By W. T. Block
and Confederate Soldier
Bonaparte Wiess was the first person of Anglo-American descent, born
in Port Neches,
Texas on March 10, 1839, all of the Joseph Grigsby children having
been born in Kentucky.1 Wiessí parents
were Simon Wiess, born Jan. 1, 1800 in Lublin, Poland of German Jewish
parentage; and Margaret Sturrock Wiess, born in Dundee, Scotland on
June 12, 1814. Theirs was a bond marriage in Dec. 1835, subject to
arriving at a courthouse somewhere to make the marriage legal.
Simon and Margaret opened their first mercantile business in Nacogdoches
in 1836, where their daughter Pauline was born. In 1837 Simon converted
his merchandise inventory into a keelboat load of baled cotton, prior
to floating downriver to Beaumont.
Simon operated a store briefly in Beaumont
before he opened his third business in Port
Neches, where Napoleon was born in 1839. After 3 business blunders,
Simon made his final move in 1840 to Wiess Bluff, 16 river miles north
where he built his home, store, cotton warehouse building, and steamboat
dock. Wiess Bluff was as far north on
Neches River that steamboats could travel during the low water
season of summer. Wiessí last four sons were all born at Wiess Bluff.2
is known of Napoleonís early years, except that he received a rudimentary
education, at first at his motherís knees. It seems likely as well
that Simon Wiess hired a private tutor for his 6 children, or perhaps
started the first log cabin school at Wiess Bluff. No doubt, too,
Napoleon learned much too while clerking, weighing, grading, and loading
cotton during the 1850s.
One of the tales told of Napoleon and Mark Wiess occurred in 1856
while their father made a business journey by buggy into Tyler County,
and one hour after leaving, his wife discovered that her husband had
forgotten his business papers. She sent Napoleon and Mark, racing
through the forest, and 2 hours and 12 miles later, they overtook
their father. However the footrace had so exhausted their vigor, it
required 6 hours to retrace their steps that earlier had consumed
only 2 hours.3
On June 20, 1861, Napoleon Wiess married Cynthia Ann Sorelle, who
was born in Arkansas on Aug. 14, 1845. On Mar. 25, 1861, the 4 oldest
Wiess brothers helped organize Jasper Countyís ďRed Star Guard Rifles,Ē
with Napoleon Wiess elected as first lieutenant. On Sept. 20, 1861,
Mark and William Wiess enlisted in cavalry Co. A, Spaightís 11th Texas
Battalion at Sabine
Pass, followed by Napoleon on July 3, 1862.4
The best record of Napoleonís military experience can be found in
one of his letters, deposited in Galvestonís
Rosenberg Library, and quoted in Beaumont Enterprise of Aug. 12, 1964,
in part as follows:5
...We had a little battle among all the little fights... We lost 37
men killed, 60 wounded, 11 prisoners. The Yankees lost 355 killed
and wounded... We also took 1,240 muskets... Cousins David and Peter
were also in the fight and came out safe (presumed to be from the
Sturrock side). The battlefield is about 4 miles long. We also captured
2 pieces of artillery and some small arms. Some of the boys... also
got clothing and a good many horses... I almost forget how you look-and
I have not had a scratch of a pen from a soul since I have been over
here. Your affectionate son Napoleon
listed the fight as the Battle of Carencro Bayou, when actually
it was the Battle of Bayou Bourbouef, fought in Nov., 1863. Napoleon
did not know the final tally of battle losses, which amounted to
716 casualties for the Federals and 170 casualties for the Confederates.
One source listed Napoleon Wiess as on "detached service, Jan. 24,
1864-England," which could very well be true. Napoleon's company
arrived back at Sabine
Pass in Dec. 1863, and Confederate soldiers were often detailed
to man blockade-runners, loaded with cotton.
