Napoleon Bonaparte Wiess
Steamboat Captain and Confederate Soldier
By W. T. Block
Napoleon Bonaparte Wiess was the first person of Anglo-American descent, born in Port Neches, Texas on March 10, 1839, all of the Joseph Grigsby children having been born in Kentucky.1 Wiess’ parents were Simon Wiess, born Jan. 1, 1800 in Lublin, Poland of German Jewish parentage; and Margaret Sturrock Wiess, born in Dundee, Scotland on June 12, 1814. Theirs was a bond marriage in Dec. 1835, subject to arriving at a courthouse somewhere to make the marriage legal.
Simon and Margaret opened their first mercantile business in Nacogdoches in 1836, where their daughter Pauline was born. In 1837 Simon converted his merchandise inventory into a keelboat load of baled cotton, prior to floating downriver to Beaumont. Simon operated a store briefly in Beaumont before he opened his third business in Port Neches, where Napoleon was born in 1839. After 3 business blunders, Simon made his final move in 1840 to Wiess Bluff, 16 river miles north of Beaumont, where he built his home, store, cotton warehouse building, and steamboat dock. Wiess Bluff was as far north on Neches River that steamboats could travel during the low water season of summer. Wiess’ last four sons were all born at Wiess Bluff.2
Little is known of Napoleon’s early years, except that he received a rudimentary education, at first at his mother’s knees. It seems likely as well that Simon Wiess hired a private tutor for his 6 children, or perhaps started the first log cabin school at Wiess Bluff. No doubt, too, Napoleon learned much too while clerking, weighing, grading, and loading cotton during the 1850s.
One of the tales told of Napoleon and Mark Wiess occurred in 1856 while their father made a business journey by buggy into Tyler County, and one hour after leaving, his wife discovered that her husband had forgotten his business papers. She sent Napoleon and Mark, racing through the forest, and 2 hours and 12 miles later, they overtook their father. However the footrace had so exhausted their vigor, it required 6 hours to retrace their steps that earlier had consumed only 2 hours.3
On June 20, 1861, Napoleon Wiess married Cynthia Ann Sorelle, who was born in Arkansas on Aug. 14, 1845. On Mar. 25, 1861, the 4 oldest Wiess brothers helped organize Jasper County’s “Red Star Guard Rifles,” with Napoleon Wiess elected as first lieutenant. On Sept. 20, 1861, Mark and William Wiess enlisted in cavalry Co. A, Spaight’s 11th Texas Battalion at Sabine Pass, followed by Napoleon on July 3, 1862.4
The best record of Napoleon’s military experience can be found in one of his letters, deposited in Galveston’s Rosenberg Library, and quoted in Beaumont Enterprise of Aug. 12, 1964, in part as follows:5
Beaumont Enterprise listed the fight as the Battle of Carencro Bayou, when actually it was the Battle of Bayou Bourbouef, fought in Nov., 1863. Napoleon did not know the final tally of battle losses, which amounted to 716 casualties for the Federals and 170 casualties for the Confederates. One source listed Napoleon Wiess as on “detached service, Jan. 24, 1864—England,” which could very well be true. Napoleon’s company arrived back at Sabine Pass in Dec. 1863, and Confederate soldiers were often detailed to man blockade-runners, loaded with cotton. On my website, “The Diary of 1st Sgt. H. N. Conner lists all 4 Wiess brothers as soldiers on the Co. A. muster roll, but mentions nothing special about them. However, Valentine Wiess was also detailed to Wiess Bluff Jan. 1865 to supervise slaves.6
It is unknown exactly how the end of the Civil War affected Napoleon Wiess. It certainly affected Simon Wiess’ cotton commission business, for the cotton shipments from Sabine Pass, which reached 20,000 bales in 1860, dropped to only 6,500 bales in 1866.7
