U.S. Coast Survey Shipwreck Identified

In 1852, W.A.K. Martin painted this picture of the Robert J. Walker. The painting, now at the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Va., is scheduled for restoration. (Credit: The Mariners’ Museum)


On Tuesday, the folks at NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program announced the identification of the wreck of the U.S. Coast Survey steamship Robert J. Walker, that was sunk in a collision with a sailing ship in June 1860 off the Jersey shore. From the announcement:


More than 153 years after it was lost in a violent collision at sea, government and university maritime archaeologists have identified the wreck of the ship Robert J. Walker, a steamer that served in the U.S. Coast Survey, a predecessor agency of NOAA.
The Walker, while now largely forgotten, served a vital role as a survey ship, charting the Gulf Coast – including Mobile Bay and the Florida Keys – in the decade before the Civil War. It also conducted early work plotting the movement of the Gulf Stream along the Atlantic Coast.
Twenty sailors died when the Walker sank in rough seas in the early morning hours of June 21, 1860, ten miles off Absecon Inlet on the New Jersey coast. The crew had finished its latest surveys in the Gulf of Mexico and was sailing to New York when the Walker was hit by a commercial schooner off New Jersey. The side-wheel steamer, carrying 66 crewmembers, sank within 30 minutes. The sinking was the largest single loss of life in the history of the Coast Survey and its successor agency, NOAA.
In late June, 2013, the NOAA ship Thomas Jefferson, surveying in the area to chart post-Hurricane Sandy changes in coastal waters – an essential job to ensure safe navigation with a major part of the economy based on the movement of goods by water – transited the area where Robert J. Walker was known to have been lost and laid a memorial wreath on the water. Using the sophisticated sonar mapping technology of Thomas Jefferson, The Office of Coast Survey’s Vitad Pradith, working with East Carolina University graduate student and archaeologist Joyce Steinmetz and the crew of Thomas Jefferson did a survey of the area and focused on the previously charted wreck thought to be Walker.



After a ceremony last month onboard NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson, Ensign Eileen Pye lays a wreath over the waters where USCS Robert J. Walker sank. (Credit: NOAA)Blank

You can read a detailed, contemporary news account of the disaster, from the June 23, 1860 issue of the New York Commercial Advertiser here.

Videos from the wreck site are online here. The visibility is pretty lousy, but the exposed part of the wreck is similar in many ways to that of U.S.S. Hatteras, that was the focus os a NOAA-led expedition last year. Some of the preservation on the Walker site is remarkable. There are even remnants of what are believed to be wool blankets, that have been preserved by being covered in mud, in an anaerobic environment, until recently. (Hurricane Sandy may have played a role in exposing these materials.)

In her career as a survey vessel, Robert J. Walker probably served off Galveston, as she spent considerable time operating in the Gulf of Mexico. As it happens, her commanding officer during much of that period was Benjamin Franklin Sands (right, 1811-1883), whose first-hand knowledge of the hydrography of the Texas coast would prove useful some years later, when he commanded the Union squadron on blockade duty off Galveston during the closing days of the Civil War. It was Captain Sands who formally accepted Galveston’s surrender in June 1865, an event that effectively ended the Union blockade of Southern ports. You can download a high-res copy of one of Sands’ charts, compiled during his tenure aboard Robert J. Walker, here.

Congrats to NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program and all its partners in this endeavor.


A Blue Norther

In the winter of 1843-44, an Englishwoman by the name of Matilda Charlotte Houstoun (pronounced “Haweston”) visited Galveston twice with her husband, a British cavalry officer. The Houstouns were making a tour of the Gulf of Mexico, with Captain Houstoun trying to drum up interest in an invention of his for preserving beef. During their second visit, the Houstouns made a trip to Houston and back the 111-ton steamer Dayton, Captain D. S. Kelsey. On the trip back, the little steamer was delayed for two nights at Morgan’s Point, at the head of Galveston Bay, because a “norther” had blown so much water from the bay that it was impossible for the boat to get over nearby Clopper’s Bar, until the water rose again. The passengers went ashore and occupied their time in various ways; Captain Houstoun managed to shoot a possum, which was a novel creature to him. It was an object of brief curiosity until other passengers, more familiar with the fauna of Texas, appropriated it for the cook with the assurance that the animal was “first rate eating.”


Cloppers Bar
Morgan’s Point and Clopper’s Bar, as shown on an 1856 U.S. Coast Survey chart of Galveston Bay. The soundings are in feet; any unusual reduction in the water level in the bay would make the bar impassible.


“Northers” were new phenomena to the Houstouns, too, and in her travelogue Matilda Charlotte Houstoun gave a fine description of one:


They most frequently occur after a few days of damp dull weather, and generally about once a fortnight. Their approach is known by a dark bank rising on the horizon, and gradually overspreading the heavens. The storm bursts forth with wonderful suddenness and tremendous violence and generally lasts forty-­eight hours; the wind after that period veers round to the east and southward, and the storm gradually abates. During the continuance of a norther, the cold is intense, and the wind so penetrating, it is almost impossible to keep oneself warm.


