Two Brothers and a Friend in East Texas
Moses L. Patton, Robert S. Patton, and Radford Berry
By W. T. Block
Robert S. Patton, Moses L. Patton and Radford Berry were all pioneer residents of Nacogdoches County, two of them having arrived before the Declaration of Independence from Mexico. They were also pioneer cotton shippers from both the Angelina and Sabine rivers; one was the “constitutional alcalde” of Nacogdoches in 1835; and founders of the present-day ghost towns of Pattonia and Belzora. Nevertheless, only Moses Patton appeared in the Handbook of Texas for 1952.
Radford Berry was the first to arrive and his name appears in the 1835 census of Nacogdoches; also in the 1860, 1870 censuses of Jefferson County. He was born in Georgia in 1801.
Berry and his wife may have lived in Texas as early as 1832, and certainly no later than 1833. Handbook of Texas Online notes that Berry Creek, in Burleson County, was named for Radford Berry, who was living at Fort Tenoxtitlan in 1832. On Nov. 21, 1833, Radford Berry was issued ¼ league of land (1,107 acres) in Lorenzo de Zavala’s colony. In 1835 Berry owned 3 slaves.
On Nov. 11, 1835, Radford Berry was the “constitutional alcalde” of Nacogdoches, who accepted T. J. Rusk’s citizenship declaration, which was written in Spanish and much later was translated by R. B. Blake. Berry’s signature on it is filled with the ovals and flourishes so common to many men’s signatures of the 1800s, and probably signifies that Berry had received at least a rudimentary education in Georgia. The T. J. Rusk declaration was witnessed by Sam Houston and Nathaniel Robbins.
Between 1834 and Dec. 1835, Berry and George W. Smyth Sr. were two of the Nacogdoches land office commissioners for Zavala’s colony, employed by George W. Nixon and the Texas and Galveston Bay Land Company, to issue Mexican land grants in the Spanish language, but it is unknown whether Berry was fluent in Spanish, or whether he hired a translator. Soon after Dec. 1, 1835, as a result of the Convention at San Felipe, all land offices were ordered closed, but both Smyth and Berry remained open for three more weeks to process the remaining 150 land applications that remained on their desks.
Nothing is known of Radford Berry during the 1840s, but it appears plausible that he farmed in Nacogdoches County during those years. About 1848 he moved to the site of Belzora on Sabine River, about 18 miles almost due north of Tyler, Texas. In 1850 he began operating the Belzora ferry there, and the commissioners’ court set specific rates for people, livestock, and wagons for his ferriage rates to cross the river. Berry was appointed postmaster of Belzora on May 12, 1852, and he held that office until the post office was discontinued in 1856. Berry’s brother-in-law, Robert S. Patton built Belzora into a major river port and collecting point for Smith County’s cotton.
After R. S. Patton’s death in 1857, and the closing of the Belzora post office, Moses was appointed Patton’s executor and guardian of Patton’s 11-year-old son. Patton willed 10 slaves to his son, Robert M. Patton, in trust to Berry. Soon after, Radford and Sarah Ann Berry moved to Sabine Pass, where Sarah ran a boarding house while Radford farmed. In the 1860 census Berry was enumerated as owning $12,000 worth of real and personal property, including slaves; and Robert M. Patton owned $5,450 worth of (10) slaves.
Between Aug.-Oct., 1862, when a virulent yellow fever epidemic killed 150 civilians and Confederate soldiers at Sabine Pass, Radford and Sarah Ann Berry fled to Smiths Bluff, on Neches River 2 miles north of Nederland, where he bought a farm and occupied the farm house only recently vacated by Henry Wendt. Berry’s brother, Sebern Berry, moved from Newton County to Smiths Bluff, where he bought the 177-acre former Maria Turner “Mexican labor,” and married Henrietta Staffen, a woman less than half his age. Sebern Berry died in 1881, and his tombstone marks the lone grave in the Exxon-Mobil tank farm in Port Neches. Sarah Ann Berry died in 1868, and was buried in a now-extinct cemetery in Sun Oil tank farm. Radford Berry married again in 1870, at which time he disappeared from Jefferson County and from history.
Strangely, the giant hurricane of October 12, 1886 destroyed Sabine Pass, drowning 90 persons; also Johnson’s Bayou and the town of Radford Berry, LA. (across Sabine Lake from Port Arthur), drowning 110 more. Radford Berry was a village of 150 persons on the bayou, where such boats as the steamers Emily P. and Lark, and the schooner Dreadnaught docked each week to bring in and carry away the cotton and other produce. Two of the victims of the storm were listed only as “Mrs. Berry and daughter.” Hence the author is led to believe that Radford Berry died at Johnson’s Bayou during the 1870s, and is buried there is an unmarked grave.
