There are historical figures whose names live on beyond their times. Burleson, Caldwell, McCulloch are but a few who left their mark on our local area. But there is another name, somewhat less known, that helped to forge our early history.
There is a Texas State Historical Marker at 115 east Main in Nacogdoches which provides a brief synopsis. It reads: (1801 – 1873) Creator of the Texas Navy, builder of the first wharf at Galveston. Financial advisor of the Republic of Texas. Senior member of the firm of McKinney & Williams whose mercantile establishment occupied this site, 1823-1830.
Thomas F. McKinney was one of those characters who lived large, making and losing his fortune over the course of a juicy, colorful life. To McKinney, frontier life was thrilling, opportunistic and rife with the kind of challenge that feeds the human spirit. As the fourth of eleven children in Lincoln County, Kentucky, he was enticed to Texas with its promise of reward for hard work and self-application. In 1824 McKinney was one of the original recipients of a league of land (~4,428 acres) to help settle Stephen F. Austin’s fledgling colony on the Brazos River—despite this grant, he settled in Nacogdoches where his uncle operated a trading post. McKinney started his own store on the square there in 1823.
Although this may not sound like a big deal, we have to remember the context. Given the culture at the time, methods of travel and distance involved, it would be equivalent to coming over on the Mayflower—or some continent foreign in the most profound ways—and launching a technical start-up. This is putting it all on the line for the chance of living a dream through hard work and sacrifice.
During his time in Nacogdoches, McKinney made one trip to New Orleans and returned by keelboat up the Neches and Angelina rivers—his first foray into exploring beyond his home base for new business. As his trading skills developed he took cotton and piece goods to Saltillo, Mexico and traded them for livestock and other valuable commodities. Entrepreneurship did not just run in his veins; it pounded through them!
With such a flair for business, it was only a matter of time (1833) before McKinney partnered with M. B. Menard, the pioneer founder of Galveston, in setting up a steam sawmill business there. This would prove to be an important connection. Handy with a Kentucky rifle and fluent in Spanish, McKinney now traveled throughout Texas and Mexico making valuable business contacts. He was a man of curiosity and influence. As his fortune grew, he moved to San Felipe, the social, economic and political center of the early Stephen F. Austin colony, where he established a commission business in 1834 with a new partner, one Samuel May Williams, who was one of Austin’s land agents at San Felipe, and the two men founded McKinney-Williams and Company. No two men did or ever could work better in a harness. It was a business for the times. It soon became Texas’ largest merchandising and shipping firm and first banking institution.
It was more than just a knack for recognizing profitable business deals; it was about filling real needs for customers who had no reliable alternative. Without the go-betweens risking limb and capital, commerce in the early frontier settlements would have been mostly barter. McKinney was a pioneer of a different kind. He forged relationships that did not previously exist, he took chances no one else was willing to risk and he brought stability and prosperity to others through his mercantile appetite.
McKinney and Williams became the first Texas merchants to use steamboats to transport cotton through inland waterways. By 1835, their steamers “Yellowstone” and “Laura” were probing as far inland as Washington-on-the-Brazos and to Jared Groce’s plantation at Groce’s Retreat. The firm of McKinney-Williams prospered and soon began helping supply the Texas revolution in 1835-36. The McKinney and Williams’s partnership even lent $99,000 to the cause for Texas Independence (which was never repaid in full). Early in 1836 the “Yellowstone” helped during the Runaway Scrape by ferrying General Houston’s ragtag army to the east side of the Brazos River.
Always spoiling for a fight, McKinney gave more than money to the Texas Revolutionary cause. While on board his schooner, San Felipe, he put a serious dent in Mexican harassment of Texas-bound shipping by personally capturing the Correo de Mexico in September 1835. He even procured a privateering license (in essence a license to become a government pirate) from the Provisional Government and used the firm’s credit to buy the William Robbins, renamed Liberty, for the rebel government. Throughout the Texas Revolution, McKinney refused commissions as commissary general and loan agent while he continued to forward men and supplies to General Sam Houston’s Texas revolutionary army. T. F. McKinney was a giant of a Texan in the days of the Texas Republic, either a friend or an enemy of everyone worthy of mention in early Texas history.
In 1837, the McKinney-Williams firm gradually transferred its operational headquarters to Galveston, acquiring in time one-fifth of the property on Galveston Island. McKinney became one of the wealthiest leaders of the new Republic. As the juggernaut gathered steam, McKinney and Williams joined with other entrepreneurs (including Menard) to form the Galveston City Company and built wharves to handle the swelling volume of sea and river traffic. T.F. McKinney served as state senator from Galveston in 1846 and in the Texas House of Representatives in 1849. McKinney-Williams and Co. prospered handsomely in Galveston until 1857, the year of Sam Williams’ death.
While we cannot be completely certain what was going on in McKinney’s head at the time, it is known that he was very impulsive. The bottom line is that losing his business partner was a turning point in McKinney’s good fortune. He soon lost interest in merchandising and allowed his banking and cotton-trading activities to lapse. By 1857, McKinney had already moved to a new plantation on Onion Creek, six miles west of Austin in Travis County, where he raised thoroughbred race horses and cattle. An early life of wheeling and dealing had distilled into becoming a gentleman farmer infatuated with amusing himself.
Politically, McKinney was equally mercurial. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861 he was a member of the Democratic Party and an ardent Unionist like Sam Houston, even though he owned slaves and made his fortune trading. Despite the apparent paradox, already too old for military service, McKinney served the Confederacy as a cotton buyer and purchasing agent until 1865. These were difficult years for McKinney. The duplicity of various individuals and the confusion of the times left him liable for contracted debts. This burden, along with the loss of about fourteen slaves, crippled him financially. His once-large estate was reduced to about $5,000.
Thomas McKinney died in 1873. Although he had been married twice, McKinney had no children. McKinney’s old home on Onion Creek still exists. He is buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Austin, Texas.
Across the Colorado River just 13 miles from the state capitol at the 672 acre McKinney Falls State Park you can hear Onion Creek flowing over smooth limestone rocks, crashing into swirling pools below. The state park is roughly the center of McKinney’s original 40,000 acre ranch.
Northwest of Bastrop lies 1,140 acres of box canyons, oak and pine forests and native grass savanna nurtured by the Colorado River. It is known as McKinney Roughs Nature Park.
If you visit these places, it should be a revelation like coming back to a land loved long ago, for indeed, that’s what it is.
So, what’s in a name? Most of us live and die within the fabric of our existence, ultimately swallowed up and lost by the march of time. A select few cast long shadows, influence others and make permanent imprints on history. Their names are with us forever. We should understand why.