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As we approach the anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto, we consider Moses Austin Bryan. He was an eyewitness to some of the key events in Texas history. Born in Herculaneum, Missouri, he came to Texas with his parents in 1831. He had first worked for his uncle Stephen Fuller Austin in a store in Austin’s Colony before enlisting in the Texas Army. After enlistment, he served as a secretary to Stephen F. Austin, was a witness to the signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence, fought in the Battle of San Jacinto, interviewed Santa Anna after his capture at San Jacinto (Bryan was the closest Spanish speaking Texas soldier to Sam Houston), served as secretary to the Texas Legation to the United States in 1839, participated in the Somervell Expedition in 1842 and served as a Confederate officer in the Civil War.
As noted, Moses Austin Bryan was the nephew of Stephen F. Austin. Stephen F. Austin never married, so his sister Emily Austin and her family represented Stephen F. Austin’s family in Texas. His sister Emily was born in 1795 in Virginia along with Stephen and their brother James Brown Austin. Their parents were Moses and Mary Brown Austin.
Sister Emily married James Bryan in 1813 and the couple primarily lived in Missouri where at that time, her father Moses Austin and his family were engaged in business. Emily’s husband James Bryan died in 1822. Subsequently, Emily taught school and took on boarders in their home to earn a living until she married James Perry in 1824. Emily had a total of five children by her first husband James Bryan and another six children by James Perry. Her oldest child to live to adulthood was Moses Austin Bryan.
Moses Austin Bryan was born in 1817 while the family was still living in Missouri. When he was about 14, his family moved to Texas, after they had been invited to do so numerous times by his Emily’s brother Stephen. The settlement of Austin’s Colony was well underway by then. Austin Colony was founded by Moses Austin, Stephen, Brown and Emily’s father, but Moses died at the age of 79 in 1821, early in the process, with management of the enterprise falling to son Stephen. The grant was first established with Spain. Taking over for Moses, Stephen negotiated first with the Spanish authorities to perfect his empresario grant and thereafter went through a similar process with the Mexican government after Mexico declared its independence from Spain in the fall of 1821.
Around 1830, Mexico tried to enforce a law severely curtailing immigration from the United States into Texas. For the next few years the existing Texas residents of European ancestry made known their opposition to it and tried to get portions of the law changed. Stephen was involved in that process and was once imprisoned for several months in Mexico, as the Mexican authorities accused him of fostering revolution.
Mexico had initially passed a constitution in 1824 and was governed by it until President Antonio López de Santa Anna overturned it only 10 years later. As a result, the country of Mexico had problems of its own, since many residents of Mexico still favored a federalist form of government rather than centralist, the latter having power concentrated in one individual, Santa Anna. In Texas at the time, there was a strong feeling that the area could have one of three options: to be independent, to become a state of Mexico or to become part of the United States. Stephen F. Austin is thought to have initially favored Texas becoming a state of Mexico, before changing his position to favor independence, which change was likely influenced by the emergence of Santa Anna and the continuing turmoil in the Mexican government.
Austin, as Moses Austin Bryan was called, was a capable writer and fond of recording his “reminiscenses.” Austin’s memoirs were published in local newspapers in serial form and ultimately compiled and published in a small volume, most recently by the Houston Archeological Society in July, 2016.
Austin Bryan’s account of the capture and questioning of Santa Anna is quite interesting. He relates that six Texas soldiers were returning to camp and discovered a Mexican soldier dressed in a brown linen suit, a black sailor cap and wearing a pair of old brogan shoes. They did not know his true identity until they took him into their camp and other captured Mexican soldiers began to refer to him as “El Presidente” as he passed by, thus spoiling Santa Anna’s ruse to slip away as a common soldier. They quickly took him to their commanding officer who brought him in turn to Sam Houston, who was wounded and lying on a mattress brought from the nearby de Zavala residence.
Austin was the only person who understood Santa Anna’s comments to Houston and his memoirs quote them first in Spanish and then in English, “I am Antonio López de Santa Anna, President of Mexico, Commander-in-Chief of the army of operations and I put myself at the disposition of the brave General Houston. I wish to be treated as a general should be, when a prisoner of war.” Houston treated him honorably, despite the cruelty that Santa Anna had shown his Texas opponents.
Austin went on to describe Sam Houston’s condition, as the General had taken a musket ball to the leg, three inches above his ankle, only the day before. Houston greeted Santa Anna and directed him to take a seat nearby on an old tool chest. Col. John A. Wharton and a volunteer aide, the son of Lorenzo de Zavala joined the group, de Zavala being a native Spanish speaker who had learned English while living in New York. Col. Thomas J. Rusk asked Santa Anna if he would prefer to have a fellow Mexican prisoner, Col. Almonte, interpret for him, and Santa Anna requested Almonte. Further negotiations involved the release of the other captured Mexican soldiers and their being allowed safe passage under an officer by the name of Filosia to their homes in Mexico, shadowed by Col. Ed Burleson, Deaf Smith and a small force of Texans.
Austin Bryan traveled with the Texans under Burleson and described the somber scene as the two forces proceeded through Goliad, finding four groups of charred remains from the recent massacre of Texas Col. Fannin and his soldiers. The emotional Texans were addressed by Col. Rusk after they had interred the remains. Austin then described the winding down of the war for independence, including Santa Anna’s quelling of an uprising in which Mexican Gen. Urrea had originally purposed to invade Texas with 4,000 troops.
Austin gave his account of Sam Houston’s election in October of 1836 over his uncle Stephen F. Austin to become the first President of the Republic. Houston appointed Stephen F. Austin as his Secretary of State. His uncle Stephen would not serve long in that capacity, if at all, since he took ill and died on December 27, 1836. Sam Houston would issue a proclamation that stated, “The Father of Texas [Stephen F. Austin] is no more; the first pioneer of the wilderness has departed.”
Austin Bryan was appointed in 1839 to serve as secretary to the legation to the United States by Republic of Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar. In 1842, he participated in the Somervell Expedition and later rose to the rank of Major in the Third Texas Regiment in the Civil War. Following the war, he helped organize the Texas Veterans Association. He eventually moved to Brenham where he retired with his family.
On September 24, 1891 the Brenham Weekly Banner announced the upcoming celebration of Austin Bryan’s 74th birthday at the home of his son, Judge Beauregard Bryan, on Brenham’s West Main Street. His brothers Guy and W. J. Bryan were to join him. Their combined ages amounted to 221 years and the article observed that these three individuals had been in Texas probably as long as most individuals then living. Invitations had been sent out to the remaining veterans of the Battle of San Jacinto, which by then were thought to number only about 35, three of whom lived in Washington County.
Austin Bryan died on March 16, 1895 having outlived both of his wives and some of their children. He was buried in the old Independence Cemetery in Washington County near the graves of his daughter Stella Louise (d. 1864), his son William Joel (d. 1882) and second wife Cora Lewis (d. 1889). He was survived by four of his sons and numerous grandchildren.
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