DEADLIEST FEUD IN TEXAS

It’s called the Sutton-Taylor Feud, but William Sutton was the only Sutton involved in this fight. He had a lot of friends, including some members of Governor E. J. Davis’ State Police. The Taylor faction consisted of the sons, nephews, in-laws, and friends of two

brothers––Creed and Pitkin Taylor. The tale gets more complicated: Creed Taylor, who had fought in every major Texas battle from the “Come and Take It” skirmish at Gonzales through the Mexican-American War, did not join the feud. His brother Pitkin was an old man in 1872 when the feud was well underway. Sutton supporters lured him out of his house one night by ringing a cowbell in his cornfield. Shot and severely wounded, he lived only six months. At his funeral, his son and several relatives vowed to avenge the killing. “Who sheds a Taylor’s blood, by a Taylor’s hand must fall” became their mantra.

Lawlessness ran rampant in Texas after the Civil War and resentments flared with the arrival of black Union soldiers assigned to keep order and Carpetbaggers—Northerners, some of whom took advantage of the impoverished conditions by paying back taxes on land to acquire farms belonging to Confederate soldiers.

Evidence of the building tensions appeared in 1866 when Buck Taylor shot a black sergeant who came to a dance at the home of Taylor’s uncle. Then Hays Taylor killed a black soldier in an Indianola saloon. The following year, Hays Taylor and his brother Doby killed two Yankee soldiers in Mason. No arrests were made in any of the cases.

William Sutton’s first foray into the “troubles,” began in 1868 while he served as Clinton deputy sheriff. In an attempt to arrest horse thieves, Sutton killed Charley Taylor and arrested James Sharp. When Sharp “tried to escape,” a recurrent problem with prisoners during that period, Sutton shot Sharp in the back.

A few months later, Buck Taylor and Dick Chisholm accused Sutton of dishonesty over the sale of some horses. They settled the matter with guns, which resulted in the death of both Taylor and Chisholm.

Then William Sutton did the unthinkable by joining the hated State Police force under Captain Jack Helm. Historians believe not all of the State Police were corrupt or politically motivated, however, the faction working under Jack Helm apparently used “Reconstruction,” as an excuse to terrorize large sections of South Central Texas. For example, Helm’s men arrested sons-in-law of Pitkin Taylor on a trivial charge, took them a short distance from home, and killed them while one of their wives watched from hiding.

After several incidents came to light regarding Jack Helm’s misconduct, the State Police dismissed him. To the chagrin of many in the area, Helm continued serving as DeWitt County Sheriff. It was not long before Jim Taylor and John Wesley Hardin, the notorious murderer, killed Jack Helm.

With Helm gone, William Sutton became the leader of the group. After old Pitkin Taylor, mentioned above, was lured out and killed, his son Jim and several relatives caught William Sutton in a saloon; they fired through the saloon door, but only wounded him. After a second unsuccessful attempt to kill Sutton, they settled for killing a member of Sutton’s group.

The murders continued to terrify the countryside. Residents of the region were forced to take sides and lived in constant fear of being pursued or ensnared in a trap. No one felt safe from the rampage. Finally, William Sutton moved to Victoria and got married. When his wife was expecting a child, he decided they should leave the country.  Gabriel Slaughter accompanied them on the train to Indianola. On March 11, 1874, Sutton, his wife, and Slaughter were boarding a ship when Jim and Bill Taylor shot and killed both men.

In retaliation, the Sutton faction arrested three Taylors on charges of “cattle theft,” and put them in the Clinton jail. Despite probable innocence, they were taken out of jail on the night of June 20, 1874, and hanged.

In September 1875, Bill Taylor went on trial in Indianola for murdering Sutton and Slaughter. Huge crowds from all over the state––eager to witness the trial of a member of the notorious feud––converged on Indianola. Instead of a trial, they witnessed a devastating hurricane with winds of 110 miles an hour. When water began filling the jail, Bill Taylor and the other prisoners were released.

The murders continued when John Wesley Hardin killed the new leader of the Suttons. A gunfight the following month, left Jim Taylor and two of his friends, dead. When masked men executed four prominent citizens, the Texas Rangers finally stepped in and arrested eight suspects. No one dared testify. The trial ended with only one conviction and that man, after twenty years of legal maneuvering, received a pardon.

The Sutton-Taylor Feud ground to an exhausted halt. Known as the longest and bloodiest feud in Texas history, the confirmed death toll in the Taylor faction reached twenty-two. The Sutton group lost about thirteen.

