Located in southeastern Texas, Austin County is one of the oldest counties in Texas, organized in 1837 during the Republic of Texas. It was founded from an old Mexican Municipality and named in honor of Stephen Austin. Austin County is bordered on the north by Washington County, on the east by Waller and Fort Bend Counties, on the south on Wharton County, and on the west by Colorado and Fayette Counties. Bellville, the county seat and second largest town, is fifty miles west-northwest of Houston.
The County Facts
The County of First
AUSTIN COUNTY HISTORY
Austin County, with its rural and agricultural background, presents a series of inspiring views to the passer-through. Its rolling hills and almost
idyllic farm settings can be breathtaking in their beauty and on closer inspection, the farm houses, and even the commercial buildings give the impression of a vital
and tenacious pioneer spirit which managed to bring forth a civilized way of life from the wild land to which these settlers first came. What were they like? How did
The area now known as Austin County was selected by Stephen Fuller Austin in 1823 as the site for his colony, the first Anglo-American settlement in Texas. It was Stephen F. Austin's father, Moses, who had originally obtained permission from the Mexican government in January, 1821, to bring three hundred families to Texas to establish a colony. However, before he could begin to carry out his colonization plan he became ill with pneumonia and died June 10, 1821. Prior to his death, Moses Austin had requested that his son be allowed to carry out this colonization plan, which Stephen F. Austin was permitted to do. He was instructed by the Mexican authorities to explore the area on the Colorado River that he expected to settle. Austin reported back to the Mexican authorities outlining the boundaries he desired for his colony and submitted the plan he had devised for the distribution of land. In order to attract settlers for his new colony Austin advertised in newspapers and offered the incentive of additional land to those who possessed skills which could be used by all who settled in the colony. Those families which followed Austin settled on the west bank of the Brazos River, above the mouth of Mill Creek. Among those who first settled were: Abner Kuykendall and sons, Horatio Chriesman, William Robbins, Early Robbins, Moses Shipman, David Shipman, William Prator, James Orrick, J. M. Pennington, Samuel Kennedy, Isam Belcher, and David Talley. In 124 Stephen F. Austin was commissioned the political chief of the colony. In July, 1824 the general land office was opened at San Felipe de Austin, the unofficial capitol of the Anglo-American settlements in Texas. At this time titles were issued for the amount of land allowed by the contract of colonization, which was 640 acres for each single man or head of the family, 320 acres for a wife, 160 acres for each child and 80 acres for each slave. These early settlers usually built near streams where water could easily be found and an abundance of wood for building and fencing material, as well as where fuel would be readily available.
During the early years of settlement Indians were the greatest problem and danger faced by the colonists and it appears that the Karankawas were the most troublesome. Many women and children were killed while left unguarded as the men were working.
Additionally, because of poor transportation routes that made it difficult and often impossible to obtain the equipment needed to cultivate the land, productivity during the first few years settlement was not sufficient to meet the needs of the colonists. As the needed implements became more readily available productivity increased, and this coupled with an abundance of game proved sufficient to meet the colonist's needs. During those early years there was plenty of wood, but no sawmills, so houses were built of logs. Most were one room with a dirt floor. One of these dwellings is described by a woman, one of the early settlers, who said, "Our house was a miserable little hut, covered with straw and having six sides, which were made of moss. The roof was by no means waterproof, and we often held an umbrella over our bed when it rained at night, while the cows came and ate the moss. Of course we suffered a great deal in the winter. My father had tried to build a chimney and fireplace out of logs and clay, but we were afraid to light a fire because of the extreme combustibility of our dwelling. So we had to shiver."
Early routes of transportation through Austin County consisted usually of wagon ruts or beaten trails marked by notched trees. Many were small roads joining colonies, but there were also a few major routes which extended to sizable towns or joining colonies, but there were also a few major routes which extended to sizable towns or joined larger highways such as the San Antonio Road (El Camino Real). One main route that passed through San Felipe was the Atascosita Road, which connected Goliad with the United States. This road received its name from Atascosa (Spanish for "boggy") Spring near Liberty. Goods brought inland from the Gulf Coast were transported over the San Felipe Road, which ran to Harrisburg. The Brazos River was also used for transportation, but it was used less than the roads for its waters were often rapid during the rainy season and the water route was longer than the overland routes. However, even the main routes were dusty in the summer and often impassable during the winter because of flooding.
