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 We scoured some of our best published and unpublished sources on early Austin, including Frank Brown, Mary Starr Barkley, Jeff Kerr, Katherine Hart, Larry Willoughby and David C. Humphrey.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.
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