For more information about the discovery of this ship, please see the Galveston Harbor Search page.

The Texas Naval Ship ZAVALA

The Republic of Texas Navy Ship, the Zavala, began life in 1836 as the Charleston. In 1838, the Republic of Texas was desperate for ships to replace it’s fleet. It purchased the Charleston for $120,000 and renamed her the Zavala, in honor of Don Lorenzo de Zavala, the first Vice President of the Republic of Texas. The former Charleston had her deckhouses removed and replaced with an open gun deck, mounting four twelve-pounder medium cannon and one long nine-pounder. Predating any self-propelled vessels built by the U.S. Navy, Zavala had the distinction of becoming the first armed warship in North America.

The new commodore of the second Texas Navy, Edwin Ward Moore, sailed the Zavala to New Orleans to recruit new seamen. As a warship her complement became 126 men, three times the crew of the old Charleston. The pay was nothing to launch a bank. Marine privates were offered $7 a month, while experienced seamen drew $12. The higher grades drew more. A midshipman received $25 a month, boat swains $40, and lieutenants and surgeons an even $100. Zavala was commissioned just in time. Trouble was afoot once again to the south.

Mexico had proclaimed a blockage of Texas ports, and although the Mexican army was busy with a revolt in the Yucatan, the long expected follow up invasion of Texas after Sam Houston’s decisive triumph over Santa Ana at San Jacinto was soon approaching. President Lamar decided to assist the Yucatan rebels, who had revolted against Santa Ana, with his new fleet of warships and thereby draw the Mexican Navy away from the Texas coast. On June 24, 1840, the Zavala accompanied by Commodore Moore’s flagship, the sloop-of-war Austin, and three armed schooners, slipped out of Galveston Bay and turned south across the Gulf to the Bay of Campeche on the Yucatan Peninsula.

Zavala never fought a battle with an enemy ship during its service in the Bay of Campeche, but she proved indispensable for a daring expedition that Commodore Moore carried out in the fall of 1840. Under the command of Captain J.T.K. Lathrop, Zavala towed Moore’s flagship Austin, and the armed sloop San Bernard 90 miles up the San Juan Bautista River to the provincial capital of Tabasco, currently under the control of the Mexican government. Anchoring his ships with their guns pointing into the city, Commodore Moore brazenly landed with a small shore party and walked to the main square. The small city was seemingly deserted. Moore motioned to a seaman who spoke Spanish: “Shout that we want to see the town leaders.” The seaman nodded and yelled out the demand in Spanish. From inside a large brick building, a short, heavy-set man with a red sash stretched across his broad stomach nervously stepped slowly into the street, holding a tree branch with a white strip of cotton tied to the top. “Ask him who he is,” Moore ordered. The seaman questioned the man in Spanish. “He says he is the mayor. He also says the garrison troops have run away.” Moore smiled like a fox in an unguarded chicken coop. “Inform the mayor that unless he and his leading citizens hand over $25,000, we will level the city with our guns.” After the translation, there was no hesitation, no debate. The seaman glanced at Moore and laughed. “The mayor asks if it would be all right to pay in silver?” Pleased that his gamble had paid off, Moore nodded. “Tell him that silver will be just fine.” That ransom paid the Texas sailors their wages and bought badly needed supplies for the always under budgeted navy.

In early February of 1841, the fleet returned to Galveston for repairs and provisions. Before she saw Galveston again, Zavala very nearly became a floating derelict. On her way home, Zavala encountered a terrible storm that never seemed to end. For five days the sturdy steamboat fought her way through the heavy seas. With the deckhouses and passenger cabins removed when she became a warship, the sea surged over her now open gun deck without inflicting any damage. Zavala was no stranger to the savagery of turbulence. Her big paddle wheels stubbornly drove her into the rampage. A fireman came up through a hatch from the engine room and approached Lathrop. “The chief engineers compliments, sir, but he reports that we’re down to our last ton of coal.” “Three hundred miles from home port.” The first mate looked at Lathrop, apprehension in his eyes. “If we lose steam, it’s all over.”

Captain Lathrop stared thoughtfully at the deck for a few moments, the spray whipping into his beard. Then he looked up. “Please tell the chief engineer he has my permission to burn the ship’s stores, bulkheads, and furniture. Whatever it takes to keep us under way.” Her interior gutted, Zavala survived the storm and arrived at Galveston four days later. When she crossed over the bar and headed toward the dock, her boilers barely produced enough steam for her paddle wheels to move her along at three knots.
After her one and only cruise as a warship, Zavala was laid up and allowed to deteriorate. Refusing to spend another dollar on the Texas Navy, newly elected President Sam Houston ignored pleas to save the finest vessel in the fleet. Unattended, she began to leak so badly that she was run aground to keep her from sinking. She was then stripped and abandoned. In time she became a rotting hulk at the upper end of the harbors mud flats, settling deeper into the marsh until only the tops of her boilers and one of her two smokestacks remained in view.

By 1870, what was once the finest and most technically advanced ship in the Republic of Texas Navy had completely disappeared under the ooze and was forgotten.

