Robertson County TX
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From Bluff To Port
Early in 1849, two new steamboats, built at Pittsburg, arrived on the Brazos River. These were the Brazos and Washington, often called the “Brazos Boats,” and they marked the beginning of a new era of steam-boating on the Brazos. Both boats were large ones, possessing 120-foot keels, 22-foot beams, and 4-foot holds. The bottoms were made from three-inch white oak planks. Each engine consisted of two ten inch cylinders with four-foot strokes. The paddle wheels, thirteen feet in diameter, were mounted on the stern of the boats. The captains of the vessels reported the boats could travel five miles per hour against the strongest current in the Mississippi River. Despite their size, the Brazos and Washington were of light draft. Unloaded they drew only fifteen inches. Each three hundred bales of cotton would cause them to draw an additional foot. When loaded with six hundred bales they could move in forty inches of water, an important factor for transportation on the Brazos.
Soon after the arrival of the “Brazos Boats” at Washington, a “Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen Brazos Counties was published in the Washington paper, declaring the Brazos planters would henceforth no longer suffer at the hands of the Houston merchants. The “Brazos Boats” set them free from the abuses and usurpations of the Houstonians. The planters would now be able to ship their produce to and buy their goods from Galveston. The document was signed by the residents of Milam and eleven other counties bordering on the Brazos. Galveston joined the Brazos counties in announcing the new trading arrangement brought about by the “Brazos Boats.” Milam County, at this time, was free only in theory, from transactions with Houston merchants and from the high costs of land transportation between the county and the market place. Steamboats would have to call at her shores to prove her independence.
About the time of the arrival of the boats at Washington, there was talk of navigating the Brazos above Washington. “One effort has already demonstrated its easy navigation to this point,” said an article in the Texas Ranger of Washington, “another, we trust, may soon open it to the ’falls’ at Milam (forty miles above Sullivan’s Bluff), and in less than three years, we trust, to see boats from the ‘clear Fork of the Brazos’ (above Waco).” For the first year of their operations, however, the “Brazos Boats” stayed on the lower Brazos. The next year they extended their sphere of operations higher up the river.
The Brazos, in March 1850, traveled up the Brazos to Munson’s Bluff, near the mouth of Little River or about one hundred miles above Washington, according to a Galveston paper. Hidalgo Falls, just above Washington, was no obstacle at high stages of water. The captain of the boat reported the river was navigable to Munson’s Bluff with little difficulty, but not beyond. The shoal near Munson’s Bluff, however, did not stop the “Brazos Boats” for long. They soon over came this obstacle and proceeded up the Brazos.
In May 1850, settlers along the Brazos River witnessed the greatest overflow since 1833. The river was reported four miles wide at Washington. At high water Munson’s Shoals were crossed and Little River was navigated by a steamboat for eighty miles. J. W. McGown, a businessman in Cameron, took advantage of the high water to set out in a skiff on Little River to Washington. At Washington he contacted Basil Hatfield, the captain of the Washington, and offered him a five hundred dollar bonus, plus a certain amount of freight to take provisions and whiskey to Cameron. A shoal on Little River stopped the Washington just two miles from Cameron, where the boat stayed for two days of celebrations. The Texas State Gazette reported the trip as follows: “The steamer Washington, Captain Hatfield, recently ascended Little River eighty miles above its confluence with the Brazos, a welcome visitor to the people of Cameron.” Later McGown used the trip to advertise some land he owned. An advertisement of land for sale by McGown in 1852, said, “Navigation (is) good to Cameron six months in the Year.” The truth of the matter came out later. The trip was so important in McGown’s life that it rated mention in his epitaph. In part, his tombstone reads, “Brought merchandise up Little River in ’The Washington,’ only steamboat ever to navigate the stream, 1850.” The Washington’s trip, in addition to bringing fame to McGown, brought the steamboat whistle within hearing distance of Sullivan’s Bluff for the first time since the Mustang in 1843.
In the summer of 1850, another steamboat joined the “Brazos Boats” on the river. The Jack Hays arrived in June 1850, at Washington with 1500 barrels of government stores. These supplies were for the frontier posts in the West. Plans were laid to explore the river as high as Waco Village, and to determine if the river could be improved to permit regular navigation on the upper Brazos, and, if so, the officer was to ask for appropriations to make the necessary improvements. Supplying the forts in the West was becoming increasingly more difficult as the frontier moved west. The forts in North Texas were supplied either from Fort Leavenworth on the Missouri River or from Indianola on the Texas Coast. A depot on the Brazos would certainly be closer than either of these two points to the posts in North Texas. The prospects of a large army depot being built at the head of navigation on the Brazos gave additional importance to that point on the Brazos that would be at the head of steam navigation. The question was, “Where was the head of navigation on the Brazos?”