 

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The Making of a Ghost Town

After the Civil War, Indianolans were determined to rebuild and recapture the financial momentum that had driven the local economy before Texas seceded from the Union. They welcomed northern businessmen like Francis Stabler who came from Baltimore with a very successful method to preserve beef by using carbonic acid gas. He opened a meat canning plant and a tallow operation that spread to markets in New Orleans and New York.

Indianolans were as wary as were all the citizens of the former Confederacy when the Reconstruction Government imposed military rule and moved in federal forces assigned to see that the civil rights of the freed slaves were protected. Since there were only a small number of slaves in the entire county and the area had never been dependent on slave labor, the infantry companies found their task relatively easy. And residents began to see the occupying force as gentlemanly and courteous.

By the end of the war, the number of unbranded cattle had exploded. Steamships lined up at Indianola’s long piers to take on loads of cattle. Massive numbers of longhorns were driven to the railheads in Kansas.

In July 1869, the world’s first refrigerated warehouse was built at Indianola to hold thirty beef carcasses at a temperature just above freezing. Thus, began a new business constructing refrigerated warehouses and a future of shipping fruits and vegetables from as far away as the West Indies.

Gaslighting, washing machines, and Steinway pianos became readily available and there were more fine hotels with billiard rooms and fancy bars and restaurants known for oysters and seafood of all kinds.

Despite the completion of the railroad that hauled goods over the sixty-five-mile route to Cuero, the streets remained congested with hundreds of freight wagons and Mexican carretas loaded with raw materials and silver from mines in Northern Mexico and the produce from Western Texas farms. Ships from across the Gulf Coast and as far north as New York and Boston brought finished lumber and manufactured goods that the teamsters hauled to eager merchants at inland towns. The activity at the port of Indianola began to rival Galveston.

In the midst of the economic revival, resentment increased over men having to swear that they had never supported the South in order to receive amnesty. If they had been part of the Confederacy they were disenfranchised. The outrageous increase in taxes finally drove Democrats and moderate Republicans to join forces in 1874 and vote out the administration of Governor E. J. Davis.

Indianola continued to thrive and enjoyed very little of the political unrest and outright defiance of the law that stirred many communities across other parts of the South. However, on March 11, 1874, Indianola was thrust into the middle of the Sutton-Taylor feud, a bloody series of revenge killings that started after the Civil War and raged across DeWitt County. William Sutton, one of the principals in the fight had been persuaded by his pregnant wife to leave the area. Accompanied by his wife and a friend, they arrived on the train from Cuero and were walking up a ship’s gangplank, when two of the Taylor boys appeared out of the crowd and killed the two men.

The murder trial was scheduled to be held at the Indianola courthouse in mid-September 1875. Crowds from Victoria, DeWitt, Calhoun and surrounding counties descended on Indianola for the sensational event. They filled the hotels and boarding houses to capacity and buoyed the town with a spirit of excitement.

The winds picked up on Tuesday, September 14, and by Wednesday children and visitors were enjoying the white-crested waves. It looked like all the people gathered for the trial would return home with additional tales of the storm. By dawn on Thursday, the bay had moved into the streets and the surging water tore at foundations. The road out of town had become impassable and the force of the waves ate away at the railroad track. Observers scrambled to the second floor of the concrete courthouse and families used boats to move to structures that appeared stronger. As night covered the city, the winds increased and buildings were swept into the darkness of the prairie and bayous for twenty miles behind the town. People tied cotton bales together to form rafts. Banks secured cotton bales around the safes that allowed them to float when the buildings collapsed.

The silence of the center came after midnight. Then the deafening roar returned as the opposite side of the eye sucked the water back to sea with such force that it carried with it many of the weaken structures. Friday morning dawned clear and cool with a stiff wind. Three-fourths of the buildings had disappeared; most of the others were severely damaged; five bayous had been cut across to Power Horn Lake that sprawled behind the town. Entire families were gone, yet some people were found miles away after floating on doors or roofs. Because of the number of visitors in town, no one knew how many had perished. Almost three hundred bodies were found, many so mutilated that they could not be identified. Unknown numbers had been swept out to sea.

Aid flowed in from all over the country in the form of cash and supplies to help Indianolans rebuild their lives. Ironically, Charles Morgan, the shipping tycoon who had increased his fortune by filling his steamships at the local wharves sent only a letter with an expression of sympathy.

