Chapter IV: A History of Jefferson County, Texas
Filibustering, Piracy and the African Slave Trade
by W. T. Block
The era of filibustering against Spain has bequeathed a romantic chapter to the history of Jefferson County and to oral frontier folklore.1 Between 1816 and 1821, Galveston Island and adjacent Point Bolivar were bases for the filibustering enterprises of Xavier Mina, Luis de Aury, and Captain James Long, as well as of de Aury’s successor, the pirate Jean Lafitte. As a result, Jefferson County became a focal point of illicit slave smuggling, the second phase of which did not end until the late 1830’s.
Xavier Mina, a Spanish liberal, arrived at Galveston Island in November 1816, with three shiploads of men and supplies and “the view of emancipating Mexico.”2 The forces of Don Jose Herrera, who represented the revolutionary government of Mexico in the United States, and Luis de Aury had arrived two months earlier. Aury, who was appointed military governor of Texas by the revolutionary junta, was ordered to harass Spanish shipping with his privateers.3 Mina invaded Mexico in 1817 with a small army, but despite initial successes, the expedition ended ingloriously with Mina’s capture and execution.4
Aury set up a revolutionary government on Galveston Island, replete with an admiralty court to condemn his prizes. He held letters of marque from the revolutionary governments of Venezuela, Mexico, and New Granada,5 and, within a short time, his privateering fleet had “completely swept the Mexican gulf” of Spanish shipping.6
Aury’s crews, among whom were many unwilling to abide by the rules of privateering, were mostly Spanish and French refugees and mulattoes from Barrataria Bay, Louisiana.7 Their prizes were often Spanish slavers arriving from the west coast of Africa. With no other market available, a brisk slave trade soon developed between Galveston Island and Louisiana.8
Two routes, one by water and the other by land, soon developed for the delivery of slaves to Louisiana. The water route was via the Gulf of Mexico, while the land route extended from Point Bolivar across Jefferson County, on to the Sabine River. Some purchasers, the agents of commercial companies in Louisiana, went directly to “Galveston, the mouth of the Sabine, or Calcasieu,” to “engage the lot they wanted” at $1.00 per pound.9 Jean Lafitte fell heir to this unsavory commerce when he settled at Galveston in April 1817, following Aury’s abandonment of the island.10
Like Aury, Lafitte held letters of marque from the republic of Carthagena, and had engaged in contraband slave trading before he was driven from Barrataria Bay, Louisiana.11 Upon arriving at Galveston, he sought to perpetuate some of Aury’s trappings of respectability, including admiralty and criminal courts.12 Lafitte’s ships sailed along the coast of Cuba in search of Spanish merchantmen and slavers, while some of Aury’s captains continued to sell slave cargoes at Galveston as well.13
While engaged in the Louisiana slave trade, the Galveston pirate discovered that he could multiply his profits by bartering his chattels at his headquarters on the Sabine River. In December 1817, the collector of customs at New Orleans reported that Lafitte was building slave barracks on the Louisiana boundary.14 On April 24, 1836, William F. Gray, a Virginian en route from Texas to Louisiana, made the following entry in his diary upon reaching Ballew’s Ferry, ten miles north of Orange, Texas on the Sabine River:
This is one of Lafitte’s old stations... Here stands an old shed, part of the shelter constructed for the African Negroes that he [Lafitte] used to bring here. It is now a shelter for cows 15
Lafitte reported that James, Rezin, and John Bowie were his best customers, whose slave traffic was centered principally in Louisiana, but occasionally carried the brothers as far north as Saint Louis, Missouri.16 The Bowies, who ferried slaves overland and by water, utilized a flaw in American law to obtain legal title and resale papers for their Africans. Upon arriving in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana with a slave coffle, the Bowie brothers informed the nearest officer of the presence of contraband Negroes. The slaves were then repurchased at an auction sale, with one-half of the purchase price returned to the informers as a rebate.17 While this method was costly, it successfully circumvented the United States Slave Trade Acts of 1808 and 1820, the latter carrying a death penalty upon conviction.18 In 1852, John Bowie stated that he and his brothers realized a $65,000 profit from slave-trading between 1818-1820 from the sale of 1,500 illegal Africans purchased from Lafitte.19
