An empresario was a person who had been granted the right to settle on land in exchange for recruiting and taking responsibility for new settlers. The word is Spanish for entrepreneur.
In the late 18th century, Spain stopped allocating new lands in much of Spanish Texas, stunting the growth of the province. The policy was reversed in 1820, when Spanish law allowed colonists of any religion to settle in Texas. Only one man, Moses Austin, was granted an empresarial contract under Spanish law. But Moses Austin died before he could begin his colony, and Mexico achieved its independence from Spain in September 1821. At this time, about 3500 colonists lived in Texas, mostly congregated at San Antonio and La Bahia.
The Mexican government continued the immigration policies. Even as the government debated a new colonization law, Stephen F. Austin, son of Moses Austin, was given permission to take over his father's colonization contract. The first group of colonists, known as the Old Three Hundred, arrived in 1822 and settled along the Brazos River, ranging from the Gulf of Mexico to near present-day Dallas. Immigration was approved on a wider basis in 1824 when the General Colonization Law of 1824 was passed. This law enabled all heads of household who were citizens of or immigrants to Mexico to be eligible to claim land. After the law passed, the state government of Coahuila y Tejas was inundated with requests to allow foreign speculators to establish colonies within the state. There was no shortage of people willing to come to Texas. The United States was still struggling with the aftermath of the Panic of 1819, and soaring land prices within the United States made the Mexican land policy seem very generous.
Most successful empresarios recruited primarily in the United States. Only two of the groups who attempted to recruit in Europe built lasting colonies, Refugio and San Patricio. These colonies were successful in part because the empresarios spoke Spanish, were Catholic and generally familiar with Mexican ways, and allowed local Mexican families to join their colonies.
Unlike its predecessor, the Mexican law required immigrants to practice Catholicism and stressed that foreigners needed to learn Spanish. Settlers were supposed to own property or have a craft or useful profession, and all people wishing to live in Texas were expected to report to the nearest Mexican authority for permission to settle. The rules were widely disregarded and many families became squatters.
Under the new laws, people who did not already possess property in Texas could claim one square league (4438 acres) of irrigable land, with an additional league available to those who owned cattle. Empresarios and individuals with large families were exempt from the limit.
After the Republic of Texas won its independence from Mexico, the young nation continued its own version of the empresario program, offering grants to French diplomat Henri Castro and abolitionist Charles Fenton Mercer, among others.