The Purgery

A Writer's Blog & Resource Repository

Category: Small Town Texas

Coastal Texas Hurricane Prep in the 19th Century: How did they do it back then?

The past 24 hours have been fraught with anxiety. Family and friends who are sheltering in place to ride out Hurricane Harvey are heavy on my mind while I obsess from afar over social media with storm updates and “safety check-ins.” One thing  reassures me however: my people really know how to do hurricanes.

Storms have pummeled the Texas Gulf Coast forever. As time passes, coastal residents continue to improve their resiliency and ability to mitigate the effects of stormy weather blowing in from the Gulf.

My novel in progress, River of the Arms of God, is primarily set in Brazoria County from about 1829 – 1857. As a part of my book research, the effects from the following historic storms factor into the events of my narrative:

  • September 12-14, 1818: “A storm of extraordinary violence” hit Galveston. Spanish spy and pirate Jean Lafitte allegedly offered his house to shelter the sick during the storm.
  • August 18, 1835: “Antigua-Texas Hurricane” hit near Corpus Christi. While the impacts of the winds and rains on Brazoria County are somewhat uncertain, parts of Galveston flooded.
  • October 2-6, 1837: “Racer’s Storm”  steamrolled a 2,000 mile path of destruction and affected the entire Texas Gulf Coast. Ships in the Gulf were sucked as far as 3 miles inland.
  • November 5, 1839: A hurricane made landfall at Galveston. I am still researching further details about this storm.
  • June 27, 1850: A “severe squall” pummeled Matagorda Bay at Indianola. In 1886, another storm would erase Indianola from the map entirely.
  • June 25 – 26, 1851: A “short, severe storm” passed over Matagorda Bay. Salt water contaminated the water supply, and the winds flattened all corn fields in the area.
  • September 17-19, 1854: A storm touched land at Matagorda/Galveston, and the town of Matagorda was leveled. Brazoria experienced strong winds and rain, and sugar cane and cotton crops were ruined. A yellow fever outbreak followed.

If anyone knows how coastal people in the early to mid 19th century might have prepared to ride out these storms, do please comment! These were the days before Doppler technology, so they would not have had much (or any) time to evacuate. They would have had only a few hours’ notice to implement whatever contingency plans were in place to minimize property damages and keep their families safe.

I wonder what those plans might have looked like? Might they have been so different from  emergency preparedness plans today?

Other questions:

1. What did people do with their livestock? 

2. How did people secure their properties?

3. Did people identify in advance areas of refuge against flooding and/or wind? Did they shelter as a community, or did they hole up in their own houses?

4. How was imminent storm information dispersed? 


Resources:

Fortunately we have come a long way since the 1800’s in our ability to recover from such storms. Antiseptics and advancements in medical technology have improved mortality rates in a cyclone’s aftermath. Architectural and carpentry methods have advanced so that structures along the coast are more resilient to wind and water. Meteorology as a science has also improved.

Below I have linked a report publicized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Weather Prediction Center on the history of hurricanes along the Texas Gulf Coast. Its data reaches as far back as the early 16th century.

Roth, David. Texas Hurricane History. Prepared for the National Weather Service in Camp Springs, MD on January 17, 2010. 

On Writing About Small Town Texas: Another Primordial Land

If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. – Toni Morrison

Writing a novel has been one of my life goals for as long as I can remember, and the time has finally come for me to write the book I have always wanted to read. The inclination to write a historical novel only happened upon me recently, while reading an Ultimate History Project article that focused on the lives of people who lived on a sugar plantation in my hometown in the 19th century.

That my hometown should feature so prominently in my novel is a bit of a shocker, especially since I have not lived closer than a thousand miles to that place in over a decade. I wasted some of the best years of my youth dreaming in angst about living an adult life in a far, far away city. Nowadays, I can say with full confidence that I have succeeded to make that dream my reality. Knowing what I know now – that outside my front door thrived a colorful culture and history that flavors small town Texas with exoticism imperceptible to 17-year-olds – I have a greater appreciation for the place I ruefully cite as my “domicile of record” on official documents.

Do not get me wrong. The world outside of small town Texas does not disappoint. I am somewhat of an authority on this, as I have spent the past ten years traversing the farthest reaches of the earth and living as an expat. Just for kicks, here are a few things one cannot do in rural Texas:

  • Take a two day train ride across the frozen Siberian steppe
  • Climb the Pyramid of the Sun in pre-Columbian Teotihuacan
  • Bathe like an Ottoman queen at a Turkish bath

Needless to say, I have no regrets. Each one of these bullets is worthy of a book in and of itself (and I am pretty sure those books must exist). But Friends, what the outside world fails to provide to the homesick small town Texan is a comfortable sense of home, like-minded fellowship, and good old predictability. The fact that my hometown endears to remain the kind of place that fosters such a privileged existence is the very reason I have chosen to showcase it front and center in my historical narrative.

People who choose to make small town Texas their home do not need convincing that these rustic places are special. Everyone living there knows how they nurture magical childhoods. Everyone living there knows how they quiet the apprehensions of the aging. It comforts me to know that the gulf coast marshes will not dry out any time soon, and that mossy live oaks and pecan trees will line the Brazos River for another hundred years.

Personal sentiments aside, there is one not-so-secret secret about the area surrounding my hometown that makes it an irresistible setting for my novel: the place just so happens to have a little bit of a past. Blood and sweat, insane aristocrats, firebrands, land grabbers, enslaved peoples, convict laborers, filibusters, pirates, ritual anthropophagy, culture wars, genocide… the list goes on. The place and its history positively drip with intrigue.

In researching and writing this novel, I hope to come to terms with the land and people who failed to “civilize” it despite their best intentions. Like so many others, I long for Texas because I belong to Texas and not the other way around. T.R. Fehrenbach once wrote of the 19th century Texan mindset: [they are] born in blood in another primordial land. This, for better or worse, I believe is the essence of my own feeling.

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