Tampico Allen

Kentucky wasn’t big enough for young John Melville Allen, so he joined the navy and went chasing pirates around the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

It was noble work, but Greece was calling. The Greek people at that time were fighting for their independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Greece loomed large in the American mind during those early years of our federal republic. John Adams thought American democracy was the heir of Greek forerunners and his countrymen tended to agree.

Ever wonder why so many towns founded in the early nineteenth century have Greek names? There’s your answer.

In any case, Lt. John M. Allen had caught the Philhellene (Lover of Greece) fever. In 1823 he resigned his commission in the United States Navy to fight for the Greek cause. He was soon commanding a ship in the Greek fleet against the Turkish and Egyptian navies. Not long after his arrival in Greece he met and befriended Lord Byron. Allen was at his side when the poet died in April of 1824.

Back in America, people were eager to know about the Greek goings-on, and Captain Allen’s dispatches home found wide readership in newspapers, making him a minor celebrity.

The new Greek government came to trust his competence and judgement, As a result, Allen was sent to London on official business in 1826. There he stayed with his new friend, the Marquis de Lafayette.

After Greek independence we lose track of Captain Allen for a few years. He finally turns up in New Orleans in 1835. There he made another famous friend, the Federalist Mexican General Jose Antonio Mexia.

Allen signed on to captain the schooner Mary Jane on the expedition to capture Tampico and establish a Federalist foothold against Santa Anna and his Centralists. Arriving at Tampico on November 14, the Mary Jane ran aground. Captain Allen took six men ashore and not only convinced the garrison of the fort protecting the harbor to surrender, he got them to switch sides.

The next day, at the Battle of Tampico, Mexia’s men were on their way to whooping the Centralist forces, but ran short of powder and had to retreat. Mexia, Captain Allen and the bulk of the force commandeered an American schooner and set sail for Texas. But thirty-one of the American volunteers were captured and later shot as pirates. 

Captain Allen and the remainder of the Tampico Expedition made their way to Velasco at the mouth of the Brazos. He was now in Texas, where he would be known as Tampico Allen.

He quickly joined the Texas Army, where he did what he had always done: make a famous and powerful friend. His new friend was General Sam Houston, whose trust he quickly gained.

A month later General Houston sent Tampico Allen to New Orleans on a recruiting mission.

Houston’s Orders to Allen

Allen’s time in New Orleans was fruitful. By the last week in March he was back in Texas with a company of forty men he had enlisted in the army. But that’s not all Captain Allen had with him aboard the schooner Pennsylvania.

In his possession was the charter for the first Masonic lodge in Texas, which had been requested from the Grand Lodge of Louisiana the previous year. The Grand Master of Louisiana had given it to Allen to take back to Texas when his recruiting mission was finished.

But more importantly for the war effort, the Pennsylvania also brought to Texas a pair of cannon, iron six pounders, gifts from the people of Cincinnati. Captain Allen became the first member of the Texas Army to take command of the Twin Sisters on Texas soil.

TEXAS FOREVER recruiting broadside distributed by Captain Allen at New Orleans

Captain Allen and his men marched to join General Houston and the rest of the army. At San Jacinto he was brevetted to major and served as second in command of the Texas regulars under Colonel Millard.

After the battle was won, Allen was among the officers who accompanied the injured Houston to New Orleans so the general could receive the care of surgeons for his shattered ankle.

Allen began recruiting once again and enlisted 230 more men for the cause of Texas. At this time the Texas provisional government issued him a letter of marque. Captain Allen outfitted the brig Terrible, which began to prey upon Mexican shipping in the Gulf.

Miniature portrait of Captain John M. Allen in the collection of the Rosenberg Library at Galveston

In 1839, Captain Allen settled in the newly founded city of Galveston and was elected its first mayor. The citizens would entrust him with another five terms. During his tenure he made Commodore Moore of the Texas Navy welcome at Galveston, even as his old friend Sam Houston moved to have the commodore court-martialed for piracy and mutiny (that’s a long story for another day.)

A gap in that service as the Island City’s chief executive was in 1842, when Captain Allen formed a volunteer company, the Galveston Invincibles, to help beat back Mexico’s attempt to retake Texas.

After annexation, Captain Allen was appointed US Marshall for the Eastern District of Texas, a position he held at the time of his death in 1847. I have not been able to find out what took Tampico Allen from the world, but there was a Yellow Fever epidemic at the time. He was only forty-five.

Had he not died so young, I believe John M. Allen would be a figure we all know from Texas history class. Perhaps as governor or senator. He would have been an elder statesman at the time of secession and the Civil War.

I don’t know what position he would have taken, but the record shows Captain Allen always fought for what he believed was right, even when it meant standing against his friends.

11 replies »

  1. I thought I was well informed on Texas History. I had never heard of this man.
    Just goes to show me that I haven’t even scratch the surface!

    • I am in the same boat.
      I don’t remember this learning about this man in Texas history.
      I do recall reading about the Twin Sisters, (Cannons). Not sure if those mentioned here are the same.

  2. Knew of the 2 cannon from Ohio, but not of Allen, thanks for as Paul Harvey would say ….. The Rest Of The Story

  3. Thank you for the the no nonsense telling of this historic American/ Texacan’s hidden and illustrious influence on our histories. Good work!

  4. Thanks for the interesting history. Houston has an Allen’s Landing on Buffalo Bayou. If he delivered the Twin Sisters toward the end of March 1836 then they could not have been used in the battle of the Alamo.