Lured to the area by tales of seven magnificent cities of gold, Spanish explorers first passed through what is now Austin during the 1530s. But instead of gold, they encountered several hostile Native American tribes; for many years, reports of the natives' viciousness (which included charges of cannibalism) discouraged further expeditions and restricted colonization. Spain nevertheless retained control of the region for nearly 300 years, withdrawing after Mexico gained its independence in 1821.
All of eastern Texas then experienced a boom as hundreds of settlers sought permission to establish colonies in the "new" territory. One of these early settlements was the village of Waterloo, founded in 1835 on the north bank of the Colorado River. In 1839 Mirabeau B. Lamar, vice-president of the Republic of Texas, recommended that Waterloo be chosen as the capital, noting among its assets its central location, elevation, mild climate, and freedom from the fevers that plagued residents of the republic's coastal areas. Despite stiff competition from those whose preference was Houston, Lamar's proposal was eventually accepted, and Waterloo was incorporated as Austin in 1839 and renamed in honor of Stephen F. Austin, "Father of Texas." Austin remained the capital when Texas was annexed by the United States in 1845.
During the 1850s the country's regional conflicts mounted, and Texans were fractured into three distinct camps: those who advocated supporting northern policies, those who wished to ally themselves with secessionist southern states, and those who urged the reestablishment of the independent Republic of Texas. Although Travis County citizens voted strongly against secession, Texas as a whole sided with the South when the Civil War erupted. Austin's contributions to the war effort included the manufacture of arms and ammunition and the mustering of the Austin City Light Infantry and a cavalry regiment known as Terry's Texas Rangers after its leader, B. F. Terry.
Despite some political strife following the Civil War, Reconstruction brought prosperity to Austin. The coming of the Houston & Texas Central Railroad in 1871 and the International-Great Northern five years later provided stimulus to the city's growth and commerce.
Austin's development received further impetus when, in 1883, the University of Texas at Austin held its first classes. In its early decades, the school was rich in real estate but poor in cash. The discovery of oil on university land in 1924 led to enormous wealth which, along with private donations and federal assistance, has made the University of Texas at Austin one of the best-endowed schools in the country.
Much of Austin's growth and development in the twentieth century was linked to the University of Texas at Austin. Its presence lent a cosmopolitan air to the city; visitors who expected to see cowboy boots and hats in abundance were usually disappointed because Austin was the least "Texan" of all the cities in the state. Besides making Austin a bastion of liberalism and tolerance, the university attracted much high-technology industry and fostered the city's image as the arts capital of Texas.
The recession of the early 2000s hit technology companies especially hard. As a result of its over-reliance on the high technology industry, Austin suffered an economic slump, losing jobs along with public and private revenues. The economy's road toward recovery coincided with the implementation of Opportunity Austin, an initiative launched in 2003 to rejuvenate the industries of existing companies and to diversify into such segments as automotive, biomedicine and pharmaceuticals, and corporate and regional headquarters.
Meanwhile, the resident of the Governor's Mansion moved from Austin into the White House. After a protracted recount effort centered on Florida ballots, George W. Bush resigned as Texas governor in December 2000 to accept his new post as the 43rd President of the United States. He was succeeded as governor by Rick Perry, Bush's lieutenant governor.
Historical Information: Austin History Center, 9th and Guadelupe, PO Box 2287, Austin, TX 78768-2287; telephone (512)974-7480