Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Parthena and George, Atheline and Dan

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on October 17, 2012

I talk about slavery and slaveholding a lot on this blog, for reasons that I hope should be obvious — because it was the issue central to secession and the war, because it formed the basis of capital and wealth in the slaveholding states, and because the standard Confederate “heritage” narrative routinely either diligently ignores the issue altogether, or depicts it as a benign or even positive condition for those held in bondage. And of course, the war culminated in the emancipation of roughly four million persons and made them citizens. I understand that it makes people uncomfortable; it does me, too, because it’s a hard subject. But it should be uncomfortable, and I don’t think one can talk seriously about the conflict without these issues coming up — a lot.

So today, on the official release date of The Galveston-Houston Packet: Steamboats on Buffalo Bayou, it seems like a good time to address the issue of slavery and slaveholding as it pertains to a man named John H. Sterrett (c. 1815-1879), who’s a central character in the book. Sterrett was a steamboat pilot and master who came to Texas from the Ohio River in the winter of 1838-39, and in the ensuing four decades became by far the best-known personage on the route between Galveston and Houston. In 1858 it was estimated that he’d made the 70-mile run between the two cities about 4,000 times — an accomplishment that is entirely plausible.[1] During the Civil War he served as Superintendent of Transports for the Texas Marine Department, a quasi-military organization that provided logistical and naval support for the Confederate army in Texas. After the war he played an active role in re-establishing the steamboat trade between the cities, and inaugurated the use of steam tugs by the Houston Direct Navigation Company, a transition that would allow the company to survive well into the 20th century. Sterrett retired from the boats in 1875, two years before the company abandoned passenger service on the route, and the same year dredging began on what would eventually become the Houston Ship Channel.[2] Sterrett’s story is, in a very real sense, the story of the steamboat trade on Buffalo Bayou.

Since submitting the final edits I realized that, although I mention slavery several times in the book — slave labor was a routinely used on steamboats in Texas and the deep South, and it comes up again and again in contemporary documents — I never really addressed it in connection with Sterrett. This post corrects that.

John Sterrett was a slaveholder. Period, full stop.

I have been unable to find documentation of Sterrett’s slaveholding up through the slave schedules of the 1850 U.S. Census, but it’s likely he was one prior to that time. The earliest documentation I’ve found to date is from the fall of 1851, when Sterrett sailed from Galveston to New Orleans aboard the steamer Mexico, Captain Henry Place. Upon arrival at New Orleans, Sterrett completed a required “Manifest of Slaves,” which described the enslaved persons he was traveling with, and attesting to their legal transport coastwise between states. In this case, the enslaved person was a nine-year-old child, a girl named Parthena, who was recorded as being four-feet-three, and “yellow” in complexion. It is not clear whether Parthena was accompanying Sterrett as a servant, or ended up in one of New Orleans’ large slave markets.[3]

The next piece of evidence is another manifest, again from Galveston to New Orleans, dated March 1856 aboard the steamship Louisiana, Captain John F. Lawless. In this case, the chattel were two men, George and Frank, their ages given as 32 and 34 respectively. Sterrett was not listed on the manifest as their owner, but as their shipper. Sterrett may have been traveling to New Orleans on other business — he frequently took personal charge of new steamboats brought out to Texas for the Buffalo Bayou route — and agreed to oversee the transportation of these two men either to their owner in New Orleans or to the slave market there. [4]

The third manifest dates from late November 1858, and covers Sterrett’s voyage from New Orleans to Galveston with the new steamboat Diana. This boat, a 239-ton sidewheel steamboat built at Brownsville, Pennsylvania, would become one of the premier boats on the Buffalo Bayou route in the brief period remaining before the war. (A much larger postwar boat of the same name would become better known still.) This time, Sterrett brought with him two enslaved men — Mickly and Dan, ages 32 and 28, and a woman Atheline, aged about 40. These three were all listed as property of Captain Sterrett.[5]

The final snapshot we have of Sterrett’s slaveholding comes from the slave schedule of the 1860 U.S. Census. At that time, Sterrett and his wife, Susan, had six children, ranging in age from 1 to 14. The lived on the corner of San Jacinto and McKinney Streets, in what is now the heart of downtown Houston.[6] A contemporary newspaper account described his new residence as “quite an addition to the appearance of that neighborhood.”[7] At that time, on the eve of the war, Sterrett owned six slaves. As usual, no names are listed in the slave schedule, only sex, age and complexion. There was a ten-year-old girl in the group, but the rest — two women and three men — were between the ages of 20 and 40. It seems likely that two of the enslaved persons listed — a woman, age 40 and listed as “mulatto,” and a man, age 34, correspond to Mickly and Atheline, who had been carried to Texas two years before on Sterrett’s new boat, Diana.

