Charles Stillman (November 4, 1810 – December 18, 1875) was the founder of Brownsville, Texas, and was part owner of a successful river boat company on the Rio Grande. He was born in Wethersfield, Connecticut, United States, to Capt. Francis Stillman and Harriet (Robbins) Stillman. He arrived in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico, in 1828 and established himself as an entrepreneur. He was involved in cotton brokerage and real estate in addition to silver mines in Nuevo León and Tamaulipas. He married Elizabeth Pamela Goodrich of Wethersfield, Connecticut, on August 17, 1849, in Wethersfield. Elizabeth Pamela Goodrich was the daughter of Deacon Joshua Goodrich and Clarissa (Francis) Goodrich. Charles Stillman was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City.
Before the Mexican–American War the United States government was looking to build a permanent fort along the Rio Grande. Charles Stillman, having a deed to the land, offered to lease it to the government to build a fort on. This land was part of the Espiritu Santo land grant, but due to a complication involving the owners not listing the land with the Mexican or Texas government a land dispute ensued which reached the Supreme Court.
The founding of Brownsville
Around the same time as the fort coming to the area Charles Stillman founded Brownsville, Texas, on January 13, 1849. The land which was less than a mile from the fort was also disputed. Stillman had bought large pieces of land north and northeast of Matamoros from the heirs of José Narciso Cavazos. Stillman offered the Cavazos family $33,000 for their land even though it was worth $214,000. The Cavazos family accepted the offer to avoid paying legal fees. However, Stillman never paid the Cavazos family the $33,000 for the land. Since the land belonged to the heirs of his second marriage. This was one of the reasons the Cortina Wars happened.
King, Kenedy and Co.
Charles Stillman started a transport company with Miflin Kenedy and Richard King after the Mexican-American War, under the name of King, Kenedy and Co. The transport company bought up the Government's surplus steam boats which were used to ferry U.S. forces across the Rio Grande. King, Kenedy and Co. gained a monopoly over river trade until former business partners of Stillman, King and Kenedy's José San Román and John Young started their own river boat venture. Profits were still very high for Kenedy, King and Co. despite competition. In the 1850s the Cortina Wars started, Juan Cortina an enemy of Stillman's led some attacks on the King, Kenedy and Co. fleet, most notable an attack near Rio Grande City, Texas, but did not disrupt it. Shortly before the Civil War Stillman hired a clerk by the name of Francisco Yturria who would become an instrumental partner in King, Kenedy and Co. during the Civil War. Yturria being born in Matamoros could register boats under Mexico allowing them to fly the Mexican flag. Since Mexico was a neutral country American ships blockading the Texas Coast could not board Stillman's ships. Stillman, King and Kenedy arranged for bales of cotton to be sent to Brownsville where it was Ferried across the Rio Grande to Matamoros. The Rio Grande could not be blockaded because it was an international border and such a blockade would have caused an incident with the Mexican Government. Despite Union Forces capturing Brownsville in 1863 and 1864 smuggling cotton was still a profitable venture. After the war a rail line from Brownsville to Point Isabel (Port Isabel, Texas was known as Point Isabel during this period) was completed river traffic dwindled and the company sold its boats to Captain William Kelly.
After the war, Stillman lived in Brownsville and New York but moved to New York permanently in 1866. He died in New York.
- Charles Stillman had a son, James, who is notable for being a President of the First National City Bank. James's two daughters, Elsie and Isabel, married two of William Rockefeller's sons William G. and Percy Rockefeller.
- Charles Stillman is believed to have named the first three streets in Brownsville after himself, his wife Elizabeth and his father Francis. These Streets are named St. Charles, Elizabeth St. and St. Francis. It is believed the Sign making company who made the street signs originally misread the order and mistook Street (St.) for Saint (which is also St.).
- John Mason Hart, "STILLMAN, CHARLES," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fst57), accessed January 10, 2012. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
- Vezzetti, Robert B. 1986. Steamboats on the Lower Rio Grande Valley in the 19th Century. Studies in Brownsville History ed. Milo Kearney, 77-80. Brownsville, Texas: Pan American Brownsville U P.
- LeRoy P. Graf, The Economic History of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, 1820-1875 (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1942).
- Tom Lea, The King Ranch (2 vols., Boston: Little, Brown, 1957).
- Chauncey Devereux Stillman, Charles Stillman (New York, 1956). Stillman Papers, Harvard and Columbia University libraries.
- John K. Winkler, The First Billion: The Stillmans and the National City Bank (New York: Vanguard, 1934).
- Life of Charles Stillman. http://www.stillman.org/f1147.htm