“…tap a keg of beer and we’ll run four miles on the froth.” (Capt. John Ross)
“Had it not been for the Steam Boat Yellow Stone, we would have lost Texas,” Gen. Sam Houston said.
After five years in the mountain fur trade, plying the far western rivers, the Yellow Stone retired and was retrofitted as a U.S. flag vessel in the “foreign trade with Texas,” by shipbuilders in New Orleans who answered a plea from Sam Houston. First she was to be a cotton packet; later, a heroine.
Back in the water on New Year’s Eve, 1835, Yellow Stone’s boilers were stoked. Her twin columns of black smoke punctuated the blue skies of New Orleans. Captain Thomas Wigg Grayson sounded her deep-throated whistle, and backed away from the Crescent City’s pier. But, she was late for her Texas welcome–a grand ball for her officers and crew had been held the week before, on Christmas Day, 1835, hosted by Henry Jones, plantation and ferry landing operator, an early planter. The ship’s size dwarfed existing packets, and the cotton trade was booming. A promise of 5,000 acres of land and $800 cash had enticed Yellow Stone’s owners, the Toby Brothers, to put her into the Texas trade.
After delivering the Mobile Grays to Copano Bay, the Yellow Stone steamed for Quintana. A veteran of Texas rivers and the cotton trade, John E. Ross took the helm of the Yellow Stone from Capt. Grayson. The largest steamboat yet in the Texas trade, she drew six-feet, deep for Texas’ rivers and bays, but Ross was a veteran at finding troughs through the rivers and around rocks and shoals. Or, when there was only two or three feet of water, such as at the Velasco Bar, it was “full steam ahead.” He represented a breed of Texas steamer pilots who approached low water with the saying, “tap a keg of beer and we’ll run four miles on the froth.”
Ross guided the Yellow Stone up and down the Brazos. Steaming into the Middle Brazos section above Fort Settlement, later known as Fort Bend, and continuing toward Washington (after the Civil War known as “Washington-on-the-Brazos”) and Robinson’s Ferry, the river grew treacherous. Rocky shoals peppered the riverbed. Sunken cottonwoods waited for steamboat hulls like jousters ready to strike.
NOTE: Apologies for the late post…the digital gremlins balked yesterday!
UPCOMING EVENT…FEB. 11, 7 pm: I’ll be telling the stories of some of Texas’ sauciest women at the North Fort Worth Historical Society in the museum of the Stockyards. Join us if you’re in the area!
The Steam Boat Yellow Stone’s master, Ross, steered the vessel around the hazards and stopped to take on cotton and sugar, harvests brought to the landings by ox train. A round trip from Quintana took about five days, with overnight stops, since he practiced the “western steamer tradition” of tying up at night.
While the calendar marked the approach of spring, a “blue norther” swept down on Texas’ representatives, convened to sign the Declaration of Independence, March 2, 1836, at Washington “on-the-Brazos. ” Winds bit through the buckskins of General Sam Houston’s troops. Rivermen shivered in their wet, woolen jackets. The Brazos, known as “the arms of God,” raged with turbulence and swirling cottonwoods uprooted and shooting downstream like battering rams, threatening Yellow Stone’s hull, and her 22-man crew.
She turned upstream again. The late afternoon resounded with the thwack and twang of fire crews felling trees and cutting logs to feed the massive boiler’s fires. A high steam buildup was necessary to buck the swift, upstream current.
On this trip, late March, 1836, Captain Ross sidled up to Groce’s Landing, a regular stop on the Middle Brazos route. Jared Groce, another of Austin’s “Old Three Hundred” colonists, had brought the first cotton seeds to Texas when he arrived in 1821. In 1825 he built the first gin, followed the next year by Austin’s at Peach Creek Plantation near San Felipe.
Groce’s Landing was a short way downstream from Washington. The Yellow Stone tied up to take on stacks of cotton. General Houston’s army weaved back and forth from the Colorado River on the west to the Brazos River and Washington on the east. Rains clogged the prairies. The Brazos poured over its banks–sweeping past the first steep bluff at Washington, and lapping at the second one, ground floor for the town.
