The grand old lady of the mountain fur trade, Steam Boat Yellow Stone, steamed south on the Mississippi River in the summer of 1835. After five years of nosing her prow across the sandbars and around the snags of the Upper Missouri River, the steamboat headed for New Orleans. Hauled out at the New Orleans pier for a major retrofit, Yellow Stone would be recommissioned a U.S. flag vessel, bound for the foreign waters of Texas. At that time, Texas, a restless province of Mexico, boiled with notions of separating from the mother country and becoming an independent republic. Yellow Stone would be there, playing a vital role.
On the Missouri River, she had been first to power past the Council Bluffs and as far upstream as Fort Tecumseh (near present-day Pierre, S.D.). The 120-foot-long sidewheeler’s debut on the Upper Missouri had been orchestrated by Pierre Choteau, Jr., the St. Louis-based agent for David Astor’s American Fur Company. Now, Yellow Stone’s hull bore the brunt of warping and ‘grasshoppering’ through sandbars and snags along the Missouri. Replaced by larger and fancier steamers, she was too tough to die. At a time when most steamboats her age were decommissioned, if they still floated, her career was about to undergo a dramatic change. The first steamboat in the fur trade, she was sold into the foreign trade with Texas as a ‘cotton packet.’ Her destiny, though, would be that of heroine in the Texas Revolution.
Under new owners, and with a new mission, Yellow Stone spent 40’supervisory’ days, hauled up. More than a linear mile of cypress and oak went into rebuilding her worn and ravaged hull and decks that encapsulated the still-powerful single engine and its twin boilers. The cost of the retrofit, when Yellow Stone slid down the shipping ways at New Orleans, was about $4,000, less than the original shipwright’s bill of $7,000.
Once Yellow Stone was back in the water on New Year’s Eve 1835, her boilers were stoked. Her twin columns of black smoke rose high into the sky over New Orleans. Captain Thomas Wigg Grayson sounded her deep-throated whistle and backed away from the Crescent City’s pier. But she was late for her Texas welcome–a grand ball for her officers and crew had been held the week before, on Christmas Day.
Texans were eager fans of steam. Henry Austin, cousin of empresario Stephen F. Austin, had roomed with Robert Fulton in New York and had brought the first steamboat to Texas in 1829, the tiny Ariel. Another fan was the host for Yellow Stone’s celebration, Henry Jones, who operated a plantation and ferry landing. One of Austin’s ‘Old Three Hundred’ colonists (a reference to the first 300 Anglos to settle in Texas), Jones was anxious for Yellow Stone’s arrival. Her size dwarfed existing packets, and the cotton trade was booming. The harvest in 1835 produced more than 5,000 bales of cotton awaiting transport to New Orleans, as well as hogsheads of sugar and corn piled up on landings up and down the Brazos River.
A promise of 5,000 acres of land and $800 cash had enticed Yellow Stone’s owner, Thomas Toby & Brother of New Orleans, to put her into the Texas trade. The two-deck sidewheeler, newly registered in the United States, was placed in service to Texas entrepreneurs Samuel May Williams and Thomas F. McKinney. Traders and shippers, they operated out of Quintana, an old fort and post on the west side of the Brazos, where river waters poured into the Gulf of Mexico.
Sam Houston, who was elected major general of the Texas army in November 1835 and thus was the leader of Texas’ forces for independence, had been calling on the Tobys of New Orleans to recruit men and arrange for supplies and financing for Texan troops. So when Yellow Stone backed away from New Orleans, it was no surprise that the ‘nonhostile’ ship carried men, munitions and supplies. With packed decks, she voyaged toward the Mexican province that brimmed with rebellion.
Yellow Stone trimmed the normal sailing time from New Orleans to Galveston to two days, instead of 10. Her passengers were of a different sort than she had carried in the past. On trips up the Missouri, she had carried not only fur traders but also royalty such as Prince Maximilian von Wied of Germany and painters such as Karl Bodmer and George Catlin, who wished to glimpse the Rockies and the Indians. Yellow Stone‘s first passengers to Texas were 47 young men, the Mobile Grays, all itching for a fight. In the upper deck saloon, many of them toasted the success of their coming venture. Others polished their muskets and reveled in dreams of glory about Texas’ fight for freedom and of land grants promised to volunteers. Diverting her cargo from the Brazos, Captain Grayson’s orders were to take these men to Texas’ deep-water port, Copano on Copano Bay, northeast of present-day Corpus Christi. The Mobile Grays arrived in early January 1836 and marched more than 100 miles to join Colonel James Walker Fannin, Jr.’s troops at Goliad, southeast of the Alamo, on the San Antonio River. Scouts reported that Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and thousands of troops were crossing the Rio Grande. Skirmishes at the Alamo, first line of defense for the colonies, had already begun, along with pleas for reinforcements. Fannin’s troops fortified La Baha presidio at Goliad and waited.