We had a norther here last week, a weather front that blasted through the area on the night of Wednesday/Thursday, part of the same front that caused hideous and deadly dust storms on the South Plains in Lubbock earlier. Down here, over 500 miles away, it left an orange dusting on cars and houses. Driving down to Angleton in Brazoria County along the Gulf on Thursday afternoon, my vehicle was continually buffeted by 25- to 30 mph winds at a right angle to the road, pushing the car to the left, toward oncoming lanes of traffic. Not real fun.

But the most interesting aspect of this is one experienced by the Houstouns and others aboard Dayton almost 170 years ago, the effect of this strong, steady wind on local water levels. Historical accounts of bad weather will often include phrases like “blew the water out of the bay,” or something similar, and that’s not much of an exaggeration. Late Thursday evening, almost 24 hours after the front went through, I collected some graphics of meteorological and hydrologic data from Houston/Galveston Bay PORTS, a reporting system built and maintained by NOAA to provide real-time updates of conditions for those in the maritime industry. The graphics are small and a little difficult to read, but they provide direct, measured documentation of the sort of event described by so many mariners and travelers over the years. The data presented here are drawn from three different locations: Morgan’s Point, where Mrs. Houstoun and Dayton were stranded for two days; Pier 21 at Galveston, at the site of what was then known as Central Wharf, the steamboat’s destination; and Galveston Bay Entrance, a buoy along the channel through which marine traffic enters and leaves all the ports in the region — Galveston, Texas City, Houston, Baytown, and so on:




Let’s look at the data in some detail:


Wind speed at Morgan’s Point. This little chart shows the wind direction and speed for the period beginning about 4:30 a.m. on Thursday. The red dots show the sustained wind speed (scale on the y axis), while the blue arrows show its direction. For most of the period, right up until about 6 p.m., the wind blew steadily and consistently from the NNW at between 15 and 25 knots (17.3 to 28.8 mph), with gusts above that.


This chart shows the air temperature at Morgan’s Point, from about 4:30 a.m. Thursday until late that evening. As the front passes, the air temperature drops almost 20° F in the space of a few hours. It climbs back up during the day, but not nearly as high as it had been, before falling again after sunset Thursday.


This chart shows the water levels at Morgan’s Point, from about 4:30 a.m. Thursday until late that evening. The narrow blue line represents the predicted height of the water at the tide gauge; it wavers a little bit based on the natural flow of the tide, which has a small normal range at that point. The red X marks are the actual, observed height of the water, which drops steadily with the wind over a period of about twelve hours, before leveling off and holding steady at more than two-and-a-half feet below the point known as “mean lower low water” (MLLW), the low-water standard that is used for navigational purposes. Note that the wind also wiped out almost any of the normal rise in the water level expected due to tidal action.


What about at the south end of Galveston Bay? Here’s the project vs. actual recorded water levels at Pier 21, along the Galveston wharf front:


Here, closer to the Galveston Bay entrance, tidal action has more effect, but the water level remains more than two feet lower than predicted.


This chart, plotting data from a buoy at the entrance to the bay, reveals an almost identical profile to that from Pier 21. Here, again, eighteen hours after the passage of the front, the water remains more than two feet below its predicted level based on tides alone.


These three charts show (top to bottom) wind speed and direction, air temperature and water levels at the entrance to Galveston Bay, for a 72-hour period ending about 10:30 p.m. on Thursday. Comparing these, it’s easy to see when the front passes in the early morning hours of Thursday, prompting dramatic changes in the wind, air temperature and water levels.


Finally, one last chart, showing the sub-surface currents at the entrance to Galveston Bay, at 14, 21 and 27 feet (4.3, 6.4 and 8.2 meters) below the surface. Although the wind only acts on the surface of the water directly, the momentum it generates there is carried through into much deeper water, dramatically altering flow of water so much that even at a depth of 27 feet, the normal tidal action is so completely erased that it results in a net ebb of the tide, a full eighteen hours of water emptying from Galveston Bay into the Gulf of Mexico.


How much water got “blown out of the bay” on this occasion? Some (very) rough estimates are possible. (Check my math, y’all.) If we take the difference between the predicted and observed water levels at the head of the bay (Morgan’s Point, -2.57 feet) and entrance to the bay (Galveston Bay Entrance, -2.08 feet), we can average between them a value of -2.33 feet. If we take that figure as representative of the water level of the bay as a whole (and that’s a big “if,” admittedly), then we can convert that vertical dimension into the volume of water it represents.

Galveston Bay encompasses about 600 square statute miles. One square mile is 27.88 million square feet; 600 square miles is 16.73 billion square feet. Multiply that by a depth of 2.33 feet, and you get a total volume of water of 38.98 billion cubic feet (1.1 billion cubic meters) of water.

That’s a lot of water; it would fill a cube-shaped aquarium 3,390 feet (1,033 meters), over a half-mile long, on each side. The water would weigh something on the order of 1.24 billion short tons, or 1.13 billion metric tonnes.