The people imagined deepening the bayou that led into Powder Horn Lake and rebuilding their port on the higher ground beside the inland lake. When it became clear that representatives of the aging Charles Morgan would not help with such an expensive endeavor, many people and businesses moved to Victoria and Cuero. However, a determined core of residents decided to continue the shipping business and to build on the seaport’s natural assets––clear bay water, gleaming white shell beaches, excellent fishing, and hotels and restaurants of the first order. They named the beautiful beach drive that paralleled the bay The Promenade, and they advertised all the features that expanded their port city into a vacation and fishing locale.

The campaign began to work and Indianola rose again as a prominent coastal community for business and pleasure. Then on August 19, 1886, after a summer of extreme heat and drought, telegraph signals warning of an approaching storm failed to reach Indianola before the rising tide cut off all hope of moving to safety. During the fierce winds, a fire broke out and burned all but two of the downtown buildings. Structures that had withstood the 1875 storm collapsed under the wind and water. Although the wind speed was greater than the first hurricane, the rapid movement of the storm decreased the surge of water from the bay and the devastating outflow.

The end had come. Residents who could find portions of their homes, gathered up the pieces, renumbered the boards and began the sad process of abandoning their city by the sea. A few diehards hung on for a year or two and then the coast returned to the windswept place it had been when the first Germans arrived in December 1844.

STEIN HOUSE, A GERMAN FAMILY SAGA tells the Indianola story through the lives of Helga Heinrich and her four children who operated Dr. Joseph Stein’s boarding house through all those joy-filled and turbulent years.

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.

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.

Drumbeat for Civil War

Indianola sat on the middle Texas coast––a southern town with a seaport’s connection to the cosmopolitan world of commerce, business cooperation, and a diverse blend of residents newly arrived from all over Europe. The soil—gritty shell beaches cut by a crisscross of shallow

Indianola by Helmuth Holtz, Sept. 1860
Library of Congress
Wikipedia

bayous and lakes—did not lend itself to cotton growing. The vast slave plantations thrived much farther east and north in the rich bottomlands of Texas’ rivers. The slaves sold on the front porch of the Casimir House, an elegant hotel and social center that used slaves to serve its guests, generally were taken inland by planters who came to Indianola to purchase supplies. Most of the blacks in Indianola were free—having bought their freedom or been freed by generous owners.  They worked the docks and they operated pig farms out on Powderhorn Lake. Unlike most southern towns, the residents of Indianola accepted the presence of free blacks, and despite the law against freedmen living in the state without Congressional approval, they were allowed to go about their business without interference.

As secession talk grew, and a few agitators arrived from the north, Indianola residents expressed confidence that Southern saber rattling would force the North to back off. However, the arrival of a gentleman who was accused of being an abolitionist prompted city authorities to force him onto an outbound ship and appoint a “vigilance committee,” to maintain order.

During the fall of 1860 merchants continued to thrive, and talk of Lincoln’s possible election caused little concern and no apparent disruption in the cooperation between northern business people pouring into the port and local shipbuilders producing steamers at a brisk pace. The newspaper editor touted the rosy financial picture, expecting it to continue indefinitely.

The news of Lincoln’s election stirred patriotism for the former Republic of Texas. Residents threw caution aside as newspapers across the state called for secession instead of living under the evils of Lincoln’s “Black Republicanism.”

On the night of November 21, a well-advertised mass meeting took place at the courthouse, preceded by a parade. An owner of one of the shipyards on Powder Horn Bayou, led the parade, carrying a flag emblazoned with a Lone Star, the symbol of the former Republic of Texas. Sewn by local women for the event, the flag drew such wild applause it drowned out the band’s rousing march music. Participants carried twenty-eight poles topped by huge, transparent pieces of glass with candles or kerosene lamps illuminating phrases like The Issue is Upon Us; Who is not for us is Against us; The Time Has Come; States’ Right; Millions in Number, One in Sentiment; and The North has Broken the Symbols of Union.

The crowd filled the courthouse to overflowing. A judge gave a rousing speech saying they must take decisive action. Then he appointed a committee to draft resolutions representing the views of Indianola citizens. While the crowd waited for the resolutions to be written, the band played the French national anthem, a stark symbol of revolution. After another loud and emotion-laced speech, the committee returned with the support of a secession convention and demands for Texas to reclaim its right to retake the powers it delegated to the federal government when it accepted statehood. The dye was cast.

Even before the war officially began, United States military personnel that had manned the posts along the western edge of Texas settlement to protect colonists from Indian attack, began marching through the streets of Indianola to the docks where federal ships waited to carry them away. Families living on the edge of Texas’ western frontier were left to protect themselves from the Comanches who soon took advantage of the opportunity to reclaim some of their hunting grounds.

Texas in the Civil War, Courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Most Germans and other European immigrants that settled in Texas did not want the South to secede. First, most of the new arrivals did not have land suitable for cotton or sugar cane production and did not need slave labor. Second, they felt a loyalty to the United States, the country that had just welcomed them to its shores. Finally, most immigrants did not believe in slavery, having come from countries where peasants worked for such meager livelihoods, that they yearned for the opportunities that freedom offered. But, like other Unionists such as Sam Houston and Robert E. Lee, they felt a loyalty to their new home and did not leave the South.

Indianola merchants soon realized that they had been wrong in their belief that they could continue business as usual. The federal government quickly began a blockade of all the Gulf Coast, which resulted in the nightly adventure of blockade runners moving into the Gulf with cotton bound for trade with European, especially British, ships eager to take the Confederacy’s “white gold” in exchange for essential Winchester rifles, medical supplies, clothing, and ammunition. The dangerous blockade routes through bayous and backwater canals that were used to transport the valuable cotton could no longer sustain the commercial traffic. Business in Indianola and in the towns it supplied in western Texas came to a sudden halt.

Invasion and occupation will be the topic of next week’s blog post.

My award-winning book includes this story. STEIN HOUSE, A GERMAN FAMILY SAGA has just been republished by Sunstone Press. The cover image is of Union troops in the streets of Indianola, a wood engraving by Thomas Nast published in the New York Illustrated

From the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas.

News, April 6, 1861.

THE RISE AND FALL OF INDIANOLA

Waves lap the sunbaked shell beach of a ghost town that never should have been. Despite its locale at near sea level, the thriving port of Indianola rivaled Galveston after the Civil War as a major shipping point on the Texas coast.

In the 1840s a group of German noblemen heard of the cheap land available in Texas, and they saw an opportunity to make a lot of money by ridding Germany of peasant farmers that had no hope of securing more land, craftsmen who were out of work because of the Industrial Revolution, and intellectuals who were unhappy with the strict political environment. The noblemen organized the Adelsverein or Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas and charged each family $250, which paid for transportation to the new land, 320 acres, seeds, tools, and a food allowance to sustain them until the first harvest.

By December 1844 the poorly organized and ill-fated Adelsverein had sent four shiploads of Germans to the bare shell beach at Indian Point, an empty spit of land jutting into the waters where Matagorda and Lavaca bays converge. It was March 1845, before that first wave of immigrants reached their new home, which they named New Braunfels.

The noblemen, ignoring the lack of any kind of village or port facility on the bay, continued sending ships that dumped a steady flow of immigrants, creating a horror story for over 5,000 men, women, and children who arrived at Indian Point and could not find transportation to move inland. Polluted water and lack of sanitation caused diseases that killed hundreds before they could be moved off the coast.

Disillusionment with the Adelsverein led many of the Germans to refuse to join the trek to the land they had been promised. Instead, they remained on the coast and built docks into the shallow bay to receive the steady stream of ships. By 1849 a community had developed at Indian Point, and the residents changed its name to the more melodious “Indianola.”

The United States War Department built a wharf and opened its Army Supply Depot to serve as the disembarkation point for personnel destined for posts as far away as El Paso del Norte (future Fort Bliss) and along the western edge of Texas settlement. Hundreds of freight wagons and Mexican carts loaded with silver from the mines of Chihuahua, Mexico, rolled into Indianola, where ships transported the silver to the mint in New Orleans.

If anything proved to the citizens of Indianola that their seaport was making a name for itself in Washington D.C., it was the arrival of thirty-three camels in May 1856, followed by a second shipment of forty-one camels the next February. The entire affair was an experiment initiated by the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, to test the viability of camels as beasts of burden in the Southwest.

Indianola was a southern town, but it boasted a seaport’s connection to the more cosmopolitan world of commerce, business cooperation, and a diverse blend of residents newly arrived from all over Europe. The soil—gritty shell beaches cut by a crisscross of shallow bayous and lakes—did not lend itself to cotton growing. Thus the vast slave plantations thrived much farther east and north along the rivers and in the rich bottomlands. Planters who came to Indianola to purchase supplies could also buy slaves at auction on the front porch of Indianola’s Casimir House, an elegant hotel and social center that used slaves to serve its guests. Most of the blacks in Indianola were free—having bought their freedom or been freed by previous owners. They worked the docks and they operated pig farms on the huge Powderhorn Lake that sprawled ominously behind the low-lying port city. Unlike most southern towns, the residents of Indianola accepted the presence of free blacks, and they were allowed to go about their business without interference.

