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I wish I could remember more.

I try. Mama singing, fresh buttermilk, helping Papa in the fields, feeding the chickens, learning to use a bow, hunting game…

But those memories belong to another man.

Maybe they happened. Maybe not. But for me those good memories were just wishful fantasy, made up by a lonely young boy looking at the world through a mission fence. A boy who remembered nothing. For all my real memories start with fire. Everywhere fire with a flickering, evil light that showed me my Mother's face for the last time.

Nothing else exists before that day in my 6th year when they brought me, scarred and burned, into the crumbling mission in Nacogdoches. It all started with fire.

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The Early Years

The year was 1765 and Misión Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, hereafter referred to as the Mission, would be my home for the next 7 years. It was not a grand place like the churches you see in Havana or Vera Cruz. Hell, it was not much more than an adobe walled chapel surrounded by some rather poor outbuildings, stables, and a wooden stockade fence to keep out thieves and Comanches should they come a calling as far east as Nacogdoches. Still, there was a lot of work to be done and it was short of Indian servants as the Caddo, whose souls the Franciscans had been sent to save, were dying off from white man's diseases faster than the spiritual and physical work could get done. So, for the price of a leaky roof, straw mat, tortillas, beans, and meat on Sundays, they had a young laborer.

Although Nacogdoches had yet to become and important town in East Texas, in addition to the Mission, there were a few outlying farms, a trading post, and a Caddo settlement. I was an outsider at all of them. I would eventually understand why. It was because of who my parents were. Or rather, who my parents were not. My mother was of the Caddo people, my father was French. They had not been married in the Church. I was the progeny of this "unholy" union. The missionaries told me that I was found alone among the smoldering ruins of their farm south of Nacogdoches on the Angelina River.

A bastard, Half French, half Caddo, an orphan with nothing, raised and educated by Franciscan missionaries in a Spanish town…

They called me Mezcolanza… a mix, a jumbled mess.

Life at the Mission could be difficult. The friars were strict. Their lessons were often more birch branch than Holy Bible, sometimes at the same time. However, they did do something for me that I am grateful for. They taught me to read and write. This unique knowledge for a person of my station would help me as I went out into the world. Without friends and family, books also created my dreams. Would I have ever set off on my journey if Don Quixote had not? Would I have had travels, if Gulliver had none? Would I have ever walked the deck of a ship if Robinson Crusoe had stayed home?

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For years, this boundary between Texas and Louisiana was in dispute. Spain claimed the Red River marked the border while France said it was the Sabine. France eventually abandoned the region, ceeding the lands west of the Mississippi to Spain. With less of an outside threat, Spain decided to consolidate her holdings and in 1772, the Crown ordered East Texas to be evacuated back to San Antonio. The Mission closed and soldiers forced the Spanish settlers to move. I was 13 years old. No one paid me any mind. The missionaries did not care. The soldiers did not care. My mother's people, the Caddo, had dispersed and had no interest in having a half breed join them. So, as my world headed West to San Antonio, I joined up with a group of traders heading East and started instead the next chapter of my life.

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The River

Our little caravan arrived in Natchez in May of 1774. There was more activity than I had ever seen. French traders in canoes loaded with beaver pelts arriving from the North. Keelboats and flat boats from New Orleans arriving from the South.  A great commercial enterprise was taking place on the frontier as trade goods, destined for the Iroquois and other northern tribes who controlled the fur trade, were exchanged for bundles of beaver pelts that ultimately would make hats for the insatiable European market. Looking out over it all was Fort Panmure, guarding the river from a high bluff above. It was odd for to see the British flag flying for the first time, but Natchez had been in British hands for over 10 years.

It was here, on the docks of the Mississippi, that I would find my first employment.

All Summer long, I would go to the docks and earn a few coins loading bundles of furs onto the keelboats. I was big for my age and the hard labor made me stronger. One particularly hectic day, several trappers were attempting to unload their canoes at the same time and I noticed that the count they claimed (and for what they were being paid) differed from the number of bundles that actually made it on to the keelboat where I was working. I brought it to the Captain’s (a grizzled old riverman named Enoch Turner) attention. He must have dealt with the matter because at the end of the day, he gave me a few extra coins and told me to come back and work for him the next day. I worked for the rest of the week on Turner’s boat and once it was loaded and ready to set out for New Orleans, he offered me a job on board.

