Mystery of the Twin Sisters

In November 1835, three months before Texas declared its independence from Mexico, war clouds had grown into a full rebellion and the citizens of Cincinnati, Ohio, eager to lend support, began raising money to purchase two cannons for the looming battle.  Since the United States remained neutral throughout the war, the two iron six-pound cannons were secretly shipped down the Mississippi River labeled as “hollow ware.”  Stories abound about how they actually reached General Sam Houston’s volunteer army camped about seventy-five miles up the Brazos River from its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico.

Most accounts say the guns traveled from New Orleans aboard the schooner Pennsylvania to Galveston where Dr. Charles Rice’s nine-year-old twin daughters Elizabeth and Eleanor were invited to be part of the official handing over of the cannons to Texas.  Since the ceremony consisted of twins presenting the two cannons, the six-pounders became known as the “Twin Sisters.”  The Pennsylvania continued to the mouth of the Brazos River and traveled inland about eighteen miles to Brazoria.  It was still nearly sixty miles upriver to Houston’s camp and according to an account taken from General Houston’s correspondence and orders, worry over the terrible condition of the roads and concern that Santa Anna’s army might intercept the Twin Sisters, the cannons were shipped back to Galveston.  Over the next eleven days the guns moved through Galveston Bay and up Buffalo Bayou to Harrisburg (near present Houston) and then ox-carts, pulled by horses, slogged through the rain, mud and fiercely cold weather to General Houston’s campsite on the Brazos River.

As soon as the Twin Sisters arrived, nine men drew assignment to each cannon and the drilling and firing began as the Texan Army moved back east along the very route the Twin Sisters had just covered.

Sam Houston’s army of about nine hundred men set up camp on April 20 in a thick growth of timber where Buffalo Bayou flowed into the San Jacinto River.  The Twin Sisters spent the afternoon in their first combat dueling with Santa Anna’s Mexican cannon.

The following afternoon the Twin Sisters led the charge across the rise in the prairie toward Mexicans who, convinced the Texans would not dare attack, were enjoying their usual siesta.  At 200 yards the two little cannon opened fire with the Texans’ only ammunition–handfuls of musket balls, broken glass, and horseshoes.  The battle cry of the Texans’ split the air with “Remember the Alamo, Remember Goliad.”  In eighteen minutes the startled forces of Mexico’s superior army of over 1,200 men had been defeated. The carnage did not stop, however, as the Texans continued to use rifle butts and bayonets to kill the enemy in a furious retaliation for the brutal deaths of almost 600 Texans at the Alamo on March 6 and the massacre at Goliad on March 27.

Although the Twin Sisters secured their place in history, their travels did not end at San Jacinto.  After being moved to Austin, probably to help protect the frontier capital from Indian attack, the two cannons appeared again on April 21, 1841, when they were fired to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto.  Later that year as Sam Houston kissed the Bible at the conclusion of his inauguration for his second term as president of the Republic of Texas, the cannons roared to life in a salute to the new president and hero of the Battle of San Jacinto.

The Twin Sisters made no further public appearances and became part of the property—fortifications, barracks, ports, harbors, navy and navy yards, docks, magazines, and armaments–ceded to the United States in 1845 when Texas joined the union.  All Texas’ military stores were moved to the federal arsenal at Baton Rouge.

When secession talk reached full tilt with the election in 1860 of Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin McCulloch who as a young man had served on the crew manning the Twin Sisters and was destined to become a general in the Confederate Army sent a letter to then Governor Sam Houston asking him to bring the Twin Sisters back to their home in Texas.  In the years after the cannons reached the federal arsenal in Louisiana, the Twin Sisters had been sold as scrap iron to a foundry.  An investigation found that one cannon remained at the foundry in poor condition and the other had been sold to a private individual.  The Louisiana legislature purchased and repaired the cannons at a cost of $700 and returned them to Texas on April 20, 1861, the twenty-fifth anniversary of their first skirmish with the Mexicans at San Jacinto.

The Twin Sisters performed again at the January 1, 1863, Battle of Galveston in which Confederate forces regained Galveston Island.  Ironically, Lt. Sidney A. Sherman, son of Sidney Sherman one of the heroes at the Battle of San Jacinto, was killed while commanding one of the Twin Sisters.

Stories abound about what happened to the Twin Sisters after the Battle of Galveston.  One account says they were sent to Colonel John “Rip” Ford in San Antonio as he prepared to recapture the Rio Grande from federal troops, but no record exists of the cannons reaching San Antonio.  Some veterans claim to have seen the Twin Sisters at various locations around the Harrisburg area of Houston.  Another account claims that several Confederate veterans, concerned the Twin Sisters would fall into the hands of the federal troops during Reconstruction, buried the cannons in an area hugging Buffalo Bayou.  For years history buffs and souvenir hunters have searched without success for the burial site.