While the Mobile Grays marched, Yellow Stone steamed for Quintana with a new captain. A veteran of Texas’ rivers and the cotton trade, John E. Ross took the helm of Yellow Stone, and Grayson moved to a smaller steamboat, the 65-ton Laura.
Two years before, Ross had delivered an earlier vessel to Galveston, Cayuga, an 88-ton steamboat with a 6-foot draft. A third larger, Yellow Stone also drew 6 feet, deep for Texas’ rivers and bays, but Ross was a veteran at finding troughs through the rivers and around rocks and shoals. Where there was only 2 or 3 feet of water, such as at the Velasco Bar, it was ‘full steam ahead.’ He represented a breed of Texas steamer pilots who approached low water with the saying, ‘Tap a keg of beer and we’ll run four miles on the froth.’
When Yellow Stone plowed across the Velasco Bar, where the Brazos River laid up its silt, she was inaugurated into the cotton-packet trade. Ross guided Yellow Stone up and down the Brazos, stopping on the Lower Brazos, a wider, deeper section of the river, at Brazoria and Columbia (originally called Bell’s Landing).
The ship steamed into the Middle Brazos section above Fort Settlement (Richmond) and continued toward the village of Washington (named for Washington, Ga., it became known as Washington-on-the-Brazos) and Robinson’s Ferry. The river grew treacherous, with rocky shoals peppering the riverbed and sunken cottonwoods littering the bottom. Along this stretch, towns were fewer, so planters built landings on their riverfront property. Yellow Stone’s master, Ross, steered the vessel around the numerous hazards and stopped to take on cotton and sugar at various landings. He delivered the crops downstream to waiting sailing ships off Quintana. A round trip took about five days, with overnight stops, since he practiced the Western steamer tradition of tying up at night. Plantation owners continued to plant, though the winds of war blew like a hurricane, so Ross and Yellow Stone continued to steam the Brazos.
Twin Mexican forts, Quintana on the west bank of the Brazos and Velasco on the east, were active ports. Quintana’s beaches served as resorts for plantation owners and their families. But 1836 was not a usual year, and though it was still winter, many families from the tidewater region flocked to the ports to catch a schooner for the United States. These wealthy Texas families were forerunners of the ones involved in the terrifying exodus that became known to history as the ‘Runaway Scrape.’
On March 2, 1836, a blue norther swept down on Texas’ representatives, who had convened at Washington to sign the Declaration of Independence. Winds bit through the buckskins of General Houston’s troops. The Brazos, known as ‘Arms of God,’ raged. Swirling cottonwoods uprooted and shot downstream in the turbulence like battering rams, threatening Yellow Stone’s hull and her 22-man crew.
Word came from San Antonio de Bexar that the Alamo had fallen on March 6, the 13th day of the siege. Every white man behind the walls of that old Franciscan mission had been slaughtered. A woman, her child and a slave were freed to spread the word that Santa Anna would kill, loot and burn as he hit every Texan home between San Antonio and the Gulf Coast. The families of Texas’ army volunteers had been left alone, or with slaves, to prepare for planting and to defend their property. The horror of the massacre at the Alamo was told and retold in frightened huddles as the Runaway Scrape began. The women, many just learning they were widows, abandoned their homes and fled with their children toward the Sabine River, whose east bank, the U.S. border, offered safety. They carried what they could. When the ox carts and wagons sank in the flooded bogs of the coastal plains, they dumped their possessions and plowed on. Wet and cold, these 5,000 or so desperate people straggled through the swamps. Many children, brought down by exposure and pneumonia, were hastily buried–their mothers pledging to return and give them proper burials.
General Houston began a zigzag retreat to collect more men before taking the offensive. He urged the Runaway Scrape families to stay, to have confidence in a Texas victory over Santa Anna. He pointed to the eastern shore Brazos planters, who were going ahead and seeding their lands. He ordered Colonel Fannin, the Mobile Grays’ commander, to come from Goliad and join him, to swell their ranks. But Fannin, in charge of the La Baha fortress, hesitated, and his delay proved costly. By the time the colonel left La Baha on March 19 with nearly half of Texas’ remaining troops, he and his 350 men were surrounded. Near Coleto Creek on the open prairie between the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers, Goliad’s defenders fought some 1,900 Mexican soldiers. The Battle of Coleto began at 2 p.m. and continued until dark. Fannin surrendered on the 20th, assured that he and his men would be treated as prisoners of war and transported to New Orleans in eight days. The Texas prisoners were returned to Goliad. On March 27, three weeks after the fall of the Alamo, the Mexicans executed all of them.
