Austin spends many months in Mexican dungeon

Arriving in Mexico City on Oct. 15, 1834, attorneys Peter W. Grayson and Spencer H. Jack went right to work to finally end Stephen F. Austin’s nine-month nightmare.

The cause of the confinement was a letter Austin wrote in the heat of the moment the previous October.  Exasperated by the refusal of the central government to grant Texas statehood, the empressario encouraged the San Antonio ayuntamiento or city council to lay the groundwork for the forbidden regime in open defiance of the short-sighted policy.

Austin had forgotten all about the impulsive communication by the time a copy landed on the desk of the acting president of Mexico.  Gomez Farias was infuriated by the seemingly seditious statement and issued orders for the arrest of the American colonier.

Apprehended at Saltillo on Jan. 3, 1834, Austin was taken to Monterrey, where he spent the next two weeks before being transferred to the capital.  More concerned with the reaction of fellow Texans than his own fate, he stated for the record his fervent hope that “there will be no excitement about my arrest.”

Confiding in a Mexican senator he had known for years, Austin expressed his true feelings.  “I was not born in a wilderness, and have not the patience of those inhabitants, who are daily enduring the same dangers and annoyances that their fathers and grandfathers and perhaps their great-grandfathers suffered without advancing or thinking of advancing.  Death is preferable to such stagnant existence, such stupid life.”

Austin picked the wrong man to trust.  The politician betrayed his old friend by turning over the incriminating correspondence to the authorities.

Arriving at Mexico City on Feb. 13, Austin expected the comparatively comfortable accommodations customarily afforded prominent prisoners.  To his horror, he was housed in a 13-by-16 foot cell and denied visitors as well as reading and writing materials.

Austin did manage to keep a diary on smuggled scraps of paper.  During his third and last month of solitary confinement, he scribbled an agonizing entry:  “What a system of jurisprudence is this!  I do not know of what I am accused.  How can I prepare my defense?”

Slipping into a deep and protracted depression that summer, Austin bared his soul in bitter letters to unresponsive acquaintances back home.  Had he been left to rot in a distant dungeon, and was there any truth to his captors’ claim that longtime critics were responsible for his continued incarceration?

Moved by the pitiful plight of the prisoner, Peter W. Grayson decided to intercede on his behalf.  Accompanied by Spencer H. Jack, also a respected lawyer, he set out for Mexico City.

Though weary from their long journey, the Texans immediately called on their client.  “The delight he experienced upon seeing us,” Grayson later remembered, “may be more easily imagined than described.”

Following a much-needed exchange of morale-boosting pleasantries, the visitors asked Austin for the list of charges lodged against him.  They were flabbergasted by his reply.  After nine months in custody, he was still completely in the dark.

For days Grayson and Jack pestered uncooperative officials for an explanation of Austin’s indefinite detention.  Their persistence seemed to have paid off when “a huge mountain of documents” was delivered to their hotel room.

Sorting through the avalanche of papers for evidence of the alleged transgression and a formal accusation, the eagle-eyed attorneys found nothing more than rumor and hearsay.  Austin’s apparent crime was his criticism of the government stand against statehood for the northernmost province.

Turning to a local lawyer for a crash course on Mexican law, the Texans were told that mere suspicion of seditious conduct was sufficient to keep the empressario behind bars until he was old and gray.  The authorities were under no obligation to give Austin his day in court, even though he was presumed guilty until proven innocent.

Clutching at the only available straw, Grayson and Jack worked to have their client released on bail.  When a wealthy Mexican agreed to guarantee a high bond, the overjoyed prisoner was freed on Christmas Day.

Austin was, however, kept on a very short lease and restricted to the city limits of the capital.  Seven tense and tedious months would drag by before he was finally allowed to return to Texas under the terms of a general amnesty.

The lesson of this dreadful ordeal was not lost on the Anglo-American colonists.  If Stephen F. Austin, who had bent over backwards for more than a decade to get along with the Mexican hierarchy, could be subjected to such arbitrary abuse, what chance did the ordinary Texan have?

Never a physically strong person, the conditions of Austin’s captivity broke his health leading directly to his premature death from pneumonia during the last week of 1836.  The “Father of Texas” was only 43 years old. 

“Unforgettable Texans,” Bartee’s new book, is available and ready to ship! Order your autographed copy today by mailing a check for $28.80 to “Bartee Haile,” P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77389. 

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