Pirate Lafitte, Bowie dealt in slave trade via SE Texas
© By W. T. Block
(click here for W. T. Block web page)
Reprinted from the Beaumont Enterprise, May 22, 1999.
NEDERLAND—One of the ugliest sagas of Southeast Texas
history was the traffic in African slaves. And that history also mars the
image of two Republic of Texas heroes, James Bowie and James Fannin.
The African slave trade in Texas began in 1816 while
Texas still belonged to Spain and the privateer Luis de Aury occupied
Galveston Island. It reached its peak there in 1817 after the pirate Jean
Lafitte arrived. Within a year, at least 1,000 Africans had arrived on
Spanish slave ships captured by the pirates.1
Three of Lafitte’s best customers were James, Rezin and
John Bowie, who ferried slaves either overland to the Louisiana sugar
planters through present-day Beaumont or via the Sabine and Calcasieu
In Dec. 1817 Lafitte built slave barracks near Deweyville
on Sabine River so that the sugar planters could come to that point to buy
1836, while W. F. Gray was fleeing east in the Runaway Scrape, he wrote
the following in his diary:
"...Here stands an old shed, a part of the shelter
constructed for African slaves that Lafitte used to bring here..."4
Southeast Texas received a brief respite from the African
slave traffic until April, 1836, the month of the Runaway Scrape and
Battle of San Jacinto. During that month, W. F. Gray encountered "the
McNeils (brothers of Brazoria) with their 40 African Negroes...," in the
vicinity of Nome, Texas.5
In the summer of 1836, a Spanish slave ship, with 200
Africans aboard, sailed up Sabine River to Niblett’s Bluff. It was not
verified whether or not any slaves were unloaded. Capt. Moro, the Spanish
master, murdered a mate named Coigley, and fearing arrest, he fled aboard
his ship to the Gulf of Mexico.6
In April, 1836, Capt. John Taylor docked the slave ship
Elizabeth at Sabine Pass, where it remained for six weeks. The "slaves"
were actually British subjects, who had been freed by an admiralty court
in Barbados. Taylor unloaded some slaves in present-day Port Neches, which
he delivered to San Augustine. Taylor was later arrested and tried by a
British court, reputedly being sentenced to 14 years imprisonment.7
The last known slave ship, under pursuit by a British
frigate offshore, wrecked at Blue Buck Point in Sabine Lake in 1837.8 Henry
Griffith, a pioneer rancher of Johnson’s Bayou, La., sold cattle to the
slaver captain to feed to the slaves. Fifteen years earlier he had sold
cattle twice to James Bowie to feed the latter’s slaves.9
The U. S. customs officer in New Orleans was well aware
of the Sabine Lake slave trade, which was why a U. S. customs house was
built on Garrison Ridge in 1837. In 1820 the customs office kept the
revenue cutter Lynx on patrol off Sabine and Calcasieu rivers, and after
1838 the cutter Woodbury patrolled in Sabine Lake.
The trade in African slaves was evidently quite
profitable for men to risk their necks to the noose. The U. S. Slave Trade
Acts of 1820 defined African slave-trading as piracy, and conviction
carried an automatic penalty - death by hanging. So far as known, Capt.
Nat Gordon, hanged in New York in 1862, was the only person ever to suffer
- "Documents Related to Introduction of Slaves..."
House Documents, 15th Congress, 1st Session, 10-24; 2nd Session, 11-12,
Jan. 19, 1819.
- Dr. Kilpatrick, "Early Life in The Southwest-The
Bowies," DeBow’s Review (Oct. 1852), 381.
- F. Robbins, "Origin and Development of The African
Slave Trade in Galveston," East Texas Historicval Journal, Vol. !X No 2
- W. F. Gray, From Virginia to Texas (Houston: 1965),
- Ibid., 166.
- E. D. Adams, British Correspondence Concerning the
Republic of Texas (Austin: 1917). 257.
- N. Barker, The French Legation in Texas (Austin:
1973), II, 122; also "Memoirs of Capt. K. D. Keith."
- Hous. Telegraph and Texas Register, July 5, 1843.
- "History of Johnson’s Bayou, La.," Cameron Parish
Centennial Commission, 1970.