My Favorite Document — Moses Morrell’s Court of Claims Testimony
By GLO Researcher Patrick Walsh
The Texas General Land Office Archives is home to over 35 million documents and 45,000 maps and sketches that detail the history of the public lands of Texas. When I sat down to think about my favorite item among this massive collection, the task was truly Texas-sized.
For me, history should be shared, it’s all about the people who shaped it, and Texas history is not limited just to Texans — after all, I’m from Missouri. Stephen F. Austin also made his way here from Missouri, David Crockett famously arrived from Tennessee, and William Barrett Travis arrived from Alabama having been born in South Carolina. Similarly, the subject of my favorite document, Moses E. Morrell, was a traveler who, prior to coming to Texas, saw more of the world than most modern Texans ever will. Morrell’s Court of Claims testimony is my favorite document because it contains a personal story of the dangers and consequences of war from the historically lesser-known perspective of the Texas Navy, and, thanks to the wonders of the internet, forges a cross-country connection between the GLO and the Nantucket Historical Association in Massachusetts.
Morrell began his undated letter, addressed to the Commissioner of Claims, in the hope of obtaining a land grant for his service in the Texas Navy. In it, he states that he was born in New Jersey in the year 1790, and later mentions that he is 68 years of age at the time of writing; therefore, we can deduce that this letter is being written around 1858. In April 1836 while employed in New Orleans, Morrell was recruited to serve in the Texas Army, which he did for a year before being transferred to the newly formed Texas Navy. And that is where the story gets interesting.
The Texas Navy was a controversial outfit, which caused major political infighting among Texas government officials. President Sam Houston, in particular, was at odds with the Navy, as he viewed it as having violated his direct orders to defend the port cities of the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, Navy vessels took a piratical turn at raiding and looting towns along the Mexican coast. In retribution for this disobedience, Houston refused to issue land grants for service in the Texas Navy.
Morrell provides a glimpse into the sailors’ side of this story in his letter. He writes, while onboard the schooner Invincible, that “after cruising for seven months living on the spoils of the enemy, green turtle and beans, we sailed for the harbor at Galveston. On our arrival, the tide being low, the Invincible being encumbered with plunder from the enemy, could not cross the bar.” The Texan sailors were not only looting the Gulf towns — they were so successful at it that their ship was too heavy to get into port at Galveston. This presented a major problem. Morrell continues the story, relating that “the next morning we was greeted with the appearance of two Mexican brigs mounting 36 guns, we only 7.” The crew of the Invincible signaled to another ship, Brutus, which had made it to shore; however, “owing to the confusion of so many volunteers, and their anxiety to aid us, the pilot’s voice, Hitchcock, could not be heard, and she grounded” in the attempted rescue.
Morrell recalls a display of the courage reminiscent of the Alamo, noting that “all hands was called in our craft, and the resolution formed of resisting, (though 39 in number) to the last…after receiving their fire for half an hour we was compelled to turn [the Invincible] on shore. Two at a time, we embarked, and landed safely on the beach.” Against long odds, the crew of the Invincible escaped to shore, although the ship was lost. All’s well that ends well, right? Unfortunately for Moses Morrell, the story doesn’t end here.
The next morning, Morrell was “leaning against a tent listening to the conversation of its inmates” when he was suddenly “ran through both thighs with a bayonet.” Who was the perpetrator — an enemy soldier who infiltrated the camp during the dark of night? Nope. The assailant was a man named Hogan, a soldier in Captain Turner’s company of Texans. Morrell notes that the assault “was done without any provocations on my part as I never saw the man until he had committed the act.” According to Morrell, “Considerable liquor having come ashore from our vessel, and he having obtained a large portion, was the cause of his attack.” The drunken Hogan proceeded to attack others before being shot.
Morrell survived the attack, but his convalescence was unpleasant, to say the least. He relates that “having no medical aid, [he] was ordered to the Houston Hospital here without any nourishment, laying under a tree for one month” with “shavings for a pallet and sticks for a pillow.” Eventually, he made the acquaintance of Thomas Jefferson Rusk, “that friend of the friendless” who “seeing [Morrell’s] situation…procured a passage for the erection of a comfortable building.” Three months later, after selling the land certificate he had received for his year of Army service to pay for his medical care, Morrell regained the ability to walk and re-entered Naval service under Commodore Edwin Moore.
Over the years, Morrell “sustained [himself] by instructing the youth of several counties.” Now 68 years old and looking back on his Texas Navy service and the toll it took on his body, he explains that his “former exertions are failing [him], the weakness of [his] legs is increasing from the effects of [his] wounds.” He writes in response to an act that was passed granting land certificates for the relief of those who had been injured in service to the Texas military as a “humble petitioner seeking this aid.” In closing, Morrell claims that he believes “[he has] been longer in the service of Texas than any living man” and appeals for “some appropriations made to make him comfortable and sustain him in his old age.” Unfortunately, due to Houston’s longstanding ban on awarding land certificates for Navy service, Morrell’s petition was denied.
So there it is — a first-hand account of service in the oft-overlooked Texas Navy, complete with raids, plundering, a close-call escape from a battle at sea, and some good old-fashioned drunken bayonetting. As if that wasn’t enough to make this my favorite document, there’s more: remember when I said Morrell was a prolific traveler? It turns out we know more about him than just what we find in this letter, thanks to the keen eye of Betsy Tyler, a historian at the Nantucket Historical Association Research Library and Archives who came across Morrell’s digitized Court of Claims file and thought something looked…familiar.
As it turns out, the NHA Library also has a document written by Moses Morrell — his journal from his time aboard a whaling vessel that sailed around the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from 1821 through 1824. The journal, titled “The Whim Whams & Opinions of M.E. Morrell…” begins with a quote from Shakespeare’s Othello: “Nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice.” It provides amazing details describing life on a whaling vessel, the tools and techniques of nineteenth-century whalers, and interactions with the Indigenous peoples of islands around the world. When comparing the journal to the letter from Morrell’s Court of Claims file, it was clear that we were looking at the writings of the same person. From hunting whales on the open ocean to sailing the Gulf of Mexico with the Texas Navy (and being attacked by one of his fellow Texans), Moses Morrell had a lifetime of incredible experiences.
To bring it full circle, Moses Morrell’s Court of Claims letter is an item worth sharing; it is all about the person who shaped the story, and it covers a Texan who is a man of the world in a way that brings people from across the country together to celebrate a shared history. It’s my favorite document!
 The Court of Claims was an adjudicative body that was established by a law passed on August 1, 1856. Its purpose was to examine evidence and testimony to ascertain the legitimacy of land claims against the state. Gammel, Hans Peter Mareus Neilsen. The Laws of Texas, 1822–1897, Volume 4, book, 1898; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth6730/m1/436/: accessed February 1, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History.
 Soldiers who fought in the Texas Army were issued bounty certificates that allowed them to locate 320 acres of land for every three months of service.
 “The Whim Whams & Opinions of M.E. Morrell…” MS 220 Log 348, Ship Hero. Master: Obed Starbuck; Keeper: Moses E. Morrell. Property of the Nantucket Historical Association Research Library, Nantucket, MA.