Austin, Travis County, and Williamson County have been the site of human habitation since at least 9200 BC. The earliest known inhabitants of the area lived during the late Pleistocene (Ice Age) and are linked to the Clovis culture around 9200 BC (11,200 years ago), based on evidence found throughout the area and documented at the much-studied Gault Site, midway between Georgetown and Fort Hood.
When settlers first arrived from Europe, the area was inhabited by the Tonkawa tribe, and the Comanches and Lipan Apaches were known to travel through the area as well. Spanish colonists, including the Espinosa-Olivares-Aguirre expedition, traveled through the area for centuries, though few permanent settlements were created for some time. In 1730, three missions from East Texas were combined and reestablished as one mission on the south side of the Colorado River, in what is now Zilker Park, in Austin. The mission was in this area for only about seven months, and then was moved to San Antonio de Béxar and split into three missions. In the mid-18th century, the San Xavier missions were located along the Colorado River, in what is now western Milam County, to facilitate exploration.
Early in the 19th century, Spanish forts were established in what are now Bastrop and San Marcos. Following the independence of Mexico, new settlements were established in Central Texas, but growth in the region was stagnant because of conflicts with the regional Native Americans.
In 1835–1836, Texans fought and won independence from Mexico. Texas thus became its own independent country with its own president, congress, and monetary system. In 1839, the Texas Congress formed a commission to seek a site for a new capital to be named for Stephen F. Austin. Mirabeau B. Lamar, second president of the newly formed Republic of Texas, advised the commissioners to investigate the area named Waterloo, noting the area’s hills, waterways, and pleasant surroundings. Waterloo was selected and the name Austin was chosen as the town’s new name. The name Austin is considered to be derived from Augustine, a variant of Augustus. The location was seen as a convenient crossroads for trade routes between Santa Fe and Galveston Bay, as well as routes between northern Mexico and the Red River. Austin is also the site where the southern leg of the Chisholm Trail leads to the Colorado River.
An 1873 illustration of Edwin Waller’s layout for Austin
Edwin Waller was picked by Lamar to survey the village and draft a plan laying out the new capital. The original site was narrowed to 640 acres (259 ha) that fronted the Colorado River between two creeks, Shoal Creek and Waller Creek, which was later named in his honor. The 14-block grid plan was bisected by a broad north-south thoroughfare, Congress Avenue, running up from the river to Capital Square, where the new Texas State Capitol was to be constructed. A temporary one-story capitol was erected on the corner of Colorado and 8th Streets. On August 1, 1839, the first auction of 217 out of 306 lots total was held. The grid plan Waller designed and surveyed now forms the basis of downtown Austin.
In 1840, a series of conflicts between the Texas Rangers and the Comanches, known as the Council House Fight and the Battle of Plum Creek, finally pushed the Comanches westward, mostly ending conflicts in Central Texas. Settlement in the area began to expand quickly. Travis County was established in 1840, and the surrounding counties were mostly established within the next two decades.
Initially, the new capital thrived. But Lamar’s political enemy, Sam Houston, used two Mexican army incursions to San Antonio as an excuse to move the government. Sam Houston fought bitterly against Lamar’s decision to establish the capital in such a remote wilderness. The men and women who traveled mainly from Houston to conduct government business were intensely disappointed as well. By 1840 the population had risen to 856 of whom nearly half fled from Austin when Congress recessed. The resident Black population listed in January of this same year was 176. The fear of Austin’s proximity to the Indians and Mexico, which still considered Texas a part of their land, created an immense motive for Sam Houston, the first and third President of the Republic of Texas, to relocate the capital once again in 1841. Upon threats of Mexican troops in Texas, Houston raided the Land Office to transfer all official documents to Houston for safe keeping in what was later known as the Archive War, but the people of Austin would not allow this unaccompanied decision to be executed. The documents stayed, but the capital would temporarily move from Austin to Houston to Washington-on-the-Brazos. Without the governmental body, Austin’s population declined to a low of only a few hundred people throughout the early 1840s. The voting by the fourth President of the Republic, Anson Jones, and Congress, who reconvened in Austin in 1845, settled the issue to keep Austin the seat of government as well as annex the Republic of Texas into the United States.