Meanwhile, Yellow Stone was moving upstream again, picking up freight and tying up at landings. Many trees had to be cut to feed the fires in the sidewheeler’s massive boilers. Yellow Stone required a high steam buildup to buck the swift, upstream current.On this late March trip, Captain Ross sidled up to Groce’s Landing, a regular stop on the Middle Brazos route. Jared Groce, another of Austin’s Old Three Hundred colonists, had brought the first cotton seeds to Texas when he came in 1821. In 1825 he had built the first cotton gin, followed the next year by Austin’s at Peach Creek Plantation, near San Felipe.
Groce’s Landing was a short way downstream from Washington. Yellow Stone was there to take on 600-pound bales of cotton. Houston’s army was weaving back and forth from the Colorado River on the west to the Brazos River on the east. Rains clogged the prairies. The Brazos poured over its banks, sweeping past the first steep bluff at Washington and lapping at the second one, which served as a ground floor for the town.Santa Anna’s army had crossed the Colorado and was in pursuit, forcing Houston’s small army to back up to the Brazos. At Washington on March 30, Houston learned of the massacre at Goliad. Messengers also informed him that Santa Anna’s troops were split. Houston had issued orders to burn all the ferries and rafts on the Brazos so that Santa Anna could not sweep around him. Farther south, at San Felipe, the townspeople had burned their town and ferried themselves across the river ahead of Santa Anna.
From scouts, Houston learned that Yellow Stone was tied up at Groce’s Landing. He moved his troops into a copse of timbers nearby, and they camped there in the rain. A contingent of some ’80 volunteers from the Red River lands’ arrived to swell the ranks. On April 2, 1836, Houston sent Captain Ross a message:
Sir: You and each member of your crew and the Officers of the Boat are hereby assured and guaranteed that they and Each of them shall be indemnified as well as the boat Owners for Wages, losses and damages in consideration of the impressment of your Boat into the public Services of Texas (the Yellow Stone) and its detention for the benefit of the Republic and furthermore for the rendition of Services of the hands and the boat until it can be discharged each person shall be entitled to one-third league of land and the officers a proportionally larger quantity. You are not required to bear arms.
Given under my hand on the day and date above written (April 2, 1836, Head Quarters West of Brasos [sic]).
The Boat is not to leave without my orders.
Santa Anna arrived at burned-out San Felipe on April 7. After two days of stiff resistance from a small Texas company, the Mexican army left San Felipe, crossed the river upstream and headed for Harrisburg, the seat of Texas’ government.
Houston had rested his men and waited for supplies that did not come, either from President David Burnet or the Toby brothers in New Orleans. He moved his troops closer to the Brazos, into the canebreaks opposite Groce’s Landing.
Captain John E. Ross sent a message from Yellow Stone, on Monday evening, April 11.
To Gen. Sam Houston
Sir I think the Cotton we have on board necessary to protect the Boat & Engine–if we have to pass the Enemy’s Cannon–I can transport 500 men with cotton enough to protect the boat from any damage from the Enemies fire–If you wish the cotton landed please instruct me–I can cross all the baggage without moving the cotton.
I have four cords of wood on board & Everything ready to ‘go ahead.’
Jno E. Ross Comg Yl.Stone
All things will do as you say they are until further orders.
At 10 o’clock on the morning of April 12, Houston’s men began filing aboard Yellow Stone. By 2 p.m. the next day, more than 700 soldiers, 200 horses and supplies had been ferried across the swollen Brazos in seven trips aboard the sidewheeler. Once on the eastern bank of the river, they readied for the march to the Gulf.
Houston released the riverboat with calls for Godspeed and a safe journey. With cotton piled two decks high, the steamer roared downstream, belching black smoke, her whistle blowing and bell clanging. John Fenn, a prisoner of the Texans, was aboard that day. ‘Yellow Stone was plowing the water for all she was worth, lashing the banks with the waves on both sides as she went,’ he later said.
Ross knew part of the Mexican army would be waiting for him at the bend of the river. Neither he nor his men were Texas army volunteers, but they had aided the Texan rebels. He blasted along the familiar course. Mexican soldiers fired at the sidewheeler, but cotton bales absorbed the musket balls. Mexican horse soldiers even tried to lasso Yellow Stone’s chimneys. At her high rate of speed, rounding the river’s curve, the steamer skidded through a complete circle. Ross straightened her and continued the dash for the coast. He arrived at Velasco, the boat unscathed and her crew safe.
