Matagorda and Lavaca bays, tucked behind barrier reefs edging the central Texas coast, teemed with commercial potential, and sea captains took note as ships carrying thousands of German immigrants precipitated the beginnings of the thriving seaport of Indian Point. The United States War Department built a wharf and opened its Army Supply Depot to serve as the disembarkation point of personnel destined for posts as far away as El Paso del Norte (future Fort Bliss) and along the western edge of Texas settlement.
Charles Morgan, the shipping tycoon who dominated Gulf coast trade, established his shipping terminus at Lavaca, which lay about ten miles further up the coast from Indian Point. However, when Lavaca raised its wharf fees, Morgan showed his displeasure by moving his ships down the coast to the mouth of Powderhorn Bayou, near the four wharves at Indian Point.
By 1849 Indian Point residents began a serious discussion centered on changing the name of their new town to convey the proper image of the burgeoning port. Mrs. John Henry Brown, whose husband had opened a stagecoach line between Indian Point and Victoria and had joined in laying out streets to front the Morgan Line’s new port facilities, suggested adding the Spanish word ola, meaning wave. Thus, Indian Point acquired the melodious name of Indianola.
My historical novel, Stein House, which will be available by next week, tells the story of Indianola in its heyday and opens in 1853 as Helga Heinrich and her children get their first view of their new home. We see Indianola through their eyes as they are met at the docks by Helga’s sister, Amelia, their only relative in the new world:
As they stepped off the long pier onto the dock, Hermie said, “All the buildings are made of wood. They’re so small.”
The port at Indianola
“We don’t have stone here. Ships bring in our lumber. Those warehouses by the docks are made of cypress. It weathers to that handsome silver color.” Amelia’s voice held pride, and when she saw Hermie looking skeptically at the buildings, she playfully tousled his already lawless brown hair.
“What’s that white dust?” Paul asked as he skipped to catch up with Amelia bustling along ahead of them.
“We have oyster shell all along the coast. Our streets are all shell, and many buildings have shell foundations. When it’s dry, wagons crush the shell to dust.”
Huge mule-drawn wagons clogged the street. Large carts that looked like open-sided baskets balanced between giant wheels painted in bold reds, yellows, and greens, crept behind sluggish yokes of oxen. The snorts and grunts of animals added to the bedlam of shouts and curses.
Paul stepped up beside a cart painted like a flower garden of bright colors. The wheels rose taller than the top of his head. Hitched to the cart, eight yoke of oxen stood silently, their heads hanging low. Helga didn’t notice the fierce-looking cock, its leg secured with a rusty chain, until its screech made Paul jump back and stare transfixed into the intense, beady eyes and sharp beak of the bright orange rooster. Its comb was gone, making its head look like a ball of blood.
Amelia laughed. “That’s a carreta, a Mexican cart. They always carry a fighting cock for games at the end of the day. Those carts come in here loaded with gold and silver from the mines in Mexico.”
“Gold and silver?” Hermie breathed in shocked awe.
“Sometimes there are 150 Mexican carts or freight wagons in a long train. They ship the gold and silver to the mint in New Orleans.”
“Do they get robbed?”
“Sometimes. That’s why you see men with rifles everywhere. They ride with the wagons and carts on the Chihuahua Trail to Mexico. The stages headed for California all have a man with a Winchester sitting up on the seat beside the driver.”
Paul and Hermie could hardly walk for staring at the milling, whinnying, shouting activities jamming the streets. Men wearing grotesquely colored shirts fringed with silver tips that swayed along the edges of their sleeves hid deeply tanned faces under wide-brimmed hats stained with greasy circles of sweat. They sat atop jittery, prancing horses like grandees, impatiently kicking their mounts with jangling spurs to press them forward between the maze of wagons and carts.
Amelia leaned close to Helga and shouted above the din, “They are cowboys. They’re riding Spanish ponies, way livelier than our German plow horses. The mules pulling freight wagons haul supplies from the ships to the towns and farms and even the military bases out west.” Amelia obviously delighted in pointing out things that made Indianola different from Oldenburg.
Paul rose on tiptoe to peek into the back of an open freight wagon. “I’d like to ride in that.” His pure blue eyes held the same dreamy excitement Helga had seen so often in Max.
All the activity stirred the dust, and it settled on everything, turning the colorful buildings lining Water Street to a faded gray and making Helga’s lips and tongue feel gritty.
Amelia led them over to Main Street, where they stepped onto a wooden walkway built high against two-story buildings. The second floors extended over the walk, offering welcome shade from the springtime heat. Wagons and animals milling so close together stirred the fishy odor from the dock, blending it with a manure smell so strong Helga wanted to cover her face.
It felt safer to be on the walkway, well above the nervous, pawing animals.
Street in Indianola
Next week’s blog post continues with the story of Indianola, a seaport that rivaled Galveston after the Civil War.