In 1860, 38% of Travis County residents were slaves. In 1861, with the outbreak of the American Civil War, voters in Austin and other Central Texas communities voted against secession. However, as the war progressed and fears of attack by Union forces increased, Austin contributed hundreds of men to the Confederate forces. The African American population of Austin swelled dramatically after the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas by Union General Gordon Granger at Galveston in an event commemorated as Juneteenth. Black communities such as Wheatville, Pleasant Hill, and Clarksville were established with Clarksville being the oldest surviving freedomtown ‒ the original post-Civil War settlements founded by former African-American slaves ‒ west of the Mississippi River. In 1870, blacks made up 36.5% of Austin’s population. The postwar period saw dramatic population and economic growth. The opening of the Houston and Texas Central Railway (H&TC) in 1871, turned Austin into the major trading center for the region with the ability to transport both cotton and cattle. The Missouri, Kansas, and Texas (MKT) line followed close behind. Austin was also the terminus of the southernmost leg of the Chisholm Trail and “drovers” pushed cattle north to the railroad. Cotton was one of the few crops produced locally for export and a cotton gin engine was located downtown near the trains for “ginning” cotton of its seeds and turning the product into bales for shipment. As other new railroads were built through the region in 1870s, however, Austin began to lose its primacy in trade to the surrounding communities. In addition, the areas east of Austin took over cattle and cotton production from Austin, especially in towns like Hutto and Taylor that sit over the blackland prairie, with its deep, rich soils for producing cotton and hay.
In September 1881, Austin public schools held their first classes. The same year, Tillotson Collegiate and Normal Institute (now part of Huston-Tillotson University) opened its doors. The University of Texas at Austin held its first classes in 1883, although classes had been held in the original wooden state Capitol for four years before.
During the 1880s, Austin gained new prominence as the state capitol building was completed in 1888 and claimed as the seventh largest building in the world. In the late 19th century, Austin expanded its city limits to more than three times its former area, and the first granite dam was built on the Colorado River to power a new street car line and the new “moon towers.” Unfortunately the first dam washed away in a flood on April 7, 1900.
In the 1920s and 1930s Austin launched a series of civic development and beautification projects that created much of the city’s infrastructure and many of its parks. In addition, the state legislature established the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) that, along with the City of Austin, created the system of dams along the Colorado River to form the Highland Lakes. These projects were enabled in large part because the Public Works Administration provided Austin with greater funding for municipal construction projects than other Texas cities.
During the early twentieth century, a three-way system of social segregation emerged in Austin, with Anglos, African Americans, and Mexicans being separated by custom or law in most aspects of life, including housing, health care, and education. Many of the municipal improvement programs initiated during this period—such as the construction of new roads, schools and hospitals—were deliberately designed to institutionalize this system of segregation. Racial segregation actually increased in Austin during the first half of the twentieth century, with African Americans and Mexicans experiencing high levels of discrimination and social marginalization.
In 1940, the destroyed granite dam on the Colorado River was finally replaced by a hollow concrete dam that formed Lake McDonald (now called Lake Austin) and which has withstood all floods since. In addition, the much larger Mansfield Dam was built by the LCRA upstream of Austin to form the flood-control lake, Lake Travis. In the early 20th century, the Texas Oil Boom took hold, creating tremendous economic opportunities in Southeast Texas and North Texas. The growth generated by this boom largely passed by Austin at first, with the city slipping from fourth largest to 10th largest in Texas between 1880 and 1920.
After the mid-20th century, Austin became established as one of Texas’ major metropolitan centers. In 1970, the Census Bureau reported Austin’s population as 14.5% Hispanic, 11.9% black, and 73.4% non-Hispanic white. In the late 20th century, Austin emerged as an important high tech center for semiconductors and software. The University of Texas at Austin emerged as a major university.
The 1970s saw Austin’s emergence in the national music scene, with local artists such as Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel, and Stevie Ray Vaughan and iconic music venues such as the Armadillo World Headquarters. Over time, the long-running television program Austin City Limits, its namesake Austin City Limits Festival, and the South by Southwest music festival solidified the city’s place in the music industry.