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DASHIELL, WILLIAM COLLIER VAUNESS

Steven W. Hooper
Map of the City of Sabine and Texas Custom House.
Map of the City of Sabine showing the location of the Texas Custom House where American vessels were fired upon by the Texas Collector of Customs William C. V. Dashiell in 1844. Courtesy of the Texas General Land Office and TexasEscapes.com and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

DASHIELL, WILLIAM COLLIER VAUNESS (1805–1848).  William C. V. Dashiell, early Texas businessman, landowner, and collector of customs, was born about 1805, probably in Maryland. He was the son of Benjamin and Anne Isabella (Stewart) Dashiell of Somerset County, Maryland. Little is known of his early life. Dashiell married Mary Douglass (1797–1847) in Dorchester County, Maryland, on November 10, 1830. Their children were sons Rev. Benjamin Douglas Dashiell (1831–1882) and John A. Dashiell (1835–1847). Dashiell, his wife, and two sons arrived in Texas from Maryland in 1837.

Dashiell settled in what is present-day Jefferson County, Texas, and by 1839 became a stockholder and director of the Sabine City Company which was organized to establish the Sabine City townsite. The Sabine City Company was established shortly after the Republic of Texas gained independence from Mexico in 1836 and included such notable Texans as Sam Houston, Sidney Sherman, George Hockley, John S. Roberts, Albert G. Kellogg, and Niles F. Smith. Sabine City later became known as Sabine Pass because of its location on a natural opening between Sabine Lake and the Gulf of Mexico. Within a few years of his arrival, Dashiell became part of a border dispute with the United States that threatened to turn violent.

In 1836 after gaining its independence from Mexico, a dispute erupted between the Republic of Texas and the United States over the boundary between the two nations along the Sabine River and Lake Sabine. The United States took the position that, based on the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819 with Spain and continuing under Mexico, they had jurisdiction to landfall on the west bank of the Sabine River. Texas took the position that the jurisdiction of the United States ended at the Sabine River thereby giving Texas the control of the waters bordering their shoreline. This dispute became more intense when United States merchant ships began plying the waters of the Sabine River and Lake. While anchored off the Texas shoreline, these ships often sold foreign goods to Texas residents, who visited the vessels, purchased American goods, and then smuggled them into Texas without the payment of customs duties.

American vessels were also lightering Texas cotton onto their ships, and Texas wanted them to pay a tonnage tax on each vessel engaged in this trade. Since these American vessels hovered off the Texas shoreline and did not actually enter a Texas port, they refused to pay tonnage tax to the Texas Collector of Customs and claimed they were outside the jurisdiction of Texas.

The Republic of Texas had incurred massive debts as a result of the Texas Revolution and was desperately in need of revenue to pay war debts and provide for the operation of the new government. Customs duties and a tonnage tax on vessels trading with Texas were two of the primary sources of this revenue. In order to step up enforcement of the revenue laws on the Sabine River, the Republic of Texas built a customhouse at Sabine City in 1838. To assist the collector in the enforcement of the Texas revenue laws, the revenue cutter Santa Anna was ordered to patrol the area to help the collector in securing the tonnage tax and preventing smuggling. On the other side of the river, United States collector of customs in New Orleans, M.S. Cucullu, ordered the revenue cutter Woodbury to patrol Sabine Lake “to extend all reasonable protection to American vessels in the coasting trade while navigating that [Sabine] river.”

W. C. V. Dashiell was commissioned collector of customs for the Customs Service of the Republic of Texas for the Sabine District on December 12, 1843, and officially confirmed on January 29, 1844. In February 1844 the Republic of Texas revenue cutter Santa Anna ordered two American merchant vessels loading cotton in Sabine Lake to stop at Sabine Pass and pay the Texas tonnage tax, which in 1844 was one dollar per ton. As the vessels reached Sabine Pass, they were escorted by the USRC Woodbury. In defiance of the order, the vessels proceeded past the customhouse without stopping to pay the tonnage tax. Violence was averted only when the Texas revenue cutter and Dashiell took no action to enforce payment of the tonnage tax. 

In response to this incident, President Sam Houston had the Santa Anna deliver two  cannons to Collector Dashiell at Sabine Pass. In a letter dated February 22, 1844, President Houston instructed Acting Secretary of the Treasury James B. Shaw to order the collector (Dashiell) at Sabine to procure and hoist a Texas flag at the customhouse so that all vessels would know that they were entering a “Texian port.” Houston also ordered that a warning shot be fired at any vessel attempting to ascend the pass without first stopping at the customhouse.  Dashiell was further instructed that if a vessel did not stop after firing warning shots, “the collector will forthwith fire into, and, if necessary, sink it.”

On April 17, 1844, American cotton schooners Louisiana and William Bryan transporting Texas cotton bound for New Orleans failed to stop at the Sabine Pass customhouse and pay the tonnage tax. Following Houston’s orders, Collector Dashiell fired warning shots across the bows of the vessels. The schooners failed to yield and continued on their course toward the Gulf of Mexico. Collector Dashiell and his men then attempted to sink both ships with cannon fire. The captains of the merchant ships wisely decided to comply with Collector Dashiell’s instructions and stop at the customhouse and discuss the situation. Although both captains protested the payment of Texas tonnage taxes on their vessels, they eventually agreed to sign bonds to make the payments if higher authorities agreed the payments were legally required. 

Diplomatic notes regarding the volatile situation were exchanged between the two nations but were soon overshadowed by larger concerns. In Washington and Austin, negotiations were underway to annex Texas into the United States, and neither nation wanted an incident at Sabine City to harm the delicate deliberations regarding annexation. On April 26, 1845, Acting Secretary of the Treasury James B. Shaw ordered Collector Dashiell to “desist from collecting tonnage duties from any vessels of the United States….”

The issue at Sabine Pass was resolved forever on December 29, 1845, when Texas was granted statehood and admitted into the Union. In March 1847 Dashiell was appointed deputy collector of customs for the Port of Sabine by President James Polk.

William Collier Vauness Dashiell died on March 21, 1848, at Sabine Pass in Jefferson County. He was buried at the Sabine Pass Cemetery. According to a Texas Historical Marker for the cemetery, Dashiell’s son John, who died in 1847, was the first person to be buried there.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Baltimore Sun, March 15, 1847. W. T. Block, A History of Jefferson County, Texas, from Wilderness to Reconstruction (Nederland, Texas: Nederland Publishing, 1976). W. T. Block, "The Romance of Sabine Lake, 1777–1846: Scene of Slaving, Smuggling, Steamboating, Border Conflict, and Cotton Commerce under the Texas Republic," Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record 9 (1973). The Daily Union (Washington, D.C.), May 21, 1845. Historical Marker Files, Texas Historical Commission, Austin (Sabine Pass Cemetery). Vicksburg Weekly Whig, March 11, 1844. “William Collier Vauness Dashiell,” Find A Grave Memorial (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/182066940), accessed May 19, 2019. Amelia W. Williams and Eugene C. Barker, eds., The Writings of Sam Houston, 1813–1863 (8 vols., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1938–43; rpt., Austin and New York: Pemberton Press, 1970).

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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, Steven W. Hooper, "DASHIELL, WILLIAM COLLIER VAUNESS ," accessed December 08, 2019, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fdash.

Uploaded on October 4, 2019. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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