Moses L. Patton was born on January 23, 1806 in Twiggs County, GA., and he came to Nacogdoches in 1835. Later he settled at Pattonia on Angelina River, 12 miles south of Nacogdoches. His obituary in a Galveston newspaper states that he fought in the Texas army. He also fought in the Cherokee War of 1839, and in 1840 he contracted with the Republic of Texas to remove the Shawnee Indians to Oklahoma. Also in 1840 Moses Patton married Susan Buford of Claiborne Parish, LA.
After Moses Patton’s older brother, Robert S. Patton, arrived at Pattonia about 1840, the brothers opened a mercantile and cotton commission business at Pattonia, and they built that river port into a major shipping point for Nacogdoches County cotton. In 1844, the Patton brothers built the keelboat T. J. Rusk and named it after Robert Patton’s son-in-law’s father. It is also likely that there were more than one keelboat of that name, for on some occasions keelboats were sold at the destination as scrap lumber, or otherwise they had to be “poled” or towed back to Pattonia by the steamboat Angelina.
The Angelina was the first steamboat ever to ply the Neches or Angelina River. The brothers either bought it or built it at Pattonia in 1846, and for 4 years the steamer probably made at least 12 successful voyages to Sabine Pass, hauling cotton and if needed, towing 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. No dimensions are known for the Angelina, but it was small, probably 90 feet long, with room for passengers, freight, and 350 bales of cotton.
In June, 1849, Capt. Patton signed a contract with Baxter Shipyard at Green’s Bluff (now Orange) to rebuild completely the Angelina’s superstructure, to include “new wheelhouses, new plumber guards, near upper and lower guards, new facings and moldings from stem to stern...” In April, 1849 a Galveston editor noted that “the steamer Angelina has been making regular trips. She arrived at the Pass on the 18th with cotton and full freight...” In Feb. 1850, the Angelina struck a snag and foundered near Evadale “with a load of lumber that Capt. Patton had purchased in Orange...”
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 to his farm, 7 miles east of Nacogdoches, where he also died on Aug. 12, 1883.[17a]
Robert Patton has never been given the credit he is due for opening cotton shipping on the Angelina-Neches River in 1844 or on the upper Sabine River in 1849. And the ghost town of Belzora has never been given the credit it deserves for its shipping to market Smith County’s cotton for 25 years. Every early newspaper showed the Sabine River as being open to navigation to Belzora, located 879 river miles north of Sabine Pass.
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. Hence the statement in Handbook of Texas Online that - “efforts to open the port of Belzora to major navigation also failed” - is in a large measure incorrect.
Robert Patton, the younger brother of Moses Patton, was born in Twiggs County, GA., CA. 1810, and he moved to Nacogdoches CA. 1840. He was married and had at least 2 children, a daughter who was the daughter-in-law of T. J. Rusk, and the minor son Robert who was enumerated in the 1860 census. Apparently Mrs. Patton died prior to 1855.
There is no need to repeat that period of his life, 1840 to 1848, when he lived at Pattonia. By 1848 his brother-in-law, Radford Berry, had purchased land and was living at Belzora, and apparently Berry invited Robert Patton to begin a cotton commission business at Belzora for shipping cotton down Sabine River.
About 1848-1849, Patton and his son-in-law, John Cleveland Rusk, joined Radford Berry at Belzora, planning to found a cotton commission business there. They also operated a Patton’s Ferry at Florence, 2 miles downriver from Belzora.
In Dec. 1849 the steamer Buffalo, Capt. J. P. Border, became the first packet to travel the entire 879 river miles to Belzora and load cotton. In Mar. 1850 the coastal steamer Maria Burt unloaded a “full freight” at Sabine Pass, most of it destined to be carried to Belzora aboard the steamer Buffalo. A Galveston editor added: “...The Sabine and Neches and all their tributaries are booming with water, and the whole country is said to be flooded...” All accounts verify that the unusually heavy rainfall throughout Northeast Texas kept the Sabine River continually at flood stage for 3 years.
A history of Smith County indicated that Robert Patton’s first steamboat experience on Sabine River was a disaster. He bought or built a steamboat called the Ben Henry, loaded it with cotton, and sent it from Belzora “on its maiden voyage to the gulf.” Since the Ben Henry was never heard from again, the history’s author suggested that the boat was sunk somewhere beneath the Sabine’s murky depths. Most likely, though, the crew mutinied, murdered the captain, and sold the boat and its contents to some unscrupulous merchant.
“...On the 2nd instant the steamer General Rusk left this place on her downriver trip, loaded with cotton. This is the 2nd trip she has made as high up as Smith County. The steamship Liberty left Pulaski for Grand Bluff and Fredonia (Gregg County), heavily loaded with freight for other points upriver. The Liberty is a fine vessel with an iron hull...”
In 1852, the General Rusk “had all the business she can do in the Sabine...” Both the General Rusk and the Liberty were the wrong kind of steamers for river service, for each was built for deep-sea ocean travel. Patton sold the General Rusk in 1853, and replaced it with the flat-bottom Uncle Ben, newly-launched at the shipways in Louisville, KY.; it weighed 128 tons and was 117 feet long. The Rusk was a wooden ship, but with its V-bottom, deep-sea hull, it drew 5 feet of water. On the other hand, the Liberty was an iron-hull steamer, 200 feet long; carried 2,500 bales of cotton; and weighed 900 tons. She was also side-wheeled, and was square-rigged, with sails on her cross spars. It was said that her sails and spars “tore down all the tree limbs” until the captain furled the sails and tied down the spars parallel to the ship. The Liberty was fortunate not to be trapped in the river, and it made only one voyage in it.