I worked the river with Captain Turner for 4 more seasons. We would winter in New Orleans and once the waters and weather allowed, we would head up the river with trade goods and return with furs and increasingly with wheat and other produce from the Ohio and Tennessee River Valleys. I lived frugally, not wasting my earnings on the pleasures of New Orleans but instead started to buy and sell my own trade goods to be included on our boat. I made a tidy profit and grew into a young man of some means. Turner and I became business partners, eventually owning or operating 4 boats on the Mississippi.

In 1778, Captain Turner approached me with a proposition. He was originally from the British colony of Delaware which was in open revolt with the Crown. While he and I did not discuss politics very much, I had sensed that he sided with the rebels. Captain Turner intended to invest in a fast ship which he planned to load with the fine woods used in ship building and smuggle the cargo past the British blockade, in to Delaware Bay and Wilmington. It was a potentially a very profitable endeavour but one fraught with risk. Turner was too old for such a voyage so it was proposed that I be his partner and representative on board, serving on the crew and protecting our financial interests, potentially with my life.

I agreed. I was headed to sea.

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The Minstrel was a small top sail clipper of four 4 pound guns and a crew of 17. She’d been built in Boston a few years earlier and had somehow made her way to New Orleans. Although we knew we could stand up to none in a fight, she was fast. We hoped fast enough to get us out of harm's way during the long sail up to Wilmington. I invested every cent I had in this endeavour. Fully 1/5 of the cargo was mine. If we did not make it, I would be ruined.


I reckon I should take a moment to TRY and explain the politics in these waters during this time. In New Orleans, the Spanish flag had been flying since France gave Louisiana to their ally Spain as consolation for losing Florida to the British in the great Seven Years War. We had legitimate Spanish papers that the French should recognize us as well. Great Britain, as I said, was established in Florida but only lightly patrolled that coast as it was a long way from their bases in the Caribbean and colonies. Still, some enterprising British frigate captain might be looking for a juicy prize such as ourselves so we planned on giving Florida a wide berth as we sailed around. There was also a very real danger from Pirates. We'd hug the coast of Cuba as once we turned east. We had a plan for our northward leg later.


The Master, Zebulon Wright, ran a well disciplined ship but he was patient with me. He spent hours teaching me navigation and the other knowledges of sailing the seas. We had no other officers but he made sure I observed the roles of the mates, how to get the most from our craft, and always commenting on how he read the weather. I listened always. I knew that someday it would be important. Tho my original rank came just from being an investor in this enterprise, the crew began to see me more as a fellow, even as a superior. On a warship, they would have said I was midshipman. They already called me Mister.


I was glad for my days sailing packet boats and tenders on the Lac Pontchartrain. They proved a good school. The weather on this first voyage was overall fair and we saw not a sail once we cleared New Orleans. We made swift passage to our first landfall at Key West for fresh water and then it was a quick sprint across to the Cuban coast. Except for one Spanish patrol brig who hailed us to check our papers and cargo, this leg was without event.


Once we turned East, the wind was no longer our friend. Even though the Minstrel was keen close to the wind, we were forced to tack much further away from the Cuban coast than we would have preferred to keep making progress. We prayed for a change in the weather, but not the one we got. A sudden storm took a away our fore topmast and we lost a hand overboard. We threw a cask and rope but could not get back to him before he disappeared below the waves. Poor bastard. If the family of Wm. Reynolds ever reads this, know that he was a good hand and the sea took him quick. We limped in to Matanzas to  affect repairs and await good winds.

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Passage North


After 4 days in Matanzas, the Minstrel was ready. Two crew decided to stay in Cuba but we were able to recruit one young lad of 14, Mateo Armona, who wanted to go to sea. He seemed eager and intelligent and I thought he would make a fine addition. Our numbers were now 15, just barely enough to handle the work.


The risk was about to intensify. We would be leaving Spanish waters and heading into the strength of the British. Although it was legal for us to trade with the British, it was not legal, of course, to smuggle live oak to the American rebels. Until the final part of our deception was in place, we would do everything possible to avoid all other ships. Those of them who believed, began to pray. As for myself, I believed in the Minstrel.


Riding a clean, fine westerly wind, we set a east by northeast course towards Andros. On the 5th day, we spotted sails on the distant east horizon. We took this as a sign it was time to start north. While it was likely just another merchantman, the risk that it was a Pirate or British patrol was real. Indeed, the unknown vessel seemed to give chase, but could not beat back against the wind to keep up. We lost sight of him before dark but as a precaution, Captain Wright ordered a change of two points north by west to further confuse pursuit.


