HISTORY OF STEAMBOATS IN TEXAS
In the days of the Republic, Texas depended heavily on its network of rivers and streams to move cotton, logs, livestock, brick, and a wide variety of goods and supplies to and from the frontier towns, textile mills and other markets.
Because of limited overland transportation in Texas before the coming of the railroads, there was tremendous interest in river boat transportation. For the most part, a steamboat "landing" was simply a spot near a plantation or small town where a steamboat could lay a stage plank to the shore.
THE ARIEL WAS THE FIRST STEAMBOAT IN TEXAS (1829/1830)
In 1821, Stephen F. Austin planned to bring in the steamboat Lively to operate on the Colorado, but Henry Austin's tiny boat, the Ariel came through as the first steamboat on a Texas river. Following a few months' unsuccessful operation on the Rio Grande, the Ariel was moved to the Brazos in August 1830, and in December 1830, after several attempts to make New Orleans, the Ariel was retired near Harrisburg.
THE CAYUGA BEGINS WORKING THE BRAZOS IN 1834
In 1834, encouraged by a signup list of area planters, Robert Wilson and William P. Harris put the Steamboat Cayuga in service on the Brazos.
Looking at the muddy Brazos today, it is difficult to imagine it as a navigable stream. Shallow, for most of the year, twisting, muddy and filled with snags and sandbars. But if you look at the condition of the land transportation at the time, the prairie roads to Houston were little more than ruts that marked the way and, when the ruts became too deep to manage, wagon drivers simply moved over to firmer ground. When it rained, the mud was incredibly deep.
Galveston had the advantage over Houston as a port city because of the Brazos river. While it was not ideal for navigation, frontier stubbornness and necessity managed to eliminate the numerous shoals between Velasco and Washington and a major sandbar at the mouth of the river was bypassed by an inland canal connecting Galveston and the Brazos. Until the arrival of the railroads, the paddlewheelers offered the best possible way of getting produce to market and returning with the supplies necessary to maintain a comfortable standard of living in places as far removed from the coast as Chappell Hill and Washington on the Brazos.
Towns such as Warren which started out as a ferry boat landing, could now support warehouses, stores, taverns and churches and schools. When the steamboat reached the town of Warren, area planters hauled their cotton bales to the river bank at Warren and consigned them for sale by the factors at Galveston. Such was life on the Brazos River in the early 1800's.
THE STEAMSHIP YELLOW STONE AND HER ROLE IN THE TEXAS REVOLUTION
Henry Austin, cousin of empresario Stephen F. Austin, had roomed with Robert Fulton in New York and had brought the first steamboat to Texas in 1829, the tiny Ariel. Another fan was the host for Yellow Stone's celebration, Henry Jones, who operated a plantation and ferry landing. One of Austin's "Old Three Hundred" colonists (a reference to the first 300 Anglos to settle in Texas), Jones was anxious for Yellow Stone's arrival. The harvest in 1835 produced more than 5,000 bales of cotton awaiting transport to New Orleans, as well as hogsheads of sugar and corn piled up on landings up and down the Brazos River.
A promise of 5,000 acres of land and $800 cash had enticed Yellow Stone's owner, Thomas Toby & Brother of New Orleans, to bring the Yellow Stone to Texas. The two-deck sidewheeler paddleboat steamed for Quintana with a new captain,John E. Ross at the helm of Yellow Stone.
Ross was a veteran at finding troughs through the rivers and around rocks and shoals. Where there was only 2 or 3 feet of water, such as at the Velasco Bar, it was "full steam ahead." He represented a breed of Texas steamer pilots who approached low water with the saying, "Tap a keg of beer and we'll run four miles on the froth."
When Yellow Stone plowed across the Velasco Bar, where the Brazos River laid up its silt. Ross guided Yellow Stone up and down the Brazos, stopping on the Lower Brazos, a wider, deeper section of the river, at Brazoria and Columbia (originally called Bell's Landing).
The ship steamed into the Middle Brazos section above Fort Settlement (Richmond) and continued toward the village of Washington -on-the-Brazos and Robinson's Ferry. The river grew treacherous, with rocky shoals peppering the riverbed and sunken cottonwoods littering the bottom. Along this stretch, towns were fewer, so planters built landings on their riverfront property. Yellow Stone's master, Ross, steered the vessel around the numerous hazards and stopped to take on cotton and sugar at various landings. He delivered the crops downstream to waiting sailing ships off Quintana.
A round trip by steamboat took about five days, with overnight stops.
1836 was not a usual year, and though it was still winter, many families from the tidewater region flocked to the ports to catch a schooner for the United States. These wealthy Texas families were forerunners of the ones involved in the terrifying exodus that became known to history as the "Runaway Scrape."
On March 2, 1836, a blue norther swept down on Texas' representatives, who had convened at Washington to sign the Declaration of Independence. Winds bit through the buckskins of General Houston's troops. The Brazos, known as "Arms of God," raged. Swirling cottonwoods uprooted and shot downstream in the turbulence like battering rams, threatening Yellow Stone's hull and her 22-man crew.
THE RUNAWAY SCRAPE (1836)
Word came from San Antonio de Bexar that the Alamo had fallen on March 6, on the 13th day of the siege. Every white man behind the walls of that old Franciscan mission had been killed. A woman, her child and a slave were freed to spread the word that Santa Anna would kill, loot and burn as he hit every Texan home between San Antonio and the Gulf Coast. The families of Texas' army volunteers were told about the horror of the massacre at the Alamo and the Runaway Scrape began. The women abandoned their homes and fled with their children toward the Sabine River, which was the U.S. border. They carried what personal belongings they could and when their wagons sank in the flooded bogs of the coastal plains, they dumped their possessions and moved on by horseback. Wet and cold, these 5,000 or so desperate people straggled through the swamps. Many children, brought down by exposure and pneumonia, were hastily buried--their mothers pledging to return and give them proper burials.
General Houston began a zigzag retreat to collect more men before taking the offensive. He urged the Runaway Scrape families to stay, to have confidence in a Texas victory over Santa Anna. He pointed to the eastern shore Brazos planters, who were going ahead and seeding their lands. He ordered Colonel Fannin, the Mobile Grays' commander, to come from Goliad and join him, to swell their ranks. But Fannin, in charge of the La Baha fortress, hesitated, and his delay proved costly. By the time the colonel left La Baha on March 19 with nearly half of Texas' remaining troops, he and his 350 men were surrounded. Near Coleto Creek on the open prairie between the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers, Goliad's defenders fought some 1,900 Mexican soldiers. The Battle of Coleto began at 2 p.m. and continued until dark. Fannin surrendered on the 20th, assured that he and his men would be treated as prisoners of war and transported to New Orleans in eight days. The Texas prisoners were returned to Goliad. On March 27, three weeks after the fall of the Alamo, the Mexicans executed all of them.
Meanwhile, the steamship Yellow Stone was moving upstream again, picking up freight and tying up at landings. Many trees had to be cut to feed the fires in the sidewheeler's massive boilers. Yellow Stone required a high steam buildup to buck the swift, upstream current. On this late March trip, Captain Ross sidled up to Groce's Landing, a regular stop on the Middle Brazos route. Jared Groce, another of Austin's Old Three Hundred colonists, had brought the first cotton seeds to Texas when he came in 1821. In 1825 he had built the first cotton gin, followed the next year by Austin's at Peach Creek Plantation, near San Felipe.
Groce's Landing was a short way downstream from Washington. Yellow Stone was there to take on 600-pound bales of cotton. Houston's army was weaving back and forth from the Colorado River on the west to the Brazos River on the east. Rains clogged the prairies. The Brazos poured over its banks, sweeping past the first steep bluff at Washington and lapping at the second one, which served as a ground floor for the town. Santa Anna's army had crossed the Colorado and was in pursuit, forcing Houston's small army to back up to the Brazos. At Washington on March 30, Houston learned of the massacre at Goliad. Messengers also informed him that Santa Anna's troops were split. Houston had issued orders to burn all the ferries and rafts on the Brazos so that Santa Anna could not sweep around him. Farther south, at San Felipe, the townspeople had burned their town and ferried themselves across the river ahead of Santa Anna.
From scouts, Houston learned that the Yellow Stone was tied up at Groce's Landing. He moved his troops into a copse of timbers nearby, and they camped there in the rain. A contingent of some "80 volunteers from the Red River lands" arrived to swell the ranks.
On April 2, 1836, Houston sent Captain Ross a message:
Sir: You and each member of your crew and the Officers of the Boat are hereby assured and guaranteed that they and Each of them shall be indemnified as well as the boat Owners for Wages, losses and damages in consideration of the impressment of your Boat into the public Services of Texas (the Yellow Stone) and its detention for the benefit of the Republic and furthermore for the rendition of Services of the hands and the boat until it can be discharged each person shall be entitled to one-third league of land and the officers a proportionally larger quantity. You are not required to bear arms.
Given under my hand on the day and date above written (April 2, 1836, Head Quarters West of Brasos [sic]).
The Boat is not to leave without my orders.
Santa Anna arrived at burned-out San Felipe on April 7. After two days of stiff resistance from a small Texas company, the Mexican army left San Felipe, crossed the river upstream and headed for Harrisburg, the seat of Texas' government.
Houston had rested his men and waited for supplies that did not come, either from President David Burnet or the Toby brothers in New Orleans. He moved his troops closer to the Brazos, into the canebreaks opposite Groce's Landing. Captain John E. Ross sent a message from Yellow Stone, on Monday evening, April 11.
To Gen. Sam Houston
Sir I think the Cotton we have on board necessary to protect the Boat & Engine--if we have to pass the Enemy's Cannon--I can transport 500 men with cotton enough to protect the boat from any damage from the Enemies fire--If you wish the cotton landed please instruct me-- I can cross all the baggage without moving the cotton.
I have four cords of wood on board & Everything ready to "go ahead."
Jno E. Ross Comg Yl.Stone
All things will do as you say they are until further orders.
At 10 o'clock on the morning of April 12, Houston's men began filing aboard Yellow Stone. By 2 p.m. the next day, more than 700 soldiers, 200 horses and supplies had been ferried across the swollen Brazos in seven trips aboard the sidewheeler. Once on the eastern bank of the river, they readied for the march to the Gulf.
Houston released the riverboat with cotton piled two decks high. The steamboat roared downstream, belching black smoke, her whistle blowing and bell clanging. John Fenn, a prisoner of the Texans, was aboard that day. "Yellow Stone was plowing the water for all she was worth, lashing the banks with the waves on both sides as she went," he later said.
Ross knew part of the Mexican army would be waiting for him at the bend of the river. Neither he nor his men were Texas army volunteers, but they had aided the Texan rebels. He blasted along the familiar course. Mexican soldiers fired at the sidewheeler, but cotton bales absorbed the musket balls. Mexican horse soldiers even tried to lasso Yellow Stone's chimneys. At her high rate of speed, rounding the river's curve, the steamer skidded through a complete circle. Ross straightened her and continued the dash for the coast. He arrived at Velasco, the boat unscathed and her crew safe.
Meanwhile, Houston marched his men east, then south, toward the San Jacinto River below Harrisburg. Turned back by the Texans at San Felipe, Santa Anna took the main body of his troops across the Brazos above Washington, below the ford where the Baha Road crossed, then went on to Harrisburg and razed the town. The townspeople fled before him, joining the Runaway Scrape. Only smoke and ashes remained of the Texas capitol. The fledgling government had evacuated to Galveston.
Downstream from the Mexican army, Sam Houston, outnumbered by a mere 400 to 500 men instead of thousands, drew up a plan voted on by his officers. During the Mexican army's daily siesta on the afternoon of April 21, he ran his Texas army over a small rise in double column formation, at right angles to the Mexican camp. As ordered, the Texans held their fire until they were filed along the camp, flank to flank.
Frustrated by the long retreat, outraged by the massacres at Goliad and the Alamo, anguished by seeing their families torn from their homes, the Texans fired, then charged, yelling, "Remember the Alamo!" "Remember Goliad!" Eighteen minutes later, the Mexicans, caught napping and with no sentries posted, surrendered. The battlefield at San Jacinto was littered with bodies; only two were Texans. The next day, Santa Anna was captured while trying to escape in a common soldier's uniform.