During the fall of 1860, talk of Lincoln’s possible election caused little concern and no apparent disruption in the cooperation between northern business people pouring into the port and local shipbuilders producing steamers at a brisk pace. The newspaper editor touted the rosy financial picture, expecting it to continue indefinitely.

Before the first war shots were fired, United States military personnel that had manned the posts along the western edge of Texas settlement to protect colonists from Indian attack, began marching through the streets of Indianola to the docks where federal ships waited to carry them away. The federal blockade of the Gulf of Mexico soon forced the Indianola merchants to close and many residents to flee the city. Despite bombardment by federal troops in October 1862 and a three-month occupation of Indianola in early 1864, residents quickly returned after the war and began rebuilding the destroyed docks and their homes and businesses. The eagerness to return their port to a thriving commercial center and to assist families that had been impoverished by the war played well for an economy that thrived on its maritime commerce.

The problem of high tide washing into the downtown streets was virtually ignored as profits soared, freight wagons by the hundreds clogged the thoroughfares leading to the docks, and ships sat patiently at anchor waiting for access to the busy port. In September 1875, Indianola overflowed with visitors from all over the region who had come to witness the murder trial of participants in the infamous  Sutton-Taylor Feud. Few people noticed the increasingly bad weather until the road out of town became impassable and the railroad tracks washed away. By the time the storm ended, several hundred had died and most of the business houses were destroyed, washed into the huge Powderhorn Lake. Many residents moved inland, but those who remained were determined to rebuild their city.

When railroads were built from rival ports undermining Indianola’s shipping enterprise, businessmen began developing the town as a resort to take advantage of its clear water, excellent fishing, and fine restaurants and hotels.

In August 1886, a West India hurricane moved into the Gulf of Mexico. By the time it reached Indianola it was one of the most powerful storms in recorded history. Structures that had survived the 1875 storm soon gave way to the force of wind and flood. A lamp exploded in a disintegrating building and the wind fanned flames across the entire downtown. At dawn, the port city of Indianola was gone, and the survivors moved, many without ever looking back at the ghost town they left behind.

 

I have told Indianola’s story in The Doctor’s Wife and Stein House.

https-//goo.gl/wMjbVf.webloc

The Bell With A Past

Church Bell, Port Lavaca United Methodist Church

Church Bell, Port Lavaca United Methodist Church

The bell sitting on a brick platform next to the United Methodist church building in Port Lavaca has a colorful past. Originally, it belonged to the Indianola Methodist Church about nine miles down the coast from Port Lavaca, but a hurricane in 1875 destroyed much of the thriving seaport and most of the church buildings. Although Indianola continued as a port city, the Methodists never rebuilt. In 1886 another horrible storm and subsequent fire turned Indianola into a ghost town.

That 1886 storm also caused major damage forty miles inland to the Victoria Methodist Church. After the congregation completed repairs to their building, they sent a group of men down to Indianola to retrieve “the finest bell in Texas” from the wrecked Methodist Church.

Melinda Harris, a tiny black woman, the only surviving member of the destroyed church still living in the abandoned town, met the men and told them that the bell belonged to her and they couldn’t have it. They returned to Victoria empty-handed.

Meantime, Melinda Harris moved up the coast to Port Lavaca and when the Methodists built a new building, she gave the old Indianola bell to the congregation. Old timers remembered her as Aunt Malindy, owner of a white boarding house. She went about town wearing a starched white apron and sat on the back row at the Methodist church every Sunday morning.

The Frontier Times reprinted a story written in 1925 by Rev. M.A. Dunn in which he says that when he arrived to serve the Port Lavaca church in 1901, a little black woman named Malinda Harris came to him wanting to pay to have the church painted. When the work was completed and he went to collect the payment, Aunt Malindy drew thirteen ten-dollar bills from an old Bible. He said the money was so stiff that he thought of Noah’s Ark. Then, he realized that those bills had been gathered from the floodwater after the Indianola storm and pressed dry because they stood up like cardboards.

When Malinda Harris died in 1914 she left her property consisting of one-half lot worth two-hundred-fifty dollars and personal property worth twenty-five to the church.

The bell story continues: The Methodist congregation outgrew its site and moved in 1958 to a new location. The sales agreement called for the congregation to take the church bell. However, the new facility didn’t have a sanctuary, only a fellowship hall and classrooms. The bell was left behind and forgotten.

