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U. S., Republic of Texas once nearly clashed because of fees

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont Enterprise, Saturday July 24, 1999.

NEDERLAND -- Most readers are probably unaware that the Republic of Texas almost got into a "shooting war" with the United States in Sabine Lake in 1844.

The cause went back to the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1818 with Spain, wherein the boundary was established at Sabine River, and jurisdiction of Sabine River waters was granted to the United States to landfall on the west bank. That jurisdiction continued after Mexico secured its independence from Spain.

A problem quickly arose, however, because the Republic of Texas contended that the water jurisdiction ended at the Sabine River delta, whereas the United States claimed jurisdiction all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Hardly had the guns of San Jacinto been silenced before five New Orleans cotton schooners began anchoring at the mouths of Neches and Sabine rivers, to load Texas cotton, which had been freighted down the rivers.

Many tales survive of efforts to avoid paying Texas Republic customs and tonnage fees, the best known being the rolling of barrels of merchandise across Bolivar Peninsula at Rollover. In 1843 American ships anchored close to shore and sold duty-free merchandise to the residents of Sabine Pass.

In 1838 the United States opened its customhouse at Garrison Ridge on Sabine Lake, only a few miles from the Republic of Texas customhouse. The U. S. revenue cutter Woodbury began patrolling Sabine Lake, purportedly in search of African slave ships, but often it escorted the cotton schooners.

The Texas revenue cutter Santa Anna also patrolled in Sabine Lake, and in 1844 the cutter delivered two 12-pound cannons to the Texas collector. Although Texas Collector W. C. Dashiell could not collect customs fees from the schooners, he was instructed to collect tonnage fees from them.

On April 17, 1844, when the cotton schooners Louisiana and William Bryan sailed south past the customhouse, Dashiell fired a warning shot across the bow of each vessel. When neither schooner responded, Dashiell fired six cannonballs as he endeavored to sink them. Each captain cast anchor and came ashore, where they executed bonds for tonnage fees under protest, as well as protests to Stewart Newell, the U. S. consul at Sabine Pass.

The incident triggered a number of nasty diplomatic notes, which were still in progress when Texas entered the Union. Collector Cucullu of New Orleans ordered the Woodbury "to extend all protection to American coasting vessels in Sabine River..."

On Feb. 17, 1845 the Santa Anna ordered 2 schooners loading cotton to stop at Sabine Pass and pay tonnage fees. The Texas cutter then anchored at the customs house, loaded its cannons, when soon afterward the schooners, escorted by the Woodbury, began sailing through the Pass.

Dashiell judiciously chose not to fire at them. A bill for a Joint Resolution for Texas Statehood had just been filed, and Pres. Houston did not wish to anger any further the Abolitionist congressmen, whom he knew would oppose the bill.

Within a year, the border dispute was settled with Texas’ entry into the Union. And Collector Dashiell, who had fired the cannons, also became United States Collector of Customs at Sabine Pass in 1846.

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