Yellow Stone, with Captian Ross and crew, was ordered to Galveston to pick up President Burnet and his cabinet and take them to view the site of the San Jacinto victory. Now a floating capital, she steamed back to Velasco on May 3, with the Republic of Texas' president and cabinet and their printing press on board. Also aboard were General Houston, injured in battle; General Santa Anna, also injured; and some 80 Mexican prisoners. The river steamer hosted the peace treaty signing of the Republic of Texas and the government of Mexico.
NEED FOR STEAMBOAT TRANSPORTATION IN THE NEW REPUBLIC OF TEXAS
With the war behind them, the Texas refuges returned and soon the young republic was attracting large numbers of settlers from the US.
The need for steamboat transportation was soon greater than ever.
Some of the more important steamboat routes included the Brazos River, the Rio Grande River, the Red River, the Trinity River, the Neches River, the Sabine River and the Colorado River.
DESCRIPTION OF THE EARLY-DAY STEAMBOAT
The average steamboat was approximately 30 feet wide by 90 feet long with some as long as 200 feet long, drawing only three or four feet of water, being almost entirely above the surface. A steamboat could average 75 miles a day upstream with good weather conditions. For fuel, they burned mainly cottonwood and willow with the crew generally cutting the wood themselves.
The regular boat crew numbered from 30 to 40, but with the passengers, there were usually from 100 to 200 people on board. Some of the boat's paddle wheels were 18 to 20 feet in diameter. and they made a rythmatic churning sound as the paddlewheel went around.
On many steamboats, especially sidewheelers, the paddles were contained in round, wooden, paddle boxes to keep water from spraying all over the boat and to prevent accidents. Curious passengers would try to reach out to touch the moving wheel or, at night perhaps, might slip and fall into the moving wheel. Stern wheel boats seldom needed these boxes as the paddle wheel was far astern.
Then there was the curious Texas deck on the early-day steamboats.
This was a third deck and atop that, were quarters for the officers of the boat, which, because it was an 'addition' to the superstructure, was refered to with some flippancy as 'the texas'--the thought being that it was an addition to the boat much as the state of Texas was an addition to the Union." The captain and pilots also had permanent berths in a Texas cabin.
THE BRAZOS RIVER BECOMES A MAJOR STEAMBOAT ROUTE
Early shipping interests used the lower Brazos River to transport cotton to Galveston and to
deliver merchandise to the many settlements along the river. They were not content to use
canoes or flatboats designed for the shallow, often sluggish, river. Instead large stream
paddleboats were maneuvered up the Brazos as far as 350 miles from the river mouth. At
least 12 steamboats were in operation on the Brazos in the mid-1800's; several made it as
far upstream as Port Sullivan, a site near the present town of Hearne.
In January, 1849, two sternwheel boats, the Brazos and the Washington arrived on the middle river. They had been commissioned by the Brazos Steam Association to run between Washington and Galveston. These boats were of 101 and 103 tons burden, respectively. They drew 15 inches of water, light, and required an additional foot for each 300 bales of cotton taken on board.27 They ran with fair regularity for several years and convincingly demonstrated the feasibility of steam navigation on the middle Brazos. Other boats that operated on this stretch of the river during the early 1850's include the Elite, the Galveston, the Jack Hays, the General Hamer, the Camden, the Reliance, the Major A. Harris, the William Penn and the Magnolia.
In his autobiography, John A. Hargrove of Chappell Hill recalled: "In February, 1850, I decided to go to California. We took a steamboat at Warren and went down the Brazos and around to Galveston.28 He does not tell us the name of the boat, but Dr. Lockhart adds that detail to a recollection of his trip down the Brazos some three years later: "In 1853, Captain John C. Wallis and myself came to Velasco on the steamer Magnolia. She was loaded principally with cotton at the old 'Warren ferry' on the Brazos, three miles east of Chappell Hill."
Although the Brazos river carried a tremendous volume of water at times, the flow of the river
was so uncertain and erratic that navigation on a regular basis proved to be impossible.
Parts of the river were dredged and snags removed, but seasonal rises silted in manmade
channels and left behind new snags to catch the unwary navigator. Elaborate plans were
initiated to "improve" the river for navigation, but most were never begun.
A canal joining Galveston and the Brazos above a large sandbar at the river mouth was
actually dug. A group of Galveston merchants formed the Galveston and Brazos
Navigation Company which collected $142,000 and dug the canal in less than 4 years.
The canal, opened in 1854, was a financial disaster as well as an engineering nightmare.
The River and Loan Bill was passed by the 1856 Texas Legislature to try to save the
already ailing canal. It provided a $50,000 state appropriation and required financial
commitments from counties along the river up to Washington to make improvements on
the river and canal.
The Civil War brought the work and funding to an abrupt halt. By the time the war was
over, railroads had caught the fancy of most businessmen and politicians in the state.
However, there were still those determined to make the Brazos navigable. A federal act in
1874 authorized a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to determine navigation
possibilities from Waco to the Gulf. Two different studies conducted by the Corps--one
in 1874 and another in 1895--concluded that a navigable Brazos was not economically
In 1905 Congress approved another round of massive appropriations to construct a series of
locks and dams below Waco, but a disastrous flood in 1913 wrecked the completed
structures and cut new channels around proposed dam sites.
That year the Brazos was reported to be four miles wide near Bryan, and the peak flow of
the Little River at Cameron was equivalent to the normal flow of the Mississippi River.
This flood was followed by two other major flood years causing tremendous loss of life
After 75 years of dreams and effort, the variable flow and shifting channels of the Brazos
were basically unchanged by man.
Seven major tributaries flow into the Brazos. The main stem of the river is formed by
combining the Double Mountain Fork and Salt Fork in Stonewall County north of
Abilene. The Clear Fork, Bosque, Little River, and Yegua Creek enter the Brazos
progressively farther downstream along the west bank; the Navasota River is the only
major tributary entering the Brazos from the east bank. All but the Clear Fork join the
Brazos downstream from Lake Whitney.
