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By W. T. Block
For three centuries Spain ignored Galveston Island, even though Cabeza de Vaca and other survivors of the ill-fated Narvaez expedition were shipwrecked there in 1528. On many of the oldest maps, the 25-mile-long sliver of sand did not even have a name until about 1775, while Don Bernardo de Galvez was Spanish governor general of Louisiana.

Others called it "Isla de Serpientes," or Snake Island, because of the countless cotton-mouth snakes that slithered across its beaches. Elsewhere on the island, verdant marsh grasses waltzed in rhythm with the crisp ocean breezes, providing excellent forage for the large herds of deer that had swum over from the mainland.

About 1800 a small band of Karankawa Indians began their permanent residence on the west end of the island, but they disappeared after a battle with the pirates in 1818. It was, however, the arrival of the Spanish filibusterers, Xavier Mina, Jose Herrera, and Don Luis de Aury, in 1816 that first caused Spain to take note of Galveston Island.

Close on the heels of the filibusterers came Jean Lafitte's buccaneers in April, 1817. Early in June, 1817, Lafitte sent a boat over to Bolivar Point, because James Campbell had built a fire there to signal for ferriage across the bay.

Awaiting the arrival of the boat were Campbell, his wife Mary, who had driven a wagon load of furniture and a herd of 100 cattle and 300 hogs from Crow's Ferry (later Sabine County, Texas) to Bolivar Peninsula. Lafitte was glad once more to see Campbell, who had joined him first at Barrataria Bay, La., in 1815. Mary Campbell became one of two buccaneer wives, who lived in the Lafitte commune at Campeachy for four long years.

James Campbell, who was by trade a sailmaker, had made one long voyage on the original privateer Hotspur to the coast of Cuba, where the boat was attacked by two Spanish cruisers, and the wounds that Campbell received on that voyage required an entire year to heal.

Lafitte wrote much about Campbell in his journal - that James was "one of my best secret officers" or "a good loyal Irishman and a fine, brave man." At first, Lafitte considered Campbell as being too young for a sea command, and he entrusted him in 1817 only with administrative duties - such as assistant treasurer, admiralty court judge, or head of the Bolivar Port Depot.

Campbell's U. S. naval pension file (File WC-30-345) reveals that he was gunner and sailmaker aboard Old Ironsides during the battle that dismasted the British frigate Guerriere in 1812. In 1813 he was a gunner aboard the flagship Niagara with Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry during the Battle of Lake Erie.

In 1818 Lafitte gave Campbell his first command at sea, the 6-gun privateer Concord. During its first six-weeks cruise, the Concord captured five Spanish galleons, carrying $100,000 worth of gold and silver bullion, and merchandise and other dry cargo of equal value.

On his second voyage, Campbell captured a Spanish slave ship with 308 Africans aboard. Campbell's memoirs do not disclose the fate of the Concord, but it was probably one of the 14 Lafitte privateers that sank in Galveston Bay during the hurricane of Sept., 1818.

From the beginning of his first cruise, Capt. Campbell led Lafitte's 50 ship captains in the volume of prizes and booty returned to Galveston. Lafitte lived amid a colony of conspirators and cutthroats, where jealousy festered, and as Lafitte's distrust of his ship captains mounted, his trust and faith in his young lieutenant, Jim Campbell, blossomed in correlation.

Once when Capt. John Marotte and his crew mutinied against the pirate chieftain, Campbell killed Marotte as the latter aimed his pistol at Lafitte. As a reward for his action, Lafitte sent Campbell to Baltimore early in 1819 to supervise the building of a new schooner, which Campbell soon named the Hotspur.

The new privateer was a "hermaphrodite" or topsail schooner, described as having "all wings and no feet." It was square-rigged on the foremast, schooner-rigged on the fore and mainmasts, and it flew a number of jibs and topsails.

The Hotspur mounted six guns, described in Charles Cronea's memoirs as a "long Tom aft, two carronades (short cannons with large bores) on each side, and a bow-chaser on the forecastle. The flag we flew was the Carthegenian colors {revolutionary Republic of Cartegena or Colombia}.

During the fall of 1819, Campbell made two short cruises on the Hotspur and took several Spanish prizes. In Jan., 1820, he loaded the Hotspur with a large cargo of fresh water and provisions, preparatory to a long cruise off the coasts of Tampico and Vera Cruz. He also enlisted into his crew of number of deserters from the French Navy, one of whom was 14-year-old Cronea, the cabin boy, and another was Gustave Duval, who became first mate.

During that last ten-months cruise of the Hotspur, the privateer again captured a number of Spanish prizes. Usually Campbell would remove all valuables, coins and bullion, rum, food, tobacco, and fresh water, before scuttling or burning the prizes. According to Mary Campbell's memoirs, her husband always treated his Spanish captives mercifully and released them ashore when the first land was sighted.

The memoirs of Cronea, the cabin boy, tell much more about that last voyage. He noted:

"Sometimes a Spaniard would show fight, and our gunners would put a round shot into her. Then you should have heard the Spanish yell and holler at us. They always surrendered quickly after that. Many people think we used to cut throats and make those we captured walk the plank, but that is a d----- lie! I never seed (sic) a single man murdered while I was with Campbell....."

Campbell learned from a crewman that his first mate Duval and other Frenchmen planned to murder Campbell and other crewmen, and steal the ship and its load of booty. On the date of the mutiny, the conspirators were on watch before they got drunk on rum. Campbell came on deck, where one Frenchman attacked him with a knife. The captain and others soon quelled the mutiny, killed Duval and the conspirators, but only with the loss of four loyal crew members dead or wounded.

In Nov., 1820, the Hotspur sailed up the Mermentau River in Louisiana to load fresh water, and while docked at Grand Chenier, Cronea, the cabin boy, deserted. While returning to the Gulf of Mexico, the Hotspur became hopelessly grounded on a mudflat.

Campbell and his crew waded ashore, carrying as much food and coins as they could, and they finally made their way back to Galveston aboard a passing sailboat. A month later, they returned to the Mermentau River aboard another privateer, but the wreckage of the Hotspur had disappeared, having apparently broken up or sunk in deeper water.

In March, 1821, Jean Lafitte and all the buccaneers sailed away into oblivion at the command of the U. S. Navy, but a small of nucleus of the Hotspur's old crew remained nearby for many years. In 1836, Capt. Campbell bought a 1,500-acre farm at Virginia Point near Texas City, where he raised cotton and cattle until his death in May, 1856. A Texas historical marker is erected at his gravesite.

One of the Hotspur's gunners, "Crazy Ben" Dollivar, lived out a lifetime of drunkenness at Galveston after Lafitte sailed away. He was well-known for paying for his whiskey at the Oyster Saloon with gold doubloons, but no one ever discovered where his treasure trove was buried.

Cronea had the distinction of being the last of Lafitte's pirates to be "keelhauled" into eternity in March, 1893, at age 88. He returned to Texas to raise a large family at Sabine Pass and High Island. In April, 1836, he was a member of the Texas Army near San Jacinto, and in 1847, he fought once more as an American soldier suring The Mexican War.

On March 1, 1997, about 230 Cronea descendents and friends gathered at the High Island Cemetery to dedicate a Texas historical marker to honor the memory of the old buccaneer, turned Texas hero.

While the wreckage of the Hotspur probably will never be found, it may be well to note the origin of the old pirate ship in case something should come up in a fish net in the future.
W. T. Block, Jr.
"Cannonball's Tales" >
December 16, 2006 column
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