On my website, "The Diary of 1st Sgt. H. N. Conner lists all 4 Wiess
brothers as soldiers on the Co. A. muster roll, but mentions nothing
special about them. However, Valentine Wiess was also detailed to
Wiess Bluff Jan. 1865 to supervise slaves.6
It is unknown exactly how the end of the Civil War affected Napoleon
Wiess. It certainly affected Simon Wiess' cotton commission business,
for the cotton shipments from Sabine
Pass, which reached 20,000 bales in 1860, dropped to only 6,500
bales in 1866.7
next known activity of Captains Napoleon and William Wiess entailed
the bringing of the steamboats Albert Gallatin, James L. Graham,
Adriance, and Alamo to the Neches
waters. (This was the Albert Gallatin No. 2, about which very little
is known. The Albert Gallatin No. 1 exploded in Galveston Bay on
Dec. 23, 1841, with several killed, and while racing another steamer.)8
William Wiess was captain of both the Alamo (nicknamed the "sitting
goose") and Adriance. William Wiess explained that he had sailed
his steamers as far north as Belzora, Smith County, on the Sabine;
Pattonia, Nacogdoches County, on the Angelina; and Rockland, Tyler
County, on the Neches.9
It is not known from whom Napoleon Wiess purchased the Albert Gallatin,
or to whom he disposed of it, although it was probably "traded in"
on the James L. Graham. Had the Gallatin been sunk in a river or
the lake, it seems logical that such a disaster would have appeared
in a newspaper. The Gallatin was the second steamboat ever built
in 1867, adjacent to the Goldsmith and Reagan sawmill, which later
became the Mark Wiess and James Potter sawmill in 1869. One source
Albert Gallatin, built in Beaumont,
with Capt. Napoleon Wiess at the helm, sent word ahead that when the
river was at flood stage in 1870, he would come and get the cotton...
the boat docked at Boone's Ferry (due north from Chester,
TX in Tyler County) for 2 days, and a great ball was held for
2 days on the upper deck, and people came from 20 miles away-from
Woodville to Moscow-in
| For reasons
unknown to me, Napoleon Wiess disposed of the Gallatin in 1870 and
purchased the James L. Graham. The Graham was built in Pittsburgh
in 1866, was about 105 feet long, weighed 113 tons, and could carry
400 bales. In 1867 the Graham belonged to Capt. Ferguson at Galveston.
In Nov. 1869 its new owners, Pry and Hadnot, bought the Graham and
brought it to Sabine
River, but strangely nothing else is known about the Graham prior
to its sale to Napoleon Wiess in 1870.11
Early in June, 1871, a moderate hurricane struck Sabine
Pass soon after the Graham had sailed, bound for Beaumont.
There was much local fear that the steamer had foundered in Sabine
Lake. Instead, the Graham set a new speed record to Beaumont,
arriving in 4 Ĺ hours. Editor McClanahan of the Sabine Pass Beacon
was so impressed that he asked: "...Why must we tolerate a contemptible
pony mail to Sabine
Pass when the J. L. Graham can run the distance in much faster
In 1928, 90-year-old "Uncle Tom" Seamens, of Seamen's Bluff near Boone's
Bluff, told of his experiences as fiddler aboard Capt. N. Wiess' steamers.
Ordinarily Seamens was a cotton farmer, but when cotton harvest ended,
he fiddled for the next 3 months aboard either the Gallatin or Graham
until 1872. Seamens was a Confederate soldier in Spaight's Battalion,
and he first met Nap Wiess there while both were soldiers. Seamens
wrote of being forced to watch a deserter being shot by a firing squad
in Aug., 1864, which my Grandpa Block also had to watch.13
Another man who sailed on Capt. Napoleon Wiess' steamers was Capt.
W. E. Rogers of Sabine
Pass and Beaumont.
Rogers had been 2nd engineer on the Mary Falvey at Beaumont
in 1856, and later he was chief engineer aboard the 225-foot Florilda
when he enlisted in Co. A, Spaight's Battalion, where the 4 Wiess
brothers also soldiered. In 1865 Rogers was detailed briefly as captain
of the Florilda when it was a Confederate tender. The Florilda sank
at Ochiltree's Wharf in Orange
during the hurricane of Sept. 6, 1865.
After the war, with no other jobs available, Rogers sailed as first
mate on the Gallatin and Graham. After Napoleon Wiess' death on March
12, 1872, Rogers and 2 partners bought the Graham from Cynthia Ann
Wiess (and anyone else who may have owned an interest). Rogers sold
the Graham to Galveston owners in 1875, and the fast packet foundered
on Redfish Reef in Galveston Bay in May, 1876.14
Roger's daughter Kate was the Wiess Bluff school teacher in 1890.
the height of his sailing career, Napoleon Wiess' untimely death of
pneumonia at age 33 occurred at Wiess Bluff on Mar. 12, 1872, and
he is buried beside his wife Cynthia in the Wiess family cemetery.
Certainly fate played a terrible prank on his widow Cynthia Ann, who
was left to raise 5 children alone at age 27; and was also destined
to die at the young age of 45. A similar event occurred to Dora Bumstead
Wiess, whose husband, William S. Wiess, was killed at age 31 in a
sawmill boiler explosion.
