Robertson County TX
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The Port: A Bluff
As the years passed, the town established upon Sullivan’s Bluff, Port Sullivan, became more independent of the river. It had to become more independent, or it would have died in infancy. Although the town was established hopefully at the head of steamboat navigation on the Brazos, the lack of navigation did not hurt its growth. The town site provided many of the rich planters of the Brazos bottom with a nearby town in which to live. These planters and those of the surrounding area provided a market for the goods and services offered by the merchants and craftsmen who came to live in Port Sullivan. The town also became a supplier for the towns nearby. Reuben Anderson had been right in believing Sullivan’s Bluff to be a good location for a town, but it was not just because steamboats managed to make it up the Brazos to that point every now and then. The ford at Port Sullivan was to become more important to the town than the port.
Port or no port, Port Sullivan was a boon to Augustus W. Sillaven, owner of the town site. In 1847, the 1,107 acres in the Caruthers Survey owned by Sillaven was assessed at $277. Ten years later this survey, minus the few acres devoted to the town, was assessed at $5,485, or twenty-fold the previous mentioned value. In 1858, Sillaven sold less than one-third of the land in the survey for $6,140. He also made money from the sale of lots; and, in addition, he owned a combination store and warehouse in the town. The town made Sillaven fairly important in the area. Before the town was built, he had served as a sheriff and upon the commission to choose a site for a county seat. After the town was built, he became a county commissioner and a member of the County Democratic Committee. In 1854, Sillaven was listed as a notary public for Milam County. Thus he was a man of local respectability and standing, all of which, perhaps, aided him in making transactions in Port Sullivan.
As mentioned in the previous chapter, Sillaven owned a warehouse jointly with C. M. Hubby, a businessman in Cameron and later in Waco. Hubby sold his interest in the warehouse to Sillaven on October 1, 1851. Sillaven continued in the warehouse business for a little over a year. During this time he had trouble collecting debts owed him. A Justice of the Peace in Milam County, L. H. Bolinger, advertised in a Washington paper for a certain John C. Lewis to appear before him. Sillaven claimed that Lewis had failed to pay off a note of forty-two dollars. Soon after the appearance of this advertisement, Sillaven entered into a partnership arrangement with a man named Streetman.
Sillaven reported in 1852, “I have such an attachment for the place (Port Sullivan) that I will never leave it.” He did, however, soon leave the town which had been named after him. A deed signed by him on December 22, 1858, reveals that he had become a citizen of Prairie County, Arkansas. Perhaps the town grew too big for him. Whatever the reason, Port Sullivan continued to prosper without him.
One of the early residents of the area around Sullivan’s Bluff in 1850, was a young lad by the name of Charles Goodnight, later a famous trail driver and rancher. Although he was only fourteen or fifteen years old at the time, Goodnight went to work for an “Irish” farmer named “Sullivan,” probably Augustus W. Sillaven. “Sullivan,” according to Goodnight, paid him double his first month’s salary, but Goodnight did not say how much that was. Later, Goodnight went to work for Sillaven’s neighbor, John C. Pool, who lived on the survey adjacent to Sillaven. Working for Pool, the young lad received ten to twelve dollars per month, plus much good advice. Goodnight described Pool as “a very kind and noble man.” Goodnight said Pool was the only person to give him good advice when he was a boy. Besides working for Sillaven and Pool, Goodnight hired out to a racing outfit at Port Sullivan, boy and saddle weighing only ninety pounds. Goodnight was the first of several persons who became important in their fields of interest after leaving Port Sullivan.
Many of the first settlers of Port Sullivan were owners of land in Milam or Robertson county. Some, however, were from more distant places. A man by the name of William Winfield Scott Tyson came to Port Sullivan from Tennessee following an all water route. He traveled down the Cumberland and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans; from New Orleans to the mouth of the Brazos by steamer; and then up the Brazos in a smaller boat to Port Sullivan.
Others came to Port Sullivan from nearby places in Texas. A story is told about a young Washington County couple that went to Port Sullivan “to set up shop for themselves.” This particular couple eloped, planning to stop off at the county seat of Brazos County, Boonville, near present day Bryan, to be married. In 1852, the time of this elopement, life in Boonville was very simple. One man, Harvey Mitchell, was able to take care of most of the community services. His house served as a hotel and a honeymoon spot, and his blacksmith shop served the needs of the farmers, and ranchers, shoed their horses, and served as a livery stable. Mitchell made arrangements for the couple to spend their honeymoon in the hotel; fixed a broken shoe on their horse; and then put the horse in the livery stable. Later Mitchell, as county clerk, filled out the marriage license for the pair. After Mitchell had been able personally to fulfill all of their requests, the groom became concerned about the legality of a marriage which Mitchell volunteered to perform. The groom did not know that Mitchell, in addition to his other jobs, was also the chief justice of Brazos County. This young couple was one of the first to settle in Port Sullivan.
