Parthena and George, Atheline and Dan
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. 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. 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.
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. 
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.
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. A contemporary newspaper account described his new residence as “quite an addition to the appearance of that neighborhood.” 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.) 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.
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.”
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.” 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.
 Galveston Civilian and Gazette, May 4, 1858, 1.
 Galveston Daily News, November 26, 1875, 4.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 U.S. Census of 1860; Ward 4, Houston, Harris County, Texas, 151.
 Houston Republic, January 30, 1858
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Barbara W. Tuchman, “The Historian’s Opportunity.” In Practicing History: Selected Essays by Barbara W. Tuchman (New York: Ballantine, 1982), 59-60.
___________Images: Top, firemen on a Mississippi steamboat, Every Saturday Magazine, 1871. Right, advertising broadside for Sterrett’s steamer Diana, c. 1859.