Mexican Colonization Laws

By: Eugene C. Barker

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: July 30, 2020

On January 17, 1821, the government of the eastern division of the Provincias Internas granted a permit to Moses Austin to settle 300 families in Texas. While preparing to inaugurate this settlement, Austin died. His son, Stephen F. Austin, appeared in San Antonio in August 1821 and was recognized by Governor Antonio Martínez as his father's successor to carry out the enterprise. Among other provisions agreed upon by Austin and Martínez were the terms for distribution of land to colonists. Austin embodied the final form of these terms in a letter to Martínez dated October 12, 1821. He proposed to grant to each head of a family 640 acres in his own right, 320 acres in virtue of his wife, 160 acres for each child, and 80 acres for each slave. Austin's compensation for service in obtaining land, duly surveyed and with title delivered at his expense, was to be at the rate of 12 ½ cents an acre. A colonist could reduce the normal grant to fit his resources or, with Austin's permission, augment it. Austin's permit was granted by Spanish officials. Mexico became independent in 1821, however, and the provisional government failed to recognize Austin's grant but chose rather to settle terms of colonization and immigration by a general law.

The Imperial Colonization Law. All legislative bodies of the provisional and regular governments appointed committees to frame a colonization law, but the first such law was that passed by the Junta Instituyente, Emperor Agustín de Iturbide's rump congress, on January 3, 1823. This law invited Catholic immigrants to settle in Mexico; provided for the employment of agents, called empresarios, to introduce families in units of 200; defined the land measurement in terms of labores (177 acres each), leagues or sitios (4,428 acres), and haciendas (five leagues each); and defined the privileges and certain limitations of immigrants and empresarios. Families who farmed were promised at least a labor of land, those who raised cattle, a league, those who both farmed and raised cattle, a labor and a league. Settlers were free of tithes and other taxes for six years and subject only to half payments for another six years; families might import "merchandise" free of duty and tools and materials for their own use to the value of $2,000; and settlers became automatically naturalized citizens upon residence of three years, if married and self-supporting. An empresario might receive premium lands to the amount of three haciendas and two labors (roughly 66,774 acres) for settling 200 families. Total premiums and permanent holdings of empresarios were limited. Article 30 of the law, by inference, permitted immigrants to bring slaves into the empire but declared children of slaves born in Mexican territory free at the age of fourteen and prohibited domestic slave trading, a limitation that was sometimes evaded. The law provided for settlement by the local governments of immigrants not introduced by empresarios. The law was annulled by the abdication of the emperor in March 1823, but the provisional government that succeeded Iturbide applied its terms by special decree to Austin's first colony in April 1823.

The National Colonization Law. After the fall of Iturbide, Mexico adopted a federal system similar to that of the United States, and the federal Congress passed the national colonization law on August 18, 1824. This law and the state law of Coahuila and Texas of March 25, 1825, became the basis of all colonization contracts affecting Texas except Austin's first contract. In effect, the national law surrendered to the states authority to set up regulations to dispose of unappropriated lands within their limits for colonization, subject to prescribed limitations. All state laws had to conform to this act and to the federal constitution; no lands could be granted within twenty leagues of an international boundary or within ten leagues of the coast without the approval of the federal executive authority; Congress agreed to make no major change in the policy of immigration before 1840 but reserved the right to stop immigration from particular nations in the interest of national security. Titles were limited to residents and were not to exceed eleven leagues to an individual.

The State Colonization Law. The state law specifically accepted the limitations imposed by the federal act; gave heads of families who immigrated a league of land with the provision that they should pay the state a nominal fee in installments at the end of the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth years after settlement; and authorized the executive to enter into contracts with empresarios for the introduction of specified numbers of families, for which service they should receive five leagues of land per hundred families after their settlement. For ten years following settlement the colonists were to be tax-free, except for contributions to repel invasion. Colonists acquired citizenship by settlement. Land commissioners who issued titles and surveyors were to be paid by the colonists. Thirty or more empresario contracts were made, contemplating introduction of some 9,000 families. Some of the contracts were concluded under this law by surrender, annulment, or consolidation of previous contracts. All grants were defined by more or less definite geographical boundaries, all empresarios had six years in which to carry out contracts, and in effect this provision deprived the state of control of vast areas during the pendency of the contracts.

On April 6, 1830, the federal government made use of a reservation of the law of August 18, 1824, and forbade settlement of emigrants from the United States in Texas and suspended contracts in conflict with this prohibition (see LAW OF APRIL 6, 1830). By interpretation, Austin obtained exemption from suspension for his own contracts and that of Green DeWitt. Congress repealed the anti-immigration articles of the law in May 1834; all contracts were automatically restored and extended by the state congress or legislature for four years to compensate for the previous suspension. All Mexican contracts ended with the Texas Declaration of Independence.

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). Eugene C. Barker, Mexico and Texas, 1821–1835 (Dallas: Turner, 1928). Hans Peter Nielsen Gammel, comp., Laws of Texas, 1822–1897 (10 vols., Austin: Gammel, 1898). Mary Virginia Henderson, "Minor Empresario Contracts for the Colonization of Texas, 1825–1834," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 31, 32 (April, July 1928). David J. Weber, The Mexican Frontier, 1821–1846 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982).

Time Periods:
  • Mexican Texas

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

Eugene C. Barker, “Mexican Colonization Laws,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 16, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

July 30, 2020

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