Mercer, Charles Fenton (1778–1858)

By: Joe E. Ericson

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: September 23, 2020

Charles Fenton Mercer, Virginia statesman and Texas empresario, son of James and Eleanor (Dick) Mercer, was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, on June 16, 1778. Princeton College (now Princeton University) awarded him a baccalaureate degree in 1797 and a master's degree in 1800. He was offered commissions as lieutenant and captain of cavalry, United States Army, in 1798 and 1800 but declined in order to study law with George Washington's nephew, Bushrod Washington, a justice of the United State Supreme Court. Mercer was admitted to the bar in 1802 and entered the practice of law in Aldie, Virginia. He began a distinguished career in public service in 1810 with his election to the Virginia House of Delegates, where he served until 1817. During the War of 1812 he held commissions as major in command at Norfolk, Virginia, lieutenant colonel of the Fifth Virginia Regiment, inspector general of Virginia militia, aide-de-camp to the governor of Virginia, and brigadier general in command of the Second Virginia Brigade. He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1816 as a Democrat and served in that office from March 4, 1817, until his resignation on December 26, 1839. In his public life Mercer zealously pursued three principal interests: development of the American West through internal improvements, promotion of public education through schools established at public expense, and colonization of "free people of color" through emigration to Africa. He sponsored legislation in the Virginia Assembly in 1812–13 to establish a fund for internal improvements and to organize and serve as first president of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company, 1828–33. In 1815–16, as a Virginia assemblyman, Mercer unsuccessfully sponsored legislation to establish a system of primary schools. He consistently supported Thomas Jefferson's plan for a University of Virginia. Throughout his career in the Congress of the United States and the Virginia Assembly, he supported bills promoting general education. Long an advocate of plans for the removal of free Blacks to Liberia or elsewhere outside the United States, he became active in 1817 in the organization of the American Society for the Colonization of the Free People of Color of the United States. For the next twenty years he devoted much of his time and resources to this and other African colonization projects. In 1839, at age sixty, Mercer regretfully resigned his seat in Congress and accepted appointment as cashier for the Union Bank of Florida at Tallahassee. He offered as his reason for this step the heavy drain on his finances brought about by his long career in public service and philanthropy.

While employed at the bank, he became interested in Texas colonization. Then, in 1841, on one of his seven trips to Texas, he began exploring the possibility of bringing Anglo-American settlers to the new republic. Initially his interest was drawn to the Peters colony in northern Texas, and he traveled to Texas in 1843 as an agent of that colony. Ultimately, however, on January 29, 1844, he received an empresario contract from President Sam Houston for a colony located east of the Peters colony. Eager to fulfill the terms of the contract, Mercer returned to the United States in February 1844 to obtain assistance in financing and promoting his venture. He soon organized the Texas Association and began selling shares for $500 each. By the end of the year, as a result of his energetic advertising, more than 100 families had complied with the requirements of his contract and received land certificates. Mercer's contract was a source of controversy, however. Houston had granted it after vetoing a bill by the Texas Congress that would have taken away the president's authority to make such contracts without consulting the Congress. Congress overrode Houston's veto the day after the Mercer contract was granted. Mercer's well-known abolitionist sentiments made the colony an issue in the abolition and annexation controversy. Land disputes and the resulting court cases were an additional drain on Mercer's time and finances. In 1852 he assigned his interest in the contract to George Hancock of Kentucky and other members of the Texas Association, receiving in return an annuity of $2,000. He spent the remaining six years of his life traveling in Europe. Shortly before his death he returned to his native Virginia, where he died at Howard, near Alexandria, on May 4, 1858. He was buried in Union Cemetery, Leesburg, Virginia. He never married.

Biographical Directory of the American Congress. Nancy Ethie Eagleton, "The Mercer Colony in Texas, 1844–1883," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 39–40 (April-October 1936).

Time Periods:
  • Republic of Texas

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

Joe E. Ericson, “Mercer, Charles Fenton,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 10, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 23, 2020