The first critical study in 75 years of the founder of Anglo-American Texas—an appealing figure who here has gained a shrewd and skilled biographer. Stephen Austin was born in the trans-Mississippi West and schooled in Connecticut, but he has forever been associated with the territory, then a part of Mexico, to which, in 1821, he led the first organized group of American colonists. Fifteen years later, Texas became an independent nation. As Cantrell (Hardin-Simmons Univ.) makes clear in this nuanced work, there could scarcely have been a more apt leader for so devilishly difficult a project. Austin mastered both the language and politics of independent Mexico and might have kept Texas part of that nation but for its leaders' ineptitude. Respecting to the limits of his considerable powers of understanding the ways of northern Spanish America, he tried, as Cantrell makes amply evident, to steer his growing colony loyally within the Mexican empire. But gradually Austin came to believe—to the point of being jailed briefly for treason—that independence was essential if his fellow colonists were to flourish and succeed. Yet despite his indispensable leadership, when independence came, his fellow colonists turned instead to San Houston to be the republic's first president. But Austin has remained in popular estimation ever since the "patriarch" of the Lone Star State, and Cantrell firmly keeps him there. This readable, always compelling, learned biography takes us deep into Mexican history and throws much light on the 19th-century American southwest. But most important, it also brings alive this complex, honorable, politically savvy loner who, haltered to the values and aspirations of his overbearing father, transformed parental expectations into a historically enduring project. A solid achievement of biographical art and modern western history that substitutes new evidence and current scholarship where myth and romance have long held sway.
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