Washington-on-the-Brazos or Washington developed on the banks of the Brazos River in the 1830's near where members of the Old Three Hundred had settled in the upper northeastern corner of what is now Washington County. By 1835 Washington had become a supply point. Attracted by its location on the river and on or near major roads, merchants and tradesmen from neighboring communities settled in the new town. Washington's commercial growth resulted from provisioning emigrants to the interior and from the surrounding area's increasing agricultural development and population. The town was elevated on bluffs above the river and had a plentiful water supply from nearby springs; its location was therefore more healthful and less flood-prone than that of settlements at the river's edge.
In December 1835, Washington became Gen. Sam Houston's headquarters and the concentration point for Texas army volunteers and supplies. By 1836 the residents numbered approximately 100. To stimulate further growth, Washington businessmen offered an assembly hall without charge to attract the Convention of 1836 to their town. These town promoters rented the only structure large enough for deliberations, an unfinished building, from entrepreneur Noah T. Byars. Although the town had an inn, most delegates could not find lodging. At Washington between March 1 and March 17, 1836, delegates signed the Texas Declaration of Independence, wrote the Constitution of the Republic of Texas, and established the ad interim government. To escape Antonio López de Santa Anna's army, the Texas government and the inhabitants of Washington evacuated the town.
After the Texas victory at San Jacinto, new settlers by the droves moved into the area expanding the already thriving cottan and agricultural cultivation and driving an already booming timber and brick industry by 1837. Most of the early-day river transportation was provided by log rafts and smaller boats.
The first steamboat, the Mustang in 1842, persuaded Washington residents to develop the town near the upper limit of Brazos River navigation, as a riverport. Washington soon became a distribution center for commercial exchanges between the interior and the Gulf Coast. However, the Brazos floods of 1843 and 1844 lowered cotton production and made navigation difficult. In April of 1848, Washington residents organized the Brazos Steamship Association with the goal of eliminating navigational obstacles on the Brazos and make shipping safer. The Brazos Steamship Association bought two steamboats, the Washington and the Brazos, to initiate regular service between Washington and Velasco. From 1849 through about 1858, commerce and population in Washington increased rapidly as the town became a frequent steamboat stop and significant transit point for export of the region's profitable cotton crop. Although residents had access to merchants in Houston and Galveston, service industries catering to travelers, wholesale and retail merchandising, leather, wood, and metal fabricating, construction, and the professions flourished at this important stagecoach stop and riverport. At the height of its development Washington had two newspapers, four churches, two hotels, a Masonic lodge, two Odd Fellows chapters, a market house, and a commercial section with brick buildings of two and three stories.
River-shipping efforts in pioneer Texas by steamboat were centered primarily on the Brazos (about 2 mi. E.), and Washington-on-the-Brazos (about 15 mi. N.) was an important distribution point for commercial interests. The Brazos flowed through most productive cotton and sugar region in Texas; steamers greatly aided shipment of these items to markets in New Orleans. The first steamer reached Washington in 1840; by 1849 its docks were busy with steamboats making regular river trips. Between 1820-1840 settlers made journey to Texas on the Red River in steamers if the river was high enough and there were no obstructions. Buffalo Bayou, extending from Houston to Galveston Bay, was waterway traveled most often by steamers, and took over trade from Brazos River because it had better outlet to the sea. Navigation on the Trinity, Colorado, and Sabine rivers also increased inland growth and development. While rivers in Texas seemed to offer possibilities for steamboat travel, the story of river navigation is largely one of disappointment. Most meandering rivers were too shallow, often flooded, needed clearing; many were choked with driftwood. These hazards greatly retarded economic and social development of the state. By 1865 the importance of river steamers was gone.
San Felipe de Austin
San Felipe de Austin, on the west bank of the Brazos River at the Old San Antonio Road crossing, a site now on Interstate Highway 10 two miles east of Sealy in southeastern Austin County, was founded in 1824 by Stephen F. Austin as the unofficial capital of his colony. It became the first urban center in the Austin colony, which stretched northward from the Gulf of Mexico as far as the Old San Antonio Road and extended from the Lavaca River in the west to the San Jacinto River in the east. By October 1823, after briefly considering a location on the lower Colorado River, Austin, with the assistance of the Baron de Bastrop, decided to establish his capital on the Brazos near the settlement at which John McFarland operated a ferry. The site chosen was on a high, easily defensible bluff overlooking broad, fertile bottomlands. The location offered a number of advantages, including a central location and sources of fresh water independent of the Brazos. In late 1823 surveyor Seth Ingram began the tasks of defining the boundaries of the five-league expanse of prairie and woodland encompassed by the municipality and platting the town proper. The town's name was proposed by the governor of the Eastern Interior Provinces, Felipe de la Garza, to honor both the empresario, Austin, and the governor's own patron saint. Although planned on the basis of the prevailing Mexican town model with a regular grid of avenues and streets dominated by four large plazas, the settlement soon began to sprawl westward from the Brazos for more than a half mile along both sides of the Atascosito Road. By 1828 the community comprised a population of about 200, three general stores, two taverns, a hotel, a blacksmith shop, and some forty or fifty log cabins. Ten of the inhabitants were Hispanic, and the rest were of American or European origin; males outnumbered females ten to one.
San Felipe was located only some eighty miles above the mouth of the Brazos, and keelboats were used extensively to transport goods between the town and various coastal ports. Nevertheless, most articles of commerce were carried overland to the coast by wagon until after the revolution. Unreliable water levels and turbulence during the spring rains discouraged steamboat traffic on the Brazos as far as San Felipe, and the stream's meanders rendered the water route to the coast far longer than land routes. However, after 1830 steamboats gradually began to appear on the lower Brazos, and by 1836 as many as three steamboats plied the waters between San Felipe and the coast.
