TRAINS LOADED WITH ORPHANS

A 1910 Victorian dollhouse is on display at the Heritage Village in Seguin. It belonged to five-year-old Alice O’Brien who arrived in Texas on an orphan train from New York City. She lived only nine months with her new family before the mother died and German immigrants

Dietz Doll House

Dietz and his sister, Miss Mollie, asked the parish priest to allow them to raise Alice in their home. Louis Dietz, a local cabinetmaker, immediately built the ornate child-size playhouse complete with a handmade wardrobe and dresser for Alice and her new playmates.

Alice grew up in the Dietz home and her little house eventually became the property of the Seguin Conservation Society where it is displayed as a reminder of approximately 200,000 unwanted, abandoned, neglected, and orphaned children from the slums of New York City who were shipped to small towns and farms in forty-seven states between 1854 and 1929.

Destination sites of orphans.

The program began when Charles Loring Brace, a Congregationalist minister from Hartford, Connecticut, moved in 1848 to New York to study theology and was horrified to discover thousands of vagrant children on the streets—begging, selling flowers, boot blacking, stealing, joining gangs, and prostituting themselves to survive.  Civil authorities, overcome by the shear numbers, treated the children like criminals placing them in adult prisons and almshouses. Brace believed the children were not criminals, but victims of terrible financial and social conditions.

Although poverty had always existed, the economic recession in the mid-nineteenth century, the onset of the industrial revolution that resulted in many job losses, and the arrival of European immigrant families without the skills to find work, created intolerable big city slums. Many of the children were orphans, some were on the street to help support their families, and others were abandoned because parents could no longer care for them.

In March 1853, Brace organized the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) with plans to give the children religious, vocational, and academic instructions. His group soon established the Newsboys’ Lodging House, the nation’s first runaway shelter where boys found inexpensive room, board, and some education. Brace and his organization tried to find jobs and homes for the children, but they were soon overwhelmed with more children than they could handle and not enough money to expand their services. That’s when Brace hit on the idea of sending groups of children to small towns and farms. His plan called for families to raise the children as their own—feeding, clothing, educating, and giving each child $100 upon his or her twenty-first birthday. Brace and his colleagues believed that offering the children as “helpers” on the farms and in the homes would be an incentive for families to open their doors.

The first trainload of forty-five children arrived in Dowagiac, Michigan, at three in the morning on October 1, 1854. They waited on the station platform until dawn and then moved to a meetinghouse that served that Sunday as the Presbyterian church.  Notices placed in the newspapers and posted at the general store, a tavern, and at the railroad station, advised residents that homeless children would be available for them to take and rear as their own. The plan called for each family to be recommended by their local pastor, a doctor, or

Newspaper Ad for Orphan Train Children

another worthy public servant. However, beginning with the first trip, children were handed out along the route simply because the society’s agent accompanying the group believed the prospective “parent” looked worthy.

After the crowd examined the children—some actually felt their muscles or looked into their mouths—the selections began the next morning. By the following Friday, eight children—mostly those too young to work—had not been selected. They were placed on another train for Chicago, where the society’s agent left them and headed back to New York. The group continued another day and a half to Iowa City where a pastor who ran an orphanage tried to place the children with local families.

Although the plan called for representatives of the CAS to check on the welfare of the children, most of the letters of inquiry were ignored and the fate of the children remained in the hands of the families who took them. Some thrived in their new surroundings. For instance, on August 2, 1859, twenty-seven children left New York on a weeklong train ride bound for Indiana. Two boys about ten years old sat next to each other —John Green Brady, who later claimed he had been rescued off the streets of New York by Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., father of the future president and Andrew H. Burke.  Brady became a Presbyterian minister, moved to Alaska and served as governor of the territory from 1897 to 1906. Burke became a drummer boy during the Civil War, finished his education, and moved to North Dakota where he served as governor from 1891 to 1892. A listing in 1917 of “Noteworthy Careers” of CAS children named 180 who served in impressive positions such as U.S. congressmen, clergymen, bankers, physicians, and teachers.