L.E. Gross did not forget. He said he was a country boy and never got to enjoy a church bell until he had moved to Port Lavaca. He nagged his men’s Sunday school class until they raised the money to hire a crane and move the bell to the new church site where it was placed on the ground and covered with a tarpaulin.

In 1975, when the church built a sanctuary L.E. Gross remembered that bell. Again, he nagged his men’s class until they raised the money to repair the old bell and build a brick stand on which to mount it. Until his death, L.E. Gross rang that church bell before every worship service.

Rev. Dunn wrote in his article: “Today, if you are in Port Lavaca, and hear the Methodist Church bell ring, you will hear the bell that survived the storms of Indianola both 1875 and 1886. It will tell you that the workmen are buried, but the Church of God still survives.”

Millions in Mexican Silver Crossed Texas to the Port at Indianola

Hundreds of freight wagons, each drawn by six to eight mules, and brightly colored Mexican carretas, each pulled by four to six oxen, formed dusty weaving trains on the Chihuahua Road from the silver mines of northern Mexico to the port town of Indianola on the central Texas coast. The trail across Texas opened in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War when the U.S. laid claim to Texas and the entire southwest all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The following year, the California Gold Rush set the get-rich-quickers into a frenzy looking for a shorter route across the country than the old Santa Fe Trail that ran from Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The Chihuahua Trail, The Big Bend: A History of the Last Texas Frontier, Ronnie C. Tyler

The Chihuahua Trail, The Big Bend: A History of the Last Texas Frontier, Ronnie C. Tyler

Indianola by Helmuth Holtz, Sept. 1860 Library of Congress Wikipedia

Indianola by Helmuth Holtz, Sept. 1860
Library of Congress
Wikipedia

The port at Indianola on Matagorda Bay offered dockage for U.S. military personnel and equipment bound for the western settlements of Texas as far as El Paso (future Fort Bliss), and it provided the perfect jumping-off place for settlers and gold-hungry Americans heading west. The ships, anchored at piers stretching out into the shallow bay, took on the Mexican silver and transported it to the mint in New Orleans. The vessels returned with trade goods destined for the interior of Texas and the towns developing in the west and the villages of Mexico.

The Chihuahuan Road headed northwest from Indianola, made quick stops in San Antonio and Del Rio, twisted north along the Devils River, forded the steep ledges along the Pecos River, and then plunged southwest through the

Mexican Carreta at Fort Leaton State Historic Site south of Presidio

Mexican Carreta at Fort Leaton State Historic Site south of Presidio

Chihuahuan Desert to cross the Rio Grande at Presidio, entering the mineral-rich state of Chihuahua, Mexico.

The Spanish, as early as 1567, had discovered northern Mexico’s mineral wealth—gold, copper, zinc, and lead—but silver proved the richest lode. By the time Mexico opened its commerce with the U.S. after the Mexican-American War, there were six mines in the area near Ciudad Chihuahua, the capital of the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

General Lew Wallace (author of Ben-Hur) wrote The Silver Mines of Santa Eulalia, Chihuahua, Mexico, in which he claims that the raw outcroppings of Santa Eulalia, the richest of the mines, had been discovered in 1652, but persistent Indian troubles chased away the Spanish explorer who had found the site. Fifty years later, Wallace says that three men who were fugitives from the law, hide in a deep ravine tucked into Santa Eulalia’s steep hills. They stacked some boulders to create a fireplace, and as the flames grew hotter, the boulders began leaking a shiny white metal, which they recognized as silver. Knowing their fortune awaited, they sent word via a friendly Indian to the padre in the nearby mission community of Chihuahua, offering to pay for the grandest cathedral in New Spain if the padre would absolve their sins and pardon their crimes. It worked. The fugitives received absolution and pardon; they became fabulously wealthy; and the Church of the Holy Cross, Our Lady of Regla, became the finest example of colonial architecture in northern Mexico. Miners flocked to the Santa Eulalia and Ciudad Chihuahua grew into a large and wealthy city.

Millions of dollars in silver and trade goods were hauled over the road between Chihuahua and Indianola, except for the years of the Civil War. The road served as the corridor for western settlement until 1883 when the Texas and Pacific Railroad from the east met the Southern Pacific from California. The new southern transcontinental railroad opened a direct route between New Orleans and California. The final blow to the Chihuahua Road arrived with the devastating hurricane of 1886 that turned the thriving seaport of Indianola into a ghost town.