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 rivers.2
In Dec. 1817 Lafitte built slave barracks near Deweyville on Sabine River so that the sugar planters could come to that point to buy slaves.3 In 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 that fate.