This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
On or about Sep. 10, 1839, Henry Lawrence Kinney opened a trading post, in reality a front for his smuggling operation, on the western shore of Corpus Christi Bay.
The Pennsylvania native was just 18, when he visited relatives at the Irish colony of San Patricio in 1832. He wandered back to Texas three years after independence was won from Mexico and set up shop on a deserted stretch of beach that one day would be packed with sunbathing tourists.
The spot was a perfect site for importing all kinds of contraband. As the westernmost outpost in the young Republic, the ramshackle settlement was far removed from the prying eyes of disapproving officials. Free to do as he pleased, the nefarious newcomer got right down to business.
In no time at all, Kinney employed a disreputable assortment of con artists, cutthroats and outcasts. To legitimize his fraudulent claim to the local real estate, he bought a forged title. When the actual owner showed up with 300 armed men to evict the squatters, Kinney fast-talked the absentee landlord into selling him ten leagues.
The successful smuggler dabbled in politics rubbing shoulders with the movers and shakers of the new nation. He served President Mirabeau Lamar as a secret emissary and later performed clandestine chores for chief executives Sam Houston and Anson Jones. However unsavory his reputation, the clever criminal’s network of spies and informants made him invaluable.
In August 1845, on the eve of Texas annexation, Gen. Zachary Taylor landed with a boatload of U.S. troops. An officer minced no words in describing Kinney’s thriving community as “the most murderous, thieving, gambling, God-forsaken hole in the Lone Star state or out of it.”
Five thousand soldiers stranded on his doorstep with nothing to do while they waited for war to break out with Mexico! The enterprising scoundrel exploited this rare opportunity for all it was worth and made money hand over fist by offering a smorgasbord of vices.
Kinney called the place Corpus Christi, and the Texas version of Sodom and Gomorrah swelled to a town of 2,000. The proud founder even published his own newspaper.
After the Mexican War, Kinney promoted his shady Shangri-la as the “Naples of the Gulf” in an elaborate campaign throughout North America and Europe. In 1852 he hosted the Lone Star State Fair, the first event of its kind in Texas, but the much ballyhooed affair was a colossal flop.
Bored and broke two years later, Kinney was inspired by rumors of the impending invasion of Nicaragua by filibuster William Walker. Never a follower, he planned to reach the Central American country first and beat the charismatic Tennessean to the punch.
Locked in a stalemated civil war, a Nicaraguan faction invited Walker to fight on their side. With less than 100 supporters, the tiny general entered Nicaragua in June 1855 and by year’s end controlled the country.
Meanwhile, with a worthless promissory note Kinney secured the rights to 22 million acres on the eastern coast of the strife-torn nation and attracted 500 prospective colonists. But criminal indictments in New York and Philadelphia in the spring of 1855 stopped the venture in its tracks.
Nevertheless, Kinney slipped out of New York harbor with a rented schooner and 13 recruits. When the vessel ran aground on a Nicaraguan beach, he stumbled ashore only to discover why the tropical paradise was called the Mosquito Coast. His would-be colony was nothing but miserable swampland.
When told of the intruder, General Walker fumed, “Tell Colonel Kinney, or Governor Kinney, or Mr. Kinney, or whatever he is called that if I ever catch him in Nicaragua, I’ll hang him.”
Unfazed by reports of Walker’s fury, Kinney persuaded Texas aides of the general to arrange a face-to-face meeting. The February 1856 discussion came off without a hitch, and a second get-together was scheduled for the next morning.
That night Walker uncovered a secret scheme by Kinney to turn members of the Nicaraguan junta against him. The following day, the general exploded and threatened execution, but Kinney calmly reminded him of his safe-conduct guarantee.
Kicked out of the country, Kinney headed straight for Washington, where he painted Walker as a mortal enemy of American interests. His slanted story paved the way for the overthrow and firing squad death of the famous filibuster.
Henry Kinney lost his touch after the Nicaraguan escapade and drifted aimlessly during the Civil War unable to capitalize on the chaos. He was shot to death in Matamoros, Mexico in 1865. The violent end of the founding scoundrel of Corpus Christi went unnoticed and unmourned.
Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or firstname.lastname@example.org.