The children of Napoleon and Cythia Ann Wiess were William Simon Wiess
(June 20, 1862--Nov. 14, 1893); Capt. Edward Sorelle Wiess (Dec. 14,
1864-June 9, 1922); Martha Ann "Mattie" Wiess (1866--?); Margaret
Isabell "Maggie Wiess (Jan. 2, 1869--Mar. 10, 1960); Walter Wingate
Wiess (Dec. 24, 1870-Aug. 24, 1954); and Napoleon B. Wiess, Jr. (1871-1874).15
William Simon Wiess was married twice, first to Mary M. Simms (1861-1889),
by whom he had 2 sons and daughter, and second to Dora Bumstead (1871-1951),
by whom he also had one son and a daughter. Amy Lea Wiess' birth at
Cairo, Jasper County, on Mar. 2, 1881-2 indicates that her father
W. S. Wiess was working for the Yellow Bluff Tram Company and its
crosstie sawmill at Cairo. W. S. Wiess was working at his brother-in-law's,
George W. Hooks, sawmill at Hooks Switch (also known as Sharon or
Arriola), Hardin County, when the boilers suffered a very violent
explosion, killing 4 men and injuring 6. W. S. Wiess and Lemuel Waldrop
were 2 of the 4 killed. One big boiler was found lying 150 yards away
from the mill.16
William S. Wiess' children by Mary Simms and Dora Bumstead included
Amy Lea Wiess (Mar. 2, 1881-Sept. 13, 1958); William Napoleon "Bud"
Wiess (Dec. 16, 1883-killed in train accident Jul. 21, 1903); Thomas
Edward Wiess (1888-1889); Jessie Wiess (Sept. 24, 1892-Nov. 30, 1970);
and William Simon Wiess II (May 14, 1894-Oct. 3, 1952).
Capt. Edward Sorelle Wiess was a tugboat captain at Sabine
Pass, and he married Flavilla McGaffey of Sabine on Feb. 12, 1894.
The progeny of that family included Jennie Vivian Wiess, who married
Capt. Dan Bromley; Floyd Wiess, who married Rosabelle Sweeney (the
writer's first cousin); Cornelia, who married 1) Jack Berry, 2) Gene
McCrory, 3) J. W. McGaffey; Lillian, who married Steven Fred Austin;
Birdie, who married Capt. Carl Bromley; M. Kathleen, who married 1)
Asa C. Welch, 2) Tom Ridley; Mary Nellie, who married 1) J. H. Northrup,
2) T. Simesasa, 3) H. Settlemire; Louie Colen, who married Louella
Hughes; and Marjorie, who married 1) E. E. Granger, 2) B. B. Lang.
I remember an incident involving Kathleen Welch's granddaughter-in-law
back about 1972 when I was on the staff at Lamar University. She came
to me and asked if I could supply the genealogy of Kathleen Welch.
I told her I could, but it might take me a while. What she did not
know was that I had supplied the genealogy of Floyd Wiess to my second
cousin Richard Wiess. I had heaps of info about Simon and Margaret
Wiess, Napoleon and Cynthia Wiess, John and Sarah McGaffey, Increase
R. and Julia Marie Burch, Bradley Garner, Sr., etc., and all I had
to do was erase Floyd Wiess' name and enter Kathleen. The next morning
I called her and told her I had the genealogy ready. She expressed
great surprise and gratitude that I was able to complete it so quickly,
and I was less than honest with her, noting that I supposed I "just
had a special knack for genealogy."
Martha "Mattie" Wiess married Sherwood Increase Burch (Jr.) on Apr.
20, 1886. (The original Burch brothers at Sabine
Pass, Sherwood, Sr.; Increase, and Charles, had, like Napoleon
Wiess, a long steamboat history of their own as cotton steamer captains.)17
Their progeny included Eliz. Eleanor Burch, who married Dr. John McKinnon;
Ann M. Burch, who married Oscar Herndon; Ruth Burch, who married K.
Eichelberger; Sherwood Burch, Jr. (III), who married Love Smith; and
Charles Edward Burch, who married Aline Janecka.
Margaret Isabell (Maggie) Wiess married George Washington Hooks, who
was a partner with Dr. S. B. Turner in the Hooks Switch sawmill. Their
progeny included Dessie (1886-1887); Lou Seale Hooks, who married
F. H. Patrick; Thomas Wiess Hooks, who married Dorothy Hoyt; Edison
Hooks, who married Jennie Martin; Ethel Hooks, who married J. H. Vertrees;
William Napoleon Hooks, who married 1) Ethel Dean, 2) Christine Gaday;
Thelma Lorrain Hooks, who married Earl V. Massey; and Georgia Hooks,
who married Ben Avant.
