As nine year old Rosalie Hart came up onto the deck of the schooner “Sea Lion” there was a furious gale blowing. She and her family were thousands of miles from their home in Ballymoney, County Wexford, Ireland. She breathed in the clean sea air; a welcome relief from the vomit reeking air in the hold. On the deck she could see James Power, the man who had convinced her parents and hundreds of other people from County Wexford to settle in the wilderness at a place he called Texas, where all of them would receive huge tracks of land from the Mexican government that owned it.
They had left New Orleans two days before, anxious to escape the cholera epidemic that was devastating the population there. It had already taken the lives of many of the Irish men, women and children who had gambled their future on Power’s tales of an amazing, distant paradise that awaited them. Now some on the ship were feeling ill and vomiting, one of the early signs of cholera, but perhaps, everyone hoped, it was just sea sickness caused by the raging storm. As the ship rocked and rolled, Rosalie must have wondered if any of them were going to live to see Mr. Power’s new Garden of Eden.
(Left: Rosalie Hart, many decades later.)
As she got closer she saw that Power was engaged in an animated argument with the ship’s captain. They were approaching the Aransas Pass through the Texas barrier islands near present day Corpus Christie. It was the only way into their destination of Copano. In the distance they could see the schooner “Wild Cat,” which was also carrying some of Power’s group of Wexford pilgrims. It was motionless and had apparently run aground on a sand bar in the pass at St Joseph's Island. Rosalie heard the captain saying he would not attempt the pass with his ship, and Power replying that they must. Rosalie jumped back as Power suddenly ended the dispute by drawing a pistol from his belt. With a pistol to his head, the captain was persuaded to go on.
James Power had traveled a long, hard and rambling road to get his Wexford colonists within miles of the Texas coast. One recalcitrant schooner captain was not going to stop his dream now. Power was born in Cahore, Ballygarrett, County Wexford around 1788. Though he never spoke of it later, when he was just a boy, County Wexford was the epicenter of the 1798 Rising in the southeast of Ireland. Battles were fought all around Ballygarrett. It was just 15 kilometers from both Oulart Hill and the Harrow and 25 kilometers from Kilthomas Hill and Vinegar Hill, where the Rising died in Wexford.
(Below: The Battle of Vinegar Hill by William Sadler, 1782–1839).
Young James would have been witness to the funerals of many local men killed during the Rising, including his older brother, Pat, who died at Vinegar Hill. He may also have witnessed the burning of the Catholic Church in Ballygarrett near the end of the Rising. In his teens he probably heard many harrowing accounts of the resistance to British rule around the hearths of the area from the United Irishmen who lived to tell the tale. The rest of James Power’s life after that traumatic childhood might validate that old saying, “what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.”
There were few economic opportunities for a young Irish Catholic in post ’98 Rising County Wexford. Power left for Amerikay in 1809, going at first to Philadelphia, one of the large east coast cities where most Irish Catholics would go several decades later. But a year later Power moved on from there to New Orleans, where we know only that he was there for about a dozen years and became a successful merchant. He was there during the War of 1812 and would have been witness to the Battle of New Orleans, but there is no record of him taking any part in it. Near the end of that time had he a fateful meeting with Stephen Austin.
Austin told Power the tale of empresario contracts being offered by the Mexican government. The government was attempting to plant settlers on their sparsely inhabited lands in Texas. An empresario was given a large track of land if they could fulfill a pledge to bring in families to colonize a section of Texas. Power must have found Austin’s tale inspiring to consider leaving his comfortable circumstances in New Orleans.
(Left: Stephen F. Austin painted in Mexico City in 1833.)
In 1821 Spanish rule of Mexico ended, which may have convinced Power opportunity was calling; he moved to Saltillo, Mexico in 1823 and later became a Mexican citizen. In Saltillo he made two important friends. One was Don Felipe Rogue de la Portilla, who was well connected and had some experience with an earlier attempt to colonize Texas. The other was a fellow Irishman, Dr. James Hewetson from Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny, who was about ten years his junior and had also been enticed to the region by Austin. Power and Hewetson entered into a business partnership selling mining equipment. They also eventually formed a partnership to apply for an empresario contract.
