Death of Stephen F. Austin

Known as the Father of Texas, Stephen F. Austin, who succeeded his father Moses Austin as empresario of the Austin Colony, died on December 27, 1836. He had previously campaigned for the presidency of the new Republic of Texas but had overwhelmingly lost to Sam Houston. Houston and Austin had been competitors at times, but they also appear to have remained personally cordial, if not even friendly. Upon winning the election, Houston appointed Austin to be secretary of state. One of Austin’s primary duties was to seek recognition for the Republic of Texas from the United States.

In Light Townsend Cummins’ biography of Emily Austin Bryan Perry, “Emily Austin of Texas, 1795 – 1851” he says that Austin had been renting a room in Columbia (now known as West Columbia, Brazoria County, Texas) to make it more convenient to perform his duties as secretary of state. At the time, Columbia served as the capital of Texas. The room that Austin was renting was a side room of another residence. It had no stove or fireplace. Austin is believed to have suffered from a chronic respiratory condition and it is believed that in December, 1836 he took ill. A “norther” had hit the area, further aggravating his respiratory condition. His secretary and nephew by Emily, Moses Austin Bryan, had sought medical assistance for him and Austin came under the care of Dr. Branch Tanner Archer. After seeming to improve on Christmas Day, his condition again declined and late in the evening of December 27, 1836 in the company of family, friends and his doctor Archer, he died at the age of 43.

His sister Emily Austin Bryan Perry arranged for him to be buried at Gulf Prairie Cemetery, about seventeen miles to the southeast of Columbia, across the road from the Gulf Prairie Presbyterian Church. Emily’s daughter Mary Elizabeth (Austin’s 11 year old niece) had died three years earlier, possibly of cholera, and had been buried there. Numerous others in the Bryan family would later be buried there. Austin’s funeral appears to have been held at the grave site and was attended by Sam Houston along with Austin’s friends and family members. Among his remarks, Houston is said to have stated, “The father of Texas is no more.” Following Austin’s death, Houston declared a period of mourning.

Austin had a young nephew who was named for him. He was Stephen F. Austin II, the son of Austin’s brother James Elijah Brown Austin and Martha Elizabeth “Eliza” Westall Austin. His brother James had settled in the area on a plantation site just north of Columbia which fronted the Brazos River. James and his wife were engaging in agriculture on the land. He had been on a business trip to New Orleans and come down with yellow fever just as he was about to return to Columbia. He suffered for about three days before he passed away in New Orleans. James was only about twenty-six years old when he died in 1829, the same year in which his son Stephen F. Austin II was born.

James’ widow Eliza Westall Austin then married another colonist by the name of Zeno Phillips in 1830 and the couple had one daughter. Stephen F. Austin II came to live with the Perry family who resided not far away and began to go to school. Eliza’s husband Zeno Phillips died in 1835. The following year, Eliza married again, this time to William G. Hill to whom she would remain married and have a number of more children until her own death in 1847.

Austin’s brother in law, Emily’s husband James Perry, served as his executor. The exact disposition of the estate of Stephen F. Austin is unclear. Most accounts say that the bulk of Stephen F. Austin’s estate passed to his surviving sister, Emily. However, there is some mention of some portion of the estate that was to pass to his nephew, Stephen F. Austin II, though the youth passed away the following year in 1837 at age 8. Emily lived until 1851 and passed her property on to her son William Joel Bryan, from her first marriage to James Bryan (1789-1822).

As an aside, a 1951 West Texas newspaper article mentioned a watch that had been inherited by a Tahoka, Texas resident named Frank Bryan. Frank was a great grandson of Moses Austin Bryan, the nephew of Stephen F. Austin and son of Emily. The watch had originally been owned by the father of Stephen F. Austin, Moses Austin, and had been passed down to other family members after Stephen F. Austin’s death.

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Austin’s remains were removed to the Texas State Cemetery in 1910. Texas governor Oscar Branch Colquitt commissioned a statue (pictured above) by the sculptor Pompeo Coppini to be mounted on a granite monument.

Governor James V. Allred authorized a granite marker at Gulf Prairie Cemetery for Austin’s initial grave site in 1936 in connection with the Texas Centennial. This site eventually fell into disrepair but it was restored in the 1990s by a Houston, Texas businessman. A rededication ceremony was held in 1994. Reenactments of the Austin funeral have been held in the past. One feature is a 23 gun salute, as opposed to the more familiar military 21 gun salute. This practice originated with Sam Houston who had ordered 23 guns to be fired to commemorate the number of counties that existed at the time of Austin’s death.

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