Clive Cussler’s involvement with the Zavala began innocently enough when he and his wife, Barbara, visited NUMA president Wayne Gronquist at his law offices in Austin, Texas. “Wayne led me over to the capitol building and introduced me to then Governor White. After a short chat about lost shipwrecks, the governor presented me with a certificate signed by him, proclaiming me an admiral in the Texas Navy. I know I made some joke that I was probably admiral number 4,932. Then I really put my foot in my mouth when I said, “Now that I’m an admiral, the least I can do is to find myself a fleet of ships,” never dreaming a Texas navy truly existed. Like a great number of Texans, I was not aware that the Republic of Texas had put together a small navy, two as a matter of fact. The first navy was made up of four small warships, most of them sloops, that were destroyed by storms and enemy action between 1835 and 1837. The second navy, under the brilliant leadership of Commodore Edwin Moore and consisting of eight ships, lasted from 1838 to 1843. The combined Texas navies left a remarkable historical legacy. The early ships harassed Santa Ana’s supply line, capturing several merchant ships and sending their cargo of arms and supplies to General Sam Houston. Greatly contributing to his victory at San Jacinto.

Despite their heroic and distinguished service, very little has been written about the exploits of the Texas warships. Only two books were written on the subject, many years ago, Thunder on the Gulf by C.L. Douglas and The Texas Navy by Jim Dan Hill. Of the 12 ships known to have served the Republic of Texas, all but three were either lost at sea, transferred to the U.S. Navy when Texas became a state and ultimately scrapped, or vanished from recorded history.

The ships I concentrated on were the armed schooners, Invincible, run aground in the gulf after a battle with two Mexican warships; Brutus, wrecked in Galveston Bay after a hurricane; and Zavala, run ashore in the Galveston ship channel and abandoned.”

For more details of how Clive Cussler and his good friend, the late Bob Esbenson found the Zavala, see The Sea Hunters by Clive Cussler and Craig Dirgo.

The accompanying photograph is of the model of the Zavala commissioned by Cussler from craftsman and model shipbuilder Fred Tournier. Cussler has one model in his office, the other he donated to the Governor of the State of Texas.

On their way to present the rather large model in its glass case to the governor, Cussler and Dirgo ran into a group of reporters. “A corps of newsmen were questioning the governor on some new legislative proceedings, really fascinating stuff. As they left, I tried to get them interested in the Zavala and the Texas Navy. They scratched themselves and yawned when I told them that here was a symbol of a ship that represented and fought for the Republic of Texas, the only historical shipwreck at that time still accessible. They all looked at me as if I were trying to sell mineral water to a drunk. The news people simply have no grasp of history. I was finally ushered into Governor Bill Clement’s office, along with Wayne Gronquist and Barto Arnold, the very astute chief of the Texas Historical Commission. After Wayne made the introductions and presented the model, the governor looked at me and asked, “Did you build it?”

Politicians are not my favorite people. I always take great pride in marking No on my IRS return where it asks if I would donate a dollar to my favorite party. I recall voting in an election when I couldn’t stand any of the candidates. So I wrote in John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Ma Barker for the nations’ highest offices.

After I spent hundreds of hours researching the Texas Navy, standing all night in the rain coring for the Zavala in a muddy parking lot, and spending thousands of dollars for the actual project, the governor thought I was only some schmoe who built the model. Maybe I didn’t build it, but I paid Fred several thousand dollars so NUMA could present it to the people of Texas.

Reduced to tears, I stood there spurned by the news media, wondering why I got less respect than Rodney Dangerfield. The governor didn’t quite receive the answer he expected. I turned to Gronquist and Arnold and said, “That’s it. I’m out of here.” And I walked out. Poor Wayne Gronquist and Barto Arnold were embarrassed. The governor just shrugged and smiled and said, “I guess he’s in a hurry to build another model.”

5 Responses to Zavala

  1. john newcomb says:

    many thank for your writing and your research

  2. Pingback: Maritime History Resource | Manitou Pontoon Boats Blog

  3. Al Thompson says:

    Clive and I taled at length by phone several times a few years ago. He is a sensitive and highly creative student of history and didn’t deserve to be treated that way. I also visited with Wayne Gronquist a few times at his law offices in Austin.

    The State of Texas needs to wake up and preserve her rich naval history.

    Had I been with Clive and Wayne when they were all but ignored by the insensitive governor I would have started smashing chairs and breaking things. It wouldn’t have accomplished anything but I would have felt better while serving my jail sentence.

  4. Joseph Bodden says:

    Texas Navy Day is an annual event held at Surfside, Texas, celebrating the Texas Navy(s). Re-enactors in period clothes give demonstrations of life aboard a Texas Navy ship culminating in live firing of shore-based cannons. The night firing of the cannons occurs about dark and one gets a true sense of why you don’t put your face over the touch hole.

  5. Max Triola says:

    In 2011 when a group of us decided to form a local chapter of Starfleet Internation (a Star Trek fan club organization), our new-minted captain made the pitch for USS Zavala as our chapter’s name, after the ship which was cutting edge in its day and indirectly for Lorenzo de Zavala and his family. We all heartily agreed and the Zavala sails serenely under steam on our club logo. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that our namesake was finally being excavated (thank you, Mr Cussler) but haven’t heard anything since. We’d like to report any progress on the work in our chapter newsletter. Does anyone have an update?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *