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Thomas Toby, Privateer

by Clay Coppedge
It 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 Republic era.

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 care.

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 Galveston.

It's believed the guns were eventually melted down and sold for scrap.



Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" December 2, 2015 column

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