Notable Figures in Texas History: From Stephen Austin to José Antonio Navarro and More!

The area now known as Texas was settled by Native Americans before the first Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1519. Europeans first arrived in the area in 1680. Over the next 110 years, various colonies were established by Spain. When Mexico became independent from Spain, it gained control over Texas. Texas fought for independence from 1835 to 1836 and then established the Republic of Texas. In 1845, Texas joined the United States. It attempted to leave the United States during the Civil War when Texas was part of the Confederacy. After the Civil War, ranching and farming began dominating the economy. The 1901 discovery of petroleum changed the economy yet again. Today, it is the second-largest state in the Union. Throughout Texas history, a number of notable people shaped the course of history and the ultimate direction the state grew in.

Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle

The 17th-century French explorer, Robert Cavelier (November 22, 1643 - March 19, 1687) explored the banks of the Mississippi. He claimed the territory and named it Louisiana for France. By 1863, La Salle established a colony in what is now known as Texas. He also explored the Rio Grande. The French colony he founded in present-day Texas was plagued with problems from the beginning. Cavelier was slain during an unsuccessful expedition from the colony. The colony lasted until 1688 when Native Americans killed the adults and took the children of the colony hostage. Spain eventually recovered the children.

Stephen F. Austin

Stephen Fuller Austin (1793 - 1836) is called the "Father of Texas" due to his successful colonization of the area in 1825. Austin was born in Virginia but raised in Missouri, where he served in the legislature before moving first to Arkansas and later to Louisiana. Moses Austin, his father, was given an emperasario land grant from Spain. After his father's death, Mexico recognized Austin's ownership of the grant. Austin worked to maintain a stable relationship with Mexico and helped end the Fredonian Rebellion. Austin also worked to introduce slavery to Texas. As dissent against Mexico among Texas settlers rose, Austin led forces in the Siege of Béxar. Sam Houston appointed Austin as Secretary of State of the Texas Republic, and Austin served in this capacity until he died in 1836. Many schools and institutions, along with the Texas capital, are named in honor of Austin despite his involvement in the slave trade.

Sam Houston

Samuel Houston (1793 - 1863) played an essential part in the Texas Revolution. Houston was born in Virginia but moved to Tennessee as a teenager. After running away from home, he spent time with the Cherokee Native American tribe. During the War of 1812, he served under Andrew Jackson. Later, he oversaw the removal of the Cherokee from Tennessee. Houston was elected to the House of Representatives in 1823 before being elected governor of Tennessee in 1827.? Houston moved to Texas in 1832 and helped organize Texas's government after it won independence. Houston was elected president of the Texas Republic in 1836. He helped organize Texas joining the United States in 1845, and in 1846 was elected to the Senate.? The city of Houston is just one example of the many civic institutions named for Sam Houston.

Lorenzo de Zavala

Manuel Lorenzo Justiniano de Zavala y Sanchez was born on October 14, 1788, and died November 15, 1836. He was most commonly known as Lorenzo de Zavala. Born in Yucatán during the time of Spanish rule, he established many newspapers as a young man and often wrote about democratic reforms. These writings were the basis of his imprisonment by Spain. During his time in prison, he studied English and medicine. During his career, he served in Mexico's Senate before becoming Mexico's Minister of Finance and eventually Ambassador to France. When the Mexican government was overthrown in 1829, Zavala was exiled to the United States. After he returned to Mexico, he spoke out about the dictator-like tendencies of President Santa Anna, which led to him fleeing to Texas. He began advocating for Texas independence and helped draft the Texas Constitution. He also designed the Texas flag and served as Vice-President. The Lorenzo de Zavala State Archives and Library Building, located in Downtown Austin, was named in his honor along with many other schools and official buildings. 

José Antonio Navarro

José Antonio Navarro sought Texas independence, and was one of the the most influential Tejanos of his time. After Texas achieved independence, he worked to ensure the rights of Tejanos as citizens of the new Texas Republic. He was born in 1795 and died in 1871 after a life as a rancher, merchant, and revolutionary. He was born to a noble Spanish family. The county of Navarro is named for him, along with the town of Navarro.

Thomas Jefferson Rusk

Thomas Jefferson Rusk was born in South Carolina on December 5, 1803, and died July 29, 1857. He began his career practicing law in Georgia. After moving to Texas, he became an early proponent of forming the Republic of Texas and eventually helped lead the military to establish Texas's independence. He was the General at the Battle of San Jacinto. He served as Texas Senator from 1846 until he died in 1857.

Juan Seguín

Numerous institutions and locations are named for Juan Nepomuceno Seguín (1806 -1890). Seguín was a Spanish-Tejano leader of the Texas Revolution. He helped secure Texas' independence through his military service. Today his name might be best as the namesake for one of the oldest towns in Texas.

Mirabeau B. Lamar

Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar (1798 - 1859) was the Republic of Texas's second president. When Lamar became president, the young Republic was beset by problems. On top of financial difficulties, another problem was the lack of global recognition and attacks by Native American tribes. During his time in office, he began to build the framework for a capital city, public schools, and public universities. However, his idea of an empire that stretched to the Pacific Ocean was disastrous.

Anson Jones and the Annexation of Texas

Anson Jones was born in 1798 and died in 1858. He began his career as a country doctor. He worked as Secretary of State for the new Texas Republic under Sam Houston. He focused on issues of allowing the United States to annex Texas, and earned the nickname "Architect of Annexation."

Early African-American Senators

It was not easy for African-Americans in Texas to win the right to vote or be involved in civic discourse. However, three African-American men were elected to the state senate. They were William Burton, Matt Gaines, and George Ruby. George Ruby was elected to the Senate in 1869. During his tenure, he worked to enact legislation aimed at railroad and insurance companies. He also worked to have an agricultural and geological survey of the state completed. He moved back to Louisiana after Reconstruction ended.

Matt Gaines escaped slavery twice before Emancipation. After he gained his freedom, he became a minister. He was also elected to the Senate in 1869. During his three terms in office, he worked on issues of tenant-farm reform, prison reform, education, and African-Americans. He returned to the ministry after holding public office.

Walter Burton moved to Texas as a slave in 1850 with his then-slave owner, Thomas Burton, who taught him to read. Due to a land deal, Walter Burton became one of the wealthiest African-Americans in the state after Emancipation. He was elected sheriff of Fort Bend County in 1869 and to the Senate in 1873. He left the Senate in 1882.

James Hogg, John H. Reagan, and the Railroad Commission

Governor James Hogg worked to establish the Texas Railroad Commission in 1891 to regulate the railroad industry. John H. Reagan was appointed to be its first chair that same year. Today, one of its responsibilities is to regulate the supply and price of Texas oil and natural gas. This power means it is one of the most powerful regulatory agencies in the United States.

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By: Jim Olenbush