Most accounts of the early history of Austin County describe the colonists as being quite intelligent as a whole. But it appears few were interested in securing an education for their children for early records indicate only a few of those school age children ever attended school. Stephen F. Austin attempted to get the legislature of Mexico and Texas to establish a school system and he sought to establish an academy at San Felipe, but was unable to see either plan realized. The German settlers attempted to organize a German University near Industry in 1842 and were given land by the Texas Congress. In January, 1844 Hermanns University was incorporated. Although the University originally was to have been built between Mill and Cummins Creeks, the charter was amended in April, 1886 and location was no longer restricted. A two story stone structure was built at Frelsburg, in Colorado County, but was never used by Hermanns University. Another charter was received in 1860 but, finally, the Civil War had ended all hopes of establishing Hermanns University.
Austin County experienced three waves of settlement. First to arrive were the Anglo-Americans of Austin's colony who settled on the fertile land around the Brazos and its streams. Some of these early farmers wasted the land and due to poor farming practices they were left with once fertile soil that was no longer capable of cultivation. The Germans were the next large group to settle within Austin County. A few German immigrants came to Texas as early as 1821, but significant numbers did not begin to settle until 1830. These farmers were of a more economical mind and settled successfully on land the Anglos did not want. Czech immigrants were the next sizable group to settle in Austin County. Their first settlement neat Cat Spring was founded in 1848, but there were Czechs in Texas as early as 1833. Those Czechs who established their homes in Austin County were able to settle successfully on land left by the Germans.
Anglo-American settlement was responsible not only for the development of the first town in Austin County, but also for those towns which were to later develop as a result of railroad expansion. The settlement of towns in Austin County began in 1823 when San Felipe de Austin was chosen as the headquarters of the colony by the first settlers and the Baron de Bastrop. The city was named in honor of a saint and Stephen F. Austin. The name "de Austin" was removed by a legislative act of the Republic of Texas in 1840. Among the earliest settlers important in the development of San Felipe were Josiah Bell, James B. Miller, Godwin B. Cotton and Gail Borden. Others important in the early history of Texas lived there at one time or another, or went to San Felipe to conduct their business. Laid out by Seth Ingram, a surveyor, the town in its early stage of development is described in an article, A Trip to Texas in 1828 , by Jose Maria Sanchez, who said, "This village has been settled by Mr. Stephen Austin, a native of the United States of the North. It consists present of 40 to 50 wooden houses on the western bank of the large river known as Rio de Los Brazos de Rios, but the houses are not arranged systematically so as to form streets; but on the contrary, lie in an irregular and delusory manner...Its population is nearly two hundred persons, of which an occasional European. Two wretched little stores supply the inhabitants of the colony; one sells only whiskey, rum sugar, coffee; the other rice, flour, land, and cheap cloth. Having to repair several parts of the wagons, it was necessary to remain in the village, and it was with much regret that we noticed the river began to rise. The baggage was placed in the ferry boat, and boarding it, we started down the river in search of a landing...a drunk American held the rudder and three intoxicated Negroes rowed, singing continuously. This confusing singsong deprived us, by the irritation it caused us, of the pleasure we could have enjoyed seeing the immense woods that bordered the river. We traveled this way for about two leagues, and then we entered still on the same boat, through the midst of the flooded woods, until we reached the road we were to follow afterwards."
The history of the town of San Felipe is filled with many "firsts." The first English school and Sunday school in Texas were begun in San Felipe in 1827 by Thomas J. Pilgrim, a young Baptist teacher and preacher from New York.
Godwin Brown Cotton published the Texas Gazette, the first newspaper in Texas in 1829 at San Felipe. He moved his press to Brazoria in the spring, 1832. Another paper The Telegraph and Texas Register was begun at San Felipe on October 10, 1835 by Gail Borden, Jr., Thomas H. Borden and Joseph Baker, a paper which would become the official voice of the government of the Republic of Texas when it was organized a few months later.
Also organized at San Felipe were the Texas Postal System and the Committee of Safety. The latter was founded as protection against the Karankawa Indians and grew in time to be called the Texas Rangers.
San Felipe was almost the site of the organization of Freemasonry in Texas. Started by Stephen F. Austin and fellow Masons, the chapter never really became organized because of the opposition of the Catholic Church and disagreements between the Scottish Rite and York Rite Masonry.
The first organized opposition to Mexican rule was expressed at the Convention of 1832 which was held in San Felipe. It was at this convention that delegates from the colonies met to discuss colonial problems. Another convention was called in 1833 and at this time a petition for statehood was drawn up to be delivered to the authorities in Mexico. The Consultation of 1835 met in San Felipe and it was at this time that San Felipe was made capital of the provisional government until the Convention of 1836 which met at Washington-on-the-Brazos.
San Felipe was burned in February, 1836 to keep it from falling into the hands of the approaching Mexican Army. The towns people fled their homes and left the area in what is known as the Runaway Scrape. After the Runaway Scrape and the end of the Revolution some of San Felipe's former residents returned. The city was rebuilt upon its original site and was incorporated under the Republic of Texas. Once the social and political center of Americans in Texas, as well as the cultural and economic center, San Felipe never regained its importance following the Revolution. It remained the County seat until the majority vote of the election of December 23, 1846 was cast in favor of moving the County seat to Bellville to a site suggested by the Bell family. In the early 1880's the Texas Western Railroad, a narrow gauge railroad which originated in Houston, passed within a half mile of the town and many of the businesses moved closer to the railroad, so the city was rebuilt for the third time. In 1880 the Santa Fe Railroad attempted to build tracks on the west edge of town, but the residents, fearing the noise and possible danger to their livestock, opposed it and it was moved to Sealy, followed by many businesses and families. It was this refusal to allow tracks to be built through the city which lead to the decline of San Felipe and to the growth of Sealy.
Bellville, the county seat of Austin County is located on the Santa Fe Railroad. This Anglo-American settlement is named for Thomas B. Bell, one of the Old Three Hundred who came to Texas in 1822 and in 1838 built a home in the Bellville area. In March, 1848, the town was surveyed and laid out by Charles Amthor, on land which had been donated by Thomas Bell and his brother, James. At this time Bellville was a post office on the mail route from Hempstead to La Grange. In 1848 when the county seat was moved from San Felipe to Bellville the first courthouse was an old frame structure which stood in the town square. A second courthouse which was constructed in 1854 was built at a cost of $13,000.00 and was the first brick building in Austin County. 12 This courthouse burned on April 5, 1960 and a new one was rebuilt to take its place. The first house in Bellville was built by Jim Irwin in 1849 and it served as a grocery and hotel as well as a home. 13 Economic conditions in Bellville were enhanced in 1880-1881 with the arrival of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad. Bellville was incorporated in January, 1929.
The town of Sealy, another Anglo-American settlement, was established by the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad and was laid out on land the railroad purchased from the San Felipe Corporation in 1878. The town was named for John Sealy, a banker and president of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad. With the establishment of the railroad yards Sealy became an active trading post. Events which significantly hindered the growth and economic development of Sealy were the flooding of the Brazos River in 1899, the removal of the railway division point from Sealy to Bellville in January, 1900 and the storm of 1900. All proved to be serious blows to Sealy's economy.
The Anglo-American settlement of Wallis was originally founded by William Guyler who moved to the area in 1853. The town's first name was Bovine Bend for it was known as "round-up-ground" for cattlemen and for many years the cattle industry was most important. But with ever increasing numbers of German immigrants settling in the area, emphasis changed to agriculture rather than cattle. The city as it now exists was established in 1875 or 1876 and the name was changed in honor of J. E. Wallis, director of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad.
The Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad was responsible for the development of Kenny, another Anglo-American community established in 1880. The community was first known as Thompson, named after J. E. Thompson, an early settler of the area and a postmaster. A stream grist mill, a cotton gin, a school, several businesses including a general store and a hotel, and three churches could be found in Kenney in 1885 when the community had a population of 150. In 1890 the name was changed to Kenney, honoring J.W. Kenney, a Methodist minister.
The founding of Industry, the first German settlement in Texas, in 1831, marks the introduction of German influences to Texas. It was the presence of unsatisfactory social, economic and political conditions from the close of the Napoleonic period through the European revolutionary period of 1847-1848 which stimulated the emigration of Germans of Texas. One Characteristic of most German settlements was their attention to the formation of clubs. German settlers formed social, cultural, political, literary, dramatic, and workingman's clubs, all of which helped to make them feel more at home in Texas. Because of their love of music they formed singing clubs and held annual song festivals, (Saengerfest). Singing societies could be found in nearly every German settlement. Another society, the Teutonic Order (Teutonia Orden) was founded by the Germans of Cat Spring and Industry in 1841 under the leadership of the Fredrick Ernst. The organization was formed to, "...further immigration, facilitate correspondence between Texas and Germany, practice philanthropy and preserve the German traits of character." Many of the community halls in which these societies met remain standing and are still used frequently for dances, meetings, reunions and picnics. Fine examples of the architecture associated with this type of structure can be found in Sealy, Shelby and Cat Spring.
Industry, the first German settlement in Texas, was founded by Fredrick Ernst, who, along with Charles Fordtran had come from Germany with the intention of going to Missouri. But in New Orleans they heard glowing accounts of Stephen F. Austin's colony and decided to go to Texas instead. On April 16, 1831, Ernst received title to a league of land near Mill Creek and divided the land with Fordtran who had surveyed the land. Ernst wrote home to friends back in Oldenburg and in his letters spoke of Texas in glowing terms. These letters were widely read, as they were published in newspapers. It was these letters which Ernst wrote home, as well as the founding of the "Society for the Protection of Herman Immigrants" which offered support, advice, as well as land, that were largely responsible for the families who followed Ernst and settled in Texas. In 1838 Ernst laid out a town site. German immigrants who visited in the Ernst home suggested that he make cigars from the tobacco which he grew in his garden. It was the cigar-making industry which developed in the community that gave Industry its name. As all the German settlements in this area of Texas, Industry grew very slowly.
The German settlement of Cat Spring was founded in 1834 as a result of the Ernst letters, and, according to Robert Justus Kleberg, the founder of Cat Spring, because of the desire to "live under a republican form of government, with unbounded personal, religious and political liberty, free from the petty tyrannies and the many disadvantages and evils of the old countries." The name Kleberg is famous in Texas history not only because of its importance in the settlement of Austin County, but also because of its association with South Texas and the King Ranch.
The first settlers in Cat Spring were: Marcus Amster, Karl Amster, Louis von Roeder, Albrecht von Roeder, Joachim von Roeder, and Valeska von Roeder. The settlement was named Cat Spring supposedly because a son of the von Roeders' killed a wildcat near a spring and the family named the area """Katzenquelle" (Cat Spring). Cat Spring and San Felipe were developing almost simultaneously, one with an Anglo-American background, the other with a German background. Their cultures, language, religion and dress differed, but each shared the desire to improve themselves economically and politically. Those Germans who settled here were well educated but knew very little about agriculture, so far their own education and protection they found it necessary to form an agriculture society. Organized on June 7, 1856, it was named the Agricultural Society of Austin County (Landwirth-schaftlicher Verein fuer Austin County) after it was decided that the entire county, not only Cat Spring could benefit from the organization. Later it was renamed the Cat Spring Agricultural Society and remains an active organization to this day, holding regular monthly meetings and one annual meeting. The regular meetings were held in German until April, 1942 and the minutes of all the meetings have been recorded. The minutes of the meetings held from 1856-1956 have been translated and published by the Cat Spring Agricultural Society. The minutes read much like a story and provide insight into the rich cultural background of the members, as well as the manner in which they solved the many agricultural problems with which they were faced. The hall in which this society meets is one of the finest examples of octagonal community hall architecture to be found.
