A Tale of Two Cities

July 11, 2014 by  
Filed under Features


The Houston-New Orleans Connection

by Lynn Ashby

111 DECATUR STREET—On Saturday afternoon, February 25, 1843, Commodore Edwin Ward Moore, commander of the Texas Navy, came here to the Texas consulate to see William Bryan, a local merchant who represented Texas’ interests. As the two men were leaving, a messenger came to this building—it’s still here—and handed Moore a sealed letter from President Sam Houston. The letter ordered Moore back to Galveston. The Texas Navy was being sold. The Lone Star Republic couldn’t afford a navy. Today, this four-story brick building has an overhang and a sign: “Mr. Jack’s barber and beauty salon.” Inside, are bare brick walls and a barber shop. A resident, Mr. Jack, I assume, tells me that he has heard about the Texas connection and a woman over on Chartres Street gave him some papers about it, then his overt enthusiasm fades.

Not far away was 56 Common Street. That address is no longer evident. As close as I can come is 560. Whatever the address then and now, no doubt that the Lone Star Flag flew from the front. Somewhere in this town are Sam Houston’s bones. Not all of them, just the shattered ones. To this day, everywhere you look, you see Texas license plates. It’s easy for Texans and particularly Houstonians to feel easy in the Big Easy. They have a Brennan’s. We have a Brennan’s. They have a dome. We have a dome. Theirs is still being used by the Saints and is where both Bum Phillips and Earl Campbell finished their careers. Indeed, the Saints were originally owned by a Houstonian, John Mecom, Jr.

The oil business has much to do with the linkage of the two cities. How many bumper stickers and front-yard flags around Houston sport the yellow and purple (an awful color combination) of LSU? Although I do love the slogan “Geaux Tigers.” Southwest Airlines has 20 weekday flights between the two cities. United has 27. We must assume most passengers are lawyers because BP’s national headquarters are in Houston, but the legal fighting is in New Orleans. I’m going too fast, so let’s take a look at the close connection between Houston and New Orleans, between Cajuns and cowboys, étouffée and enchiladas, Bourbon Street and bayous, how we owed them and how we paid back the debt with interest.

Decatur-StA Friend in Need
A quick setting of the stage—and no, this isn’t a history lesson, we’re talking fun stuff: When Texas was fighting for its independence and for years afterward, New Orleans was the only city within a thousand miles. Supplies for the Texian (as they called themselves then) Army came though here. But the U.S. was neutral, so support came surreptitiously, a word Billy Bob, Comanche Jack and Deaf Smith probably didn’t use a lot. Fourteen days after Texas declared its independence (March 2, 1836, pilgrim), the Twin Sisters arrived here on their way to the Texas Army. The Twins were our cannons at San Jacinto, shipped as “hollow ware” because of the U.S. neutrality.

The only Texian flag recovered at the Alamo was that of the New Orleans Greys. They were all killed. One month after San Jacinto, a wounded Sam Houston came here. It was on May 22, 1836, that a cheering crowd and a band greeted his boat. On the other hand, a New Orleans newspaper, the Tropic, wrote about Houston, “If the next arrival from Texas does not inform us that the miserable fool who presides over the fate of Texas at the present time has been lynched, we shall be disappointed.” Later, doctors would remove 20 pieces of bone from Sam’s leg. They are probably still around here.

The Crescent City was where ships and crews of the Texas Navy came for supplies and a little R & R. What isn’t generally known is that the Republic of Texas had a Marine Corps. More than 350 men and 18 officers served in the Texas Marine Corps, and some were responsible for the Big Mutiny. It took place in the Mississippi River off New Orleans aboard the schooner TN (for Texas Navy) San Antonio. Ah, New Orleans, every heart beats faster at the prospect of a night on Bourbon Street. The ship pulled in and began loading supplies: beef (a dime a pound), bread (a nickel a loaf) and potatoes (a dollar a bushel). That’s all. The diet on Texas ships was inexpensive to the taxpayers, but not too varied for the crew.

On the night of February 11, 1842, the ranking officers set off for the bright lights of the big city, leaving the crew aboard for the very good reason that, once ashore, most would never come back. A man can stomach only so much beef, bread and potatoes. Some passing boatmen slip aboard a few bottles of booze, and the sailors and Marines imbibe. Topside, Marine Sgt. Seymour Oswald accosts Lt. M.B. Dearborn and demands shore leave for himself and some friends. No soap, Sergeant. They get into an argument and Lt. Charles Fuller, the ranking officer still on board, pops up on deck to see what’s happening. A scuffle breaks out and Lt. Fuller is killed.

U.S. sailors and the New Orleans police quickly round up the Texas mutineers and toss them in jail. Later, they are put on board a Texas Navy ship, taken to sea, hanged from the yardarm and then buried at sea—all but the ringleader, Sgt. Oswald, who disappears into New Orleans never to be found. And to think that New Orleans was the previous home of—guess who?—Lee Harvey Oswald. As for Lt. Fuller, his body stayed in New Orleans at Girod Street Cemetery until 1936, when he was taken to the Texas State Cemetery in east Austin. New Orleans had to widen Girod Street.

