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Green DeWitt (CEC)

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Green DeWitt (1787–1835), empresario of DeWitt’s colony, was born on February 12, 1787, in Lincoln County, Kentucky. While he was still an infant, his father moved the family to the Spanish-held territory of Missouri. Although little is known of his father’s activities there, the family was prominent enough to educate Green beyond the normal rudimentary level, and when the boy turned eighteen he returned to Kentucky for two years to complete his education. He then returned to Missouri, where he married Sarah Seely of St. Louis in 1808. DeWitt enlisted in the Missouri state militia in the War of 1812 and achieved the rank of captain by the war’s end. He then served for a time as sheriff of Ralls County. In 1821 he was inspired by Moses Austin’s widely circulated success in obtaining a grant from the Spanish government to establish a colony in Texas. As early as 1822 he petitioned the Mexican authorities for his own empresario contract, but was unsuccessful. Having seen Texas and visited with Stephen F. Austin, DeWitt journeyed in March 1825 to Saltillo, the capital of the Mexican state of Coahuila and Texas, where he petitioned the state government for a land grant. Aided by Austin and the Baron de Bastrop, he was awarded an empresario grant on April 15, 1825, to settle 400 Anglo-Americans on the Guadalupe River and was authorized to establish a colony adjacent to Austin’s subject to the Colonization Law of 1824.

Sara Seely DeWitt contributed to her husband’s venture with the profits from the sale of her property in Missouri. By October 1825 Green DeWitt was inspecting the work already done in his colony by his surveyor, James Kerr. After a few weeks he returned to Missouri to promote the colony. By April 1826 he was bringing to Texas his wife, two sons, three of four daughters, and three other families. The group joined those already in the colony, who eventually settled at Gonzales. For almost the next decade DeWitt worked with Byrd Lockhart, José Antonio Navarro, Charles Lockhart, Kerr, and others to develop the colony. As his contemporary, Noah Smithwick, later said of the empresario, he “was as enthusiastic in praise of the country as the most energetic real estate dealer of boom towns nowadays.” Because the Mexican government had not specified a boundary between DeWitt’s grant and the earlier grant made to Martín De León further south on the Guadalupe River, the two empresarios had numerous disputes involving boundaries and contraband trade, resulting in irreparable damage to their relationship.

DeWitt apparently did not have the degree of personal influence over his settlement that Austin exercised at San Felipe. Despite his apparent success in establishing the colony, he was unable to fulfill his contract by the time it expired on April 15, 1831, and he failed to get it renewed. He spent his last years engaging in some limited commercial investments and improving his own land on the right bank of the Guadalupe River across from the Gonzales townsite. For the most part, however, his colony proved neither materially nor financially rewarding for him. He had apparently invested all his family’s resources in his struggling colony, and as early as 1828 its problems compelled one visitor, though impressed with the empresario, to note that “dissipation [and] neglectful indolence have destroyed his energies.” Indeed, DeWitt endorsed his wife’s petition in December 1830 to the ayuntamiento of San Felipe de Austin asking for a special grant of a league of land in her maiden name “to protect herself and family from poverty to which they are exposed by the misfortunes of her husband.” The Mexican government complied in April 1831. DeWitt colonists in general suffered similarly. Smithwick related that “money was as scarce as bread,” and pelts were used as barter. DeWitt did issue, however, what was essentially land scrip in denominations of five, ten, and twenty dollars, for his colonists to buy their lands; the handwritten currency was transferable and generally passed as a medium of exchange. Green DeWitt money is one of the earliest examples of Texas paper currency.

In an attempt to improve his economic position and to secure premium land for settling eighty families, DeWitt journeyed in 1835 to Monclova, where he hoped to buy unlocated eleven-league grants from the governor, who was attempting to raise money for defense through land sales. But he failed to acquire any land. While in Monclova DeWitt contracted a fatal illness, probably cholera. He died on May 18, 1835, and was buried there in an unmarked grave.

Handbook of Texas Online, Edward A. Lukes, “Dewitt, Green,” accessed June 14, 2016, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fde55.
Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on May 6, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.