Austin History

The Live Music Capital of the World

Burned rock shelters and rock middens discovered in archeological dig sites in and around Austin, Texas indicate that the place has been inhabited as early as 9,000 BCE. While these prehistoric peoples probably made music using bones for flutes, and sticks and hollowed out logs for drums, today’s Austinites have a wide variety of electronic musical instruments. The best part about this is that they know how to use their gadgets to turn Austin into the “Live Music Capital of the World”.

Early History

Of course, the metamorphosis did not happen overnight. It took 11,000 years, but none of the events that transpired then was recorded until the early 18th Century when Spanish explorers began venturing deep into Texas. Several hundred years before their arrival, the area was roamed by nomadic Native American tribes, the most common of whom were the Tonkawa, Comanches, and Lipan Apaches who lived off game and fish.

Spanish Texas

There were various expeditions into Texas by Spanish explorers at the time when it still belonged to Spain, notably the Espinosa-Olivares-Aguirre expedition in 1709, but few permanent settlements resulted. A mission was established in 1730 in south Austin, where today’s Zilker Park is located, but it was moved to San Antonio de Bexar only seven months later.

There was, however, no shortage of enterprising people who had visions of developing the vast lands of Texas. Among them was Moses Austin, who was able to secure an empresarial grant from Spain authorizing him to bring 300 Anglo-American families into Texas and assuming responsibility for them. Unfortunately, he died before he could even begin his enterprise. He left the grant to his son, Stephen F. Austin, who was initially reluctant to carry out his father’s venture.

The younger Austin, who was then living in Arkansas, traveled to San Antonio in June 1821 to meet with the Spanish Governor of Texas, Antonio Maria Martinez to have his father’s empresarial grant reauthorized in his name. Although the Governor approved the re-authorization, events in Mexico interfered. In August 24, 1821, after a decade of fighting, the people of Mexico and the Spanish colonial authorities signed the Treaty of Cordoba that recognized the independence of Mexico from Spain, thus making Texas a Mexican province instead of a Spanish colony.

Mexican Independence from Spain

Governor Martinez informed Austin that the new authorities in Mexico refused to recognize the grant previously authorized under Spanish law, forcing the latter to travel to Mexico to plead for his cause. Authority was granted in January 3, 1823 by the Mexican Emperor Agustin de Iturbide, only to be rescinded when he abdicated barely three months later. It was not until 1825 that Austin was able to persuade the legislature of the Coajuila y Tejas (Texas) to reauthorize the original empresarial grant. Late in that same year, Austin led 300 families, now known as The Old Three Hundred, into Texas. Later, he would bring in another 900. For his efforts, he eventually became known as the Father of Texas.

Waterloo Established

From these first settlers came the pioneers of modern-day Austin. It was not, however, until 1835 that the first recorded permanent settlement was established. This was around the time of the Texas Revolution or War of Independence that resulted in the proclamation of the Republic of Texas in March 2, 1836. With the capture of Mexico’s President Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana and the subsequent signing of the Treaties of Velasco that recognized the independence of Texas, the settlers were even more encouraged to develop the land. In 1837, they created the village of Waterloo along the banks of the Colorado River. In a year, the village expanded into a town. Local legend has it that Austin himself negotiated with the Native Americans about its boundaries.

Mirabeau B. Lamar, having visited Waterloo in 1838 when he was Vice President of the Republic of Texas, was impressed with the town. He lodged at the house of his friend Jacob Harrell with whom he went hunting. He is said to have shot a wild buffalo in an area near the present day Congress Avenue and 8th Street.

The Building of Austin

In less than a year, Lamar succeeded his old boss, Sam Houston who was constitutionally barred from seeking a second term, to become the second president of the young republic. Immediately, on January 14, 1839, he approved a measure moving the capital, which was then located in the new city of Houston, to Waterloo. When the initial opposition to his plan was overcome, including from Sam Houston himself, Lamar’s administration purchased several hundreds of acres for Waterloo. In March 1839, he renamed the city Austin, in honor of the Father of Texas.