Port Sullivan seems to have been laid out in sections as needed. The transactions of land in Port Sullivan recorded in 1851, mention only lot numbers, no block numbers. The abstracts in 1852 show block and lot numbers. The tax assessment rolls for 1852 show taxes levied on lots in blocks numbered from one to seventy-three; and, in 1854, block number eighty-one was assessed. The blocks contained eight lots each and eighty-one blocks would give the town a potential for six hundred forty-eight lots. However, it seems that many block numbers were not used. Perhaps some of the blocks contained land that was undesirable for construction purposes.
The assessed value of lots in Port Sullivan ranged from fifteen to eight hundred dollars in 1852, depending upon location and improvements. Early transactions for lots show the price of unimproved lots in Port Sullivan to start at fifteen dollars.
The business section of Port Sullivan was centered in blocks numbered from one to ten. Blocks numbered nine and ten were of particular importance. The lots on these two blocks changed hands quite often, and they were owned in many case by partnerships. Lots one and two in block ten, in combination, sold twice in 1853, and again in 1854, 1856, 1859, and 1861. Partnerships owned lots two, three, four, and eight in block nine, and also lots three, four, and five in block ten. One particular block was not numbered, but it was referred to by the letter “W” Block W, lot one was owned at one time by a druggist who sold it to a physician, and the physician in turn sold this particular lot to another doctor. A particular type of building may have been constructed on this lot.
Lots in blocks numbered in the seventy’s appear to have been used for residents. A lady by the name of Lucy Elkin bought lot number four in block seventy-one on January 17, 1853, and, in March 1854, she purchased lot three. Lucy Elkin took in boarders, one of whom was a young man by the name of John C. Roberts, who came to live in Port Sullivan on August 18, 1854. Roberts, fortunately for this writer, kept a diary during the years he lived in Port Sullivan. From the diary, the writer was able to gain additional insight on the town’s history.
Port Sullivan in October 1852, had four stores. One of the merchants, James Ferguson, went to New York to buy his goods, a big event in these days. Ferguson is later mentioned in business transactions with his brother Sampson. Together, their business grew as they added to their holdings lots three, four and five in block number ten. Sillaven may also have been in business as a merchant in 1852. He entered into a partnership arrangement with Blanton Streetman the next year. Streetman was one of the early merchants in Port Sullivan. In 1853, the merchandise in Streetman’s store was assessed at $1,200. Also in 1853, the partnership of Stidham and Beal was assessed for property owned in Port Sullivan. In the spring of 1853, Sillaven sold lot two in block nine to the partnership of Foster and Hargrove. This pair, as well as, Sillaven, had trouble collecting debts owed them. Acting Justice of the Peace, John H. Neill, ordered Robert C. Lancaster to appear before him in his office in Port Sullivan concerning an alleged debt of $29.13 owed to Robert Hargrove and William Foster. The printers fee for running the notice in the Washington paper came to $17.50, or over one-half of the debt.
In addition to the four stores, Port Sullivan had two blacksmith shops, three carpenter shops, a circular saw mill, two or three warehouses, a post office, several doctors, one lawyer, but no hotel. Issac H. Sparks came to Texas in 1849, and he rented some land in Milam County. Later, Sparks was a carpenter in Port Sullivan for ten years before going into the grocery business. He probably ran one of the carpenter shops in 1852. The first postmaster in Port Sullivan was Hawthorn S. Chamberlin, appointed on March 24, 1852. In 1854, the mail was received once a week from Independence. The mail carrier left Independence on Sundays at 8:00 a. m., passed through Caldwell, Chance’s Prairie, Nashville, Port Sullivan, and arrived in Cameron by 7:00 p. m. Monday. The return trip from Cameron to Independence was made every Tuesday and Wednesday. Port Sullivan was not on either the Austin-East Texas or the Houston-Waco road, as is stated on the stone marker at Port Sullivan.