Settlement of Fort Bend County
The settlement of Fort Bend County began in the early 1820s as part of the Anglo-American colonization of Texas under the auspices of the Spanish government. Authorization to settle 300 families in the valleys of the Brazos and Colorado rivers was initially granted to Moses Austin, but plans were delayed by his death in June 1821 and Mexican independence from Spain. Stephen F. Austin assumed the responsibility of leadership from his father and gained confirmation of the original Spanish grants from the newly established Mexican government in 1823. Following arrangements with Austin, a group of colonists sailed from New Orleans in November 1821 on the schooner Lively and anchored near the mouth of the Brazos River on the Texas coast. In 1822 a small party of men from this group left the ship and traveled inland some ninety miles and, on a bluff near a deep bend in the river, built a two-room cabin. As the settlement grew, the cabin became known as both Fort Settlement and Fort Bend; the latter name, in time, prevailed. In 1824 the Mexican government issued documents officially granting to the colonists their leagues of land. Of the 297 grants, fifty-three were issued to Fort Bend settlers (see OLD THREE HUNDRED). The presence of the Karankawa Indians near the new colonial settlements proved to be a comparatively minor problem. The first settlers had a few skirmishes, but as the colonies increased, the Karankawas began moving out of the area and by the 1850s had migrated as far south as Mexico.
In May 1837 the Congress of the Republic of Texas passed an act incorporating nineteen towns, including Richmond. Robert Eden Handy of Pennsylvania and William Lusk of Richmond, Virginia, both of whom had arrived in Texas shortly before the war for independence from Mexico, founded and named the town with eight other proprietors, including Branch T. Archer, Thomas Freeman McKinney, and Samuel May Williams. An act establishing Fort Bend County and fixing its boundaries was passed on December 29, 1837; Wyly Martin was appointed the first chief justice. On January 13, 1838, the citizens voted to make Richmond the county seat. The county was taken from portions of Austin, Brazoria, and Harris counties. Its irregular shape was, in part, the result of using waterways to form the west and segments of the south and east boundaries. Several efforts have been made to change the lines but with little success.
Some of the first settlers in Fort Bend County played prominent roles in early Texas history. Nathaniel F. Williams and Matthew R. Williams cultivated and milled sugar on their Oakland Plantation near Oyster Creek in the early 1840s, thus laying the groundwork for an industry that continued to develop and thrive in Sugar Land ; in 1837 Jane Long opened a boarding house in Richmond, where she lived until her death in 1880; and Mirabeau B. Lamar moved to Richmond in 1851 and built plantation home on land purchased from Jane Long. Both Mrs. Long and Lamar are buried in Morton Cemetery, Richmond. During the Texas Revolution many of the people of Fort Bend fled in great haste as Antonio López de Santa Anna's army marched through the area. Part of this army camped at Thompson's Ferry on the Brazos River while part marched on to meet defeat at the battle of San Jacinto. Fort Bend settlers returned from the Runaway Scrape to find their homes plundered or burned and their livestock scattered or dead.
Soon after its founding, Richmond developed into a prosperous trade center for the surrounding agricultural region of the lower Brazos valley. Barges and steamboats plied the Brazos River, transporting cotton and other products to the port at Galveston, as merchants of Richmond and other river towns vied with Houston for the lucrative agricultural trade. Transportation facilities were greatly improved in 1853, when the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railway was completed to Stafford's Point from Harrisburg, which was located on Buffalo Bayou's navigable channel to Galveston. The prosperity of the 1840s and 1850s, however, ended with the Civil War.
STEAMBOAT TRANSPORTATION ALONG THE TRINITY RIVER
The Trinity River flows down from Forth Worth, Texas, and winds its unhurried way through the outskirts of Point Blank, ending its journey in the Gulf of Mexico. The Trinity has been identified as the stream that the Caddo Indians called Arkikosa in Central Texas and Daycoa nearer the coast, as well as the one that Réne Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, in 1687 called River of the Canoes.
River Name Changes to Trinity
The name Trinity (La Santisima Trinidad) is first used to identify the present-day Trinity River by Alonso De León in 1690. Domingo Terán de los Rios in 1691 called the same stream Encarnación de Verbo. Domingo Ramón in 1716 probably applied the name Trinity to the present Brazos, for, when he later reached the Trinity, he was told by the Indians that other Spaniards called the stream the Trinity. The Marqués de Aguayo and other later explorers used the name Trinity consistently.
Beginning about 1836 numerous packet boats steamed up the Trinity River, bringing groceries and dry goods and carrying down cotton, sugar, cowhides, and deer skins.
An early-day attempt to navigate the Trinity River was made by the Branch T. Archer, who in May 1838 ascended the river 350 miles. Although navigation on the Trinity was frequently hindered by low water, the Ellen Frankland and the Vesta were in fairly continuous service, and when the Ellen Frankland was wrecked in 1844, the Scioto Belle replaced her. The first attempts to navigate the narrow, tortuous Buffalo Bayou were made by the Laura (January 1837), the Constitution (June 1837), the Leonidas (August 1837), and the Friend (March 1838). By 1840 there was a regular service between Houston and Galveston.
It has been said there were 98 steamboats known to have operated on the Trinity River between 1835 and 1875. Some of the steamboats were the Black Cloud, Branch T. Archer, Ruthven, Early Bird, Graham, Colonel D. S. Gage, Trinity, Brazos, Kate, Ida Reese, Belle of Texas , Correro, Neptune, Scioto Bell, Friend, Mary Clifton, Nora, Wanderer, C. B. Lee, Vesta, Pioneer, Ellen Franklin, Wren, Indianna, Molly Hamilton, and many more. “Drummers” (now known as salesmen) came by steamboat to take orders for goods.
Steamboats on their way to and from coastal ports made regular stops a Drew’s Landing, Cedar Landing, Swartout, Johnson’s Bluff, Velco and other ports. They carried loads of cotton, hides, wood, and lumber to market, returning with passengers, bolts of cloth, barrels of whiskey, flour, salt, coffee and other supplies.
In 1834, Isaac Jones and family came from Vicksburg, Mississippi, and settled on the Trinity River bank. He received a league of Mexican Land Grant on the Westside of the river near Point Blank. In 1858, Isaac had a port and a ferry called Jones Bluff. Steamboats made regular stops at the port.
George T. Wood, who became the second Governor of Texas, chartered a boat in 1839 at Georgia, and moved his family with 30 slaves to Houston, Texas, where he studied law and passed the bar.