This was not a speedy process. They did not obtain their contract until 1828. The Mexican government did not want to fill Texas with Americans, as they feared, with good reason, as would later be proven, that Americans would not be loyal to Mexico. So Power and Hewetson , and also another partnership of two Irishmen, John McMullen and James McGloin, were given contracts based on a promise to fill their colonies with two hundred families, half of whom would be Mexican and the other half Irish. Mexican found Irish colonists a favored group because most of them were Catholic and would, they believed, assimilate with the Mexican population more easily.
The area Power and Hewetson (right) received was far reduced from their request. They had requested a huge portion of the Texas coastline. What they were granted was just “ten littoral leagues lying between the Lavaca and Guadalupe rivers,” which would run along the coast from Corpus Christi Bay to San Antonio Bay today. It included the now abandoned Refugio mission.
Getting the contract to bring in these Irish families was one thing, actually getting possession of the land and getting the Irish families there would prove a far harder task than getting the contract. The four Irish impresarios had many enemies in the Mexican government who opposed bringing in not just Americans, but any foreigners. Jose Maria Viesca, governor of the Texas, who had seemed friendly to their cause, suddenly began to drag his feet when they asked to take possession of the land granted to them in April 1830. Luckily for these Irish dreamers, on April 1831 he was succeeded by Jose Maria de Letona, who proved to a great booster of their cause.
While Hewetson remained in Mexico to handle the seemingly never ending myriad of bureaucratic complications, Power moved to Texas to look after their interests on the spot. On July 3, 1832 he married de la Portilla’s daughter, Dolores. He would have two children with her, and he may well have loved her, but it was also a marriage into an influential Mexican family and thus an aide to his enterprise. At the same time he convinced her father to move the whole family to a large house he built near Corpus Christi. In April 1833, Hewetson married Josefa Guajardo, a wealthy widow, back in Saltillo. The partners had strengthened their position by marrying well, but time was running out on their contract to bring in Irish immigrants.
Since 1828 the partners had been paying an agent, Archibald Roberts, an Englishmen, to procure Irish colonists. He had thus far failed miserably. In January 1833 the pressure to get some colonists on the land increased tremendously when Juan Martin Veramendi, the father-in-law of James Bowie, replaced their ally Letona as governor of Texas. The partners had made him their enemy when they won a dispute with Veramendi regarding some land he tried to claim within their colony. He couldn’t revoke their contract, but they could be sure he was going to hold them to the letter of that contract. And part of the letter of that contract was the fact that it expired in July 1834 if they didn’t bring in colonists. Letona had given them a six year extension, but that was outside the letter of their contract, so Veramendi was likely to revoke it.
(Left: The only known oil painting portrait of Jim Bowie painted from life.)
With the clock ticking down, desperate measures were called for. Power volunteered to travel home to County Wexford to attempt use his passionate enthusiasm to inspire hundreds of his former friends and neighbors to travel thousands of miles to a place most had never heard of. He would not depart Texas without a bit of drama.
As his ship was departing on April 17, 1833, suddenly a man was seen on the shore waving and shouting for them to stop. A boat as sent to shore and they found it was Power’s brother-in-law, Francisco, who had come to tell him his wife had given birth to a son. Dolores sent a plea for James to delay his trip and return home. The ship’s captain refused to delay his departure. There was no way to know how long it might be before he could arrange another passage. If he stayed the deadline to colonize their holdings might expire before he could get back with their Irish pilgrims.
The future of what would become the Refugio colony hung in the balance. On the shore his wife and new born son beckoned, on the sea his dream of an Irish colony in Texas cried out to him. In the end he determined that the financial future of his new family depended on his continuing his quest, and he sailed away. He had barely departed when Veramendi did, indeed, revoke the extension. The clock was ticking now. Power and Hewetson had fourteen months to get Irish feet on the ground in the Refugio colony. Today a trip from Mexico to Ireland would take hours; in 1833 his took nearly two months His route home would be to New Orleans, by riverboat up the Mississippi, then up the Ohio and over land to Philadelphia, sailing to Ireland either from there or from New York.
Power had arrived home in Ballygarrett by early June. It was, and remains today, a very small village, dominated by St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Catholic Church (right), though the present church was built a few years after his visit. Few Irish immigrants were ever seen again in their hometowns in the 19th century. When they did return, it usually meant that they had been extremely successful in their new home, and they were celebrated as returning heroes by their friends and family. Such was the case with Power.
Word spread far and wide of the return of “rich” James Power. For Power himself, it must have been a poignant moment in his life. He had not seen his home town and his family and friends for nearly twenty-five years. His parents were deceased, but he had one brother and one sister living, and the widow of another sister along with a nephew, Thomas O’Connor, son of his deceased sister.
James regaled everyone with his exciting tales of the Texas frontier, including mile upon mile of grassy plains where thousands of cattle could easily graze, and members of the Karankawa Indian tribe roamed. No doubt he did not dwell on the possible hostility from them, as his goal was fill their heads with only good thoughts about this exotic land.
Though Catholic emancipation had recently begun, the benefits of it had mainly gone to the more well off Catholic families. In rural areas like eastern Wexford, most Catholic families were still living subsistence lives as tenant farmers. Power could offer each family that agreed to go back with him nearly 1,000 acres of free land. It was an incomprehensibly huge amount of land to people who were usually surviving on just a few acres.
Power posted handbills all around Wexford and also the surrounding counties of Wicklow, Carlow, Kilkenny and Waterford with enticements to venture into the unknown world of Texas. They directed people to the home of his wife, Elizabeth and her husband Thomas O’Brien, where he was staying. Soon he had a stream of prospective colonist traveling to Ballygarrett, some from as far away as Sligo. The passage would cost each family about $30, and they would need to bring their own farm implements, but once in Texas, each would receive free land.
(Left: Irish immigrants aboard a ship in Liverpool.)
Exactly how much he may have exaggerated how wonderful Texas was, or down played the possible hardships or dangers, we can’t know for sure. One colonist later claimed that Power told some of them that gold was so plentiful you could “pick it up under the trees.” Hopefully he was not that hyperbolic with all of them, but he was no doubt desperate to convince several hundred to sign up.
Between his passion for Texas, the bit of Blarney he may have mixed in to fill heads with visions of paradise, and the horrendous conditions for small tenant farmers in Ireland, Power soon had the several hundred prospective colonists signed up. The figure commonly given is 350, but others have given estimates several hundred higher. No one knows the exact number. Among those he recruited were his in-laws, the O’Brien family, Thomas, Elizabeth and their six children, his nephew Martin, son of his brother, Daniel, and his nephew Thomas O’Connor. There were a myriad of perils during ocean voyages at the time, so in addition to the boldness need to travel to an unknown wilderness, voluntarily facing the hazards the long voyage required a good deal of courage in itself. Before the trip over, that courage would be tested.
Power sent off the first group of colonists in early January 1834, going first to Liverpool then on to New Orleans aboard the Prudence. Their trip was uneventful, but the decision some of them made after arriving would prove to be critical to their future. A handful of them decided to go on to Refugio without waiting for Power, who would be on following later on the ship Heroine. They were the lucky ones.
The Prudence returned to Liverpool and departed in mid-March with more colonists, as did the Heroine. Power must have been overjoyed at his success as he and his family members enjoyed a very routine trip. The greatest danger in the close confines was always sickness, and there had been none. He had convinced well over three hundred Irish to make the momentous decision to travel to Texas, and knew the Prudence had safely reached New Orleans, and now his ship was about to do the same. All was well, now it was just on to Texas, their dreams were finally coming to pass, or so he thought.
When he got off the boat in New Orleans in late April, Power’s joy would turn to near despair. He discovered that a cholera epidemic was running rampant. He made his way into the city to find his colonists, hoping they had been spared, but his hopes were dashed. Dozens were sick and many had already died. Those who were still healthy, as one might expect, were angry and accosted Power, demanding he get them out of the fever-ridden city immediately. Dozens, unfortunately, would never see Texas and remain to this day in lonely graves in New Orleans, far from their homes and families in Wexford or other counties.