Meanwhile, Houston marched his men east, then south, toward the San Jacinto River below Harrisburg. Turned back by the Texans at San Felipe, Santa Anna took the main body of his troops across the Brazos above Washington, below the ford where the Baha Road crossed, then went on to Harrisburg and razed the town. The townspeople fled before him, joining the Runaway Scrape. Only smoke and ashes remained of the Texas capitol. The fledgling government had evacuated to Galveston.
Downstream from the Mexican army, Sam Houston, outnumbered by a mere 400 to 500 men instead of thousands, drew up a plan voted on by his officers. During the Mexican army’s daily siesta on the afternoon of April 21, he ran his Texas army over a small rise in double column formation, at right angles to the Mexican camp. As ordered, the Texans held their fire until they were filed along the camp, flank to flank.
Frustrated by the long retreat, outraged by the massacres at Goliad and the Alamo, anguished by seeing their families torn from their homes, the Texans fired, then charged, yelling, ‘Remember the Alamo!’ ‘Remember Goliad!’ Eighteen minutes later, the Mexicans, caught napping and with no sentries posted, surrendered. The battlefield at San Jacinto was littered with bodies; only two wre Texans. The next day, Santa Anna was captured while trying to escape in a common soldier’s uniform.
Yellow Stone, with Captian Ross and crew, was ordered to Galveston to pick up President Burnet and his cabinet and take them to view the site of the San Jacinto victory. Now a floating capital, she steamed back to Velasco on May 3, with the Republic of Texas’ president and cabinet and their printing press on board. Also aboard were General Houston, injured in battle; General Santa Anna, also injured; and some 80 Mexican prisoners. The river steamer hosted the peace treaty signing of the Republic of Texas and the government of Mexico.
‘Captian Ross and his crew enabled me to save Texas,’ Houston said. The stemer’s master reportedly presented Houston woth the ship’s bell.
Santa Anna remained a prisoner on the Orozimbo Plantation, before being returned to the United States, and then to Mexico. Sam Houston stood for election as president of Texas and defeated the ‘Father of Texas,’ Stephen F. Austin, first colonizer from the United States in the former Mexican province. On December 27, 1836, a dispirited Austin died of pneumonia at Bell’s Landing, now West Columbia. After he lay in state for two days, Ross and Yellow Stone carried his body and mourners back to his beloved Peach Creek Plantation below San Felipe. This was the last official duty that Yellow Stone, Ross and crew performed for the fledgling republic and its heroes.
In the months that followed, the town of Houston won the vote to replace burned out Harrisburg as the nation’s capital, and Yellow Stone changed captians. James V. West, who had been the ships clerk, owner’s representative and agent under Ross, piloted Yellow Stone into the lucrative Buffalo Bayou trade. The bayou coursed up through Galveston Bay from the Gulf. Even with its small turning basin, the new capital became the favored shipping port for the Republic of Texas.
Captain Ross returned to his old ship, Cayuga, renamed Branch T. Archer in 1837. He was associated with its ownwers, the John Huffman Company of Houston, until he died in Harris county in 1848. A tattered partial receipt for goods delivered to Galveston in May 1837 is the last evidence of Yellow Stone. It is not certain what brought about Yellow Stone’s end. Possibly she was’snagged and sunk’ by submerged trees on the Bayou, a frequent epithet, or her hull had crunched on the oyster shells of Red Fish Bar, or she was destroyed by the hurricane of October 10, 1837. All that remains is her bell, presented to Houston by Captain Ross. It can be seen today in the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Museum at the Alamo in San Antonio.
Long after Texas joined the United States, Sam Houston continued to argue with only limited success for payments he had promised people while leading the army of Texas. Among his petitions were those for Captain Ross’ widow, Charlotte Stockbridge Ross.
In an odd twist of events, a woman whom Houston had helped out during the Texas Revolution fared better than Mrs. Ross. He met the woman on the banks of her flooded Brazos one afternoon. Her husband had been killed at the Alamo, the flood waters had carried off all her livestock and goods, and nothing remained for herself and her children. Houston, carrying $200 of his own money for emergency supplies for his troops, gave her $50. In later years, she wrote thanking him. She had stayed, not run, and used the money to purchase more livestock and seeds; she and her children prospered.
When Charlotte Ross wrote years later, after Texas became a state in 1845, she was applying for the captian’s pension. Earlier, her husband had sought the promised payment of land for his service to Texas, but he never received it. On Mrs. Ross’s behalf, Houston confided to the state auditors, ‘Had it not been for the Steam Boat Yellow Stone, we would have lost Texas.
This article was written by Carmen Goldthwaite and originally appeared in the June 2002 issue of Wild West.
For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!