M. G. Pat Kelley

NAVIGATION ON THE RIO GRANDE. The first trade vessels on the Rio Grande were flatboats used to conduct trade from Laredo to Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico, sometime after 1757. This trade apparently came to an end before 1795, since Félix Calleja, in his inspection report that year, made no mention of it and recommended that a river trade to Laredo be encouraged. In 1828 John Davis Bradburn and Estaben McL. Staples received concessions from Coahuila and Texas, Chihuahua, and Tamaulipas to open the river to navigation. They placed a steamboat on the river, probably to determine the limits of navigation upriver from Matamoros, but were forced to suspend their project in 1829 and to transfer their Tamaulipas grant to Henry Austin. Austin's steamboat Ariel traded between Matamoros and Camargo; in 1830 Austin abandoned the Rio Grande, and his pilot, Alpheus Rackliffe, became the "first navigator of the Rio Grande in American built flatboats." Rackliffe operated six boats; most of their business was downriver from Guerrero. The boats were destroyed in 1842 by the Mier expedition.

Other steamboats appeared on the Rio Grande in 1833 (the Tangipahoa), in 1834, and in 1837 (names unrecorded). It was probably the Tangipahoa that arrived in Laredo in early 1834, the same year that an official Chihuahuan state document said that the river had been sounded from "the mountain" (probably Sierra de la Cola del Águila) to El Paso and found to be suitable for steamboats of 100 to 150 tons. Above El Paso, smaller boats would be required. Although flatboats continued downriver from Presidio del Río Grande (see SAN JUAN BAUTISTA), the first truly successful attempts at navigating the Rio Grande came with the Mexican War in 1846. The quartermaster department of the United States Army bought or chartered more than forty-two steamboats to operate on the Rio Grande between Brazos Santiago and Camargo and sent the Major Brown to Laredo to try to communicate with Presidio del Río Grande. After the war, captains stayed on the river and operated boats for private owners or for themselves. Richard King and Robert Penny bought the Colonel Cross. Mifflin Kenedy skippered the Troy for Charles Stillman, and James B. Armstrong replaced Kenedy when the latter decided to try his hand at trade with interior Mexico. Through a combination of events, Stillman, King, Penny, Kenedy, and James O'Donnell formed M. Kenedy and Company in March 1850. In February 1852 the company received the government transportation contract from Brazos Santiago to Ringgold Barracks (later Fort Ringgold) without making competitive bids or offering a surety bond. In March 1855 the contract was ordered put up for competitive bids. Capt. James B. Armstrong was low bidder and was awarded the bid. The quartermaster department immediately suspended the new contract and continued to use Kenedy and Company boats. Armstrong eventually brought suit and won, but he died before the final verdict was given. Kenedy and Company continued to haul government freight. During the Civil War Kenedy and Company transferred its boats to Mexican registry to avoid Union blockaders. They hauled goods for the South, the North, followers of Benito Juárez, and the French. Severe economic depression followed the Civil War; before the spring of 1865 Stillman withdrew from Kenedy and Company and it was reorganized as King, Kenedy, and Company in 1866. A railroad from Point Isabel (Port Isabel) to Brownsville contributed to their selling out to William Kelly in 1874.

Other owners brought boats to the river. In 1860 Blas Uribe, at San Ignacio, operated a fleet of keel boats with stern sails to haul cotton from Laredo to Matamoros. Irrigation on the upper river was rapidly expanding. By 1874 it was sucking enough water out of the river to lower the channel at Roma by almost three feet. In 1876 Kelly bought the Bessie, a shallow-draft boat that continued in service until 1902 and was taken off registry in 1904.

Voyages of interest took place in 1849, when a Captain Kingsbury took a keel boat to Eagle Pass from Ringgold Barracks; a Captain Easterly followed four months later. In 1850 Capt. Harry Love took a keel boat beyond the Devil's River, as did Lt. W. T. Smith, who also surveyed the river from El Paso to Fort Hancock and found it navigable for 147 miles. In 1874 John Howland and H. T. Hiester took a flatboat from Santo Domingo to Mesilla and declared the river fine for small steamboats. In 1878 Bruce Hunt and Bert Hunt built a small steamboat to tow barges from Alamosa to Del Norte; she snagged on her maiden voyage. In 1902 a steam barge was built in Laredo to haul sugar-refining equipment to San Juan. It hung up on the twin reef below Laredo and its cargo was transferred to keel boats. In 1909 William W. Follett had a special launch built to tow working houseboats. By then, irrigation had robbed the lower river of so much water that rapids had appeared between Roma and Rio Grande City, and the launch frequently hung up on bars and could not reach Roma. Steamboats were prone to accidents along the Rio Grande. Both the conditions of the river and the design of the steamboats caused much difficulty for these vessels. Accidents occurred as a result of poor navigational skills, lack of attention to conditions, and bad luck. Also dangerous were snags, reefs, bars, the bank, and overhangs. The flatboat trade lasted into the twentieth century; it centered on Laredo, where coal from the mines upriver was flatboated down to Matamoros. Barges were used even after a railroad was built to the mines, but the high cost of pulling the boats upriver eventually led to their discontinuance.

Harbert Davenport, "Notes on Early Steamboating on the Rio Grande," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 49 (October 1945). LeRoy P. Graf, The Economic History of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, 1820–1875 (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1942). Paul Horgan, Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History (2 vols., New York: Holt, 1954; 4th ed., Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1984). Pat Kelley, River of Lost Dreams: Navigation on the Rio Grande (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986). Frank Cushman Pierce, Texas' Last Frontier: A Brief History of the Lower Rio Grande Valley (Menasha, Wisconsin: Banta, 1917; rpt., Brownsville: Rio Grande Valley Historical Society, 1962). J. Lee and Lillian J. Stambaugh, The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas (San Antonio: Naylor, 1954). Bryant P. Tilden, Notes on the Upper Rio Grande (Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847).

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, M. G. Pat Kelley, "NAVIGATION ON THE RIO GRANDE," accessed April 25, 2019,

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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