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The 'Yellow Stone'

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Texas History Features

 

Not all the gallant veterans of Texas' fight for independence were humans. One was a steamboat — a side-wheeler named the Yellow Stone.

The Yellow Stone was built in Louisville, Ky., in 1831 for John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company. The vessel was 120 feet long, with a 20-foot beam and a deep (six-foot) draft, constructed to specifications furnished by Pierre Chouteau Jr., western agent for Astor's fur-trading company, for service on the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. The boat's crew usually numbered about 21.

In summer, the Yellow Stone plied the waters of the upper Missouri, proudly displaying an oversize 12-foot by 18-foot American flag as it hauled furs, deerskins, buffalo robes and buffalo tongues downstream to market and returned with trade goods for the Indians. In winter, the Yellow Stone transported cotton and sugar cane among ports on the lower Mississippi until the spring thaw.

On a normal daylight run, the steamboat would burn 10 cords of wood, which meant that fuel itself was a considerable amount of its cargo. Ten cords of oak wood weigh 40 tons, of cottonwood 25 tons. In its six-and-a-half-year life, the Yellow Stone probably consumed 40,000 trees.

The Yellow Stone's last voyage on the Missouri was in July 1833. On that ill-fated journey, the crew was stricken with cholera, and all of them died except the captain and a young, semi-trained pilot named Joe LaBarge.

The next year and a half saw the Yellow Stone churning up the waters of the Mississippi under a succession of owners. In fall 1835, it was sold to the firm Thomas Toby and Brother of New Orleans, who had connections in Mexican Texas and who intended to employ the steamboat in intracoastal trade in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Yellow Stone Arrives in Texas

The last day of December 1835 saw the Yellow Stone clearing the port of New Orleans headed for Texas under the command of Capt. Thomas Wigg Grayson, carrying 47 men of the Mobile Grays, volunteers looking for action in the Texas Revolution. These adventurous young men found their action: They all died at Goliad.

At that time, the Brazos and Trinity rivers were the only Texas waterways considered navigable by steamboats, but the Yellow Stone, intended for use in the deeper waters of the Missouri and the Mississippi, had trouble even with them. Sandbars, snags and droughts plagued the boat during its entire career on the Brazos.

The Yellow Stone and the Runaway Scrape

On March 31, 1836, the Yellow Stone inadvertently stumbled into Texas history. Now under the command of Capt. John E. Ross, the vessel was taking on a load of cotton at Jared Groce's landing in present-day Waller County about 20 miles up the Brazos from San Felipe.

The Alamo had fallen on March 6. Even before that, settlers had begun leaving their homes to escape the advancing Mexican army. After Sam Houston learned of the crushing defeat at the San Antonio mission, he, himself, left Gonzales and "advanced to the rear" toward the Colorado River with the Texas army, urging civilians along the way to flee. The trickle of refugees became a deluge; the mass exodus was called the Runaway Scrape.

Houston's retreat brought him to Groce's landing on March 31 facing a Brazos River swollen by spring rains. Desperate to cross, he commandeered the Yellow Stone to ferry men, horses and equipment to the opposite bank. Capt. Ross stacked his cargo of cotton bales in such a way as to protect the boat's boilers and pilothouse from snipers in case of hostilities. On April 12, Capt. Ross, finally satisfied with the cotton armor and the load of fuel, ferried Houston and his men across the river. Two days later, Ross guided the steamboat, under a full head of steam, on a wild, bumpy ride down river past a Mexican army encampment at Fort Bend. One over-eager Mexican soldier even tried in vain to lasso the smokestacks, the only parts of the superstructure peeking out from the tops of the cotton bales.

Capt. Ross proceeded to Galveston, picking up refugees along the way. On the island, he found President Burnet, many other government officials and a large number of refugees. After the Texans' victory, the Yellow Stone transported Burnet and other officials to the battleground at San Jacinto at the request of Secretary of War Thomas J. Rusk. At Buffalo Bayou, the steamboat played host not only to Sam Houston, who needed medical treatment for a wounded ankle, but also to Gen. Santa Anna, 47 of his officers and other Mexican soldiers. About 80 prisoners were taken to Galveston for incarceration. It is said that Burnet, never a fan of Houston's, refused to let Houston board the boat. But Capt. Ross would not budge until Houston was brought on board.

A Mexican officer, writing of the voyage later, found it curious that, as the Yellow Stone passed the San Jacinto battleground, the Texas troops on board lined the rail and presented arms, accompanied by a solemn military drumbeat. "What was their object?" he wondered.

Errand-runner for the Republic

In the months that followed, the steamboat ran more errands for the army and the government of the new nation. Capt. Thomas Wigg Grayson, once more in command, advertised in the Telegraph and Texas Register of Oct. 19, 1836, offering $3 a cord for wood along the route between Quintana and Washington-on-the-Brazos. It is not known whether the steamboat ever resumed regular Brazos runs.

Its is also not known whether the owners were ever able to collect the money owed by the government of the fledgling nation. Bills were sent to the Texas government several times. Sam Houston himself urged the Congress to authorize payment for the services of the Yellow Stone. But there is no firm evidence that the bills were ever paid.

The Yellow Stone was once again thrust into the Texas limelight when Stephen F. Austin died on Dec. 27, 1836, at the age of 43. The steamboat was summoned to Columbia to pick up the entourage and transport it a few miles downstream to Peach Point Plantation, home of Austin's sister and her husband, Emily and James F. Perry. Austin was interred in the plantation's burial ground, the Gulf Prairie Cemetery. Austin's body was later re-interred in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.

Hauling freight and a few passengers around the Gulf occupied the steamboat's next several months. The vessel made two or three runs up Buffalo Bayou to the new village called Houston, but the steamer was too long to turn around in the bayou without first backing into White Oak Bayou -- a tricky maneuver.

In spring of 1837, the sturdy side-wheeler transported to Houston a printing press meant for the Telegraph and Texas Register. Gail Borden Jr., the developer of condensed milk and part-owner of the paper, accompanied the press.

The Yellow Stone made a few more deliveries in the Galveston area; after that, there is no further evidence of its existence. Some historians think the steamboat literally dropped from sight: They believe that it hit a snag and sank in Buffalo Bayou. The last scrap of documentation is a bill to the Texas navy department dated June 2, 1837 -- one last attempt to get paid for services rendered. What is generally accepted to be the bell of the Yellow Stone is on display at the Alamo complex.

One thing is certain, however: The Yellow Stone earned an important place in the history of Texas.

— written by Mary G. Ramos, editor emerita, for the Texas Almanac 1988-1989.

 

SOURCES

Jackson, Donald, Voyages of the Steamboat Yellow Stone; Ticknor and Fields, New York, 1985.

Puryear, Pamela Ashworth and Nath Winfield Jr., Sandbars and Sternwheelers, Steam Navigation on the Brazos; Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 1976.

 

 

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