THOMAS F. MCKINNEY:
PIONEER NECHES RIVER KEELBOATMAN
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, July 5, 1977.
The abstracts to most of the real estate in the city of Port Neches,
Texas, bear the name of Thomas F. McKinney as the starting point of land ownership.
However, there are few property holders there today who would recognize the significance
of the name. But you can safely wager that one pioneer housewife, Nancy Tevis, did. Tevis
is often referred to today as the "mother of Beaumont."
If, in 1830, Mrs. Tevis had access to any of the manufactured wares of
New Orleans, or had a market for her cotton, hides, furs, or other commodities, it was due
to McKinney, the pioneer Texas merchant and the first keelboatman of cotton on the
As the first "wealthy" Texan, T. F. McKinney became financier
and munitions supplier to Gen. Sam Houston's army and to the revolutionary Texas Republic,
a position roughly comparable to Robert Morris and Haym Solomon during the American
Born in Kentucky in 1801, McKinney moved at an early age to Randolph
County, Missouri, where he grew to adulthood and received a rudimentary education in the
common schools. As a youth, he entered the St. Joseph, Mo. to Sante Fe trade, carrying
calico yard goods and small hardware via pack mules and wagons to the Spanish adobe
village and returning to Missouri with silver, gold, horses, and mules. The 1,000-mile
overland trip required twelve months to travel both ways and covered some of the most
treacherous Comanche Indian territory in the West.
Later McKinney traded along the route between Chihuahua, Mexico, and
Natchitoches, Louisiana, bartering in the same types of merchandise. In 1822, he became
one of Stephen F. Austin's "Old Three Hundred," when he migrated to Austin's
colony in Texas and established his plantation at Quintana on the Brazos River.
For a time, McKinney pondered the wisdom of resettling at Nacogdoches
and becoming a merchant. At that time, Nacogdoches produced several hundred bales of
cotton annually, with no means of getting it to market except via wagon freight to
Nachitoches, La. McKinney met and married Nancy Watson while at Nacogdoches, and later in
1830, while keelboating cotton to the mouth of the Angelina-Neches River watercourse, he
discovered the six huge Attakapas Indian burial mounds at present-day Port Neches. Almost
immediately, he recognized that the high river bluff there could easily withstand the
seasonal river flooding and tidal overflows and probably would be an excellent location to
survey a townsite.
On a return trip to Nacogdoches in the same year with a load of New
Orleans merchandise, McKinney applied to 'empresario' Lorenzo de Zavala for a league of
land (4,428 acres), and on April 23, 1831 the river merchant received the first Mexican
land grant in Jefferson County. As a result, McKinney's Bluff became the first name for
In 1835, the pioneer trader still intended to survey a townsite there
to be named Georgia, but his plans never materialized due to the sale in 1837 of
two-thirds of his league to Joseph Grigsby.
McKinney never lived in Jefferson County, and his trading empire was
soon concentrated at Quintana, near the mouth of the Brazos. His dealings in the legal or
domestic slave trade were enormous, and at one time, McKinney was known to have housed
"newly-landed Africans" on his farm who bore native markings on their bodies and
spoke only tribal dialects. One of his schooners, the "San Felipe," oftentimes
carried Stephen F. Austin, the "father of Texas," on many of his voyages to and
from Texas to New Orleans.
In 1833, McKinney became a partner with M. B. Menard, the pioneer
founder of Galveston, in a steam sawmill business in Liberty County. Early in 1834 he
teamed up with Samuel May Williams, who was one of Austin's land agents at San Felipe, and
the two men founded McKinney-Williams and Company, which soon became Texas' largest
merchandising and shipping firm and first banking institution.
At first the firm was centered at Quintana, which became the Texas
terminus of a shipping line founded by Williams' wealthy brother, a Baltimore merchant.
After Menard surveyed the townsite of Galveston in 1837, the firm gradually transferred
its operations headquarters to that point, acquiring in time one-fifth of the property on
McKinney and Williams became the first Texas merchants to employ
steamboats in the inland cotton trade. By 1835, their steamers "Yellowstone" and
"Laura" were probing as far inland as Washington-on-the-Brazos and to Jared
Groce's plantation at Groce's Retreat. Early in April, 1836, the "Yellowstone"
was docked at Retreat, loading cotton during the Runaway Scrape, and while there, it
ferried Gen. Sam Houston's ragtag army to the east side of the Brazos River.
In 1836, the "Laura" forced the first passage through Buffalo
Bayou to Houston, removing snags, logjams, and overhanging branches as she steamed
forward. As late as 1838, the "Laura" was still hauling freight and cotton
between Houston and Sabine Lake.
