Life Before Texas
Samuel May Williams was born in 1795 in Providence, Rhode Island into a distinguished family. His father, Howell Williams, was a sea captain and it is quite possible Sam was raised on stories of great sailing ships and storms and his father’s adventures in exotic faraway ports. This would explain why, for the rest of his long life, Sam was never very far from ships and the sea. He came from good pioneer stock. Among his ancestors was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a President of Yale College. Sam was the oldest of eight brothers and sisters, all born within a ten year span. He received a good education in Providence and at the age of seventeen he went to work as an apprentice in his uncle’s Baltimore commission house where he studied the arts of commerce and finance.
In the early 19th Century, Baltimore was North America’s leading trade partner with South America, especially with Argentina, and the Williams family was among the leading Baltimore traders. When Argentina gained independence, Spain lost its monopoly on trade and the country was opened up to traders in the United States. Of all U.S. cities, Baltimore was best situated to take advantage of that trade. For one thing, the city’s merchants were an unusually adventurous lot, willing to risk the long voyages, storms, pirates and the unstable political environment in Latin America. They had a robust milling industry with a surplus of flour to export along with cotton goods.
They also had the Baltimore Clipper, the fastest and most able sailing ship of the time. In return, imports included hides, sugar, coffee and coin. Unlike Southern traders, the Williams family did not deal in slaves.
Sam was barely out of his teens when he embarked on the first great adventure of his life. His family appointed him as Supercargo on a ship carrying their exports to Buenos Aires. It was no small responsibility for a man so young. During the Age of Sail, the Supercargo was the second most important person aboard a merchant vessel after the Captain. He was responsible for the cargo, including negotiating sale of the cargo when the ship reached its destination port and taking on consignments of cargo for the return voyage.
There is nothing that enlivens the spirit and excites the imagination as does a voyage in the open sea under sail. No other human endeavor places a person so completely within the heart of nature.
It is probable the voyage for Sam would have been extremely liberating. For the past few years he had been tied to his ledgers and accounts and lessons at his uncle’s knee. Now, for the first time in his life he was free; free as the magnificent frigatebirds that soared above the topmast or the dolphin that played in the ship’s bow wave and seemed to be escorting them toward the South. The young man was sailing away into the unknown as men had dared to do ever since they first wondered what was beyond the blue horizon. He was a master of his fate, riding the wings of a white cloud of sail toward the south, toward the south, on the bosom of the sea. The type of ship that carried Sam to Argentina was, and is still regarded, as one of the most beautiful sailing vessels ever built.
The Baltimore Clipper first was established in American waters about the time of the American Revolution, where it out-sailed and out-fought the larger, lumbering British Man O’ Wars. A topsail schooner, it was fast and sleek and maneuverable and was a choice of pirates and smugglers or any captain who had to sail in fast pursuit or, on the other hand, escape pursuit fast. It was an obvious choice of his Baltimore family and in years to come would be Sam’s choice when he purchased ships for the Texas Navy.