The History of Austin. Happy Birthday, Texas!

When I first moved to Austin my brother sent me the epic James Michener novel, Texas, which has forever colored my perception of the region and its people.
Drenched in historical detail and rich with real and fictional characters, it documents the founding of the state and the lives of the formidable men and women involved. Not well received by the denizens of the Lone Star State upon its release in 1985, this dense, thick narrative was awarded Texas Monthly's Bum Steer of the Year Award, citing the novel's use of clich├ęd dialogue and common stereotypes. The thing the folks at Texas Monthly fail to realize is threefold: there are Texans that do talk this way, history is where stereotypes dwell, and their reaction to the book is as Texan as the qualities they decry. I'm fairly sure James Michener's echoing ironic chuckle will never fully dissipate.

This scenic bend in the Colorado River was originally the nomadic stomping grounds of the Tonkawa, Comanche, and Lipan Apache natives. The Spanish were the first Europeans to arrive, setting up temporary missions to bend the heathen savage to a Christian way of thinking and provide bases of exploration. These acted as a precursor to the later influx of Anglo settlers who were the first to build anything resembling a village. The location was also a crossroads of several trade paths; chief among which were the Santa Fe/Galveston Bay and Northern Mexico/Red River routes.

Austin was originally called Waterloo, after the 1815 British victory over Napoleon, by the Anglo pioneers that built that first settlement on the banks of the river in the 1830s. At the cessation of the Texas War of Independence between the settlers and Mexico, the Republic of Texas was created in 1836 and Waterloo became its capital three years later. It was renamed Austin for Stephen F. Austin, often known as the Father of Texas, who was highly influential in colonizing the region before his death from pneumonia shortly after the state's inception.

At this time, Texas was an independent country, with its own government, constitution, and currency. In a coincidence that staggered this chronicler, a man called Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar was named the second president of Texas after the first, the famed Sam Houston, had to step down (the Texas constitution barred presidents from succeeding themselves). Lamar commissioned Edwin Waller to survey the area, draft a fourteen block street plan, and construct public buildings for the new capital.

The city was designed by Waller to straddle a broad concourse called Congress Avenue, running directly north-south from the Colorado to Capital Square, edged by Shoal and (the rapidly renamed) Waller creeks. The grid arrangement laid down by Waller forms the current downtown Austin street plan. In the August of 1839, 217 of the 306 lots were auctioned off to settlers, and the construction of Austin began in earnest.

The following year, conflict between the Texas Rangers (formally constituted in 1835 after Stephen J. Austin initially formed the preliminary force in 1823) and the Comanche reached a crescendo. The Rangers drove the natives out of central Texas, allowing widespread immigration and settlement. Travis county was founded in this period.

When Sam Houston was re-elected president in 1841, his distain for Austin was monumentally apparent. He made a powerful attempt to shift the title of state capital to the city of Houston (which may have been a move of colossal conceit), but the Austinites fought him tooth and nail. One surreptitious attempt to acquire the state archives was foiled by the owner of the Austin boarding house he preferred over the presidential mansion, one Mrs. Angelina Eberly.

Upon overhearing the assigned Texas Rangers loading their carts with the state records, she hurried to the town's six-pound cannon and fired it in their direction, missing the Rangers by a whisker but hitting the General Land Office Building. The noise roused the populace, who chased down the Rangers and retrieved the archives at Brushy Creek. A bronze commemorative statue now stands on Congress Avenue near the spot where she instrumentally conserved Austin's status as Texas' seat of government.

Texas was annexed by the United States in 1845, the state constitution was renewed, and Austin was again officially recognized as the state capital.

Public schools opened in 1881, as did Tillotson Collegiate and Normal Institute, which later became part of Huston-Tillotson University. Two years later, the University of Texas at Austin opened its doors.

A particularly gruesome (and therefore supremely interesting) series of events occurred over the course of a year between the Decembers of 1884 and 1885; the murders by the serial killer who became known as the Servant Girl Annihilator AKA the Austin Axe Murderer. In just twelve months a spate of seven murders occurred, typically female household servants who were dragged from their beds, raped and then killed with either an axe or some kind of spike. Present husbands were not immune to the killer’s attentions, and were often murdered in addition. No one was ever charged for the crimes, leading the more imaginative of theorists to muse that he and Jack the Ripper, whose reign of terror was to begin three years later in London, might possibly be one and the same.

The furor resulted in increases in policing, earlier closing of saloons, and other such precautions. Austin’s installation of Moonlight Towers (165 ft tall lighting platforms) to illuminate the city ten years later is often attributed to safety measures implemented because of the Annihilator. To this day Austin is the only city in the world where such towers are still in operation.

Much of the city’s beatific civic infrastructure and parkland was introduced in the 1920s and 30s. These were paid for by Depression Era Relief Funds, as well as the series of dams that create the three main lakes of Austin; Lake Travis, Lake Austin, and the recently renamed Lady Bird Lake (formerly Town Lake) that splits the city in two.

The later part of the 20th century saw The University of Texas at Austin emerge as a world leader, and Austin became renowned as a fulcrum for technology development. The last fifty years have also seen the city emerge as an epicenter in the music world, with several premier music festivals, an uncountable number of music venues, and the adoption of the much-deserved crown “Live Music Capital of the World”.


Popular Posts