Critics of the program, which was copied by up to 100 private “child welfare” charities in the large eastern cities, say that these groups actually “bound out” children into indentured servitude to western states. Many of the children told stories of being

Dressed to meet prospective “parents.”

taken by farm families who had lost their slaves after the Civil War and saw an opportunity to acquire a free labor force. Some of the farmers sent the children to other farmers or tried to send them back to New York, complaining that the children were awkward and did not know the first thing about farm work. Many of the children ran away from their new homes.

Galveston became the end of the train line for many of the children who were taken in by the Island City Protestant Orphans Home that had moved into a grand Gothic Revival building.

1895 home of Island City Protestant Orphans Home

During the 1900 storm that killed over 6,000 people, the orphans survived huddled in the massive, crumbling building. After two years in Dallas, the children returned to a rebuilt facility, which continued to operate until 1984.

Crumbled remains of Orphans home where all survived.

Today, the old Galveston Orphans Home has been reborn as the Bryan Museum, a renowned collection of Southwest art and artifacts. The building restoration uncovered a few toys on the children’s ground floor play area and names carved on the wall of a hideaway under the stairs.

Children’s hideaway under the stairs. Display at Bryan Museum.

Although some children continued to be “placed out,” the last official shipment of orphans left New York headed to Sulphur Springs, Texas, on May 31, 1929.

Stephen O’Connor’s Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed offers a detailed account of the program.

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LOST SPANISH MISSION

The Santa Cruz de San Sabá Mission, built in 1757, is the only Spanish mission in Texas destroyed by Native Americans. The destruction was so complete that it took 235 years for archeologists to finally confirm the site on the banks of the San Sabá River about 120 miles northwest of San Antonio.

Franciscan padres in San Antonio dreamed of constructing a mission in Apache territory and putting an end to almost perpetual warfare with the tribes. In addition to converting the Indians, reports of silver and gold deposits encouraged ideas of developing mines, building villages, and using the Indians as laborers.

The Apaches came to a peace ceremony in 1749 and asked the Franciscans to construct a mission in Apacheria. The tribes wanted Spanish protection from their mortal enemies, the Comanches, and other northern Indians. The Padres and Spanish officials, believing that the tribes wanted to be converted, struck out on three expeditions into Apache Territory looking for a suitable site. The San Sabá River valley offered the potential for irrigation farming.

Always worried about the cost of every endeavor in its Texas province, Spanish officials finally authorized the new endeavor after three other missions closed and their religious ornaments and furnishings became available. The final incentive came with an offer from a wealthy owner of Mexican silver mines who agreed to fund the cost of up to twenty missionaries for three years providing that his cousin Fray Alonso Giraldo de Terreros be placed in charge of the enterprise.

Col. Diego Oritz Parrilla was appointed commander of the San Sabá presidio, and the march to the new site began on April 5, 1757. About 300, including 100 soldiers and six missionaries, arrived on April 17 with 1,400 cattle and 700 sheep. To their dismay they found no Apaches waiting to join the mission.

The Padres, concerned about soldiers molesting Indian women at the East Texas missions, convinced Commander Ortiz to build the Presidio on the opposite side of the river and about four miles from the mission–– a fine distance for keeping soldiers away from to the Indian neophytes, but not so handy for protecting the mission.

By mid-June, not a single Indian had come to the mission. Then, to the Padres’ delight 3,000 Apaches who were heading north to hunt buffalo and fight Comanches, camped near the mission. The Indians ignored the missionaries’ overtures, but when they departed, they left behind two of their group who were sick and promised that upon their return they would join the mission. By this time, three of the original six missionaries had given up and returned to San Antonio.

With the arrival of winter, rumors circulated of northern tribes gathering to fight the Apaches and destroy the mission. The Padres did not understand that despite Apaches having never entered the mission, it appeared to many tribes, including the Comanches, that the Spanish were siding with their bitter enemies.

On February 25, 1758, Indians stole fifty-nine horses, and Parrilla Ortiz led soldiers in pursuit, only to discover hostile Indians all over the countryside. Ortiz retreated to the mission and tried unsuccessfully to convince Father Terreros to move the remaining three missionaries and thirty-three others to refuge in the Presidio.

