Thomas F. McKinney
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THOMAS F. MCKINNEY:
PIONEER NECHES RIVER KEELBOATMAN

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, July 5, 1977.

The abstracts to most of the real estate in the city of Port Neches, Texas, bear the name of Thomas F. McKinney as the starting point of land ownership. However, there are few property holders there today who would recognize the significance of the name. But you can safely wager that one pioneer housewife, Nancy Tevis, did. Tevis is often referred to today as the "mother of Beaumont."

If, in 1830, Mrs. Tevis had access to any of the manufactured wares of New Orleans, or had a market for her cotton, hides, furs, or other commodities, it was due to McKinney, the pioneer Texas merchant and the first keelboatman of cotton on the Angelina-Neches waterway.

As the first "wealthy" Texan, T. F. McKinney became financier and munitions supplier to Gen. Sam Houston's army and to the revolutionary Texas Republic, a position roughly comparable to Robert Morris and Haym Solomon during the American Revolution.

Born in Kentucky in 1801, McKinney moved at an early age to Randolph County, Missouri, where he grew to adulthood and received a rudimentary education in the common schools. As a youth, he entered the St. Joseph, Mo. to Sante Fe trade, carrying calico yard goods and small hardware via pack mules and wagons to the Spanish adobe village and returning to Missouri with silver, gold, horses, and mules. The 1,000-mile overland trip required twelve months to travel both ways and covered some of the most treacherous Comanche Indian territory in the West.

Later McKinney traded along the route between Chihuahua, Mexico, and Natchitoches, Louisiana, bartering in the same types of merchandise. In 1822, he became one of Stephen F. Austin's "Old Three Hundred," when he migrated to Austin's colony in Texas and established his plantation at Quintana on the Brazos River.

For a time, McKinney pondered the wisdom of resettling at Nacogdoches and becoming a merchant. At that time, Nacogdoches produced several hundred bales of cotton annually, with no means of getting it to market except via wagon freight to Nachitoches, La. McKinney met and married Nancy Watson while at Nacogdoches, and later in 1830, while keelboating cotton to the mouth of the Angelina-Neches River watercourse, he discovered the six huge Attakapas Indian burial mounds at present-day Port Neches. Almost immediately, he recognized that the high river bluff there could easily withstand the seasonal river flooding and tidal overflows and probably would be an excellent location to survey a townsite.

On a return trip to Nacogdoches in the same year with a load of New Orleans merchandise, McKinney applied to 'empresario' Lorenzo de Zavala for a league of land (4,428 acres), and on April 23, 1831 the river merchant received the first Mexican land grant in Jefferson County. As a result, McKinney's Bluff became the first name for Port Neches.

In 1835, the pioneer trader still intended to survey a townsite there to be named Georgia, but his plans never materialized due to the sale in 1837 of two-thirds of his league to Joseph Grigsby.

McKinney never lived in Jefferson County, and his trading empire was soon concentrated at Quintana, near the mouth of the Brazos. His dealings in the legal or domestic slave trade were enormous, and at one time, McKinney was known to have housed "newly-landed Africans" on his farm who bore native markings on their bodies and spoke only tribal dialects. One of his schooners, the "San Felipe," oftentimes carried Stephen F. Austin, the "father of Texas," on many of his voyages to and from Texas to New Orleans.

In 1833, McKinney became a partner with M. B. Menard, the pioneer founder of Galveston, in a steam sawmill business in Liberty County. Early in 1834 he teamed up with Samuel May Williams, who was one of Austin's land agents at San Felipe, and the two men founded McKinney-Williams and Company, which soon became Texas' largest merchandising and shipping firm and first banking institution.

At first the firm was centered at Quintana, which became the Texas terminus of a shipping line founded by Williams' wealthy brother, a Baltimore merchant. After Menard surveyed the townsite of Galveston in 1837, the firm gradually transferred its operations headquarters to that point, acquiring in time one-fifth of the property on Galveston Island.

McKinney and Williams became the first Texas merchants to employ steamboats in the inland cotton trade. By 1835, their steamers "Yellowstone" and "Laura" were probing as far inland as Washington-on-the-Brazos and to Jared Groce's plantation at Groce's Retreat. Early in April, 1836, the "Yellowstone" was docked at Retreat, loading cotton during the Runaway Scrape, and while there, it ferried Gen. Sam Houston's ragtag army to the east side of the Brazos River.

In 1836, the "Laura" forced the first passage through Buffalo Bayou to Houston, removing snags, logjams, and overhanging branches as she steamed forward. As late as 1838, the "Laura" was still hauling freight and cotton between Houston and Sabine Lake.