First light brought new danger. The call of “Sail Ho!” came from the lookout. Running on deck, I see a brig bearing down on us from windward. The Captain immediately ordered more sail but it was obvious the unknown vessel would soon have the Minstrel in range. Sure enough, as the approaching ship unfurled the British colours, a single cannon shot rang out and a ball fell several hundred yards across our bow. Captain Wright ordered our 4 little guns to be loaded with chain. What happened next was a lesson in the importance of knowing your ship, crew, and predicting what the enemy would do.


Forgive my poor attempts at illustration.


The British captain figured he had us cut off as he approached off our port bow. Besides, who would expect a small trade ship such as ours to fight or flee when caught in such a pickel? However, as he wore his ship to bring it alongside where he assumed we would heave to, Captain Wright suddenly ordered our wheel full over to port. Only the brig’s starboard battery was manned as they assumed this would be the side facing the Minstrel so they helplessly took two double loads of chain through their sails as we crossed their bow and passed down their port side. The Minstrel tacked through the wind like the dancer she was and we fled southwest. The British brig had to laboriously continue its wear, make a wide turn to port, tack, and then chase from behind sailing at a close reach. His brig would never catch us now. The Minstrel continued to widen our lead until the Brit’s sails disappeared behind. We were safe.


For now.

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The detour back to the southwest to escape coupled with the time on Cuba to repair the storm damage put us far behind schedule. And we had an appointment.

Clouds and rain throughout the day and night made it impossible to fix our position. When the skies again cleared, Master Wright plotted us about 20 miles SE of Islamorada. We set course again north by east, staying just out of sight of the islands then, when clear, we made a course to dash straight into Cayo Biscayno.

Cayo Biscayno was originally settled by Pedro Fornells, one of the original Menorcan survivors of the failed attempt by the British to settle New Smyrna. They had sought refuge in San Augustin and later been granted Spanish land around Biscayno. His great grandson, Juan Fornells, was who we had come to see. Juan had a thriving little enterprise going, supplying ships who passed through these waters as well as trade between the south and the British colonies. Most of his business was legitimate. His business with us less so. For the price of 25,000 reals, Juan provided us with a packet containing a new ship's manifest, a fake bill of sale from him to us saying he had sold us our cargo, and letters offering to buy said cargo from a Roger Vandersmith, a merchant in New York. These forged papers were to be our ticket north should we be unable to avoid British patrols.

Before talking to the crew about our plan, we  let them spend two days in the taverns, pursuing the carnal pleasures offered by this small port. We did not want drunken lips to utter our plan out in public. We also dismissed Louis Montanaro of Barataria from the crew. We suspected he would be of questionable loyalty and not maintain our masquerade under British scrutiny. Juan Fornells recommended 4 names as potential new crew. 2 men joined, bringing our intrepid band of smuggling conspirators to 16.

After refreshing our stores we set sail on a lovely, fresh northeasterly wind. Next stop, hopefully, would be San Augustin.

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We awoke to a fire red sky on our third morning out of Biscayno. By the noon bell, grey, angry seas began to toss us about and a wall of dark and ominous clouds threatened to overtake from the east. The Minstrel, as keen as she was, could not face the most severe summer Caribbean storms, much less a hurricane.  We were between Jobe and Ays, 30 miles offshore. One of Juan Fornell’s men knew these waters and said there was a protected lagoon south of Ays which should be deserted and where we would be able to shelter. Although we had wished to stay out of sight of land, it seemed we had no choice. We beat a course west.

Putting a man at the bow to take soundings, and carrying as much sail as we dared, we cautiously crossed the reef into the calmer waters of the lagoon. (I thanked the gods of my ancestors that Minstrel was shallow draft.) Once inside, we spotted where a small creek flowed into the lagoon. We made our way there, dropping anchor in relative shelter. On the order of Master Wright, I took the ship's boat and a couple of hands to secure additional lines to the stoutest trees I could find on shore. We would ride the storm out here.

All through the night and the pale light of the next day we bounced up and down, the Minstrel riding her lines like a wild beast trying to break free. The men manned the pumps continuously. Even the saltiest among among us could not keep our cold rations down. I felt especially sorry for young Mateo Armona from Matanzas. This was his first big storm and I could see in his eyes regret that he left the safety of his mother back in Cuba.