On March 16 as the mission went about its morning routine, 2,000 members of tribes that may have come from as far away as Louisiana, managed to enter the compound and despite attempts to appease them with tobacco, trinkets, and finally horses the slaughter began. Many of the Indians used European guns at a time when most Indians fought with bows and arrows or hatchets. Father Terreros and seven others were killed, while one missionary and about twenty occupants escaped to the Presidio. The attackers killed almost all the animals, including the cattle, and set fire to the stockade.

The Indians moved on to the Presidio but when they could not lure the soldiers outside the fortress, they departed on March 18. After less than one year, the Santa Cruz de San Sabá Mission had come to an end.

The following year in September, Ortiz Parrilla led 600 soldiers and Apaches in a failed attempt to punish the warriors for the attack on the mission. They were discovered before they reached a Wichita village on the Red River and endured heavy losses––fifty-two dead, wounded, or deserted––before Ortiz ordered a retreat.

The Spanish government insisted that the San Sabá Presidio remain open despite the superior power of the plains tribes. Many soldiers asked to be transferred and despite the Presidio being rebuilt in limestone and surrounded by a moat, the soldiers faced death if they ventured out of the compound.

In 1762 a mural, The Destruction of Mission San Sabá, believed to be the first painting to depict a historical event in Texas, was commissioned by the wealthy miner who had funded the endeavor. It is believed the unsigned work was done by Jose de Perez who relied on accounts of firsthand witnesses.

In 1769, Presidio San Sabá was finally closed, over ten years after the fall of the mission it had been built to protect.

An added footnote: Soon after James Bowie of later Alamo fame married the daughter of a wealthy Spaniard living in San Antonio, Bowie made two unsuccessful expeditions in search of the Lost San Saba mine. Not to be deterred by Bowie’s failure, stories have continued to appear in newspaper accounts all over the country of miners who are sure they have found the site of the vast Spanish gold mine.

“The Destruction of the San Saba Mission in the Province of Texas and the Martyrdom of the Fathers Alonso de Terreros and Joseph
Santiesteban”
University of Texas, Texas Beyond History

 

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Jewel on the Baylor Campus

Boundless Life: A Biography of Andrew Joseph Armstrong, by Dr. Scott Lewis

Baylor University boasts a claim to fame that has nothing to do with its football team. The world’s largest collection of works pertaining to the Victorian poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning reside in the elegant Armstrong Browning Library. The unlikely repository of

A.J. Armstrong
Wikipedia

the English poets’ books, letters, and manuscripts on a campus in Central Texas happened because of the sheer determination of the Chair of the English Department–– Andrew Joseph Armstrong (1873-1954) ––a moving force at Baylor.

McLean Foyer of Meditation. The light coming through the windows offer a feeling of sunrise and sunset.

Dr. A. J. Armstrong began his collection of Browning books about 1905. Four years later, he spent several days in Italy visiting with the poets’ son. Unfortunately, Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning, whom the family called Pen, died in 1912 without a will. The estate was sold at auction, which sent Armstrong on a lifelong mission to raise money in every way he could to acquire items associated with the Brownings. He challenged donors and former students for gifts. He and his wife developed one of the first college “travel courses” hosting over thirty European tours. His deep Baptist faith and the wisdom he found in Browning’s poems led to his philosophy of life that he imparted to his students with challenges like “Don’t be colorless; be somebody!” and “No man should attain his ideal-–it should be his starting point for tomorrow.”

He gave his personal Browning works to Baylor in 1918, and the growing collection needed a building of its own. In 1943, Baylor President Pat N. Neff donated $100,000 for a new structure and challenged Armstrong to raise the balance.

Armstrong, at age seventy, had always worked an eighteen-hour day, teaching classes on Robert Browning, Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible as Literature, and a modern poetry class. On Sundays, he taught the largest men’s college class at the First Baptist Church, and he lectured weekly for a large women’s literature class.  He sponsored an honorary English society and pushed the carefully selected members to strive toward their own creativity. Still, he drove the fundraising forward and amid grand fanfare the 1.75 million-dollar Armstrong Brown Library opened on December 1, 1951. When questioned about the cost of the structure, Dr. Browning said, “If we can create a place where young people can meditate on great thoughts and by that means give the world another Dante, another Shakespeare, another Browning, we shall count the cost a bargain.”

