If you have an ancestor who came into what is now Texas in the 1700s or 1800s, understanding the history, jurisdictions, and records will be key to your research. This is the second of a three-part series where we’ll explore the Spanish, Mexican, Republic, and Statehood eras of Texas, specifically focusing on the land grants. In part one we looked at a historical overview of the settling of Texas and the Spanish land grants. In this article, we’ll look at the era of Mexican rule over Texas and the Mexican colonization policy through the empresario system. We’ll also look at the types of records created and where to locate them.
With Independence won from Spain in 1821 Mexico ushered in a new era of settlement. In the midst of this turmoil, Moses Austin had obtained permission from the Spanish government to establish a colony as an empresario and although he died soon after, his son Stephen F. Austin would see the colony through.
Mexico wanted a buffer between the United States and its westward expansion policies and also needed help with the Native American hostilities. The empresario system was retained and incentivized under the new Mexican government.
The first colony established under the empresarios system was Austin’s Colony. In 1821 Moses Austin obtained permission to bring 300 families to the Brazos River region of Texas. He died that same year and his son, Stephen F. Austin, moved forward with the idea of settlement. “Austin’s Colony Records” at the Texas General Land Office Archives represents a huge collection of documents such as contracts, land titles, correspondence, and more, dating from 1823-1841 (bulk 1825-1835). To use the collection, you’ll first want to check to see if your ancestor is indexed as one of the colonists.
Three indexes are available online which name the head of household, age, state of emigration, and household information. One is a digital image of the original register created by Stephen F. Austin, hosted on the GLO website. The next two are copies of the original register. All three should be consulted for an ancestor for best results. The index by George Glass retains the original format and has additional notes inserted. William’s index retains the original format and is translated from the original Spanish to English.
Viewing the record of colonist James Beardslee in all three indexes shows the value of using each one.
First, the original Register of Families is indexed on the Texas General Land Office website, and entering the search of “Beardslee, James” brings up the indexed record shown below and a link to a pdf version of the original Austins Register of Families. The indexed data is complete and translated from Spanish into English but is not in the context of the original index.
By clicking on “view pdf” you can browse the entire original register which contains an index at the beginning with the page number to find the individual’s information. The names are written in English as are the states of origin, but other details are in Spanish.1
The second index we’ll look at is the Index to Land [Applications] compiled by George W. Glass and based on the original index by Stephen F. Austin. Glass added additional notes to the index – enclosed by brackets. In the example below, we can see bracketed notes with the details of the final land grants. 2 This index keeps the entries in order so possible associates could be discovered.
The third index, Stephen F. Austin’s Register of Families: From the Originals in the General Land Office was edited by Villamae Williams and is available on Ancestry.com (subscription) under “Stories, Memories and Histories” as the collection “Stephen F. Austin’s Register of Families.” Viewing the same entry for James Beardslee, we can see it is a typewritten index of the original handwritten index and translates the Spanish terms. However, it does not include the extra notes that George W. Glass added in brackets. 3
Villamae William’s Register also includes an introduction with a map, timeline, and definitions of Spanish terms. It is well worth viewing to understand more about these records.
For best results, consult all three resources!
The Empresario System
The Empresario system offered many incentives for settlers. With Mexican land laws very favorable to settlers, Americans poured into Texas between 1821 and 1836 and soon outnumbered the Mexican settlers. After Austin’s colony, other empresarios had to wait until 1825 to start their colonies because of the change from Spanish to Mexican rule and passage of colonization laws. If you find your ancestor receiving land through any of the empresario colonies, research the circumstances thoroughly as there were many controversies with neighboring colonies and land speculation.
From 1823 to 1830 Mexico established a colonization policy providing land for immigrants to settle under empresarios such as Stephen F. Austin. Each colony had its own land office. For a small fee, the heads of the families could obtain as much as a league of grazing land (4,428.4 acres) and a labor of cropland (177.1 acres). If a settler did not use the assistance of an empresario he would receive an additional labor of land. An Abstract of the Original Titles of Records in the General Land Office names the settler, the date of the title, and the description and quantity of land granted by league and labor. This digitized book groups the colonists by colony or commissioner and is alphabetically arranged.
The following list of empresario system incentives explains the draw this land would have had for our ancestors.
- One league for grazing (4428.4 acres)
- One labor for farming (177.1 acres)
- Two years to settle on the land after receiving the title
- Exempt from taxes for six years
- Pay half the regular taxes for the next six years
- After three years, married settlers automatically became naturalized citizens of Mexico
- The Empresario received free land within the colony and could collect fees from the colonists
- Allowed settlers to bring slaves into the colony
The Spanish Collection at the General Land Office Archives provides details of specific empresario colony manuscript collections that include maps, records, legal documents, etc. The website also links to historical information and gives a brief description of the colony.
