BY NORMAN ROZEFF
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second part in a three-part series by Norman Rozeff. The first part can be found at www.ValleyStar.com.
Brownsville would encounter a yellow fever epidemic in 1858. It occurred at the time of its third election that was postponed due to the desperate condition in its Third Ward where no voting could take place.
The city sexton responsible for burial records noted 53 interments for the period September 13 through September 25. This, of course, was a high incidence considering Brownsville modest population at the time. The City Council and Mayor Dye soon realized the significance of the epidemic and authorized the appropriation of funds to erect a building to be used as a hospital. Lumber was obtained from Fort Brown and the building was erected. Dr. Dillard was placed on a retainer to treat patients. By November’s cooler weather the epidemic had abated and Dillard was paid $400 as his services were no longer required.
The downstream community of Clarksville (and Bagdad, across the river from it in Mexico) was also hit by the disease at this time as was the port terminal of Brazos Santiago. It took several weeks for the disease to spread, but in late September and early October cases were reported at the San Martin, Santa Rosalia, and Los Tomatoes Ranches southeast of Brownsville.
Fort Brown was hit particularly hard when, of the 120 persons living at the fort, 41 succumbed to the disease, including its commanding officer. Treatment of victims with footbaths, ingestion of camomile and castor oil followed by mustard plaster to the hands and feet of second stage patients together with sponge baths of warm brandy and lemon juice were more of a “feel good” action rather than any sort of cure.
Later investigation and documentation indicated that the fever was likely brought to the Valley by a schooner departing from New Orleans on July 27, 1858, with its destination Brazos Santiago. On board during its passage one individual died from yellow fever. At the Brazos Santiago military garrison a private, who had been ill the night before, reported sick from the disease on September 1. Supposed precautions against the spread of the disease had occurred in mid-August when the city fathers threatened Matamoros with a quarantine if Mexican authorities did not agree to instituting the quarantining of Bagdad.
On August 13 the alderman passed a resolution prohibiting any passengers from the Alexander Line steamship, then anchored off Bagdad, from entering the city limits of Brownsville. Mexico authorities complied by sending, on August 26, a health officer with a military escort to implement a strict quarantine of the port. Mexico then turned back several ships but on September 7 allowed four passengers to disembark from a ship that had touched in New Orleans.
One went to Matamoros and another became ill with the fever on a ranch. Brownsville took quick action and quarantined traffic from Matamoros until September 30. Even mail between the two cities was stopped.
It was fortunate for all that the cooler temperatures ended the epidemic. However, even in November of 1858 one-fifth of the population of Rio Grande City died of the fever.
The fever returned to Brownsville in 1862 but wasn’t responsible for any deaths. The Daily Ranchero, a newspaper published in Matamoros and Brownsville in the years 1859-1879 ran a number of articles in August 1867 concerning yellow fever. One Maltby brother published the Brownsville paper while another published a Corpus Christi newspaper. Their correspondence resulting in Brownsville newspaper articles sheds light on the fever situation. A preface to the online excerpts states,
“These accounts offer a contemporaneous glimpse into the situation existing in the city, the fear felt in neighboring towns, the attempt to discern the origins of the disease and the efforts made at prevention of an outbreak. Local accounts of this epidemic, one of the most catastrophic in the city’s history are almost non existent as those who might otherwise have chronicled the event were either sick, dying, attempting to cope with illness in their own family or the loss of loved ones. It is estimated that 300 people died out of a population of 1,000. The loss of professionals in the city, it’s elected officials, physicians, druggists, clergy, teachers and others caused many problems. Death had claimed so many that by 1868 the city’s officials had to be appointed by the military commander of the district at the time.”
Brownsville was fortunate to escape the epidemic that had come to Corpus Christi in the late summer of 1867. The newspaper reflected: “We have news from Corpus Christi three days later than by mail. We learn no particulars about the epidemic beyond the fact that twenty deaths had occurred, and that the epidemic had become general. No names were furnished by our informant, Mr. Ramirez, of those who had died.
Why not put a stop to commerce and travel from infected ports, and save the people of these cities — Brownsville and Matamoros? Right here rests a fearful responsibility. On a legitimate order that no vessel from a yellow-fever infected city or town will be permitted to land at Brazos Santiago, may, and probably does, depend a thousand lives. Nothing short of positive non-intercourse can save us. Any other sort of quarantining would be but little better than a farce. To hesitate is to be damned.
“To all who do not wish and do not intend to breast the yellow fever foe, we say get ready to leave and leave. If the port of Brazos shall remain open another week or two, yellow fever will be reported in these streets. Of this no sane man of experience can entertain a doubt. That it can be quarantined away admits of no question — the only question is, shall it be done?
Suppose yellow fever should break out on the next steamer at the Brazos, whilst lying at quarantine: what can be done? Can the ship be ordered back to Galveston? Could the steamer be kept quarantined a month and until all the passengers had died or removed from the disease? Or would the sick and well be put ashore, and into hospital?
“So certain as one case of yellow fever occurs at the Brazos it will break out here in less than a week. If one case of yellow fever appears on a steamer at quarantine there will no longer be hope — Of Brownsville and Matamoros escaping a fearful epidemic. It would be a credit mark to Brownsville to escape the fever even one year when it was raging everywhere else. And General Reynolds would be entitled to no small share of this community’s thanks if he would exercise his undoubted, rightful power to prevent its introduction. Shall we or shall we not have an epidemic this year? It is for the Military to answer.”
The same August 11, 1867, newspaper had another article providing the long history of yellow fever. On the 16th it noted that 70 had succumbed to the disease in Corpus and provided some names of the victims. It later ran an excerpt from the Indianola Bulletin of Aug. 22 giving some history of the epidemics in that town in 1852 and 1858. Action was taken to prevent the introduction of the fever into the lower Valley. On August 12 checkpoints were established at the various Arroyo Colorado crossings. