Some Early History of Sabine Pass, Texas
President Sam Houston's Sabine City Company
By W. T. Block
Written to commemorate the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of the Town of Sabine Pass
In July, 1839, the Houston " Telegraph and Texas Register" recorded for its readers, "The question has often been asked - "Why is there no city laid out at the mouth of the Sabine (river)?"
In an age when town-building and new town sites filled the pages of the earliest Texas newspapers, such commentaries were quite frequent. Notices of new town surveys appeared everywhere that year, among them Aurora (now Port Arthur), Parrsville (now Port Bolivar), Belgrade (in Newton County), and Swarthout. Only two years earlier, the town sites of Houston and Galveston were outlined for the first time on the new maps of Texas, and already both cities were bursting at the seams with new immigrants and commercial activity. But no town site of that era touted its geographic advantages more elaborately than did the one sired by the popular hero of San Jacinto, General Sam Houston, although his name was omitted from all advertisements. The article in the "Telegraph" continued as follows:1
Despite such florid embellishments, the article failed to mention not only Sam Houston and a whole host of Sabine City stockholders, which list is somewhat akin to the muster rolls of the Battle of San Jacinto, but also the founding settler of Sabine Pass, John McGaffey, with whom a major confrontation over land titles would soon ensue. For five years the titles to lots sold by the Sabine City Company were clouded by a bounty certificate which the Texas General Land Office finally adjudged to be a forgery. As time passed, the history of the company became more or less the history of the confrontation between McGaffey and Dr. Niles Smith, the local agent for President Houston, but in 1844, the men settled their land dispute amicably. In fact, they eventually became in-laws when two of their children married.
Two early Nacogdoches pioneers, Houston and Colonel Philip Sublett, became interested in the Sabine Pass shortly after their arrival in Texas. On December 2, 1833, they patented two and one-half leagues of land there (62,500,000 square varas or 11,070 acres) as the agents of Manuel de los Santos Coy, a Nacogdoches Mexican.2 Comprised entirely of marsh land and small lakes, the 3-mile by 6-mile Santos Coy grant, the northeastern most point being near the present-day causeway bridge, ran southwest from Lake Sabine to the Gulf of Mexico, but contained no high or ridge land fronting on the Sabine Pass and suitable for a townsite.3 It is doubtful if Houston or Sublett ever saw the land before the grant was patented.
Already, a competitor, Dr. Stephen Everett, a Texas senator and signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, had surveyed the 2,500 lot town site "City of the Pass" in the vicinity of the Dick Dowling monument. Everett, an arch enemy of President Houston, and his two partners of Jasper County, John Bevil and John R. Bevil, issued 1,000 shares of "City of the Pass" stock at $500 a share, but their town-building activities were destined for total failure.4 However, Dr. Everett prospered as a Sabine Pass cotton merchant between 1839 and 1844, and his town site effort probably spurred President Houston into organizing the Sabine City Company earlier than he may otherwise have planned.
Almost every Texas school boy can recite something about the hero of San Jacinto, affectionately dubbed by his constituents as "the Raven," but biographies of the two principal "land feuders" at Sabine Pass are unknown to most readers. Dr. Niles F. Smith was born in 1800 in upstate New York, where he also received some medical education. After his marriage, he moved his family to Michigan, where his four oldest children were born.5
Early in 1835, Dr. Smith left alone to seek his fortune in Texas, but for seven years, he returned to Michigan in the fall of each year to spend winters with his family. At first, he settled at Milam, at "the falls of the Brazos," in Robertson's Colony, from which point he was elected as delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1836.6 Soon afterward, he became a Houston businessman.
