The Founding of Houston
The Allen brothers and Honest Bob
What follows is a history of the first known permanent settlement of Houston. Karankawa and other native people inhabited the Houston region, but there is no evidence that any of these peoples created a permanent settlement within the original municipal limits of Houston. To my knowledge, there is no evidence left at the Houston town site by native peoples. It is easy to imagine that they camped here, and many natives traded in Houston.
Two brothers from upstate New York founded the City of Houston. AC Allen and JK Allen both moved to New York City and ran an import-export business on Prince Street and speculated on Texas land scrip before visiting Mexican Texas for the first time. The Allen brothers contributed financially to Texas independence, commissioning the warship, Brutus. After Texas claimed independence from the Republic of Mexico, the Allen brothers explored opportunities for real estate development. In June 1836, they invested in the Galveston Town Company. While they did not divest their shares in the company, the company’s title to the land was uncertain, so they sought new development opportunities. Second, they attempted to acquire the land now known as Morgan’s Point. The owner turned them down. Third, they approached Jane Birdsall Harris, the widow of John Richardson Harris, whom they presumed owned the Harrisburg site. Mrs Harris also possessed an uncertain claim to the land, prompting the Allen brothers to continue their search.
On 24 August 1836, the Allen brothers purchased a league of land from the brother of John L Austin. John L Austin died of cholera a few years previous. His brother inherited one league of land and his wife inherited the other league. The Allen brothers paid $4,428 for the western league from the John L Austin Survey, which straddled Buffalo Bayou. Next, they made a partnership with Robert “Honest Bob” Wilson. JK, the younger brother, was a member of the Texas House and Representatives. Wilson was a Texas Senator. This partnership, sometimes known as the Houston Town Company, bought the southern half of the eastern league from the Austin Survey for $5,000. According to the deed, Wilson tendered $1,000 in cash to Dr TFL and Elizabeth Parrott (Austin’s widow already remarried), with the balance secured by promissory notes.
Although the Allen brothers made two land purchases in late-August 1836, it was the half of the eastern league that they coveted. A southeastern part of this tract was the eventual Houston site. The Houston Town Company wasted no time in promoting their paper town. As soon as they were able to reach the temporary capital of Columbia, Texas, the developers placed a now-famous advertisement for the Town of Houston.
Representative Allen and Senator Wilson lobbied their collegues to choose Houston as the next temporary capitol. Meanwhile, a surviving Sales Book of Lots recorded Houston lots as gifts or selling at low prices to important Texans. Before the Texas Congress voted on a new capitol location, the Houston Town Company commissioned the first survey of Houston. They hired Gail and Thomas Borden, who were already experienced surveyors in Texas. Gail Borden and Moses Lapham rode from Columbia to the not-yet Houston site in October 1836. They executed the field work absent a complete complement of surveying equipment. They returned to Columbia with the first map of Houston in November. This map no longer exists, but a later map alludes to it.
In December, the Texas Congress convened a joint special schedule in Columbia for the purpose of selecting the next temporary capitol of Texas. Congress considered ten candidates on the first ballot. The three contenders were Houston (11 votes), Matagorda (8), and Washington (7). Although Houston garnered the most votes, there was no majority. Washington gained additional support on the second ballot (13) after four towns dropped out. But Houston also gained the most votes on the second ballot (17). Houston only picked up one additional vote on the third ballot, but secured its majority on the fourth ballot with 21 votes. Congress voted for Houston as temporary capitol and President Sam Houston signed the bill.
Within a few weeks of the designation of Houston as the capitol of the Republic of Texas, the Houston Town Company sold the first lot to Benjamin Brown. This was Lot 3, Block 19, located on Congress Avenue between Travis and Milam. But this lot was sold based on a flawed survey. Gail Borden endorsed a new survey on 18 January 1837. After the release of the new map, the Houston Town Company accelerated its lot sales. The original town plan included 62 blocks. The standard block configuration was 250 feet square, divided into twelve lots. Ten of these lots were 50 feet wide and 100 feet deep, with two key lots, each with a dimension of 50 feet wide and 125 feet deep. Some blocks were smaller and configured differently in order to conform to the bank of Buffalo Bayou. The street network was a perfectly rational grid of streets, with Main Street running roughly northeast-southwest, and its northern terminus meeting perpendicular to Buffalo Bayou and reserved as a steamboat landing and staging area. Main Street aligned with the mouth of White Oak Bayou. This allowed steamboats to push astern and back into White Oak Bayou. The pilot used the tributary to execute the second part of a three point turn, then turned the bow to the left, pointing the steamboat toward Buffalo Bayou and powering forward to go downstream.
Richard Francis Lubbock was an early arrival to the new town of Houston. He published his memoir six decades later. According to this account, the first hotel in Houston, the Ben Fort Smith Hotel, was under construction when Lubbock first landed. While the exact footprint of this hotel is unknown, part of the property was located on the northeast corner of Franklin Avenue and Travis Street, and is currently the location of the Bayou Loft apartments, which is itself a renovation of the Southern Pacific office building.
Within weeks, another hotel went up just two blocks away at the northeast corner of Congress Avenue and Milam Street. Pamelia Mann, an experienced Texas innkeeper, opened Mansion House, whe she entertained many Texas officials, including President Houston. Mansion House faced the present-day Market Square.
The Allen brothers invested in the towns of Galveston and Houston, and they diversified their interest in another way. They bought town lots from the Houston Town Company on their own behalf. In the case of several lots, the Allen brothers invested on behalf of a partnership with Moseley Baker. The Baker partnership owned the land which the Allen brothers chose as the site for the Texas Capitol. AC Allen managed the development of the Capitol property. He contracted with Thomas William Ward to build the new government building. Ward imported building supplies from the United States, but was late in getting the project started. When the Texas Congress met in the first week of May, carpenters were overhead pounding nails while installing the roof decking. The roofers did not beat one rainstorm, which soaked the congressmen while they were in session.