Hurricanes of the Texas Coast

La Favorite under sail for Bourbon Réunion Island 1833

A French sloop running ahead of an approaching storm circa 1830s

© 2012 Steve Hathcock 1810-1840
Early Galveston historians tell of the hurricane of 1810. This storm killed most of a group of Indians who had been fishing about halfway down the Island. David McComb, author of Galveston; A History, records the sighting of three sperm whales that washed ashore during the height of the storm. Galveston would experience several more violent storms in the next 10 years. In 1818, a storm hit Galveston harbor, totally destroying Jean Lafitte’s enclave. Six ships were sunk while at anchor in the harbor. A sixty-foot sperm whale washed ashore during the storm. A young Portuguese sailor, thinking the whale was dead, clambered upon its body. Then, to everyone’s surprise, he was promptly crushed to death by the thrashing of the leviathan’s tail.
big whale in gulf 2

Lafitte, indifferent to the pleas of his men, sent the entire group to the slave auctions of New Orleans.

Lafitte was bankrupted by the tremendous loss of ships, men, and supplies. At that time, there were lots of women slaves in the camp who had married members of Lafitte’s crew. Many of these women not only married members of the pirate’s crew but also had borne children fathered by their pirate husbands. Lafitte, indifferent to the pleas of his men, sent the entire group to the slave auctions of New Orleans. In this way, he was able to rebuild his operation.
However, nature had other plans for Jean Lafitte. His new headquarters were destroyed when another hurricane struck in 1819. (Brigantine Creek near Port Lavaca was named for one of Lafitte’s ships that was carried many miles inland by the surging waves of that storm).

Nine years of relatively mild weather followed before another storm of note struck near the mouth of Rio Grande River on September 1829. The Valley and most of south Texas was inundated. Point Isabel (now called Port Isabel) and Brazos Santiago suffered major damage. Most of the buildings were completely blown away by the storm’s battering winds. The little huddle of jacals and wooden buildings comprising Corpus Christi, laid partially submerged under three feet of water for several days before the flood receded. Subsequent flooding along the Rio Grande washed away the Socorro Mission. The building, constructed of adobe brick in 1691, literally melted away under the deluge and sank into the ground.
Only minimal damage was reported from storms during the early part of the 1830’s, until the so called, “Antigua Hurricane”, made a direct landing, once again at the mouth of the Rio Grande on August 18, 1835. The storm surge rolled over Padre Island, flooding lowlands along the river. Many buildings were flattened in Matamoras and of course, the citizens of Point Isabel suffered severely. In his book, Hurricane Almanac, Mike Ellis writes, “This storm was named such after it passed over Antigua on August 12th. It then raked the Greater Antilles; passing over Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, and Cuba before heading back out into the open waters of the Florida Straits.”
“The hamlet of Villa Hermosa de Santa Anna,” Ellis wrote, “disappeared during the tempest. Every vessel in the nearby harbor of Brazos Santiago was either driven out to sea or beached high and dry after the storm. One ship was carried out to sea; when the crew realized the gales and tides were dragging them further and further from land, they jumped into the angry Gulf waters.”
Galveston Island saw flooding as well. The schooner Bravo was wrecked in Matagorda Bay. At least 14 perished in the storm. The system continued westward, moving into the mountains of Northern Mexico.
October storms have a tendency to be stronger and of a longer duration. Take “Racers Storm” for example. The British sloop of war, Racer, first encountered the storm in the Caribbean on September 28, 1837 just before it passed through the Yucatan Channel into the Gulf of Mexico. On the night of October 2, the hurricane made landfall somewhere south of the rio Grande River, then stalled. Well, almost stalled. Every vessel lying at anchor at Brazos Santiago was either sunk or driven ashore. Leisurely, “Racers Storm”, now more on land then at sea, drifted slowly north along the coast of the Laguna Madre, paying a personal visit to every major port, then in existence, along the Texas Gulf Coast. On October 5, the storm tore through Corpus Christi, passing over Galveston on the 6th. Reports of the time tell of a 6-7 foot surge that flooded the entire east side of the Island.
Mike Ellis quotes the Houston Telegraph as publishing the following: “A tremendous gale appears to have swept the whole line of our coast and destroyed an immense amount of property. The history of this county contains no record of any hurricane which has equaled this in the violence of the storm or in the extent of damage.”
The storm spun out into the Gulf where it struck New Orleans on the 5th. A Boston paper reported; “Chimneys, roofs, and awnings, all suffered from the effects of the storm. Many buildings and wharves were destroyed along the riverfront on both sides of the Mississippi. The original wooden Bayou St. John lighthouse, the first built by the U.S. Government outside the original 13 colonies, was swept away.”
As the storm continued east, all the wharves along the Mississippi Coast were washed away with the tide. Mobile and Charleston, NC were also struck. From there the storm blew into the Atlantic. The paddle wheeler, Home, was its next victim. On board were approximately 130 passengers and crew. During a post tragedy hearing under maritime law, testimony from the survivors revealed only two life preservers were on board at the time of the incident. More than ninety people drowned when the ship sank off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
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