A group of Englishmen in 1850 added to the speculation about the head of navigation on the Brazos. In 1850, the English Universal Immigration Company bought 27,000 acres of land on the Brazos in present Bosque County above Waco. The English company planned to build a city, to be called the City of Kent, at the highest point of navigation, three hundred miles from the coast as the crow flies. Such a city, according to their dreams, had the potential to become a St. Louis, a Cincinnati, or a Philadelphia. The colonists for this enterprise landed at Galveston late in 1850. The Englishmen traveled to their proposed city not by water up the Brazos, but overland. Undoubtedly, a navigable river was one thing in Texas and quite another in England. Some of the immigrants passed through Cameron en route to their lands on the Upper Brazos. Two of them were married at Cameron on December 2, 1850, and they may have passed over Sullivan’s Bluff on the way to Cameron. The Englishmen’s dreams of a large city at the head of navigation on the Brazos stirred the imagination of landowners along the river.
The trip of the Washington in May, the talk of an depot in June, and the plans for the City of Kent in December gave new importance to the area around Sullivan’s Bluff in 1850. A writer in 1850 said, “nothing, perhaps, is facilitating the interests of Texas so much as improving the navigation of the rivers.” In speaking of the Brazos, this same writer declared, “the entire practicability of navigating the river has been successfully tested, and this has induced settlers of large means to seek locations on its fertile valleys.”
One of the more wealthy settlers to locate on the Brazos River was Reuben Anderson of Alabama. On August 10, 1850, Anderson bought 1,476 acres of land in the Brazos bottom just across from Sullivan’s Bluff. He paid $20,000 for the tract. Anderson “induced” Augustus W. Sillaven, “to lay out a portion of his land immediately on the river, in town lots, as being the most eligible place for a town at this point, about 500 miles above the mouth of the river (Brazos), and at the head of navigation.” The town on the bluff was appropriately named Port Sullivan. The first recorded sale of any lots in the new town took place on May 1, 1851, with two sons of Reuben Anderson, T. J. H. and W. B. Anderson, purchasing the lot. Port Sullivan came into existence claiming to be the head of navigation on the Brazos.
The stone historical marker at the site of Port Sullivan, erected in 1936 during the Texas Centennial Celebration, is responsible for some misinformation about Port Sullivan and its historical background. The marker reads:
The town was not established in 1835, but in either late 1850 or early 1851, as has been shown. The statements about the crossroads and the college are not accurate either, as will be shown later in this study.
A book published in 1938, containing the inscriptions on and location of the markers erected in connection with the Texas Centennial, did not copy correctly the inscription on the marker at Port Sullivan. In this book, the heading on the marker read “Fort Sullivan” instead of “Port Sullivan,” with the rest of the data being the same. This mistake led to another in The Handbook of Texas, published fourteen years later, which included an entry for both Port Sullivan and Fort Sullivan, and cited the first mentioned book as the source for the information on Fort Sullivan. The Handbook of Texas leads one to the wrong conclusion that Port Sullivan originated from a frontier outpost.
Although established primarily to be the town at the head of steam navigation on the Brazos, a contributing factor to the founding of the town may have been the flooding Brazos. The large flood in the spring of 1850, which allowed the Washington to navigate Little River, may have also flooded a large area across from Sullivan’s Bluff. Reuben Anderson and his sons may have been as interested in establishing a town on the bluff in order to have a place to live as they were in establishing a town at the head of navigation. An examination of the abstracts of land in the surveys directly across the river from Port Sullivan shows the names of many persons who lived in Port Sullivan. Some of the owners of land in Robertson County adjacent to Sullivan’s Bluff and the Brazos River became the leading citizens of Port Sullivan. The desire of land owners in the area for a safer place to live may not have been the most important factor in the establishment of Port Sullivan, but their purchase of lots and settlement in the community provided the town with a good number of citizens from the beginning. The port might fail, but inhabitants of Port Sullivan would remain, since they had other reasons for living there.
Port Sullivan was primarily established to be a port. The first attempt to establish steamboat communication with Sullivan’s Bluff appears to have been a failure. Early in 1851, a shipment from Washington was consigned to “Sillaven’s Bluff,” aboard the Brazos. This shipment consisted of 144 barrels of mess pork, 4 barrels of beef, 1 barrel of ham, 2 barrels of coffee, 1 barrel of brown sugar, 5 barrels of dried apples, 7 barrels of trout, 2 barrels of salt, 5 boxes of candies, 2 boxes of soap, 6 kegs of pickles, 10 half-barrels of molasses, 2 barrels of rectified whiskey, and 13 barrels of bacon. The cargo was to be delivered “in like order and condition at the port of Sullivan’s Bluff (the danger of the river only excepted) unto Hubby and Sullivan, who jointly owned a ware house there. An advertisement in a Washington paper in April 1851 read as follows:
The Brazos in early 1851 may have been carrying one of the first shipments in response to Hubby & Sillaven’s advertisement. It appears, however, that the Brazos did not complete the journey to Sullivan’s Bluff. An article written about Port Sullivan the following year stated that only two steamboats had made it up the Brazos to that point, neither of which was the Brazos.
