Three distinct Austin characteristics—government, education, and art—can be directly traced to the city founder’s personality and his activities. Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, a descendant of Georgia Huguenots, came to Texas in 1835 to study history. He soon became immersed in the Texas Revolution, assuming a significant role at the Battle of San Jacinto as an expert cavalryman. Elected vice president of the fledgling Texas Republic in September of 1836, he soon came to despise President Sam Houston.
While still vice president and on a buffalo hunt, he rode up the Colorado River to where it tumbled from the Hill Country. He was impressed that the beautiful area with its tiny settlement sometimes called Waterloo would make a fine “seat of future empire.”
By law, Houston couldn’t succeed himself. With little opposition, Lamar handily won election in 1838 as Texas’ second chief executive. Pushing one of his many far-seeing policies, he garnered support to build a new capital city at that remote yet attractive outpost. He named it in honor of Stephen F. Austin, who had been the most successful colonizer of Texas while it was still a state in Mexico. On October 17, 1839, Lamar headed the first-ever parade up Old Pecan Street to a huge party on Congress Avenue. No fewer than 39 toasts were raised to the fledgling city, a celebration that continues to this day.
Credited with initiating the Texas public school system while president, Lamar aimed to establish a college in the new capital. He urged that public lands be set aside to finance the building of schools. In a fitting tribute, this education booster’s words became The University of Texas motto: “the cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy.”
Called a visionary by his supporters but a dreamer by his critics, he wanted to extend the Texas Republic west to the Pacific. Towards that end, he financed a military expedition to Santa Fe that ended in disaster. After 1848, Lamar began writing sketches for a proposed history of Texas. He started but never finished a biography of Stephen F. Austin.
Lamar’s other political service included organizing the Laredo, Texas, municipal government, representing Nueces and San Patricio Counties in the Second Texas Legislature, and being U.S. minister to Nicaragua and Costa Rica. After many more travels and government work, he died in 1859. Recalling his public life, historian Homer Thrall named Lamar the “wisest statesman and purest patriot of the age.”
Austin honors its founder with a statue outside the State Library building and a portrait inside the Senate Chamber. But the larger monument is the road that bears his name. One of Austin’s four famous streets and the longest, Lamar Boulevard is a great way to orient yourself. Lamar was no musician, but the city’s musical reputation connects to his name nonetheless. On North Lamar Boulevard stands Kenneth Threadgill’s gas station cum beer bar, where Austin’s 20th century live music tradition began in the mid-1930s.
Perhaps portending his city’s alternative lifestyles, Lamar dressed oddly: pleated pants, big and baggy, which he designed for more leg freedom while riding. Throughout his life, Lamar was an oil painter and romantic poet. He wrote this to his business partner’s six-year-old daughter:
Gay Spring, with her beautiful flowers,
Is robing the valleys and hills;
Sweet music is heard in the bowers,
And laughter is sent from the rills.
Oh, let me, while kindled by these,
The feelings of childhood recall,
And frame a soft sonnet to please
The fair little Florence Duval.
A Texas county, university, and many public schools are named in honor of Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar.