History of Austin

A look at how Austin became Austin, Texas

Founded in 1839, Austin, Texas is rich in history.  Texas is the only state to have been a decade-long successful republic before it became a state. California had a very brief foray as the Bear Republic before becoming a U.S. territory and Hawaii was first a kingdom and then briefly a republic before becoming U.S. territory, but Texas was a sovereign nation from 1836 to 1846.

Independence from Mexico

Texas settlers broke away from the governance of Mexico in 1836 after a five month struggle for independence.  Three years later, the Congress of the Republic of Texas appointed a commission to choose the site for a permanent state capital.  The commission purchased 7,735 acres along the Colorado River for the new capital.  The tiny village of Waterloo, close to the site of the now famous Barton Springs Pool, was included in the purchase.

Austin, Texas

The new capital was named for Stephen F. Austin, known as the Father of Texas, but many people, including Sam Houston, were dissatisfied with the capitol’s location.  Houston and others were worried about the remoteness of the site, fearing it would be hard to defend from the Mexican army and local Indians.  Despite these objections, the president of Texas Mirabeau B. Lamar commissioned Edwin Waller to plan the new city.

Waller laid Austin out on fourteen block grid plan with Congress Avenue in the center.  Temporary wooden administration buildings were built, including a small wooden capitol building.  In October 1839, President Lamar took up residence in the new capitol and Austin began to grow rapidly.  The next year, Edwin Waller was elected the city’s first mayor. 

When Sam Houston became president of Texas in 1842, he tried to remove the state records to Houston, fearing they might be captured by the Mexican army, which had just captured San Antonio.   Austinites would not allow the records to be moved, defending them by force, but Sam Houston moved his administration to Houston and Austin languished.  Its population dropped below 200. 

Austin was restored to its capital status in 1846 when Texas became a state.  As the state capital, Austin experienced a surge of prosperity.  The first permanent state capitol building was built in 1853, and was succeed by the present state capitol in 1888. The governor’s mansion was finished in 1856. 

Texas joined the Confederacy and Austin struggled with shortages of goods during the Civil War.  After the war, the city’s black population grew and black churches and neighborhoods were established.  The railroad came to the city in 1871 and Austin’s population became increasingly diverse.  It boasted a mix of German, Mexican, Irish and Swedish settlers along with its African American population.  In 1883 the University of Texas was founded and became a major part of Austin’s identity.

Austin experienced the blight of segregation during the late nineteenth century and the first of half of the twentieth century, but racial relations improved during the Civil Rights era and the University of Texas admitted black undergraduates in 1956—the first southern university to do so.

By the early twentieth century, the city was experiencing some reverses.  The city system of government was changed twice before settling into its present configuration.  Major improvements were undertaken from the 1920s to the 1950s, including the building of the dams that form the city’s famous lakes.  By the 1960s, several major companies moved their headquarters to Austin, including IBM, Motorola, and Texas Instruments.

The Austin music scene continued to grow through the 1920s, 1930, and 1940s.  In the 1960s and 1970s new growth occurred as several music venues were opened on the revitalized Sixth Street.

Austin, Texas’ growth continues today.  It is a pleasant, vibrant community in which to live, offering residents wonderful opportunities for educational and cultural growth.

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