Hankamer-Treasure-Room

Pied Piper of Hamelin, stain glass illustrates Robert Browning poem.

On all three floors, visitors find sixty-two stained glass windows, believed to be the largest collection of secular stained glass, forty-seven of which follow the themes of Robert Browning’s poetry. Eight windows illumine Elizabeth Barrett Brownings Sonnets from the Portuguese. Of the more than 500 books, about 300 are from the personal libraries of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning or their immediate family. Some of the pages bear notations made by the poets.

Although Andrew Joseph Armstrong died on March 31, 1954, his grand legacy continues to thrive.

Armstrong Browning Library, Baylor University.

Power of Black Women

Black women have received little attention for the critical role they have played in maintaining their families and contributing to their communities. After running across a brief reference to Rachel Whitfield (1814-1908) a “former slave who made it on her own as head of a household, subsistence farmer,” I found Rachel’s story in Women in Early Texas, an account written by her granddaughter, Lela Jackson.

In 1852, Rachel and Jim Whitfield lived with their six children in Arkansas, Missouri. Their master, a man named Whitfield sold Jim to a slave owner, and the family never saw him again. Rachel, age thirty-eight, and the children were put together on the auction block and purchased by Washington McLaughlin. He took them on a months-long trip to Texas, sometimes on foot and other times in an oxcart. They eventually settled on a site with deep, rich soil on the north bank of the San Gabriel River in Williamson County.

The slaves cut thick brush and a variety of trees to clear the land, built cabins, and prepared the soil for planting. Lela Jackson writes that McLaughlin “was not even-tempered and, at times, whipped the slaves.” At other times he gave them passes, which the law required for a slave to leave an owners’ land. If they were caught without a pass, they could be whipped for being away from their owner’s property.

Just before the Civil War soldiers rode into the plantation, took supplies, and before they headed south, one of the slaves heard McLaughlin read the “Proclamation of Freedom.” McLaughlin waited for several days until early one morning he gathered the slaves and angrily announced: “You are now free people. You are free as I am. You can go anywhere you want to. You can stay here if you wish, but I don’t need you.  I can do without you.”

They stood in silence, stunned, unsure of what freedom meant. Finally, the cook went to the kitchen and prepared breakfast for the McLaughlin family. After the master had eaten, he told all the slaves to leave, not allowing them to eat or carry anything with them.

They slipped along the river, finding places to hide, unsure of their safety, listening for any strange noise. Rachel’s oldest son Allen married that spring and helped Rachel and the younger children settle in a log cabin next to a creek. They foraged for wild plums and berries, ate pecans and black walnuts, and got permission to milk a stray cow in exchange for raising its calf for the owner. The milk, butter, and cream stayed fresh in a bucket they lowered into a well. They moved about as the seasons changed, picking cotton and vegetables for landowners. They gathered prairie chicken eggs and trapped birds, squirrels, and possums.

They ironed clothing for white people using flat irons that they heated on a log fire in the yard. Rachel made quilts and asked men to save their ten-cent Bull Durham tobacco sacks, which she ripped open, bleached and used to line her quilts.

The high point in their lives came on “pastoral days,” the Sundays when a preacher held worship services. People came from miles around, and for those who could not read, the leader “lined” out the words. They also enjoyed baptizings in the creek, sing-songs, camp meetings, and dances. When someone died, Rachel and her daughter, Demmie, prepared the body and laid it out on a board or a door that was balanced on chairs. Coffins were made from the plentiful local cedar and stained dark brown.  Rachel, who lived to ninety-three and all her children held the respect of both their black and white Williamson County neighbors.