Dr. Smith served in the Revolution in the Texas Corps of Engineers, for which service he was paid a salary of $100 per month.7 In Houston, he owned the building which housed the Texas Secretary of State, and there he began his lifelong friendship with President Houston. Early in 1839, he chaired a committee that gave a ball honoring the president, and for the first time in Texas history, he was listed as 'Doctor' Smith at a dinner he hosted in Jack Shackelford's honor.8 In December, 1836, Houston appointed Dr. Smith as Texas' first bank examiner to conform to a joint resolution of the Texas House and Senate.9
In fact, Houston voiced his own high regard for Niles Smith in his recommendation of December 15, 1836, to the Texas Congress, as follows:
In a biography of the McGaffey families written in 1906, Beaumont attorney T. J. Russell impugned the integrity of the Sabine City Company, Dr. Smith, and Houston's partner, Colonel Philip Sublett, but Russell was careful to omit any reference to Texas' first president in his statement, as follows:
While much of the above statement was generally true, it was a gross error and misjudgment to question the integrity of Dr. Smith, President Houston, Colonel Sublett or any of the other proprietors of the Sabine City Company. Dr. Smith did purchase a bounty certificate from Barney Lowe for land on which the City of Sabine was surveyed, but he had no way of knowing that it was a superb forgery, a product of a band of counterfeiters operating in the vicinity of present-day Deweyville, Texas. In fact, it took the Texas General Land Office four long years to determine for certain that it was a forgery.
Two Orange County residents, John Moore and his nephew, Edward Glover, began counterfeiting coins, currency, and land certificates in Texas as early as 1836. In 1844, Glover was arrested for passing bogus bank notes in Beaumont.12 In 1851, Moore was arrested near the Sabine River with forged certificates and $200,000 in spurious bank notes in his possession, his counterfeit copy of the $50 note of a St. Louis bank being virtually perfect. In 1853, a Nacogdoches newspaper reported that the Orange County counterfeiters were once more filling the state with bogus coins, currency, and land certificates, and complained as to why they had not been arrested and put out of business.13
In June, 1856, at a time when Glover was sheriff of Orange County, a Moderator posse broke into Moore's log cabin, captured both counterfeiters, along with their mint, printing press, and blank land certificates. When Moore drew a gun, he was promptly shot dead, and when Sheriff Glover refused to return to Orange to stand trial, the Moderators executed him with a bullet to the head.14
John McGaffey, the other principal in the land feud, was born in New Hampshire in 1787, the son and grandson of two American Revolutionary soldiers. About 1815, he migrated to Circleville, Ohio. When his wife and a daughter died there of small pox about 1821, McGaffey caught a steamboat for New Orleans. He soon resettled in Big Woods (near Dequincy), La., where he met and married Sarah Garner Murphy, a young widow with an infant son, who was later to live at Sabine Pass under the name of Wesley Garner.15
After driving a small cattle herd into Texas, the McGaffey's resettled at Cow Bayou in Orange County, where they were enumerated in Southeast Texas' earliest census, the Atascosita Census of 1826.16 While living there, McGaffey cut timbers which he carried by sail boat to Sabine Pass, where he had to complete his log cabin before he could move his family and cattle herds there in 1832. For many years, his nearest neighbor lived twelve miles away at Johnson's Bayou, La.17
On December 29, 1834, he received an order to survey the McGaffey league from George A. Nixon, the land commissioner at Nacogdoches. In November, 1835, McGaffey, along with a friend, Dr. John A. Veatch of Jasper County, pulled measurement chains through the marshes in order to establish the boundaries of the McGaffey league, but upon their arrival in Nacogdoches with the survey field notes, they found all the land offices closed due to the impending Texas Revolution.18 The league contained all of the high land at Sabine Pass, the 7-mile-long Front and Back Ridges, about one mile of waterfront, plus the surrounding marsh lands.
After the Revolution, McGaffey once more applied to the Texas Land Office for a land patent, but soon discovered that a conflicting claim on the league existed. In 1839, when Dr. Smith arrived in Sabine Pass and claimed ownership of a choice 640 acres on the waterfront, McGaffey contracted with Joseph Grigsby, a member of the Texas Congress, to be his agent in Houston in pursuit of a land title for the McGaffey league, but again all efforts were thwarted by the land office because of the conflicting bounty claim.19 It was not until 1844, when the land office adjudged the Barney Lowe bounty certificate to be a forgery, that McGaffey won the undisputed title to the McGaffey league, which forced the proprietors of the Sabine City Company to come to terms with him. In April, 1847, he received a clear title to the McGaffey league from Governor Pinckney Henderson.20 A year later, John McGaffey died in St. Martinsville, La., while returning from a cattle drive to New Orleans.21
In January, 1839, the founders of Sam Houston's Sabine City Company met at Old Harrisburg, now a part of the city of Houston, and drew up their firm's incorporation documents. Other than the president, the blue ribbon list of proprietors included Colonel Sublett, Colonel George W. Hockley, General Sidney Sherman, who commanded the Second Regiment at the Battle of San Jacinto; W. D. Lee, a Houston merchant; J. S. Roberts and A. G. Kellogg of Nacogdoches, who spearheaded Houston's rise to military prominence.22 The proprietors chose Dr. Smith to serve as their agent, attorney, and manager of the company at Sabine Pass. At first the founders had hoped to develop the Santos Coy grant into a town site until Dr. Smith informed them that there was no high land or water frontage on the Pass suitable for a townsite.23
Two of the proprietors, Houston and Roberts, were also signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence.24 The Sabine City founders then deeded an undivided one-eighth of the town site to Dr. Smith for $10,000 and issued 1,000 shares of stock in $250, $500, and $1,000 denominations. Until her recent death at Port Arthur, Mrs. Carl White owned a $250 certificate; a $500 note is in the Rosenberg Library in Galveston; and a $1,000 certificate is in the Louis Lenz Collection in Houston. The $250 note listed 2,060 lots as having been surveyed in the town site.
By April, 1839, the Sabine City Company directorate also included Andrew J. F. Phelan, a Sabine customhouse employee; James S. Holman, a Galveston and Houston merchant; Barney Lowe, captain of the Sabine schooner "William Wallace;" Lord Lewis; Augustus Hotchkiss of Sabinetown, Sabine Pass' first cotton broker; and W. C. V. Dashiell, who was the last Republic of Texas and first United States collector of customs at Sabine Pass. Holman was elected to become the new head of the company.25 In 1842, President Houston also appointed Dr. Smith to become the fourth Texas customs collector there.26
In December, 1839, Niles Smith had bought a military bounty certificate from Barney Lowe for 177 acres of land on the waterfront at Sabine Pass, plus Lowe's undivided five-eighths interest in an adjacent tract of 640 acres, a transaction for which Houston and Sublett provided the $3,000 purchase price. Apparently, Dr. Smith had convinced his partners that Sabine City should be located on the waterfront at a point where Broadway Street intersected the Sabine Pass channel.27
On January 10, 1840, the Sabine City Company held its first public sale of lots and its first annual stockholders' meeting at Sabine Pass, at which attendance was required either in person or by agent on penalty of stock forfeiture. The Richmond, Texas "Telescope" observed that 365 lots were sold.28 In his history of the Texas republic, Galveston's first British consul, William Kennedy, hailed the new Sabine City town site as the natural collecting point for all the commerce of East Texas.29
By April, 1840, an additional 460 lots had been surveyed into the town site. Houston and Sublett owned 2,112 lots in common. The hero of San Jacinto also owned 46 lots personally; Sublett owned 123 more in his personal estate; W. D. Lee owned 71 lots; J. S. Roberts owned 22, and General Sidney Sherman owned 25 lots. It was an ironic twist that Otis McGaffey, nephew of John McGaffey, also owned a lot, apparently believing that his uncle's claim to the property was devoid of merit. Instead, John McGaffey acquired ownership of all the property of the Sabine City Company in 1844, making every land title ever issued by that firm invalid.30
The writer has often speculated if ever or perhaps how many times that Sam Houston visited Sabine Pass during the days of the Sabine City Company, but alas, there is not one shred of written evidence that he ever was there. The eight volumes of Houston's writings are sadly disappointing in that regard. It seems probable that Houston would have attended the January 10, 1840, sale if he were ever there at all. Attendance of the proprietors was required either in person or by agent, but of course, he could have authorized Dr. Smith to vote his stock for him. Four months earlier, the hero of San Jacinto had contracted with Hickman Lewis of Alabama to deliver seven thoroughbred race horses to Sabine Pass during the succeeding four months. General Houston paid for the animals with $6,000 of the Sabine City Company's scrip.31
The preceding statement immediately presents a number of questions. Why would Houston ship thoroughbred horses to Sabine Pass when there was no means to move them overland except on foot? Where did he intend to ship them in East Texas? Had they been moved to Galveston Bay, he could have moved them easily to Houston or inland by steamboat on the Trinity River.
