by BARTEE HAILE
In a May 19, 1837 letter to the speaker of the Republic house of representatives, President Sam Houston pressed for full payment as promised to the captain and crew of the “Yellow Stone” and the rightful place of the steamboat in Texas history.
Built in Louisville, Kentucky in 1831, the sidewheeler was specifically designed for navigating the shallow waters of the Missouri River. For four years, it made many trips on America’s longest tributary mainly hauling furs to market.
After completing major repairs and refitting for the Texas trade, the “Yellow Stone” steamed up the Brazos River docking at Brazoria in November 1835. Running cotton between San Felipe and Washington-on-the-Brazos kept it busy for the next two months.
The “Yellow Stone” returned to New Orleans at Christmas to pick up ammunition and volunteers, including the star-crossed “Mobile Grays” destined to die at Goliad, for the Texas rebellion. Dropping off cargo and passengers at Quintana in early January 1836, the steamer resumed its role as the carrier of choice for cotton growers along the Brazos.
“The boat was loading cotton at Groce’s Landing above San Felipe,” states the Handbook of Texas, “when Sam Houston’s army arrived on Mar. 31, 1836 in a heavy rain and established camp on the west side of the Brazos.”
Under the rules of war, Houston could have seized the “Yellow Stone” and compelled Capt. John E. Ross and his crew to do his bidding. But, if they refused, he had no one to operate the steam-powered craft.
A few hands, most notably Thomas Lubbock, brother of a future Texas governor and a Civil War hero in his own right, were sympathetic to the cause and willing to fight. Most, however, needed an inducement, which Houston was happy to provide.
In return for their cooperation, the general promised each member of the crew a piece of independent Texas. Capt. Ross and the engineer were entitled to the largest, a full league or 4,428 acres, with everyone else receiving a third of a league.
There was one more sticking point of grave concern to the men of the “Yellow Stone.” In the event of capture, would they be treated as prisoners of war or put to death as pirates? Houston deftly handled this issue by assuring them in writing that they would continue to steam under the U.S. flag as American citizens, making them neutral noncombatants, and would not be required to bear arms.
To protect the vital working parts of his steamship as well as passengers and crew from hostile fire, Capt. Ross turned the “Yellow Stone” into an early version of the Civil War “cottonclad” by stacking bales on the deck. On the morning of Apr. 12, he informed Gen. Houston that his vessel was ready for the dangerous crossing.
At the same time, Santa Anna was fording the same river a mere 15 miles downstream. The “Napoleon of the West” had only two hurriedly constructed flat-bottomed boats and several smaller craft at his disposal, but by nightfall he too had his whole army on the opposite shore.
Two days later, Houston and Ross said their goodbyes, and the general headed east toward San Jacinto while the captain steamed south down the Brazos. Along the way, the “Yellow Stone” passed the burned-out ruins of San Felipe, picked up civilian stragglers from the “Runaway Scrape” and shrugged off musket and small-cannon fire from puzzled Mexicans who had never seen a cottonclad.
Capt. Ross was in port at Galveston on Apr. 26, when David G. Burnet finally learned how the Battle of San Jacinto had turned out. The dispatch that brought the interim president the wonderful news also summoned him to the battleground.
Ross again obliged, though the demanding Burnet likely left him little choice. For the return trip to Galveston, Santa Anna and his personal staff plus 80 wounded prisoners were escorted under guard onto the “Yellow Stone.”
But when soldiers tried to carry on-board their general, in great pain from a bullet in his ankle, his bitter enemy Burnet blocked the gangplank. According to Donald Jackson in his well-researched Voyages of the Steamboat Yellow Stone, “Captain Ross interceded and refused to pilot the ‘Yellow Stone’ without Houston aboard.”
Seven months later, the steamboat was called upon for one last official favor. It transported the body of Stephen F. Austin, who had died unexpectedly at the age of 43, the short distance down the Brazos to a temporary resting place on his sister’s plantation.
On more than one occasion, Sam Houston asked the Republic and later the State of Texas to keep his promise to the captain and crew of the “Yellow Stone.” In 1837 he wrote, “…had it not been for its services, the enemy could never have been overtaken until they had reached the Sabine.” Nineteen years later, the old general put it more bluntly: “What would a league of land have been worth, it I had been prevented from intercepting Santa Anna at San Jacinto?”
Nevertheless, the claims were never paid. As for the “Yellow Stone,” all that remains of the historic steamboat is its bell, which is on display in the Alamo museum.
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