ABORIGINES, EXPLORERS, PIRATES, SHIPWRECKED mariners, missionary priests, trappers, and settlers move in a shadowy pageant across the early background of Port Arthur. Residents today tread pavement that is believed to contain the remains of Indians. Loads of shell from the banks of the Sabine River were used for building streets in 1913, and when, later, Indian skeletonsone of which had worn a necklace of glass beads of European makewere found close to the spot where the shell had been excavated, it seemed reasonably certain that fragments of bone had been inadvertently mixed in the paving material. It is supposed that the shell bank was either a burial ground or the scene of a battle.
Indian artifacts are to be found throughout the section where the Attacapas, Opelousas, Bidai and Deadose tribes gathered on Laguna del Rio Sabinas (Lake of the River of Cypress Trees) to fish, hunt, trap, and collect shells for barter.
Legends of these aborigines are numerous, but the children of Port Arthur most enjoy the one about the Attacapas princess Kisselpoo, whose name meant Full Moon. It is when that orb sheds its full light across the lake that the story has its greatest attraction. Then, the tale-tellers declare, in the silvery path across the twinkling waters, sometimes can be seen a canoe bearing a boy and girl in strange clothing, paddling up the shimmering moon-way.
The tribe of Kisselpoo, so runs the ancient story, lived by the lake and she, the only child of the chieftain, had been born when the moon was full, and was under the protection of the moon goddess.
When Kisselpoo was fifteen years old, tales of her beauty and ability had traveled far, and many braves from other tribes came to woo her. The one whom the leaders favored was head of several groups whose land adjoined to the north, and although he was older than her father and already had many wives, arrangements were made for their marriage.
When nuptial preparations were far advanced, a stranger, whose home was seven sleeps distant toward the setting sun, arrived in the village. He was tall and straight as the pines, and for gifts he brought arm bands of a shining metal, set with stones like rainbows and like the blue of the skies. Kisselpoo loved him, but her wedding was set for the time when the moon would be at its brightest. That night, as the luminous disc rose over the horizon, she waited, in her finery, for other maidens of the village to come to her father’s lodge and lead her to the elderly northern chief.
Instead, she heard the westerner’s deep voice softly speak her name, and with him she fled through reeds and grass to the lake where a canoe lay waiting. Swiftly they glided out on the water, but already the princess had been missed, and pursuit, led by the chieftain from the north and medicine men of her own tribe, was close. Her father did not participate in the chase, for he had dreamed a dream in which the moon goddess appeared to him and urged him to let his daughter wed the Indian from the west.
The medicine men called down the wrath of their gods, and a storm came up, ruffling the lake and upsetting the canoe, so that the eloping pair was last seen in the path of moonlight. Thereupon, the moon goddess, angered, called upon her kinsman, the storm god from the tropics, who rode in on a devastating hurricane. When at last the waves retreated into the Gulf, there was nothing left of the village or its inhabitants.
The moon goddess decreed that the Lake of the River of Cypress Trees, for allowing itself to yield to the medicine men’s commands, should slowly disappear, and to this day all the streams that feed it bear down silt and mud to fill it. Meanwhile, on a night when the full moon is rising, to those who have the power to see such things, appears the canoe with its two occupants.
While this hurricane may be legendary, it was typical of storms which lashed the coast from time to time. Even in The Narrative of the Expedition of Hernando De Soto, by “a Gentleman of Elvas,” mention is made of a storm which swept the expedition ashore on July 25, 1543, in the vicinity of Lake Sabine. The explorers remained there for several days, repairing their boats with a pitch-like substance which they found. Although there must have been Indians in the vicinity, the account does not mention them.
The territory abounded in furred game which drew the attention of trappers and traders. French adventurers certainly invaded the area almost as soon as the town of New Orleans was founded, and some historians believe that they had been in the region much earlier. The eighteenth century was well advanced, however, before the Spanish claimants of the country learned of the presence of French traders and began investigations.