A 3,390-foot cube of seawater, approximating the volume of water blown out of Galveston Bay during the norther on December 20, 2012. Shown to scale are (top) a large, full-rigged sailing ship similar to Cutty Sark, (right) the statue of Liberty, and (left) the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, among the world’s tallest structures.


So much for the numbers. What does this mean in practical terms for navigation on Galveston Bay? Today, weather conditions like these still pose a problem, particularly the wind, which poses significant challenges for large vessels transiting the Houston Ship Channel. I suspect the problem is worse for down-bound vessels than up-bound, as the former are running with the wind and current, and are thus much more difficult to maneuver.

In the mid-19th century, the challenges of foul weather on the bay were substantially worse. The riverboats that ran between Galveston and Buffalo Bayou, Cedar Bayou, or the mouth of the Trinity River were very vulnerable, with their high superstructures and chimneys to catch the wind from any angle. (The little sternwheeler C. K. Hall, carrying a load of bricks out of Cedar Bayou, was sunk in just such a situation in 1871.) But the bigger problem then, before major dredging operations had established a deep and stable channel, was the depth of water over obstacles like Clopper’s Bar and Red Fish Bar, a nine-­mile-­long oyster reef curving in a gentle, east-­west arc stretching completely across Galveston Bay, almost exactly halfway between Clopper’s Bar and Galveston Island. Red Fish Bar could, on occasion, cause significant damage to vessels, and at least one steamboat, Ellen P. Frankland, would be wrecked on the obstruction in the 1840s. Both Clopper’s Bar and Red Fish Bar could be crossed regularly by vessels drawing less than four feet, but this depth of water varied with the tide and weather.


Red Fish Bar
Red Fish Bar, as shown on an 1856 chart of Galveston Bay. Soundings are given in feet.


I doubt that most of us in this area paid too much attention to the weather Thursday, apart from the inconvenience of the sudden drop in temperature and the wind. But it’s good to keep in mind how dramatically similar events sometimes affected the day-to-day lives of people in the past, and how fortunate we are to be sometimes that much more removed from them.


The Sea Serpent

The recent discovery of monster shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico brings with it serious ecological concerns. But it also reminds us that sightings of sea monsters in the Gulf of Mexico have been common for a long time, even if they are most probably less reliable than the reports of the Asian tiger prawn. From the front page of the New York Times, 1 July 1908:

Seen at 3 Bells in Gulf of Mexico – Enormous Rattles on Its Tail
Special to the New York Times

GALVESTON, June 30. – What is confidently believed to be a sea serpent has been sighted and narrowly inspected by the officers crew, and fifteen passengers of the steamship Livingstone of the Texas-Mexican Line. All of the witnesses made a sworn affidavit to this effect before United States Consular Agent Charles W. Rickland at Frontera, Mexico.

The statement is signed by Capt. G. A. Olsen and the other officers, George Thomas of Denver, Albert Dean of Memphis, H. B. Stoddard of Bryan, Texas, Mrs. Jessie Thornton of Chicago, and eleven other passengers. In substance it declares that at three bells on the evening of June 24, the Livingstone, bound from Galveston to Frontera, Mexico, making good weather, and about fifty miles north of Frontera, in the Gulf of Mexico, the serpent was sighted off the port bow.

The ship got within sixty feet of the creature, and for fifteen minutes stood while all on board viewed the serpent through the glasses. It was apparently sleeping, and not less than 200 feet long, of about the diameter of a flour barrel in the centre of the body, but was not as round. The head was about six feet long by three feet at the widest part.

The color was dark brown, and neat its tail were rings or circles that appeared larger in circumference than the body at that point. As it swam away the tail was erected, and a rattling noise as loud as that made by a gatling [sic.] gun in action startled the watchers on the Livingstone.

The 1002-ton Norwegian steamer Livingstone appears in a photo recently posted to Shorpy, unloading bananas at an East River pier in Lower Manhattan. The date is given as c. 1906, but may be a little latter. Livingstone was built at Stavanger, Norway, and completed in January of 1906. From 1907 until at least 1912 she was in regular trade around the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, calling at Galveston, Frontera, Laguna and Tulum, and as far south as Panama. An occasional voyage as far north as New York might have been highly profitable, particularly with a cargo of fresh tropical fruit, as in the Shorpy image.

Livingstone as the Norwegian cargo ship Lyngstad, 1928-34. Via here.

Livingstone was apparently a solidly-built vessel. She went through numerous changes of ownership and name, surviving two world wars. She was finally broken up at La Spezia, Italy in December 1962.


Image: H.M.S. Daedalus encounters a sea serpent in the Atlantic, 1848.

We Cannot Know Their Minds

Confederate soldiers captured at Gettysburg, 1863, by Matthew Brady.

Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin has a great post on the near-impossibility of really knowing one’s ancestors, particularly those who died long ago and left no correspondence or journals. His post is, I think, motivated in part by real frustration at the tendency of some folks to build a narrative about their ancestors’ beliefs, attitudes and motivations out of — well, out of nothing but their own desires. This is a particular problem with the Lost Causers. They imagine their ancestors as brave and truthful and honest and patriotic and generous not because they actually were — because in fact we cannot know those things — but because those are the traits their descendants want to see in them. It’s not history; it’s fantasy. Based on my read of his blog, Kevin tends to be a pretty equanimous guy in his discourse, but he (quite rightly) makes a sharp and very direct point here:

This is a roundabout way of getting to my main point, which is that most of you with ancestors who fought in the Civil War don’t know a damn thing about them.  You don’t know what they thought about slavery, secession, Lee, Jackson, Lincoln, Sherman, emancipation, defeat, victory or anything else for that matter.  Without an opportunity to talk directly with them or the benefit of some written document your claim to know why they fought is about as valid as your claim to know why any random individual fought.  You just happened to be lucky enough to fall within the same family tree.  Your tendency to be offended by a claim about Civil War soldiers or anyone else from that time tells us everything about how you remember the past and nothing about how your ancestor might respond.

In my own case, I’ve been doing a little research on my family, with particular focus on identifying Civil War veterans. It’s turned up some surprises. In one case, I found a soldier who enlisted in a Georgia infantry unit in April 1861, and served the entire war in the same regiment — apparently in the same company — all the way from First Manassas to Appomattox. It’s staggering to think about the things he must have seen, the places and events and people that we know only from books and film. I do think — or maybe only hope — that it’s possible to at least to get a sense of what they knew, a sense of what they went through.

But even if that’s possible, it’s only a snapshot of a moment in time. In most cases we cannot know their minds, their fears, or their motivations, because there is no record of those intangible things. The men who marched off to war in 1861 were, like soldiers today, motivated by a whole range of reasons, often multiple reasons at once, and often by reasons that they cannot fully articulate to themselves.

I’m fortunate that I have a large collection of detailed stories about part of my family — though not involving the branch this particular Confederate inhabits — but even these would not really serve the matter, for they’re inevitably filtered though succeeding generations of perceptions, misunderstandings and prejudices. As you say, these often tell us more about those who have carried on the oral tradition than about the original subject.

I really do wish I could talk to that twenty-year-old soldier, a century and a half ago, and ask him why — why was he enlisting? What motivated him? What did he expect would happen? And I wish I could talk to him again, trudging back home from Appomattox — tired, hungry, hardened, and perhaps traumatized by his experiences.

Those are questions I want to ask, and never can. That’s a hard thing, but to my thinking, it’s preferable to creating an alternate fantasy. That’s no way to honor one’s ancestors.

[Cross-posted as a comment over at Civil War Memory]

Later addition, May 16: Robert Moore, writing over at Cenantua’s Blog, had an outstanding post last month on the the Virginia SCV’s response to the Virginia Confederate History Month debacle, to make the point that those who are most vocal in honoring their Confederate ancestors are actually doing their credibility a lot of harm by making false or entirely irrelevant historical claims (Lincoln was a segregationist! Grant owned slaves!), and by broad-brush assumptions about their Confederate ancestors’ beliefs and motivations that, while comforting to their descendants, are based on nothing more than wishful thinking. Moore’s writing very neatly expresses my thoughts about my own Confederate ancestors, and how they should be viewed:

As I have pointed out, I don’t believe that all [those men] embraced the Confederacy. They may have worn gray uniforms at different points, but belief in “the Cause” is subject to debate. Of those who went willfully (initially), I suspect that most were likely committed to the thought that they were enlisting to “defend their homes”, to “repel the oncoming invasion”, and maybe even believed that states’ rights were in jeopardy, but I remain quite aware that their motivations and that of many of those in high places in the Confederate government were not always one in the same. This is the line that I draw when looking back at my Confederate ancestors; a line between the motivations of the men (as they understood things) and those of the government.

I admire the valor, courage, and sacrifice of the common Confederate soldier. I respect their decision to do what they thought was right, then. I marvel at the stories of their lives in those four short years.

YET, I know what underlying factors were at play, not with the common soldiers, but in the motivations of the Confederacy. I acknowledge that the Confederate government was a government conceived in the interests of preserving slavery. The Southern states felt their power waning in national government as slavery was not being allowed to expand, but was slowly being limited. I acknowledge that high officials took initiative into their own hands, without regard for the common Southerner’s voice.

Forgotten Gateway


The Discovery Pyramid at Moody Gardens will host the traveling exhibition, “Forgotten Gateway: Coming to America through Galveston Island,” opening November 21. This new traveling exhibit, developed by the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum,  chronicles The Port of Galveston’s largely forgotten history as a major gateway to American immigration from 1845 to 1924. Forgotten Gateway builds on a growing scholarly and public interest in the history of migration patterns to America and Galveston’s place (as one of the nation’s top immigrant ports) in that history.

“This is the first time that Galveston’s legacy as a port of entry has been fully explored on a national scale,” said Nashid Madyun, director of the Texas State History Museum. “Everyone knows the role that Ellis Island played in American history. Few people know that long before Ellis Island processed its first immigrant, Galveston had been the port of entry to hundreds of thousands of people who helped settle Texas and the American Midwest. Texas’ growth and development would have been very different without the impact of immigrants who came through Galveston.”

