In the 1820s, the newly independent country of Mexico wanted to populate the state of Coahuila y Tejas with people loyal to the Mexican government. This was a deliberate attempt to overpower the Indigenous communities that already occupied the lands Mexico claimed. Few Mexican citizens were interested in moving to the state because it was too remote and dangerous. The government decided to encourage immigration to the territory instead.
The Mexican government granted a small group of men permission to start colonies in the Texas section of the state. They called these men empresarios, which is Spanish for “entrepreneur.” In return, the empresarios promised to recruit hundreds of families to live in their colonies and develop the land.
The majority of the empresarios were U.S. citizens. Most recruited U.S. citizens to join them in their new colonies. The settlers were supposed to swear loyalty to the Mexican government, join the Catholic Church, and learn Spanish. But the colonies were so far away from the Mexican capital that it was very difficult for the government to enforce these rules. The empresarios and their settlers ignored Mexican laws and customs, especially after the Mexican government abolished slavery in 1829. Their fierce independence would lead Texas to secede from Mexico in 1836.
Sarah Seely Dewitt was the wife of empresario Green Dewitt. The Mexican government granted Green a colony in 1825 and gave him six years to settle 400 families there. Sarah sold off her own lands in Missouri to support him. She and five of their children moved to the Dewitt Colony in 1826.
By 1831, it was clear that Green was not going to recruit enough settlers before the deadline on April 15. This meant that the Mexican government had the right to take back the lands they granted him. Sarah had been in Texas long enough to learn that under Mexican law women were allowed to hold property independent of their husbands. This tradition dated back to when Mexico was a Spanish colony. To save her family from financial ruin, Sarah applied to become a settler just one day before her husband’s contract expired. That way, she would own land if her husband lost everything.
Sarah was awarded 4,428 acres of land. However, the Mexican government did not force Green to give up the lands he already settled. As a result, the Dewitt family never lived on Sarah’s land. The government did take back all of Green’s unsettled land and refused to award him another empresario contract. Green and Sarah spent the rest of their lives as settlers in Texas. In fact, DeWitt County, Texas, still carries their family name.