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Austin History

Interested in learning Austin's history? The city has come a long way since Waterloo—the Texas version, that is. Its beginning as the state’s tiny capital in 1839 has since evolved into the city’s status as a powerful center of government, politics, big business and higher education.

Austin is located in south-central Texas, where the Colorado River crosses the Balcones Escarpment, which separates the Texas Hill Country from the blackland prairies to the east and is largely responsible for creating the stunning limestone cliff formations throughout the city that define the city’s anything-but-Texas terrain. Given the scenery, it’s no wonder that Austin and surrounding terrain has been dubbed the “Hill Country.” Add the Colorado River flowing through the heart of the city, creating a series of lakes via dams that stretch for more than 100 miles, and it’s easy to see why Austin’s an outdoor kind of town.

Originally settled by Indians, the city’s first village was named Waterloo—and it’s the one that was chosen to become the capital of the new Republic of Texas, and later named after Stephen F. Austin, “the father of Texas.” The plan was that the state’s Capitol building would look down from a hill onto the rest of the city. Texas was annexed in 1845, and the State Capitol was built in 1888—exactly according to plan, with sweeping views of the city. Austin’s status at the state capital and the founding of the University of Texas in 1883 turned government and education into major economic engines for the city, and that’s still the case today.

When Austin’s first railroad connection opened in 1871, the city got a big economic boost as a trading hub because of its location in the middle of the state. Later, Austin’s early high-tech seeds were planted in the 1950s with the founding of several research labs and think tanks that drew innovators and inventors to the Capital City. Tech companies followed, including Tracor, IBM and Texas Instruments, and proved fertile ground for later companies, including Dell Inc.

Austin now includes Travis, Williamson and Hays counties, and is the fourth-largest city in Texas. Altogether, the greater Austin area encompasses 271.8 square miles. Approximately 1.4 million people live in the greater metropolitan area, with around 786,000 in Austin itself.