The American filibusterer, Dr. James Long, was a neighbor and contemporary of Jean Lafitte, but the pirate expressed no interest in the filibusterer’s enterprise. Long and his wife crossed Jefferson County “by way of the Calcasieu,” when he established his base of operations at Point Bolivar in February, 1820.20 In 1821, Long’s expedition invaded Mexico, but, despite the Treaty of Cordova ending Spanish rule, his men were imprisoned in Mexico City, where Long was assassinated on _ the street.21 The lengthy vigil maintained by his widow, Jane Long, at Point Bolivar is one of the more impassioned tales of feminine heroism in frontier Texas.22
An incident offshore from Sabine Pass marked the beginning of the end for the corsair camp on Galveston Island. In October 1819, George Brown, one of Lafitte’s lieutenants, attempted to capture an American merchantman. The United States cutter Lynx immediately attacked Brown, and while attempting to escape, ran his vessel aground, apparently on McFadden Beach, west of Sabine Pass. Brown and his men hid out on the beach, later returning overland to Galveston. Lafitte, fearing reprisal from the United States as a result of the attack, ordered that Brown be hanged.23
In 1820, the capture of an American vessel in Matagorda Bay, coupled with the complaints of the Spanish minister in Washington, sealed Lafitte’s fate. The United States navy dispatched the brig Enterprise to evict the buccaneers from Galveston Island.24 After dining with Mrs. Jane Long aboard his flagship Pride, Lafitte sailed away into historical obscurity.25
With the passing of Jean Lafitte, Jefferson County was granted a fifteen-year respite from the traffic in human chattels. Within a generation, Lafitte had become a legend in Southeast Texas, - but it was his supposed treasure sites, not the slave trade, which was his legacy to the early folklore of the area. Each treasure tale which evolved carried a spine-chilling account of the “patron” who guarded the pirate’s money usually a cutlass-swinging skeleton, a big rattlesnake, or, occasionally, eerie lights and apparitions. Generations of money hunters scoured the lakeshores and marsh ridges, carrying “maps” and strange detecting devices. With the passing of time, the river people,26 who were Southeast Texas’ “Coronado’s children” of yesteryear, disappeared, taking with them an abundance of oral folklore that was never recorded. Perhaps the lone, surviving example is the famed McGaffey legend, “The Stranger at Sabine Pass,” which was published by J. Frank Dobie in his Tales of Old-Time Texas.27
Early in 1836, slave traders took advantage of the social upheaval in East Texas to renew the smuggling of Africans. Mrs. John McGaffey, the widow of Sabine’s founder and the heroine of Dobie’s legend, reported that the English brig Elizabeth was the first slave ship to dock in the Sabine Pass after her arrival there. In 1836, the vessel remained moored for several weeks in a marshy locality, which was known thereafter as the “Brig Landing.” Captain John Taylor had purchased the slaves at Barbados in the West Indies. 28
Crewmembers soon discovered the McGaffey residence on Shell Ridge and came there often to purchase fresh meat. On one occasion, they had an unfortunate encounter with a black bear, which left one crewman badly mauled. While on a slave-trading journey through East Texas, Taylor brought his slave coffles by yawl boat to Grigsby’s Bluff on the Neches River and then overland to San Augustine. After returning to Sabine, he sailed for Galveston Island, where he hoped to sell the remainder of his cargo.29
One slave escaped and denounced Taylor for selling Negroes who were British citizens as well as freed slaves who were serving five-year indentures. The English sent the brig of war Pilot to Texas, where authorities released Taylor to their custody William Kennedy, the British consul at Galveston, recorded that Taylor was sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment, but a French diplomatic letter states that he was eventually acquitted.30
Kennedy is the source of another slave voyage to Sabine Lake, recorded by him in a report to the Foreign Office and entitled “Slave Trade No. 1:”
