Austin Answered: Why was Austin originally named Waterloo?

We found out a lot about the frontier hamlet, but not its nominal origin.


A reader asks our Austin Answered project why the community that became Austin was first named Waterloo.

This took us down multiple productive paths with no definitive answer — yet.

First, let’s remind readers about Waterloo, a rough frontier hamlet of no more than four or five families. Hunter Jacob Harrell set up a tent in 1835 at about the site of the Congress Avenue Bridge on the north side of the Colorado River and later built a split-log stockade there. Future Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar visited few years later and decided that this spot might make a nice place for a national capital.

Ed Burleson, early Texas soldier and statesman, laid out Waterloo in 1838. Lamar instructed a commission chosen to pick a location for the new capital to visit the site of Harrell’s stockade. They then recommended Waterloo to the Texas Congress. It was renamed for the colonial leader Stephen F. Austin before the area was resurveyed to create today’s downtown grid in 1839.

Waterloo lives on in Waterloo Records, Waterloo Park and other current usages. For years, we’ve repeated a joke as to why it was changed: The “B” in President Lamar’s signature stands for “Bonaparte,” and anyone sharing Napoléon’s family name, originally “di Buonaparte,” would steer clear of a place called Waterloo. Right?

But whence the original name for the hamlet? We scoured some of our best published and unpublished sources on early Austin, including Frank Brown, Mary Starr Barkley, Jeff Kerr, Katherine Hart, Larry Willoughby and David C. Humphrey.

Kerr, author of “Seat of Empire: The Embattled Birth of Austin, Texas” and “The Republic of Austin,” suggested looking at John Holmes Jenkins’ 1990 biography of pioneer Burleson. It confirms that Burleson named the town, but not why.

Mystery unsolved but ripened.

GET UP TO SPEED: Check out other Austin Answered stories arising from readers’ questions:

Where are Austin’s Cold War missile sites?

Why did tree-named streets switch to numbered names?

Why is the Travis/Williamson county line so crooked?

Where does money spent at Austin’s airport go?

Why don’t Austin police cite bicyclists?

Who is Maufrais, and why is the name written on Austin sidewalks?

Why doesn’t Austin have more east-west highways?

Who picks up road debris after a fender-bender?

What were Stephen F. Austin’s views on slavery?

What are the oldest buildings in downtown Austin?

Why don’t gas stations get credit card chip readers?

What is price gouging and how much gas can you buy?

Why did the bathroom bill become such a big thing this year?

Where do the Congress Avenue bridge bats go at night?

Are algae blooms bad for your health?

Why isn’t panhandling illegal?

Why can’t you swim in Lady Bird Lake?

Who do EMS and a fire truck both respond when you call 911?

Why do Central Texas hospitals advertise on TV?

• Quick answers to 11 of your questions and 8 more



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