During an interview with Arthur Coffin of Wiess Bluff in 1973, the writer was informed that Sam Houston spent the night on two occasions at the old Simon Wiess home there, Wiess Bluff being an old steamboat stop on the Neches River, sixteen miles north of Beaumont. Wiess had known Houston in Nacogdoches as early as 1835. Coffin's grandmother, Mrs. Pauline Wiess Coffin, was born in Nacogdoches in 1837, but she had lived in the old Wiess home for ninety years, from 1840 until 1930. She could remember General Houston from days when she was a little girl. However, the times that he visited there must have been subsequent to 1846. Steamboat passenger service on the Neches did not begin until 1846, the year that the "Angelina" made its maiden voyage from Pattonia, Nacogdoches County, to Sabine Pass.32 Occasionally, deep-sea schooners may have traveled as far inland as Wiess Bluff, but generally wind velocity sufficient to fill schooner sails ended whenever the timberline was reached.
However, about 1852, Taylor's Stage Line began operating between Wiess Bluff, San Augustine, and Nacogdoches, carrying mail and passengers, and Houston could have utilized that means while traveling down the Neches River.33 The steamboat and stage line service, though, originated long after Houston's race horses arrived at Sabine Pass and long after the heyday of the Sabine City Company. In 1840, the easiest route the hero of San Jacinto could have traveled would be aboard the steam packets sailing between Galveston, Sabine Pass, and New Orleans.
With Barney Low's bounty certificate established as a forgery in 1844, and countless Sabine City Company land titles left worthless, circumstances forced Dr. Smith to come to terms with John McGaffey quickly, thus ending the first attempt at town-building at Sabine Pass. Dr. Smith deeded back to McGaffey all claims to the 640-acre Barney Lowe tract at Sabine Pass, and on October 8, 1844, McGaffey deeded to Smith a one-quarter interest in that tract (where the old Sabine City town site survey was located) for $10,000. On August 25, 1845, McGaffey and Dr. Smith signed another contract to found the second town site of Sabine Pass, and each of them appointed the former's brother, Neal McGaffey to "act as our agent and attorney, to sell and dispose of our interest in the town so laid out in such manner as he may deem proper." Neal McGaffey had arrived in Sabine from his former home in Michigan in 1840. On December 8, 1845, John McGaffey sold his league and one labor (177 acres) to his brother Neal for $5,000, thus removing himself from Sabine Pass real estate history, and leaving only Dr. Smith and Neal McGaffey as the new town site's proprietors.34
Hence, it appears that President Sam Houston, Philip Sublett, and the other proprietors, except Dr. Smith, were effectively excluded from the second town site of Sabine Pass; at least, none of their names appear on the numerous deed records of that period between John and Neal McGaffey and Dr. Niles Smith. Nevertheless, as late as December 17, 1845, Dr. Smith was still inserting advertisements in the "Civilian and Galveston Gazette" for the old proprietors to attend the annual board meeting of the Sabine City Company.35
In 1844, the French ambassador to Texas, Count Dubois de Saligny, described Sabine City as consisting of "eight or ten sorry wooden shacks." This was a rather harsh evaluation by the debonair Parisian aristocrat, who perhaps was homesick for the more sturdy, stone and mortar structures of his native France.36
Proprietorships in the second town site of Sabine Pass continued to change hands almost until the turn of the century. Until Dr. Smith's death at Sabine Pass in 1858, most town site deed records listed him as the grantor, and the grantor index shows hundred of his town site transactions. On March 8, 1846, a new town site proprietor, Major Sidney A. Sweet of San Augustine, arrived in Sabine Pass and built Jefferson County's first steam sawmill there in the same year. Neal McGaffey traded to Major Sweet an undivided half interest in 4,000 acres of the McGaffey leagues and half of his unsold town lots for properties that Sweet owned in San Augustine. In June, 1846, William M. Simpson of Nacogdoches arrived in Sabine Pass, and Major Sweet traded to him a half interest of Sweet's half interest in Sabine Pass acreage and town lots for properties that Simpson owned in Nacogdoches County.37 In April, 1849, shortly after the death of Major Sweet, Neal McGaffey sold to William Simpson his remaining half interest in the Sabine Townsite Company and the McGaffey league for $7,705. This left Simpson as the principal owner of real estate at Sabine Pass, with Dr. Smith and the Sweet estate owning much lesser amounts.38 In July, 1847, Simpson published his map of the of the second town site of Sabine Pass, showing the same street names that are still in use today, a copy of which is owned by the writer.39