Another group, the Cat Spring Butcher Club, was quite active at one time. This group, was started during the 1870's so that each individual did not have to kill a steer during the warm weather and attempt to preserve it. Instead a steer was killed every week and distributed among the members. Every week each member got a different cut of meat so that eventually everyone got the equivalent of his own steer. The members knew whose meat they were eating and watched the quality very closely. Thus it was a matter of pride and good sense to contribute only good animals. The organization, which had been active only in the summer, later changed to a year-around operation.
An example of the living conditions is given in description of the von Roeder house. The floor and ceiling were made from shingles nailed to upright posts, with the spaces between the uprights filled with clay and wood. The interior wall as covered with pasted pictures from magazines. When Mrs. von Ploeger, von Roeder's sister, arrived from Germany and entered the pioneer home, it is said that she swooned. About 1895 the railroad came through and the town was moved to its present location. As a result, nothing of the original Cat Spring is intact.
Millheim, another German community was founded about 1845 and was an offshoot of Cat Spring. Some of the early settlers in Millheim were: Andreas Friedrick Frenchmann, the founder of the Agricultural Society of Austin County, E. G. Maetze, founder of the Old Millheim School, J. H. Krancher, the first constable of Millheim, Robert Kloss, W. Mersmann, F. Engelking, Louis Kleiberg, Hugo Zapp, A. Kuewer, and H. Vornkahl. Most of these men became farmers, but Adalbert Reganbrecht, describes others as, "blacksmiths, wheelrights, carpenters, shoemakers, tailors, brickmasons, a cabinetmaker, a saddler, a tanner and a tinner. The ordinary farm-laborer received free board and fifty cents per day . . . The Farmers of Millheim lived in frame dwelling houses, but some of the pioneer settlers still lived in block houses. . . . Therefore, many settlers were cattle and horse raisers. Some raised sheep, but with no success on account of depredations by wolves. Cornbread, bacon, molasses, and coffee, occasionally fish and venison were the principal food of the pioneers. In 1856 the settlers had better vegetable gardens and orchards and more milk, butter and cheese. There were more stores. . . There was a singing society in Millheim." The community was given its name some time during the 1850's by a settler, William Schneider, who suggested the name, Meuhlheim, which the Americans pronounced Millheim, the name that was then used.
New Ulm was settled by Germans about 1850. These first settlers came from Nassau in Fayette County, and Industry and Shelby, both in Austin County. Prior to its settlement by Germans the area was known as Duff's Settlement in honor of James C. Duff to whom the land was granted in 1841. It is said that Lorenz Mueller suggested changing the name to New Ulm in honor of Ulm in Wuertenburg, Germany, the area from which most of the settlers had come. He stressed him point, it is reported, by treating those present at the discussion to a case of Rhine wine. Housing for the settlers consisted mainly of log cabins. Adolph Beschel is said to have built the first hotel and dance hall at New Ulm. A small growth in population and new businesses occurred in 1892 with the coming of the railroad.
Shelby, in the northeastern corner of Austin County, is name for a prominent settler of that area, David Shelby. However, the town dates from the 1840's when the German pioneer, Otto von Roeder built a mill there on Mill Creek. It is for this reason that the town was called Roedersmuehle by the Germans. Most of the Germans who settled in Shelby came to Texas with the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas. These settlers began a school, an agricultural society, a singing society and a band as evidence of their interest in the arts and sciences.
The small German community of Welcome lies in the northern part of Austin County. The earliest settlers were Anglo-American, but they did not give a name to the town. By 1852, the German population outnumbered the original settlers. One of these German settlers, J. F. Schmidt, is credited with selecting the name, "Welcome" because as he said, "everything--forest, field, meadows and flowers--seemed to give them a friendly welcome." The settlers interest in bringing culture to Welcome is noted by their founding of a school and singing society.
The village of Nelsonville was established by Germans in 1855. A saw and grist mill and a cotton gin were built there by Issac Lewis. The village had a church, school, mills, gins and a population of one hundred in 1855. The population was 158 in 1900; by 1947 the population was 100 and there were four stores in operation.
