Slave Trade
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SABINE LAKE:
FOCAL POINT OF THE ILLEGAL AFRICAN SLAVE TRADE

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, April 4, 1974; February 5, 1984.

One of the most heinous, yet intensely interesting, sagas of frontier East Texas was the traffic in illegal African slaves. Because of its strategic position as an international boundary, Sabine Lake was slated to become a focal point in that illicit commerce.

Contraband slave-trading was immensely profitable. It would have to be for men to risk their necks to the noose. Both the United States Slave Trading Act of 1820 and the first Texas Constitution defined participation in the African trade as piracy, with a mandatory death sentence if committed within territorial boundaries, or for all American citizens captured on slave ships on the high seas.

As is often the case, however, precept was far ahead of practice, and most offenders went unpunished. Americans could see little difference between an illegal slave from Africa and another slave ship in the coasting trade, transfering slaves from the worn-out tobacco plantations of Virginia to the canefields of Louisiana.

Although many offenders were tried in the courts, only one slave-trader ever ended up on the gallows in the United States. Captain Nat Gordon, master of the captured slave ship "Erie," was hanged in New York City in 1862.

It is an equally ironic fact that many of the "slaves" brought to Sabine Lake in 1836-1837 were actually kidnaped British freedmen from Barbados or were indentured servants of five years tenure. The latter category existed because of the British capture of illegal slave ships in the Caribbean Sea. Such vessels were often condemned as prizes of the courts in Barbados and Cuba, but the captive Negroes were indentured to new masters for five years' servitude to pay for the costs of their "freedom."

It is likewise a fact of history that contraband slave-trading mars the image of two Texas heroes. In June, 1835, Colonel James Fannin bought 152 West Africans in Cuba, and upon arriving with them at the Brazos River, unloaded them from the slave ship "Hannah Elizabeth."

Between the years 1818 and 1820, Colonel James Bowie and his two brothers realized a $65,000 profit from transporting 1,500 illegal slaves, purchased from Jean Lafitte on Galveston Island, from Texas to Louisiana. While crossing Sabine Lake on two occasions, the Bowies stopped at the home of Henry Griffith at Johnson's Bayou, Louisiana, to purchase beef to feed to their slave coffles.

John Bowie left an excellent account of their slave-trading activities during his lifetime. In 1852, he wrote in "DeBow's Review that:

"James, Rezin, and myself fitted out some small boats at the mouth of the Calcasieu (River in Louisiana) and went into the trade on shares.....We first purchased forty Negroes from Jean Lafitte at the rate of $1.00 per pound, or an average of $140 for each Negro. We brought them into the limits of the United States, delivered them to a customhouse officer, and became the informers ourselves."

A legal loophole in the Slave Trading Act allowed them to bid on the seized chattels and, as the informers in a case of slave piracy, the Bowie brothers received one-half of the bid price as a rebate as well as the legal owners. It was a costly method, but it successfully circumvented the slave trade laws of that era. And the sugar planters of Louisiana had a voracious appetite for slaves, whose average length of life upon reaching the sugar cane fields was only five years.

Even before Lafitte, ships of another filibusterer, Don Luis De Aury, were already capturing many Spanish slave ships off the coast of Cuba in 1816 and bringing the captured chattels to Galveston Island. A year later, ships of the buccaneer Jean Lafitte also carried slaves on Lake Sabine between 1817 and 1821. Lafitte also carried on a privateering war against the Spanish, having enlisted into his service nearly all of De Aury's old pirate captains, and many of their prizes continued to be Spanish slave ships captured in the Caribbean waters.

Beginning in 1818, Lafitte built slave barracks on the Sabine River at a point, called Ballew's Ferry, which is ten miles north of present-day Orange, Texas. He conducted a brisk trade with the Louisiana sugar and cotton planters, who came to the Sabine River to buy the slaves of their choice, and as late as 1836, William F. Gray reported in his diary that Lafitte's old slave barracks on the Sabine were still standing, although abandoned.

