The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 85, July 1981 - April, 1982

Slavery and Vigilantism in Austin, Texas,
1840-1860
PAUL D. LACK*
N JANUARY, 1840, ONLY ABOUT A MONTH AFTER AUSTIN ACHIEVED
corporate status, the first issue of a local newspaper referred to it
as "the infant City, just throwing off the last vestages [sic] of savage
barbarianism." For years many wondered whether the paper had been
overly optimistic, since the city still suffered from the crudity and iso-
lation of its frontier setting. It survived, but had only 854 people on
its tenth anniversary. Early residents neither demanded nor received
many municipal services, so formal law enforcement procedures re-
mained primitive. Although city ordinances allowed for deputies,
Austin relied on a single professional-the city marshal-which be-
fitted both its size and its southern heritage of individualism. The
185os brought apparent success in the quest for urban growth, with
the population expanding to over 3,500 in 186o-an increase that
overwhelmed existing police methods.
One challenge to the weak system of law enforcement came from a
growing contingent of urban slaves. In Austin, as in other southern
cities, these bondsmen assumed liberties and displayed an indepen-
dence that violated the prevailing concept of race relations: white
supremacy and black servitude. The threat to social order seemed
* Paul D. Lack is professor of history at McMurry College.
1Austin Texas Sentinel, Jan. 15, 184o; Kenneth W. Wheeler, To Wear a City's Crown:
The Beginnings of Urban Growth in Texas (Cambridge, Mass., 1968), 25-35. The size of
Austin's early population cannot be determined accurately without examination of the
manuscript census returns. United States Seventh Census (185o) and United States Eighth
Census (1860), Schedule 1: Free Inhabitants, Schedule 2: Slave Inhabitants, Travis County,
Texas (microfilm; Archives, University of Texas Library, Austin). For 1850 the figure
published by the census bureau, and repeated by scholars since then, placed Austin's
population at 629. See J. D. B. DeBow, The Seventh Census of the United States: T85o
(Washington, D.C., 1853), 504. This figure in fact represents the free population only. The
census taker failed to differentiate between the slaves of Austin and the rest of Travis
County, but a reliable estimate of the number of town slaves can be made by cross-check-
ing the names of all slaveholders in the county (taken from the slave schedules) against
the persons enumerated as living in Austin (in the free population schedules). This meth-
od reveals a count of a25 slaves living in Austin in 1850, making the total population
854. This cross-referencing technique, when applied to the 186o census data, indicates
1,019 slave inhabitants in Austin, making the total population 3,546.

Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 85, July 1981 - April, 1982. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101208/. Accessed April 18, 2014.