That’s all the documentary record says (so far) about Sterrett’s slaveholding, but we can make some informed guesses about them and their roles. Sterrett does not seem to have invested heavily in land, or to have engaged in large-scale agriculture. The enslaved persons belonging to Sterrett were probably mostly household servants, although it’s almost certain that some of them, the men particularly, were put to work aboard Sterrett’s Buffalo Bayou steamboats at one time or another. Use of slave labor aboard riverboats in Texas appears to have been very common in the antebellum years, and the casualty lists of almost every steamboat disaster of the period includes at least one enslaved person. When the steamboat Farmer blew up in the early morning hours of March 22, 1853, killing at least 36 people, newspaper accounts indicated the boat had a crew of 27. Eight of these were identified by name and position (pilot, clerk, engineer, etc.). Of the remaining nineteen — almost all of whom must have been firemen, deckhands or cabin stewards — at least eleven were enslaved persons belonging to third parties apparently not connected to the boat’s officers or owners. Several years after the disaster, the prevailing rate for slaves to work as deckhands on the Houston-­Galveston run was $480 per year—paid to their owner, of course. (Two other Farmer crewmen are listed as “German” and were probably recent immigrants from Europe.)[8] When Bayou City blew up her boilers on Buffalo Bayou on September 28, 1860, among the ten or more dead were two African American men among the crew who were property of that boat’s master, James Forrest.[9]

Although Sterrett clearly bought and sold a number of slaves, there’s nothing in the record suggesting that was a business venture of his. He was not a slave trader, nor did he speculate in the trade, as some prominent men in the South did. Sterrett seems to have been fairly typical for a man of his means in that time and place.

I’ve written before about one of my own ancestors who was a slaveholder – on about the same scale as Sterrett, it turns out – which is a fact I had suspected, but was left to find out on my own, fairly recently. That troubles me, because that’s so fundamentally antithetical to my own views and beliefs. It’s something that I just don’t like to think an ancestor of mine embraced.

Sterrett’s case feels the same. I’ve “known” Sterrett for almost 20 years, as well or better than many of my own relatives from that period, because (unlike them) the old steamboat captain left a long paper trail. He was praised frequently in the newspapers for four decades – a pretty sure sign he was well-liked by the traveling public. One paper in 1851 referred to him as “that prince of Steamboat Captains.” Another noted that he had a running gag he played habitually with the clerk of whatever boat he was on, theatrically ordering the man below decks to check the cargo again, so Sterrett could entertain the female cabin passengers himself. When he died, one obituary noted, he was relatively poor because, despite his gruff exterior, he was generous to a fault when it came to providing assistance to others. “No man,” another said, “had a kinder or warmer heart.”[10]

Pretty decent guy, seems like. But also a slaveholder. This stuff is hard.

Nearly fifty years ago Barbara Tuchman gave a talk at a professional conference called “The Historian’s Opportunity,” in which she argued that being perfectly objective and unbiased was neither desirable – “his work would be unreadable – like eating sawdust” – nor even really possible. “There are some people in history one simply dislikes.”[11] My situation with Sterrett is just the opposite; I’ve come to like him over the years, and it’s troubling to have to shade that image with a detailed and specific knowledge of his close and long-standing involvement with chattel bondage.

No heroes, only history.


[1] Galveston Civilian and Gazette, May 4, 1858, 1.

[2] Galveston Daily News, November 26, 1875, 4.

[3] John H. Sterrett, Slave Manifests of Coastwise Vessels Filed at New Orleans, Mexico, 1807-1860. Steamer Mexico, Galveston, Texas to New Orleans, Louisiana, November 4, 1851. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Microfilm Serial: M1895.

[4] John H. Sterrett, Slave Manifests of Coastwise Vessels Filed at New Orleans, Louisiana, 1807-1860. Steamer Mexico, Galveston, Texas to New Orleans, Louisiana, March 13, 1856. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Microfilm Serial: M1895.

[5] John H. Sterrett, Slave Manifests of Coastwise Vessels Filed at New Orleans, Louisiana, 1807-1860. Steamer Diana, New Orleans, Louisiana to Galveston, Texas, November 25, 1858. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Microfilm Serial: M1895.

[6] U.S. Census of 1860; Ward 4, Houston, Harris County, Texas, 151.

[7] Houston Republic, January 30, 1858

[8] Clipping from an unknown periodical, April, 23, 1853, Galveston and Texas History Center, Rosenberg Library, Galveston; Louis C. Hunter, Steamboats on the Western Rivers (New York: Dover, 1993), 448–50; Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante­Bellum South (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), 414–15. One of the slaves killed in the Farmer accident belonged to Capt. Delesdernier, himself an old Buffalo Bayou pilot.