In 1985 two graduates of the University of Houston’s College of Technology supervised the making of replicas of the Twin Sisters.  They stand today on the San Jacinto Battlegrounds waiting for the mystery to be solved that will return the original Twin Sisters to the site where they made Texas and world history.

Replica of Twin Sisters at San Jacinto Battleground

Replica of Twin Sisters at San Jacinto Battleground

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Houston: The Second Choice

Houston reigns as the largest city in Texas and the fourth largest in the United States, but it hasn’t always enjoyed top billing.

In 1832 brothers Augustus C. and John K. Allen came to Texas from New York and joined a group of land speculators.  During the 1836 Texas War for Independence from Mexico, the Allen brothers outfitted, at their own expense, a ship to guard the Texas coast and to deliver troops and supplies for the Texas army.  Their operation along the coast offered an opportunity to look for a good site for a protected deep-water port.

Some stories claim that after Texas won independence from Mexico in April 1836, the brothers tried to buy land at Texana, a thriving inland port at the headwaters of the Navidad River located between present Houston and Corpus Christi.  Despite a generous offer, the landowner countered with a demand for double the price.  One of the brothers reportedly became so angry that he climbed on a nearby stump and declared, “Never will this town amount to anything.  I curse it.  You people within the sound of my voice will live to see rabbits and other animals inhabiting its streets.”  (Today, Texana rests under an 11,000-acre lake, a recreational reservoir on the Navidad River that is part of Lake Texana State Park.)

Lake Texana State Park

Lake Texana State Park

Soon, the Allen brothers discovered a site on the west bank of Buffalo Bayou, a muddy stream that wound its way for fifty miles to Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.  They purchased about 6,500 acres for $9,500 and wisely named the new town for Sam Houston, the hero of the Texas War for Independence and the future president of the republic.  By August 1836 the brothers placed newspaper ads claiming the new town was destined to be the “great interior commercial emporium of Texas.”  The ads also said that ships from New York and New Orleans could sail to the door of Houston and that the site on the Buffalo Bayou offered a healthy, cool sea breeze.  They did not mention the heat and humidity and that Buffalo Bayou was choked with tree branches and logs.

The Allen brothers had the town laid out with wide streets on a grid pattern parallel to the bayou to accommodate their

Original Plan, 1869 map

Original Plan, 1869 map

future port, sold town lots at a brisk rate, and generously donated property for churches and other public institutions. The first small steamship arrived in January 1837 after a fifteen-mile journey that took three days during which passengers helped clear logs and snags from the channel.  The travelers found a “port city” of twelve inhabitants and one log cabin.

The Allen’s slickest advertising ploy turned out to be their bid to get the government of the new Republic of Texas to relocate in Houston by offering to construct, at their own expense, a capitol and to provide buildings for public officials at a modest rental of $75 a month. It worked.  By the time the government moved to Houston in May 1837, the town boasted a whopping population of 1,500 and 100 houses.

When travelers arriving in Houston found food and accommodations in short supply, the Allen brothers opened their large home, free of charge.  Their accountant estimated the hospitality cost the Allen brothers about $3,000 a year, but the expense brought rich returns.

The brother’s deal to provide the capitol and all the official office space carried the stipulation that if the government moved from Houston, the property reverted to the Allen brothers.  In 1839 the Texas government moved again from the bogs along the coastal prairie to Waterloo, a tiny wilderness town on the edge of Comanche country in Central Texas that was renamed Austin.

With the loss of the capital, Houston plunged into financial turmoil that threatened to bankrupt the city.  Multiple yellow fever epidemics hurt the town’s image along with a growing reputation for drunkenness, dueling, brawling, and prostitution.  In the midst of it all Houston welcomed the Masons, Presbyterians and Episcopalians organized churches, and the town became the seat of county government.   Businessmen invested in the cotton trade, small steamboats ferried supplies to and from the thriving seaport at Galveston and enterprising merchants used ox wagons to haul goods to settlers in the interior and to return with cotton and other farm commodities.jackson

Following years of regular dredging and widening of Buffalo Bayou to accommodate larger ships, the Houston Ship Channel finally opened in 1914, creating a world class waterway that helped Houston become the “great interior commercial emporium of Texas” just as the Allen brothers advertised in 1837.BuffaloBayouFile:Houston_Ship_Channel