Patton’s “fine new steamer,” the Uncle Ben, performed admirably for its new owner from 1853 until 1856, carrying out 1,000 bale loads of cotton from Belzora. In 1856 the Texas Legislature appropriated $300,000 for improvement of Texas rivers, and in 1857 Robert Patton won a contract for channel clearance of the Sabine River from Orange to Turner’s Ferry near Toledo Bend. In July, 1857 Patton arrived at Orange, preparing to execute his contract. Instead he died about a month later at Orange of a massive stroke, and presumably he is buried in an unmarked grave in the old city cemetery on South Border Street.
Later Patton’s estate sold the Uncle Ben to Capt. John G. Berry of San Augustine (Radford Berry’s nephew), who completed the Patton contract. Nothing else is known of Robert Patton, except that his son Robert M. Patton was a 14-year-old student enrolled in a Sabine Pass school, and he owned 10 slaves held in trust for him by his uncle, Radford Berry.
Thus, these are the delightful annals of 3 Republic of Texas settlers, who pioneered the shipment of cotton from the highest points on the Sabine and Angelina waterways, Pattonia in Nacogdoches County, and Belzora in Smith County. Their respective kinship and biographies have never been adequately written heretofore, leaving it a most interesting saga of East Texas history. Perhaps some day others can add more personal data to this story.
1 The 1835 Mexican census of Nacogdoches County, which is online; the 1860-1870 censuses of Jefferson County.
2 “Berry Creek,” from Handbook of Texas, online: “History of Burleson County” (Dallas: 1980).
3 Texas General Land Office, online, Index 1126.
4 Texas State Library, online, with facsimile of original Rusk declaration.
5 W. T. Block, Sapphire City of the Neches: A Brief History of Port Neches, Texas from Wilderness to Industrialization (Austin: Eakin, 1987), 47-48.
6 “Belzora, Texas,” Handbook of Texas, online.
7 Probate File, Smith County, Texas; res. 315, 1860 Sabine Pass census.
8 Sapphire City of the Neches, 48.
9 Galveston Daily News, Oct. 18, 1886; W. T. Block, “Emerald of The Neches: The Chronicles of Beaumont Texas etc,” typescript, page 370, in Lamar or Tyrrell libraries.
10 “Biography of Moses Patton,” Handbook of Texas (Austin: 1952), II, p. 346; also “Biography of Moses Patton,” Galveston Weekly News, Aug. 23, 1883.
11 Lois F. Blount, “The Story of Old Pattonia,” East Texas Historical Journal, V (March, 1967), 14-16.
12 Beaumont Enterprise, Sept. 21, 1910; Nacogdoches Times, Jan. 13, 1849.
13 W. T. Block, A History of Jefferson County, Texas (Nederland, 1976), 36, 41.
14 E. J. and V. W. Lasworth, “Texas Steamboat Register, 1829-1998,” (Longview: computer printout, 1998), 5; San Augustine Redlander, Jan. 20, 1844.
15 Vol. A, p. 69, Jefferson County, TX. Personal Property Record.
16 Galveston Weekly News, Apr. 20, 1849.
17 Ibid., Mar. 11, 1850.
17A Same as Footnote 10.
18 Beaumont News-Beacon, Feb. 22 and Aug. 19, 1873.
19 Galv. Weekly News, Mar. 11, Apr. 1, 1846; Mar. 21, 1857.
20 Letter of A. M. Truitt, Burkeville, TX., July 1, 1858, published in Texas Almanac, 1859, p. 150.
21 Article of Wm. Wiess, published in Beaumont Enterprise, Sept. 21, 1910, p. 11.
22 “Belzora, Texas,” in Handbook of Texas, online.
23 Marshall Texas Republican, Apr. 12, 1851
24 Galveston Weekly News, Mar. 11, 1850.
25 A Woldert, History of Tyler and Smith County, Texas (San Antonio, 1948), 31, 130.
26 Blount, “Story of Old Pattonia,” 16.
27 Letter, A. R. to editor, Pulaski, Texas, Apr. 5, 1851, quoted in Marshall Texas Republican, Apr. 12, 1851; Galv. Semi-Weekly Journal, Mar. 22, 1852.
28 Lasworth, “Texas Steamboat Register,” 71.
29 Texas Republican, Apr. 12, 1851; Telegraph and Texas Register, May 16, 1851.
30 Galveston Weekly News, Mar. 11, Apr. 1, 1856; Mar. 21, 1857.
31 Weekly News, Dec. 8, 1857; Estate of R. S. Patton, Probate File, Smith County, TX.