Overview 1800 to
Independence &
Early Statehood
Civil War to
World War II
Modern Texas Economy
Empresarios and early settlemen

In the early days of exploration and settlement by the Spanish, Texas represented a vast, unsecured, and sparsely populated territory with little immediate economic or political value. Over almost three centuries from approximately 1519 (when Spanish explorers first came to Texas) to 1800, the Spanish established only a few, relatively small settlements in the territory. Spain's military authority over that time was limited and uneven, sometimes eclipsed by aggressive and powerful indigenous groups like the Apaches and Comanches.

Vast spaces and sparse settlement made any claim to the territory tenuous. In 1803, only three years after the French wrested the territory of Louisiana from weak Spanish control, they sold it to the United States. The new owners then claimed that the territory's southwestern border was the Rio Grande (known to Mexicans as the Rio Bravo).

This raised Spanish concern that the territory west of the Sabine River needed to be populated with Spanish subjects--"facts on the ground," as we say today. The limited progress made by the Spanish in populating the Texas territory by the first decade of the 1800s easily came undone during the early struggles for independence from Mexico (1811 to 1813). By the time of Mexico's ultimate independence in 1821 the Texas territory had even fewer persons of Spanish descent than at the turn of the century--probably fewer than 5,000.

During the first two decades of the nineteenth century the people of the territory remained quite poor, even by frontier standards. The territory was too vast and under-populated for significant wealth generating commerce to thrive. The population and the economy was largely sustained by the Spanish military, which had sent garrisons to defend the territory from encroaching Anglos and hostile natives.

Stephen F. Austin

After independence a period of relative tranquility settled over Texas as the new Mexican government focused on establishing a constitution, laws and state-level administration. The territory of Texas was joined with Coahuila to become the state of Coahuila y Tejas.

Meanwhile, immigration from the United States--mainly from Tennessee--continued to swell the Anglo population. The settlement founded by Moses Austin in 1820 and later managed by his son Stephen grew steadily. Stephen sought and won approval for a law under the newly independent Mexican government that promoted the development of settlements by granting large tracts of land to agents who recruited colonists to the territory. This was known as the empresario system, and the agents were called empresarios.

Approximately 30 or more six-year empresario contacts were awarded beginning in 1825, providing compensation to the empresarios for up to 9,000 immigrant families. The empresario contracts covered vast areas of Texas territory, effectively denying the state government the authority over disposition of these lands for the six-year period of the contracts. These empresario contracts represented the main legal mechanism by which property in the public domain was put into private hands.

Still, because they provided land to settlers at very low cost, and required that the individual acquirers inhabit and cultivate the land, they had a broad democratizing effect. Concentration of land ownership and land speculation--common in other parts of the frontier in the United States--was largely absent in Coahuila y Tejas.

The late 1820s and 1830s were characterized by growing political tension despite--and perhaps because of--the deepening economic development in the territory. The population of Texas in 1820 was about 7,000, not much greater than it was in the first years of the century. But, during the colonization period after Mexican independence from Spain (1821-1835) the population of Texas grew at a considerable rate, if admittedly from a very low base. The non-native population grew more than ten-fold from about 2,000 at the time of Mexican independence to an estimated 20,000 in 1831.

Population growth through immigration primarily from the United States seemed to accelerate in the early 1830s despite the considerable political turmoil caused by factional struggles over political control of the huge expanse of territory that constituted the state of Coahuila y Tejas.

By 1834 the Texas population (including slaves) was estimated at 24,700. Just two years later in 1836--the year of Texas independence from Mexico--the non-native population was estimated at about 38,470. Including the estimated 14,200 natives brought the total population to well over 50,000.

Many factors on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border--then formed by the Sabine River which separates the states of Texas and Louisiana today--contributed to the considerable growth in the number of colonists from the United States. Still, it seems that the much lower cost of land in Texas than in frontier areas of the United States, combined with the formal land grant system, were major factors.

Source: Handbook of Texas Online; National Grange; Texas State Library and Archives Commission; Dell, Inc. (full source)