Port Sullivan’s history was not as a fort

Large boulders block navigation on the Brazos River at the site of Port Sullivan. This obstruction on the Brazos is just upstream from the lock built by the Corps of Engineers in the early 20th Century. With a dam in place, the lock was expected to lift boats and barges up and over these boulders and on to Waco.The project was never finished nor was it likely to have even been successful.

I can remember when I awaited anxiously for the latest edition of the Texas Almanac to suddenly appear at the local newspaper office. The A.H. Belo Corporation that owned the Dallas Morning News published the almanac. Belo gave local newspaper publishers the exclusive rights to the sell of the almanac. The papers promoted it and profited from these sales. It may have been sold at other places, but I only knew about the book being at the offices of the Rockdale Reporter and, later, at the Beeville Bee-Picayune.

Currently the Texas State Historical Society publishes it and I subscribe to the almanac along with my society membership subscription every other year. Then I start that wait for the newest and best Texas Almanac.

I think I probably learned about the almanac as part of my Texas history course in the seventh grade. It is, cover-to-cover, full of interesting information, data and statistics about Texas. The whole history of Texas in 32 pages, articles on the environment, weather, recreation and sports and hundreds of other topics. But I was and am most intrigued by the maps, data and information about each of the 254 counties in Texas. It takes 180 data-filled pages to cover the 254.

I can compare my use of the printed, hard copy of the Texas Almanac easily with my iPhone plus Google, but with the almanac I have to use the table of contents and index. Or, I just turn one page after page after page. On line versions will have search capabilities but I believe I would still prefer doing it the old-fashioned way.

I’ve been trying for 50 years to get a small correction made in the almanac in its Milam County entry. I lived in Milam during my high school years. In the entry under the heading “Recreation,” there is a reference to “Fort Sullivan,” as a Milam County historic site. It is definitely an historic site. But it was never a “Fort”; it was a “Port.”

Port or Fort

There was a typo in a 1938 publication that recorded all the inscriptions on all of the centennial markers that were placed everywhere in 1836. The marker clearly reads “Port” not “Fort.” The book clearly reads “Fort.” My guess is that the editors of the book thought how could there have been a port in Milam County, 341 miles, as the Brazos River flows, from the Gulf of Mexico. So they “corrected” the error and changed the P to an F. This error was then copied into the Handbook of Texas. Eventually it was copied into the almanac.

I sent pictures of the actual historical marker. No way does the “Port” look like “Fort.” In 2008, when the A.H. Belo Corporation gifted the Texas Almanac to the Texas State Historical Society, I thought, now, at last, I will get this correction accomplished. Well it’s only been 10 years. Ironically the title on the marker is correct but nearly everything else on it is wrong or at least exaggerated. That’s another battle.

How do I know this town site along the Brazos was never referred to as a fort and that it was actually, from the beginning, named Port Sullivan? Port Sullivan was the subject of my master’s thesis at Texas A&M University in 1968.

In researching Port Sullivan I read every newspaper printed in Texas in the 1820s, 30s, 40s, and 50s and many others on into the 60s and 70s. Any paper that could be found in libraries in Galveston, Houston, College Station, Washington-on-the-Brazos, Austin, Waco and points in between. I found no reference to any Fort Sullivan or Fort anything that had ever been located near this area of Texas.

Augustus W. Sillaven

Augustus W. Sillaven acquired the future port site on Dec. 12, 1835, when he purchased a quarter league of land (about 1,100 acres). The land was located on a high bluff overlooking the Brazos River. Down in the river there are huge limestone boulders that would have made steamboat travel further upstream difficult. It remained to be seen, in 1835, if steamboats could even make it up river the 341 miles from the gulf to the boulders.

In those days, the Brazos valley often flooded, and the bluff, 25 feet above the river, could be a place of safety during those times. The high bluff would be a bonus for the future port site.

Sillaven was apparently most recently from eastern Arkansas, a little north and east of Little Rock. He would have been aware of the importance of the steamboats and the ports that served them along the Arkansas, Ouachita, Red and other tributaries of the Mississippi River. He apparently came to Texas, made his purchase in 1835, and then returned to Arkansas. His name does not appear on any muster rolls in 1835 or 1836.

He was in or back in the Republic of Texas in 1837 when he purchased a second quarter section of land near his 1835 purchase. The land included in these purchases was eventually called Sullivan’s Bluff but that would come more than a decade later.

Head of Navigation

The “actual” head of steamboat navigation on the Brazos River was the subject of speculation from the 1820s on into the 1850s. The first “heads” of navigation were identified as being down near the coast but the “head of navigation” gradually moved northward as more dense patterns of settlements gradually moved up the valley.

In 1843 the steamboat “Mustang” went up the Brazos River as far as Washington-on-the-Brazos and kept going upstream enough miles to reach the boulders at Sullivan’s Bluff. Land speculators surely noticed but this was a time of continuing unrest in Texas. But seven or so years later, following statehood, the War with Mexico, and the establishment of federal frontier forts to the west the Hill Country of Texas, planters and setters were confident enough to pour in the valley near Sullivan’s Bluff. Perhaps the head of navigation could move northward a little more from Washington-on-the-Brazos?

Either because it had always been his idea or because it was the idea of planters who settled along the Brazos across from Sullivan’s Bluff, Augustus Sullivan laid out the town of Port Sullivan about 1851. Even then an abstract of the hand-drawn survey had the name as “Sulliven.” Earliest newspaper accounts of the town, however, followed the more traditional spelling of the name. He probably spoke it Silliven.

Port Sullivan

The town boomed in the 1850s, growing rapidly in population, businesses and educational facilities. A few steamboats made it that far up the Brazos, but these could be easily counted on both hands and perhaps with only one. A rosewood piano made it up that far and numerous bales of cotton sent downstream. It was a thriving community for about 20 years. In 1860 the population was 960 and by 1870 it was 1,423. For not being a county seat, that was a lot of people back then in Texas. It may have peaked at a higher before the census was taken in 1870. Port Sullivan College was there until the later 1870s along with a number of churches, business and craftsmen.

Railroads came along and generally avoided the immediate area of the port. Land subject to flooding was avoided as much as possible and floods were frequent in the wide river valley opposite the bluff. Railroads also avoided changes in elevation as much as possible. Another reason to stay away from the town. There was little economic incentive or advantage to build to an existing town. Port Sullivan was named in several railroad charters, but none were actually built. Business and people moved to the new, nearby towns with railroads.

The Texanist

Reading an article by The Texanist in the April 2010 issue of Texas Monthly, I came across four consecutive words: “Port Sullivan. Willie Nelson.” None of these words had I expected to see an answer to a question about how to “break into ranching?” I was totally dumbfounded. I had to back up and read the answer a few times for it to sink in. Port Sullivan in Texas Monthly?

I knew that Charles Goodnight had lived in Port Sullivan in the 1850s. He had worked as a jockey when horse races were happening there. He worked for a man named Sullivan. Later he became a rancher. Willie Nelson had sold vacuum cleaners and later became a rancher. Both Goodnight and Nelson did any number of other things before becoming ranchers. It could happen that a mechanical engineer in Chicago might indeed become a rancher in Texas, so said the Texanist.

I’m pretty sure I knew more about Port Sullivan than any of the other readers of that article in Texas Monthly. I wrote the Texanist and gave him a little more information, but a lot less than what is in this column, about Port Sullivan. Never heard back. Apparently he had all he wanted. Even all this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Recommended for you