The history of the Texas Navy Steam Ship Zavala
The Steamship Zavala, originally named the Charleston, was a Texas Navy ship in the second Texas Navy. Constructed in 1836 as a passenger steamship, it initially operated along the Philadelphia-Charleston route. However, in 1838, as the Texan Navy underwent reconstruction under President Lamar, the vessel was purchased for $120,000 and renamed Zavala in honor of Lorenzo de Zavala, the Republic of Texas’s first vice president. The Zavala was armed with four 12 pounder medium range guns and a long range 12 pounder.
In May 1839, it assisted in the refloating of the French frigate Néréide, which had run aground at Galveston. Captain A.C. Hinton was her first Commander in the Texas Navy. After Hinton struggled to refit the Zavala, Captain John T. K. Lothrop took command on March 4, 1840, leading the Zavala on its only campaign.
During this campaign, the Zavala, accompanied by the Texas Navy Commodore Moore’s flagship, the sloop-of-war Austin, and three armed schooners, set sail to the Bay of Campeche near the Yucatan Peninsula. President Lamar aimed to support rebels in their struggle against Mexico City. While the Zavala didn’t directly engage the enemy, it proved crucial in a significant action. On November 20, 1840, the steamship towed Moore’s flagship, the Austin, and the schooner San Bernard 90 miles up the San Juan Bautista River to Villahermosa, the capital of Tabasco. The squadron had made a deal with federalist rebels to drive the centralistas out for $25,000, the first $10,000 to be paid up front. The small flotilla pointed their guns at the city and dispatched troops into the capital, the town surrendered without a shot. Commodore Moore encountered a man bearing a white flag on a tree branch, and when he ascertained that this was the mayor, the Texas commodore demanded $25,000 or he would level the town. The mayor asked if silver would be acceptable, and upon receiving an affirmative reply, delivered the ransom. The commodore set sail with his loot and used the money to pay the Texas sailors and to repair and outfit his ships.
Upon returning to her homeport in Galveston, the Steamship Zavala faced a harrowing ordeal when it encountered a severe storm. Finding themselves without sufficient coal, the crew resorted to burning anything available to avoid losing the ship to the storm. The aftermath left the Zavala severely damaged, prompting the decision to lay her up in Galveston harbor for necessary repairs.
Unfortunately, the Republic of Texas was grappling with financial constraints at the time, hindering the prompt attention to the much-needed repairs. As Texas’ finances struggled to support such endeavors, the Zavala languished in Galveston Harbor.
When Sam Houston was elected in 1841, his administration no longer considered the Navy a priority, and the Zavala was left to deteriorate further. Once a symbol of Texan naval strength, the vessel fell victim to neglect as it awaited repairs that never materialized. In 1842 she was run aground and allowed to rot and sink in the mud flats around the harbor. Eventually, only the tops of her boilers and one of her stacks remained visible.
In 1986, Clive Cussler, the founder of the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), successfully discovered the hull of the Zavala beneath a parking lot in the former Bean’s Wharf area of the harbor. Notably, Clive Cussler incorporated the Zavala’s legacy into his NUMA Files series of adventure novels, where one of the main characters, named Jose ‘Joe’ Zavala, pays homage to the historic ship.
You can view a scale model and artwork of the ship in our collection.
Although not yet on display, the TMM has possession of remnants of the Zavala’s boiler that were recovered from the Galveston site, the only known artifacts from any of the Texas Navy vessels. An exhibit featuring the boiler remnants and related materials is to be an element of an expansion plan currently being considered for the museum.