This article has been excerpted (borrowed) from

A Shared Experience's Historical Survey

Steamboats on the Rio Grande

The Bessie,
a steamboat on The Rio Grande
courtesy of The Barker Texas History Center; Austin, Texas
Feguson Collection

The war with Mexico helped to usher in an era of river commerce on the Rio Grande never seen before or after. One steamboat entrepreneur, Charles Stillman, a Matamoros merchant and agent, first arrived on the river in 1828 as a youth of only eighteen. Operating boats up and down the Rio Grande, Stillman found there were large profits to be made on the river.

Another steamboat captain was Mifflin Kenedy. A Pennsylvania-born skipper who had steamed the Mississippi and Ohio, Kenedy came to the Rio Grande where he captained the Corvette in transporting Taylor's troops and supplies to Camargo. Kenedy coaxed a friend, Richard King, south to the Rio Grande to join the growing civilian corps of captains and pilots.

King, a twenty-two year-old native of New York, was a veteran of the Seminole war. On the river, King became captain of the Colonel Cross.

In June, 1846, with General Taylor's Army still on the Lower Rio Grande, an army engineer named Major John Saunders was directed by Taylor to employ Mifflin Kenedy to select suitable boats for use as river transport. Saunders purchased the Corvette, Colonel Cross, Whiteveile, and Major Brown. With General Taylor preparing to march on Monterrey, all of the boats were used in transporting supplies to Camargo.

While the American Army was on the river, General Robert Patterson became interested in the feasibility of navigation on the Rio Grande beyond Camargo. The Major Brown, a 150-foot long side wheeler, weighing 124 tons, was ordered to proceed as far upriver as practical and, if possible, to establish military communication with Presidio del Rio Grande across the river from present-day Eagle Pass.

The trip was planned for the fall, during which time the river would be at its lowest level. Captain of the vessel was Mark Sterling from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, while Lieutenant Bryan P. Tilden, Jr., of the 3rd Infantry, was in command of the twenty privates and non-commissioned officers assigned to the steamer. Muskets and plenty of ammunition, as well as one month's supply of food, were packed on board for the voyage.

On October 1, 1846, the steamer left Camargo bound for Presidio del Rio Grande. Reaching the junction of the Salado, the Major Brown changed course slightly and steamed up the tributary for some distance. Hills rose abruptly on both sides of the river, exposing the various outcroppings of rock. Blackened igneous rocks appeared on the surface of the sterile and austere landscape. Scrubby mesquite and prickly pear were the only visible vegetation. Just below the town of Guerrero, a beautiful sight, the "Guerrero Falls," halted the progress of the expedition. The falls, which measured over twenty feet in height, are today covered by the waters of Falcon Dam Reservoir.

As the Major Brown anchored below the falls, a short distance from Guerrero, news reached the town that "the Americans were coming in a thing that split the rocks right in two, forcing a passage for itself." Large numbers of Guerrero's citizens, including the town alcalde and priest, came to the riverbank to greet the Americans. Lieutenant Tilden reported that the "boat was literally thronged, day and night," during the three days the Major Brown remained anchored below Guerrero. "A second and a third table was required at almost every meal...for the accommodation of visitors, who ate either from hunger or curiosity," Tilden wrote. He further stated that the citizens' "...astonishment and wonderment at everything connected with the machinery of the boat was truly amusing." 11

Relations between the Americans and the citizens of Guerrero were extremely warm. Many of the inhabitants were hoping that "peace might be soon established on a permanent footing between Mexico and the United States." The Americans, in return, were impressed with "the beauty and courtesy of the women" as well as the "cordiality of the men." 12

An unfortunate incident occurred while the Major Brown was at Guerrero. A party of Lipan Apache raided several ranches near the town. Five small boys were carried off in the raid, and several men were either killed or wounded. Two of those wounded were brought to the Major Brown, where their injuries were dressed. The citizens, fearful of continued Indian raids, asked the Americans for protection.

After the Lipan raid, the Mexicans guided the Americans to a coal deposit near the town. The coal was reported to be hard, bituminous, and of first-rate quality. At Captain Sterling's request, several tons of the coal were brought on board the ship for use on the trip upriver. Lieutenant Tilden also reported the existence of a small quantity of silver ore near the coal. (Later in the century, coal production would be a regional industry, especially northwest of Laredo.)

Early on the morning of October 5, 1846, the men continued the trip. An "immense crowd of all ages and sexes thronged the shore, to take a farewell of the Major Brown." Tilden reported that the "waving of scarfs, hankerchiefs, shawls, and blankets," as well as "wishes for a prosperous voyage and a speedy return" were common. 13

After the Major Brown left Guerrero, the water level of the river continued to drop. Rapids and shoals became common, and the current became stronger. Huge rocks jutting forth from the rapidly receding waters were encountered. Every foot of the rough waters was carefully sounded before the steamboat was allowed to proceed. With the river at low ebb, Captain Sterling and his men became apprehensive about continuing. Progress continued to be erratic. The men would cover perhaps twenty-five miles one day, followed by only three miles the next day. Passage through some of the rapids became frightening.

Frequently, the Major Brown would put ashore near the numerous ranches along the river. There, mesquite was cut to fire the ship's boiler. Mexican rancheros, who appeared friendly, were anxious to see the steamboat. News of the Major Brown had spread upriver from Mier and Guerrero, and the rancheros had been expecting the steamboat for some time. Numerous Carrizo Indians, armed with only bows and arrows, were spotted along the riverbank. Many were peones in the service of the Mexican ranchers.

Below Laredo, the river continued to narrow. The hills were now rocky, and passage over the rapids became even more dangerous than before. TheMajor Brown would navigate one rapid only to encounter another.

On October 24, 1846, the Major Brown reached Laredo. The citizens had been expecting the boat for some time and were "astonished" at the sight of such a large vessel. "This town lies on both sides of the river [and] contains about fifteen hundred inhabitants, and its buildings are for the most part of stone," Tilden reported. On the south bank, "the buildings are mostly of cane and of wood and mud, and it numbers not far from five hundred inhabitants." The captain predicted that if $100,000 could be spent improving the river above Mier, boats "drawing four feet can readily ply between the mouth of the Rio Grande and Laredo." Laredo was destined without doubt, he felt, to become "the head of navigation on the Rio Grande." 14

With the river continuing to fall, Captain Sterling considered it impossible for the Major Brown to continue beyond Laredo. The boat was anchored under the high banks of the river near the town. Because of the low water, it remained there for over a year.

Lieutenant Tilden's prophecy that Laredo would become the head of navigation on the Rio Grande remained unfulfilled. Never again would a steamboat or other vessel the size of the Major Brown reach Laredo. Many rapids and narrow passages, as well as the erratic rise and fall of the water level varying from dry to rampaging floods, made navigation of the river impractical.

It was Roma, high on a bluff overlooking the Rio Grande, and not Laredo, that would become the head of navigation on the river.

During the colonial era, what is today Roma was claimed as porciones seventy-one and seventy-two under the jurisdiction of Mier. In these porciones, two ranches, Rancho de los Sáenz and Rancho de Buena Vista, were established with families from Mier around l760. The exact origins of how Roma came to be named is uncertain. Local legend holds that a party of traveling priests once told the inhabitants that their village resembled the "Eternal City." Flattered by the comparison, the villagers decided to name the town Roma. Another account attributes the name to a Major Román, a volunteer in the Mexican-American War.

With steamboats plying the river during the Mexican-American War, local mercantile firms flourished, and the communities along the river banks prospered. This economic boom was especially true during the years of the California gold rush when many overland travelers sought passage up the Rio Grande before striking out overland for the west coast. By 1860, Roma had become a major shipping point on the river from where goods were distributed to the Mexican interior. Steamboats continued to cruise the river until the coming of the railroad in the early 1880s. At the height of the river trade, in the 1850s, there were 30 to 35 steamboats navigating the Rio Grande.

Also see CORVTTE and the RIO BROVO
And Site Reconnaissance


11. Bryan P. Tilden, Jr., Notes on the Upper Rio Grande, Explored in the Months of October and November, 1846, on Board the U. S. Steamer Major Brown, Commanded by Capt. Mark Sterling of Pittsburgh, by Orders of Major General Patterson, U. S. A. (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1847), 14.
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12. Bryan P. Tilden, Jr., Notes on the Upper Rio Grande, Explored in the Months of October and November, 1846, on Board the U. S. Steamer Major Brown, Commanded by Capt. Mark Sterling of Pittsburgh, by Orders of Major General Patterson, U. S. A. (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1847), 15.
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13. Bryan P. Tilden, Jr., Notes on the Upper Rio Grande, Explored in the Months of October and November, 1846, on Board the U. S. Steamer Major Brown, Commanded by Capt. Mark Sterling of Pittsburgh, by Orders of Major General Patterson, U. S. A. (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1847), 16.
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14. Bryan P. Tilden, Jr., Notes on the Upper Rio Grande, Explored in the Months of October and November, 1846, on Board the U. S. Steamer Major Brown, Commanded by Capt. Mark Sterling of Pittsburgh, by Orders of Major General Patterson, U. S. A. (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1847), 29.
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This article has been excerpted (borrowed) from the article Historical Survey, A Shared Experience Steamboats on the Rio Grande

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