By 1854, the hotel situation was corrected in Port Sullivan. Mr. Foster advertised in the Galveston Weekly News on February 28, 1854, that he had leased the Port Sullivan Hotel. Foster promised to give the traveling community and the public in general as many of the conveniences and comforts as possible in that section of the country. Foster said it was his aim to make all that stayed in his establishment feel at home, his service could not equal the best, he would try to come as close to the best as “circumstances will permit” The hotel rounded out Port Sullivan. The town now had everything the other nearby towns had plus the port. The Brazos made a visit to the port in June 1854.
Port Sullivan, in the summer of 1854, attracted a young man by the name of John Coleman Roberts. Roberts had been born in Virginia. His family later moved to Kentucky, and he moved on to Texas at the age of twenty-one. He first stopped in Chappell Hill, traveled to Boonville, and finally, arrived in Port Sullivan in August 1854.
Roberts “commenced business with R. W. Hargrove in Port Sullivan, August 18, 1854.” Hargrove was a merchant in the town. In Port Sullivan, he boarded at N. R. Johnson’s for one month at twelve dollars per month, but he left there because he did not get enough to eat. Shortly after his twenty-third birthday, Roberts began boarding with Lucy Elkins at ten dollars a month. This arrangement did not suit Roberts either; so, he commenced to board with A. L. Streetman in January, 1855. As a twenty-three year old bachelor, Roberts found Port Sullivan a dull place. He considered going to California; but, instead, he subscribed to the Saturday Evening Post. In working for Hargrove, Roberts often traveled in the nearby area, perhaps collecting debts and delivering goods. He frequently visited the community of Brackenville in late 1854. Brackenville was a nearby settlement in Milam County and a rival to Port Sullivan. The Post Office at Port Sullivan was moved to Brackenville in 1854, but was returned to Port Sullivan the next year. It seems to have been a settlement on land owned by J. W. Bracken, who lived nearby. On Christmas Day, 1854, Roberts went to Brackenville and to a party at the Hearne’s, a family that lived in Robertson County. On this day Roberts recorded in his diary, “no fights in town yet,” as if he expected some. Roberts lived in Port Sullivan a little over one year before moving to Wheelock in Robertson County. No steamboat came to Port Sullivan while Roberts lived there. In fact, steamboat transportation at Port Sullivan was pure speculation from June 1854, until the Civil War, except for one brave steamboat in 1858.
Efforts were made in Texas to improve the rivers for transportation purposes. A law enacted by the state legislature on February 7, 1853, provided $37,000 for the improvement of the Brazos and Little rivers, and provided additional money for the other major rivers in Texas. This law, however, was subject to the approval of the people of the state in a referendum. The voters of Milam County favored the appropriations by a slight majority, while Robertson County voted overwhelmingly against the measure. Statewide, the vote was a setback for river improvements. If the rivers were to be improved, the money would have to be obtained from some other source than the state treasury.
A survey of the Brazos River in the early part of 1854, estimated that $30,000 to $40,000 would be needed to improve the river sufficiently to open it for navigation the year round as far as Washington. This report aroused some interest among the farmers above Washington also. A writer styling himself “A Texian,” from Burleson County (just below Milam), tried to interest the cotton shippers in improving the Brazos between Washington and Port Sullivan. He quoted the prices in shipping cotton from Port Sullivan to Galveston:
If the river could be improved, “A Texian” estimated the costs would be greatly reduced, somewhere along the lines of the following:
Using “A Texian’s” figures, the cotton farmers could expect a $3.75 greater return on each bale of cotton sold at Galveston.
Shortly after the publication of the letter from “A Texian,” the Brazos made the trip to Port Sullivan described in the previous chapter. In July 1854, an article in the Texas State Gazette said the citizens of Burleson County planned to remove Munson’s and Moseley’s shoals, two major impediments to river transportation between Washington and Port Sullivan. Captain Basil M. Hatfield of the Brazos gave encouragement to the improvement schemes in a letter published in the Washington Texas Ranger in the summer of 1854. Having navigated the Brazos for several years and having made a number of trips to Port Sullivan and one to Cameron on Little River, Hatfield believed that $10,000 “judiciously expended” would open the Brazos year round. In the same paper, five pilots and engineers who had navigated the river from Port Sullivan to the mouth “repeatedly,” agreed with Hatfield that $10,000 would be sufficient to open up the Brazos. Despite these recommendations, nothing definite was done in the way of improving the Brazos at this time.
The talk about improving the Brazos River in 1854 was followed by three bad years for river transportation. The year 1855 started off good with the arrival of a new boat for the Brazos River trade. The Fort Henry was larger than the “Brazos Boats.” It had a 150 foot keel; 36 foot beam; and 29 staterooms with two berths each. The boat possessed accommodations for 125 cabin and 116 deck passengers. Despite its size, the Fort Henry drew only 16 inches light and 30 inches loaded. The boat made its first trip to Washington at a time when the Brazos was very low. This maiden voyage supposedly proved that the Brazos could be navigated the year round. While the Fort Henry was at Washington, the water level on the Brazos fell even lower. This did not stop the captain of the boat from attempting to return downriver with a load of cotton for Galveston. The Fort Henry was scheduled to leave Washington on April 4, 1855, with 500 bales of cotton. The trip down to Galveston was intended to silence “those railroad and land-carriage maniacs” who opposed river improvements. The Fort Henry, however, failed to get off for Galveston for sometime. The boat was still at Washington in January 1856, until the Brazos had a rise.
The shippers in Port Sullivan gave up on using the Brazos in 1855 to transport their products. A letter from Port Sullivan printed in the Galveston Weekly News explained that the farmers were resorting to the use of wagons to get their cotton to market, and had given up the idea of getting their cotton off on flatboats. The next two years were no better as far as upper Brazos River transportation was concerned. A Washington paper stated, in January 1857, it would give up on seeing the Brazos up again if it did not rise soon.
Plans for improving the Brazos for navigation continued to be developed despite the low water years of 1855, 1856, and 1857. According to a plan formulated in 1855, the state government should purchase 200 Negro slaves for the purpose of improving the major streams in Texas. The slaves were to be used in gangs, starting at the mouth and working upstream. After finishing the river project, the slaves could be sold or put to work on other projects. The plan, however, was not adopted.
Following the failure of the people to approve the proposal authorizing the Legislature to appropriate money for river improvement in 1853, another plan was formulated for river improvement in 1856. This time the people of the state did not have a chance to voice their opinion on the matter. The law passed on August 1, 1856, provided a matching fund for river improvements. The local people interested in improving a certain river would have to raise at least $1,000 in order to receive state funds. The state was to contribute four times the amount raised by the local authorities, up to $50,000 in state funds.
The inhabitants along the Brazos below Washington were very much interested in improving their portion of the river. By January 1, 1857, $11,900 had been raised, entitling the Brazos River project to $42,840 in state funds. More money was raised for the Brazos project than for any other river project in Texas. In May 1857, the contract for the project was awarded to a company by the name of French and Brown, the lowest bidder for the proposed work. Work started on May 18, 1857. The work went slower than expected and the Legislature found it necessary to pass a law to extend the time for completing the project. The project on the Brazos soon fell from the spotlight, as railroads caught the imagination of Texans. Finally, on January 27, 1860, a new law was enacted to release the local subscribers on the Brazos project from any future payment, should the contract be cancelled or modified. Thus the Brazos River project came to an end. Had the project been undertaken a few years earlier, ahead of the railroad boom, it might have been more successful.
While work on the project to improve the Brazos was going on, one last steamboat ventured up the Brazos to Port Sullivan. The large steamboat Fort Henry, in the early part of 1858, arrived at Washington with a large amount of freight, picked up additional freight in groceries, and proceeded up to Port Sullivan. The boat brought a square, rosewood piano to Mrs. Harry Foster in Port Sullivan, from New Orleans. The piano could not be shipped by wagon when the family came to Texas. After depositing the freight at Port Sullivan, the Fort Henry took on 200 bales of cotton and returned to Washington.
The trip of the Fort Henry in 1858, was encouraging, but not necessary, to the economic development of Port Sullivan. By this time the town was well established. The town still called itself a port but it did not have to be one in order to exist. According to the Texas Almanac for 1858, the market places for Milam County produce were Houston and Galveston. Transportation to the markets was by ox wagon from Milam County. Nothing was said about river navigation. Land transportation was more costly than water transportation, but it was also more dependable.
The towns and counties to the west of Port Sullivan traded with Houston and Galveston as did Port Sullivan. Bell, Coryell, Llano, and Williamson counties, to the west traded with the coastal cities. The big problem was how to get their produce to the market and to bring back the supplies, materials, tools, and other manufactured goods that they needed. In the early 1850’s. the products of these counties to the west of Port Sullivan moved over routes west of the Brazos River. In following these routes, the teamster had to cross Yegua Creek, a major tributary of the Brazos; and then, cross the Brazos well below Port Sullivan. A trip from Bell County to Houston and back took two to three months, or longer, if the Yegua was up. In the late 1850’s, the routes to Houston and Galveston from these western counties changed. As the Houston and Texas Central Railroad moved north out of Houston, goods were shipped by ox wagon only to the railhead. As the railhead moved northward, produce from the towns and counties west of Port Sullivan moved over routes that crossed the Brazos at or near Port Sullivan, missing the Yegua altogether.
