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By Michelle Ong

Settlers immigrating into Texas to settle on Stephen F. Austin's colony predominantly came from southern states and brought their slaves with them, assuming they could continue the practice of slaveholding in another country. Spain, and later Mexico, struggled with wanting to abolish slavery but repeatedly chose to only restrict the practice and introduction of new slaves to avoid causing social unrest in Texas and to appease settlers since they continued to encourage immigration into the sparsely-populated area.

On June 28, 1821 the Spanish government issued a colonization law with Article 28 prohibiting the introduction of slavery and declared all slaves brought into Spanish territory free. Legislative drafts passed on August 1822 again prohibited slave trafficking and freed the children of slaves that were over the age of 14.

Stephen F. Austin promoted the signing of a memorial declaring that slaves imported into Texas were not African but domestic servants raised from infancy and exempt from emancipation. On January 1824, Austin promulgated and alcaldes enforced new Civil and Criminal Regulations for the colony that included four Articles detailing fines and punishments concerning slaves.

In 1827, state legislators decided to abolish slavery but abandoned the idea when Austin called for compensation for slaveholders. The Coahuila and Texas Constitution of 1827 again prohibited the importation of slaves and freed any slaves born in Texas. Colonists avoided this clause by forming contracts with their slaves in which slaves declared that they were free but working to repay their debts. Slaveholders would collect a salary until they turned 18, but because their master would deduct the cost of room and board, they remained perpetually enslaved. On September 15, 1829, President Vicente Guerrero declared emancipation for slaves, although he later exempted Texas. The finally attempts by the Mexican government to curb slavery occurred on April 6, 1830, when President Anastacio Bustamante issued a decree strictly enforcing the further introduction of slaves that was subsequently followed by a Coahuila-Texas state law.

After Texas gained independence, the Texas Constitution specified conditions of slavery, effectively stating that all slaves would remain in servitude. It also prevented Congress from prohibiting the further importation or introduction of slaves into Texas.

The Constitution of 1845, after the United States annexed Texas, defined slaves as personal property. Slaves were not allowed to marry, form a family, bear arms, assemble or use the courts against an Anglo. Whippings were also stated as an acceptable punishment for slaves for minor crimes such as petty theft. For serious crimes, slaves would automatically receive the death penalty, although many were lynched for other reasons or no reason at all.

During the 1850s, Texas considered slavery essential to the economy. Law considered slaves property and masters would pay taxes on their slaves as they would for land. With slavery, cotton production exceeded the value of other goods. Even with the economic advantage of slavery, many believed that African Americans were inferior, with negative and unchangeable characteristics. They believed that slavery improved their lives from the backwardness of African society. Lynchings, in particular, were popular events. Some crowds traveled long-distances on special trains to view a lynching. In 1893, 10,000 people gathered just to see Henry Smithıs lynching.

In spite of the illegality of having a family, many plantation owners encouraged slaves to marry and have children, to increase available labor and production and gained a stronger hold over a slave by controlling his or her children.

Slaves reacted differently under slavery. Some lacked a reaction, while others sought comfort in Christianity. Many ran away to Mexico or back to the southern states they came from to search for their families. A few committed sabotage to purposefully slow down production.


In April 1861, Texas had almost 200,000 slaves at the beginning of the Civil War. Many slaveholders in the South sent their slaves to Texas to prevent federal troops from freeing them.

After the Civil War, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston. On June 19, 1865, he declared all laws of the Texas government since 1861 illegal and the liberation of slaves. The day of emancipation later became known as Juneteenth, although most slaves continued to stay on and work for wages under their former owners, with limited means to travel or preparedness to survive.


Calvert, Robert A., Arnoldo de León, and Gregg Cantrell. The History of Texas. 3rd ed. Wheeling: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 2002.

Campbell, Randolph B., A History of the Lone Star State. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Oliver, James and Lois E. Horton. Hard Road to Freedom: The Story of African America. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Campbell, Randolph B., An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821-1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

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