In the same year, two young merchants arrived in Sabine Pass with a stock of merchandise purchased on credit from their former employer, and that were destined to leave an indelible imprint on the business history of Texas. Young John Sealy and his partner, John H. Hutchings, teamed up with Dr. Niles Smith to found Hutchings, Sealy, Smith and Company, a merchandising and cotton brokerage firm. A year later, Smith sold out to W. M. Simpson, and the firm became Hutchings, Sealy, Simpson and Company until the latter's death in 1851. So astute was their trading and general business acumen that only one other, Otis McGaffey, survived the seven-year Hutchings and Sealy epoch, and when the merchant princes abandoned Sabine Pass for Galveston in 1854, they had accumulated a $50,000 gold nest egg with which to finance their banking and cotton brokerage empire. Two Galveston institutions, the John Sealy Hospital and the First Hutchings-Sealy National Bank, survive today as testimony to that $50,000 gold nest egg earned by them at Sabine Pass.40
The writer has not researched Sabine Pass town site history to any extent after 1855, but he is aware that Charles H. Alexander was the next big owner of Sabine Townsite property, acquired from the W. M. Simpson estate. Alexander came from Sabinetown in 1855, and built C. H. Alexander and Company upon the ashes of Hutchings, Sealy and Company. Between 1859-1862, Alexander owned a one-third interest in the steamboat "Uncle Ben" while it was in the Sabine River cotton trade and later while it was in the Confederate service. In 1862 he and his two partners collected $17,000 in charter fees for the "Uncle Ben" from the Confederate government. Between 1861-1863, he also owned a one-third interest in the blockade runner "Tampico," which made a number of successful voyages while hauling cotton. So high was his credit rating that the Confederacy authorized C. H. Alexander and Company to issue Rebel currency in several denominations, which were imprinted "C. H. Alexander and Company."
When he died in 1873, Alexander owned the steamer "Comargo," then in the Neches River trade, and he still owned a store and cotton commission business known as the "White Star Grocery." The inventory of Alexander's estate revealed that he also owned a one-third interest in the 307 lots still surviving in the Sabine Townsite Company.41
In December, 1883, the Galveston "Daily News" observed that:42
It is not known by the writer whether Allison had bought the property from the Alexander estate or whether Alexander and Allison had been contemporary partners and owners of two-thirds of the townsite.42
If one compares the growth of early-day Sabine Pass to that of either Houston or Galveston, then the conclusion would be that won-building at that early seaport was an utter failure. Nevertheless, if compared to the early town sites of Aurora, Belgrade, or Swarthout, which grew only grass and very few buildings, then one must declare town-building there a success, because the town still survives with a population of 1,200. Certainly, it was the only place (that the writer has acknowledge of) where the entire town site was declared invalid due to a forged bounty certificate. And certainly Sabine Pass deserves credit for being the home to a Civil War battle, three Confederate forts, two Texas State parks, as well as a soon-to-be-museum. Yet perhaps Sabine Pass' greatest legacy of all is the fact that its history is tied irrevocably to the man who defeated the Mexicans at San Jacinto and who served the infant republic so well during his two terms as its president.
1 (Houston) Telegraph and Texas Register, July 24, 1839.
2 An Abstract of The Original Titles of Record in The Texas General Land Office (Houston: Niles and Co., 1838), pp. 889.
3 O. H. Delano, "Map of Jefferson County, Texas," April, 1840, Texas General Land Office.
4 Vol. D, pp. 27-31, Jefferson County Deed Records.
5 Seventh Census of the United States, 1850, Jefferson County, Texas, res. 194, 195.
6 L. W. Kemp, The Signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence (Houston: Anson Jones Press, 1944), pp. 60-62.