[9] C. Bradford Mitchell, ed., Merchant Steam Vessels of the United States, 1790–1868 (The Lytle-­Holdcamper List) (Staten Island, New York: Steamship Historical Society of America, 1975), 18; Frederick Way, Jr., Way’s Packet Directory, 1848–1983 (Athens: Ohio UniversityPress, 1984), 40; Galveston Civilian and Gazette Weekly, September 25, 1860, 3; Colorado Citizen, September 29, 1860, 2; Galveston Civilian and Gazette Weekly, October 2, 1860, 3.

[10] Austin South-Western American, July 30, 1851, 2; Galveston Daily News, June 19, 1927; Galveston Daily News, June 19, 1879; clipping from an unidentified Houston newspaper, June 19, 1879, author’s collection.

[11] Barbara W. Tuchman, “The Historian’s Opportunity.” In Practicing History: Selected Essays by Barbara W. Tuchman (New York: Ballantine, 1982), 59-60.

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Images: Top, firemen on a Mississippi steamboat, Every Saturday Magazine, 1871. Right, advertising broadside for Sterrett’s steamer Diana, c. 1859.
 

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  1. Cotton Boll Conspiracy said, on October 17, 2012 at 11:56 am

    Just a hypothetical question, but would Sterrett be any more or less likeable if he had employed the six individuals as servants or dockhands, and paid them, likely, a minimum-type wage rather than provided them with, presumably, food, shelter and some sort of clothing (no matter how substandard)? Would he even have been allowed to hire free blacks, given the societal norms in place at the time? And should we be surprised or disappointed when we find relatives or others who took part in an institution which had been around for long, long time?

    I don’t have any solid answers, but these are things I myself have pondered. I do know that it’s easy for me to sit back and say, ‘No, I’d never have done that,’ but I also need to remind myself that it’s easy to take that stand 150-plus years later, given modern hindsight and the fact we live in a society that has completely different values and is reliant on mechanization that long ago eliminated the need for slavery.

    • Andy Hall said, on October 17, 2012 at 2:08 pm

      Those are good questions. Let me try and respond to them individually.

      Would Sterrett be any more or less likeable if he had employed the six individuals as servants or dockhands, and paid them, likely, a minimum-type wage rather than provided them with, presumably, food, shelter and some sort of clothing (no matter how substandard)?

      It’s a given that, both as owner of a small, individual boat, and later running a whole line of them, Sterrett did a lot of hiring and firing of low-level employees, at the lowest wages he could wangle. That wasn’t noteworthy then, or now, and doesn’t really show up much in the public record. It’s business.

      Slaves were a different story, not necessarily because of the moral/ethical issues involved, but because under law they were owned assets. They had to be enumerated on census rolls; they had to be inspected and cleared like cargo in the coastwise shipping trade, and when one got blown up in a boiler explosion or drowned, a special note of it was made in the press, as much because of the financial loss it represented to that enslaved person’s owner, as out of any great humanitarian concern. So yes, I think slaves were considered a fundamentally different case then, and modern researchers need to recognize that.

      Yes, there is (inevitably) a certain amount of seeing events of the past through modern eyes and values; it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. But there were plenty of people in the 1850s who found slavery abhorrent, too; they just had to keep their mouths shut if they wanted to remain in Texas very long.

      It’s like Robert E. Lee and his own involvement with slaveholding — both he and John Sterrett were entirely “normal” for their time and place and station in their day, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important to acknowledge that facet of their lives as well as the grander, less-controversial stuff. They weren’t wicked monsters, but neither were they especially paragons of virtue, either.

      Does that make sense?

      Would he even have been allowed to hire free blacks, given the societal norms in place at the time?

      Probably, and he well may have; I haven’t see a record of it. But free African Americans were very, very few in number in Texas during this period, in large part because Texas had some of the most restrictive laws of any Southern state regarding free blacks. in the 1860 U.S. Census the total number of free colored males, of all ages, in Harris County (Houston) and Galveston County (Galveston) was — three.

      Years ago I came across a newspaper piece from the 1850s that I could not relocate to use in the book. But it argued that steamboat operators should endeavor to hire poor white immigrants rather than enslaved persons to work on the boats. The boat owner didn’t need to feed or clothe the immigrant; if he were killed or maimed the boat owner would be under no further obligation, as he would be if the dead man belongs to a third party; and there would be no aggrieved slaveholder demanding answers and generally making trouble. Regardless of these “practical” considerations, employment of slaves seems to have remained very common on the boats right up to the war.

      And should we be surprised or disappointed when we find relatives or others who took part in an institution which had been around for long, long time?

      No, we should not. Sterrett’s slaveholding was not a surprise. It’s disappointing to me because it forces acknowledgment of an aspect that makes me uncomfortable, and tempers my affinity for him.

      I do know that it’s easy for me to sit back and say, ‘No, I’d never have done that,’ but I also need to remind myself that it’s easy to take that stand 150-plus years later, given modern hindsight and the fact we live in a society that has completely different values and is reliant on mechanization that long ago eliminated the need for slavery.

      Another reason to be glad not to have lived 150 years ago, at least while also having an early 21st century perspective.

      • Cotton Boll Conspiracy said, on October 17, 2012 at 6:47 pm

        Thank you for your responses, Andy. They do make sense, and I appreciate you taking the time to detail your reasoning.

        I suppose this is one of the things that has always fascinated me about history: trying to learn what life was really like during any given period, as opposed to the simplified, sanitized version often handed down. Human nature is and always has been complex and often illogical. To think otherwise is to delude oneself.

        Thanks again, and take care.

        • Andy Hall said, on October 17, 2012 at 6:52 pm

          Thanks. Glad that was useful, even if it was long on talkin’ and short on answerin’. As I said way back when I started the blog, one of the reasons for the blog is to work through some of these issues for myself. I’m not there yet.

          • Cotton Boll Conspiracy said, on October 17, 2012 at 7:26 pm

            Don’t sell yourself short; you’re a lot further along than most folks. I enjoy your blog because it makes me think and I sometimes take away something I hadn’t considered before.

            Personally, the more research and reading I do, the more questions I have. Of course, even were I able to question folks from 150 years ago, I suspect many of them wouldn’t fully understand their own motives.

            Maye that’s why I tire of people today trying to tell me what people back then were thinking. Often the best we can do is come up with an educated guess, except a lot of those crowing the loudest missed the part about “educated.”

            • Andy Hall said, on October 17, 2012 at 7:31 pm

              Personally, the more research and reading I do, the more questions I have.

              It only gets worse, I’m afraid. But you may not have crossed the event horizon, beyond which there is no escape. Save yourself while you can!

              I suspect many of them wouldn’t fully understand their own motives.

              Yes, but that’s true today as well. Folks often don’t think about why they believe what they do (whatever that happens to be) or how they got there. Without that understanding as a start, one can’t really see how others, who perhaps come from a different background or have different experiences, can see the same issue very differently. It does take effort sometimes.

  2. Drew said, on October 17, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    The problem with 21st century perspective and 150 year hindsight is that there were plenty of contemporary 19th (even 18th) century folks who abhored slavery. To say no one knew any better just isn’t true. Yea, if you lived in Texas, you kept your mouth shut. That there was no mechanism or outlet for dissent on the issue in the South is a theme that Edward Ayers speaks to better than I ever could.

    F.L. Olmstead’s “A Journey in the Back Country” deals with the issues and the circumstances rather vividly. His encounter with a slaveholding abolitionist, in Alabama, I think, is particularly remarkable and very telling.

  3. corkingiron said, on October 18, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    Andy – regarding Sterrett’s taking slaves to New Orleans as a “shipper” – AFAIK this was not uncommon. The New Orleans markets frequently dealt with trades that were made by “part-timers” looking to make a little extra cash. Their ages, and the fact that as far as the trade was concerned, they were “going against the flow” of slaves from NO to Texas suggests that they may not have fetched a great price – for whatever reason, and thus be of less interest to the local markets. He need not be a regular speculator to seize an opportunity when it presented itself. This was a very common phenomenon.

  4. Phil Leigh said, on October 19, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    As a disclaimer I have already voted for Obama by postal mail.

    However, the anti-Confederate heritage mob goes too far. It continually proclaims that the motivation to repel invaders was secondary — or even tertiary – to the typical non-slaveholding white Confederate soldier which comprised about two-thirds of the families in the conventional eleven Rebel states. The claim is contrary to common sense particularly when Rebel incursions into the North tended to bring out new Yankee fireside defenders.

    Such advocates repeatedly point to the secession documents of deep south states as specifically endorsing slavery. Yet I don’t recall such endorsements in the secession papers of the four upper south states that joined *after* Sumter. Moreover, the upper south had more white citizens than did the seven deep south states.

    Furthermore, the mob readily permits Lincoln to change his war aims…but not Davis. No, they repeatedly assert the early 1861 secession statements remain applicable throughout the War. But Lincoln’s early statements about not disturbing slavery in the states where it already existed…well they don’t count because Lincoln gets to *change* his War aims.

    Yet Davis and others in the south also changed their objectives. In July 1864 Davis told two Lincoln peace emissaries (Gilmore and Jaquess) “We are not fighting for slavery, we are fighting for independence.” Similarly, Cleburne and eleven other officers stated in December 1863 they were not fighting for slavery.

    Yet the mob repeatedly and falsely proclaims that such statements and arguments were only advanced *after the war*. It is simply not true.

    BTW, Davis backed-up his statement about the primacy of independence over slavery. After Congress provided for black soldier recruitment Davis *by executive order* specified that none would be accepted unless accompanied by manumission papers thereby forcing the slave owners who participated to grant freedom.


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