Another notorious slave trader, Monroe Edwards, landed 170 Africans at Velasco, Texas, in February, 1836 (the very moment the Alamo was under seige), and later he set up a slave market on Galveston Bay. In a letter he later wrote to President Mirabeau B. Lamar, Edwards protested that he had been duped, the "slaves" that had been sold to him at Barbados having actually been indentured servants of five years duration. Edwards was soon imprisoned in New York by the United States government on a forgery charge, and the slave-trading charges against him were dropped.

Early in 1836, three brothers, Pleasant, Leander, and Sterling McNeel, who were Brazos River plantation owners, landed forty Africans on Caney Creek near Velasco. On April 19, 1836, while thousands of Texans were scurrying across Jefferson County as a part of the "Runaway Scrape," W. F. Gray encountered the McNeels and their slave coffles in the vicinity of present-day Nome in the western sector of Jefferson County. Apparently the McNeels succeeded in crossing Jefferson County and reaching Louisiana. Usually, African slaves were identifiable by their tribal marking and tattoos on the bodies, as well as their native African dialects.

In 1836, during the social upheaval created by the Texas Revolution, Capt. John Taylor of Barbados, a West Indian island, brought a shipload of slaves aboard the English brig "Elizabeth," the first ship, according to Mrs. Sarah McGaffey, to dock at Sabine Pass, Texas after her arrival there. The vessel anchored in a marshy sector of the Pass that was known thereafter as the "Brig Landing."

Taylor's crewmen soon espied the smoke of the McGaffey log cabin on Shell Ridge and went there to purchase cattle to feed the slaves. In those days, high sea cane covered all of the Sea Rim marsh at Sabine Pass, but the wild cattle, as well as wolves, bears, deer and an occasional buffalo had beaten trails through the cane to high land. One day while returning through the marsh with fresh meat, one of Taylor's crewmen was seized by a black bear and was badly mauled. His crew mates rushed forward with guns and killed the bear.

Capt. Taylor took fifty of his chattels by yawl boat to Joseph Grigsby's plantation at Port Neches and then marched them overland to San Augustine. However, he failed to sell all of the slaves, and upon his return to Sabine Pass, Taylor sailed for Galveston Bay.

One slave escaped and denounced Taylor to the British consul at New Orleans for selling British freedmen and identured servants. The English sent the brig of war "Pilot" to Galveston Bay, where the Texas authorities surrendered Taylor to the warship. There are conflicting reports as to his fate. British consul William Kennedy, in his well-known volume about Texas, stated that Taylor was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment, but a diplomatic letter states that he was eventually acquitted of the charges. Long after Taylor left Texas, the English brig "Elizabeth" and a former American slave ship, the "Waterwitch," were still engaged in legitimate coasting commerce in Sabine Lake. In 1865, the "Waterwitch" was the only vessel of twenty

anchored in the Sabine River at Orange, which did not capsize and sink during the hurricane of September 13, which destroyed Orange. But in 1867, the ex-slaver went down with all hands during a subsequent hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.

Consul Kennedy is also the source of a Spanish slave ship under a Captain Moro, that arrived in Sabine Lake in 1836. The vessel reputedly carred 200 slaves on a voyage up the Sabine River. Kennedy added that the owner, an American named Coigley, was aboard the ship. Capt. Moro reputedly got into an argument with Coigley over the sale of the slaves, murdered him, and then, fearing arrest by the American authorities, hastily fled to the Gulf of Mexico before selling any of his cargo.

A British frigate chased another English slave ship into the Sabine Pass in 1837. Upon entering the lake, the vessel ran aground on a mud flat at Blue Buck Point, the northern terminus of the lake. According to a history of Johnson's Bayou, Louisiana, traditions within the Griffith families maintain that Henry Griffith, who had also supplied beef to James Bowie, traded cattle to the slave ship's owners in exchange for slaves who spoke only African dialects. Having arrived direct from Africa, the emaciated bondsmen rioted while eating the raw meat and blood of the cattle, and three of them were shot before the riot was quelled.