The colonists were battered and in misery, but not yet hopeless, and Power would not let them give up. He managed charter two old schooners, the Wild Cat and Sea Lion, and loaded up his survivors, leaving up to seventy in the fever hospitals of New Orleans. The trail of tears for these pilgrims was not over yet, however. On the way, it was feared that cholera had followed them as several passengers began to vomit. As the passengers got their visit glimpse of the Texas coast, they were hit with a violent storm. Gale force wind buffeted the ships. Both would run aground getting through Aransas Pass. It was May 5th when they all reached the shore safely, but lost many of the farm implements they had brought with them in the wrecked ships. Mexican authorities quarantined them on the shoreline when they discovered many, as feared, had cholera.
More would die there and be buried on the sandy beach, including the father of little Rosalie Hart, who had witnessed Power’s threatening the captain of the Sea Lion. Rosalie, who also got sick, but survived, recalled, “I saw them wrap my father in a blanket and bury him. I was very sick and lying on a pallet with him when he died. I thought at first that he was only sleeping, but when I tried to awaken him, I found he was dead.” No doubt she echoed the growing despondency of many of the colonists when she later wrote, “We were in a strange country, thousands of miles from our friends and relations, on a sand beach exposed to the burning heat of summer or drenched by rain through the day and at night surrounded by wild animals.”
When Power and his forlorn group of Irish finally crawled into the mission at Refugio by ox cart in early June, they had left trail of graves like bread crumbs marking their route. Exactly how many perished isn’t known, but it was over 100, possibly 150. Almost every family must have been touched with tragedy. From a surviving letter home by one of the colonist, we know that included Power’s own family. From the statement of Rosalie Hart, we know that his sister Elizabeth O'Brien and her husband and their daughter, Aggie, all died at Refugio within two months after their arrival. And Power himself was ill by the time they straggled into the mission. It may have been cholera, but it may well have been mental and physical exhaustion. Whatever it was, he survived it. Their disasters had been acts of God that were beyond his control, but he was the one who convinced them to come. His sorrow must have been included a liberal dose of guilt.
Power (right) immediately petitioned the local Mexican officials for help, and for the earliest possible distribution of land for them, relating their tale of woe, and of the colonist’s loss of “household goods, farming implements, tools, looms and forges.” Luckily for Power and Hewetson, their mortal enemy, Governor Juan Martin Veramendi, who might have blocked any assistance, had passed away. Ironically, it was from the same disease that has so devastated Power's colonists: cholera.
By August the long suffering colonists began to be issued titles to their land, though a handful also returned to Ireland. Meanwhile, back in Wexford, from letters and from those few who had gone home, who would obviously not be sanguine regarding Power and Texas, word of their disastrous journey had caused dismay among the families of the pioneers, and open hostility towards him. Power’s brother, Daniel, wrote to his son, Martin regarding James, that, “there was never such grievous calamity in this country as there has been since the accounts came from Texas and they chiefly blame him.” Still, as they began to receive their land, some of the surviving colonist did write home glowingly of Texas and of the land they had been given, as Power had promised.
Power and Hewetson were given 42,000 acres of land in return for fulfilling their contract. Part of the contract, one the Mexican would no doubt later regret, was that each colony form a militia. Power was chosen as commander of the Refugio militia and was thus known as Colonel Power for the remainder of his life. As spring turned to summer in 1835, and the Irish in Refugio colony had their first crops in the ground, they, and James Power, found that peace and prosperity would elude them for some time yet as the winds of war began to blow.
Power and most of the Refugio Irish joined in the Texas side in their revolution against Antonio López de Santa Anna, the new leader of Mexico. Power would take part in the capture of Fort Lipantitlán, near San Patrico in October. Two of his nephews were with that force as well, 13 year old Thomas O’Brien and 17 year old Thomas O’Connor. Power represented Refugio at the Convention of 1836. He was prominent there, taking part in drafting the Texas Declaration of Independence and being one of the signatories in March 1836. And he used his influence to help get his friend, Sam Houston , elected commander-in-chief of the Texan’s army.
