Vol. VI, No. 1, Summer 1992 / No. 2, Fall 1992


Minerals

Moses Austin and the Development of the Missouri Lead Industry

by David B. Gracy II



When he wrote this article David B. Gracy II was the Director of the Texas State Archives. He now teaches archival enterprises at the University of Texas.

Many of the visitors to the lead mines of Spanish Upper Louisiana in the late 18th and early 19th centuries wished they had never come. One such wayfarer wrote that the traveler west of Ste. Genevieve "is so impressed with the almost unvaried barrenness of the country, that by the time he reaches...[the mines] he is ready to exclaim against it, and without stopping to inquire into its particular advantages, fides back with the most unfavourable impressions."

These were not the words of Moses Austin. Had they been, the history of Missouri and of the lead industry of the United States would have been far different.

Arriving in the Louisiana Territory in early 1797, Moses Austin, the 34-year-old Connecticut-bom co-owner of the principal lead mines of the young United States, was not to be deterred from an inspection of the mines simply because the last leg of the trip took him through barren country. To get this far, he had journeyed nearly a thousand miles from Virginia in defiance of winter and had nearly died of starvation and exposure during a week spent wandering between Vincennes and St. Louis in an unknown country buried under three feet of snow.

Taking his first look at the place known as Mine a Breton, forty miles west of Ste. Genevieve in modern Washington County, Missouri, on January 23, 1797, Moses expressed his excitement in his journal.

"Nature has undoubtedly intended this Country to be not onely [sic] the most agreeable and pleaseing [sic] in the World, but the Richest also," he scrawled:

A Country thus Rich by Nature cannot be otherwise than Wealthey [sic] with a moderate shere [sic] of lndustry...Between the Mine Fork and Grand River is the Lead Mines Known by the Name of the Mines of Briton [sic] which without Doubt are Richer than any in the Known World..J found the Mines, equal to my Expectation in Every respect.

Three days later, Austin petitioned the Spanish government, which then owned Louisiana, for a grant of four leagues of land on which "to establish, on a large scale, the manufacture of lead in all of its branches, such as in sheets, in shot, in mils, white lead and black lead." To carry out these grand plans, Austin intended to bring miners, farmers and tradesmen to establish a community that would be practically self-sufficient. Moreover, the miners in his employ, as he truthfully told the Spanish government in his petition for the grant, were the most expert in the United States, skilled in the latest techniques of mining and manufacturing lead. His brother had recruited them from England two years earlier. The extraordinary cost of their hire, coupled with a drastic drop in the price of lead, accounted for the economic straits of the Austin mining operation in Virginia, which in mm inspired the capitalist to look for other fields. Many of those who worked for him, Austin added in the petition, would in time leave his employ and establish their own lead operations. This could only benefit Spain, since more mines would increase the nation's lead supply.

In September 1797 Austin received word from the Spanish government of Louisiana that he had been granted 7,153 arpents---one league---at Mine a Breton, and permission to bring 30 families to Upper Louisiana. The concession was based on the condition, as he himself had suggested, that he inaugurate operations at the mines within a year. Austin lost little time. In December, he dispatched two trusted assistants--Judather Kendall and nephew Elias Bates--to take possession of the land and lay the groundwork for the mining operation that was to come.

At first following Austin's written instructions, then working under his personal direction, the crew laid the foundation for more than just a mining operation. They inaugurated a new era in the history of the American lead industry--an era known as the Austin Period. Writes Walter Renton Ingalls, the historian of the lead industry:

The second epoch [in the history of this industry] may be dated from 1799 when Moses Austin began operations in Missouri. He introduced bolder methods of mining and improved methods of smelting, which were of considerable importance in his day and taught the miners of Missouri how to operate.

Austin's "bolder" method of mining boiled down to spending more time digging out the lead and less time simply digging. Common mining practice prior to his coming consisted of digging a hole to the depth a man could throw the dirt out--say eight to twelve feet. After extracting all the lead found in that excavation, the miner pulled himself out, moved to the next likely spot and started digging another hole. "The mineral is found within two feet of the surface of the earth," Austin wrote in a report which President Thomas Jefferson submitted to Congress with his State of the Union message in 1804, and it is seldom the miners dig deeper than ten feet, not that the mineral discontinues, but because they find it troublesome to raise out of the ground .... The manner in which the mines have been wrought renders it impossible to determine whether the mineral terminates in regular veins or not; for when the miner finds himself ten or twelve feet below the surface, his inexperience obliges him to quit digging and begin anew, notwithstanding the appearance of mineral may be good. Thus one half his time is taken up in sinking new holes or pits.

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Judging from the present-day landscape, the 160 acres most intensively worked at Mine a Breton must have resembled a town of oversized prairie dogs.

Austin's mining innovation was to sink holes to far greater depth, up to seventy and eighty feet, and then to drift---that is, following veins by digging horizontally. In this manner he increased the percentage of time his miners dug ore. Some historians have scoffed at the value of his innovations, pointing out that few, if any, entrepreneurs soon adopted his methods. The ore was too plentiful at shallow depths to stimulate their interest in his more efficient methods until after the Civil War. Then new techniques of mining and vastly improved equipment made possible work which Austin could scarcely imagine.

To the Spanish government Austin fulfilled his promise to greatly increase lead production. During the years 1798-1804, Mine a Breton produced as much lead as all the other mines of Upper Louisiana combined. While Austin directed the Mine a Breton operation, between 1798 and 1817, his men raised and smelted at least 8,960,000 pounds of lead, an average of 1,382 pounds a day, 365 days per year. To put these figures into perspective, Austin accounted for almost a quarter of all lead produced in Upper Louisiana and Missouri during the period 1800-1820.

Mining was backbreaking labor. To end up with 1,382 pounds of lead, the miners had to raise at least 2,000 pounds of ore----that is, if they took the ore to Austin to smelt in his reverberatory furnace. If, instead, they smelted the mineral themselves in the simple log hearths used by the French prior to the Virginian's arrival, they had to put at least 4,000 pounds of ore on the fire. Records show that Austin's furnace was so efficient that he could take slag left from a smelt in a log hearth, roast it, and obtain as much mineral as was reduced in the original fu'ing. Within three years after Austin kindled his first fire, nineteen of the twenty French furnaces, as he called the log hearths, were banked and abandoned. "Since my works have been established," Austin wrote in 1804, "the miners have found it more advantageous to sell their mineral [to me] than to smelt it themselves." The earliest receipt yet found for ore brought to him for reduction is dated in June 1799, before he had completed all the basic structures in the settlement he established at Mine a Breton.

In principle, Austin's furnace was simply an oven. The ore was reduced with hot air. The furnace was constructed specifically to keep the molten lead out of the fire, its ashes and charred remains. The reverberatory furnace was designed to create a draft that both intensified the heat of the fac and then passed it over the ore to melt the lead. The liquid lead then ran off into a basin adjacent to the fire pit, where it could be tapped.

The furnace, made of limestone available in the Mine a Breton area, lasted two weeks to a month before a new one had to be constructed at a minimum cost of $100. The expense of other necessary outbuildings and warehouses could drive the total for installation and maintenance to a thousand dollars. Few mine operators were willing to join Austin in sustaining so great an investment. In 1805, his was one of only two reverberatory furnaces operating in the region of Mine a Breton.

The improved techniques of mining and methods of smelting, as Austin knew but which historian Ingalls overlooked, could not by themselves account for Austin's achievement. One other factor, which he mentioned in his petition of January 26, 1797, was critical: the planting of a permanent settlement so that the mines could be worked year around. Prior to Austin's coming, mining was done by inhabitants of Ste. Genevieve and fear of the Osage Indians prevented a longer working period. Austin, however, brought miners, farmers, and other workmen, as well as his own family, and from the start meant to establish a permanent community.

Austin's colony did found the first year-round settlement in modem Missouri that was located away from the banks of the Mississippi River. Present-day Potosi, Missouri, traces its origin to April 5, 1798, when Kendall and Bates arrived at Mine a Breton, took control in Austin's name and began work. The men superintended the raising of a sawmill to produce beams and planks for buildings and mine shaft supports. They built a grist mill to grind flour from the wheat grown by Austin's farmers. Some houses they bought from the French owners; others they erected. Austin's sketch map dictated the site of the furnace. Kendall and Bates chose the locations of the tool sheds, shot factory, and blacksmith shop. Not the least important of the new buildings was Durham Hall, Austin's own home, into which he moved his wife and two young children in July 1799.

From this house Austin shared with his people their isolated, sometimes precarious, existence. More .than once Indians attacked. The climax came on May 12, 1802, when a band of Osage appeared out of the forest. Bent on plundering Austin' s house and the store he kept, and on killing "the Bostonians," as the Indians called them, the Osage outnumbered the whites three to one. What saved the miners was a three-pounder cannon Austin had obtained for just such an emergency.

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Transportation, no less than taming the wilderness, was essential to full development of the mining industry. Considering the weight of lead, the distance the mines were from navigable water (the Mississippi River), and the forty miles of tortuous, broken terrain between Mine a Breton and Ste. Genevieve, Austin's men moved amazing quantities of lead. Naturally, Austin sought to shorten the route from mine to river.

With this thought in mind he and his partner, Samuel Hammond, purchased in 1806 approximately 330 acres on either side of the mouth of Joachim Creek, where it entered the Mississippi, to build Herculaneum. After the town was opened in 1808, teamsters with wagons groaning under their heavy cargo could shave four miles from their joumey to a Mississippi River landing by going to Herculaneum instead of Ste. Genevieve. Herculaneum shortly became the principal destination of mineral from the interior.

Potosi-Old Mines district of Washington County, Missouri. Note the many Spanish grants of land identified by their irregular shapes and orientation, and their designations, such as "SUR [survey] 430." The Louisiana Purchase Treaty of 1803 required that they be honored and retained.
Modem Highway Department map.

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The sheer cliffs flanking Herculaneum offered excellent sites for shot towers. From these platforms molten lead was dropped 150 feet into tubs of water to form musket balls and pellets. John Maclot erected the first tower in 1809. Austin opened another in 1810, and others followed. With these installations Herculaneum became a manufacturing point as well as a warehouse and shipping center.

The year he opened the Herculaneum shot tower, Austin reckoned the value of his Missouri mines and town properties at a tidy $160,000. His total worth, including his inventory of lead, must have exceeded that. Austin, nearly fifty years old, was comfortable beyond most men's dreams.

The opening of Texas to Anglo-Americans would have belonged to someone else had not the United States Congress voted on June 18, 1812, to declare war on Great Britain. On the face of it, war should have been good for Moses Austin's lead business. After all, lead was the metal for shot. "I have no doubt but you will make money fast while the war lasts," Mafia Austin in Philadelphia wrote her husband quoting prices and urging him to supply the begging markets of the East.

As it turned out, though, British control of the sea prevented long-distance water transport, the only feasible method of moving lead. Austin's sales stopped. The little money that circulated in Missouri before the war quickly disappeared. Credit evaporated. By December 1812, Austin complained: "I do not think any person about the Mines has collected as much as to pay the expences [sic] of a Ride after the Debtors, that has been the case with me."

In the summer of 1813, Austin joined a group of prominent Missouri merchants in petitioning the Territorial Legislature for authority to organize the Bank of St. Louis, the first bank within the Territory, and indeed, the first one west of the Mississippi River. Though the need for a bank antedated the war, the economic disruptions resulting from the conflict greatly aggravated the situation. The bank, with Austin as a director, got off to a shaky start, then prospered after the war.

In November 1814, as the war ground to its end, the price of lead rose dramatically. A starved Austin became euphoric. "In consiquence [sic] I have sent forward proper Securety [sic] for the [approximately 50] Negroes. If Ever there was a lime that would Justify a high Price for negroes [to work the mines and smelters] it's at this moment. Lead must be up. The demand is great and 750 is given." Austin bought some blacks and leased others to meet the growing demand for lead. All might have been well, but the lead market fell back to more normal levels and the bank failed. Austin lost heavily. In 1817, he turned Durham Hall and the lead mining operation over to his son, Stephen F. Austin, and moved to Herculaneum to live and mind a store. Young Austin struggled manfully, but could not mm lead into gold. Speculating in Arkansas land did not return dollars any faster. Consequently, throughout the long summer of 1819, Moses Austin wrote his friend, scientist Henry R. Schoolcraft, beseeching him somehow to affect a sale of Mine a Breton. But it was not to be. In March 1820, the 58-year-old Austin declared bankruptcy, and his property was sold at public auction. A year later he died. Thus closed the Austin Period--the second epoch in the history of the American lead industry.

An era was concluded, but not the influence of a prophecy. In his application for Mine a Breton, Austin had told the Spanish that the miners who learned the business under him would prove an asset through the knowledge they gained and, in time, applied elsewhere in mines of their own. Through the Louisiana Purchase, the United States inherited this legacy. In his report of 1804 to the President and Congress, Austin prophesied that "the time cannot be far distant, when this country will furnish lead sufficient, not only for the consumption of the United States, but all Europe." Both the legacy and the prophecy were realized. Practically borrowing Austin's words, lead industry historian Ingalls wrote a century later:

The third epoch [in the history of the lead industry] begins with 1821 when attention was attracted to the Wisconsin leadmines...[Austin's] influence extended to the Wisconsin lead region, which was developed largely by miners from Missouri .... In the course of a few years these [mines] were actively developed, and in connection with the increasing production of Missouri the time came when the United States turned out more lead than it could consume and large exports were made.

In the perspective of his own career, Moses Austin in 1821 could have re-read the journal describing his first view of the lead mines of Missouri and reaffirmed that he "found the mines equal to my Expectation in Every respect." More importantly, in the broader view of history, he proved equal to the challenge their richness presented, frost by developing the mines through introduction of improved methods, year around operation, and cheaper transportation, and second by laying a foundation for the future to build upon.

This essay first appeared in Gateway Heritage, Spring, 1981, and is reprinted here with permission.
Editor's Note:
Moses Austin is buried in Potosi, the site of his death. The state of Texas made overtures to remove the body for reburial in that state which he helped pioneer; but to no avail. Stephen F. Austin, son of Moses, who was a Texas Founding Father, grew up in Potosi.

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