Austin is the vibrant capital city of Texas with nearly two million people in its greater metropolitan area, with a bustling economy and a thriving music scene. Austinville in Virginia, well, it doesn’t have any of that. It’s a nondescript, unincorporated Appalachian village with only 2,500 residence in its entire zip code. Yet, as improbably as it sounds, there is a direct connection between the two.
The Former Fincastle County, Virginia on July 4, 1776
Newberry Library Atlas of Historical County Boundaries
Austinville seemed destined to be a place of great importance and influence although that happened in the years before it came to be named for the Austin family. It was known as Lead Mines for most of the latter Eighteenth Century for the obvious reason. When the British created Fincastle County within its Virginia colony in 1772, governor Lord Dunmore established Lead Mines as its county seat. Ponder the immensity of Fincastle County at the dawn of the American Revolution. It encompassed a good portion of modern southwestern Virginia, some of southern West Virginia, and the entirety of Kentucky. It didn’t last though. The Americans broke it up and mothballed the name by the end of 1776, maybe because it might have been named for Lord Dunmore’s son — Lord Fincastle — and Dunmore had already fled to New York for safety by that time.
Why would Lord Dunmore consider the Lead Mines District to be the most significant place in such a huge expanse of territory? Because of the mines. Lead was a malleable, versatile metal and an important commodity in the colonies and elsewhere.
Austinville, Virginia – Jackson Ferry Shot Tower 1 by JPreisler.com, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license
Settlers moved to Lead Mines during the late Colonial era, and industry followed. Shot Tower Historical State Park preserves what later became known as the Jackson Ferry Shot Tower. Workers poured molten lead through a sieve at the top of the tower. Lead droplets cooled into spheres as they fell through the air for 150 feet, the first 75 feet within the tower and then another 75 feet within a shaft descending below the tower. Shot landed into a water reservoir where it could be collected, nicely shaped by gravity for muskets.
This became a critical area during the American Revolution. The mines of southwestern Virginia and the nearby tower provided a large percentage of the lead shot from Continental Army muskets.
Austin Memorial Park in Austinville, Virginia
Lead Mines became Austinville sometime after Moses Austin and his brother bought the mines and moved to the area after the war in the 1790’s, as described in Related Families of Botetourt County, Virginia:
Moses and his wife, daughter of Benjamin Fuller, wealthy Philadelphia merchant, left their pleasant life and lovely home in Richmond to live in the tiny mining village on the south fork of the New River. Moses had knowledge and interest in lead mining, for he had worked in lead mining in Durham, Connecticut, before and during the Revolution.
Stephen F. Austin, the "Father of Texas" was born in Austinville, on November 3, 1793.
The Handbook of Texas, from the Texas State Historical Association picked up the story from there. Moses was a serial entrepreneur driven by the pursuit of lead. He’s been credited as the "founder of the American lead industry." That may not sound as impressive as Father of Texas although it’s still pretty remarkable. He moved the family from Austinville to Spanish Upper Louisiana after a few years — near modern Potosi, Missouri (and not far from Mine La Motte that I mentioned in Three Notches) — where lead had been discovered and where he’d recently acquired a mining grant from the Spanish government. He fell on hard times because of some bad investments and hatched a plan to create an American settlement in Spanish Texas as a way to restore his fortunes. Moses died of pneumonia in 1821 just a couple of months after receiving permission to form his settlement, and it was his dying wish to have Stephen carry onward to Texas.
Stephen of course did achieve his father’s wish and now we have Austin, the capital city of Texas. Left behind, Austinville has little more than and a patch of grass with three flags and a monument called Stephen F. Austin Memorial Park (Street View).