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Home News Texas Trails Texas Trails: The Zavala

Texas Trails: The Zavala

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Sept. 6, 2012 - In 1840, Commodore Edwin Moore of the Texas Navy made a little trip up the San Juan Bautista River to the provincial capital of Tabasco and aimed cannons of the navy squarely at the town. Soldiers then went into the town to ask for money. Texas had already won its independence from Mexico, but this particular shakedown was about business more than combat, with a minor bit of political intrigue thrown in for good measure.

Among the ships poised to strike if the town didn't pay up was the Zavala, the first ship of the second Texas Navy. As a warship, this would prove to be the Zavala's finest hour -- essentially its only one.

Made in South Carolina and christened the Charleston, the ship had a fine life as a passenger steamboat, shuttling customers back and forth between Charleston and New York. Life got real different for the schooner when the Republic of Texas bought it in 1838for $120,000, a sizeable outlay of cash for the young republic. But Texas needed a navy to do all the things a navy is supposed to do: protect the coast, pillage and plunder ships from certain other countries, and bring the spoils home for the general welfare of the republic. The schooner was christened into the Texas Navy in March of 1839 and renamed for the first vice-president of the Republic of Texas, Lorenzo de Zavala.

A.C. Hinton, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, was named the first commander of the Zavala. He commanded that ship and also the San Bernard before taking the Zavala to New Orleans for repairs. Hinton's orders were to recruit sailors for that ship and the rest of the Texas Navy. He was given $9,000 to complete the tasks, including $3,200 for sailors and marines. Recruits were hard to come by and the Zavala apparently needed a lot of repairs because Hinton exceeded the budget allowed him by $14,000. This did not please Secretary of the Navy Louise P. Cooke.

"You appear to have forgotten the very first principle of naval discipline, to wit: the first duty of an officer, as well as a seaman, consists in obeying orders," he wrote to Hinton. Cooke summoned him to Galveston immediately.

Cooke took a much different tone when Hinton arrived, noting that the repairs were expensive, yes, but probably necessary "except for the consciousness of inability to pay for them."

President Lamar, who wanted a strong Texas Navy (Sam Houston did not) was not so understanding. He ordered Hinton to turn in his commission. Hinton appealed and in 1841, the Texas Congress decreed that an officer could not be dismissed without a court martial. The Congress cleared Hinton of any wrongdoing, but he was not reinstated into the Texas Navy. Eventually, he is said to have drifted back to New Orleans.

Captain John T.K. Lothrop took command of the Zavala in March of 1840, a time of peace but not really because Mexico had had not formally renounced its claim to Texas. Lamar okayed a foray by the Texas Navy into Mexico to support secret peace negotiations by Great Britain between Texas and Mexico. The ships and crews languished while peace talks bogged down, as peace talks often do. The talks eventually failed.

By then the ships by were low on food and fuel; there was a corresponding dip in morale. Moore hooked up with rebels from Yucatan, who were claiming independence from Mexico and president/dictator Santa Anna, who just wouldn't go away. Moore struck a deal with the rebels to take the capitol of Tabasco in exchange for $25,000.

And so the Zavalla, along with the Navy's flagship, the Austin and three schooners ended up with their guns pointed at the capitol of Tabasco. Soldiers stormed the town to let their demands be known -- pay up or get blown up -- but the town was mostly deserted except for one man with a white cloth tied to a stick: the mayor. Moore told that for $25,000 he would not blow the town to pieces. The mayor asked if payment in silver would be okay.

The Zavala returned to Galveston in February of 1841. The Texas Navy needed the Zavala and the Zavala needed repairs but a lack of funds, which had bedeviled the ship and the navy from the first, made that impossible. Two years later, the ship was run aground at Galveston to keep it from sinking. Two years after that it was broken up and sold for scrap.

In 1986, marine archaeologist and writer Clive Cussler led an expedition to locate and recover the wreck of the Zavala. He found it under a parking lot. A historical marker was erected. It was way too late to save the good ship Zavala and the Texas Navy but not too late to remember its role in Texas history.

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