Mary Austin Holley landed at Galveston on Feb. 6, 1843 on her fifth and final visit to her dead cousin’s former colony.
When Stephen F. Austin was 11 years old, his father Moses sent him back east to stay with relatives the boy barely knew. From 1804 until 1807, the future “Father of Texas” studied at an academy in New Haven, Connecticut and got acquainted with his kinfolks.
One of many cousins was Mary Austin Holley, daughter of Moses’ brother. At that point in their lives, Stephen and Mary had little in common. She was five or nine years older — historians disagree on her birthday — and already married to a man of the cloth who would be her husband for the next two decades.
When the time came for higher education, Stephen passed up prestigious Yale for Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. Mary must have thought her cousin a fool for turning his back on the hometown college she would have given her eyeteeth to attend. She had the brains but the wrong gender for Yale, which did not admit women until 1969.
After nine happy years in Boston, Mary’s husband was elected president of cousin Stephen’s alma mater. She reluctantly moved to Kentucky, but religious differences with the trustees of the university ultimately culminated in Horace’s resignation.
On a ship voyage from New Orleans to New York in 1827, husband and wife both came down with yellow fever. Mary survived the scourge, but Horace succumbed and his body was dumped overboard, a common practice called burial at sea.
A middle-aged widow with a young son to support, Mary went back to Louisiana to look for work. She found it as a governess on a plantation not far from New Orleans.
For several years, Mary had closely followed the progress of Stephen F. Austin as he seemed almost singlehandedly to open Mexican Texas to Anglo-American settlement. A prolific letter-writer, she corresponded regularly with her cousin and her brother Henry, also a resident of Texas, both of whom urged her to see the “promised land” for herself.
In October 1831, Mary did just that sailing from New Orleans to the mouth of the Brazos River and then upstream to Brazoria. A second ship brought Henry’s wife and six children, ranging in age from four to 16, ten days later. It was a tight fit in the log cabin, but Mary did not mind so long as the person she most wanted to see did not disappoint her.
Stephen kept his promise even though he had to crawl out of a sickbed and ride 60 miles on horseback through a blue norther. The rare family reunion was reason enough, but Mary’s desire to write a book about Texas made the difficult trip mandatory.
The normally close-mouthed empressario found it surprisingly easy to talk to his cousin. Long into the night, Stephen poured out his heart to Mary telling her things no one else had ever heard before nor ever would again.
The accomplished author turned their rambling conversations into coherent prose. In ten days she had the manuscript for “Texas: Observations, Historical, Geographical, and Descriptive, in a Series of Letters Written during a Visit to Austin’s Colony, with a View to a Permanent Settlement in That Country in the Autumn of 1831.”
The title was a mouthful, but the book, published in 1833, was just what Austin needed. Mary’s glowing description of his frontier paradise was directly responsible for the immigration of hundreds if not thousands of Americans and Europeans to Texas.
But, according to Mary’s biographers, something else also happened at Henry Austin’s place in 1831. Two lonely people overcame the daunting difference in their ages and the uncomfortably close proximity of their branches on the same family tree and fell in love. “They determined,” claimed one chronicler, “that they would marry when Austin had settled affairs between his Texas colony and Mexico.”
But that was not what fate had in store for the alleged lovebirds.
A family crisis delayed Mary’s return trip for three and a half years. Following the sudden death of her sister-in-law, brother Henry begged her to take three of his children. She could not say no and generously made a home for them in Lexington.
The star-crossed cousins met for the last time on Mar. 12, 1836, six days after the fall of the Alamo. Stephen stopped for two days in Lexington on his five-month canvass of the United States for money and volunteers for the Texas Revolution.
When not drumming up support for the heroic struggle, Mary put the finishing touches on “Texas,” the first English-language history of the soon-to-be sovereign land. Published in November 1836, it sold like hot cakes.
Stephen never got a chance to read the best-seller. Exhausted by his travels and a lingering bout with malaria, he caught pneumonia and died on Dec. 27, 1836. Her romantic biographer observed sadly, “Once again Mary lost the man she loved.”
Mary Austin Holley visited Texas on three more occasions but never made the Lone Star Republic her permanent home. She was living in New Orleans and working on a biography of cousin Stephen, when yellow fever, the scourge she had once escaped, cut short her life in August 1846.