More definite steps were made in the spring and summer of 1851 to open up the Brazos to the new town on Sullivan’s Bluff. In May 1851, the planters along the upper Brazos made plans to order a boat to run between Washington and the “large falls.” Money to purchase a steamboat at Cincinnati was raised by interested persons. A keel boat was used for transportation until the steamboat arrived in the fall. Also during the summer of 1851, the persons living around Munson’s Shoals made plans to remove the shoals during low water. The shoals had, perhaps, stopped the Brazos en route to Sullivan’s Bluff. The keel boat placed in service until the arrival of the new steamboat was the Texas Ranger. It worked out of Washington, and an advertisement said the boat was ready in any direction to accommodate customers.
A report in a Galveston newspaper in June 1851, reflected the desire of the planters near Sullivan’s Bluff to open the river to that point. The planters on the Upper Brazos have resolved to open the navigation of that river as high up as Sullivan’s Bluff, so that boats may run up to that point with as much regularity as below Washington. They will at the same time secure the navigation of Little River to a considerable distance. McGown’s tombstone testifies to the failure to navigate Little River with regularity. The navigation of the Brazos to Sullivan’s Bluff was another story. Along with talk of opening the Brazos River to Sullivan’s Bluff, there was talk of opening the river all the way to Waco. This was just talk, however, as the writer found no evidence of any steamboat crossing the shoals at Port Sullivan going upstream, except for the questionable trip of the Mustang in 1843.
Sullivan’s Bluff was not firmly established as a port until 1852. This year brought several steamboats calling at the Milam County town. On March 13, 1852, a Washington paper reported, “The steamer Camden arrived at our landing Monday evening and proceeded the next day to Sullivan’s Bluff, heavily freighted.” The next week the story continued:
The Camden established Sullivan’s Bluff as a port. Other boats followed the Camden to the new port.
Munson’s Shoals still offered some resistance to steam navigation even after the voyage of the Camden. In May 1852, the steamboat Reliance started from Washington to Sullivan’s Bluff with a full cargo of assorted merchandise, The river fell as the Reliance was en route just below Munson’s Shoals. The boat could neither continue up to Port Sullivan nor return to Washington. After a short wait Captain Maffitt was able to take the Reliance up to Port Sullivan, returning to Washington on May 26, 1852. This trip was more successful than the trip of the Camden, for the Reliance brought back 500 bales of cotton from the landings above Washington.
The Washington planned also to make a trip to Port Sullivan in May 1852. An advertisement in the Washington Lone Star on May 8, 1852, said the Washington “is now lying at our landing, bound for Port Sullivan, and immediate landings above Washington.” An article written about Port Sullivan in October 1852, indicated that the Washington did not reach its planned destination. The article presents the first description of Port Sullivan in a letter by “Rover” to the editor of the Galveston Weekly Journal.
This was Port Sullivan at the end of year one.
The Camden and Reliance proved once and for all that steamboats could navigate the Brazos as far as Port Sullivan. Other steamboats made occasional trips to the town in 1852 and later years. An advertisement in a Washington paper on November 20, 1852, announced that the steamboat William Penn would go to Sillaven’s Bluff as soon as the stage of water permitted. The next week the boat left for the upper Brazos. After making the trip to Port Sullivan, the William Penn ran into trouble returning to Washington. The Brazos fell six feet on the evening of December 1, 1852, making it impossible for the boat to cross Hidalgo Falls just above Washington. Toward the end of January 1853, the William Penn was able to return to Washington and from there to the mouth of the Brazos. The cargo from Sullivan’s Bluff consisted of cotton, pecans, and hides, to total equal to 500 bales of cotton. The goods were unloaded at Quintana at the mouth of the Brazos. From that point the freight from the Brazos was hauled to a loading point for the steamboats that operated in the Gulf of Mexico. The transloading arrangement enabled the boats to avoid the bar at the mouth of the Brazos, but it added to the cost of transportation.
