Today, when people and their diseases can travel in a few hours what would have taken several months of time to traverse 200 years ago, it’s a wonder that we even hear of new diseases before they appear. News has spread at the speed of light since 1844, but not until more recently 24-7 and so many ways.
In colonial Texas, a part of the Republic of Mexico back in the 1830s, news of a spreading disease moved much faster than the disease, and this made it possible to make preparations. But were they made? It depends.
In July 1937, J. Villasana Haggard’s article “Epidemic of Cholera in Texas, 1833-1834” was published in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly. The Texas State Historical Association recently emailed me a copy of this article and nine others related to the medical history of Texas. I had just started to recall what I remembered about epidemics and quarantines in Texas, and now I had a lot more information at my fingertips. This column pretty much summarizes and paraphrases Haggard’s great article. The article can be found at: https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101099/m1/238/
Haggard writes that in November of 1832 news that cholera was rampant in New Orleans arrived in San Felipe de Austin, the headquarters of Stephen F. Austin’s colony on the Brazos River. Notice was immediately sent to Bexar (San Antonio) the main center of population in Texas at this time. The cholera was expected to spread into eastern Texas because of the trade and commerce both by sea and by land between eastern Texas and New Orleans.
Instructions on what to do came with the news. The list included the establishment of local Boards of Health, the cleaning of public buildings, especially wherever the military was stationed. Over nine months later, though, it appeared that little was had been done. Finally in September 1833, there was a public meeting in Bexar, and a Board of Health was appointed. Each of the five Wards in Bexar had a local Board of Health made up of three members of the main board.
Should the disease reach Bexar, three prescriptions were distributed that were said to be useful. One included peyote. Take a slice of peyote, 1 finger in width and 2 fingers in length and boil in 1 cup of water. Strain [and remove the peyote bud] and add as much lime as would fit on a silver real coin. Mix the lime in and drink it. I will check with Schulz & Wroten. Meanwhile, you go first.
Well, peyote back then might have been as good as anything else to take if you had cholera. Patients entering hospitals in what I assume to have been either Saltillo or Monclova, were said to be dying of cholera within five hours of entering. After using this indigenous peyote recipe, 200 had been saved from the disease, and no one had died in the last seven days, it was reported.
At the meeting in Bexar, peyote was distributed for possible use later. For treatment of cholera, I presume. Other prescriptions and details of treatments and procedures were included in documents printed in 1833 and found in the “Spanish Archives at the University of Texas [in Austin]. Sounds a lot like the CDC today.
In addition to appointing the Boards of Health, cleaning the public buildings, distributing peyote with prescriptions, treatments and procedures, Bexar prepared for an expected quarantine of the settlement. Quarantine could cut off regular supplies of food and materials. After failing to acquire enough beef, Juan Seguin made 300 head of sheep available at three pesos each.
As expected, the ones living along the gulf coast were the first to get the cholera. They had heard about it in New Orleans in November. It got to the Brazos in April, 1833. Near the mouth of the Brazos, near Freeport today, there was a small settlement of 20. Between April 10 and 12, 11 got the disease. By April 16, seven were dead. That would be 35% of the population 20, and 63% of those contracted the disease. This was in April. Yet Bexar did not do anything until September.
Stephen F. Austin was living just 30 miles from the mouth of the Brazos. He wrote to relatives living closer with his concerns and said that his will was in his desk drawer. Just a little later he was off to Mexico City in an effort to resolve several burning issues of the day, but if anything he was going in harm’s way.
Austin became ill and nearly died. He reported that out of a population of 43,000 in Mexico City, some 18,000 had died. A mortality rate of 43% of the total population, not just of those who were said to have been sick of it.
Back in Texas, Austin lost at least five family members and many friends who had traveled with him from the area around Potosi, Missouri, to Texas 10 years before.
Haggard, author of article, reported that most of Coahuila and Texas (a combined state in Mexico) as well as Monterrey in Nuevo Leon were ravaged by cholera in 1833 and 1834. Looking just at Texas, as it existed in 1833, the areas along the coast and the settled areas to the interior mostly fell victim to the disease.
One might have guessed that Bexar was in for it with cholera to the east and around to the south. The west and north were beyond the frontier and under the control of the Comanche. But in 1833, Bexar, along with Goliad, escaped the cholera. I pretty sure the 300 sheep were eaten sooner or later.
As they say, 1834 was another year. Bexar most have thought it was cholera proof. Fewer preparations were made. Suddenly in June 1834, a rider from Goliad reported the cholera there. A confirmation rider was sent from Bexar. It was bad news.
Quick action was taken. The Boards of Heath were reorganized. Any available funds would be used to take care of indigents, buy medicine and hire a doctor if one could be found. Bells were not to be tolled for any victims “not to frighten the rest of the population.”
Quarantine was established to prevent the entrance of anyone from the Goliad area. Soldiers were dispatched to the various entrance points. But it was just as hard to keep people in as out. Many residents of San Antonio owned ranches with habitations outside of the city. In times like these, the boring out in the country was much preferred to the bustling city. Some without a country home left to camp out somewhere.
Before long it was bedlam, and the city of San Antonio was all but deserted. Apparently, the cholera was feared even more than the Comanche and that’s saying a lot. Even some of the city leaders jumped ship, so to speak. In Goliad, things turned from bad to worse. The mayor forbade the sale of fruit. Rumor was that the disease was spread from goods taken off a shipwreck in Aransas Bay.
As in San Antonio, bells were not tolled in Goliad for the victims of the cholera. They would have been tolled 91 times for deaths just in Goliad and more times for those who like in San Antonio had fled Goliad for ranches and prairies. In nearby Guadalupe Victoria, 25 died of the cholera.
Haggard did not cite deaths numbers for San Antonio. Perhaps no one counted. For sure, in this part of Texas, residents had escaped the cholera in 1833, but not in 1834. Other sections of the state had it both years.
In San Antonio and Goliad, both were almost void of population before the cholera died out. Businesses obviously closed. Many never reopened. Governments had to be reorganized because so many office holders had left. The census was postponed. Elections postponed as well.
Two years later, Texas was well on it’s way to separating from Mexico. Haggard thinks the cholera delayed the start two years. Without it, perhaps it would have begun in 1833 or 1834.