Santa Anna led his army across the Colorado, carrying out his threat to “kill all Anglos.” Houston’s Army was backed up to the Brazos. At Washington, on March 30, he learned of the massacre at Goliad. A wide-ranging network of messengers and scouts kept him informed that Santa Anna’s troops were not massed, but split. He also learned of the Steam Boat Yellow Stone at Groce’s Landing. Houston moved his troops into a copse of timbers nearby. On April 2, 1836, Houston sent Captain Ross a message ordering the boat into Texas’ service with offers of wages and land for owners, officers and crew. “The Boat is not to leave without my orders,” he wrote to Capt. Ross on April 2, 1836.
Houston moved his troops closer to the Brazos, into the cane breaks opposite Groce’s Landing.
Captain Ross responded, “Monday Eve April 11th, 1836.”
To Gen. Sam Houston
Sir I think the Cotton we have on board necessary to protect the Boat &Engine–if we have to pass the Enemy’s Cannon–I can transport 500 men with cotton enough to protect the boat from any damage from the Enemies fire–If you wish the cotton landed please instruct me–
I can cross all the baggage without moving the cotton
I have four cords of wood on board & Everything ready to “go ahead”.
Jno E. Ross Comg Yl.Stone (sic) (In pencil): Capt Ross (sic)
All things will do as you say they are until further orders.
At 10, on the morning of April 12, Houston’s men filed aboard. By 2 p.m. the next day, over 700 soldiers, 200 horses and supplies had been ferried across the swollen Brazos in seven trips aboard Yellow Stone. Now on the eastern bank, they readied for the march to the Gulf.
Houston released the riverboat with calls for god speed and a safe journey. With cotton piled two decks high, Ross’ head the only one visible, the steamer roared downstream, whistle blowing, bell clanging and belching black smoke. A witness aboard, John Fenn, prisoner of the Texians, said, “The Yellow Stone was plowing the water for all she was worth, lashing the banks with the waves on both sides as she went.”
Ross knew part of the Mexican army would be waiting for him at the bend of the river. Neither he nor his men were Texas Army volunteers, but, they had aided the Texian rebels. He blasted along the familiar course. Mexican soldiers fired, but cotton bales absorbed the musket balls. Mexican horse soldiers tried to lasso Yellow Stone’s chimneys. At her high rate of speed, rounding the river’s curve, the steamer skidded through a complete circle. Ross straightened her and continued the dash for the coast. He arrived at Velasco, the boat unscathed, and the crew safe.
Meanwhile, Houston marched his men east, then south, toward the San Jacinto River below Harrisburg where they met and defeated Santa Anna and his Army, April 21, 1836.
The Yellow Stone, with Captain Ross and crew, was ordered to Galveston to pick up President Burnet and his cabinet and take them to view the San Jacinto victory. On May 3, she steamed back to Velasco, now a floating capitol, with the Republic of Texas’ president and cabinet and printing press on board. Also aboard were Gen. Houston, injured in battle and Gen. Santa Anna, also injured, along with some 80 Mexican prisoners. The western river steamer hosted the peace treaty signing of the Republic of Texas, and the government of Mexico.
Capt Ross presented Houston with the ship’s bell, now at anchor at the Alamo.
Houston defeated the empressario, Stephen F. Austin, in the election for President of the Republic. Soon after, dispirited by the defeat, the “Father of Texas,” Austin died, December 27, 1836. He lay in state for two days. Capt. Ross and the Steam Boat Yellow Stone carried his body, and mourners back to his beloved Peach Creek Plantation below San Felipe, the last official duty the Yellow Stone, Capt. Ross and crew for the fledgling Republic of Texas, an independent nation.
Thanks for joining me this week on www.texashistoryblog.com … Texana on Thursdays, a front porch chat. Any comments or questions, drop a note in the comment box or send me an email, [email protected]
With “independence” on the horizon, I’ll be publishing other posts on this era of Texas history over the next three months. Along with other topics, of course.