The next known activity of Captains Napoleon and William Wiess entailed the bringing of the steamboats Albert Gallatin, James L. Graham, Adriance, and Alamo to the Neches and Sabine waters. (This was the Albert Gallatin No. 2, about which very little is known. The Albert Gallatin No. 1 exploded in Galveston Bay on Dec. 23, 1841, with several killed, and while racing another steamer.)8 William Wiess was captain of both the Alamo (nicknamed the “sitting goose”) and Adriance. William Wiess explained that he had sailed his steamers as far north as Belzora, Smith County, on the Sabine; Pattonia, Nacogdoches County, on the Angelina; and Rockland, Tyler County, on the Neches.9
It is not known from whom Napoleon Wiess purchased the Albert Gallatin, or to whom he disposed of it, although it was probably “traded in” on the James L. Graham. Had the Gallatin been sunk in a river or the lake, it seems logical that such a disaster would have appeared in a newspaper. The Gallatin was the second steamboat ever built in Beaumont in 1867, adjacent to the Goldsmith and Reagan sawmill, which later became the Mark Wiess and James Potter sawmill in 1869. One source observed:10
For reasons unknown to me, Napoleon Wiess disposed of the Gallatin in 1870 and purchased the James L. Graham. The Graham was built in Pittsburgh in 1866, was about 105 feet long, weighed 113 tons, and could carry 400 bales. In 1867 the Graham belonged to Capt. Ferguson at Galveston. In Nov. 1869 its new owners, Pry and Hadnot, bought the Graham and brought it to Sabine River, but strangely nothing else is known about the Graham prior to its sale to Napoleon Wiess in 1870.11
Early in June, 1871, a moderate hurricane struck Sabine Pass soon after the Graham had sailed, bound for Beaumont. There was much local fear that the steamer had foundered in Sabine Lake. Instead, the Graham set a new speed record to Beaumont, arriving in 4 ½ hours. Editor McClanahan of the Sabine Pass Beacon was so impressed that he asked: “...Why must we tolerate a contemptible pony mail to Sabine Pass when the J. L. Graham can run the distance in much faster time?”12
In 1928, 90-year-old “Uncle Tom” Seamens, of Seamen’s Bluff near Boone’s Bluff, told of his experiences as fiddler aboard Capt. N. Wiess’ steamers. Ordinarily Seamens was a cotton farmer, but when cotton harvest ended, he fiddled for the next 3 months aboard either the Gallatin or Graham until 1872. Seamens was a Confederate soldier in Spaight’s Battalion, and he first met Nap Wiess there while both were soldiers. Seamens wrote of being forced to watch a deserter being shot by a firing squad in Aug., 1864, which my Grandpa Block also had to watch.13
Another man who sailed on Capt. Napoleon Wiess’ steamers was Capt. W. E. Rogers of Sabine Pass and Beaumont. Rogers had been 2nd engineer on the Mary Falvey at Beaumont in 1856, and later he was chief engineer aboard the 225-foot Florilda when he enlisted in Co. A, Spaight’s Battalion, where the 4 Wiess brothers also soldiered. In 1865 Rogers was detailed briefly as captain of the Florilda when it was a Confederate tender. The Florilda sank at Ochiltree’s Wharf in Orange during the hurricane of Sept. 6, 1865.
After the war, with no other jobs available, Rogers sailed as first mate on the Gallatin and Graham. After Napoleon Wiess’ death on March 12, 1872, Rogers and 2 partners bought the Graham from Cynthia Ann Wiess (and anyone else who may have owned an interest). Rogers sold the Graham to Galveston owners in 1875, and the fast packet foundered on Redfish Reef in Galveston Bay in May, 1876.14 Roger’s daughter Kate was the Wiess Bluff school teacher in 1890.
At the height of his sailing career, Napoleon Wiess’ untimely death of pneumonia at age 33 occurred at Wiess Bluff on Mar. 12, 1872, and he is buried beside his wife Cynthia in the Wiess family cemetery. Certainly fate played a terrible prank on his widow Cynthia Ann, who was left to raise 5 children alone at age 27; and was also destined to die at the young age of 45. A similar event occurred to Dora Bumstead Wiess, whose husband, William S. Wiess, was killed at age 31 in a sawmill boiler explosion.
