(Orange, Texas)


September 16, 2012

Robert B. Russell fought with Sam Houston, made shingles in Orange

ORANGE — There are two different places stated as the place of Robert Russell’s birth, Utica, New York, and New Milford, Connecticut. Both sources agree on the date of his birth, April 17, 1817. Despite the differences, the rest of his life is well documented. He moved to Texas, he fought with Sam Houston at San Jacinto, he died in Orange, Texas, and he is the only veteran of San Jacinto buried in Orange Texas.

After the death of his father, Everitt Russell, his mother, Amelia, moved to Texas with his sister, Elizabeth and her husband, Alanson Wyllys Canfield. The trio first settled in Sabine County at Milam, and later moved to San Augustine. Russell joined them in 1835. In March, 1836, he joined the Texian army and became a member of Col. Sidney Sherman’s regiment. On or about April 1, 1836 they joined the rest of the army under the command of Gen. Sam Houston.

The army had retreated and drawn the Mexican army under the command of the Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the notorious dictator of Mexico. Houston had drawn Santa Anna into a position from which he could not retreat; he was trapped on the plain at San Jacinto.

The Mexicans had camped a mere 1,000 yards from the Texians. On the afternoon of April 21, 1836, Houston launched a surprise attack on the Mexicans. The Mexicans were completely overrun and decisively defeated. At the end of the short battle 630 of the 1360 Mexicans had been killed, 208 wounded and 730 captured. Houston’s losses were only nine killed and 30 wounded.

Russell was discharged on May 2, 1836 with the disbandment of his company. He reenlisted for a short time on the same day, was reassigned to another company and finally discharged at San Augustine on June 15, 1836.

In gratitude for his service to the newly independent Texas, he was issued Donation Certificate No. 3. This gave him 640 acres of land for having participated in the Battle of San Jacinto.

On June 1, 1841 he married Lavinia Brownrigg, the daughter of San Augustine physician.

In 1840 his brother in law, Canfield had purchased the San Augustine Redlander. Russell became Canfield’s assistant. He worked both as a reporter and typesetter and when Canfield volunteered for service in the Mexican War in 1846; Russell bought the paper and became the editor and publisher.

The Redlander became one of the leading papers of its time and was recognized as one of three papers that was the voice of the new Republic of Texas. In 1850 he sold his interest in the paper and some cotton holdings and moved his family to Sabine Pass.

At Sabine Pass he was the owner of three sailing ships that transported lumber from Orange to Galveston. From Galveston the lumber was shipped all over the world. Russell was very superstitious and would not let his ships sail on Fridays. Often the ships would be loaded and ready to sail, but would sit at the docks through Friday, and Friday night, until permitted to sail at dawn on Saturday.

Upon his move to Orange, he entered the hotel business. He operated a residential hotel on the corner of Second and Front Streets. His family lived there for a time, and then moved to a residence on the corner of Market and Georgia Streets.

He remained in the hotel business for 12 years. By 1860 he and his wife had become the parents of six children and had real estate holdings worth $7,000 and personal property worth $400. In 1860 he was appointed postmaster of Orange. He served as postmaster through the Civil War, until he was replaced by the Reconstruction government in 1865.

In 1866, he bought the Robert Jackson sawmill. The sawmill was steam powered. The engine and boiler had been salvaged from the sunken steamboat Rufum Putnam. Russell converted the saw mill into a shingle mill. In 1875 he patented a process to bundle shingles that is still in use today. He never made any money off of this process. He allowed anyone to use his process—for free!

By 1877 had shipped over 50 million shingles to Galveston on his two company owned schooners.

Recorded on the 1880 Orange County Industrial Census was that Russell employed 50 people in his single mill, the mill had two engines, one gang saw, and one shingle machine that could cut 75,000 shingles per day. Production in 1880 was 10,000,000 shingles valued at $25,000. Employees worked 9 ? hours daily in the winter and 11 hours per day during the summer months. Wages were $5 per day for skilled labor and $1.50 for unskilled labor. The total annual wages paid amounted to $8,000. That year the mill had been shut down for repairs for seven months and had only five months of production.

On November 30, 1880, Russell was on the railroad tracks at the mill inspecting a rail car loaded with shingles when an employee of the mill, not seeing Russell on the tracks, sent an empty car down to be loaded. Russell was crushed between the two cars and died of his injuries.

The mill operation was taken over by his sons and renamed Russell Brothers. In June, 1890 the shingle mill burned to the ground and was never rebuilt, probably because by that time the cypress timber supply was almost exhausted. Other shingle makers had already ceased operations. Eventually the mill site was sold to W.H. Stark and Dr. E.W. Brown for $5,000.

In conducting research, the late historian W. T. Block discovered that Russell was the only veteran of San Jacinto to have lived in Orange and to be buried in Orange. Russell is buried in Evergreen Cemetery. Block felt that Russell’s service to Texas should be recognized and applied for a Texas Historical Marker to be placed on his grave.  

In 1973, Block’s campaign was successful. One of Russell’s grandsons paid for the cost of the marker and Block paid for the mounting of the marker on Russell’s grave. At the dedication Block spoke of Russell’s lifetime record as a San Jacinto veteran, newspaper publisher, hotel keeper, postmaster, and prominent shingle mill operator. “It is appropriate that his status as a San Jacinto veteran be preserved permanently in the annals of history,” said Block.                                            

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