Black Women in Texas History chronicles the lives of amazing black females from the days when they first arrived in Texas as both free and slave—during the Spanish Colonial Period—up to their present influence on Texas’ politics and education. One of those women was Lulu Belle Madison White who graduated in 1928 from Prairie View College (present Prairie View A&M University) with a degree in English. Before beginning a ten-year teaching career in Houston, White joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in which her husband had been active for several years. She resigned from teaching after nine years and devoted the rest of her life to bringing justice to the black community. She was an amazing fund-raiser and organized new chapters of the NAACP throughout Texas. Even before the Supreme Court in 1944 found that the white primary was unconstitutional, White had started organizing a “pay your poll tax and go out to vote” campaign. She was a strong advocate for using the black vote to force social change. She argued: “we cannot sit idly by and expect things to come to us. We must go out and get them.”

She sought to educate the black community by leading voter registration seminars, and she urged black churches to speak up about public issues without endorsing specific candidates. She pressed white businesses to hire blacks, using boycotts, protest demonstrations, and letter-writing campaigns to influence the change.

In 1946 when the NAACP began its push for integrating the University of Texas, there was only one state-supported black college in Texas—Prairie View A&M—and it did not offer training for professional degrees. White not only persuaded Herman Marion Sweatt, a black

Herman Sweatt in line to register at the University of Texas
The Daily Texan

mail carrier, to act as the plaintiff against the university, she raised money to pay his legal expenses. Years later Sweatt claimed that it was White’s encouragement that helped him maintain his resolve. When the state offered to open a separate black university with its own law school in Houston instead of integrating the University of Texas, White supported Sweatt’s rejection of the proposal on the basis that separate was not equal and only continued the status of Jim Crow.

The victory of Sweatt v. Painter before the Supreme Court in June 1951 opened the door for Brown v. Board of Education and the march toward dissolving the color line in education. A week before Lulu White’s unexpected death in 1957, the national NAACP established the Lulu White Freedom Fund in her honor.

Indianola Survived and Thrived After the Civil War

STEIN HOUSE, A GERMAN FAMILY SAGA, tells the story of immigrants operating a boarding house in the thriving Indianola seaport. They arrived with hope for a new life and were thrust into the political choice of supporting a land that had welcomed them or standing for their principles that did not include slavery.

The new edition of Stein House.
Cover image of Federal troops leaving Indianola in 1861 is from the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas.

The Civil War came to Indianola with the federal blockade of the Gulf of Mexico, which halted supplies coming through Pass Cavallo, the narrow channel from the gulf into Matagorda Bay. By October 1862, when a federal fleet made a foray into the bay, the family had already offered their sons to the war. Residents of the Stein House watched from the upstairs porch as Indianola officials refused to sell supplies and beef to the waiting Union ships. Cannons exploded in a brief battle that resulted in the death of one Union and two Confederate soldiers. The Federal troops looted Indianola, sailed up the coast and looted Lavaca, then moved back out into the Gulf of Mexico.

The waiting game began. It was only a matter of time before Federal forces would make another push to invade the middle Texas coast to stop the movement of cotton—the Confederacy’s means of exchange with Great Britain and other European countries.

Efforts to move cotton through the Gulf blockade quickly proved inadequate, promoting dependence on the Cotton Road, a route through the central part of Texas and across the Wild Horse Desert, the untamed and unpoliced land between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. At Brownsville, freighters ferried cotton across the Rio Grande and then hauled it along the Mexican side of the river to Bagdad, a port at the mouth of the river. There, hundreds of foreign ships anchored in neutral waters off the Mexican coast to exchange the precious cotton for Winchester rifles, ammunition, medical supplies, and equipment desperately needed by the Confederacy.

News of the war was scarce but word came of Confederate troops putting up little resistance when Federals attacked Galveston. General John Bankhead Magruder, convinced that Texas would be invaded along the coast at Indianola, ordered a scorched earth defense––burn bridges, destroy lighthouses, dismantle the railroad out of Lavaca, and burn the warehouses and wharves at Indianola. He met bitter resistance from the locals who refused to destroy their own infrastructure. In war, they expected the enemy to destroy property, not their own officials. There would be time enough when the Yanks made a move. Then spirits lifted on hearing that Confederates had retaken Galveston on New Year’s Day 1863.

In November Brownsville fell, cutting off the shipment of cotton into Mexico. Confederates moved the cotton crossing on up the river to Laredo and as far west as Eagle Pass.