Walter Wingate Wiess married 1) ?? Hooks, 2) Johnnie Ella Moffett.
Their progeny included Bessie Belle Wiess, who married John W. K.
Walker; Walter Wingate Wiess, who married Mary Lou Phillips; Gladys
Wiess, who married Parley Conley; Edward Wiess, who married 1) Frances
Burrow, 2) Agnes Nelson; Mattie Lee Wiess, who married Don F. Burton;
and Harold Wiess, who married Margaret Nelson.18
Hence, these are the amazing annals of Napoleon and Cynthia Ann Sorelle
Wiess, which was also marked by early deaths; 2 widowhoods, leaving
families of young children still to be raised; and the epics of William
and Napoleon Wiess, which contributed to the cotton steamboat history
of East Texas.
Four Wiess brothers fought valiantly for the Confederate States of
America, which cause ended in total defeat, as well as the near destruction
of the Simon Wiess cotton commission business at Wiess Bluff. However
the Wiess brothers fought their way back from defeat as well, and
who knows what Napoleon Wiess might have accomplished had not fate
intervened, and did not permit him to live to a ripe old age. His
descendents today probably will number into the thousands.
© W. T. Block, Jr.
November 23, 2007 column
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1 W. T. Block, SAPPHIRE CITY OF THE NECHES: A BRIEF HISTORY OF PORT
NECHES, TEXAS ETC. (Austin: Eakin, 1987), 12.
2 W. T. Block, COTTON BALES, KEELBOATS, AND STERNWHEELERS: A HISTORY
OF THE SABINE RIVER AND TRINITY RIVER COTTON TRADES, 1837-1900, (Woodville,
1995), 29-43; W. T. Block, "From Cotton Bales to Black Gold: A History
of the Pioneer Wiess Families of Southeastern Texas,'" Texas Gulf
Historical and Biographical Record, VIII, No,. 1 (Nov. 1971), 39-61.
3 Beaumont Journal, March 3, 1907.
4 "Jasper County and the Civil War," Kirbyville TX Banner, Sept. 15,
1961; Muster Roll of Co. A, in Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical
Record, Nov. 1971, p. 29; also muster roll of Co. A in "Diary of 1st
Sgt. H. N. Conner."
5 Reprinted from Beaumont Enterprise, Aug. 12, 1964, from original
in Rosenberg Library.
6 W. T. Block, "The Swamp Angels: A History of Spaight's 11th Texas
Battalion," East Texas Historical Journal, XXX, No. 1 (1992), 44-58;
"Diary of 1st Sgt. H. N. Conner;" Beaumont Enterprise, Jan. 21, 1912;
Ibid. Sept. 21, 1910, both of the latter articles written by William
7 Cotton Bales, Keelboats, p 79.
8 Telegraph and Texas Register. Dec. 29, 1841.
9 Cotton Bales, Keelboats, p. 81.
10 J. P. Landers, "Valentine Burch," TEXANA, III (Summer, 1965), 109-110.
11 Cotton Bales, Keelboats, 84; Lasworth, "Texas Steamboat Register,"
12 Sabine Pass Beacon, June 10, 1871.
13 W. T. Block, "Tom Seamens: Pioneer's Tales Cover Area History,"
Beaumont Enterprise, Jan. 11, 2003.
14 Beaumont News-Beacon, May 31, 1873; Galv. Weekly News, June 1,
1876; "Obituaries of Capt. W. E. Rogers, Beaumont Enterprise, also
Journal, May 15, 1925; W. T. Block, "Capt. Rogers Kept Busy Running
Supplies," Beaumont Enterprise, May 11, 2002.
15 Taken from Tom Cloud's website at http://mykindred.com/wiess.
16 Galv. Daily News, Nov. 15, 1893; W. T. Block, EAST TEXAS MILL TOWNS
AND GHOST TOWNS, Vol. 2 (Lufkin: 1995), "Hardin County, pp. 37-39;
"Jasper County," pp. 87-91.
17 The 1860 Census of Sabine Pass, res. 322, Increase R. Burch, capt.
Sabine; res. 372, Charles Burch, steamboat pilot; res 328, Sherwood
Burch, steamboat clerk; Cotton Bales, Keelboats, 17, 47, 50, 67, 82,
18 Taken from Tom Cloud's website at http://mykindred.com/wiess.