Today, Moses Austin, American lead, and -- at
length -- Texas. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Meet Moses Austin, born into
a Suffield, Connecticut, family in 1761 -- the
youngest of eight children. His people were
business folk. So, when Moses was 28, he and his
brother saw opportunity in an abandoned lead mine
in Virginia. The lead was there, and America needed
it. The Austin brothers bought it, and they
undertook what historian David Bracy calls "a
They hired foreign experts at outlandish salaries.
They built a new town around their mine and called
it Austinville. They spent all they had, then
hocked their homes. But it worked.
That was the beginning of the American lead
industry. They put a lead roof on the Virginia
Capitol building that Thomas Jefferson designed.
They sold lead to New England and Kentucky.
Lead shot was one of their major products. In 1782
an English plumber invented
the shot tower. He found that when you run
molten lead through a sieve and let it fall into a
water tank far below, surface tension forms the
lead drops into almost perfect spheres. As early as
1790 the Virginia Chronicle reported
that the Austins were making the first drop shot in
But their success wasn't all it seemed to be. The
Capitol roof leaked. It had to be replaced with
slate. And America kept right on importing most of
its buckshot until just before the War of 1812. The
Austins had built an industry, but they couldn't
sustain it. They had to sell out. It was time to
move on again.
So Moses left on a scouting trip to the west during
the bitter winter of 1796. He dedicated a written
account of that adventure to his young son,
Stephen. He told him that America's fortunes lay
west of the Mississippi. Then in 1798 he packed a
wagon train and set out to create new lead mines in
That venture lasted two decades and opened up lead
sources far greater than those in Virginia. Then he
made a really dumb move. Faced with a labor
shortage in 1814, he turned to slaves. He was soon
paying more to feed and house slaves than it
would've cost to pay them as freemen. By 1819 he
was bankrupt. It was time for a sick and aging
Moses Austin to move on yet again.
So he went down into Texas. In San Antonio he
struck a deal with the governor of the Spanish
Province of Texas to admit settlers. He turned the
course of American history, then went home to
Herculaneum, Missouri, to die of pneumonia.
Of course his son Stephen F. Austin led the
colonization of Texas. Today, the capital of Texas
isn't named after Moses; it's named after Stephen.
And Moses, his judgment not always as good as his
vision, had to die without crossing over the Brazos
River -- without finally entering this new land of
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Gracy, D.B., II, Moses Austin: His Life.
San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1987.
I'm grateful to Andrea Bean Hough for digging up
and providing all the source materials for this
episode, and to Pat Bozeman for suggesting the
topic -- both from UH Special Collections. Original
Special Collections sources include American
Mercury, Hartford, CT, August 2, 1790, pp.
1-2 (for a pickup of the Virginia
Chronicle article about the Austinville
mines). See also Shot Factory. Virginia
Gazette & General Advertiser, Richmond,
VA, August 30, 1791 (for an advertisement of the
See Episode 422 for
information about the invention of the shot
Image courtesy of Special
Collections, UH Library
1791 Richmond newspaper ad for Moses Austin's lead
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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