Indianolans waited as Federals began a relentless march from the Rio Grande up the Texas coast. They captured town after town until they reached Indianola in December 1863. Residents of the Stein House stood again on the upstairs porch to watch the brief battle. Within hours, troops descended on the property, camped in the yard, and took over the upper floors of the boarding house.

The occupants of the Stein House foraged for food, fed families of men who were off fighting, educated the children and waited for word from their men.

On March 14, 1864, less than three months after they arrived, the Federal forces began to depart. As they watched pontoon boats carrying men to the waiting ships, one of the boats took on water and began to sink. People along the shore rowed out to the rescue only to see twenty-one men drown in the shallow water. In gratitude for their help, the commanding office donated military clothing that the women of Indianola dyed and refashioned for children who had become threadbare.

The sudden troop withdrawal led to speculation that an invasion of Texas was imminent. In fact, the Yankees planned to invade from Northwestern Louisiana near Shreveport. When the Red River Campaign failed on April 8, 1864, Union forces made no further effort to control Texas.

With the troops gone, Indianolans started rebuilding their destroyed homes, filled in the rifle pits that scarred the landscape, and replanted gardens that had been stripped bare. The legislature allowed residents who had no money to pay their taxes in goods or articles that were redistributed to destitute families. When the war ended with the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, hope returned for a future of peace and prosperity.

The Federal blockade of the Gulf of Mexico ended in June, swinging wide the gates of commerce. The Chihuahua Road reopened and hundreds of wagons and Mexican carts loaded with silver, copper, and lead from the mines in Mexico rumbled into the port. Lumber and manufactured goods, which had been halted by the blockade, flooded through Indianola. Charles Morgan, the shipping tycoon, reclaimed and rebuilt his ships that had been confiscated by both sides in the war. He intended to regain his lost shipping empire, and Indianola benefited.

The arrival of the Army of Occupation that came to maintain order and see that the freedmen were not harmed, sent shivers through Indianola and the wary residents of the Stein House. A young Yankee lieutenant took a room at the Stein House and soon eased the tensions of Reconstruction and tempered the anger generated by the government requirement that citizens sign amnesty oaths, and the denial of the right to vote for anyone who had any political or military association with the Confederacy.

Indianolans continued to look to the sea for their survival. Ships brought in everything from groceries to building materials and exported cotton, wool, hides, and even beeswax. Ice, cut from the ponds of New England, arrived during the warm months. They repaired bridges, constructed roads, and built houses next to the grading for the future railroad that had been stopped by the war.

Indianolans believed that getting their economy and their seaport back in operation and maintaining a working relationship with all the country was in their best interest. The seaport thrived––even rivaled Galveston––until 1875.

Next week: Storms that Created a Ghost Town.

Cabeza de Vaca Walks Across Texas

Six years after the conquest of Mexico, Charles I of Spain sent an expedition to colonize all the Gulf Coast from Florida to present Tampico, Mexico. We know the details of this adventure because Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca kept extensive notes, which he used for publication in 1542 of his Relación (Account) and an expanded version in 1555.

Cabeza de Vaca
Texas State Historical Association

de Vaca served as the treasurer and first lieutenant of the 600-man expedition under the leadership of Pánfilo de Narváez. Six ships sailed from Spain in June 1527, and after desertions in Santa Domingo and a terrible hurricane in Cuba, the Spaniards spent the winter re-outfitting the expedition. About 500 Spaniards and five ships struck out again in April. Available maps of the Gulf of Mexico were so inaccurate that when they reached Florida’s west coast, Narváez, believing they were within thirty to forty miles of Mexico—a miscalculation of about 1,500 miles—ignored protests from Cabeza de Vaca and others and put ashore with an exploring party of 300 men and forty horses.

Route of the Cabeza de Vaca Expedition

After slogging along the coast for a month, suffering from Indian attack and food shortage, they realized that they must return to the sea for their travel. The lone carpenter guided the construction of five rafts using deerskin and hollowed-out pieces of wood as bellows. They melted stirrups and bridle bits to cast primitive saws and axes for felling trees and shaping crude planks that they caulked with pine resins and palmetto fibers. They fashioned sails out of their shirts and trousers and wove rigging from horse manes and tails. They tanned the skin from the legs of horses to form bags for carrying fresh water. They fed themselves by killing a horse every third day. On September 22, 1528, they loaded fifty men on each raft and set out along the Gulf, remaining within sight of the shore.

Soon after passing the mouth of the Mississippi River, strong winds separated the rafts, eventually driving all ashore between Galveston Island and Matagorda Peninsula. About ninety Spaniards and at least one African slave named Estevanico landed two rafts on a beach Cabeza de Vaca soon named la Isla de Malhado (the Isle of Misfortune). His description leads scholars to believe they were just below present Galveston on Follets Island.

The exhausted and starving men were terrified to see six-foot giants towering over them. Using sign language, the Indians who occupied the islands along the coast, indicated that they would return the following day with food. Cabeza de Vaca wrote that the next morning, after taking their fill of food and water, the Spaniards tried launching their rafts only to have them capsize and drown three men before tossing the others back onto the shore. When the Indians saw the terrific loss of men and all their possessions, Cabeza de Vaca said the Spaniards were stunned when these “crude and untutored people, who were like brutes,” sat down with the survivors and cried, weeping and wailing for half an hour.

Still believing they were close to their destination, four strong swimmers went ahead with an Indian guide. Over the winter Cabeza de Vaca observed the Indians, noting that when a child died the entire village mourned the loss for a full year. He observed this same sensitivity toward everyone in their society except for the elderly, whom they viewed as useless, occupying space and eating food that the children needed. He also wrote that during the first winter, five Spaniards became stranded on the mainland. As they reached starvation they began eating one another until only one man was left. The natives were revolted by the cannibalism and horrified that the Spaniards were so disrespectful of their dead that the survivors feared the Indians were going to kill them all. By spring 1529, exposure, dysentery, and starvation had decimated the wayfarers. Only Cabeza de Vaca and fourteen others survived.

Cabeza de Vaca set out alone to explore inland and became seriously ill. When he did not return as expected, he was given up for dead, and twelve of the survivors decided to move on down the coast toward Mexico. Two men refused to go because they could not swim and feared crossing the waterways along the coast.

Meantime, Cabeza de Vaca recovered from his illness, and for almost four years he traded with the Indians, carrying seashells and sea snails to interior tribes, which they used to cut mesquite beans, in exchange for bison skins and red ochre, a dye prized for body paint by the coastal Indians. The natives gave him food in exchange for what they believed were his healing powers. He blew his breath on the injured or afflicted parts of the body and incorporated prayers and the Catholic practice of crossing himself, which he reported almost always made those receiving the treatment feel better. Each winter he returned to Malhado to check on the two survivors who steadfastly refused to leave.

In 1532, when one of the men on Malhado died, the survivor Lope de Oviedo, agreed to journey down the coast after Cabeza de Vaca promised to carry him on his back if they had to swim across streams. At Matagorda Bay, a tribe Cabeza de Vaca called Quevenes threatened to kill them, which caused Oviedo to turn back with a group of native women and disappear. Despite their threats, the Indians told Cabeza de Vaca of “three Christians like him” and agreed to take him across the bay. Upon reaching the other side, he traveled to the “River of Nuts,” present Guadalupe and found three of his former companions being held as slaves, the other nine having died as they made their way along the coast.

For the next eighteen months, the four endured slavery under the Coahuiltecans, always planning to escape at their first opportunity. During their captivity, they heard stories of the fate of their expedition. Some had died of exposure and hunger; others succumbed to violence among themselves or from natives, and some of the survivors resorted to eating the flesh of their companions. In late summer 1534, they slipped away separately and headed toward the Rio Grande. Despite the odds, they soon met again and joined friendly Indians southwest of Corpus Christi Bay, where they remained for the next eight months.

They crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico near present Falcon Dam Reservoir, but upon hearing of hostile Indians along the Gulf coast, turned back across northern Mexico to the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean. Four men out of the original 300 reached Mexico City in July 1536, almost eight years after setting foot on the Florida Gulf coast.

