North in 1838–39, was back in Galveston in November 1840, and then for the third time returned to Lexington. On her last Texas visit in 1843 she interviewed old settlers and secured material for a biography of Stephen F. Austin to go into a new edition of the History of Texas. In 1845 she decided to return to her teaching in the Labranche family. She died of yellow fever on August 2, 1846, and was buried in the Donatien Augustine tomb in the St. Louis Cemetery at New Orleans. Her books and her long series of family letters are invaluable accounts of early Texas.

Visit the Texas Women Project's standalone website

The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.

Visit Website

James Perry Bryan, ed., Mary Austin Holley: The Texas Diary, 1835–1838 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965). Mattie Austin Hatcher, Letters of an Early American Traveller, Mary Austin Holley, 1784–1846 (Dallas: Southwest Press, 1933). Mary Austin Holley Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Rebecca Smith Lee, Mary Austin Holley, A Biography (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1962). Marilyn M. Sibley, "Introduction," in Mary Austin Holley, Texas (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1985). Ann Quin Wilson, Native Houstonian: A Collective Portrait (Norfolk, Virginia: Donning, 1982).

  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Literature
  • Memoirs, Diaries, Letters, and Travel
  • Music
  • Women
  • Historians

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

Curtis B. Dall, “Holley, Mary Austin,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 05, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/holley-mary-austin.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 30, 2017

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: