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Welcome! This site describes the historical background and fieldwork involving a steamboat wreck in the Rio Grande River at Brownsville, Texas. The identity of the boat is unknown, but there are two local traditions: that it is the wreck of Corvette, one of the first steamboats on the river, and which was brought to Texas in 1846 during the war with Mexico, or that it is the wreck of U.S.S. Rio Bravo, a Navy gunboat brought to the river in 1875 to help patrol the border. Both vessels were probably similar in general design and construction, so what little remains of the vessel may not resolve the question. This site provides an overview of the efforts being made to answer that question: Corvette or Rio Bravo?

 


Steamboats on the Rio Grande

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The first steamboat brought to the
Rio Grande was the sidewheeler
Ariel, owned by Henry Austin, a cousin of Stephen F.Ausitn.  Henry Austin (1782-1852) was familiar with the extensive trade that already existed in the area, and thought he improve upon it (and make his fortune) with the advantages of a steamboat.  Austin arrived on the river in 1829 but was frustrated with the pace of business on the Rio Grande and the navigational hazards of the river.  Austin later tried his luck on the Brazos River with similar results.  Ariel was finally abandoned on Buffalo Bayou, and Austin established a plantation, Bolivar, on the Brazos.  Henry Austin is buried (left) in Galveston.


The great boom in steam navigation on the Rio Grande came during the war with Mexico in 1846.  The Rio Grande Valley, and the area around Fort Brown (right; click to enlarge) in particular, became a staging area for one of the major U.S. campaigns against Mexico. The U.S. Quartermaster Department brought 30 or more steamboats to the Rio Grande during the and immediately afterward to transport, troops, supplies and and other materials in support of the army. The sidewheeler Corvette (see below) was one of the first Army steamboats to come to the river.

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king&ken.jpg (7168 bytes) The war had demonstrated the practicalities of steamboat navigation on the Rio Grande, and several businessmen established themselves quickly in the trade.  The most prominent of these were Richard King (left, seated) and Mifflin Kenedy (left, standing), who had both come to the Rio Grande as civilian river pilots under contract to the Quartermaster Department. King and Kenedy formed a partnership that was to dominate the Rio Grande steamboat trade for many years, and that would form the financial basis of their substantial land holdings, including the famous King Ranch.

Steam navigation, at least on a small scale, would endure on the Rio Grande for sixty years, longer than on any other major Texas waterway.  One of the last boats on the river was the sternwheeler Bessie (right), which made her last run around 1906.

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Two Steamboats


Corvette: An Old Soldier

Corvette was built at Brownsville, Pennsylvania in 1846. Either during construction or soon after her completion, she was purchased by the U.S. Quartermaster Department for use as a transport on the Rio Grande in the rapidly-expanding war with Mexico.  Corvette's selection for this effort may have been influenced by Mifflin Kenedy, a Chattahoochee River pilot who had been assisting the Army in choosing boats.  She was a fine boat, soundly built and outfitted with exquisite furnishings. At $16,000, Corvette was by far the most expensive of that first batch of a dozen boats bought by the Army, and the officers involved rationalized her purchase by pointing out that she could be readily sold for a good price when the war ended.  Most important of all, she drew only 20 inches of water without cargo, and only 30 inches "when carrying good freight."

http://nautarch.tamu.edu/projects/riogrand/images/scott.jpg (20288 bytes) Corvette arrived on the Rio Grande under the command of  Mifflin Kenedy in the summer of 1846. She quickly settled into the routine of the river, carrying troops, stores and equipment from the anchorage at Brazos Santiago (near present-day South Padre Island) to the new military post established across the river from Matamoros, Fort Brown.  On one occasion during a rise in the river that year, Kenedy and his pilot, Prescot Devot, managed to push Corvette from Brazos Santiago up the river to Camargo, a Mexican town far upstream, in exactly three days -- it normally took six. Corvette's reputation for both speed and comfort was such that General Winfield Scott (left) chose the boat to transport him and his staff to Camargo on a visit to the area in January 1847.

After the war, when the U.S. Army demobilized and the Quartermaster Department sold off most of the boats it operated on the Rio Grande, Corvette was one of those that the military decided to retain.  She continued "soldiering on" for several years, carrying government supplies between Brazos Santiago, Fort Brown (right, in blue) and other landings on the Lower Rio Grande.  The government found it much cheaper to operate its own boats than to contract with civilian operators like Mifflin Kenedy; the cost of transporting a barrel of goods from Brazos Santiago to Fort Brown on Corvette was about 40, while civilian boats charged anything from 50 to $1.  By 1851, however, W. W. Chapman, assistant quartermaster in charge of the government's steamboats on the river, reported that Corvette was worn-out and in need of replacement.   One modern source indicates that she was intentionally sunk in the river near Fort Brown in February 1852, although an earlier (1917) account identifies the wreck of Corvette as lying in the river a full half-mile further upstream.
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Rio Bravo: "A 4th-Class TUB"

U.S.S. Rio Bravo was originally built as the civilian sidewheel packet Planter at Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1860.  Her master and part owner, Charles V. Wells, sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War and took her south, where she was captured by Union forces on June 15, 1863.   She was taken into the U.S. Quartermaster Department and operated as a transport for the remainder of the war.  In 1866 Planter was sold out of the service, and once again resumed operating as a civilian steamer, this time out of Mobile, Alabama.

In 1875, General E. O. C. Ord, commander of the U.S. Army's Department of Texas, persuaded the Navy Department to provide a gunboat for the Rio Grande to protect the area against raids from Mexico, particularly those coordinated by Juan Cortina (right), a longtime enemy of American business interests in the area.  The Navy responded by purchasing the old sidewheeler Planter and christening her Rio Bravo, after the Mexican name for the river she was to patrol.  The Navy's decision to outfit Planter/Rio Bravo as a gunboat is a curious one, since she was already 15 years old -- positively geriatric for a riverboat -- and substantially larger than most of the steamers operating on the shallow, hazard-strewn Rio Grande.

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Armed with four small howitzers and a rifled gun firing a 30-pound shell, Rio Bravo set out for the Rio Grande in the summer of 1875.   She was damaged by a storm while crossing the Gulf of Mexico, and put into Galveston briefly for repairs.  She arrived in in early October on the Rio Grande with a complement of eight officers and forty-five crewmen.  Her crew was hardly impressed with their newly-outfitted gunboat; Frank Pierce, who served aboard her as a yeoman and would later write an early history of the Rio Grande Valley, described her as a "4th-class TUB."

More important, Rio Bravo's captain, Lieutenant Commander Kells, quickly embroiled himself in the volatile atmosphere in Brownsville.   There were many in the area, primarily Anglo businessmen, who would have welcomed another war with Mexico.  Kells sided quickly with them, and even offered to create an incident to precipitate one.  Just two days after arriving at Brownsville, Kells proposed that "it could be arranged to have [Rio Bravo] fired upon, by a party of Texans from the Mexican bank, in her first trip up the 'Rio Grande,' in order that he might have an excuse to return the fire, destroy adjacent Mexican ranches, and land and occupy Mexican soil, ostensibly to avenge the insult to the United States flag; and thus precipitate an armed conflict with Mexico on this frontier."  As an alternative, Kells suggested, a group of Texans posing as Mexican raiders might drive a herd of cattle across the river to Las Cuevas, one of the Mexican ranches believed to harbor Cortina's men. This would then give Kells an excuse to attack Las Cuevas.

The naval officer's remarks were widely reported in and around Brownsville, and prompted an urgent series of telegrams between the U.S. Consul at Matamoros and the State Department.  Kells was relieved of command of Rio Bravo on November 15, 1875, before he could stage any of his proposed incidents. (The attack on Las Cuevas was eventually carried out, without Rio Bravo's assistance, by a party of Texas Rangers.)

Rio Bravo's actual service on the river seems to have been somewhat brief.  On her first trip up the Rio Grande, about a hundred river miles above Brownsville, the old sidewheeler exploded one of her boilers.  Unable to move under her own power, she took advantage of the high stage of the river to drift back downstream to Brownsville.  Rio Bravo was officially transferred to the ownership of the U.S. War Department in June 1880, her 20th year, but her useful life undoubtedly had passed some time before.  Rio Bravo was finally sunk as a breakwater below Fort Brown.

 

Introduction | Steamboats on the Rio Grande | Two Steamboats | Site Reconnaissance
Corvette or Rio Bravo? | Credits and Acknowledgements

J. Barto Arnold et al. 1998, Brownsville Steamboat Reconnaissance, World Wide Web, URL
http://nautarch.tamu.edu/PROJECTS/riogrand/riogrand.html, Institute of Nautical Archaeology, Texas A&M
University, E-mail: (jarnold@acs.tamu.edu).   Sunday, July 05, 1998 Revision
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