Cholera the unstoppable scourge in early Texas


holera again reared its deadly head in San Antonio on Jul. 30, 1834 causing the panic-stricken populace to flee for their lives as the second outbreak in as many years turned Texas’ largest settlement into a ghost town.

Early Texans knew from tragic experience that cholera was a killer, an unstoppable scourge which struck suddenly and spared nobody.  The highly contagious intestinal ailment produced severe vomiting and diarrhea that quickly depleted body fluids.  In five days or less, the dehydrated victim went into shock and more often than not wound up in the graveyard.

Nearly two centuries ago, cholera mystified medical science, which had not yet discovered the cause -- microscopic bacteria -- much less a cure.  This ignorance spawned half-baked theories that often did more harm than good.

Texans borrowed a popular German practice by wearing copper charms around their necks to ward off the invisible menace.  When this worthless ounce of prevention failed, delirious patients were given massive doses of black pepper and opium with a brandy and water chaser.  The drug of last resort was peyote, the Mexican hallucinogenic, while bloodletting, that tried-and-true barbaric cure-all, was the most common death-bed treatment.

The calamities of 1833 caused Anglo-American colonists to wonder whether their new home was the widely advertised paradise on earth.  The emigrants’ predicament went from bad to worse as devastating floods were followed by successive sieges of yellow fever, malaria and cholera.

Cholera skipped San Antonio that year but ravaged towns to the south and far into the interior of Mexico.  An eyewitness to the plague, Stephen F. Austin reported from Mexico City, “There were 43,000 sick here at one time.  The deaths I believe have been about 18,000.  I have never witnessed such a horrible scene of distress and death.”

The empressario himself came down with a mild case of the malady that he described to friends back home.  “I was taken about 3 o’clock p.m. with excessive purging of a white mucos character, great pain in the bowels, cold feet, legs, hands, etc., pains all over the body.”  Minutes later Austin was “relieved by a fine perspiration which I think saved my life, for others have died in less than one hour whose simptons were similar to mine.”

After such a close call, even someone as rational as Austin was susceptible to stories of supernatural recoveries.  He told of “persons who died, were taken to the grave and then came to life again.  One man, rolled up in a blanket, was thrown into a pit with many others, lime was first spread over them.  It operated on this man as to stimulate him to life again.  He got up and walked home.”

No sooner had the epidemic run its fatal course than cholera came back with a vengeance in June 1834.  Upon learning Goliad had fallen prey to the pestilence, San Antonio authorities frantically prepared for the imminent invasion.

To prevent the spread of panic, strict orders were issued that church bells not be tolled for the dead.  Armed troops were stationed on every road to turn away refugees from the infected area, while the anxious citizens of San Antonio were assured they were safer in the city than the countryside.

However, after the first reported case on Jul. 30, 1834, there was no stopping the stampede for the Hill Country.  In the end, local officials ignored their own advice and joined the mass exodus

For three eerie weeks, San Antonio was a ghost town.  Commerce came to a complete standstill, and elections scheduled for early August had to be postponed until late that month.

Meanwhile, tiny Goliad fought valiantly for its very life.  Blaming the outbreak on perishables salvaged from three recent shipwrecks on the coast, the alcalde banned the sale of fruits and vegetables.  He also ordered the dead hidden from public view and secretly spirited out of town.

Smudge pots blazed night and day on the streets of Goliad, and stricken homes were fumigated with gunpowder smoke.  Water was considered safe to drink only after being filtered through burnt bread.

Goliad was sinking fast when an English doctor miraculously appeared on the desolate scene.  The alcalde agreed to send the physician onto San Antonio as soon as his work was finished, but fate played a cruel joke.  The doctor too contracted cholera, and seven days after arriving took his place in the crowded cemetery.

The final death count reached 91 at Goliad, one out of five residents.  The fact that far fewer lives were lost in nearby San Antonio was the direct result of the people’s gut instinct for survival.  Even though their elected leaders encouraged them to stay put, blind faith told them to head for the hills.

Unforgettable Texans,” Bartee’s latest book, is in stock and ready to ship! Order your autographed copy today by mailing a check for $28.80 to “Bartee Haile,” P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77389.  

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