In 1841, McKinney's company built the "Lafitte," the first
steamboat built in Texas, on the banks of the Brazos at a cost of $19,000. The
"Lafitte" remained in the Brazos-Galveston-Sabine Lake trade for two years,
before being wrecked in 1843 while en route to Galveston. Another early McKinney steamer
was the "Constitution."
In 1845, the Galveston entrepreneurs built the 1,100-bale sternwheeler,
"Samuel M. Williams," said to have been the second steamboat built west of the
Trinity River. In 1847, the 1,000-bale "Thos. F. McKinney," the last member of
the firm's inland steamer fleet, was built by Emerson and Lufkin Shipways of Galveston at
a cost of $25,000. Both vessels remained for many years in the cotton trade of both the
Trinity and Brazos Rivers.
In November, 1835, McKinney was a staunch supporter of the
"General Consultation" which assembled at San Felipe to consider a list of
grievances against Mexico. He and Williams were soon authorized to fit out their schooners
as privateers to prey on the Mexican commerce and frigates along the Texas coast.
McKinney soon went to New Orleans to try to negotiate a $100,000 loan
for the struggling provisional government of Texas. He failed to get the loan, however,
but arranged with New Orleans merchants William Bryan and Toby and Company to accept
McKinney-Williams and Co. drafts for gunpowder and munitions for the Texas army. The total
of drafts soon exceeded either McKinney's or the fledgling republic's ability to pay,
forcing Toby and Co. into bankruptcy.
Altogether, McKinney and Williams advanced more than $100,000 of
company funds to the Texas Republic for which they were paid in land script totalling
108,000 acres of the public domain. Land speculation soon became the cornerstone of the
firm's fiscal pursuits, the aggregate of land certificates in its vaults at one time
exceeding 1.5 million acres.
Both Williams and McKinney were numbered among Austin's "Old Three
Hundred," in Texas lingo, being the equivalent of coming over on the
"Mayflower." In 1834, 'Citizen' Sam Williams won a charter from the Mexican
Province of Texas-Coahuila to found a bank, but it was 1841 before the Galveston
entrepreneurs could open their Bank of Agriculture and Commerce, the pioneer bank of
Texas. So stable was McKinney-Williams' credit rating that the Congress of the Texas
Republic authorized them to issue $30,000 worth of bank notes which circulated as
currency. The issue was backed by a pledged reserve of $60,000 worth of company real
During the 1840s, McKinney came to the relief of his friend, Joseph
Grigsby of Port Neches, when the latter's estate was hard pressed for cash to repay bank
The Galveston trader bought back a 700-acre tract at Port Neches (where
the Indian mounds and the present-day rubber industry are/were located) and acquired title
to Grigsby's 155 town lots in the original town site of Beaumont (of which Grigsby was one
of the proprietors). He subsequently sold the 700-acre tract and the 155 lots to Galveston
merchants Jacob L. Briggs and N. B. Yard.
McKinney-Williams and Co. prospered handsomely at Galveston until 1857,
the year of Sam Williams' death. Losing all interest in merchandising after his partner's
death, McKinney allowed his banking and cotton-trading activities to lapse, and the
entrepreneurial firm of Ball, Hutchings, Sealy and Company soon rose to prominence like
some financial phoenix amid the ashes of the former firm. By that year, McKinney had
already moved to a new plantation on Onion Creek, six miles west of Austin in Travis
County, where he raised thoroughbred race horses and cattle.
With the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, Thomas McKinney
was an ardent Unionist like Sam Houston at first, and he opposed secession vehemently,
despite his background in slave-owning and trading. Already too old and infirm for
military service, he nonetheless served the Confederacy as a cotton buyer and purchasing
agent until 1865. The war and Reconstruction years, coupled with many cotton market
reverses, sapped a large toll of his personal fortune, and by the time of his death in
1873, he had already lost most of his wealth.
McKinney was a controversial figure, displaying simultaneously many
faults and virtues, but he was widely respected by his fellow Texans, both by his friends
and his enemies. Certainly a key to his early successes was his phenomenal ability to
influence and manipulate others, but he was also very impulsive and easy to anger.
Whatever his personal attributes, T. F. McKinney was a giant of a Texan
in the days of the Texas Republic, either a friend or an enemy of everyone worthy of
mention in early Texas history. Texans certainly owe him a monstrous debt of gratitude for
his many munitions procurement activities, which to a degree guaranteed the success of the
The ruins of McKinney's old home on Onion Creek still exist, and,
although the writer is uncertain, may have been restored and marked historically by now.
The old pioneer and his wife are buried in one of the old city cemeteries of Austin, and
the gravestones still stand.
1 The original article identified the creek name as
Oyster Creek, but a reader posted a note in the
Guest Book with a correction.