Within two months, Lamar sent Judge Edwin Waller along with 200 men to begin the construction of the city. He surveyed the area, sold lots, and built government buildings, according to a grid plan he prepared. It had 14 blocks that was bisected by the wide Congress Avenue. Beginning on the northern shore of the Colorado River, the avenue runs further north up to the Capital Square, where Waller intended to construct the future capitol, and where, indeed, the current Texas State Capitol stands. The gird plan Waller prepared remains the basis of Austin’s streets today.

A temporary government office building had to be erected, however, on the corner of Colorado and 8th Streets. In August 1839, the first auction of the city’s lots was held where 306 units were offered for sale. By October, the government of the Republic of Texas, mounted on oxcarts, arrived in Austin. In January 1840, the population of Austin swelled to 839. Judge Edwin Waller would later become Austin’s first mayor.

Also in the same year, Travis County was established by the Texas Congress naming Austin as the county seat.

The Texas Archive War

In 1841, Houston regained the presidency and went to work relocating the capital back first to the city carrying his name, and then to Washington-on-the-Brazos. The army of Mexican Gen. Rafael Vasquez invaded Texas in March 1842, and captured and briefly held San Antonio, Goliad, and Victoria. Reacting to this, President Houston declared Austin unsafe as it was less than a hundred miles from San Antonio, and called for the transfer of the national archives to Houston City. The residents of Austin, however, perhaps thinking that the transfer is only a pretext to move the capital back to Houston, formed a vigilance committee that vowed to use any means, including force, to keep the records in their city.

Although the president backed down, he used the same excuse for a second time in September of the same year. The Mexican Gen. Adrian Woll also captured San Antonio although, like Gen. Vasquez before him, he did not stay long. Houston again pronounced Austin to be unsafe, and instead of having the Seventh Congress convene in the official capital, he had them meet in Washington-on-the-Brazos.

Further and more boldly, he ordered Colonel Thomas I. Smith and Captain Eli Chandler to spirit the national archives held in Austin to Washington-on-the-Brazos. The officers organized a group of men and, in the night of December 29, slipped into Austin. They were able to load documents from the General Land Office Building into their wagons, but, thanks to Angelina Eberly who was awakened by their noise, the attempt was unsuccessful. Eberly fired a cannon that awakened the local citizens, many of whom were members of the vigilance committee. They promptly set out after Smith and his men and, on the following day, overtook them 18 miles to the north, in present day Round Rock. The documents were thus returned to Austin.

The whole affair came be known as The Texas Archive War. Fortunately, the only casualty was a wall in the General Land Office Building that was hit when Eberly made her wake up call to the citizens of Austin. Although it took a long time coming, her statue was erected in downtown Austin in 2004 in honor of her role in the affair. Houston, for his part, was admonished by the Texas Congress for his actions. It was not, however, until 1845 that Austin would fully function as the republic’s capital.

Texas Joins the Union

When Houston campaigned for his first term, he ran on a platform favoring the annexation of Texas with the United States. As early as 1837, a proposal had been presented to the administration of US President Martin Van Buren. This, however, was declined as Van Buren believed annexation could lead to a war with Mexico. The proposal was put in the backburner during the term of Lamar, who favored an independent Texas. In 1843, with Houston back at the helm, US President John Tyler entered into an annexation treaty with Texas but this, too, failed because the American Congress refused to ratify it.

In February 26, 1845, at the instigation of then outgoing US President John Tyler and the support of incoming President James K. Polk, the US Congress passed a joint resolution calling for the annexation of Texas, which was soon presented to Texas President Anson Jones. Jones called for a convention in Austin to study and discuss the American proposal, which the Texan Congress approved in June of the same year. Immediately, delegates began drafting a new state constitution amid new attempts to move the capital from Austin.  Two statewide elections were held to settle the issue. In the end, the new constitution that was eventually ratified named Austin the capital of the State of Texas.

