Yellow Stone

By: Lois Wood Burkhalter

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: March 20, 2014

The steamboat Yellow Stone (Yellowstone) was already well known in the West as the first steamboat to navigate the upper Missouri River when it came to Texas to play a major role in the Texas Revolution. Contracted by Pierre Chateau, Jr., by permission of John Jacob Astor, the sidewheeler was built in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1831 for the fur trade. It had a tonnage of 144 and was designed for navigating the Missouri's shallow water and snags; these characteristics were also typical of the Brazos River, where the boat entered the cotton trade in 1836. A blacksmith shop was also outfitted on board after the boat was delivered on April 1, 1831. In an early voyage the Yellow Stone navigated the upper Missouri River under the command of Captain B. Young, leaving St. Louis on April 16, 1831, and arriving at Fort Tecumseh on June 19. It then delivered its first cargo back at St. Louis on July 5. The first successful voyage from St. Louis all the way up the Missouri to the American Fur Company's Fort Union, near the mouth of the Yellowstone River, was made in 1832. This trip was recorded and sketched by George Catlin, artist of the American Indians, who was a passenger. These first voyages caused a great deal of interest among the Indians along the steamboat's route, as well as among businessmen and shippers throughout the United States and in Europe. Throughout 1832 and 1833 the steamboat made numerous trips up the Missouri. One journey to Fort Pierre in 1833 was detailed by Prince Maximilian von Wied, a German naturalist, and painted by Karl Bodmer, a Swiss artist, who were passengers. During the winter months, the American Fur Company used the Yellow Stone on the lower Mississippi, making trips between New Orleans and the Yazoo River. In late 1835 the Yellow Stone, owned by Thomas Toby and registered in New Orleans, was placed in dry dock there for extensive repairs and for outfitting for the Texas trade. In November 1835 the boat arrived in Brazoria from New Orleans; it then ran cotton between San Felipe and Washington-on-the-Brazos. Manned by a crew from the United States and flying the United States flag, it cleared port on December 31, 1835, with its cargo largely ammunition and its passengers mostly volunteers for the Texas army, including forty-seven men of the Mobile Grays. The ship arrived at Quintana at the mouth of the Brazos in early January 1836. On the Brazos it operated under the control of the merchant firm of Thomas F. McKinney and Samuel M. Williams. On one trip, in February 1836, the vessel went up the Brazos River as far as San Felipe de Austin under the command of Capt. John E. Ross.

The boat was loading cotton at Groce's Landing above San Felipe when Sam Houston's army arrived on March 31, 1836, in a heavy rain and established camp on the west side of the Brazos. Houston impressed it to ferry his army across the flooding river. He made an agreement with Captain Ross and his crew of sixteen, pledging land in exchange for their services and promising indemnity to the boat's unspecified owners for wages and damages. The captain later presented a bill for $4,900 to the Texas government, to cover the boat's time and transportation services. The Yellow Stone was recognized as an unarmed neutral ship of the United States, and the crew was not required to bear arms. On April 12 Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna, with 750 picked men and a six-pounder, began crossing the Brazos downriver at Thompson's Ferry, and on the same day the Yellow Stone made the first of seven trips transporting the Texas army across to Groce's. After Houston released it, the boat, its engine, crew, and passengers, protected by Groce's cotton bales, started down the swollen Brazos at full steam and passed the burned ruins of San Felipe at 10 P.M. on April 15. Gen. Joaquín Ramirez y Sesma and his division, who had been forewarned, met the boat with heavy musket fire and shots from a six-pounder. Only slightly damaged, the boat stopped briefly before Gen. José de Urrea and his large army arrived from Goliad.

At Galveston Island on April 26, the Yellow Stone was commandeered by President David G. Burnet to house the cabinet and on May 4 was ordered to Buffalo Bayou, where the cabinet was to begin treaty negotiations with the defeated Santa Anna. On the return journey, on May 9, additional passengers included Santa Anna and his staff, the wounded Houston and his staff, Gen. Martín Perfecto de Cos and eighty other wounded prisoners. The vessel stopped briefly in Galveston then continued on to Velasco, where the treaty was being made. Ross left the Yellow Stone in July 1836 and was succeeded by James H. West, who had come to Texas from Pennsylvania with the New Orleans Greys. Other later captains were William Sargeant, a San Jacinto veteran, and Thomas Wigg Grayson. Before it disappeared, the Yellow Stone transported the body of Stephen F. Austin and mourners from Columbia Landing downriver to Peach Point Plantation in December 1836 and moved the Texas government and the press and staff of the Telegraph and Texas Register from the Brazos to Houston in the spring of 1837.

Many have tried to determine the fate of the Yellow Stone. William M. Lytle states that it was stranded on the Brazos in 1837 with no lives lost, but no other source verifies this. The last known voucher for the Yellow Stone is dated May 30, 1837; it is for the passage of Dr. A. Ewing from Houston to Galveston and was signed by Ewing in Galveston. A ship's bell, said to be that of the Yellow Stone, is in the Alamo museum. Despite repeated petitions from Houston to the republic and state government after 1837, the full terms of his pledge in behalf of the crew were never met. Regardless of the Yellow Stone's final resting place, Sam Houston's words in his petitions for redemption of his pledge are an appropriate epitaph: "Had it not been for its service, the enemy could never have been overtaken until they had reached the Sabine," and the "use of the boat enabled me to cross the Brazos and save Texas."

Thurman J. Adkins, Yellowstone: Biography of a Steamboat (M.A. thesis, Trinity University, 1969). Amelia W. Williams and Eugene C. Barker, eds., The Writings of Sam Houston, 1813–1863 (8 vols., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1938–43; rpt., Austin and New York: Pemberton Press, 1970).

Time Periods:

  • Texas Revolution

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

Lois Wood Burkhalter, “Yellow Stone,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 19, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

March 20, 2014