In the summer of the same year , a schooner under the Spanish flag, commanded by one Moro, a Spaniard, and owned by a person named Coigley, born of American parents carried 200 slaves from Cuba, ran up the river Sabine, which divides the United States from Texas. It is not known here, whether the slaves were landed or not. There is a story that the owner, Coigley, who was aboard, was murdered, and that the Spanish Master went off with cargo and schooner…31
An article in the Houston Telegraph and Texas Register relates that an English slave ship, similarly laden, ran aground in Sabine Lake, near Johnson’s - Bayou, Louisiana, in 1837.32 According to one source, Henry Griffith of Johnson’s Bayou, an acquaintance of James Bowie, acquired slaves from the cargo who spoke only African dialects. The owners purchased cattle from Griffith to feed the emaciated Negroes. While gorging on the raw meat and blood, the Africans staged a riot, which required the use of firearms to quell. The source added that the slaver, under pursuit by an English warship offshore, wrecked at Blue Buck Point, the northeastern terminus of the Sabine Pass.33
In 1836, Sterling, Pleasant, and Leander McNeil, Brazos River plantation owners, unloaded forty slaves on Caney Creek, later ferrying them across the Neches River en route to Louisiana.34 In the midst of the Runaway Scrape, W. F. Gray recorded in his diary on April 19, 1836, that he had encountered “the McNeil’s, with their African Negroes,” while traveling across west Jefferson County.35 Later, the McNeil’s advertised for the recovery of runaway slaves who could speak no English and bore tribal scars on their faces.36
The renewed slave trade soon gained the attention of three nations, as can be found in the official records of Texas, England, and the United States. In the Texas Constitution of 1836, the importation of slaves from other than the United States was defined as an act of piracy.37 President Sam Houston declared in the Slave Trade Proclamation of 1836 that “extensive projects… have been executed to introduce Africans and Negroes... by landing them on the sea beach, or on the east bank of the river Sabine.”38 The Houston Morning Star reported that slave ships fitted out at New Orleans were destined to run slaves from Cuba “up the Sabine and land them on the United States coast.” The editor added that the United States sought to frustrate the plan by “appointing Captain Green, formerly of the revenue cutter Woodbury [in the Sabine Lake, as] United States’ collector at the Sabine.”39
Since Sabine Lake, Sabine River, and Sabine Pass, or inlet, were defined by treaty as territorial waters of the United States, Texas lacked the right to inspect incoming vessels for contraband slaves. The Texas charge d’affaires in Washington was instructed to point out the plight of Texas, who, because of its inability to search “vessels within the waters of the Sabine, or the bay and pass or outlet of the same, . . . the introduction of slaves from any foreign country . . . will be exposed to frequent violation in that quarter.”40 The United States replied that it “could not consent to allow the right to search American vessels as this had been refused to the British government.”41
In 1838, the American collector of customs at New Orleans advised his superior that slave smuggling was being conducted at “the mouth of Sabine river,” and that “foreign vessels go into that river from the British and Spanish West Indies, with slaves, and land them in the United States.” The letter added that the collector kept his revenue cutter “pretty constantly in that neighborhood,” but that slave ships found it easy to escape “her vigilance… even in daylight.”42
England was also aware of the Sabine Lake slave trade. In 1837, the British consul at New Orleans notified the Foreign Office that “there are still one or more American vessels employed in this most detestable traffic, landing the slaves on the East Side of the Sabine.” The letter added that two of the vessels were the American schooners Waterwitch and Emperor.43
Although diplomatic letters discussed the Sabine Lake slave trade until 1839, the writer does not believe that any slave ships arrived in Jefferson County after 1837, an opinion supported by a Houston newspaper. Replying to an allegation in the New York Sun that the African slave trade to Texas still continued, the editor of Telegraph and Texas Register wrote in 1843 that the shipwrecked British slaver in Sabine Lake, in 1837, was the last to arrive.44 There is no information on the number of contraband slaves that arrived in Jefferson County during the 1830’s.
