When I started research for my novel, Here We Stand, four years ago, I never imagined where it would lead me or how much I would learn. Or how much fun delving into the past would be.
The beginning of the story takes place in 1854, in Washington County, East Texas, along the Brazos River. If you are like me, having never been to Texas at the time, I pictured Texas from the movies I had seen and books I had read which generally take place in West Texas. You know, those dry, cactus-clad expanses where Comanches roam and banditos come riding down upon you out of the dust. Oh, and the longhorns.
Longhorns do exist in East Texas, but so do wildflower and oak-covered hills, meandering streams and hundreds of songbirds. In fact, East Texas is more like its neighbor, Louisiana, than West Texas, which I discovered when I spent a couple weeks near Brenham and Washington-on-the-Brazos two springs ago. May is the best time because the bluebonnets and other wildflowers are blooming everywhere: in the fields, along the highways and side roads, wherever the sun kisses the ground. Often the blue is mixed with yellow or white daisies or red paintbrush.
What those original settlers must have imagined when they first saw this land! Stephen F. Austin had to do a good bit of wrangling with Mexican Commissioner General Juan Antonio Padilla to allow the first colonists. Texas was still Mexican territory at the time, and any land grants had to come under the 1823 Imperial Colonization Law of Mexico.
The Law stated that each colonist could receive 177 acres for farmers and 4,428 acres for stock raisers, or both for those who professed to do both stock raising and farming. The land must be cultivated within two years from date of title or be forfeited. There were disputes, of course, over the most fertile land and over Austin’s collection of fees for surveying and obtaining titles. Yet this was the first organized colony of immigrants who were allowed to govern themselves under regulations set down by Austin, who also oversaw the quality of settlers and served as intermediary with Mexican authorities.
Most of the settlers were from Louisiana, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia. Many of them were younger sons of plantation owners who did not inherit. They sought the free land and a new economic beginning. The land was fertile, but keeping it, making something of it, was not easy. A number of colonists forfeited their titles for noncompliance. Others fought through the hard years and the war with Mexico. But that is another story.