In the early summer of 1855, the Revenue Service cutter McClelland under the command of Captain Ottinger sailed into St. Joseph Bay seeking a prize.
Ottinger had been ordered on May 29 to seek out the two barques, the Magnolia and the Amelia, capture them and bring them back to Mobile.
The two barques had left New York at the end of February under false papers before being reported missing.
Then in the beginning of May, the Magnolia, under the command of a Capt. Morrison, and the Amelia, under the command of a Capt. Swenson were spotted in the west pass entrance to Apalachicola.
The ships, still presumed missing, avoided Apalachicola’s Custom House and instead sailed west adding a level of mystery to their status and raising the alarms of the federal government.
Word reached federal officials in Mobile and the McClelland was dispatched.
As the McClelland sailed into St. Joseph Bay in the first week of June 1855, she only spotted one ship in the secluded crystal clear waters of the bay.
Five days prior to the McClelland’s arrival the Amelia had taken to the open sea southward.
Finding the Magnolia, Capt. Ottinger’s crew discovered that she too was set to sail within the day with a cargo of arms and ammunition destined for Nicaragua.
In the 19th century, enterprising Americans began looking out of the United States to fulfill the nation’s “manifest destiny.”
Those that picked up arms, without government permission, in order to influence foreign nations through force were called “filibusters.”
While these “filibusters” gained fame and were supported by a swath of the American public, both philosophically and financially, their activities were deemed illegal by the federal government through the Neutrality Act of 1794, which prohibited American citizens from participating in warfare against a nation at peace with the United States.
It was at that time that a man named Henry Lawrence Kinney rose to national prominence.
Henry Lawrence Kinney was born near Shesequin, Pennsylvania in 1814.
After a short stay in Illinois in his late teens, Kinney found his way to Texas.
It was in Texas that he took the rank Colonel for service in the Seminole Wars in Florida.
No record of that service has ever been found, which may lend itself to a judgment of Kinney's character.
In 1841, Kinney and a partner, William B. Aubrey, settled near present day Corpus Christi and went into the ranching and trading business, turning the bayside wilderness into a city.
With experience in land speculation, Kinney began buying large tracts of land for resale which caught the ire of fellow trader Philip Dimmitt.
It was rumored that Kinney had illicit ties with Mexico, and when Dimmitt and other traders were captured by a Mexican raiding party, Kinney was accused of being an informant for the Mexican raiders and tried for treason.
Kinney was acquitted of the charges and went back to his business.
Over the subsequent years, Kinney would find himself elected to various political positions in Texas, but as his investments in land began to fall through Kinney set his eyes on a new prize, Nicaragua.
In early 1855, Kinney contracted the steamer, United States, to carry he and an initial batch of settlers to Nicaragua.
That action quickly caught the attention of the government.
In late April of 1855, Kinney was indicted by a grand jury in New York on charges of attempting to violate the neutrality laws.
Kinney was given a bail of $10,000 and released, but was then charged again by the court in Philadelphia for the same charge.
Fearing that Kinney may still try to make his way to Nicaragua, the federal government stationed four craft; two steamers, a revenue cutter and a propeller, to keep the United States in New York.
According to the New York Times, on the evening of June 6, a large group of nearly 3,000 ship’s carpenters rallied against the keeping of the United States in New York Harbor.
Unbeknownst to the authorities, Kinney had boarded the schooner, Emma, that very night and slipped past the federal blockade with 18 other colonists.
In a letter left behind, Kinney wrote, “The late news from Nicaragua is of a character that makes our presence in that State at once necessary for the management of our affairs.”
As Kinney slipped past the blockade, he couldn’t have known that one-third of his plan had already been stopped.
Why St. Joseph Bay?
It may never be known what the Magnolia and the Amelia were doing in St. Joseph Bay for such an extended period of time.
By 1855, the city of St. Joseph had faded away.
There were no supply depots, no communications with the outside world and very little to no human habitation.
What the bay did offer was deep water seclusion, a blanket of secrecy that left the Magnolia unawares of the McClelland's approach.
Was the time spent in St. Joseph Bay a direct order from Kinney or simply a choice of the barques captain?
Were the arms and ammunition found on the Magnolia loaded in this secluded section of the world?
What can be known is that there was some loose ties between Texas and the old city of St. Joseph.
That old city’s Methodist minister, along with his son, the editor of the city's newspaper, had escaped to Texas under nefarious circumstances after the financial collapse of the city.
Samuel Hamilton Walker who settled at Iola had also made his way to Texas.
It can only be conjecture, but perhaps Kinney had met one of these characters in Texas and gained knowledge of St. Joseph Bay and its seclusion.
A seclusion that could only benefit a secret mission.
An eventful journey
Kinney’s own trip to the Central American country nearly fared worse than that of the Magnolia.
The Emma, carrying Kinney and his comrades, struck a reef in the Turks and Caicos Islands and had to be abandoned.
The filibuster kept going and by late July, Kinney and his small group landed in Greytown, Nicaragua and began work on solidifying his colony.
Kinney’s expedition got off to a good start, the Texan filibuster contracted more land and was even named Governor of the region within a few months of his arrival.
But Kinney’s success wouldn’t last long.
Kinney wasn’t the only American in Nicaragua at the time.
In early May, under the invitation of the Nicaraguan Democratic Party, William Walker, a native of Tennessee, set out from San Francisco with 60 armed men.
Once Walker landed in Nicaragua, he was joined by another 110 local fighters and by September, he had defeated the rival Legitimist Party’s army and seized control of the city of Granada, and in a sense the entire nation of Nicaragua.
Walker quickly worked to consolidate control of Nicaragua and on Feb. 10, 1856, issued a decree annexing the Mosquito Coast portion of the country along with nullifying Kinney’s claims to the land.
By July 1856, Walker had been inaugurated as President of Nicaragua.
Kinney’s prospects began to dwindle in Central America and in 1858 he returned to Texas a complete failure.
A short homecoming
Upon his return to Texas, Kinney was again elected to the state’s legislature but soon after resigned his position because of his opposition to secession during the Civil War.
Kinney hopped across the border and settled in Matamoros, Mexico in 1861, where he was killed in a gunfight one year later.
It may never be known what impact of the loss of the Magnolia had on Kinney's expedition.
The filibuster actions that were the news of the 1850's quickly faded from memory with the start of the Civil War.
But the actions of Kinney, and of Walker, have had a lasting impact on the history of North America and Central America.
What can be known is that 162 years ago, the waters of St. Joseph Bay witnessed a little slice of that history.
Perhaps the peaceful waters that led the crew of the Magnolia into a state of suspected safety also shaped Kinney's failure far away in Nicaragua.