Judge Joshua Wilson McCown
Smuggled Early Texas Archives for Sam Houston Barely Survived Infamous Steamboat Explosion Early Leader in Cameron Hill County Judge
Brother Mccown was born February 6, 1804 in Bardstown, Kentucky destined for great things. His father was a hero of Kentucky who had fought extensively in the American Revolution. Alexander McCown was among the men requested and received by Washington at Long Island when reinforcements were needed in the famous battle there. He also served with Washington at Princeton and White Marsh before forming his own volunteer company and leading early Americans until the end of the war. Our own Brother McCown aimed to match his father’s legend and did so across the new lands of Texas.
When Joshua McCown was 16, he left Bardstown for Tennessee where he worked as deputy clerk for Franklin County. By 1836, he owned lots of land in and operated a farm in Murfreesboro. His farmland would later be the site of that famous Civil War battle of the same name, at which several 92 men fought. Also in 1836, tales of a successful Revolution in Texas and opportunities in a new Republic were attracting countless men in Tennessee and I suspect that McCown’s own interest was piqued as he recalled the stories his father told him when he was a boy. Though he owned a lot of land, he had little else especially after a failed business venture in New Orleans. That fall, he brought his family to Nacogdoches. As he later recalled,
“I took my carriage and loaded up a half barrel of soap my wife had made and about 100 pounds of sausage we made from our last hog, gathered up a few chickens and some eggs and headed to Texas.”
Flooding and attacks by natives caused him and his family great distress so on September 10, 1837, they set out for Washington-on-the-Brazos, the first capital of the Republic, where he had already been doing business. On one of his business trips, he had performed a unique task for the early Republic. In 1842, Sam Houston, president of Texas, hired McCown for the task of smuggling the Republic’s first records back to Washington-on-the-Brazos from Houston, the new capital. The city of Houston had voted against giving the president a free home and so he was responding by skipping town with the archives. Once McCown got the president and the archives outside the Houston city area, the wagon train paused long enough for Sam to put a curse on the citizens of his namesake city and knock the mud off his boots before he hopped back on for the remainder of the trip.
In traveling to Washington with his family, he noted that settlers were in fortified settlements so as to ward off Indians. In Washington, he purchased forty acres on the west side of town and built a home there. It had become the custom in the surrounding community for townspeople to test new settlers so they could decide whether to let them stay or send them out. Upon checking McCown, one of the men told him they thought he “would do.” It was long remembered afterwards that McCown tersely responded, “Do or no do, I’m staying right here.”
McCown farmed his new land until he began an enterprise hauling and selling goods from Houston as far north up the Brazos as present-day Hillsboro where Fort Graham was then located a few miles west. So many times in the journals of early 92 men, we find a similar story of them traveling up the Brazos with the Texas Rangers or for some other purpose and they all seemed to say the same thing. The area around Waco was so beautiful that they felt drawn to it when thinking of a place to call home.
McCown moved to Cameron in 1848 where he and his son are fondly remembered as important pioneers. While in Cameron, McCown conceived an idea that Basil Hatfield’s steamboat “Washington” could bring their merchandise to their new location on Little River. His friends and the local settlers made fun of him for the ridiculous notion. It is likely this made McCown all the more determined and in 1851, those settlers were singing a very different tune:
“Men, women and children, all ages, sexes and conditions, in all stages of dress and undress – a motley company of curiosity seekers – came pouring out from the settlements. As the Washington puffed and wriggled along the winding stream dodging a lot of drift-wood here and clearing a sharp angle there, knots of sight-seers would greet it with a great profusion of shouts and hurrahs, and much waving of wool hats and calico bonnets and aprons. Passengers were taken on at each stop, any one being at liberty to ride, and when stops were not made some of the more ambitious swam out into the river on horseback and climbed on the steamer while in motion. In this way the boat rapidly filled up until it became a mass of surging, shouting, rollicking humanity.”
McCown actually rode the steamboat up the river to Cameron along with his friend Aquilla Jones, for whom the town of Aquilla was named. McCown later recalled,
“As the boat came along Little River, we ran just under a long limb that reached out over the water. I was standing on the hurricane deck with Aquilla Jones. I saw the limb and jumped over it, but Jones jumped on it and as the boat passed on, he was left hanging on the limb some forty feet above the rushing waters. He could not make it to the tree so he was compelled to drop into the water and we went back to get him.”
The town festivities continued for two days until the “Washington” headed back down the river. The story was told for decades and today, an historical marker signifies the event.
In 1853, he made a business trip to Galveston where he bore witness to a notorious disaster. There had been a successful company of steamboats operating there for some time. Captain John Sterrett operated the “Farmer” until he decided to open his own company and so he purchased the “Neptune.” Brother McCown happened to be aboard the Farmer in the spring of 1853 when the two steamboats came alongside each other heading to the same destination. The race was on.
“The captain of the Farmer, Captain Webb, said he was going to ‘beat the Neptune or go to hell trying’ and I believed him. So when the boats were side by side, I jumped from the Farmer onto the Neptune. The Farmer went rapidly to the front but when only a short distance ahead, the boiler exploded and created a fearful wreck.”
McCown helped to rescue some of the Farmer’s passengers from the water, including a co-founder of Waco, Caleb Hubby. Ultimately, thirty-six people died in the wreckage. Among them: Captain Webb. You can read more about the explosion by clicking here.
Soon after, McCown made his way to Hill County. He purchased the old farm of Peter Fleming, one of the first men to settle in central Texas. The farm consisted of thousands of acres and McCown had finally found a town to call home. The town was named Towash after an Indian chief and McCown quickly became its leading citizen. He continued working as a farmer, teamster, and court clerk and judge. Over time, his property dwindled down to two hundred acres along the Brazos.
When the Civil War began to brew, McCown publicly fought against secession and in fact, many citizens thought of him as a Union man. Stories spread across the state of McCown hiring Mexican immigrants to work his farm instead of the usual forced laborers. The stories were spreading because he apparently was having extraordinary success and efficiency. His reputation was so great that he suffered no real consequences for his unpopular views regarding the Confederacy.
Despite the general disdain held by Texans for McCown’s views on secession and slavery, he spent his later years as a judge and was elected Justice of the Peace for Hill County.
McCown eventually died at home in Towash and at the time of his death, he had twenty children, had been a Methodist for 69 years and was an active mason and Knight Templar. He was buried in Towash Cemetery but his remains were relocated to Whitney Memorial Park before Towash was buried under Lake Whitney. It was said at the time of his death that he had virtually known all the prominent Texans in its early days and out of all of them, Bigfoot Wallace was his favorite.