The Short, Dramatic Life Of The Steamboat Yellow Stone

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In the Mexican province of Texas, Americans who had been colonizing there since the 1820s under the leadership of young Stephen F. Austin were restive. At first they had willingly become Mexican citizens and obeyed Mexican laws. But now their distaste for the government of Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna had brought them to the edge of revolt. The notion of making Texas a separate republic—or even a part of the United States—was tantalizing. That Americans would one day take Texas from the Mexicans seemed as inevitable as the fact that other Americans were inexorably taking all the trans-Mississippi country from the Indians. The movement would soon have a name—Manifest Destiny.

Meanwhile, the settlements on the Gulf Coast and along such streams as the Brazos, the Colorado, and the Trinity were developing fast. Cotton was a successful crop in those rich lands, and transportation was needed to take it to New Orleans. Steamboats seemed to be the answer, and by 1835 several vessels were at work in the lower reaches of Texas rivers.

At the end of 1835 the firm of McKinney and Williams brought the Yellow Stone to the mouth of the Brazos. She had been purchased by their New Orleans agents, Toby & Brother, and had undergone repairs to her hull and superstructure that would keep her going, hauling cotton and other goods between Quintana and New Orleans. Merchants and financiers, Thomas McKinney and Samuel May Williams apparently never actually owned the Yellow Stone; she remained an American vessel, listed under the Toby name and authorized to operate in foreign waters. Her captain was Thomas Wigg Grayson when she left New Orleans to serve in Texas, and her passenger list included a company of young volunteers called the Mobile Grays, recently recruited in Alabama.

Suddenly Gen. Sam Houston becomes a part of the Yellow Stone story. It was now the spring of 1836, and both Goliad and the Alamo had fallen. The war for Texas independence had begun but was faltering. As leader of the volunteer forces, Houston had begun falling back. He had encamped on the flooded Brazos to mull over his strategy (many of his officers doubting that he had one), while Santa Anna and thousands of Mexican soldiers advanced across Texas. Settlers were fleeing eastward to safety.

While encamped on Jared Groce’s plantation, Houston learned that the Yellow Stone was at Groce’s Brazos landing, taking on cotton. Believing Santa Anna was below him on the Brazos, Houston conceived the plan of bearing down on the Mexican general with all his force, including a smoke-belching, roaring steamboat carrying artillery, horses, and riders, followed along the shore by eager riflemen.

Houston “detained” the Yellow Stone while he pondered his strategy further. He could hardly commandeer an American vessel to help an army of Mexican citizens fight their government. His solution was to hire the steamboat from its captain, who was then John E. Ross, and offer Ross and all his crew a substantial personal reward for their cooperation. To Ross and his engineer, Lewis C. Ferguson, he offered a league of land each, about forty-four hundred acres, and to the other crewmen a third of a league each. They struck a deal.

Ross and his deckhands stacked cotton bales on the main deck—all around, and high enough to protect the pilothouse, thus creating a “cottonclad” steamboat of the type later used by the South in the Civil War. By the evening of April 11 he was able to tell Houston that he had four cords of wood on hand and was ready for action. He thought he could transport five hundred men.

Then the whole plan of a one-ship armada descending the Brazos changed overnight. Downstream, Santa Anna had been delayed by the swollen river but had finally discovered a ford where he could cross with his men. Learning that the provisional president of the new republic, David D. G. Burnet, and his top officials were in Harrisburg, about fifteen miles to the east, the general decided to try capturing the whole rebel Texas government intact.

To ferry Houstorfs army across the Brazos, the boat became a big raft.

Houston got wind of the march and wrote to Burnet on the eleventh: “News has just arrived that the enemy are crossing at Thompson’s below Fort Bend....I will cross the river soon and meet the enemy on the east side of the river if they are really crossing below.”