Our search for the Republic of Texas Navy ships Zavala and Brutus. Both lost in Galveston Harbor, Texas. November, 1986

In April of 1984 Barbara and I visited Wayne Gronquist in Austin, Texas. During our stay, Wayne led me over to the capitol building and the Governor’s office where I was presented with a certificate signed by Governor White proclaiming me an Admiral in the Texas Navy (if they numbered them I’d probably be 4,932).

With a slip of the lip I announced that since becoming an Admiral the least I could do was to find myself a ship.

Masochistically hooked once again and compelled to uphold my blowhard image, I called old pal Bob Fleming in Washington and set out to locate a shipwreck from the Republic of Texas Navy. Yes folks, Texas really had a navy, two as a matter of fact. The first navy was made up of four warships that were destroyed between 1835 and 1837. The second navy, under the brilliant leadership of Commodore Edwin Moore and consisting of nine ships, lasted from 1838 until 1843.

The combined Texas Navies left a remarkable historical legacy. The early ships, including the Brutus, harassed Santa Ana’s supply ships, capturing several and thereby contributing to Sam Houston’s victory at San Jacinto.

Actually, quite a bit was written about the Texas fleet around the turn of the century, the prime example by Jim Dan Hill in his book “The Texas Navy”, and yet the story seems to have been veiled and forgotten. Most Texans don’t even know their short-lived republic even had a navy.

Many nice people in Galveston became swept up in the project and helped immeasurably. Without Kay Taylor-Hughes’ outstanding research efforts, we might never have found the Zavala. And the site of the Brutus was pretty well pinpointed by Mike Davis. Other people who proved so helpful were Sylvia Jackson, Senator Chet Brooks, Stan Weber, and my good friend and business partner, Bob Esbenson. And, lest we forget Wayne Gronquist, who put the project together and Bartol Arnold of the Texas State Antiquities Commission who was most helpful and cooperative.

Research showed most of the ships to be gone without any hope of discovery. One was captured by the Mexicans and lost in the past. One was lost at sea, another on Las Arcas island in the Gulf. Most were sold off or broken up when transferred to the U.S. Navy during annexation.

There were only three possibilities, perhaps four. These were ships wrecked in and around Galveston. References to two were too vague to pursue at the time. Our best odds were to concentrate on the Texas Navy steamship Zavala and the schooner Brutus. Both grounded during storms in the harbor and became derelict hulks in areas we hoped were still accessible.

The Brutus was a schooner armed and commissioned in February 1836. She was 180 feet in length with a 22 foot beam and carried a “long 18-pounder swivel and nine short guns”. She sailed on a cruise that caused havoc along the Gulf shore and Yucatan coast, taking the conflict into Mexican waters while capturing several prize ships. In her short career the Brutus did her share to help the Republic of Texas through its stormy infancy.

In October of 1837 a tremendous gale swept the Texas coast, destroying a number of structures and wrecking a score of ships. The Brutus was mentioned as being “considerably injured”. Contemporary reports stated that she was left grounded near Williams Wharf.

In 1884 the harbor near William’s Wharf was being deepened when the dredges uncovered two of the Brutus’ guns and a section of her frame. They were mounted in the yard of John Stoddart Brown, a prominent Galveston businessman but disappeared during the great 1900 storm that leveled much of the city. In 1963 the 18-pounder was discovered during the construction of a service station. As of this date it exhibited at the Hendley Building on the Strand.

Davis’ survey places the Brutus at the end of 24th street and Pier 23 under the Salvage Wharf Company warehouse 22-23. The survey and brief are included in the next section.

I have to say at this point that although the 1911 newspaper report says the ship was sunk and later dredged at the foot of 27th street, Davis’ research shows the Zavala was the only wreck from 29th street to 25th and 24th. So his claim to the Brutus being closer to 24th street is mostly likely correct.

The Zavala was a project that was fun and intriguing proved to be a great source of satisfaction.

She was originally a fast steam packet that ran between New York and her namesake city in South Carolina. She was remembered as a “sweet handling ship” and for her survival of a heavy storm that sank other ships around her.

The Zavala was purchased by the Republic of Texas and refitted as a warship. She was a sidewheel steamer measuring 201 feet in length with a 24 foot beam and propelled by two walking-beam engines. Her armament consisted of four 12-pounder medium guns and one long 9-pounder.

During her service, the Zavala patrolled the waters off Yucatan and on one expedition towed the San Bernard and Austin up the Tabasco River ninety miles to the provincial capital and seized it. Later, on a voyage back to Galveston, she encountered a terrible storm that caused her crew to burn bulkheads and supplies after her coal supplies ran out so she could make port.

After her one and only cruise as a warship, the Zavala was laid up and allowed to deteriorate. She began to leak so badly that she was run aground to keep from sinking. The ship then was stripped and became a deserted, rotting hulk at the upper end of the harbor’s mud flats. In time she settled deeper into the marsh until only her boilers and one funnel remained to view.

Eventually, land filling covered her completely and she was totally forgotten.

That is, until NUMA and its team came along in 1986. The key that both Taylor-Hughes and Fleming turned up was a drawing of the capture of the Harriet Lane, a Union warship during the battle of Galveston in the Civil War. To the left of the sketch, beside Bean’s Wharf, there is a smokestack sticking out of the water labeled “Zavala”.

From this clue the Texans to a man thought the Zavala sank beside the channel and all remains were dredged out of existence many years ago. I, however, couldn’t bring myself to write her off. I poured over charts of the waterfront showing the location of wharfs and made overlays from surveys in 1856, 1862, 1927, and 1982, carefully measuring where the old streets once ran as compared to modern thoroughfares.

Bean’s Wharf was well marked. But my breakthrough came when I noted the difference in wharf’s size and layout between the 1856 shore chart and drawing showing the docks and city circa 1871. My reasoning was that Bean would have never built his wharf where the Zavala’s wreck would have hampered ships unloading at the dock. It only seemed logical that the ship was both under and alongside the wharf.

Then, while the team was assembling, Esbenson and I checked out my site. Incredibly it was open. Warehouses, grain elevators and huge concrete dock facilities run almost two miles along the channel, but this particular spot was free of structures because of a grain elevator explosion that killed nearly 30 people and destroyed the warehouse over what I determined was the former location of Bean’s Wharf. The debris of the warehouse had been removed right down to the dirt, and it was now a parking lot for the elevator workers.

While I stood on top of the nearby grain elevator and lined up the streets, Esbenson stood in the parking lot and moved about according to my signals. Finally, when I was satisfied he was standing where I thought the Zavala’s remains rested, he marked the spot.

Next we did a mag survey with the Schonstedt gradiometer and recorded some very heavy targets. Then we hired a well digger and began drilling for cores.

It was cold and rainy, but everyone kept at it through the first afternoon and evening. On the first attempts the drill bit struck something hard and refused to penetrate. It was hoped we had struck the boilers, but there was no way of knowing for certain. We moved out and cored in three foot grids, bringing up bits of wood which could have been a ship or pieces of a dock; small lumps of coal that indicated a steamship but might have been thrown off an old dock; plus bits and pieces of other debris too vague to identify with a ship. Then, on the 36th hole the core disgorged 17 inches of wood capped on the bottom by a copper plate.

We had drilled through the keel of a ship and exited through the copper hull sheathing.

But was it truly the Zavala?

Esbenson rented a backhoe and we began to dig. At 12 feet the scoop hit the boilers. The Zavala had truly been found. After taking some pictures, Arnold declared it an historic site, and the grave was covered.

NUMA’s desire is that the first ship ever discovered of the Republic of Texas Navy be someday uncovered and surveyed and perhaps preserved as she lies, or maybe even rebuilt as she once was when she was the pride of the Texas fleet.



Categories: Expeditions, Ships