(Left: General Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836, painting by S. Seymour Thomas.)
While Power was away at the convention, the Refugio colonists and a small force of Texans were trapped in the old mission by Mexican forces. It was his 13 year old nephew, Thomas O’Brien, who made a daring ride to Goliad for assistance. Assistance was sent, but they were still vastly out-numbered by the Mexicans and though they made a valiant resistance for a time, the “Battle of Refugio” ended with the defenders slipping away at night. Most of them, including a number of Refugio Irish, would be captured later and be victims of the infamous mass execution of Colonel Fannin’s men at Goliad. As this went on, Power was sent to New Orleans to attempt to obtain supplies for the Houston’s army.
(Below: a replica of the flag that flew over the Alamo.)
During the war, 15 Irish-born soldiers died at the Alamo. Another 14 died in the Goliad massacre. No group in Texas would suffer more in the war with Santa Anna than the Irish in the San Patrico and Refugio colonies, who would have most of their homes and their newly planted crops destroyed in addition to having many family members die in the conflict in the battles at the Alamo, Goliad, San Patricio, Agua Dulce Creek, Coleto Creek, and Refugio. At least 100 of the 910 men who served under General Sam Houston at the final victory at San Jacinto were born in Ireland. That included Power’s 17 year old nephew, Tom O’Connor, who was the youngest soldier in Houston’s army that day.
Many believe that the fighting between Mexico and the new Republic of Texas ended after San Jacinto, but that’s far from true. There were clashes off and on for many years. Power was captured twice and spent time in Mexican jails in both 1838 and 1841. The second time he was released through the intervention of his old partner, Hewetson, who was still living in Mexico. In 1842, he and the other colonists, including his nephews, Morgan O’Brien and Thomas O’Connor, fought the Mexicans again in the Battle of Nueces. Power and the colonists also had many clashes with the Lipan and Comanche tribes that still roamed the area.
(Below: San Jacinto, by William H. Huddle, 1847 – 1892)
Power had a son and a daughter with his wife, Dolores, but she tragically died during child birth in October 1836, while he was in New Orleans. Less than a year later he married her sister, Tomasita. They would have five children. He was one of the delegates to the Convention of 1845 that approved the annexation of the Republic of Texas to the United States, making it the 28th state.
James Power became ill and passed away on August 15, 1852 at his home, Live Oak Point, over looking Copano Bay, where he had landed his despondent band of Irish colonists 18 years earlier. He was at first buried near his home, but was later reinterred at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Refugio.
Though both war and pestilence had conspired to make his quest to bring hundreds of his countrymen to a better life in Texas a nightmare for many of them, many of them did eventually succeed in Texas, none more so than his nephew, Thomas O’Connor. After surviving the Battle of San Jacinto, he would one day own what was at the time of his death the largest ranch in Texas, valued at $4.5 million. Known as the "Texas Cattle King" he would also co-found a bank in San Antonio. Oil would later be discovered on their land, making the family multi-millionaires.
Today James Power is remembered as one of the Founding Fathers of the Republic and the state of Texas. In 1936 his homestead was marked by the Texas Centennial Commission. He was also not forgotten in his hometown of Ballygarrett. In 1996 the towns of Ballygarrett and Refugio were “twinned” for cultural economic and tourism purposes in honor of their connection through James Power.
U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kenney Smith unveiled a monument at St. Mary’s Church in Ballygarrett to Power and the local colonist on 19th May 1996. In a reverse of their trip to Texas in 1834, 140 Texan descendants of the original emigrants travelled to Ballygarrett to witness the tribute to James Power and their own ancestors. They represented a memorial to those indomitable pioneers and a living symbol of their ultimate triumph over the extreme odds they faced.
More on the Irish in Texas:
'The Irish Sword': A Community Chat All About Dick Dowling, with Mike Harrington
Confederate Hero, Dick Dowling: Miracle at Sabine Pass