Estevanico by Granger
Texas State Historical Association

Two of the men married wealthy widows of Conquistadores and remained in Mexico. Estevanico was sold or loaned to serve as a scout for an advance expedition of Coronado’s entrada. Stories as to his fate. One account says he was killed by Zuni Indians in present western New Mexico. Other accounts claim that he and friends feigned his death and he escaped to freedom.

Cabeza de Vaca had not completed his service to the crown. He was assigned the governorship of present-day Paraguay in Central South America. His experience in Texas, despite mistreatment and slavery, had made him a champion of the native people. When he tried to initiate policies that would help the local tribes—removing Indian slaves from cruel masters and placing them with kinder owners, instituting restrictions against holding Indian women as concubines, and adding modest taxes, settlers determined to exploit the native population removed him from office and sent him back to Spain in chains.

During his six-year trial, conviction, and his subsequent pardon, Cabeza de Vaca wrote Relación (Account), his detailed description of his Texas experiences as a merchant, doctor, ethnologist, historian, and observer of plants and animals. He recorded Native American’s incest taboos, dietary habits—spiders, ant eggs, worms, lizards, and poisonous vipers—when nothing else was available, and methods used for insect repellent. He even recorded his profound distaste for sodomy among the hunting and gathering culture. His description of the buffalo was the first written account of those wild creatures.

Cabeza de Vaca died about 1559, but his extraordinary adventures and his detailed documentation have earned him the title of Texas’ first historian. He performed one other amazing task as he and the other castaways walked barefoot across Texas and Mexico. His description of removing an arrowhead lodged in the chest just above an Indian’s heart earned Cabeza de Vaca fame as the “Patron Saint” of the Texas Surgical Society.

Cabeza de Vaca surgery
Texas State Historical Association

THE DRAMA OF THE IMAGINATION

Newspapers around the country in 1860 called it “the Texas Troubles.” Rumors—fanned by letters written by Charles R. Pryor, editor of the Dallas Herald—claimed that a mysterious fire on Sunday, July 8, which burned the newspaper office and all the buildings on the Dallas square except the brick courthouse, was an abolitionist plot “to devastate, with fire and assassination the whole of Northern Texas . . . .”

On the same day, other fires destroyed half of the square in Denton and burned a store in Pilot Point. Fires also erupted in Honey Grove, Jefferson, and Austin. The city leaders of Dallas (population 775) first believed the extreme heat—105 to 113 degrees––caused spontaneous combustion of the new and volatile phosphorous matches. They concluded that the matches, stored in a box of wood shavings at a drug store, ignited and quickly consumed the entire building before spreading over the downtown. Citizens in Denton, after experiencing similar problems with “prairie matches,” concluded that spontaneous combustion caused their city’s fire.

In Dallas, however, white leaders stirred by the prospect of Abraham Lincoln’s election and encouraged by Pryor’s claims, decided on a sinister slave plot hatched up by two white abolitionist preachers from Iowa. They jailed the preachers, publically whipped them, and sent them out of the county.

A committee of fifty-two men organized to mete out justice to the slaves in the county. At first, the vigilante committee favored hanging every one of the almost 100 Negro slaves in the county, then cooler heads prevailed and decided to hang only three. Two days later the men were hung on the banks of the Trinity River near the present Triple Overpass. The remaining slaves, out of consideration of their property value, were given a good flogging. Later, a judge who had been part of the vigilante committee said that the three murdered slaves were probably innocent, but because of the “inflamed state of the public mind, someone had to be hanged.”

The “troubles” were not over. By the end of July, towns throughout North and Central Texas organized vigilance committees to find and punish the conspirators. The committees terrorized the slave community. Interrogations focused on white itinerant preachers who were cited as insurrection leaders.

Despite fears of a slave rebellion that lasted until after the Civil War, there was never an organized group of slaves in Texas that shed white blood. Vigilantes often obtained “confessions” and evidence points to white leaders spreading the rumors to garner public support for secession.

Estimates vary from thirty to 100 Negroes and whites who died before the panic subsided. One historian described the times as “the drama of the imagination.”