The Loan Star Republic
New Orleans was the first and most important consulate the Republic of Texas established. We had a series of Texans sent here and hired locals, mostly to purchase supplies and handle diplomatic duties. They ran up huge debts on their own bank accounts and generally got stiffed. One debt was not repaid to his heirs, until 1881. For a spell, Our Man In New Orleans was the aforementioned William Bryan, who wrote Texas, “We have $80,000 Government paper due and not one dollar to pay it.” He eventually went $93,740.07 in the red paying our bills. In gratitude, he was fired.

From 1838 until 1843, Bryan worked in an office at 56 Common Street. Then he moved here to 7 Old Levee Street. The 1843 New Orleans city directory listed this location as “Texas Agency Office. Bryan, William, consul of the Republic of Texas.” Later that street’s name and numbers were changed. Today, 7 Old Levee Street would be 111 Decatur. At one point, the floors above the consulate were used by furriers to hang the hides trappers brought in from the nearby swamps. That must have smelled a bit gamy on summer days. Today, those rooms are time-share condos.
Now we are on the corner of Common and St. Charles Street, where Texas currency was printed by J.R. Clark, a note engraver. The firm of Endicott & Clark printed all our bonds. And this is the city where Stephen F. Austin and two friends designed a Texas flag: a square Union Jack, three stripes—red, white and green—and a single star. His two buddies changed the green to blue, changed the star to the sun with the head of George Washington in the center. They argued over whether to put “Lux Libertas” or “In His Example There is Safety” under Washington’s face. Sounds absolutely dreadful. Wonder if they had been partying?

Diplomacy was a two-way muddy path. Alcee Louis LaBranche, born near New Orleans in 1806 and educated in France, was a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives. In 1833, he became the speaker of the Louisiana House. He was President Andrew Jackson’s appointment as the first U.S. chargé d’affaires to the brand-new Republic of Texas. Our capital city at the time was Houston, and when a rumor swept the land that the Mexican Army was again on the way—it had captured San Antonio twice more—LaBranche offered diplomatic safety to several frightened Houstonians. The Mexican troops never arrived, but in thanks, Houston named a major street for him. After serving in Texas, LaBranche returned to Louisiana and became a U.S. congressman in a campaign capped by a duel. In the fourth round, La Branche killed his opponent, a journalist, and good riddance, I say.

Ships going between New Orleans and Galveston kept the young republic supplied with everything, from beans to bullets to more immigrants. Telegraph for communication in Texas preceded the railroads—my grandfather started out as a conductor on the T&NO (Texas and New Orleans). The telegraph service began with the chartering of the Texas and Red River Telegraph Company on January 5, 1854. The first telegraph office was opened in Marshall on February 14, 1854. Patrons were offered connections with New Orleans via Shreveport and Alexandria. New Orleans gave Texas a lot more than trains and telegraphs. Yellow fever arrived in Galveston aboard The S.S. City of Mexico from New Orleans in August 1853. By September, deaths were averaging a dozen a day. Thanks, Cajuns. For a while, the Astros’ minor league AAA ball team was the New Orleans Zyphers, which is closer than the Oklahoma City RedWings.

It’s Payback Time
Right now you may be wondering just how to pronounce the name of this place, and no, it’s not Day-ree Queeeen. Is it Noo OR-lins? I heard a native say N’awins. Maybe Noo or-LEANS? If you watch TV’s talking heads like Cokie Roberts and Donna Brazile, both from here, they say noo AH-wens. That’s not a speech impediment.

As we can see, Texans depended on the kindness of strangers quite a bit in the early days. Then came our chance to repay the debts, when an unwelcomed visitor known as Katrina arrived. The Galveston storm of 1900 was worse (everything’s bigger in Texas), but Katrina laid waste to the city and surrounding areas. (I suspect afterward, insurance adjusters were using glass-bottom boats.) An estimated 250,000 Louisianans fled the storm toward a safer, drier and better place: Texas. Mostly Houston. We greeted them with open doors and the presidential suite: the Astrodome. Okay, it wasn’t exactly the Ritz, but it was better than the Superdome or most of the city. Houstonians brought food, clothes, toys and hope. “You’re doing a heckuva job, Houston.”
Still, many Katrinians thought about their homeland, its style, schools, police and weather—and stayed in Houston. “What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is that they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them,” said Barbara Bush. However, we got a lot of good chefs and high school football players.

The Census Bureau reported that 343,829 people were living in New Orleans on April 1, 2010, four years and seven months after Katrina. That was 29 percent smaller than a decade before. Actually, New Orleans’ population had been steadily shrinking. In 1990, it was the 24th-largest city in the country, in 2000, the 31st, and now it has dropped from the top 50. Partially because of this surge of Louisianans, after the 2010 census, the Pelican State lost a seat in the U.S. House and Texas gained four.

Back here on Decatur Street at what was once the Texas diplomatic outpost, some Houstonian should buy this place and turn it into a bar and grill called the Texas Embassy. Serve T-bones, Tex-Mex and chicken fried steaks washed down with Lone Star, Shiner Bock and Saint Arnold. Decorate it in Texas tacky. Homesick Texans—here for the weekend—would flock to the place. Just don’t drink with anyone named Oswald.

Ashby is eating boudin at ashby2@comcast.net.

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