As early as 1818, there were British complaints of slaves entering the United States along the Sabine River, and the United States collector of customs at New Orleans assigned the revenue cutter "Lynx" to frequent cruises in the Gulf opposite the Sabine estuary. There are no reports of the cutter's interception of any slave ships, but in October, 1819, the "Lynx" intercepted Capt. George Brown, one of Lafitte's most obnoxious pirates, as he battled an unarmed American merchantman off Sabine Pass. The cutter drove Brown's schooner onto McFaddin Beach, and a month later, Lafitte hanged Brown from a yardarm in Galveston Bay.

There is no accurate information about how many African slaves may have been introduced into Louisiana between 1816 and 1821, but a figure between 3,000 and 5,000 may be about correct. And only a fraction of these would have passed through Sabine Lake. The Bowies moved slaves over three routes, some of them being taken up the Calcasieu River to the vicinity of Lake Charles. The remainder were either carried through Sabine Lake, or else, the Bowies moved them overland along a route from Bolivar or up the Trinity River to Liberty. One story states that in 1818 the Bowies were camped for the night near Liberty with 90 slaves, when during the night, the only Comanche Indian war party ever to swing into East Texas stumbled into their camp. The Bowies escaped by hiding in the underbrush, but the Comanches took all the Africans back to West Texas and adopted them into their tribe. In Civil War days, it was known that descendants of the Africans made up a portion of the Comanche war parties, but it was believed for many years that they were escaped slaves who had run away to the Indians.

Nor is it known exactly how many illicit slaves were smuggled into Texas and Louisiana during the Texas Revolutionary years. Certainly, charges of 10,000 by the British government were incorrect, and a figure of about 500 into Texas and a like number into Louisiana is probaby nearer to the truth.

In 1843, the New York "Sun" vehemently editorialized against annexing Texas into the United States because of the African slave trade said to exist there. The "Sun" stated that large numbers of slaves were still being introduced to Texas and Louisiana via the Sabine River. The Houston" Telegraph" quickly refuted the "Sun's" statement, however, stating that tight money had long before killed off any market for African slaves in the Republic of Texas. The English ship that wrecked in 1837, so the "Telegraph" claimed, was the last slave ship to arrive.

One result of the charges of a renewed slave trade in Sabine Lake was the establishment of a United States customhouse on Sabine Lake on Green's Bayou. By 1838, the New Orleans revenue cutter "Woodbury," under Captain Green, began patrolling in Sabine Lake, in addition to the Republic of Texas cutter "Santa Anna." Later, Green became the first United States collector at the Sabine, in the customhouse on the bayou which still bears his name. However, there is no record that any other slave ship arrived in Sabine Lake after 1837. Around 1840, there were schooners being built in New Orleans which, one newspaper charged, were destined to carry African slaves into Sabine Lake. It is probable, however, that the charge was without foundation, the boats perhaps being intended for the West African trade.

However, American slavers continued the bestial traffic in Africans until long after the Civil War began, and emancipation was the actual cause for its final demise. As late as 1865, the American slaver "Huntress" is known to have excaped the African coast with slaves, but it probably landed its cargo in Cuba. For 20 years, the U. S. Navy maintained its U. S. Slaving Squadron off the coast of West Africa, but it soon became a Siberia for drunks, incompetent officers, and worn-out ships. The Piracy or Slave Trade Acts of 1820, with their mandatory death penalty upon conviction, remained archaic laws on admiralty statute books long after their time. They were not subsequently repealed until 1949.

There is a tradition handed down within the writer's own family that an African slave ship arrived at Cameron, Louisiana, in the fall of 1865, months after the Civil War had ended and slaves had been freed. With no market for his cargo, the captain abandoned 200 starving Africans, their legs still in chains, on a marsh 'chenier' of the Calcasieu River, where within weeks, all of them were dead. For years, the site was shunned because of the bleached bones and skulls that still scarred its surface.

Copyright 1998-2018 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
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