For years after the slave trade had ended, a grim reminder of the era remained in Sabine Lake. The ex-slaver Waterwitch carried cotton from Sabine to Galveston from 1839 until 1845. When a hurricane destroyed all but four buildings in Orange on September 13, 1865, all the vessels in the harbor, including the steamer Florilda, capsized and sank in the Sabine River except Captain Whiting’s aged schooner, the Waterwitch. However, the vessel disappeared with all hands on a subsequent voyage.45
1 The tales of Lafitte legendry in Jefferson County were once so extensive that almost every bayou and shell bank on Sabine Lake and the Neches River had its own “patron,” or ghost, as the guardian of Lafitte’s gold. These stories were circulated orally among the itinerant river folk, trappers and fishermen, who lived in semi-permanent houseboat villages on the Neches River at Beaumont and Port Neches. The dream of windfall wealth (and its pursuit during spare moments) enlivened the otherwise drab and poverty-stricken lives of the river people. Only one of the legends is known to have been published before they ceased to exist.
2 Dudley G. Wooten, A Comprehensive History of Texas, 1685 To 1897 (2 volumes; Dallas: William G. Scharf, 1898), I, pp. 88-89.
3 Wooten, Comprehensive History of Texas, I, pp. 88-89.
4 H. Yoakum, History of Texas (2 volumes; New York: Redfield, 1855, as reprinted by Steck Company, Austin), I, pp. 185-186.
5 William Kennedy, Texas: The Rise, Progress, and Prospects of The Republic of Texas (reprint; Fort Worth: The Molyneaux Craftsmen, Incorporated, 1925), p. 25; Yoakum, History of Texas, I, p. 183; Eugene C. Barker, “The African Slave Trade in Texas,” Texas Historical Association Quarterly, VI (1902), pp. 145-146.
6 Wooten, Comprehensive History of Texas, I, p. 88.
7 Ibid., p. 89; Kennedy, Texas: The Rise, Progress, and Prospects of The Republic of Texas, pp. 284, 285n; Yoakum, History of Texas, I, p. 181n.
8 Barker, “African Slave Trade,” Texas Historical Association Quarterly, p. 146.
9 Wooten, Comprehensive History of Texas, I, p. 89.
10 Ibid.. p. 94.
11 Charles Gayarre, Historical Sketch of Pierre and Jean Lafitte, The Famous Smugglers of Louisiana (Austin: Pemberton Press, no date), Part I, pages unnumbered.
12 Yoakum, History of Texas, I, p. 193; Lyle Saxon, Lafitte The Pirate (New Orleans: Robert L. Crager and Company, 1950), p. 217.
13 Fred Robbins, “The Origin and Development of The African Slave Trade in Galveston, Texas and Surrounding Area From 1816 To 1836,” East Texas Historical Journal, IX (October, 1971), p. 156.
14 Ibid. pp. 155-156.
15 William F. Gray, From Virginia to Texas, 1835: The Diary of Colonel William F. Gray (reprint; Houston: Fletcher Young Publishing Company, 1965), p. 170. Gray alleged that two early Jefferson County settlers, Richard Ballew and David Choate, were former “confederates” of Lafitte. After crossing the Sabine River, Gray stayed overnight at the home of one of Lafitte’s former captains, Arsene LeBleu de Comarsac, the cattle drover, whom Gray had encountered at James Taylor White’s ranch at Turtle Bayou. Ballew was arrested for smuggling in 1839, but no record of conviction exists. See Criminal Docket, District Court, 1839-1851, Jefferson County, Texas and Journal of Jean Lafitte: The Privateer and Patriot’s Own Story (New York: Vantage Press, 1958), pp. 42-43, 94.
16 Journal of Jean Lafitte, pp. 93, 107.
17 Yoakum, History of Texas, I, p. 184.
18 Warren S. Howard, American Slavers and The Federal Law (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1963), - pp. 25-26.
19 Dr. Kilpatrick, “Early Life in The Southwest-The Bowies,” DeBow’s Review, XIII (October, 1852), p. 381.Henry Griffith, an early settler of Johnson’s Bayou on Sabine Lake, reported that James Bowie visited his home on two occasions to purchase cattle to feed his slaves.