In December 29, 1845, Texas became the 28th State of the United States of America with Austin as its State Capital.

The Civil War

At the time of the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, there were over 180,000 slaves in Texas, which constitutes roughly 30% of its total population. Most of them worked the farms cultivating cotton, sugar, and corn. Others were cattlemen and shepherds, house servants, cooks and waiters in hotels, coachmen, carpenters, or blacksmiths. It is for this reason, along with its geographical proximity to the other secessionist states, that Texas joined the Confederacy, in spite of the objections of then Governor Sam Houston.

The Growth of Austin

Austin Skyline at NightThe development of rail transport across the United States began as early as the 1820s as the pioneers in the industry closely monitored railway development in England. By Christmas Day in 1871, Austin welcomed its first train amid much fanfare and celebration. This was an important event in the history of Austin because, in the 19th Century, the railroads were the veins that carried the blood of the country. Any city that was not reached by the trains was doomed either to stagnation or extinction. The arrival of the trains inaugurated a building and population boom in Austin as it gradually became the shipping and mercantile hub in Central Texas.

Along with the growth of commerce, educational institutions likewise emerged. St. Edward’s Academy was established by Rev. Edward Sorin in 1878. It was to expand later to the St. Edward’s University. Public schools were opened in September of 1881, and in that same year, Tillotson Collegiate and Normal Institute, later to become the Huston-Tillotson University, also opened its doors. In 1883, the University of Texas at Austin began holding its first classes.

Austin began attracting investments and in 1884, Colonel Jesse Driskill purchased a lot where he planned to construct the “finest hotel south of St. Louis”. Constructed at a cost of $400,000 and named the Driskill Hotel, it was inaugurated on December 20, 1886. The four-star hotel has closed and reopened quite a few times. It has been renovated and improved and continues to exist today. Along the way, it has built a rich history. Immediately after its opening, on January 1, 1887, Governor Sul Ross began the tradition of every Texas governor holding his inaugural ball in the hotel’s ballroom. Lyndon Johnson first met his future wife, Claudia Taylor, in its dining room. He would return to the hotel plenty more times as a congressman and president.

In keeping with the original plan of Judge Edwin Waller, the cornerstone of the State Capitol Building was laid in March 2, 1885 at the Capital Square. The building of this grand edifice of Italian Renaissance Revival architecture took three years to complete, opening its doors to the public on April 21, 1888. At the time of its completion, it was called “The Seventh Largest Building in the World”.

The construction of the Great Granite Dam in 1893 that stabilized the Colorado River and harnessed the force of its water into the generation of electricity spurred further growth for the city. The availability of uninterrupted power supply prompted manufacturers to set up shop in the area. Unfortunately, in 1900, the dam was damaged by a storm that swelled the Colorado River. In April 7, the dam broke which resulted in the death of 47 persons and the leveling of numerous homes. A series of seven dams was constructed in 1938 with the help of federal funds, thanks to then Rep. Lyndon Johnson’s efforts, to replace the Great Granite Dam. Attempts were made to rehabilitate the dam but these were abandoned when the Tom Miller Dam upriver was opened in the 1940s.

The year 1910 was another great year for Austin. The year saw the opening of Congress Avenue Bridge that linked the north and south banks of the Colorado River thus encouraging development of the area to the south. It was also in this year that Austinites saw their first skyscrapers, the Littlefield and Scarborough Buildings.

After suffering through the Great Depression and going through the Second World War, Austin picked up the pieces and resumed its march towards progress. Think tanks and research laboratories began establishing themselves in the city. A branch library system was opened to the public. Austin, however, did not only mean work. Movie theaters, public swimming pools, and a professional baseball team were also introduced.