The German settlement of Bleiblerville is named for Robert Bleibler who built a general store at the site in the 1880's. The community had already established a post office by 1877 and Theo Wehring was operating a cotton gin in 1990. By 1915 the population had grown to three hundred; in 1947 the population was 150 and there were three stores in operation.
Following foundation of these German communities we begin to see evidence of the third wave of settlement in Texas, that of the Czech immigrants who began to arrive after the middle of the 19th Century. Like the Germans, the Czechs learned of the opportunities available in Texas largely through correspondence and advertisements. Because of a similar way of life and customs, the Czechs settled near the Germans. Like the Germans, the Czechs formed societies which helped the immigrants feel more at home in Texas and also assisted them during times of need by lending money and providing life insurance policies to members. Probably the most important of these Czech societies is the Slavonic Benevolent Association of the State of Texas, S. P. J. S. T. (Slovanska Podporujici Jednota State Texas), which was founded at La Grange, Texas on December 28, 1896 when a group of Texas Czechoslovakian citizens gathered for the purpose of founding an exclusive Texas-Czech fraternal organization. In every section of the state where there are Czech communities, there are S. P. J. S. T. Lodges which are furnished with the facilities for promoting the social and educational life of the community. With floor space for dancing, stages for plays and grounds that are used for picnics, reunions, and community gatherings, the lodge hall is the center of activity for every town.
The greatest number of Czech immigrants in Texas turned to farming, and they along with the Germans are largely responsible for agricultural development in Texas. The earliest Czech settlement in Texas was at Cat Spring and the first Czech settler there was Reverend Arnost Bergman, born August 12, 1797 in Zupudor, near Mnichova Hradiste in Czechoslovakia. With his family he moved to Cat Spring in March, 1849, where he bought land and began to farm. As Fredrick Ernst was responsible for a great deal of German immigration to Texas, so Bergman was responsible for much of the early Czech immigration to Texas. He too wrote home describing the land and resources in glowing terms. Also, Svoboda , a newspaper published in La Grange with a large circulation both in the United States and Europe, was responsible as well for a large number of Czech immigrants settling in Texas.
In 1853 Josef Lidumil Lesikar and his family settled on some land near New Ulm after a voyage from Moravia which had lasted fourteen weeks. There with the aid of his four sons he built a log cabin for his family home. Lesikar wrote for a number of Czech publications, describing the situation in Texas prevailing at this time. It is said that these publications increased immigration to Texas, especially after the Civil War, when the greatest number of Czech immigrants arrived.
Czechs eventually spread throughout Texas and the pioneer names of Leshikar, Sebesta, Smetana, Skopik, Shillet, Pett, Hriska and others may be found in most any of their later settlements.39 In Austin County the Czechs settled near the Germans, and as a result and German settlement is more than likely to have a sizable Czech population. However, the population of the community of Frydek is chiefly of Czech origin. This village was established in about 1895 and was noted for being a trade center for an agricultural and stock raising community.
While a great deal has been written about the men who carved their homes out of the wilderness, very little has been written about the women who assisted and endured the many hardships of a frontier life. Working long days and into the night the women helped to cultivate the land, spent hours weaving so that their families would be sufficiently clothed, cooked the meals and carried out the every day maintenance of the house. Many devoted part of their day to the education of their children and were often involved in singing, literary, dramatic, or other societies. During the Civil War many of these women raised tobacco and other crops for sale while the men were gone so that they might support their families. The part the pioneer woman played in the settlement of the frontier is certainly not to be overlooked, and it must be noted that the women who settled with their families in Austin County were most important in shaping the history and way of life in Austin County as it now exists.
So it was that by the blending of these different, distinct cultures, and by the slow but sure Americanization processes, Austin County became what is it today -- a place of considerable beauty and some sadness for those empty buildings which, a hundred years ago, were worth the effort and love that first saw them built. This report, then, is dedicated to the firm, optimistic belief that the good of the past can be meaningful when adapted to present and future needs.
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