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George Morgan: Matagorda Peninsula Bar Pilot

By Russell Huebner

The Daily Tribune, Sunday, October 22, 2000

Life on Matagorda Peninsula has never been easy. Historically, it was a place of dreams that never came true by dreamers enticed to the island by its own subtle beauty among other reasons.

In the late 1600s, a French explorer, Rene Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle arrived near there. Twelve of his party of settlers ended upon the peninsula for a while and only six of them left a few weeks later.

Karankawa Indians were responsible for the deaths of some of the six, leaving rattlesnakes, disease, and hunger to take care of the rest.


This is borne out by documents from the resurrection of La Salle's ship La Belle in Matagorda Bay. Discoveries from La Belle enabled historians and archeologists to sort out LaSalle's almost every movement.

But La Salle's men were just a part of the peninsula's history.

There are links, however, because of the daily life of the peninsula between those early French settlers and a man and his family who lived for some time on the peninsula about two centuries later.

George was a bar pilot at Pass Cavallo, which separated Matagorda Peninsula from Matagorda Island.

The Galveston Gazette boasted: "The large and growing importation of goods into Texas through the entrance of Matagorda Bay..."

"The entrance from the Gulf into Matagorda and Lavaca Bays and many points among them will by nature, point out the Port Cavallo should be the most eligible for such a purpose."

Morgan would board ships entering Matagorda Bay and guide their passage. His guidance was necessary because of the precarious currents and underwater sandbars at and near the pass. Ships that tried to cross the bar and navigate Pass Cavallo without a pilot often lost their cargo, or were wrecked.

His job was especially crucial at this historical point since many of the ships, often from foreign nations, were en route to the Lavaca Bay port of Indianola, then one of Texas' major seaports.

Wiser captains of vessels of all sizes would wait outside the pass for days waiting for pilots to guide them through the pass' precarious waters and underwater bars.

On Friday, March 26, 1852, the steamship Independence was on her maiden voyage traveling from New Orleans to Indianola, with 20 passengers on board. She also was laden with freight in her cargo hold. Upon arrival at Port Cavallo, the crew made the fatal mistake of attempting to enter Matagorda Bay without a bar pilot.

The ship struck a sand bar near the entrance of the pass, where breakers rose high. Bar pilots Captain William Nichols and George Morgan, near the imperiled ship, immediately tried to board her. Morgan was swamped by the breakers and narrowly escaped with his life. Nichols' luck was about the same.

Around noon, several lifeboats came alongside but the women aboard wouldn't use these "frail" boats--five men were glad to be rescued, frail boats or not.

The Independence later filled with seawater and capsized in the breakers. No further effort was made to rescue passengers. All of the readily available lifeboats were crushed.

The next day brought another shipwreck. The ship J. W. Rabun also landed inside the breakers about four hundred yards in front of the Independence. Aboard were bar pilots Nichols, Cummings, Decrow and Morgan. By noon they rescued six women and one infant. This was to be the day's only rescue because the violence of the breakers was increasing and the lack of lifeboats.

A steamer from Indianola tried to rescue the passengers Saturday afternoon. Its valiant crew tried three rescues without success. Sunday morning brought new hope. Calm prevailed over the shipwreck area. The Rabun began deploying her remaining lifeboats and by 3 p.m. all were safely rescued. The Independence, broken in two, was abandoned to the pounding breakers.

John Brown of the Indianola Bulletin wrote: "To discriminate among gallant men is not our due but we must mention the noble daring of Captains Kerr, Nichols, Lawless, Cummings, Dimond, Morgan, and Bailey."

The newspaper did reflect on a schooner, The Clinton, that spent time collecting the freight from the Independence and Rabun, but didn't attempt to rescue the passengers.

The shipwrecks claimed six lives. If not for the heroism of men such as George Morgan, the disaster could have been worse. The fact that so many survived only shows that bar pilots of Pass Cavallo were indeed experts in their chosen professions.

But tragedy often struck the family of George Morgan.

George Morgan's birth date is unknown. He came from Massachusetts before 1848. He first appears in Texas records August 1 of that year--a marriage certificate shows that he married Mary Elizabeth Tilley. Ironically, the same marriage record index of the 1800s also shows George Morgan marrying Dorinda Jane Tilley Osgood on March 27, 1856.

Mary Elizabeth Tilley and Dorinda Jane Tilley Osgood were sisters. Both George and Dorinda were dealt a tremendous life blow when they each lost their spouse. The sisters--George's first two wives--first came to Texas with their father, Josiah Tilley, from Alabama.

The Calhoun County census of 1850 lists the following members in the Morgan household:

   1. George Morgan, 25, whose occupation was listed as a farmer.

   2. Mary Morgan, 20

   3. Sarah Exy Morgan, 2 (While the census lists Sarah's age as two in 1850, she was born Feb. 1, 1850, so she couldn't have even been a year old.)

Tragedy struck the Morgan home May 10, 1851 when Sarah Exy died. The cause was unknown. She was one year old and was buried near the north shore of the peninsula. George and Elizabeth had a white marble headstone made for the gravesite.

During their mourning, the Morgans probably had one uplifting thought--Mary Elizabeth was five months pregnant. On Sept. 5, 1861, she gave birth to a boy. He was named John Tilley Morgan.

John Tilley was just over a year old when his mother died. Mary Elizabeth died in January 1853 from typhoid fever. She was 22.