While New York’s Ellis Island’s location made it a natural port for Europeans, Galveston attracted a diverse group of people from Europe, Mexico, South and Central America and even Asia.  In addition, before the Civil War, it was a major port for forced migration – the sale and transport of slaves from Africa and other points in the United States to Texas.

The exhibit highlights enduring humanities themes in the history of immigration including: the dangers of the journey; making a life in a new land; navigating bureaucracy; confronting discrimination; and becoming “American.”  These trials and tribulations are illuminated through personal stories, dynamic visitor interactive kiosks, engaging media pieces, and more than 200 original artifacts and documents.

Forgotten Gateway was truly a team effort, involving literally dozens of collaborating partners within the Museum, the city, and the entire country. The guest curator and visionary for the exhibit is Dr. Suzanne Seriff, a museum consultant and anthropologist, and Sr. Lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin . She brought the idea for the project to the Museum in response to a comment from a 10th-grader she had chaperoned on a heritage trip to Ellis Island. “Why do we need to go to New York,” asked the student. “My grandparents came through Galveston.”

Admission to “Forgotten Gateway” is $8.95. Contact Moody Gardens for further details.

. This new traveling exhibit chronicles The Port of Galveston’s largely forgotten history as a major gateway to American immigration from 1845 to 1924. Forgotten Gateway builds on a growing scholarly and public interest in the history of migration patterns to America and Galveston’s place (as one of the nation’s top immigrant ports) in that history.

“This is the first time that Galveston’s legacy as a port of entry has been fully explored on a national scale,” said Nashid Madyun, director of the Texas State History Museum. “Everyone knows the role that Ellis Island played in American history. Few people know that long before Ellis Island processed its first immigrant, Galveston had been the port of entry to hundreds of thousands of people who helped settle Texas and the American Midwest. Texas’ growth and development would have been very different without the impact of immigrants who came through Galveston.”

While New York’s Ellis Island’s location made it a natural port for Europeans, Galveston attracted a diverse group of people from Europe, Mexico, South and Central America and even Asia.  In addition, before the Civil War, it was a major port for forced migration – the sale and transport of slaves from Africa and other points in the United States to Texas.

The exhibit highlights enduring humanities themes in the history of immigration including: the dangers of the journey; making a life in a new land; navigating bureaucracy; confronting discrimination; and becoming “American.”  These trials and tribulations are illuminated through personal stories, dynamic visitor interactive kiosks, engaging media pieces, and more than 200 original artifacts and documents.

Forgotten Gateway was truly a team effort, involving literally dozens of collaborating partners within the Museum, the city, and the entire country. The guest curator and visionary for the exhibit is Dr. Suzanne Seriff, a museum consultant and anthropologist, and Sr. Lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin . She brought the idea for the project to the Museum in response to a comment from a 10th-grader she had chaperoned on a heritage trip to Ellis Island. “Why do we need to go to New York,” asked the student. “My grandparents came through Galveston.”

So, How Good Was Laird’s?


The shipbuilding firm of John Laird, Sons & Co. launched several of the most famous ships of the 19th century, including several (Denbigh, Alabama, Lark) that played dramatic roles in Texas during the Civil War. The company was arguably the world’s leader in iron-hulled construction in the mid-1800s.

So how good were they, really?

Good enough to win a contract from Captain Nemo:

“But how were you able to build this wonderful Nautilus in secret?”

“Each part of it, Professor Aronnax, came from a different spot on the globe and reached me at a cover address.  Its keel was forged by Creusot in France, its propeller shaft by Pen & Co.  in  London, the sheet-iron plates for its hull by Laird’s in Liverpool, its propeller by Scott’s in Glasgow.  Its tanks were manufactured by Cail & Co. in Paris, its engine by Krupp in Prussia, its spur by the Motala workshops in Sweden, its precision instruments by Hart Bros. in New York, etc.; and each of these suppliers received my specifications under a different name.”

– Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Ch. 13, “Some Figures.”


Buffalo Bayou Packets, Pt. 2

This is a the second installment of a multipart article on the development of the steamboat trade between Houston and Galveston. In this segment, the steamboatmen learn the bayou and develop an operating system.


The steamboat depicted on the
$10 Republic of Texas note represented the backbone of a rapidly expanding economy.  In the late 1830s and early 1840s, $10 in Texas currency would have just about covered the cost of cabin passage between Galveston and Houston.

In the early years, navigation along the upper reaches of the bayou was a tenuous and frustrating business.  Masters tried, with only limited success, to establish regular schedules.  Laura was a regular in the trade, along with Leonidas, Capt. Hanna, and Branch T. Archer, John E. Ross, master.  Archer’s owners advertised her to make two round trips between Houston and Galveston each week; the fare for a passage aboard Leonidas was $7.  Later these were joined by Sam Houston, Correo, and Friend.

All of these early boats were sidewheelers.  Most were built in Cincinnati, and averaged about 107 tons.  Taking as an example eight Buffalo Bayou boats built between 1831 and 1840 for which complete data is available, the average life span was about 5.75 years.  Western Rivers boats everywhere had a hard life, but this was particularly true for boats plying between Houston and Galveston.

Safely navigating Buffalo Bayou itself was the biggest challenge.  Along much of its length, trees grew right to the water’s edge and cast their limbs in a green canopy over the narrow waterway.  The trip made a vivid impression on new arrivals to Texas, and they usually described their journey in less than glowing terms:

The Bayou became so narrow at last that I thought it would be no difficult matter to jump ashore from either side of the boat.  And, indeed, I feared several times we should get aground.  Once we were in an ugly situation, a snag having got tangled in some of the wheels — it caused some alarm and might have proved a dangerous accident — After seeing the number of floating logs etc. in the Bayou I ceased to wonder at the one wheeled Boats I had seen — my only wonder is how any escaped.

In addition, every boat on the run had to cross the length of Galveston Bay, a stretch of water that offered a series of hazards that no Western Rivers boat was designed to endure.  While it is sheltered from the worst conditions of the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston Bay often exhibits choppy waves and whitecaps, particularly in the winter and early spring.  Any vessel crossing the bay is exposed to both wind and waves, and in a stiff breeze a shallow-draft Western Rivers boat would skittle off to leeward very quickly.  It was very common for boats throughout the era of the packets to get outside the channel at Clopper’s Bar or Red Fish Bar; the one advantage there was that usually the boat would float free on the next tide.

Just such a circumstance happened to Gustav Dresel, a German chronicler who traveled from Galveston to Houston aboard the Correo in August 1838.  The boat grounded hard on Clopper’s Bar, and the passengers and crew were only able to get her off the following day after transferring all her cargo and baggage to boats and improvised rafts.  Despite the discomfort, Dresel observed that the trip up the bayou was uniquely pleasant, with both banks densely covered with brush.  The bayou itself, he noted, “becomes so canal-like that two boats are able to make way for each other in only a few places.  Overhanging braches often brush the boat’s deck. . . .  From among them is wafted the fragrance of the blossoms of the magnificent magnolia, which I have seen nowhere in such splendor and profusuion.”  After passing the battlefield at San Jacinto, still littered with the remains of the Mexican soldiers slaughtered there two years before, the Correo arrived in Houston at nine in the evening, after a journey of nearly 36 hours.

Fares for passage and freight varied greatly, depending on the value of the currency in circulation.  In August 1837, the going fare seems to have been about $7.  But this was at a time when U.S. notes were the only currency in circulation.  As new Republic of Texas currency began appearing, fares ballooned to $10 by January 1838,  and to $15 by the end of 1838.

Competition for passengers was fierce from the beginning, and a common method for attracting customers was to tout a boat’s speed.  One of the earliest masters to make such a claim was Captain A. J. Davis, who advertised in 1838 that his new steamer, San Jacinto, would make three round trips between Galveston and Houston each week — one more than was standard — and that San Jacinto had made a record passage between the two cities in just six hours.  Whether this claim for speed is true or not is questionable.

At the beginning of December 1838 a master appeared who would from then on play a vital role in steam navigation on Buffalo Bayou.  John H. Sterrett, master of the new steamer Rufus Putnam, had been born about 1805 in Pittsburgh.  Details of his early career are unknown, but he may have come to Texas as early as 1837.    Captain Sterrett worked hard to make himself and his boat known.  When he learned that a competing boat, Emblem, Capt. Bryan, had made the trip up the bayou in eight hours, Sterrett pushed the Putnam through a gale to Houston in under seven.

By the early 1840s, the standard method of operation was for most boats to leave either the Galveston or Houston terminals around five or six o’clock in the evening.   In the early years of traffic on the bayou, the boats had run during the day.  This was the preferred method and undoubtedly the safer, given the number of snags and sandbars in the stream.  In November 1841, though, one of the newer boats in the trade, Victoria, inaugurated a nighttime run.  Undoubtedly Captain John Delesdernier recognized the value of making the trip at night and thus allowing his passengers a full day’s business at each end of the trip.  Certainly Delesdernier’s competitors soon followed suit, and until the end of the era most boats on the run made their trips at night.

– Andy Hall

The Real Count Cambronne

A shouted order formed them up on deck, line behind line, gaunt, whiskered men who had marched into every capital in Europe save London alone. Saturday Evening Post image, from the Hornblower-L archives.

Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies, the ninth of C. S. Forrester’s Hornblower novels, opens with the title character arriving at New Orleans aboard H.M. Schooner Crab. It is 1821, and Hornblower has finally hoisted his flag, as commander-in-chief of the West Indies Station. But that post was but a shadow of its wartime self, and so Hornblower is forced to call at New Orleans in the diminutive Crab, with her pair of pop-gun six-pounders and a crew of sixteen.

At New Orleans, Hornblower encounters the famous (and historical) Viscount Pierre Jacques Étienne Cambronne, former General of the French Empire and commander of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard at Waterloo. Hornblower discovers that Cambronne has chartered a large, fast ship, ostensibly to take survivors of a failed colony of former guardsmen on the Texas coast, and return them to France.

