Among natural and man-made disasters, there is perhaps nothing more baffling and terrifying than an infectious disease outbreak. In the fall of 1862, small communities and military posts along the Texas Gulf Coast were involved in the Civil War, and at the same time also battled different illnesses when the dreaded yellow fever occurred. Yellow fever reached epidemic proportions in the town of Matagorda and Matagorda County. In a short six week period, approximately one-third of the town’s population was recorded to have died. Many victims were hurriedly buried in the Matagorda Cemetery.
In the autumn of 1862, “the yellow fever appeared in Matagorda City and before its departure desolated many homes and brought sadness to the hearts of all. As the prevalence of this scourge is a sorrowful epoch in our history, we have caused the mournful results to be recorded herein for the information of future generations.”
The Mayor of Matagorda at the time of the epidemic was Don Egbert Erastus Braman (1814 - 1898) and he considered this event important to the history of Matagorda. On March 3, 1863, Braman requested William D. Barbour (1820 - 1880), Council Secretary, to record an explanation, including a list of the known victims, to be entered in the city council minutes. John Matthews (1835 - 1913), ordained Methodist minister and proprietor of Matthews Store (1861-1913) of Caney, recorded in his diary a poignant picture of the extremely virulent epidemic.
“About 150 white inhabitants of both sexes and all ages were in the
city during the continuance of the disease. Of these 88 were
attacked, 45 died and 43 recovered. There were about 50 slaves in
the city and while many were desperately ill of ‘black vomit’
[yellow fever] but none died.” Out in the county it was a different
story, there were recorded deaths of Negro slaves but not the names
of the victims.
Matagorda was established in 1827 when Stephen F. Austin obtained permission from Mexico to build a town at the mouth of the Colorado River and the north side of Matagorda Bay. Fifty-two families were recruited from New York and New England. They became the first settlers and in 1830, Matagorda was incorporated with 1400 residents within two years. The barrier protected bay provided easy access for shallow draft cargo vessels that brought commerce and wealth. In a short period of time, Matagorda was the third largest port in Texas.
During the Civil War (1861 - 1865), several military camps, posts, and garrisons were established in the area and Matagorda was one of the eight Texas ports used by blockade runners. Tons of cargo was smuggled out and continued to supply the
Confederacy. Albert Wadsworth (1813 - 1862), successful blockade runner, felt it was through blockade-running that yellow fever was brought to Matagorda.
There had been drought conditions during the summer of 1862. When the late summer-early fall tropical rains and high tides gave relief to the bay prairies, the dominate mosquito eggs had the perfect environment to hatch causing disease. So when a contraband cargo ship brought the female Aedes aegypti mosquito, along with individuals currently infected with yellow fever the stage was set for this full blown epidemic.
“Saturday, September 27, 1862, yellow fever broke out in Matagorda,” recorded John Matthews. “October 9th, 40 cases of yellow fever in Matagorda Battalion B. moved from Matagorda to Peyton’s Creek.”
Relocating of troops simply carried the disease with them. Matthews continues with this entry, “October 10th. Cold norther, first of the season, continued blowing until Saturday, when wind fell off. Still very cold, 60 cases of yellow fever still in Houston.”
When the tale of the 1862 yellow fever was told, “the town’s old ladies, usually spoke of the unseasonable cold weather and of how grateful the people were as the fever seemed to disappear. And they would discuss the fact there were only three doctors for the whole county.”
Actually, there were eight doctors enumerated in the 1860 United States Federal Census living in the county. Three of these were known to be in the town of Matagorda including, Dr. James Raphael Thompson (1825 - 1876 buried in Matagorda Cemetery), Dr. Edward Adolphus Peareson (1816 - 1865 buried in Matagorda Cemetery), and Dr. Kimber Washington Skinner (1828 - 1871).
Matagorda County and Sabine Pass in Jefferson County appears to be the first areas hardest hit in the fall of 1862 by the jaundice fever. The 11th Battalion of Texas Volunteers, Confederate States Army and nicknamed the “Swamp Angels, lost many men during this same 1862 epidemic.” On October 1, 1862, Xavier Blanchard Debray (1818 – 1895), Confederate commander of the eastern sub-district of Texas, wrote in the official report to Samuel Boyer Davis (1827 – 1885) sighting the Federals where in Jefferson and Oranges Counties and he included in this report, “The yellow fever is reported at Matagorda.”
The Gonzales Inquirer, 27th of October published, “The Yellow fever still prevails in Matagorda. There were four deaths on Thursday night. The people of the town are moving their goods, furniture, etc., to the country as fast as they can in fear of an attack. The town is defenseless.” [Tri Weekly Telegraph, 3 November 1862]
From the Victoria Advocate, we learn that up to the 22d ult., there had been 34 deaths from yellow fever at Matagorda.” “Yellow Fever at Matagorda – Letters from Matagorda, September 27th, state there has been several cases of what is supposed to be yellow fever in that place, three of which have proved fatal. We fear the yellow demon will find a good deal of food there.” – [Houston Telegraph, November 7, 1862]
“There were still some cases of Yellow Fever at Houston, on the 3d inst., but the disease was not epidemic. The fever still prevailed at Matagorda, Indianola and Lavaca, with deaths therefrom at each places.” [The Times Picayune, New Orleans, November 21, 1862, published this report.]
Galveston experienced a serious epidemic of Yellow fever that lasted from September1862, until almost the end of November and over one hundred soldiers died. The first Texas quarantine station built in 1853 on the eastern tip of Galveston Island was not in operation during the Civil War. When the Union troops occupied Galveston County the Confederate troops had been relocated from the island to Virginia Point another marshy area and prime breeding ground for mosquito borne disease.
Matagorda suffered through this febris intermittent ordeal with October delivering the most sickness and death.
By November twenty-seventh the epidemic had more or less run its course and the last town victim recorded was that of a child who is assumed to be buried in the designated yellow fever area in the town cemetery.
Tropical cyclones, more commonly called hurricanes, are a part of life along the Texas Gulf coast. Over the past 185 years many calamitous events have struck Matagorda County and most especially the town of Matagorda changing the direction of commerce and population.
History is not a stagnant subject that never changes. Quite the contrary, it is always in a state of flux and the yellow fever epidemic is one such event that continues to be a haunting subject of study. Science and technology continue to make the hallowed grounds of the Matagorda Cemetery a center of archeological educational research.
In the winter of 2000 - 2001, a team of archaeologists from Texas A & M University Center for Ecological Archaeology did an extensive bio-archaeological study. This study was built on the information from earlier probes, cemetery association records and common knowledge shared by life-long residents. The published technical report moved some burial tales into the folk-lore file. The story and site about the Native American burial mound was proved to be false. The massive or rolling graves of the yellow fever victims could not be unquestionably proven.
One enters Matagorda by passing the beautifully maintained cemetery, a focal point of collective community heritage and strong ancestral ties. At night, many a passer-by has been jolted into sobriety from seeing the ghostly reflections dancing from the polished tombstones. This is one of the curiosities that brought the Jane Street Entertainment production crew, in June 2014, to film a pilot to be possibly aired on the History Channel. The show will focus on the well-kept historic secrets of Matagorda County.
Through a locally financed restoration project of 2013, James Brenner and crew from Texas Cemetery Restoration of Dallas spent months probing, retrieving broken and scattered pieces of grave markers. These have been restored and/or replaced according to the maps platted in 1971 by the Bay City High School Junior Historians.
In June 22 - 24, 2014, a ground penetrating radar survey was conducted to again search for the mass grave of the yellow fever victims.
Environmental factors such as tidal waves, prairie fires and vandals have contributed greatly to the coastal history. The bones of one-third of a once thriving seaport community lay quietly awaiting identification and through science, technology, and much physical labor. The few surviving headstones are located in family plots. How will future generations know about the massive devastation or have any idea of the broken lives caused by the, now almost nonexistent, disease of yellow fever? The significance of this 1862 epidemic changed the course of Gulf Coast history and continues to chart courses of study. Primary history is only one generation removed from extinction unless we work diligently on preservation.
Matagorda Yellow Fever Victims, 1862
(From the minutes of the city council of
Matagorda, entered March 3, 1863)
Mrs. Wm. A.
Mrs. Jas. F.
Miss Mary F.
Nora (a child)
Thos. S. (Son of Mrs. Wm.) 17
Johnson, Mrs. Peter
(Husband and wife)
Mackey, Mrs. Ruth
Selkirk, Jas. H. (
an infant child of S. W. Fisher, two children of Abner Reeves and a
child of Adam J. Miller died of yellow fever during same time. making in
all 45 deaths.
William D. Barbour, Secretary
in The Daily Tribune,
Copyright 2004 -
Present by Carol Sue Gibbs
Jan. 13, 2005
December 18, 2014