Looking for clues about the real Stephen F. Austin in his papers

Recently reclaimed documents at the Briscoe Center reveal his state of mind.

The large, thin sheet of ivory-colored paper folds into a neat, pocket-sized rectangle. Opened up for perusal, the printed Seal of Mexico looms over elegant cursive script, including the elaborate signature of the Mexican secretary of state.

On the back of the single-page passport are darkly inked stamps for Mexico City, Veracruz and New Orleans, plus a written notice of a steamship departure from New Orleans on Aug. 22, 1835, for Brazoria, Texas.

After lobbying for his Texas colonists in Mexico City — and spending time in a Mexican prison for his efforts — Stephen F. Austin returned home to the Brazos Valley. Several artifacts, including his passport and a receipt from a New Orleans bookseller — recently rediscovered in the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas — reveal some clues about his state of mind.

“The receipt is a window into what he was thinking in Mexico City and into very tumultuous times,” says Brenda Gunn, director for research and collections at the Briscoe. “He’s thinking about revolution.”

At Hotchkiss & Co. Booksellers in the French Quarter, Austin had purchased “History of the Revolution in England 1688,” “Fall of the Roman Empire” and “Spanish Conquest of Granada,” along with novels and at least one adventure book. The receipt is now on view down the road from the Briscoe Center at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.

The reclaimed historical items, including a cookbook put together by Stephen F. Austin’s mother, Maria Brown Austin, are part of the “Moses and Stephen F. Austin Papers,” recently stabilized through a $350,000 effort that included a large federal grant under the Save America’s Treasures program. Conservators in Massachusetts spent much of their labors removing silk mesh that had been glued to the back of the Austin documents in an ill-conceived effort from an earlier era to save the paper.

Instead, the glue had made the paper and silk go to war.

Why such care — and, let’s face it, money — devoted to Austin’s personal papers?

“He’s a little bit of an enigma,” Gunn says. “We grow up with him as the Father of Texas. But what does that mean? Through these papers, you begin to see what that means.”

The papers come to Austin

UT had no historical holdings to speak of when it opened in September 1883. The following year, the university hired scholars George Garrison and Lester Bugbee. They needed research projects for their students in a field that increasingly emphasized primary sources such as original documents over secondary sources like published histories.

At the time, the “Austin Papers” were in the hands of his nephew, Col. Guy M. Bryan, housed in Quintana at the mouth of the Brazos River on the Gulf Coast. Bugbee convinced Bryan to let him peruse the documents, then published two articles about the letters, business records and other papers in 1897. Proven worthy of further study, the papers were safely transferred to UT in 1898 — two years before the big Galveston hurricane that would have almost assuredly wiped them out — to be used by Bugbee’s and Garrison’s classes.

(The papers had already survived one disaster in 1833 when Stephen F. temporarily stored them at his sister Emily’s plantation in Peach Point. His own house in San Felipe de Austin, meanwhile, burned to the ground.)

Bryan donated the papers to the university formally in 1902. They are now the property of the state of Texas; UT is the official steward of their safety and access.

Among the UT students who carefully studied the papers in the first years was Eugene Barker, namesake for the Briscoe’s collection of Texas materials. He made his reputation by publishing a three-volume transcription of the “Austin Papers” for the American Historical Association, then writing the first thorough biography of our city’s namesake.

“The ‘Austin Papers’ are considered among the most significant about early Texas,” Gunn says, which is why they attracted the Save America’s Treasures grant. “It was our first opportunity to look at the colonization of Texas by using the papers of someone integrally involved.”

What digital doesn’t tell

Luckily, the stabilization of the “Austin Papers” worked.

“Once you separate the silk, the paper is in fairly good condition,” Gunn says. “It’s like magic.”

The comprehensive project also revealed some catalogued but mostly overlooked items, such as Maria Austin’s cookbook, which mixes culinary with medicinal recipes. Gunn guesses that some of these were passed down from the Brown family and they include rice pudding, sausages, tea cakes, currant jelly, Madeira wine and elderberry wine. Notes in her hand also include instructions on how to polish grates and clean stoves.

Hotchkiss, which sold Stephen F. Austin the revolutionary books and provided the closely examined receipt, also served as a printer. A year after the purchase, it printed copies of the Texas Declaration of Independence for distribution.

For its part, the physical passport for “Esteban F. Austin” offers historians key clues that would not show up in a digitized version — for instance, how it was folded and what can be found on the back (passport stamps).

Right before he left New Orleans on that steamship, Austin wrote his cousin a letter, also in the “Austin Papers,” that foreshadows the Texas Revolution and more.

“I am, as you will see by my date, once more in the land of my birth, and of freedom — a word I can well appreciate,” he writes. “The situation of Texas is daily becoming more and more interesting so much so that I doubt whether the Government of the United States or that of Mexico, can much longer look on with indifference, or inaction.”

As Gunn points out, however, the papers are about more than war and peace.

“You can go through and read his letters to see if he had a separate public and private persona,” she says. “In a masculine world, he writes to his mother and his sister. You get a glimpse of how he feels about women, how he delves into more personal issues. He can be very formal, with big handwriting, signing his letters: ‘Your obedient servant.’ With his mother and sister, however it’s just ‘Stephen.’ It’s interesting to think what just ‘Stephen’ was like.”

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