Through careful inquiry, however, Hornblower comes to realize that Cambronne is not returning the soldiers to France directly; he plans to rescue the emperor from his South Atlantic imprisonment on St. Helena, and return him in triumph to France, a nation increasingly disgruntled under the corrupt rule of the restored Bourbon monarchy.

Hornblower has few options. There is not time to send for reinforcements or instructions; the little Crab can neither catch Cambronne’s ship, Daring, nor defeat it in action. Hornblower, always calculating, always turning over the possibilities, determines that the only way to stop Cambronne’s plot is to intercept Daring in the Tobago Channel, between Trinidad and Tobago, and dissuade Cambronne from his intended course of action. Hornblower knows there is only one way to do this: he tells Cambronne that the emperor has died at St. Helena.

“I do not believe you,” said Cambronne, nevertheless. It was just the sort of tale that might be told to halt Daring in her passage.

Sir!” said Hornblower haughtily. He drew himself up even stiffer, acting as well as he could the part of a man of honour whose word was being impugned. The pose was almost successful.

“You must understand the importance of what you are saying, milord,” said Cambronne, with the faintest hint of an apology in his voice. But then he said the fatal, dreaded words that Hornblower had been expecting. “Milord, do you give me your word of honour as a gentleman that what you say is true?”

“My word of honour as a gentleman,” said Hornblower.

He had anticipated this moment-in misery for days and days. He was ready for it. He compelled himself to make his answer in the manner of a man of honor. He made himself say it steadily and sincerely, as if it did not break his heart to say it. He had been sure that Cambronne would ask him for his word of honour.

It was the last sacrifice he could make. In twenty years of war he had freely risked his life for his country. He had endured danger, anxiety, hardship. He had never, until now, been asked to give his honour. This was the further price he had to pay. It was through his own fault that the peace of the world was in peril. It was fitting that he should pay the price. And the honour of one man was a small price to pay for the peace of the world, to save his country from the renewal of the deadly perils she had so narrowly survived for twenty years. In those happy years of the past, returning to his country after an arduous campaign, he had looked about him and he had breathed English air and he had told himself, with fatuous patriotism, that England was worth fighting for, was worth dying for. England was worth a man’s honour, too. Oh, it was true. But it was heart-rending, it was far, far worse than death that it should be his honour that had to be sacrificed.

Hornblower succeeds, of course, and ultimately discovers that Napoleon indeed had died, just weeks before. He had, unknowingly, told Cambronne the truth.

Cambronne’s mission to rescue Napoleon and return him to the throne of Imperial France did not actually occur, but it is a plausible fiction. So long as Napoleon lived, there were rumors of plots to rescue him just as Cambronne’s fictional alter-ego attempted in Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies. Moreover, the failed settlement of French soldiers on the Texas coast was based on a real colony, Champ d’Asile (Field of Asylum).

In the novel, the British consul-general at New Orleans, Cloudesley Sharpe, explains that the settlement is at Corpus Christi, “a village on a lagoon.” Champ d’Asile was actually located much further to the north, on the wooded bottomlands of East Texas, on the Trinity River near the present-day town of Liberty.

Champ d’Asile was one of several attempts by Bonapartists to establish colonies or settlements in the Americas. Champ d’Asile was the pet project of the brothers Henri and Charles Lallemand. Both were senior officers of the Empire, and had attempted to lead a rebellion against the Bourbon government. The Lallemands were thrown into prison, but liberated upon Napoleon’s Hundred Days. Henri was rewarded with command of an artillery regiment of the Old Guard at Waterloo, while Charles commanded a regiment of the Imperial Guard’s light cavalry.

There can be no doubt that Charles, in particular, was completely dedicated to Bonaparte; when the emperor turned himself over to the British, Lallemand accompanied him as far as Plymouth, but was refused permission to continue on to St. Helena. He remained loyal, however, and in years following maintained a correspondence with Napoleon and his retinue. Charles Lallemand was widely rumored to be planning a rescue mission of the sort that the fictional Count Cambronne attempted, and Napoleon left Lallemand one hundred thousand francs in his will.

Henri Lallemand was living in New Orleans in early 1817 when he struck upon the idea of establishing a colony of former French soldiers in the East Texas wilderness. Ever since the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, there had been an ongoing dispute about the boundary between the United States and Spain. The result of this had been the gradual development of a “neutral ground,” spanning present-day western Louisiana and eastern Texas, where neither nation had effective control. This situation seemed just perfect for Henri’s notion of establishing a soldier’s colony.

When Charles arrived in Philadelphia later in the year, and learned of Henri’s proposal, he immediately took it and made it his own. Philadelphia had a large population of French expatriates, and Charles was able to parlay his fame and connection to the emperor into a large following. Plans moved quickly forward. Charles Lallemand organized a company which successfully lobbied Congress for a large grant of land in Alabama, ostensibly for his soldier to grow olives and grapes. Lallemand’s company then sold the land in Alabama, giving him the cash he needed to mount his expedition to Texas.

