River Navigation

By: Seymour V. Connor

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: December 1, 1995

Because of practically nonexistent overland transportation in Texas before the coming of the railroads in 1860–65, the people of the state made numerous efforts to navigate Texas rivers by steamboat. In 1821 Stephen F. Austin had planned to utilize the Lively on the Colorado, but Henry Austin's Ariel was the first steamboat on a Texas river. Following a few months' unsuccessful operation on the Rio Grande, the Ariel was moved to the Brazos in August 1830, and in December 1830, after several attempts to make New Orleans, the Ariel was laid up to rot near Harrisburg. In 1834, encouraged by a subscription list formed by a number of planters, Robert Wilson and William P. Harris put the Cayuga in service on the Brazos. The Yellow Stone began to ply the Brazos in 1836 and reached San Felipe in February. By 1840 there were at least two small vessels, the Mustang and the Lady Byron, operating above Brazoria. In 1840 the Constitution, a reclaimed ocean steamer, took a load of 300 bales of cotton over the Velasco bar, which was the principal impediment to navigation on the Brazos. On the Colorado, six miles above Matagorda, a log raft six miles long impeded navigation. Two companies were chartered to remove the raft, but their attempts, as well as those of others, were unsuccessful. By 1838 the David Crockett and other keel boats of light draft were operating above the raft, and in the spring of 1845 the Kate Ward, constructed especially for Colorado trade, was launched at Matagorda. This boat had a keel of 110 feet, a beam of twenty-four feet, and would carry 600 bales of cotton in three feet of water. A channel was cut through the raft and the Kate Ward reached Austin on May 8, 1845.

One of the first attempts to navigate the Trinity River was made by the Branch T. Archer, which in May 1838 ascended the river 350 miles. Although navigation on the Trinity was frequently hindered by low water, by 1840 the Ellen Frankland and the Vesta were in fairly continuous service, and when the Ellen Frankland was wrecked in 1844, the Scioto Belle replaced her. The first attempts to navigate the narrow, tortuous Buffalo Bayou were made by the Laura (January 1837), the Constitution (June 1837), the Leonidas (August 1837), and the Friend (March 1838). By 1840 there was a regular service between Houston and Galveston. A raft near Victoria hindered navigation of the Guadalupe, but by 1841 the Swan had begun a fairly regular run as far as the raft. Although a canal was cleared around the raft in July 1841, the Guadalupe apparently never did a significant river trade, and the Swan was later purchased by a New Orleans concern which operated a line of steamers on Red River. A hundred-mile raft above Shreveport, partially cleared by Henry Shreve in 1833, for a long time hindered navigation of the Red River. Benjamin R. Milam in July 1831, with the steamboat Alps, was the first to navigate successfully the treacherous path through the raft. Because of its length and location, the Red River was the most important in Texas river navigation, and after Shreve cleared the remainder of the raft in 1838, was readily navigable for at least 1,600 miles of its length.

River navigation played an important role in the development of Texas before the Civil War and by the middle of the nineteenth century there were a number of steamboats on each of the most important rivers, despite water so shallow that schedules were frequently interrupted. Downriver and coastwise shipments to Galveston kept a number of steamers in regular service to New Orleans, the first regular run having been scheduled in 1837. River port towns for several decades occupied positions of importance in Texas commerce that they rapidly lost with the coming of the railroads. See also NAVIGATION ON THE RIO GRANDE, and OCEAN SHIPPING.

Harbert Davenport, "Notes on Early Steamboating on the Rio Grande," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 49 (October 1945). William R. Hogan, The Texas Republic: A Social and Economic History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1946; rpt. 1969). Elton R. Prewitt, Channel to Liberty: Archeological Survey and Historical Steamboat Investigations along the Lower Trinity River, Chambers and Liberty Counties (Austin: Prewitt and Associates, 1986).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Seymour V. Connor, “River Navigation,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed December 05, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/river-navigation.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 1, 1995