Mindful of the adverse effects of overdevelopment, however, a number of Austinites organized associations dedicated to the protection of the cultural and historical heritage as well as environment of the city. For environmentalists, Barton Springs has become an icon and a symbol of their concern.

Austin and its Music

Austin boasts of being the “Live Music Capital of the World”. This is not an empty boast as on any given night, there are over a hundred places staging live music. This probably began when Kenneth Threadgill, who loved country music and was a bootlegger, opened a Gulf filling station in Travis County, just at the outskirts of Austin. When the county decided to legalize the sale of liquor, Threadgill became the first person to be granted a liquor license, standing in line all night for the honor. Open 24 hours for drinking, gambling, and jamming, his place became a favorite watering hole for traveling musicians. Janis Joplin would later perform at Threadgill’s and it was actually here that she developed her singing style.

Other venues sprang in the 1940s, such as Liberty Lunch and Victory Grill, which played host to the likes of B. B. King, Ike Turner, and Tina Turner. This trend continued well into the 60s and 70s with the opening of Broken Spoke, Vulcan Gas Company, which later evolved into the Armadillo World Headquarters, Clifford Antone, and The Club Foot among many others.

These offered perfect opportunities for struggling and anti-establishment musicians to perform their acts for receptive audiences, playing all kinds and styles of music. Artists like Willie Nelson and David Rodriguez also help attract both musicians and audiences to Austin. The 13th Floor Elevators, Winter brothers, Shiva’s Headband, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and even the rock/new wave bands Skunks and The Violators launched their careers in these venues.

The City Continues to Grow

Austin was part of the dot-com bubble of the mid 1990s as, in addition to the giant IBM, it was host to plenty of small- and medium-sized Internet-based companies. Inevitably, it also had its share of woes when the bubble burst in 2000.

In 1999, Robert Mueller Municipal Airport was shut down and replaced by the Austin-Bergrstrom International Airport. On the ground, however, the light rail proposal of Capital Metro was rejected by the Austinites. What was approved was a commuter rail service using existing rail lines. Originally scheduled to open in 2008, multiple safety issues prevent its launching.

Austin is host to the first skyscraper erected after September 11, 2001. At 515 feet, the Frost Bank Tower was the tallest building in the city at the time of its dedication in January 2004, far eclipsing the Littlefield and Scarborough Buildings. It has since been surpassed by the 360 Condominiums (563 feet) and the Austonian (683 feet).

The strong economy of the city as well as its liberal politics leading to an alternative culture is a strong magnet for young people of Texas. Housings costs are relatively low further enhancing its attraction. This, of course, poses a dilemma for the government as it balances development with the need to protect the environment and its cultural heritage.

Keep Austin Weird

The Austin Independent Business Alliance (AIBA) was instituted to help local entrepreneurs compete with corporate giants establishing businesses in the city. The group has adopted the slogan “Keep Austin Weird” to promote their cause and their businesses.

Owing to the liberal and progressive politics of Austin, it is often seen as a friendly and tolerant city even for people espousing cultural, artistic, social, and even sexual (think LGBTs) ideas that border on the, well, weird. Whether or not Austinites are truly weird, they are proud of who they are and they intend to keep their identity.

Getting to Austin

If you want to meet the self-proclaimed (at least by the AIBA) weird people of Austin, you can simply get on a plane bound for Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Coming from Dallas you could be there in about 50 minutes, less if you fly a private plane taking a direct route and with no landing delays. From Houston, flying time is even shorter at about 40 to 45 minutes.

You can, of course, go by land and enjoy the sights along the way. Austin lies midway along Interstate 35, about 195 miles south of Dallas. Three to three-and-a-half hours will get you to Austin from Dallas. Houston is closer with a distance of 165 miles that can be driven in two-and-a-half to three hours. You can either drive through Interstate 10, making a right to the north on Interstate 35 when you get to San Antonio, or go through the highways north of Interstate 10. With a good GPS, you probably will be able to find your way. Along the way, you may even get to pass by small and quaint little towns.