Charles Lallemand and his colonists arrived at Galveston in February 1818. At the time, Galveston was the base of the privateers Pierre and Jean Laffite, who were themselves using the ambiguous boundary between Spain and the United States to create their own smuggling empire. The Laffites reprovisioned Lallemand’s expedition, and helped transport them up Galveston Bay and the Trinity River to their new colony. It is also likely that the Laffites made sure that the Spanish authorities were aware of this new, armed expedition on their eastern frontier, because the viceroy soon began organizing a military column to march on the colony.

A highly-romanticised view of Champ d’Asile. In fact, the officers of Champ d’Asile did little in the way of farming or construction, apart from building two rudimentary forts; most of their time was spent drilling or hunting. The tropical environment is wrong as well; the Trinity River Bottom of East Texas is relative flat and heavily wooded with oak and other deciduous trees. Texas A&M photo.

The viceroy needn’t have bothered; Champ d’Asile never really found its footing, and collapsed within a few months. The colony remained small, with not much more than a hundred settlers at any one time. Most of the colonists were former officers, neither trained nor inclined to farming. They spent much of their time drilling or hunting. There was little serious attempt at agriculture, and food quickly ran short. There was also probably friction between the French colonists – about three quarters of the total – and the remainder, drawn from all the allied nations of the Empire. By the latter part of July, they’d had enough, and Laffite’s boats were once again put to use, ferrying the disgruntled colonists back down the bay to Galveston. By November, most of the would-be colonists were back in New Orleans, looking for new opportunities.

What was Charles Lallemand’s real intention in establishing Champ d’Asile? No one knows. Did he envision building a military force on the frontier that could be used to rescue Napoleon in the way that the fictional Count Cambronne attempted? Possibly. There’s no question of Lallemand’s loyalty to the emperor, and under his leadership, the men of Champ d’Asile devoted themselves mostly to purely military pursuits. But it was also the age of “filibusters,” adventurers who took advantage of collapsing European empires to establish their own revolutionary movements. Lallemand had reportedly talked of an alliance he had with owners of silver mines in northern Mexico; a coordinated and successful overthrow of the Spanish government there might have given Lallemand’s colony the resources it needed to mount an expedition to rescue the emperor. But no one knows what Lallemand’s ultimate intentions were, and he was never able to marshal the necessary resources.

But what if he had? What if the Lallemands, as aggressive and dedicated to the emperor as they were, had managed to collect the men, munitions and money to attempt a rescue of Napoleon? How might they have been stopped? Could they have been stopped?

Now that would make a great story. . . .

San Jacinto Surrender Site Found

San Jacinto battle flag.

The Houston Chronicle reports that archaeologists have found what they believe to be a site where remnants of the Mexican army surrendered after the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836:

The Dallas Morning News reported Thursday that the heavily wooded area was long suspected to be a gold mine for artifacts from the battle that sealed Texas’ independence from Mexico on April 21, 1836.

Archaeology consultant Roger Moore thinks the commander who organized the surrender was Col. Juan Almonte. The top Mexican official was educated in the U.S. and could have negotiated with the Texans in English.

Moore theorized that Almonte had a hard time persuading the defeated soldiers to stop running. Moore said he might have managed it because the spot a few miles southeast of the main battlefield is near a gulley that would have slowed their flight. Fleeing soldiers who didn’t surrender were killed on the San Jacinto battleground, about 25 miles east of downtown Houston.

A couple of ancestors of mine, Perry by name, were veterans of the Battle of San Jacinto. In their old age, they passed their recollections of the fight to their young descendants, who in their old old age, passed those along to my mother, who passed them on to me. So, you might say, I know the story of the battle only third-hand.

They offered little in the way of new detail, but their memories did pass along something of the feel of the action, which is sometimes lacking in historical accounts.

The end of the battle as depicted in Texas History Movies.

Every written account of San Jacinto mentions that the battle lasted only a few minutes. That’s true, but only to the degree that a battle consists of a fight between two organized forces. The killing went on for hours. The Perrys recalled that, as they approached the Mexican line, someone shouted “remember the Alamo!” Someone else called out, “remember Goliad!” At that moment, a wave of blinding, white rage swept over the Texian troops, so much so that everything that followed was a blur of anger and violence. The Mexican troops had been caught unprepared, and most of them fled. When caught, they begged in broken English, “me no Alamo! Me no Goliad!” It made little difference. The killing went on until dark, when the Texian soldiers finally collapsed from physical and emotional exhaustion. The Texian commander, Sam Houston, reported that only nine of his men were killed or mortally wounded, while 630 Mexican soldiers were killed. It wasn’t so much a battle as a slaughter.

Finally, I love this quote from James Crisp, an historian specializing in the Texas Revolution:

“If you’ve got three or four different kinds of evidence and they all tend to say the same things, like the written reports from the fields, the memoirs,” Crisp said. “If all of those tend to agree, the technical word we use in the historical field is ‘truth.’”

– Andy Hall