Finally after more than 36 hours, the storm broke. Every man was exhausted; every item we owned soaked through. We ordered the cook fire lit and had a warm breakfast prepared for all. As we were in a secluded spot anyway, we decided to take a couple of days to maintain the ship and rekindle spirit and body. Despite the beating, the ship was undamaged and the crew only showed a few cuts and bruises. We pulled the Minstrel in closer to the shore and unloaded the lighter cargo and stores, drying and restowing as best we could. The ship's carpenter, Ian Wallace, who was quite the marksman with a musket returned from the woods with two fine deer. Master Wright ordered a double extra ration of rum and soon we all with fully bellies and warmed spirits were forgetting nature's thrashing we'd received just a couple of days before.

Mother Nature got one more laugh on us. Even tho we were in haste to be on our way, we lost another day awaiting tides sufficient were we could feel our way back across the reef into the open sea. We pointed our bow back north and hoped nothing else would happen before San Augustin.

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It was a beautiful July day when we approached San Augustin under the watchful Spanish guns of Castillo de San Marcos. I had been around the Spanish military (and under Spanish rule) for most of my 19 years. It felt a little like coming home. We planned to spend three days here, replenishing as much as the Minstrel would carry. We did not want to have to make landfall again before Wilmington. The boys were in a good mood. That was about to change.

Even before we had dropped anchor in the harbor, a rowboat approached and hailed us. They bore a letter which had just arrived by fast packet boat. The letter was from Juan Fornells, our contact back in Cayo Biscayno. Master Wright and I adjourned to his cabin to read the letter. Fornells warned that almost as soon as our sails had disappeared around the point of Cayo, the British Sloop of War Countess of Scarborough of 22 guns was spotted arriving from the south. The sloop's captain, Captain Thomas Piercy, and a well armed contingent of Marines landed in the ship's boat and immediately came to Fornells' office. Piercy, polite but firm, demanded to view Fornells' recent accounting books, shipping manifests, warehouse logs, and other correspondence. Of course, Juan Fornells had no choice but to comply. He believed our ruse was still secure, but the British Navy now knew of the passing of the Minstrel. We hoped Captain Piercy believed the forged records and would just write us off as simply a trader enroute for New York. However, the last few lines of Juan's letter were the most foreboding. A dark cloud seemed to enter the cabin as we read on. Captain Piercy, before returning to the Countess of Scarborough, was seen talking to several men around the docks and taverns of Biscayno including, Fornells believed, with Louis Montanaro, the hand we dismissed for untrustworthiness. Afterwards, the sloop of war had immediately departed to the north.

Master Wright and I discussed how this news should affect our plan, if at all. The Countess of Scarborough would not know of our stop in San Augustin. Perhaps, if it was looking for us, it would be racing ahead and be far north by now. However, it would have faced the same storm we had. It was impossible to predict where the British ship would be waiting, or even if it was waiting.

Working late into the night, we loaded as much fresh provisions as time allowed. Catching just a couple hours sleep, our tired crew raised anchor, set sails, and pulled out of San Augustin harbor at first light.

But did my eyes deceive me? As I scanned the wharf with my glass in the dim light as we pulled away, I could swear that I saw a lurking Louis Montanaro.

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Master Zebulon Wright and  I figured that the Countess of Scarborough would hunt north, gradually working her way up through Georgia and the Carolinas. With the barrier islands and multitude of hidden inlets, such a search area would take a long time to cover, that is, unless the Scarborough's Captain Piercy found out that our destination was ultimately Wilmington. Had that scoundrel Louis Montanaro known our ultimate goal? And if so, had he told the British? A few of the original crew had known and they claimed to have never uttered a word. But a ship is a small place, the Minstrel especially so. There are few secrets on board.

We could take no extra chances. That British sloop of war was fast and her 22 guns would mean resistance would be futile. If the Minstrel was taken, Master Wright and I would expect to be hanged. The best the crew might hope for would be a prison barge in Boston Harbor.

We set a course east out to sea. We planned to continue for at least two days before turning north again. We were going to give the Georgia and Carolina coasts, (and the Countess of Scarborough), a wide berth. Even though the men were exhausted and living on short water and rations, Master Wright and I used this time to continue drill in sail and gunnery. We did not have enough powder to spare for training, but the men eventually moved with satisfactoy alacrity from concealment to having each of our "mighty" 4 pounders ready for action. More importantly, they got where they could tack or jibe the Minstrel and change course faster than perhaps even a British sloop of war would be able.

