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Oct. 21, 1998

Slavery was not widespread here

   Corpus Christi's founder, H.L. Kinney, owned 10 slaves in 1846, the most in the county. By 1850, the census showed the city with 47 slaves - 20 male and 27 female - in a population of 651. By 1860, there were 135 slaves here, valued at $91,050. But slavery never put down deep roots in Corpus Christi.
   Slaves were too expensive. Prime field hands sold on the New Orleans market for up to $2,000. Women and children, depend ing on their training, could cost as much as $1,000. Put those prices in context: In pre-Civil War Corpus Christi, you could buy a good horse for $10, ranchland sold from 50 cents to $2 an acre, and town lots sold for $100.
   Slaves were not practical in cattle country. The big cotton plantations in east and central Texas were dependent on slave labor, but the rancheros in South Texas needed vaqueros, wonderfully adapted to ranch life, to work the cattle. And Mexico provided an endless source of cheap labor.
   Mexico, where slavery was illegal, also pro vided a sanctuary for runaways. If a slave got close to Mexico, he could run for freedom. One account said, "Mexicans petted the Ne groes, gave them jobs, and defied Texas slave-owners screaming for their return." Brownsville slave-owners complained that it was not uncommon to meet one's "property" walking down the streets of Matamoros and be helpless to do anything about it.
   An estimate in the 1850s said there were 4,000 to 5,000 runaway slaves in northern Mexico. One slaveholder told about his at tempt to recapture a slave who escaped one February day in 1855: "We caught him once, but he got away. I had my six-shooter handy; every barrel misfired. Shot at him three times with rifles, but he'd got too far off; got in them bayous and kept swimming from side to side. If he's got across the river, the Mexi cans will take care of (protect) him."
   But Mexico's attitude on slavery was any thing but clear cut. As the legendary Texas Ranger and author, Rip Ford, pointed out, "The Mexicans expressed horror at the idea of slavery, but seemed to forget that they made their own countrymen slaves - peons - for the inability to pay a debt." When pe ons ran away to freedom in Texas, it was the turn of Texans to loftily ignore the outraged Mexican patrons who wanted their debt slaves back. Border attitudes on freedom, said Ford, depended on whose slave was missing.
   Not all slaves who had a chance for free dom took it. A former Corpus Christi slave, the late Annie Moore Schwien, once said in an interview that her father, Sam Moore, had many chances to gain his freedom.
   "My father was a slave on the plantation of Col. John M. Moore in Alabama." He worked in a foundry owned by Moore.
   "Papa left Alabama after he had a fight with a white man. He came to Texas. During the next four years, he made many trips into Mexico, where he could have lived as a free man if he had wanted to, but he preferred the States.
   "When the Moores came to Corpus Christi (Col. Moore had been hired to dredge a channel across the bay), Papa again joined Col. Moore as a slave. Once the colonel took him to Mexico and, while there, he said, `Sam, you know you are free in Mexico; I can't make you go back.' But Papa told him if he had wanted his freedom, he'd had many opportunities to run away. He remained a slave until freedom came as a result of the war."
   There were slaves here, but the "peculiar institution" was never an important part of the economy. That, however, didn't prevent Corpus Christi from sticking with the state and the region when secession came. In a ref erendum on Feb. 23, 1861, Nueces County voted 142 to 42 to leave the Union. Two of the city's leading citizens were fiercely op posed to secession. One was Judge Edmund J. Davis, destined to become the most hated governor in Texas history, and the other was the city's mayor, a transplanted Ohioan, Henry Berry.
   The outbreak of war was a festive occasion. The first troop of Confederate soldiers orga nized here wore handsome red sashes pre sented to them by their wives and sweet hearts. In a ceremony on the courthouse steps, Capt. William B. Wrather, organizer of the company, accepted a Confederate flag from Mary Woessner. After this ceremony was over, the captain and Miss Woessner were married. But perilous and grim times were ahead, as the city's newspaper, The Ranchero, warned: "We are in danger, and we should be prepared for any emergency. Corpus Christi, with her 2,000 inhabitants, lives at the mercy of any gunboat that chooses to steer over Aransas Bar up to our city." That prophecy soon came true.
    (This is the first of three articles.)

    (Murphy Givens can be reached by e-mail at or by phone, 886-4315. Previous columns can be found on-line at
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