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The seacoast is the threshold of American prehistory and history, of American culture, and like most well-passed thresholds, it is hollowed and worn. And historians routinely ignore it.
—John Stilgoe, Alongshore, IX
While well into the research and writing of this book, I came across a series of fascinating files in Galveston's Rosenberg Library. There, in a dusty scrapbook, lay the outline of a handwritten manuscript by Ben C. Stuart, a journalist. Stuart's many newspaper columns written in the early igios thrilled readers with stories of the Texas coast and the vessels that helped transform it from terra incognita to one of the world's more important coasts at the time of his writing. In his writings, Stuart recognized a peculiar fact about Texas history, namely, its general neglect of the coast. Stuart set out to change that by writing what was envisioned to be a comprehensive history of Texas as a maritime power but, alas, he died before he could complete the manuscript.
Today, nearly eighty years since Stuart began his manuscript, little has changed: The Texas coast remains, in a word, neglected. The reason for this neglect is a simple bias that has characterized Texans—and Texas historians—for more than a century. Although a tremendous amount of research and publication by academic and independent scholars has left the Lone Star State with a most impressive record of its fascinating and turbulent history, most Texas history has focused on events and themes that took place within the interior of the state: the battle of the Alamo, the development of the cattle drives, and the boom and bust of Texas oil fields have generally ensured that Texas historians would turn their eyes away from the coast, to the detriment of our state's rich maritime history. In a way, the coast of Texas still appears to be terra incognita—at least in the perceptions of historians, for relatively little has been written on the subject since Stuart began his monumental work.
In searching for a cause for the neglect of Texas maritime history, one must conclude that there has been a certain disenchantment with the waters of Texas by twentieth-century scholars. In 1940, for example, the geologist Ellis W. Shuler noted that the waters of Texas posed a barrier rather than an invitation to settlement. He stated that the "barrier coast line" of Texas offered a "low, uninviting shore" and "inadequate harbors." Shuler added that Texas rivers were also barriers in that they were dangerous to ford; some, like the Rio Grande, were noted for their "mud bottoms and menacing floods, or rocky, steep-walled canyons." Something of Shuler's opinion of Texas waters can be gained by his damning summary that "the low, flat, uninteresting coastline was passed by for more than a century; ugly, treacherous rivers, mud-bottomed and steep-walled, were moats of most difficult passage." It is this virtual disdain for the waters of Texas that has led many to discount their importance in Texas history; and yet, as will be shown, despite their dangers the waters of Texas did provide access to the alluring interior for those who developed technologies to meet the challenge. A look at the map of Texas reveals that most communities are located on, or very near, either the coast or the state's extensive river system.
Even a casual reading of historical accounts reveals the importance of the waters of Texas; yet, when I first arrived in Texas in the early 1990s with a strong interest in the history of transportation, I inquired about a book that could provide me a comprehensive overview of our state's maritime history. None existed. There are, of course, a few important works on selected aspects of Texas maritime history, including an early (1936) popular history of the Texas Navy by Dan Hill, and the more recent and highly informative trilogy of books by Robert Weddle that cover the Texas coast in the early Spanish and French periods to the arrival of the British. Likewise, James Baughman's two classic volumes on nineteenth-century Texas shipping, as viewed through the life of shipping magnate Charles Morgan and the Mallorys of Mystic, are important works dealing with the Texas coast, as is the singularly focused and comprehensive history of Texas lighthouses by the historian T. Lindsay Baker. These are referred to frequently in this book, but to them I hope From Sail to Steam now adds a general, comprehensive overview of this neglected subject, hopefully of the type envisioned by Ben Stuart so many years ago.
By way of overview, the Texas coast is an inescapable aspect of our state's geography. For a long period of Texas history, in fact, the coastline was literally a sweeping zone of contact—almost four hundred miles long—between Native American, Spanish, Mexican, French, European American, and African American peoples. Throughout the centuries the Texas coast has been perceived as both an area to be avoided—partly owing to fear of diseases—as well as a zone of opportunity. The coast has remained an extremely important part of Texas history, though the interior—with its promises of untold mineral and agricultural wealth—naturally drew settlers much as it has enchanted generations of historians. To the list of introductions, inventions, and technologies that have transformed Texas—such as the horse, rifle, and barbed wire—I recommend we now add the schooner, steamboat, and other vessels that were involved in the transport of goods and people to and from Texas.