Another record created in conjunction with the Mexican land grants was the character certificate required to obtain the land. Gifford White compiled an abstract from the original certificates held at the Texas General Land Office.4 Ancestry.com has indexed and digitized the book under the collection title “Character Certificates in the General Land Office of Texas.” In the following example, you can get an idea of the valuable genealogical information listed for both men and women. Notice the entry for Margaret Russell, widow of James Russell who is a native of Virginia. If an ancestor is listed, be sure to locate the entire file at the Texas General Land Office.
DeLeon’s Colony, 1824
De Leon’s colony was the only predominantly Mexican colony in Texas. He petitioned the Mexican government for permission to settle 41 Mexican families of “good moral character.” As a prominent Mexican citizen, DeLeon was given wider latitude than the foreign empresarios. A few anglo settlers also joined the Mexican families who were primarily from Tamaulipas and settled on the Guadalupe River.
The Texas General Land Office holds the original records for each colony and the website gives important information on the record collection: historical, scope and contents, arrangement, and index terms. You’ll also see if the materials have been digitized. You’ll be able to search by your ancestor’s name and view the pdf. These records are in Spanish.
For example, Jose Antonio Saucedeo received a title to the town tract of San Patricio de Hibernia.5
For more information and a list of persons in the records, see A Guide to the De León’s Colony Records, 1824-1840 De León’s Colony Records on the Texas Archival Resources Online.
The Results of Mexico’s Colonization Policy in Texas
The map below shows the Mexican state named Coahuila and Texas. 6 In 1833, settlement was from the Gulf coast north and west. Indian Territory had been established to the north and the Five Civilized Tribes were in the process of removal from their southeastern U.S. homes. Mexico’s colonization policy was very favorable and resulted in a flood of American emigration to Texas. By 1835, more than 30,000 Americans lived in the region. Most of the settlers came from the southeastern United States and many brought their slaves with them – establishing a culture of slavery that would persist in the area until emancipation. Most of these settlers were of the Protestant faith but had to swear an oath of Catholicism to own land in Texas under Mexican authority.
The End of Mexican Rule Over Texas
The Mexican Congress passed the Law of April 6, 1830, prohibiting further immigration from the U.S. and canceled all empresario contracts with only Austin and DeWitt getting permission to continue. This law angered the settlers who wanted family members and friends to join them in Texas. Land speculation also was a problem. The revolution of 1836 resulted in the formation of the Republic of Texas and a new era of settlement began.
Once Texas gained independence from Mexico, the First Congress of the Republic defined the boundaries of the Republic and required all previous land transactions to be submitted to the newly formed General Land office. All vacant land was the property of the Republic. The Republic needed to fund a militia in defense again the Native American tribes and Mexicans. With land its primary resource, the government issued bounty grants to soldiers according to how long they had served in the Army of the Republic. Various acts determined how much land was awarded. Because of the importance of the land for revenue, the Republic took great care to obtain land records from the land offices under Mexico and those records kept as the Republic and later the state of Texas. Because of the care taken, these records are a treasure trove of information for a genealogist.
In the final part of this series, we’ll look at the land grants under the Republic and the State of Texas and how to access them.
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!
- Register of Families 1, digital images, The Texas General Land Office (https://s3.glo.texas.gov/ncu/SCANDOCS/archives_webfiles/arcmaps/webfiles/landgrants/PDFs/ 1/0/7/3/1073961.pdf : accessed 12 February 2022).
- Glass, George W. compiler, and Stephen F. Austin. Index to Land [Applications], (Austin, Texas); FamilySearch (https://bit.ly/2zRytMK : accessed 4 May 2020), image 175 of 261.
- Villamae Williams editor, and Stephen F. Austin, Stephen F. Austin’s Register of Families: From the Originals in the General Land Office, (Baltimore, Md: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1989); digitized and indexed, “Stephen F. Austin’s Register of Families,” Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/48403/images/AustinsRegFamilies-000970-49 : accessed 12 February 2022), image 59 of 196.
- Gifford White, editor, Character Certificates in the General Land Office of Texas, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1989).
- Martin de Leon’s Colony, Grantee Jose Antonio Saucedo, 24 Oct 1831, List # 50, Page 1,File # SC 000102:35, digitized image, Texas General Land Office (https://s3.glo.texas.gov/ncu/SCANDOCS/archives_webfiles/arcmaps/webfiles/landgrants/PDFs/1/0/3/4/1034008.pdf: accessed 2 June 2020).
- Mary Austin Holley, Map of Coahuila and Texas in 1833, (Baltimore : Armstrong & Plaskitt, 1833); Wikimedia Commons, (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_Coahuila_and_Texas_in_1833.jpg : accessed 1 June 2020).