Later Wood bought a plantation on the West bank of the Trinity River near Point Blank. Mrs. Wood had her mulberry bushes planted and the bushes grew. She made her own silk and sold some of the cloth for ten dollars per yard. The Woods established a boat landing and when the steamboat whistle was heard night or day, the whole household hurried to enjoy the excitement an arriving boat created. Wood shipped a load of cotton to Galveston on a steamboat. The boat hit a snag in the river and went down, losing the cotton and the crew. It was a big loss for Governor Wood, for the bales of cotton were not insured.
One night the steamboat, James Jenkins, arrived and the Captain asked for Mrs. Wood. He gave her a Bible, an heirloom she had left in Georgia, which had been sent to her. Sometimes a steamboat Captain would invite the Wood children, and children of the slaves for a cruise up the river. The children would walk back home over the rough sandy land road.
In 1858, Mary Wood, daughter of George and Mrs. Wood, went to Galveston and returned on the luxurious Bayou City steamboat.
Alfred A. Aden, came from Kentucky to Ananuac by boat and caught a steamboat there and arrived at the Port of Swartout in 1849. He boarded at the John Victory home. Mr. Victory was a farmer and with a large plantation and slaves. Alfred taught school in the church-school at Swartout. It was here he met Mary Cochran and they married in 1851.
After many years, the sandy banks of the Trinity River began to crumble, carrying trees and sand into the river. The river changed its course in several places, widening its banks. Water was lower causing steamboats to hit snags and sand bars. Many steamboats were sunk. At flood times the river could be navigated, but dangerously and only with great skill.
Jeff McGrew, who was 100 years old in 1967, told this writer of a tragedy on the river. “I was too young to work in the field and too small to stay at home by myself,” said Jeff. “So Pa took me to the blacksmith shop with him. The shop belonged to a White man, but Pa did most of the work. He sharpened plows and saws, made sweep stocks and repaired wagons for the farmers. The blacksmith shop stood near the bank of the river and when a steamboat came along everyone would run out to wave at the crew.”
One day we hear a whistle blow on a boat, “That’s the White Cloud coming,” Pa said, laying his tools down. “Let’s go watch it.”
”Just as the White Cloud got in sight of us, it hit a sandbar,” said Jeff. “The boat went down carrying the crew, passengers and freight with her. It was a long time before I watched a steamboat pass by,” said Jeff sadly.
Ben Caswell, whose mother died when he was small, remembered his father taking him on horseback to load wood on a steamboat. “Pa made me set on the bank while he and W. C. Knight loaded the wood onto the boat,” said Ben smiling. “Years later Pa told me the captain had to wait until the water rose in the river before taking off.”
The Geeslin Family lived at Stephen Creek near the Trinity River. When Stella Geeslin Horton was a girl, steamboats no longer traveled the river. The water was low, and she, her brother and friends swam in the river. “Sometimes, we could see part of a sunken steamboat,” said Stella. “We would swim out and play on the part that stood up out of the water.”
It has been many years since steamboats traveled on the Trinity River.
One of the largest of the early steamers was the Scioto Belle, put in service in 1844. Some of the packets penetrated as far as Magnolia, ten miles west of Palestine, and in 1854 one reached Porter's Bluff, fifty miles below Dallas. Often their movements were impeded by snags or sand bars or halted by low water. Following a convention on Trinity improvement in 1849 at Huntsville, Congress in 1852 authorized a survey of the river. In the next year an army engineer's report mentioned the Trinity as the deepest and least obstructed river in Texas, said that seven steamboats were in operation in its lower channel, and estimated that navigation was practicable. Under a Texas act of 1858 a bar was removed from the river's mouth. Navigation fell off during the Civil War, but in 1868 Job Boat No. 1 reached Dallas with a cargo, after a voyage of a year and four days from Galveston. In the years before 1874 nearly fifty boats continuously navigated the river as far north as Trinidad in Kaufman County and Porter's Bluff in northern Navarro County. In the peak season of 1868-69 boats carried 15,425 bales of cotton down the Trinity. With the construction of railroads to Dallas in the early 1870s the river traffic began to die. But high railroad rates and the prospect of Dallas as a major port kept the dream of a navigable Trinity River alive. Since that time numerous schemes to make the Trinity navigable have been proposed but never realized .
The Trinity River was a major route for steamboat transportation in Texas. The Trinity flows 423 miles from the confluence of the Elm and West forks to the coast, making it the longest river having its entire course in Texas.
The Trinity River rises in three principal branches: the East Fork, the Elm Fork, and the West Fork. A fourth headstream, shorter and smaller, is known as the Clear Fork. The East Fork of the Trinity River rises in central Grayson County and flows south seventy-eight miles, through central Collin, western Rockwall, eastern Dallas, and western Kaufman counties, to the southwestern part of Kaufman County, where it joins the West Fork. The Elm Fork of the Trinity rises in eastern Montague County and flows southeast eighty-five miles, through Cooke and Denton counties, to a confluence with the West Fork, which forms the Trinity River proper a mile west of downtown Dallas in central Dallas County (at 32°48' N, 96°52' W). The West Fork of the Trinity rises in southern Archer County and flows southeast 180 miles through Jack, Wise, Tarrant, and Dallas counties and along the county line between Ellis and Kaufman counties, to its junction with the East Fork of the Trinity. The Clear Fork of the Trinity rises in northwestern Parker County and flows first southeast and then northeast forty-five miles to join the West Fork of the Trinity at Fort Worth in central Tarrant County. From the junction of the East and West Forks the Trinity River continues southeast, forming all or part of the county lines between Kaufman and Ellis, Ellis and Henderson, Henderson and Navarro, Freestone and Anderson, Anderson and Leon, Leon and Houston, and Houston and Madison counties. It then cuts across northern Walker County to form a portion of the county line between Walker and Trinity counties and continues as the county line between Trinity and San Jacinto and San Jacinto and Polk counties. At the northern line of Liberty County the Trinity turns almost directly south, cutting across Liberty and Chambers counties, to drain into Trinity Bay just west of Anahuac (at 29°45' N, 94°42' W).