Under orders from his government, Engineer Alvarez Barreyro crossed the area in 1727, with no results that have been recorded. In 1745 Spanish authorities, having again heard that foreigners were trading in the vicinity of the Trinity River, ordered Don Joaquin Orobio y Basterra, captain at La Bahia, to look into the ‘Hauer. He went first to Nacogdoches, and then south over the trail of the Bidais. When he finally arrived among the Orcoquisacs of the San Jacinto River country, he was told that the French made annual visits to the mouths of the Neches, Trinity and Brazos Rivers and that they had built up a trade with Indians at those points. On their latest visit, he was informed, arrangements had been made for the opening of a trading post. Orobio y Basterra returned a few months later, but was unable to find any traders. In 1754, Spanish authorities discovered Joseph Blancpain and two other Frenchmen visiting the Indians and arrested them.
To protect the territory against further such intrusions, the Spanish established in 1756, at a point about one league from the mouth of the Trinity River, a presidia, San Agustin de Ahumada, and a mission, Nuestra Senora de la Luz del Orcoqutsac (Our Lady of Light of the Orcoquisacs), both of which remained active until 1771. A tradition survives in the Port Arthur area, that this or some other mission erected a log building at the headwaters of the North Fork of Taylor’s Bayou.
In addition to the Spanish and French, the English also were attempting to establish amicable relations with the Indians. Padre Juan Agustin Morfi, who chronicled events in Texas prior to 1779, thus describes one of these attempts that ended on the banks of Laguna del Rio Sabinas:
I have already stated how many of the English made several attempts to penetrate the province. The last of these was made in 1777, during the month of July, but because of their ignorance of the coast line, they left their ship stranded on the coast.
The traders from Louisiana, who reside among the nations of the coast, gave an exact account of the affair to Gil y Barbo, captain of the militia at Bucareli, who immediately set out with as many settlers as he was able to make ready to find the English.
But in spite of all haste he could make he found only the recently stranded vessel at the mouth of the Neches River, which could still be seen in January, 1778, and a few huts on the bank of the river.
He learned that the cargo consisted only of bricks, provisions and some articles of trade, seemingly intended to establish a settlement; that the English had unloaded the stranded vessel; and that after put- ting most of its cargo in other vessels, they had sailed away, giving to the Indians of Orcoquisac some suits of excellent cloth and several bolts of fine goods before leaving them with a promise to return soon to visit them.
Decades later, settlers wandering over the lake front found pieces of brick which they believed to be part of that ship’s cargo, and for many years, maps of early Texas showed a point indicated as English Brig Landing near the present village of Sabine.
While Spain definitely was in control of the section, trappers of the American Fur Company of St. Louis traveled at will throughout the territory, and as early as 1818, according to old records, James Gaines operated a trading post and ferry on the Sabine River above the modern city of Orange to care for their needs.
Jean Lafitte and his men, with headquarters on Galveston Island from 1817 to 1821, are said by tradition to have been frequent visitors in the area. William Fairfax Gray, who had been sent to Texas in 1835 by the United States Government as an observer and was caught in the Runaway Scrape in the spring of 1836, chronicled events of that retreat as his haste would permit, and in his diary on Sunday, April 24, 1836, at Ballows’ Ferry, he wrote:
This is one of Lafitte’s old stations. Ballow is said to have been one of his confederates, likewise old Shote at the Pine Islands. Here stands an old shed, part of the shelter constructed for the African Negroes that he used to bring here. It is now a shelter for cows.
There are unauthenticated tales of a shipyard on the Sabine River where pirate craft were brought for repair. Lafitte, it is said, often sailed through Sabine Pass and into the Lake, eluding his pursuers. Some of the old residents relate today how they heard in their childhood of pirates who came ashore and traded gold doubloons for eggs, fresh meat, and milk, never molesting the settlers.
Stories of buried gold along the shores of Lake Sabine are legion. Many persons have been lured into the swamps by these tales, only to find mosquitoes, alligators, and sometimes death from quicksands and fevers. Tales have been told of pirates’ gold being unearthed as far up as Doom’s Island at the point where the Sabine River enters the Lake. The Island was frequently searched, trees being uprooted in the frantic search for treasure. Other stories deal with excavations along the Pass to Mesquite Point at the entrance to the Port Arthur Ship Canal. Residents of Sabine Pass, fourteen miles southeast, repeat a tradition that a large hole was once discovered there, at the bottom of which was a great ironbound chest which, when laboriously dragged forth and opened, proved to be empty.
Just when the first settlers arrived in the region north of Lake Sabine is a matter of conjecture. The area was part of the Neutral Ground adjacent to the Sabine River, and no records were kept in early days as to its inhabitants. The Mexican Republic, on August 18, 1824, passed the National Colonization Law, which included the regulation that “No lands lying within 20 leagues of the boundaries with any foreign nation, nor within 10 leagues of the coast can he occupied by settlers, without the previous approbation of the Supreme Executive Power.”
Many families came in during the era of the empresarios. In March, 1829, Lorenzo de Zavala, a prominent citizen of the State of Coahuila and Texas, contracted to introduce 500 families in a region whose western boundary was twenty leagues from the Sabine River; the northern boundary a line “run from Nacogdoches following the main road leading to Nachitoches by the way of Los Borregas and the ferry to the right bank of the Sabine River; and the Gulf of Mexico for the southern boundary.”
Two other empresarios had obtained nearby grants, Joseph Vehlein to the west, and David Burnet north of Vehlein. The three areas formed a compact section and, when the holders were unable to complete colonization, were consolidated. Their contracts were turned over to the Galveston Bay and Texas Land Company, October 16, 1830.
Of this company, formed in New York City, John P. Austin of that city wrote his cousin, Stephen F. Austin, at San Felipe:
From what I can learn, it is the most extensive land company that was ever known in this or any other country, probably extending its interests throughout the States, and its board of directors is composed of the most respectable and influential men among us.
In the Guide to Texas Emigrants, published in Boston, Mass., in 1835, David Woodman, Jr., stated:
For the further facility of Emigrants the company have contracted with the owners of the Steam Boat Connecticut, which is advertised to run from New Orleans to Tampico and back once a fortnight, to stop at the mouth of the Sabine and Galveston Bays, so that the settlers from the United States will be sure of a speedy passage directly to the territory of the company.
But not all the new settlers arrived by ship. One of the early land grants in the De Zavala area, which included the site of the present city of Port Arthur and lower Jefferson County, was issued to Thomas Courts, who, by his oath, “emigrated to Texas as early as 1829.” The story of his arrival was told by his granddaughter, Mrs. Robert R. Pace, who lived many years on the old home place south of Port Arthur.
Courts, a young English emigrant, had settled at Port Lavaca, where he married, but he and his wife were dissatisfied and felt the urge to seek new land to the eastward. They discussed the idea with neighbors, including John McGaffy, with the result that a number decided to join them. Their little caravan moved laboriously, one morning, out of Port Lavaca. Household goods were loaded in ox-drawn carts, driven by the women, while the men, astride horses, drove the cattle, sheep, and extra horses along the trailless route beside the Gulf of Mexico.
The journey was not without exciting incidents, for when the party had reached a point opposite Galveston Island, they were visited by a number of strange-looking men who had come across the bay in sailboats. Requesting the emigrants to furnish them beef, they paid in gold doubloons, which they explained by saying that they were former followers of Lafitte. They were friendly, and when they learned that the wanderers were seeking good lands upon which to settle advised them to follow the coast eastward to the first large inlet from the Gulf, where they would find a high ridge of land that never was under water. This they did, settling on a site overlooking El Paso des Sabinas or Sabine Pass.
The Mexican government at first refused to recognize the Galveston Bay Company, but in 1832 it extended Burnet’s and Vehlein’s grants for three years, and in 1834 extended De Zavala’s grants for four years, thus partially recognizing it. In March, 1834, the government renewed all grants upon which empresarios had expended $10,000 in attempting to fulfill their contracts, provided insurmountable difficulties imposed by the Mexican government had prevented their fulfilment. This made the recognition complete.
George Antonio Nixon was appointed land commissioner in June, 1834, and Capt. Archibald Hotchkiss was made resident agent for the company, both then being at Nacogdoches. The commissioner did not arrive at the colony until September, and no titles to land were issued before October.
When, two years later, independence from Mexico had been won and the Texas Republic had been established, the Arkansas Advocate said, on November 11, 1836:
The Galveston Bay Company possesses about 16 millions of acres; the tracts are put up in parcels or “labors” of 177 acres each; or in leagues of 4,446 acres each. The trustees or managers, Anthony Dey, George Curtis and Wm. H. Summer, Esq. This land now sells at 3 to 5 cents per acre.