The difficult trip of the William Penn did not discourage the captains of other steamboats desiring to go to Port Sullivan. Even the William Penn was still willing to travel to Port Sullivan as is shown in an advertisement by the boat’s captain, J. W. Sleepier, who planned to run regularly, “during the season between Velasco (at the mouth) and Richmond, (89 miles up stream) and to Washington and Sillivan’s Bluff, when the stage of the river permits. The Penn is admirably adapted to the comfort and accommodation of passengers, and to the transportation of freight. Public patronage is solicited.” Another advertisement early in 1853 suggests that travel to Port Sullivan was becoming more regular. “Merchants and Planters wishing to make shipment to and from Galveston are duly notified that through bills of lading will be given on all shipments from Galveston, to the different points and places on the River Brazos as high as Port Silleven.” Rates of insurance on shipments varied from two per cent, from Galveston to Washington, and two and one-half per cent, from Galveston to Munson’s Shoals, to three per cent from Galveston to above Munson’s Shoals. Munson’s Shoals was still hazardous enough to cost shipper one-half per cent of the value of the goods shipped. Steamboat travel, despite Munson’s Shoals was, seemingly, an accepted fact in 1853. Steamboats, however, did not monopolize the transportation market from Port Sullivan.
Flatboats carried a portion of the produce from the Port Sullivan area to the mouth of the Brazos. Obstacles in the river, such as Munson’s Shoals and Hidalgo Falls, may have prevented the steamboats from reaching Port Sullivan often enough to suit the shippers; flatboats may have been cheaper for down river traffic that steamboats; or the steamboats may have been kept too busy on the lower Brazos to call at Port Sullivan. Whatever the reason, flatboats answered part of the transportation needs of Port Sullivan.
In May 1853, a flatboat arrived at the mouth of the Brazos with 250 bales of cotton from Port Sullivan. A considerable amount of cotton was still left above Washington at this time. It appears that the steamboats could not reach the area, probably because of a low stage of water. The same problem was prevalent in the early part of 1854. In April 1854, a fleet of seven flatboats passed Washington on their way down the Brazos. One of the boats carried between 500 and 600 bales of cotton. A flatboat carrying 327 bales of cotton from Port Sullivan tied up at Columbia in April 1854. Not all the flatboats came from Port Sullivan. A flatboat was built in Marlin, forty miles above Port Sullivan in 1854. The shoal at Port Sullivan was not unsurpassable going downstream. Port Sullivan did not claim to be head of flatboat transportation. Its claim to be the head of steamboat navigation was questioned in the latter part of 1853 and the early part of 1854.
The writer has found no report of any steamboat going to Port Sullivan after the voyage of the William Penn late in 1852, despite the advertisements for boats saying they planned to go there. Flatboats were used in 1853 and 1854 to ship cotton from Port Sullivan. Later in 1854, as the steamboat Water-Moccasin was traveling up the Colorado River towards Austin, several steamboats ventured up the Brazos towards Port Sullivan, but did not arrive there.
The steamboat Nick Hill left Washington in May 1854, when the Brazos was up, and headed for the “Big Falls” near Waco. The Nick Hill intended to run between the falls of the Brazos and Washington, but it did not reach its intended destination above Port Sullivan, or even Port Sullivan. She had to turn around at Moseley’s Landing below Port Sullivan, in the vicinity where State Highway 21 today crosses the Brazos. Soon after the Nick Hill returned to Washington another steamboat headed up the Brazos.
On Monday evening, June 12, 1854, the Brazos, Captain Hatfield in command, started up the Brazos for Port Sullivan. Hatfield had commanded the Washington in 1850 when it ventured up Little River within two miles of Cameron. In 1849, he was described as “a kind hearted, gentlemanly and sociable man,” and this is how the people of Port Sullivan found him in June 1854. The Brazos was the first steamboat to call at the Milam County port since the William Penn in late 1852; and, consequently, the boat and crew received a warm welcome. A ball was held aboard ship while the Brazos was tied up at Port Sullivan, which was said to have passed off merrily, Captain Hatfield, according to a writer who styled himself “Citizen” in a letter from Port Sullivan to the Texas Ranger, deserved much credit for bringing the boat to Port Sullivan. Hatfield greeted the guests that came aboard with politeness and gave encouraging remarks to the possibility of regular steamboat transportation to Port Sullivan. “Citizen” expressed hope that the sound of the steamboat whistle at Port Sullivan would mean the arrival of Captain Hatfield again.
The Brazos left Port Sullivan with only 140 bales of cotton. “Citizen” regretted that no more cotton was shipped and blamed it on the short notice given the arrival of the boat. The farmers could not get the cotton to town in time to ship it. A merchant, “Mr. S.,” probably either Sillaven or Blanton Streetman, was given credit by “Citizen” for trying to build a good landing for steamboats at Port Sullivan. Credit was also given a planter, “Mr. B.,” perhaps C. O. Barton, “for the attention he gave towards the welfare of the boat.”
The trip of the Brazos established once again that steamboats could reach Port Sullivan. Four years, however, were to pass before another steamboat came to Port Sullivan. The town of Sullivan’s Bluff enjoyed the name of Port Sullivan, but had to be more than an occasional port to survive.
Weekly News, November, 1848, and January 5, 1849.
Page Modified: 19 April 2012