As Abner Strobel reported in “The Old Plantations and Their Owners in Brazoria County, Texas,” once the cultivation of sugar cane proved successful along the lower Brazos River, much of the cultivated land here would later be converted to that crop.
The property known as the Fannin and Mims Grant, much of which was located between the lower Brazos and San Bernard Rivers, was especially fertile as a result of frequent overflows.
This made the land particularly suited to that sugar cane, even though frequent flooding of the Brazos was an ever-present threat.
Floods in 1828, and particularly in 1833, had seriously damaged the cotton crops that otherwise would have provided increased profits due to improving market conditions.
For those willing to turn a blind eye to the law, however, another source of income was possible during this era. This involved the illegal importation of slaves, which could be quietly unloaded from the lower reaches of the Brazos and San Bernard rivers.
James Walker Fannin, who brought his wife and two daughters to live in a small cabin on the property that bore his own and Mims’ names, had a bit of previous experience with slave smuggling.
He was undoubtedly aware of the natural landing spot on the San Bernard that was marked by the carcass of a giant, fallen oak tree.
This place was known, both at that time and in later years, as “African Landing,” because of its early use as a place for unloading forbidden shipments of slaves.
This human cargo could be brought this far up the river on ships with slight draft, from which their cargoes were unloaded out of sight of any authorities seeking to enforce the Mexican laws against slave importation.
Secrecy was essential, of course, but almost immediately upon their arrival in Texas, the colonists realized the necessity of more labor in order to take advantage of their gigantic land grants.
They made full use of their large families, but far more field hands were needed if they wanted to fully utilize the potential.
“Hired help” was virtually non-existent. Men willing to work in the fields could find small plots they could farm on their own and reap profits for themselves.
The example of more affluent neighbors made it obvious their profits could be greatly enhanced with the addition of slave labor.
Of course, in exchange for their land grants, the colonists had promised to embrace the Catholic religion, to pay taxes to the Mexican government, and to follow the laws of that country – including those regarding slavery.
But after having paid for the land and invested the hard work necessary to produce crops needed to sustain their families, most settlers had difficulty believing they owed anything to the Mexican government.
After all, what right did it have to think it could tell them what to do or how to do it on land they had paid for? If they could afford slaves, and slaves were available, the Texas settlers would buy them.
A colorful historical feature story that appeared in the Houston Chronicle in 1936 describes a scene in which unclothed Africans, still bearing their tribal marks, were awaiting sale.
Their bodies had been oiled or greased to simulate good health, and unaccustomed to being clothed, they wore stiff, new garments with obvious discomfort.
According to this story, the Texas colonists drove or rode horseback from their plantations to the Landing. There, the prospective buyers “pinched, thumped and measured” the human commodities, while their body servants fanned away swarms of flies.
This story purported to describe Fannin’s slave-trading operation.
In the days preceding the Texas Revolution, most residences in Austin’s colony were still small log cabins of the dogtrot variety, with mud between the logs to keep out cold winter winds.
Most of these cabins had just two main rooms, which were connected by a large open porch. A loft provided additional sleeping space.
As years passed, the more successful settlers might add a room or two, or even build a more elaborate home in the Southern, two-story, plantation style, but these were few and far between during the pre-Revolutionary period.
Desultory efforts were made to collect taxes during the colony’s early years, but the Texans apparently ignored most of them, and no real effort was made to remedy the situation.
This was rectified after the centralist government under Santa Anna took power in 1834, beginning not only a concerted tax collection effort, but also eliminating many of the liberal policies that had previously ignored slave smuggling and other violations.
Colonists who had become accustomed to fewer restrictions saw this as government interference, and these seeds of anger grew into revolution.
Among the first serious incidents preceding revolution occurred at Anahuac in June of 1832, when several prominent Texans were imprisoned on orders of that fort’s commandant, Juan Davis Bradburn.
Suspecting with some justification that a number of the colonists were fomenting efforts to gain independence from Mexico, Bradburn strongly supported enforcement of Mexican laws, including those against slavery.
When he received a letter warning some Texans were trying to reclaim three Louisiana slaves to whom Bradburn had given asylum, he ordered the arrest of two Texas lawyers, William B. Travis and Patrick C. Jack, whom he believed to be leaders of this effort.
Next week: Brazoria lawyers among those arrested at Anahuac.