The children of Napoleon and Cythia Ann Wiess were William Simon Wiess (June 20, 1862--Nov. 14, 1893); Capt. Edward Sorelle Wiess (Dec. 14, 1864-June 9, 1922); Martha Ann “Mattie” Wiess (1866--?); Margaret Isabell “Maggie Wiess (Jan. 2, 1869--Mar. 10, 1960); Walter Wingate Wiess (Dec. 24, 1870-Aug. 24, 1954); and Napoleon B. Wiess, Jr. (1871-1874).15
William Simon Wiess was married twice, first to Mary M. Simms (1861-1889), by whom he had 2 sons and daughter, and second to Dora Bumstead (1871-1951), by whom he also had one son and a daughter. Amy Lea Wiess’ birth at Cairo, Jasper County, on Mar. 2, 1881-2 indicates that her father W. S. Wiess was working for the Yellow Bluff Tram Company and its crosstie sawmill at Cairo. W. S. Wiess was working at his brother-in-law’s, George W. Hooks, sawmill at Hooks Switch (also known as Sharon or Arriola), Hardin County, when the boilers suffered a very violent explosion, killing 4 men and injuring 6. W. S. Wiess and Lemuel Waldrop were 2 of the 4 killed. One big boiler was found lying 150 yards away from the mill.16
William S. Wiess’ children by Mary Simms and Dora Bumstead included Amy Lea Wiess (Mar. 2, 1881-Sept. 13, 1958); William Napoleon “Bud” Wiess (Dec. 16, 1883-killed in train accident Jul. 21, 1903); Thomas Edward Wiess (1888-1889); Jessie Wiess (Sept. 24, 1892-Nov. 30, 1970); and William Simon Wiess II (May 14, 1894-Oct. 3, 1952).
Capt. Edward Sorelle Wiess was a tugboat captain at Sabine Pass, and he married Flavilla McGaffey of Sabine on Feb. 12, 1894. The progeny of that family included Jennie Vivian Wiess, who married Capt. Dan Bromley; Floyd Wiess, who married Rosabelle Sweeney (the writer’s first cousin); Cornelia, who married 1) Jack Berry, 2) Gene McCrory, 3) J. W. McGaffey; Lillian, who married Steven Fred Austin; Birdie, who married Capt. Carl Bromley; M. Kathleen, who married 1) Asa C. Welch, 2) Tom Ridley; Mary Nellie, who married 1) J. H. Northrup, 2) T. Simesasa, 3) H. Settlemire; Louie Colen, who married Louella Hughes; and Marjorie, who married 1) E. E. Granger, 2) B. B. Lang.
I remember an incident involving Kathleen Welch’s granddaughter-in-law back about 1972 when I was on the staff at Lamar University. She came to me and asked if I could supply the genealogy of Kathleen Welch. I told her I could, but it might take me a while. What she did not know was that I had supplied the genealogy of Floyd Wiess to my second cousin Richard Wiess. I had heaps of info about Simon and Margaret Wiess, Napoleon and Cynthia Wiess, John and Sarah McGaffey, Increase R. and Julia Marie Burch, Bradley Garner, Sr., etc., and all I had to do was erase Floyd Wiess’ name and enter Kathleen. The next morning I called her and told her I had the genealogy ready. She expressed great surprise and gratitude that I was able to complete it so quickly, and I was less than honest with her, noting that I supposed I “just had a special knack for genealogy.”
Martha “Mattie” Wiess married Sherwood Increase Burch (Jr.) on Apr. 20, 1886. (The original Burch brothers at Sabine Pass at Sabine Pass, Sherwood, Sr.; Increase, and Charles, had, like Napoleon Wiess, a long steamboat history of their own as cotton steamer captains.)17 Their progeny included Eliz. Eleanor Burch, who married Dr. John McKinnon; Ann M. Burch, who married Oscar Herndon; Ruth Burch, who married K. Eichelberger; Sherwood Burch, Jr. (III), who married Love Smith; and Charles Edward Burch, who married Aline Janecka.
Margaret Isabell (Maggie) Wiess married George Washington Hooks, who was a partner with Dr. S. B. Turner in the Hooks Switch sawmill. Their progeny included Dessie (1886-1887); Lou Seale Hooks, who married F. H. Patrick; Thomas Wiess Hooks, who married Dorothy Hoyt; Edison Hooks, who married Jennie Martin; Ethel Hooks, who married J. H. Vertrees; William Napoleon Hooks, who married 1) Ethel Dean, 2) Christine Gaday; Thelma Lorrain Hooks, who married Earl V. Massey; and Georgia Hooks, who married Ben Avant.
