was hard enough for the Republic of Texas to field an army to fight
against Mexico in 1836, but outfitting a navy was truly daunting.
Part of the solution was to hire privateers, ships that were owned,
equipped and manned with private capital. As many as a dozen such
privateers supplemented the four ships of the Texas navy during the
The privateers were given a license called a letter of marque and
reprisal, which was supposed to offer a measure of protection for
the crew as prisoners of war in the event of capture. Otherwise, they
were treated as pirates, meaning their careers and lives ended at
the point of capture.
Texas needed a navy of some kind to keep its own avenues of commerce
open and to harass Mexican ships that might attack the coast. "As
to the state of the seaboard, keep the navy busy," Sam
Houston suggested in March of 1836.
The most successful of the Texas privateers was the Thomas Toby, formerly
known as the DeKalb and named in honor of the Texas agent in
New Orleans. It was outfitted with a battery of eight side guns and
an eight-pound "long tom" mounted on a pivot and sailed up and down
the Mexican coast, looking for trouble.
The Thomas Toby was captained by Nathaniel Hoyt, who was described
by one writer as "a vulgar, rude, coarse-looking man" known to offend
the sensibilities of the ladies. A perfect pirate, in other words.
In September of 1836, the Toby sailed from Velasco
in search of two Mexican brigs bound for Vera Cruz from Baltimore.
The Mexican ships were never located, so Hoyt and the crew of the
Thomas Toby entertained themselves by blockading Vera Cruz and Tampico.
The ship sailed into the port of Tampico, seized a Mexican schooner
for condemnation and bombarded the coast for good measure. None of
this was authorized by the Republic, but they were pirates and didn't
At Sisal, the Toby sailed into port under the guise of a British flag
and captured a Mexican merchant vessel, the Mexicano, and escaped
under heavy fire from the fort, which was, as Hoyt had judged, a little
too far away for the guns to reach.
Though pesky and impetuous, the Toby didn't inflict a lot of actual
damage on the Mexican coast. The real damage was to the Mexican psyche.
A Tampico newspaper reported that the little schooner "frightened
the good people of the town out of their wits" and another noted that
the mere appearance of the Tom Toby "spread alarm over the whole coast."
The Toby sailed for New Orleans in November of 1836 and was back in
action in January, hanging around the mouth of the Mississippi River
in search of any Mexican vessel trying to make its way out of New
Orleans. In February, a big storm hit the Louisiana coast and tossed
the vessel into the mud near Bayou La Fourche, where it was stranded
for 10 days.
This turn of events set the stage for a short-lived mutiny, which
Hoyt was able to suppress but not without the loss of three lives
- four, counting the one mutineer who was eventually hanged.
Under repairs in New Orleans again, the owners of the Thomas Toby
tried to sell the ship to the Republic of Texas for $15,000 in land
scrip, but the price was too steep for the fledgling republic. The
Toby returned to its old haunts and its old tricks, taking ships and
making its presence known along the coast. The Mexican press continued
to hound authorities to go find the pirate ship "in order to punish
and impede its daring." But the Mexican Navy was ill-equipped for
such a mission.
Ultimately, a storm did in the Tom Toby. A hurricane hit Galveston
in October of 1837 and sent the ship to the bottom of West Bay, somewhere
off Virginia Point. Wreckers found a pair of its cannon in 1873 and
displayed them for a while at a plumbing and gas fitting store in
It's believed the guns were eventually melted down and sold for scrap.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
December 2, 2015 column
Related Topics: Column
| Texas Towns | Texas