Irish colonizers end up on opposing sides

pair of ambitious Irishmen applied for a giant land grant in sparsely settled Texas on Sept. 20, 1826. They did not want much, just the entire coastal plain between the Sabine and the Nueces!

James Power was 21 years old, when he left the Emerald Isle for the New World in 1809. The shrewd merchant landed in New Orleans and over the next dozen years carved out a comfortable niche for himself.

Power was prosperous but far from satisfied. Scanning the skies for just the right rainbow, he believed his personal pot of gold was waiting for him in newly independent Mexico.

While Power did not know the first thing about the nation nor a single word of the language, he did not let his ignorance dampen his enthusiasm. Blinded by the unlimited opportunity, he sold his business and sailed off to Mexico.

Power soon wished he had not burned his bridges behind him. The Mexicans resented the sudden influx of uninvited foreigners and took pleasure in excluding the outsiders from the commercial bonanza they had come to mine. Taking the hint from their hostile hosts, more sensible newcomers booked passage home but not the stubborn Irishman.

Power subsisted for three years on petty ventures he would have turned up his nose at back in New Orleans. With one foot in the poorhouse and on the verge of giving up, he happened to bump into a fellow countryman with the cash and contacts to make his tropical dreams come true.

A decade younger than his new friend, James Hewetson studied medicine before coming to America. He met Stephen F. Austin in Missouri and accompanied him to Texas in 1821 to help him stake his claim to his dead father’s empressario contract.

Bidding Austin farewell in San Antonio, Hewetson went on alone to Saltillo. By the time he came to the rescue of impoverished Power in 1826, Hewetson was one of the wealthiest and most influential figures in the state of Coahuila.

Tied down by his various interests, the successful businessman needed a trustworthy and footloose associate for an exciting endeavor. If Power was willing to do the leg work, he would put up the money to colonize the Texas coast with Irish emigrants. A firm handshake later, the two were partners.

In their original application of Sept. 20, 1826, Power and Hewetson asked for all the beachfront property between modern-day Corpus Christi and Port Arthur. A year and a half later, the Mexican government granted only a fraction of their real-estate wish, ten leagues bordered by the Lavaca and Guadalupe rivers.

Feeling short-changed by the decree, the Irishmen battled the bureaucracy another three years before the dimensions of their private domain were doubled. Satisfied with 180 square miles of virgin Texas territory, they at last got down to the business of soliciting settlers.

Power must have been a heck of a salesman because he sold enough Irish folk on the merits of mythical Texas to fill two ships. But he was no match for cholera, which ravaged both vessels during the tragic voyage.

The victims, a dozen or more a day, were sewn into death shrouds and hastily buried at sea. While Power took on provisions at New Orleans, 70 stricken passengers were admitted to local hospitals.

Fewer than half of the Irish colonists lived to set foot on Lone Star soil. Even the routine landing at Port Aransas in May 1834 turned into a disaster, when the pounding surf beached the cursed ships. Several survivors of the high-seas epidemic drowned, and the emigrants lost practically all of their worldly possessions.

Out of pity and a sense of obligation, Power stayed with colonists and served as their do-it-all leader. But calculating Hewetson cared only about the bottom line. He wrote off the project as a money-losing proposition and sold out the next year to his more compassionate partner.

After going their separate ways, Power and Hewetson followed dramatically different paths. The former plunged head first into the struggle for a free Texas, while the latter remained a loyal, upper-class citizen of Mexico.

Power attended the historic convention of March 1836 and signed the Declaration of Independence. He also was instrumental in securing the admission of Sam Houston over the objections of delegates, who wanted to bar the general from the meeting.

In time Hewetson came around and, in fact, earned the respect of suspicious Texans. His heart went out to the prisoners of the Mier and Santa Fe expeditions, as they marched through Saltillo on their way to prison. Risking his position and perhaps his life, he rushed into the street with food and medicine for the grateful captives.

“Unforgettable Texans,” Bartee’s fourth and latest book, is still available. Get your copy by mailing a check for $28.80 to “Bartee Haile,” P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393 or order on-line at barteehaile.com.

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