The Short, Dramatic Life Of The Steamboat Yellow Stone

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So now the Yellow Stone had a new role: to ferry Houston’s men, horses, wagons, and other gear across the Brazos. The steamboat that had licked the wild Missouri and made headlines as far away as Paris was now to serve as a big raft. By midmorning on the twelfth the crossing had begun. The soldiers urged their skittish horses up the gangplank and wheeled the wagons on board; the foot soldiers stood, sat, or squatted where they could, some of them rowing across in the boat’s yawl. The engineer nursed his four cords of wood along, keeping just enough steam in the boilers to turn the paddle wheels, and Ross, who was pilot as well as captain, doubtless made the best use he could of the current in nosing the steamboat from bank to bank. The movement took about a day and a half. The losses: two oxen from one of the wagon teams.

Now that they were on the same side of the river as Santa Anna, the men felt like a pursuing army again. Houston organized them into a new regiment. A couple of six-pounders called the Twin Sisters arrived as a gift from the people of Cincinnati, and the sight of the artillery pieces lifted morale still higher.

On April 21 Houston’s eight hundred men met and defeated more than thirteen hundred Mexican troops where the San Jacinto River joins Buffalo Bayou. It is a place that shines in Texas history. Santa Anna was captured, and Houston, badly wounded in the foot, turned the army over to the Texas government.

The Yellow Stone, still encapsulated in cotton bales like a giant cocoon, was now free to return to the settlements where the Brazos meets the Gulf. It was a trip that has passed into Texas folklore. Because there still were Mexican troops downstream, Captain Ross called for more steam, more speed. The old ship bounced from bank to bank, skidded around bends, churned over sandbars. Hearing the engine’s throb and the piercing sound of the steam from the escapement pipe, the Mexicans got ready for her. They raced alongside her, pumping musket and rifle bullets into her padded sides and firing at the chimneys because some of the men, never having seen a steamboat, thought those tall cylinders were the boilers. Some artillerists tried to fire an eight-pounder at her, and an eyewitness account, perhaps somewhat distorted by time, says they attempted to lasso one of the chimneys.

After her escape down the Brazos, the Yellow Stone was out of the Army but still in government service. She carried President Burnet and his cabinet to the battlefield and brought them back, along with Santa Anna and the wounded Sam Houston, who would be sent on to New Orleans for medical care.

Life became calmer for the steamboat then. By mid-October Capt. Thomas Wigg Grayson, back on board again, was advertising that he would operate on the Brazos and would pay three dollars a cord for wood. Ross, the former captain, and his crew set about collecting the rewards they had been offered by Houston, and twenty years later the surviving ones (and Ross’s widow) were still trying to obtain the lands they had been promised. Merchants McKinney and Williams apparently were not paid for the use of their vessel, although Houston did his best to implement the matter. “Had it not been for the Boat,” he wrote to the legislator Ashbel Smith in 1855, “Texas would have been lost!”

Most of the chores assigned the Yellow Stone after the autumn of 1836 were mundane, although in retrospect the most routine acts can sometimes seem important. She carried a new printing press to the tiny settlement of Houston, now to become the Texas capital, where the famous newspaper Telegraph and Texas Register was being relocated. Her captain, this time James H. West, who had been a ship’s clerk under Ross, entertained John James Audubon in his quarters when that creator of bird and animal portraits was touring the Gulf.

There was one somber assignment. Stephen F. Austin, worn out by illness and the effects of imprisonment in Mexico, and now to be known forever as the father of Texas, died in December 1836. The vessel, which had been a smuggling ship, a carrier of royal personages, an Army transport, and an all-round engine of Manifest Destiny, now became a funeral barge. Accompanied by the new president, Sam Houston, and an official burial party, Austin’s body was carried a few miles up the Brazos to Peach Point Plantation, the home of his sister, Emily, and her husband, where the bachelor founder of the republic had had his own bedroom wing in the main house.

The Yellow Stone was last seen in GaIveston Bay in June 1837. The common legend is that she was snagged and sunk, either in the Brazos or in Buffalo Bayou, and that a bell now on display at the Alamo in San Antonio was salvaged from her sunken remains. Another supposition is that she was sold and sent up the Mississippi and Ohio, to be refitted and given a new name in one of the shipbuilding yards. There is a record that she passed through the canal at Louisville in 1837, but it has never been corroborated. How could a vessel so well known disappear with no surviving notices in newspapers, public records, or private correspondence?