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Handbook of Texas article



I was sitting at a lunch counter of a café one night refreshing myself with some--ah, iced tea, when an old-timer came in and sat down on the stool next to mine.

"Yo're the feller who'se gittin' out this hyar special edition, aitcha?" It was more a statement than a question. I pleaded guilty.

"Didja ever hear of the 'Horse Marines"?" was the next query as the waitress brought him some of the "iced tea."

"Sure," I said, "and I've heard of the 'Mounted Balloon Corps,' too." I had, too, but I thought it was a gag. I found out differently.

"No foolin' son. There was some 'Horse Marines' and they got their name right in these parts." I smelled a story and decided to hang around. And this is what he told me.

During the War of Independence, in 1836, a Mexican army was operating around here and General Houston, expecting the Mexicans to send supplies for it by way of Matagorda by boat detailed Captain Isaac W. Burton to watch for them and, it was typical that the orders were to prevent them landing, not to "try" to prevent them.

A company of 25 men set out to patrol the coast. It was easy, only about 400 miles of coast line, not counting all the bays, points, inlets, and peninsulas. Of course a lot they did not have to watch, but it was still a mighty big order. The men did not like it, they thought they were in danger of missing out on some excitement and that if they were with Houston they might be able to do a little real good.

However, one day a few miles south of Matagorda Bay one of the men sighted a ship. Captain Burton hid his men in the brush and sent two, disguised as Mexicans to the beach to signal the ship hoping that it would put off a boat to investigate. It did.

The men were captured and "hog-tied" in short order. Leaving 10 men ashore, the boat would hold only 16, Captain Burton and the other fifteen men put off for the ship. The Mexicans saw them coming and realizing that it was a trick opened fire with what cannon the ship carried. Poor marksmanship on the part of the cannoneers permitted the Texans to gain the ship and with a rush they went aboard and soon had control of the ship. The ship was not much more than headed towards Matagorda when two Mexican gunboats were sighted.

Captain Burton at the point of a pistol, forced the ship's commander to signal the captains of the other gunboats aboard for a conference. They came and were promptly captured by the Texans who were disguised as Mexicans. Once the crews and remaining officers of the two gunboats realized their captains were held as hostages they surrendered and the Texans sailed them into port.

When the news of their capture of the three ships became known somebody with a sense of humor dubbed them the "Horse Marines" and the name stuck. I had heard the expression and had heard the story but did not realize that it happened in this section of the coast and had never connected the two. I suggested some more refreshments but he declined.

"No, thanks, son. Gotta be headin' fer home. It's getting' late 'n' I'm not as young as I used to be. So long. I'll see yu some more." But he didn't and I always regretted it. He looked as if he could have given me some more stories and dope that would have been good. But I never did see him any more and I never found out who he was.

"Jest one o' them things, I reckon."

The Daily Tribune and Matagorda County Tribune Century of Progress Edition, August 26, 1937


Compiled by Ural Lee Donohoe

 Published in the Matagorda County Genealogical Society publication Oak Leaves (Vol. 3, No. 4, August 1984) and used here with permission.  

After the Battle of San Jacinto in April 1836, the Texans were ready to accept Mexico 's surrender, quit fighting and go back to their homes and families. The Mexicans had other ideas.


The Mexican Army gathered at Matamoros and was again preparing to invade Texas . General Thomas J. Rusk was advised of the danger and as part of his defense he ordered Major Isaac W. Burton, who commanded a company of mounted rangers, to patrol the coast to prevent the landing of any Mexican vessel.


On June 2, a suspicious vessel was sighted in Copano Bay . Major Burton concealed his men and using one who spoke Spanish, signaled the craft to send its boat ashore. This signal was promptly answered by a small boat with five of the enemy. The Mexicans were seized and sixteen Texans took their place. These men soon took control of the vessel, the Watchman, which was loaded with provisions for the advancing Mexican army. The ship was ordered to proceed to Velasco but was detained by the weather for over two weeks. During this time the ships Comanche and Fanny Butler also loaded with provisions, anchored off the bar. The captain of the Watchman was "persuaded" to decoy the commanders of the other ships to come aboard his vessel, where they were taken prisoners. All three ships with their valuable cargos were sent to Velasco where they were condemned. The freight was worth about $25,000 to the Texas Army.


Because of their escapade on the high seas, Major Burton and his mounted rangers became known as "the horse marines." The Mexican Army realized the Texans could not be surprised so they chose not to advance. Several of Major Burton's men were from the Matagorda County area. The company was listed on the General Land Office muster roll as follows:


 1. Putnam Dickerson

 2. Charles D. Ferris

 3. E. Hardin

 4. W. Hockenday

 5. A. Hale

 6. S. Haynor

 7. Y. Duncan

 8. S. L. Burns

 9. Samuel Smith

10. C. Rockwell

11. Y. Buckham

12. G. M. Roberts

13. C. B. Emmons

14. J. W. Baylor

15. Jno. Swarty

16. W. Daniels

17. W. Fitzmenis

18. P. B. Stephenson

19. Jackson Grey

20. Isaac Burton




Pennybacker, Mrs. Anna J. Hardwicke, A History of Texas , Austin , Texas 1912

The Houston Post, Houston , Texas , July 30, 1983

Yoakum, H., History of Texas , Vol. II, Redfield , New York , 1850

General Land Office Muster Rolls: Thanks to Jean Carefoot, Archivist at the Texas State Library for her assistance in obtaining this information.


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Feb. 7, 2005
March 28, 2007