In 1841, McKinney's company built the "Lafitte," the first steamboat built in Texas, on the banks of the Brazos at a cost of $19,000. The "Lafitte" remained in the Brazos-Galveston-Sabine Lake trade for two years, before being wrecked in 1843 while en route to Galveston. Another early McKinney steamer was the "Constitution."

In 1845, the Galveston entrepreneurs built the 1,100-bale sternwheeler, "Samuel M. Williams," said to have been the second steamboat built west of the Trinity River. In 1847, the 1,000-bale "Thos. F. McKinney," the last member of the firm's inland steamer fleet, was built by Emerson and Lufkin Shipways of Galveston at a cost of $25,000. Both vessels remained for many years in the cotton trade of both the Trinity and Brazos Rivers.

In November, 1835, McKinney was a staunch supporter of the "General Consultation" which assembled at San Felipe to consider a list of grievances against Mexico. He and Williams were soon authorized to fit out their schooners as privateers to prey on the Mexican commerce and frigates along the Texas coast.

McKinney soon went to New Orleans to try to negotiate a $100,000 loan for the struggling provisional government of Texas. He failed to get the loan, however, but arranged with New Orleans merchants William Bryan and Toby and Company to accept McKinney-Williams and Co. drafts for gunpowder and munitions for the Texas army. The total of drafts soon exceeded either McKinney's or the fledgling republic's ability to pay, forcing Toby and Co. into bankruptcy.

Altogether, McKinney and Williams advanced more than $100,000 of company funds to the Texas Republic for which they were paid in land script totalling 108,000 acres of the public domain. Land speculation soon became the cornerstone of the firm's fiscal pursuits, the aggregate of land certificates in its vaults at one time exceeding 1.5 million acres.

Both Williams and McKinney were numbered among Austin's "Old Three Hundred," in Texas lingo, being the equivalent of coming over on the "Mayflower." In 1834, 'Citizen' Sam Williams won a charter from the Mexican Province of Texas-Coahuila to found a bank, but it was 1841 before the Galveston entrepreneurs could open their Bank of Agriculture and Commerce, the pioneer bank of Texas. So stable was McKinney-Williams' credit rating that the Congress of the Texas Republic authorized them to issue $30,000 worth of bank notes which circulated as currency. The issue was backed by a pledged reserve of $60,000 worth of company real estate.

During the 1840s, McKinney came to the relief of his friend, Joseph Grigsby of Port Neches, when the latter's estate was hard pressed for cash to repay bank loans.

The Galveston trader bought back a 700-acre tract at Port Neches (where the Indian mounds and the present-day rubber industry are/were located) and acquired title to Grigsby's 155 town lots in the original town site of Beaumont (of which Grigsby was one of the proprietors). He subsequently sold the 700-acre tract and the 155 lots to Galveston merchants Jacob L. Briggs and N. B. Yard.

McKinney-Williams and Co. prospered handsomely at Galveston until 1857, the year of Sam Williams' death. Losing all interest in merchandising after his partner's death, McKinney allowed his banking and cotton-trading activities to lapse, and the entrepreneurial firm of Ball, Hutchings, Sealy and Company soon rose to prominence like some financial phoenix amid the ashes of the former firm. By that year, McKinney had already moved to a new plantation on Onion Creek[1], six miles west of Austin in Travis County, where he raised thoroughbred race horses and cattle.

With the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, Thomas McKinney was an ardent Unionist like Sam Houston at first, and he opposed secession vehemently, despite his background in slave-owning and trading. Already too old and infirm for military service, he nonetheless served the Confederacy as a cotton buyer and purchasing agent until 1865. The war and Reconstruction years, coupled with many cotton market reverses, sapped a large toll of his personal fortune, and by the time of his death in 1873, he had already lost most of his wealth.

McKinney was a controversial figure, displaying simultaneously many faults and virtues, but he was widely respected by his fellow Texans, both by his friends and his enemies. Certainly a key to his early successes was his phenomenal ability to influence and manipulate others, but he was also very impulsive and easy to anger.

Whatever his personal attributes, T. F. McKinney was a giant of a Texan in the days of the Texas Republic, either a friend or an enemy of everyone worthy of mention in early Texas history. Texans certainly owe him a monstrous debt of gratitude for his many munitions procurement activities, which to a degree guaranteed the success of the Texas Revolution.

The ruins of McKinney's old home on Onion Creek[1] still exist, and, although the writer is uncertain, may have been restored and marked historically by now. The old pioneer and his wife are buried in one of the old city cemeteries of Austin, and the gravestones still stand.

NOTES:

1 The original article identified the creek name as Oyster Creek, but a reader posted a note in the Guest Book with a correction.

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