The Trinity River rises on the North Central Plains, but most of its course is in the Coastal Plains area. The total drainage basin area is 17,969 square miles and includes all or part of thirty-seven counties. The population of the Trinity River Basin in 1980 was 3.2 million. Of these, 75 percent live in Dallas and Tarrant counties. The largest cities in the basin include Dallas, with a 1980 population of 904,100, and Fort Worth, with a population of 385,100. Other cities in the basin with a population of 50,000 or more are Arlington, Garland, Irving, Richardson, Plano, Grand Prairie, and Mesquite. The upper Trinity Basin has rolling topography and narrow stream channels. Soils in the region are deep to shallow clay, clay loam, and sandy loam that support elms, sycamores, willows, oaks, junipers, mesquites, and grasses. The middle and lower Trinity Basin is gently rolling to flat terrain with wide, shallow stream channels. Clay and sandy loams predominate and support water-tolerant hardwoods, conifers, and grasses. In addition to several dams on the river's tributaries, the Trinity is dammed just above Camilla in San Jacinto County to form Livingston Reservoir.
Annual rainfall in the watershed varies from thirty to forty inches in the upper basin to forty to fifty inches in the lower. Rapid surface runoff during intense thunderstorm activity frequently produces flash floods on the smaller tributaries and upper reaches of the river. Slow-moving floods, sometimes of long duration, are common in the middle and lower basin area. The most disastrous flood on record was that of 1908. Reservoirs on the upper branches control the floods to a certain extent and provide municipal water supplies.
Such towns as Liberty and Jefferson were major riverports along the Trinity River.
By the late 1830's, Jefferson became a river landing on Big Cypress Bayou for steamboats from New Orleans. Discovery of nearby iron ore brought smelters and plow works, while plentiful pine and cypress stimulated lumber industry. By the end of the Civil War,
Jefferson reached a peak population of 30,000 and had as many as 15 steamboats at a time lining the docks, and scores of wagon trains passing through on the way West.
As the county seat of Liberty County, Liberty was a busy port when steamboats plied the Trinity River in the late 19th century.
The A.S. Ruthven, weighing 144 tons and measuring 127 feet long, was built at Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1860 by a shipyard that turned out 288 steamboats.
While most of the steamboats were placed in service on the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the Ruthven came to Texas, where she was placed in service hauling cotton down the Trinity River to Galveston.
"Galveston, Texas, The First Cotton Export Port of the World"
Postcard courtesy rootsweb.com/
But the craft had barely established herself on the Trinity when Texas seceded from the Union and the Ruthven’s owners leased her to the Texas Marine Department for use as a transport vessel. On the last day of 1861 she arrived at Galveston with a pair of artillery pieces, part of a shipment of fourteen for the defense of Galveston Island during the Civil War.
The A.S. Ruthven, a side-wheeler steamboat weighing 144 tons and measuring 127 feet long, was built at Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1860 and placed in service hauling cotton down the Trinity River to Galveston. But the craft had barely established herself on the Trinity when Texas seceded from the Union and the Ruthven’s owners leased her to the Texas Marine Department for use as a transport vessel. On the last day of 1861 she arrived at Galveston with a pair of artillery pieces, part of a shipment of fourteen for the defense of Galveston Island during the Civil War.
In 1862 the Ruthven was running between Galveston and Buffalo Bayou and during October of that year, she was inoperable and had to be towed up Buffalo Bayou to escape the Union attack on Galveston.
When the Civil War ended, the Ruthven went back to the Trinity River and, with the Texas cotton markers open again, she resumed hauling bales from East Texas to Galveston. But the Trinity was a fickle river. Some boats lingered too long upstream and found themselves trapped by low waters and were forced to wait until spring rains lifted the river.
In March of 1867, the Galveston Weekly News reported: “Coming up, the Ruthven met 14 flatboats at various points, all loaded with cotton for Galveston. We understand that the Ruthven will go as high up as Wild Cat Bluff and will return up the river and remain above Magnolia until next fall. The snow, sleet and hail fell on the deck of the boat to a depth of six inches. The cold was so severe that the steam pipes of the steamers and sawmills were frozen and burst. Such severe weather in the month of March was never known before.”
During the 1866-87 cotton season, the Ruthven made successful runs from East Texas to Galveston, delivering more than 2,200 bales.
The Ruthven continued to serve customers on the Trinity through the l860s, but with growing competition from the railroads, the Ruthven was pulled from service. In the early 1870s George Anderson Wright of Palestine bought the old sidewheeler for $900, moved her to Parker’s Bluff, and began to dismantle parts of the vessel.
The steamboat’s boilers, engines and machinery were removed and sold to gins and sawmills in the area. The cabin was also removed and incorporated into the construction of a large Palestine home. The hull of the boat was left to deteriorate in the Trinity.
In the 1970s an archeology team from the Texas Historical Commission traveled to Parker’s Bluff to determine if any of the Ruthven’s wreckage could be salvaged. While the boat’s hull had survived nearly 130 years in the river, the remains were in poor shape and had been scattered along the river.
STEAMBOAT TRANSPORTATION ALONG THE NUECES RIVER
Moses and Robert Patton arrived at Pattonia around 1840 and opened a mercantile and cotton commission business building that river port into a major shipping point for Nacogdoches County cotton. In 1846, the Angelina was the first steamboat to navigate the Neches or Angelina River. For four years the steamer made a total of 12 successful voyages to Sabine Pass, hauling cotton towing keelboats back the Rusk.]
From 1844 until 1846, Moses Patton had been captain of the keelboat Rusk, but following their acquisition of the steamer Angelina in 1846, Patton was thereafter master of the new steamer. In June, 1849, Capt. Patton signed a contract with Baxter Shipyard at Green’s Bluff (now Orange) to rebuild completely the Angelina’s superstructure. About 1848 Moses Patton bought out his brother, Robert Patton, while the latter started his new shipping business at Belzora, Smith County. Moses Patton never bought another steamboat, but he continued his cotton commission business at Pattonia until 1860, selling his cotton to other steamboats on the river. After the Civil War, he was a Nacogdoches merchant for many years until he retired. Early-day newspapers showed the Sabine River as being open to navigation to Belzora some 879 river miles north of Sabine Pass.