Typhoid fever is a bacterial disease that is spread chiefly through contaminated water or food. Typhoid fever is borne through the victims' wastes. Healthy persons can have the bacteria, spread the disease, yet show no signs of it. While the disease is rarely suffered nowadays, it was a consistent threat to settlers in America during the 1800s.

Mary Elizabeth was buried next to her infant daughter in a wooden cypress casket. Another white marble headstone was ordered and erected at the head of her grave.

As bar pilot, George supplemented his income from farming. He had two horses, five milk cows and fifteen other cattle. But he still faced a major responsibility in nurturing and caring for John Tilley, his son by Mary Elizabeth.

On March 27, 1856, George married Dorinda Jane Osgood, Mary Elizabeth's sister. It's possible this marriage was out of convenience, rather than passion, because of the children involved.

It's interesting to note that George deeded lot nine, block six, tier E, in the city of Port Cavallo to his son, John Tilley, on March 2, only 25 days before the wedding. George apparently knew a lawyer who knew Texas divorce and inheritance laws.

When she married George, Dorinda brought twin children from her first marriage, Josiah and Cora Osgood, both 11. George's son, John Tilley was 3 when his father remarried.

Dorinda Jane Tilley was previously married to Charles Osgood. There were wedded Nov. 24, 1843. It's unknown what happened to Charles Osgood. There is no divorce decree in either Matagorda or Calhoun counties. It's speculation to assume that Dorinda's husband died because there were no death certificates kept back then.

Since George needed a mother for his son and a homemaker and she needed the income, they decided to marry. There weren't a lot of prospective brides or grooms on Matagorda Peninsula during the 1850s.

Port Cavallo was strategically situated on the western tip of the peninsula and was seen by seafaring travelers bound through the only entrance into Matagorda Bay. It offered promise as a new town and an 1836 article in the Colorado Herald predicted that Port Cavallo would supersede Port Lavaca.

The peninsula was occupied at that time by farmers, ranchers, and families of bar pilots and seamen. Pasture for livestock was superior even by today's standards. The Indianola Bulletin of April 26, 1854, reported "vegetables, sheep, and cattle thrived there."

The Colorado Gazette reported the town was trying to grow and become home for those entering Texas from foreign nations.

Newspapers reported a storm June 25 and 26, 1851, as the severest recorded in history. It destroyed eight of Port Cavallo's 12 buildings. In September of that year, the journal of the schooner Hazard described Port Cavallo as a small receiving station "with but three or four small hovels."

The Matagorda County census of 1860 indicated the Morgan household included: George Morgan, 33, Dorinda Jane Morgan, 28, John Tilley Morgan, 8, Josiah Osgood, 15, Cora Osgood, 15, Elizabeth Stanley, 26, John Livingston, 47, a school teacher originally from Scotland.

On Oct. 6, 1860, George and Dorinda Jane entered into a contract for an $800 loan with Elijah Decrow. The contract was signed in the city of Saluria in Calhoun County. It's not known what they did with the money.

No records indicate what next happened in George Morgan's life.

Dorinda Jane either left George or died. Also unknown is what happened to her children.

In the Calhoun County Clerk's office is a copy of a marriage certificate of George Morgan to Ann Holbein. They were wed July 21, 1866, and by 1870, they had two children--Bartlett, 2 and Violet, 8 months.

This marriage must have been shaky from the first. George, foreseeing difficulty, visited his attorney for legal advice. George deeded 90 of his sheep roaming on Matagorda Island to his son, John Tilley Morgan in September of 1871. A month later, Ann filed for divorce in Calhoun County. The court decreed that Ann would get custody of Violet and Bartlett. Bartlett was to go to his father when he reached 10. Ann also got 153 head of sheep, four head of cattle and $50. Deeding the sheep to John Tilley Morgan didn't work. The court ordered George to give Ann 153 sheep.

Speaking of John Tilley Morgan, he was the only surviving child from the marriage of George to Mary Elizabeth. John was married to Lavantha Kuykendall on May 5, 1873, in Refugio County. They had three children before moving to McMullen County in about 1879 where the rest of the children were born.

John was a deputy sheriff and deputy U. S. Marshall.

Tragedy befell this branch of the Morgans suddenly and unexpectedly. Deputy John Morgan was called to investigate trouble at a Mexican dance around midnight Feb. 1, 1894. A man had inflicted two deep wounds with a large knife on the face of a youth. When Morgan tried to make an arrest, the knife-wielding assailant fatally wounded the deputy. Morgan died from the knife attack on March 15, 1894. He was survived by a wife and 10 children.

George was still a bar pilot for Pass Cavallo. He would never marry again.

The only thing he had to look forward to was his youngest son's return following his 10th birthday. It would never happen. George would die before ever even seeing his son again.

The storm of 1975 destroyed the cities of Port Cavallo, Saluria and Indianola. After the storm had blown inland for 18 hours, the wind suddenly shifted from the north and the high waters of the different bays and marshes now took a mad rush back to the Gulf. Matagorda Peninsula lay in its way and 15 miles of it was carried away into the Gulf with many homes and families, among them three bar pilots of Pass Cavallo.

No names were listed in newspaper reports, but George Morgan was probably one of them. When the winds changed to the north, those drowned on the peninsula were carried into the Gulf and their bodies were never recovered.

The Decrow's house, where George was when the storm arrived, was supposedly storm-proof. It was built by an expert ship carpenter with the corner posts sunk six feet in the ground, each with a cross piece attached to the bottom for anchoring. Morgan was among 22 persons in the house seeking safety from the storm. This is where all 22 died.

Morgan Graves



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Jan. 13, 2006
Jan. 13, 2006