Empresario land grants in Texas

Definition: Tracts of land granted to settlers, known as empresarios, by Mexico to encourage settlement in Texas while it was part of Mexico

Significance: By issuing empresario grants, Mexico hoped to attract settlers from around the world. Some Europeans did immigrate to Texas, but most settlers were fromthe United States. Rather than assimilate as loyal Mexican citizens, the American settlers remained a foreign element, and many of them were instrumental in leading the Texas Revolution in 1835-1836.

During the Spanish colonial era in Mexico, Texas was on the far northern fringe of the Spanish empire, and there was little effort to settle the region. In 1820, Moses Austin, a miner and businessman from Missouri, traveled to San Antonio de Béxar, the provincial capital of the Texas region, to meet with governor Antonio Mária Martínez about bringing American settlers into the region. Austin eventually received permission to bring in three hundred American families but died shortly after returning to Missouri.

In 1821, Mexico became independent of Spanish control. Stephen F. Austin, the son of Moses Austin, made an arrangement with the new Mexican administration that was similar to the one his father had worked out with the Spanish. Settlers entering Mexico were required to become Mexican citizens and had, at least nominally, to profess Roman Catholicism, the established religion of Mexico. Each American settler was given a generous land grant—either 170 acres suitable for cultivation or more than 4,000 acres of grazing land.

Austin led the first settlers into Texas in December, 1821. In 1824, the Mexican government passed a law formalizing these colonization efforts, offering land and tax exemptions to foreign settlers. Mexico hoped that these settlers would create a kind of buffer between Mexico and the United States and also deal with the hostile Indians in the region. Most of the American settlers, however, saw their Mexican citizenship as a mere formality and still considered themselves to be Americans.

The vast majority of the settlers who came into Texas were from the United States, but European immigrants established a few colonies, including two of the most successful—San Patricio and Refugio, both near the Gulf coast. In August of 1828, James McGloin and John McMullen were allowed to bring in two hundred Irish Catholic families, who created the San Patricio colony. The Irish settlers were actually recruited in New York City; however, many of them had only recently arrived from Ireland. In 1831, James Power and James Hewetson were given permission to bring in another two hundred Irish families, and these people founded the Refugio colony.

In 1830, about seven thousand Americans were living in Texas. By then, the Mexicans realized that allowing Americans to colonize the province had been a mistake, as the settlers largely resisted assimilation. New laws were passed forbidding further American migration into Texas, but illegal immigration continued. By the time of the Texas Revolution in 1835-1836, about thirty thousand Anglo-American settlers and about three thousand African American slaves were living in the region.

Mark S. Joy

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Gary Clayton. The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land, 1820-1875. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005. 
  • Cantrell, Gregg. Stephen F. Austin: Empresario of Texas. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. 
  • Davis, William C. Lone Star Rising: The Revolutionary Birth of the Texas Republic. New York: Free Press, 2004. 

See also: Alien land laws; Dallas; Houston; Mexican immigrants; Mexican Revolution; Texas; Texas Cart War; Westward expansion.

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