Indianola: Gateway to the Southwest

Ghost town of Indianola. Diorama created by Jeff Underwood, Philip Thomae photographer, Courtesy of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas

Ghost town of Indianola. Diorama created by Jeff Underwood, Philip Thomae photographer, Courtesy of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas

Waves lap the sunbaked shell beach of a ghost town that never should have been.  Despite its locale at near sea level, people built the thriving seaport of Indianola that rivaled Galveston as a major shipping point on the Texas coast.  Its shore became the landing site for thousands of Germans escaping poverty in the old country; its port served as the debarkation point for military personnel headed west to protect settlers from marauding Indians; and its wharves hosted tons of gold and silver from the mines in Northern Mexico destined for the mint in New Orleans.

Long before Indianola sprang up on the flat, treeless shore overlooking Matagorda and Lavaca bays, the future of Texas took shape as the result of events that occurred there.  In 1685 the Frenchman, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, missed the mouth of the Mississippi River where he had planned to establish a colony and sailed another 400 miles to the central Texas coast.  He moved his ships through the treacherous sand bars and shifting currents of Pass Cavallo, the opening from the Gulf of Mexico into Matagorda Bay.  The Spanish Colonial government was so inflamed by LaSalle’s presence that it sent eleven land and sea expeditions in search of the intruders.  When the Spanish found LaSalle’s abandoned Fort St. Louis in 1689, the Frenchman had been dead for two years—murdered by his own men.  Nevertheless, the Spanish began constructing missions and presidios along the eastern border of Texas, intending to convert the Indians and provide a bulwark against French incursions from Louisiana.

One hundred years before Mexico won its independence from Spain, the Spanish padres built a mission and presidio on the site of LaSalle’s Fort Louis.  The Indians were not receptive, which forced the Spanish to move the facilities two more times before finally settling about fifty miles inland at present Goliad.

The calm waters of the inland bays encouraged the dream of protected ports.  John Linn, a Victoria merchant, established a warehouse on Lavaca Bay in 1831 that grew into Linnville a port that served, along with Galveston, as a major point of entry for goods coming into Texas.  Tragedy struck in August 1840 when 1,000 Comanches, including warriors and their families, furious at what they regarded as insulting and cruel treatment by white authorities at the Council House meeting in San Antonio the previous March, swept down across the Texas prairie stealing horses and murdering.  When they reached the shore at Linnville, they killed a few and captured two women and a child before the startled residents escaped into boats and sat helplessly offshore as they watched their town pillaged and burned. The attack, the largest against any U.S. city, became known as the Great Comanche Raid.

The next chapter in the saga of Matagorda and Lavaca bays began in Germany in the 1840s where a group of twenty-one noblemen, seeing an opportunity to ease the political unrest sweeping the country; to reduce the overcrowding of peasant farmers; and to make a fortune for themselves, organized the Adelsverein or Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas. The Adelsverein appointed Prince Karl of Solms Braunfels, a fellow aristocrat, as the emissary to lead the settlers to the new land.  When Prince Karl landed in Galveston to complete plans for the colony, he discovered that the 9,000-acre site the noblemen had purchased was too far west of Austin and San Antonio for colonists to get supplies; it occupied land that was too poor for farming; and it lay in the middle of Comanche territory.  Before Prince Karl could make other arrangements, four shiploads of Germans were dumped on the cold shell beach at Indian Point, an empty spit of land jutting into the waters where Matagorda and Lavaca bays converge.

In the coming weeks this blog post will tell the story of the development along the coast of a new port city that welcomed German immigrants, hosted two shipments of camels, and thrived economically as war clouds began to form.

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