Fortune building, 1838-1860s
Recognizing the potential for unlimited growth in the new nation, Rice sold his store and invested the profits in merchandise and trade goods, which he sent off to Galveston by sea. Meanwhile, he made the journey there by rail and by packet down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. When he arrived in Galveston in October 1838, he was a wiry man, rather small in stature, with thick, dark hair and piercing blue eyes filled with energy. Those eyes saw an ugly frontier seaport whose muddy, shanty-lined streets were full of stumps. But that sight couldn’t have been more disheartening than the news that the ship carrying his merchandise had been lost at sea. He was penniless. He didn’t stay that way for long.
In February 1839, he was issued a conditional grant to 320 acres of land by the Harrisburg County Board of Commissioners, at the time a not-uncommon procedure to disburse land to settlers in the area. Two months later, he embarked on the first of his many Texas business ventures when he agreed to furnish liquor for the bar of the Milam House—an ironic occupation since, throughout his life, Rice never smoked or drank anything even as stimulating as coffee or tea.
With the proceeds from his business, he began acquiring property, and he entered into his first business partnership in 1840, leasing property with Barnabas Haskill, a Houston merchant. The partnership dissolved two years later, just in time for Rice to join the Texas militia under Gen. Sidney Sherman, formed to repel Santa Anna’s attempt to recapture San Antonio. The Mexican army retreated before Sherman’s force arrived, and the militia was dissolved. And Rice returned to business in Houston.
In 1844 Rice became a commission and forwarding merchant in partnership with Ebenezer B. Nichols, a successful Houston businessman. They brought in goods and merchandise from New Orleans and the Eastern seaboard for resale to local settlers and plantation owners. As he prospered from his import business, Rice began considering exports as well, and at the time in Texas, that meant cotton, especially the transportation of cotton.
Also in the early 1850s, Rice began buying prime forest land in western Louisiana, eventually acquiring more than 50,000 acres. This land was to prove immensely important to the fledgling Rice Institute, providing the funds to construct the earliest buildings on campus and to hire the first faculty. And in the 1930s, a hidden wealth in oil and gas was discovered there, bolstering the Rice Institute’s financial circumstances during the Great Depression.
The 10 years before the Civil War were prosperous ones for planters and cotton merchants, William Marsh Rice included. He reported an increase in net worth to $750,000 from $25,000 during that period, which may have made him the second richest man in Texas, second only to sugar planter John Hunter Herndon of Brazoria County. Along with his other ventures, William furthered his involvement with transportation by founding the Houston and Galveston Navigation Co. and playing an instrumental role in early development of the Buffalo Bayou ship channel. He also invested in the Huntsville Railroad Co., the Houston Tap & Brazoria Railway Co., the Houston & Texas Central Railroad Co., and the Houston Direct Navigation Co. His nontransportation investments included the Union Marine and Fire Insurance Co., the Houston Insurance Co. and the City Bank of Houston.