20 Wooten, Comprehensive History of Texas, I, p. 98.
21 Yoakum, History of Texas, I, p. 207.
22 Anne A. Brindley, “Jane Long,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, LVI (October, 1952), pp. 224-230.
23 Wooten, Comprehensive History of Texas, I, p. 99.
24 Wooten, Comprehensive History of Texas, I, p. 99.
25 Brindley, “Jane Long,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, p 220.
26 See footnote 1.
27 J. Frank Dobie “The Stranger at Sabine Pass,” Tales of Old-Time Texas (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1928), pp. 252-260.
28 K. D. Keith, “The Memoirs of Captain Kosciuszko D. Keith,” (Luling, Texas: 27-page unpublished manuscript, February, 1896), p. 17; Nancy N. Barker, The French Legation in Texas (2 volumes; Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1973), I, p. 122. The Elizabeth returned to Sabine Lake in 1838, but refused to pay tonnage fees to the Texas collector of customs. She was probably the unnamed English brig, which remained anchored for weeks while her crew cut and loaded a cargo of cypress logs. See (Houston) Telegraph and Texas Register, March 17, 1838, and R. E. L. Crane, “The History of The Revenue Service and Commerce of The Republic of Texas” (unpublished doctoral dissertation; University of Texas, 1950), p. 270.
29 Keith, “Memoirs of K. D. Keith,” p. 18.
30 Barker, French Legation in Texas, I, pp. 122-123; Kennedy, Texas: The Rise, Progress, and Prospects, p. 762; George P. Garrison (ad.), Diplomatic Correspondence of The Republic of Texas, in American Historical Association Annual Report, 1907 (3 volumes; Washington: Government Printing Office, 1908-1911), m, pp. 903-904; (Houston) Morning Star, September 17, 1840. The Pilot located six slaves who were British citizens and carried them back to Barbados.
31 Ephraim D. Adams (ed.), British Correspondence Concerning The Republic of Texas, 1838-1846 (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1917), p. 257.
32 (Houston) Telegraph and Texas Register, July 5, 1843.
33 Quoted from “The History of Johnson’s Bayou, Louisiana,” a brochure published in conjunction with the 1971 Louisiana Fur Festival, Cameron, Louisiana, a copy furnished to the writer by courtesy of the Cameron Parish Historical Society.
34 Robbins, “The Origin and Development of The African Slave Trade,” East Texas Historical Journal, p. 158; Barker, “The African Slave Trade,” Texas Historical Association Quarterly,” p. 153.
35 Gray, From Virginia To Texas, 1835, p. 166.
36 (Houston) Telegraph and Texas Register, September 16, 1837.
37 (Houston) Telegraph and Texas Register, August 16, 1836.
38 E. C. Barker and A. W. Williams (eds.), The Writings of Sam Houston, 1813-1863 (8 volumes; Austin: Pemberton Press, 1970), I, p. 510.
39 Kennedy, Texas: The Rise, Progress, and Prospects of The Republic of Texas, p. 761, quoting the (Houston) Morning Star, May 1, 1839.
40 Garrison (ed.), Diplomatic Correspondence of The Republic of Texas, I, p. 400.
41 Ibid., I, p. 41l.
42 Letter, J. W. Breedlove, collector to Levi Woodbury, May 26, 1838, in House Document No. 466, 25th Congress, 2nd Session, 1838, Library of Congress, copy owned by the writer.
43 Letter, J. T. Crawford, consul, to Richard Pakanham, New Orleans, May 25, 1837, as reprinted in Adams (ad.), British Diplomatic Correspondence Concerning The Republic of Texas, 1838-1846, p. 13.
44 (Houston) Telegraph and Texas Register, July 5, 1843.
45 (Galveston) Civilian and Galveston Gazette, May 17, 1839; “Arrivals and Departures,” R. C. Doom, collector, to the Secretary of the Treasury, March 31, 1839, and “Account of Fees Collected,” J. D. Swain to the Secretary of the Treasury, June 30, 1840, Port of Sabine Bay Customs Records, File 4-21/10, Texas State Archives; Beaumont Enterprise, April 23, 1922, p. 1-B. See also the maritime columns of the various Galveston newspapers from 1839 to 1845.