Robert B. Russell
A Veteran of the Battle of San Jacinto
By W. T. Block
Robert B. Russell is the only veteran of the Battle of San Jacinto, who is buried in the City of Orange, Texas. In 1973 the author launched a campaign to mount a Texas State historical marker on his grave; he also made the dedicatory address and paid to have the marker erected on Russell’s grave.1
Russell was born in April 17, 1817, either in New York or Connecticut. One descendent claimed that Russell was born in Utica, NY., whereas the 1860 Orange County census noted that Russell was born in Connecticut, probably New Milford.2 In 1835 he joined his mother Aurelia Russell; his sister, Elizabeth Canfield; and his brother-in-law, Alanson Wyllys Canfield, when the relatives moved to Milam, Sabine County, Texas. Later they moved to San Augustine.3
In March, 1836, R. B. Russell joined Capt. Benjamin Bryant’s company, Col. Sidney Sherman’s regiment. They marched overland to Groce’s Plantation on the Brazos River, where about April 1, 1836 they joined Gen. Sam Houston’s Texians (sic). On April 21, 1836 Russell participated when Gen. Houston’s army attacked and defeated Gen. Santa Ana’s army at the Battle of San Jacinto. Russell served a second 90-day enlistment when he and Canfield enlisted in Capt. E. W. Collins’ Sabine County company on July 8, 1836.4
R. B. Russell married Lavinia Brownrigg (1821-1899), daughter of a San Augustine physician, on June 1, 1841, and by 1860 they were the parents of six children.5 In 1840, when Canfield bought the San Augustine Redlander, Russell became Canfield’s assistant, being both reporter and type setter. In 1846, when Canfield volunteered for service in the Mexican War, Russell and H. M. Kinsey brought and operated the Redlander until Oct. 1850, when Russell sold out his interest and moved to Sabine Pass.6
In 1854 Russell moved to Orange, where he operated a hotel for the next twelve years. By 1860 his children consisted of two daughters, Georgiana and Julia, and four sons, Henry A.; Robert E.; Junius and Alanson. At that time, Russell owned $7,000 worth of real estate and personal property valued at $400.7 Russell was appointed United States postmaster at Orange on March 4, 1860, and he became Confederate postmaster there on Aug. 5, 1861. He remained in office until 1866, when a Reconstruction government evicted him from the postmastership.8
In 1866 R. B. Russell bought out the Robert Jackson sawmill, the engine and boiler of which had been salvaged for the sunken steamboat Rufum Putnam. He quickly converted the sawmill into a cypress shingle mill. By 1877, Russell had already manufactured and shipped on his two company-owned lumber schooners, 50 million shingles to Galveston Island.
According to the 1880 Orange County Industrial Census, Russell employed fifty workers in his shingle mill.9 .The mill utilized 2 steam engines, one gang saw, and one shingle machine, which cut 75,000 shingles daily. Production in 1880 included 10,000,000 shingles cut that year, with a value of $25,000.10
R. B. Russell was killed at his mill on November 29, 1880 when he was trapped between the bumpers of two rail cars, and he was crushed to death. Henry and Robert E. Russell continued to operate the mill, increasing its output to 125,000 shingles daily, until the shingle mill burned in 1890.11
At the moment of his untimely death, Russell was one of the foremost and most respected citizens of Orange, providing employment for fifty families. His lifetime record as a San Jacinto veteran, newspaper publisher, postmaster, hotel keeper, and prominent Orange mill man required that a historical marker be mounted above his grave, and that his status as a San Jacinto veteran be preserved permanently in the annals of Texas.
1 See Russell historical marker, at “Texas Genweb, Orange County, Texas,” online.
2 W. T. Block, “The Russell and Sons Shingle Mill,” East Texas Mill Towns and Ghost Towns (Lufkin: 1994), Vol. 1 p. 266.
3 “Biography of Alanson Wyllys Canfield,” Handbook of Texas, online.
4 “Index to the Republic of Texas Veterans, 1835-1845,” online; S. H. Dixon and L. W. Kemp, Heroes of San Jacinto (Houston: 1932).
5 1841 Marriage Book, San Augustine County, Texas.
6 “San Augustine Redlander,” Handbook of Texas, online.
7 Seventh Manuscript Census, 1850, Orange County, Texas, res. 3.
8 “List of Postmasters of Orange County, Texas,” Texas Genweb, Orange County, Texas.
9 Galveston Weekly News, Oct. 29, 1877; Aug. 12, 26, 1878.
10 Census Returns of 1880, Orange County, Texas Industrial Census, Russell Shingle Mill, Microfilm Reel No. 48, Texas State Archives.
11 “Death of a San Jacinto Veteran,” Beaumont Enterprise, Dec. 9, 1880.