1831 Letter From Texas
Mrs. Mary Austin Holley, a cousin of noted Texan, Stephen F. Austin, was a keen observer of daily life on the Texas frontier, before the Texas Revolution. In letters back home to Connecticut, she reported her astute observations. What follows are comments from three of her letters written in 1831 from Bolivar, Texas.
. . . The people of Texas, as yet, have little time for [business]. Everybody is occupied with his domestic arrangements and plans for supplying his immediate wants. It is found to be easier to raise or manufacture such articles as are needed [by] the family or to do without what things may be desired, than to obtain them from abroad, or to employ an individual to scour the country in search of such. . . . People live too far apart to beg or borrow often, and few trouble themselves to send anything to market, though they have much to spare. They had rather give to you of their abundance, if you will send someone to their doors [to get it]. . . . If they want any article of first necessity, coffee for instance, which is much used, they will send some of their chickens, butter and eggs, to a neighboring family, newly arrived, and propose an exchange, as most newcomers bring with them some stores. There is much of this kind of barter, provisions being so much more [plentiful] than money. . . .
In no country, with the usual attention to the arts of life, could more luxuries to the table be furnished. At present, vegetables, fruits, butter, eggs, and chicken sell very high in Brazoria; though they are yielded in every season of the year, in a profusion unexampled in any part of the world. The newcomer has to but plant his seeds in the ground, and collect a first supply of livestock to begin with. They need but little or no care afterwords, and the increase is astonishing. He brands his cattle and hogs and lets them run. They require no attention, but to see that they do not stray too far from home and become wild. A field once planted in pumpkins, seldom needs planting again. The scattered seed sow themselves, and the plants are cultivated with the corn. These pumpkins, often as large as a man can lift, have a sweet flavor and are very palatable. A field of them is a curiosity, as they are in such numbers and so large. Sweet potatoes, also are cultivated with almost equal ease, and yield at times, five hundred bushels to the acre. Some of these potatoes weigh from four to seven pounds. Yet they sell at Brazoria at the enormous price of seventy-five cents a bushel. Corn is obtained in the prairie cane-breaks [during] the first year, when there is no time to prepare the land with the plow, by merely making a hole for the seed with a hoe. Cows and horses get their own living. The trees at this moment (17th of December), are loaded with rich clusters of grapes, not very large, but of a delicious flavor. . . .
During my stay at Bolivar, we might have had every day, the finest of game, could anyone have been spared to take to the field with his gun. Our neighbor at one hunt, brought in three bears, a Mexican hog, a rabbit and two bee-trees. Our carpenter, without leaving his bench five minutes, killed several wild ducks, the finest I have ever tasted. . . .
Housekeepers should bring with them all indispensable articles for household use, together with as much common clothing (other clothing is not wanted) for themselves and their children as they conveniently can. Ladies, in particular, should remember that in a new country, they can not get things made at any moment, as in an old one, and that they will be sufficiently busy the first two years in arranging such things as they have, without obtaining more. It should also be done as a matter of economy. Where the population increases, beyond the increase of supplies, articles of necessity are dear. If on arrival you find a surplus on hand, it can be readily disposed of to advantage; for trade, by barter, is much practiced, and you buy provisions with coffee, calico, tea-kettles and saucepans, instead of cash.
Those who must have a feather bed, had better bring it, for it would take too long to make one; and though the air swarms with live geese, a feather bed could not be got for love or money. Everybody should bring pillows and bed linens. Mattresses, such as are used in Louisiana—and they are very comfortable— are made of the moss which hangs on almost every tree. They cost nothing but the case and the trouble of preparing the moss. The case should be brought.
Domestic checks are best being cheap and light, and sufficiently strong.
The moss is prepared by burying it in the earth, until it is partially rotten. It is then washed very clean, dried, and picked. Then it is fit for use. These mattresses should be made very thick; and for those who like a warmer bed in winter, put layers of wool, well carded, taking care to keep this side up.
Every immigrant should bring mosquito bars. [A quick note—today we would call this item mosquito nets] Since the middle of October, I have not found them necessary. They are indispensable in the summer season and are made from a thin species of muslin, manufactured for the purpose. Furniture, such as chairs and bureaus, can be brought in separate pieces and put together, cheaper and better, after arrival, than they can be purchased here, if purchased at all. But it must be recollected that very few articles of this sort are required, where houses are small and buildings expensive. . . .Tables are made by the house carpenter, which answer the purpose as well where nobody has better, and the chief concern is to get something to put upon them.
The maxim or [general truth] here, is—nothing is for show, but all for use. . . .
The common concerns of life are sufficiently exciting to keep the spirits buoyant, and prevent everything like ennui, [listlessness, and dissatisfaction]. Artificial wants are entirely forgotten in view of real ones, and self—eternal self—does not alone fill up the round of life. Delicate ladies find they can be useful and need not be vain. Even privations become pleasures: people become ingenious in overcoming difficulties. Many latent faculties are developed. They discover in themselves, powers they did not suspect themselves of possessing. Equally surprised and delighted at the discovery, they apply to their labors with all that energy and spirit that new hope and conscious strength inspire. . . .
A side note: Mrs. Mary Austin Holley’s letters indicate she was writing from Bolivar. Where was Bolivar?
In 1830, Henry Austin, first cousin of Stephen F. Austin, established a cotton plantation in Brazoria County, on the Brazos River, 25 miles south of San Felipe and north along the Brazos River from the Gulf of Mexico. Austin established one of the first cotton gins in Brazoria County. He named his plantation Bolivar and established a town site with the same name. According to a contemporary account, “The land around Bolivar is the best in the Austin colony; clothed with heavy timber, with peach and cane undergrowth to the distance of six miles from the river. The bank of the river in front of the town is a high bluff of stiff red clay. At Bolivar, the timber tract is five or six miles wide and the road to the prairie is walled in with tall cane filling all the space between the trees.” It was from Here that Mrs. Mary Austin Holly penned her letters, a year later.