Despite the hazards encountered there, the Texas coast was often the first glimpse that new arrivals got of this new land in the early 1800s. Its maritime shipping was responsible for bringing people, goods, and ideas to Texas from far away ports of America and Europe. Because the shipping along Texas rivers has been documented to a limited degree, it will not be covered in as much detail in From Sail to Steam as some aficionados of the western rivers would have preferred. Nevertheless, I have emphasized the importance of river craft in several places, notably the earlier to middle nineteenth century because narratives and photographs reveal Texas harbors teeming with both oceangoing and river-bound vessels. Although From Sail to Steam is primarily what maritime historians call blue-water, or better yet, saltwater, history, it is indeed difficult, actually impossible, in Texas to separate riverine history from other aspects of maritime history. This volume, then, focuses on the vessels and shipping—the maritime history—of the Texas coast, but in so doing it also makes frequent reference to the rivergoing craft, especially keel boats and steamboats that were indispensable in connecting traffic of the interior with coastal maritime traffic at Texas ports in the 1800s.
Although much of the information in this book was obtained from diverse and scattered secondary sources, such as published articles and the books mentioned earlier, I have been impressed—actually nearly overwhelmed—by the bounty of primary sources. These include original newspapers, journals, and diary entries. Because there is no single depository of maritime history in Texas, writing this book took me to many locations, including university libraries, such as The University of Texas at Arlington Special Collections, and the Center for American History at the University of Texas-Austin. I have also consulted the collections at various historical agencies, including the Fort Worth Records Center of the National Archives, and the Rosenberg Library in Galveston. Being an avowed public historian, I made special use of the wonderful staff and facilities at Texas museums, including the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History, the Port of Galveston, the Texas Maritime Museum at Rockport, and the new Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur. Additionally, several maritime museums outside of Texas were also consulted, most notably the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia. Where possible, I have tried to portray developments in shipping on the Texas coast in the context of history, geography, and the history of technology, for they are inseparable. In retrospect, it has been the effort of the archaeologists, some in private corporations, others at state agencies, that has shed considerable light on the actual vessels that traversed Texas's coast and rivers. Their work, which integrates the written records with the material found on site, helps to bring the state's maritime history back to life.
During more than five hundred years of Texas history, vessels of widely varying descriptions under many flags have plied the coast and coastal waters. These included Spanish carracks and galleons, French brigs, British frigates, U.S. schooners and steamships, and even the varied steam and sailing vessels of the short-lived Texas Navy.
By definition, maritime history also involves ports as well as the high seas, and where possible I have shown that Texas ports developed along with other aspects of the state's maritime history. The names of the larger ports—Corpus Christi and Galveston—resound in the annals of saltwater navigation. The smaller ports, such as Port Aransas, Rockport, and Velasco are also briefly discussed. Where appropriate, I also mention the vanished ports, like Indianola, Copano, or Brazos Port—that were important in the last century, and in some cases earlier, but are now more or less ghost towns and the picturesque subject of fascinating popular histories such as Texas Forgotten Ports. However, I should note at the outset that From Sail to Steam is mostly about the watercraft that plied the waters of Texas.
Although maritime mercantile cargo and passenger trade are the subjects of this book, I have not neglected the military aspects of our maritime history. Because confrontations have a way of drawing our attention, it is in the area of Texas military history that our greatest knowledge about Texas ships and shipping has occurred. For example, the Texas Navy has been carefully documented in several works, for it formed a crucial part of the history of the Texas Republic. During the Civil War, too, the Texas coast was again the center of maritime warfare and drew reporters and illustrators; a recent exhibit at the Texas Museum of Maritime History in Rockport tells the story of the Civil War along the Texas coast. Generally, however, From Sail to Steam provides only overviews of our maritime military history, because books can, and have, been written about naval engagements on the Texas coast. The main reason I have emphasized military history in several parts of this book, however, is that advancements in military technology and reconnaissance often led to improvements in merchant shipping.
Because a picture is indeed worth thousands of words, I have attempted to illustrate this book with examples of the important classes of vessels that have plied the coast, as well as port scenes and images of important artifacts associated with Texas maritime history. I have attempted to describe, interpret, and illustrate the more mundane "everyday" aspects of maritime transportation in this book: Cargo and passenger vessels under sail and steam, even the lowly tugboat, all have an important place in Texas history. In my search for illustrations, it became apparent that the maritime history of Texas cannot be told without maps, and thus I have included about a dozen of the more important maps and charts; when viewed through time, these maps beautifully reveal the increasing knowledge of the waters of Texas—knowledge that helped mariners, entrepreneurs, and government officials further develop these waters.
I invite the reader to join me in the search for the diverse vessels that have made contact with the Texas coast, either by accident (in the form of shipwrecks) or on a deliberate course to new points of entry and development, and the ports and rivers utilized by these vessels through time, namely, the four centuries following the arrival of the Spanish on the Gulf of Mexico, or Spanish Sea as it was once called. This story thus begins in a rather narrow, tightly defined strip of Texas geography that is only perhaps a dozen miles in width, but nearly four hundred miles long, where the rivers meet the desolate and beautiful Gulf Coast of the Lone Star State.