Walter Wingate Wiess married 1) ?? Hooks, 2) Johnnie Ella Moffett. Their progeny included Bessie Belle Wiess, who married John W. K. Walker; Walter Wingate Wiess, who married Mary Lou Phillips; Gladys Wiess, who married Parley Conley; Edward Wiess, who married 1) Frances Burrow, 2) Agnes Nelson; Mattie Lee Wiess, who married Don F. Burton; and Harold Wiess, who married Margaret Nelson.18
Hence, these are the amazing annals of Napoleon and Cynthia Ann Sorelle Wiess, which was also marked by early deaths; 2 widowhoods, leaving families of young children still to be raised; and the epics of William and Napoleon Wiess, which contributed to the cotton steamboat history of East Texas.
Four Wiess brothers fought valiantly for the Confederate States of America, which cause ended in total defeat, as well as the near destruction of the Simon Wiess cotton commission business at Wiess Bluff. However the Wiess brothers fought their way back from defeat as well, and who knows what Napoleon Wiess might have accomplished had not fate intervened, and did not permit him to live to a ripe old age. His descendents today probably will number into the thousands.
1 W. T. Block, SAPPHIRE CITY OF THE NECHES: A BRIEF HISTORY OF PORT NECHES, TEXAS ETC. (Austin: Eakin, 1987), 12.
2 W. T. Block, COTTON BALES, KEELBOATS, AND STERNWHEELERS: A HISTORY OF THE SABINE RIVER AND TRINITY RIVER COTTON TRADES, 1837-1900, (Woodville, 1995), 29-43; W. T. Block, “From Cotton Bales to Black Gold: A History of the Pioneer Wiess Families of Southeastern Texas,’” Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, VIII, No,. 1 (Nov. 1971), 39-61.
3 Beaumont Journal, March 3, 1907.
4 “Jasper County and the Civil War,” Kirbyville TX Banner, Sept. 15, 1961; Muster Roll of Co. A, in Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, Nov. 1971, p. 29; also muster roll of Co. A in “Diary of 1st Sgt. H. N. Conner.”
5 Reprinted from Beaumont Enterprise, Aug. 12, 1964, from original in Rosenberg Library.
6 W. T. Block, “The Swamp Angels: A History of Spaight’s 11th Texas Battalion,” East Texas Historical Journal, XXX, No. 1 (1992), 44-58; “Diary of 1st Sgt. H. N. Conner;” Beaumont Enterprise, Jan. 21, 1912; Ibid. Sept. 21, 1910, both of the latter articles written by William Wiess.
7 Cotton Bales, Keelboats, p 79.
8 Telegraph and Texas Register. Dec. 29, 1841.
9 Cotton Bales, Keelboats, p. 81.
10 J. P. Landers, “Valentine Burch,” TEXANA, III (Summer, 1965), 109-110.
11 Cotton Bales, Keelboats, 84; Lasworth, “Texas Steamboat Register,” p. 85.
12 Sabine Pass Beacon, June 10, 1871.
13 W. T. Block, “Tom Seamens: Pioneer’s Tales Cover Area History,” Beaumont Enterprise, Jan. 11, 2003.
14 Beaumont News-Beacon, May 31, 1873; Galv. Weekly News, June 1, 1876; “Obituaries of Capt. W. E. Rogers, Beaumont Enterprise, also Journal, May 15, 1925; W. T. Block, “Capt. Rogers Kept Busy Running Supplies,” Beaumont Enterprise, May 11, 2002.
16 Galv. Daily News, Nov. 15, 1893; W. T. Block, EAST TEXAS MILL TOWNS AND GHOST TOWNS, Vol. 2 (Lufkin: 1995), “Hardin County, pp. 37-39; “Jasper County,” pp. 87-91.
17 The 1860 Census of Sabine Pass, res. 322, Increase R. Burch, capt. Sabine; res. 372, Charles Burch, steamboat pilot; res 328, Sherwood Burch, steamboat clerk; Cotton Bales, Keelboats, 17, 47, 50, 67, 82, 89.