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
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
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
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,
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
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.