The weather was with us, and by the end of the second day we were over 125 miles east of San Augustin. We turned our bow northward and on a course of 22 degrees continued our journey with an ever watchful eye on the horizon. With luck, we would be off the coast of Delaware in 5 days.

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Day followed day of light winds but the Minstrel continued to prove her worth averaging almost 8 knots in winds that would have becalmed many other vessels. We sailed northeast, keeping plenty of distance between us and the coastline and coastal shipping. Our best lookout, young Mateo Armona from Matanzas, was sent aloft at dawn and dusk, scanning the horizon for British patrols or American privateers. It would be difficult to explain ourselves to either. With little else to do in the empty seas and living on short rations and water, the men occupied themselves fishing.

Mateo continued to impress with his keenness and enthusiasm for learning. Each day I would tutor him, spending hours discussing sail plans, crew duties, cargo stowage, navigation and all the knowledges that I had gained from Master Wright and from my old keel boat captain Enoch Turner. Over the weeks since Mateo joined the crew, he and I had grown close like brothers. I felt that he was destined for greater things than deckhand. His father had imparted basic reading skills on him and now, with my help, the boy was improving rapidly. Back in Cayo Biscayno, Juan Fornells had gifted me a copy of a book called "The Pilgrim's Progress" by Englishman John Bunyan. It was written a hundred years ago, but had not been part of the library back at the Mission in Nacogdoches. (I guess the friars resented the Pope and Paganism being compared.) Although I was a skeptic that the character "Christian" could really find solace in a Celestial City, I did understand the excitement and value of his journey. Give me a good ship and fair wind and I will be satisfied with my own progress in this life. Mateo and I enjoyed reading this tale together.

On the 4th day of August 1778, we reached our planned position 20 miles east of Cape May and the mouth of Delaware Bay. The plan was that a rebel representative on shore was to meet us at False Cape south of the Bay. We were to sail in close under cover of darkness and await his signal: one slowly flashing light for danger, return next night, two flashing lights for safety, send in a boat. The signal was to be made for one hour each night at 11 o'clock for 7 nights starting on July 26. But we were several days late! Would our guide still be signaling? We had no choice but to try. Our chances of running the British blockade unguided were slim.

After dark, we set course for False Cape. Nerves were on edge as none were familiar with these waters and running aground, even if we survived the impact, would mean certain capture by British patrols as soon as it was light. Once we estimated we were close enough, all we could do was wait in our darkened ship. Mateo stood by with our own ship's lanterns in case we needed to quickly light them and signal back. All eyes scanned to the east. Nothing. Had we missed the signal? Were we even in the right place? A cool foggy mist was starting to develop, threatening to cloak any signal even if it came. At well past 1, Master Wright, with a sigh gave the order to prepare to get under way. Just as the hands were heading aloft, I heard a cry from Mateo. "Lights!" Sure enough, two small lights could be seen on shore about 1/4 miles south of where we waited. Breathlessly we watched. They started to slowly appear and disappear. The signal to send in a boat.

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Last Will and Testament

In the name of God, Amen. I, Mezcolanza Kadohadacho, of the ship Minstrel, formerly of New Orleans, and a loyal subject of His Royal Highness, Carlos III of Spain, being of sound mind and body but about to embark on a mission fraught with danger, do declare this to be my Last Will and Testament. Having no known kin, I instruct that the following distributions be made upon my death.

My ownership interest in 4 keel boats currently operating on the Mississippi River shall pass to my business partner, Enoch Turner of New Orleans as settlement for my debts and in appreciation to him.

The proceeds from the sale of my 1/5 ownership of the current cargo of fine Live Oak timbers on board the Minstrel, shall go to Mateo Armona, sailor of that ship and formerly of Matanzas, that he may continue his education and be put on a path to a life of substance and prosperity.

The sum of 1,422 reals currently being held by Jean LaFontaine Esquire, of New Orleans, shall be given to Mlle. Amandine of Canal Street. M. LaFontaine will know what to do.

My personal effects currently onboard the Minstrel including two pistols, tomahawk, and 3 good shirts shall be sold and proceeds divided among the crew of this vessel.

In Witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and this 5th day of August in the year One thousand seven hundred and seventy-eight.


John Smythe
Griego Mendoza

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