Shook's Bluff was another early-day riverport on the east bank of the Neches River in southern Cherokee County. The community, on a small bluff overlooking the river, was named for Jefferson Shook, a native of Missouri who settled there in the 1850s and opened a mercantile establishment. Before the arrival of the railroad, Shook's Bluff was the northernmost port on the Neches and was a shipping point for area plantations. Steamboats made annual trips when the river was at flood stage, bringing supplies and carrying cotton and other produce to market. A post office opened at Shook's Bluff in 1858, and at its height just after the Civil War, the settlement had a store, a saloon, a school, a cotton gin, and a Masonic lodge. The community began to decline in the 1870s with the arrival of the railroads. The post office was closed in 1876, and by the 1880s most of the residents had moved away.
STEAMBOATS ALONG THE RIO GRANDE
The first steamboat brought to the Rio Grande was the sidewheeler Ariel, owned by Henry Austin, a cousin of Stephen F.Ausitn. Henry Austin (1782-1852) was familiar with the extensive trade that already existed in the area, and thought he might improve upon it by bringing in the steamboat. Austin arrived on the river in 1829 but was frustrated with the pace of business on the Rio Grande and the navigational hazards of the river. Austin later tried his luck on the Brazos River with similar results. Ariel was finally abandoned on Buffalo Bayou, and Austin established a plantation, Bolivar, on the Brazos.
The Steamboat Bessie regularly supplied Fort Ringgold, in Rio Grande City Texas in the 1840's. It also travelled 12 miles up stream from Rio Grande City to Roma, Texas as well. The old Mifflin Kennedy warehouse in Rio Grand City became the First Court House for Starr County and is still standing. Today, it's being used as the Public Works building for Rio Grand City, Texas.
Steamboat Bessie regularly supplied Fort Ringgold, in Rio Grande City, Texas in the 1840's (Photo courtesy Roberto Olivarez (RobertoO@ci.hurst.tx.us).
The great boom in steam navigation on the Rio Grande came during the war with Mexico in 1846. The Rio Grande Valley, and the area around Fort Brown (right; click to enlarge) in particular, became a staging area for one of the major U.S. campaigns against Mexico. The U.S. Quartermaster Department brought 30 or more steamboats to the Rio Grande during the and immediately afterward to transport, troops, supplies and and other materials in support of the army. The sidewheeler Corvette was one of the first Army steamboats to come to the river. Corvette arrived on the Rio Grande under the command of Mifflin Kenedy in the summer of 1846. She quickly settled into the routine of the river, carrying troops, stores and equipment from the anchorage at Brazos Santiago (near present-day South Padre Island) to the new military post established across the river from Matamoros, Fort Brown. On one occasion during a rise in the river that year, Kenedy and his pilot, Prescot Devot, managed to push Corvette from Brazos Santiago up the river to Camargo, a Mexican town far upstream, in exactly three days -- it normally took six. Corvette's reputation for both speed and comfort was such that General Winfield Scott (left) chose the boat to transport him and his staff to Camargo on a visit to the area in January 1847.
The war had demonstrated the practicalities of steamboat navigation on the Rio Grande, and several businessmen established themselves quickly in the trade. The most prominent of these were Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy , who had both come to the Rio Grande as civilian river pilots under contract to the Quartermaster Department. King and Kenedy formed a partnership that was to dominate the Rio Grande steamboat trade for many years, and that would form the financial basis of their substantial land holdings, including the famous King Ranch.
Steam navigation lasted some sixty years on the Rio Grande river, longer than on any other major Texas waterway. One of the last boats on the river was the sternwheeler Bessie which made her last run around 1906.
SABINE RIVER STEAMBOAT TRANSPORTATION
The Sabine River, a wide, fast-moving stream that flows south from Sabine Pass and Sabinetown to the Gulf of Mexico. Sabine County became an early-day port of entry for new settlers arriving from the United States. Gaines' Ferry shuttled horses, wagons and settlers across the river at Pendleton. Today, at the same site, a modern three-mile bridge stretches across Toledo Bend Reservoir connecting Texas (Highway 21) with Louisiana (Highway 6).
In the fall of 1843 the steamboat Sabine, with Capt. John Clemmons at the helm, made the first trip on the Sabine River. Being a sturdy craft, she made several trips up and down the river successfully.
"Often the steamboats were small compared to present-day standards, which ran on the East Texas Rivers were not new having been bought from the Mississippi trade where five years was the usual life of a boat. There competition was keen and the traffic rough on the boats. Transportation on the Mississippi was big business and the owners could afford the best. These secondhand boats, when kept in repair might have many good years left in them when run on smaller rivers.
About 1858, a steamboat bearing the name of Biloxi came up the Sabine from Biloxi, Mississippi, and unloaded several dozen slaves. The landing where they unloaded became known as Biloxi. For awhile it prospered. Then it became a ghost town and vanished, as many of the river towns did when the railroads came and the steamboat era ended.
At Sabinetown, steamboats once unloaded their cargoes on the Sabine River. During the Civil War, when Union troops were known to be advancing toward Texas, Confederates built an earthen breastworks near the river. Fortunately, they were never needed.
Long before the railroads came to Texas, many steamboats filled the Sabine River bringing supplies for the citizens of the area. One of the last of the numerous steamboats was the Neches Belle, whose reported last trip was in 1892.
In 1856 a Galveston paper reported that steamboats are “ascending the Sabine River to a point opposite Tyler in Smith County. An 1858 letter of A. M. Truitt observed that: “...the steamer Uncle Ben has made 2 successful trips to Belzora in Smith County, carrying out 1,000 bale loads on each trip and Capt. William Wiess, the former captain of the steamers Adrianne and Alamo between 1868 and 1874, noted: “...I myself have run a 400-bale boat as high as Pattonia on the Angelina River, to Rockland on the Neches River, and to Belzora on the Sabine River. It is true that the Sabine River near Longview, Texas looks more like a ditch than a river, but the old-time flat-bottom steam boats were said to “run in a heavy dew.” The winter rains between Dec.-Feb. of 1849, 1850, and 1850 kept the river at flood stage, far out of its banks. At other times after 1852, Patton shipped his cotton downstream on shallow draft barges to Pulaski in Panola County or Fredonia in Gregg County.
CANEY CREEK STEAMBOAT TRANSPORTATION