Port Sullivan, according to a former citizen, now deceased, was an important stop between Belton and Houston. He recalled seeing six to eight ox wagons at a time coming down the one and only main street in town, loaded with cotton for Houston. A map of Texas published in 1858, shows a road from Port Sullivan to Cameron and Belton on the west. This was the first map to show such a road. At this time, the Houston and Texas Central had reached Hempstead in its northward advance and was under construction a few miles beyond. In September 1859, it was reported that two wagons of flour for Coryell County had arrived in Cameron. These wagons may have passed through Port Sullivan earlier. A railroad promotional pamphlet published in 1869, said that the trade of twelve counties crossed the Brazos bottom at Port Sullivan.
The crossing of the river at Port Sullivan was an easy one, especially in a dry year. A traveling newspaperman wrote in 1857:
The year 1857, however, was a very dry year.
The traveling newspaperman did not stay overnight in Port Sullivan on this trip. He had heard that there “was no corn in town that could be had for horse feed.” He went to the Smith’s farm house outside of town. The newspaperman collected money for subscriptions on his travels in Texas, and, the next day being Sunday, he did not return to Port Sullivan to collect for the paper. He stated that he had no scruples about collecting money on the Sabbath, but he thought some in Port Sullivan might have scruples about paying out money on the Sabbath. The citizens of Port Sullivan may have been short on money anyway.
In the summer of 1857, a drought occurred in Milam and Robertson counties. Water was scarce and in some places it had to be hauled long distances. Corn sold for $1.75 and $2.00 a bushel. Five years before, Reuben Anderson had sold corn for 10 cents a bushel in the field. In 1857, a Robertson County farmer and his wife brought home the production of a ten-acre field in her apron.
Port Sullivan survived the drought and the remarks made by the newspaperman in 1857. The Texas Almanac for 1858 contained descriptions of the counties of Texas. Port Sullivan was not mentioned in the article on Milam County, but the description of Falls County included a plug for Port Sullivan. “Port Sullivan is a village of considerable trade,” reported the Texas Almanac “located upon the West bank of Brazos near the Falls, the prairie extending at this point to the banks of the river.” Port Sullivan may have served the towns to the north, as it did the towns to the west, as a stopping point on the way to Galveston or Houston, or as a trading center.
By the end of the 1850’s Port Sullivan was well established. The census of 1860 contains the names of 680 free, white persons who received their mail at the Port Sullivan post office. The males outnumbered the females by 366 to 314. Only one couple reported that they were married in the census year. Some 150 of the residents attended school a portion of the year. The town boasted of a college with three teachers and eighty students, as will be discussed later. Some of the residents, however, were not educated. Forty-one were listed as over twenty years of age and illiterate.
In addition to the free, white population of Port Sullivan, there were a number of slaves owned by some of the residents of the town. The slaves thus owned numbered two hundred and eighty in Milam County; and, in addition, some residents of Port Sullivan owned numerous slaves that were kept on the plantations in Robertson County.
The census of 1860 for Milam and Robertson counties is difficult to use except for counting names or for counting check marks. The names of persons and the names of occupations are difficult to determine. Farming was by far the most numerous occupation listed by the residents of Port Sullivan. Of course, the planters were listed as farmers. Following the farmers, who numbered in the seventies, those listing themselves as laborers, about thirty, were the most numerous in Port Sullivan. Between five and ten in numbers were the merchants, clerks, and physicians. Four persons considered themselves teachers in 1860. Mechanics and stock raisers numbered three each, while preachers, students, and druggists were counted as two each. In addition to these occupations, Port Sullivan had a seamstress, a carpenter, a blacksmith, a hotel keeper, an overseer, and several whose occupations the writer has been unable to decipher.
Near the end of 1860, Port Sullivan was described as “situated on a high prairie bluff, on the west bank of the Brazos, commanding a fine view of the surrounding country. It has some tasty private buildings, a good hotel, a male and female high school, and is inhabited principally by intelligent, wealthy planters.”
 See Appendix,
Table No. 1.
Page Modified: 19 April 2012