Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


From its independence from Spain until it lost Texas to revolt, Mexico enlisted the aid of empresarios to recruit colonists to its sparsely settled province of Texas. The Mexican Colonization Law of August 18, 1824, provided general guidelines for the settlement of remote corners of the new republic and required the individual states to pass their own laws, which the state of Coahuila y Texas did on March 24, 1825. Although the national colonization law gave preference to Mexican citizens, the Colonization Law of Coahuila y Texas invited foreigners to that territory. Individuals could and did migrate to Texas, mostly from the United States, but because of the language barrier and the difficulties in acquiring land through the Mexican bureaucracy, most colonists obtained land in Texas through the offices of the empresarios.

Empresarios were contractors empowered by the government of Coahuila y Texas to recruit specific numbers of families to the territory. Mexican citizens were preferred as empresarios and as colonists, but the majority of the empresarios were from the United States. The empresario received a grant of land on which to settle the colonists he recruited, though he did not, in fact, own this land. It was the empresario's responsibility to survey the land and then issue title to that land. The empresario grants extended northwestward from the Gulf Coast Plain of Texas across the Balcones Escarpment and well into the Great Plains. Most empresarios agreed to recruit 100 families within a six-year span. They also served as immigration agents, determining the moral character of those who wished to enter their colony. The empresarios received no pay or compensation for their endeavors up front. When they had settled at least 100 families within their colonial grant, thus fulfilling their contract, they acquired land of their own. For every 100 families an empresario recruited and settled within Texas, the state gave him five sitios (22,140 acres) of pastureland and five labors (885 acres) of farmland. An empresario could receive compensation in land for settling up to 800 families, making him a very wealthy man.

The only empresario who received compensation for so many recruited families was Stephen F. Austin. By far the most successful of the empresarios in terms of numbers of colonists settled, Austin put into action the plans of colonization conceived by his father, Moses Austin. Between 1823, when he recruited 300 families under the old Spanish Imperial Colonization Law and his final colonization contract, Austin settled more than 1,500 families in an area extending from the Texas Hill Country, at the edge of the Plains, to the Gulf of Mexico. No other empresario was able to recruit and settle even one-quarter of this number. Green DeWitt received a contract for 400 families but granted land titles to only 166 families. Some empresarios, such as Dr. John G. Purnell and Benjamin Drake Lovell, were never able to fulfill their contracts. By 1832 the empresarios had signed almost thirty contracts calling for the settlement of more than 10,000 families. But the government of Coahuila y Texas, growing suspicious of increasing Anglo-American influence in Texas, ceased issuing grants after 1832 and finally closed the land offices in November of 1835. The era of the empresarios, the colonizing agents of Texas, came to an end.

John Kelly Robison Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg

Fehrenbach, Theodore R. Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans. New York: Colliers Books, 1968.

Haley, James L. Texas: An Album of History. Garden City NY: Doubleday and Co., 1985.

Richardson, Rupert Norval, Ernest Wallace, and Adrian Anderson. Texas: The Lone Star State. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1981.

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