7 Comptroller's Military Service Records, pp. 437, 572, Texas General Land Office.
8 W. P. Webb (ed.), Handbook of Texas (Austin: 1952), II, p. l625.
9 T. C. Richardson, East Texas: Its History and Its Makers (New York: 1940), III, p. 1344.
10 E. C. Barker and W. Williams (eds.), The Writings of Sam Houston (Austin, 1938), I, p. 507.
11 T. J. Russell, Pioneer Reminiscences of Jefferson County (Beaumont: 1980), p. 24.
12 Vol. A, p. 8, Minute Book, District Court, Jefferson County, Texas.
13 (Houston) Telegraph and Texas Register, April 25, 1851; (Nacogdoches) Chronicle, November 15, 1853.
14 (Galveston) Weekly News and Tri-Weekly News, July 15, 1856; A. F. Muir, "The Free Negro in Jefferson and Orange Counties, Texas," Journal of Negro History, IV (Dec., 1958), pp. 200-203; W. T. Block, "The Orange County War of 1856," Old West, Winter, 1979, pp. 10 ff.
15 G. W. McGaffey, Genealogical History of the McGaffey Family (Bradford, Vt.: 1904), pp. 30-33.
16 Mary Osburn (ed.), "The Atascosita Census of 1826," Texana, I (Fall, 1963), p. 14.
17 "Biography of John McGaffey," (Beaumont) Journal, January 14, 1906.
18 Minutes of The Board of Land Commissioners of Jefferson County, 1838-1842, pp. 135-136; and Vol. C, p. 215, Deed Records, Jefferson County, Texas Archives.
19 Vol. C, p. 217, Jefferson County Deed Records.
20 Land Patent, The State of Texas to John McGaffey, April 20, 1847, copy owned by the writer, and recorded in Vol. 9, p. 456, Jefferson County Deed Record.
21 Genealogical History of the McGaffey Family, pp. 30, 36.
22 Proclamation of Sublett and Kellogg, reprinted in E. C. Barker and A. W. Williams (eds.), The Writings of Sam Houston, 8 vols (Austin, 1970), I, p. 303.
23 Vol. A, pp. 189-190, Jefferson County Deed Records.
24 D. W. C. Baker (ed.), A Texas Scrapbook (Austin: 1935), p. 58.
25 Vols. C, pp. 247-248; D, pp. 26-27, 154-155, Jefferson County Deed Records; S. Flanagan, Sam Houston's Texas (Austin: 1964), p. 53.
26 Record of The Collectors of Customs of The Republic of Texas, 1836-1845, in the Texas State Archives.
27 Vol. E, pp. 94-95, 189-190, Jefferson County Deed Records.
28 (Richmond, Tx.) Telescope, April 4, 1840.
29 W. Kennedy, Texas: The Rise, Progress, and Prospects of The Republic of Texas (Fort Worth: 1925), p. 24.
30 G. White (ed.), The 1840 Census of The Republic of Texas (Austin: 1966), p. 98.
31 Williams and Barker (eds.), The Writings of Sam Houston, II, pp. 313-314.
32 Lois F. Blount, "Story of Old Pattonia," East Texas Historical Journal, V (March, 1967), pp. 12-22.
33 (Galveston) Weekly News, November 29, 1859.
34 Vol. E, pp. 438-439, 189, 191, 301, 371, Jefferson County Deed Records.
35 Civilian and Galveston Gazette, December 17, 1845.
36 Nancy Barker, The French Legation in Texas (Austin: 1973), II, p. 554.
37 Vol. F, pp. 209, 212, Jefferson County Deed Records.
38 Vol. G, p. 171, Jefferson County Deed Record.
39 Map, W. M. Simpson, Proprietor, "The Townsite of Sabine Pass, Texas," July, 1847, copy owned by the writer.
40 History of Texas Together With A History of the Cities of Houston and Galveston (Chicago: 1895), pp. 303-305, 713-714; (Galveston) Weekly News, October 27, 1848; (Nacogdoches) Times, July 8, 1848; J. Brown, Indian Wars and Pioneers of Texas (Austin: 1897), pp. 149, 152.
41 Files 45-B and 195, Probate Records; Vols. B, pp. 145-147, 172; and C, pp. 105-109, Personal Property Records; and Vol. M, pp. 132-133, Deed Records, Jefferson County, Texas, Archives.
42 (Galveston) Daily News, December 22, 1883.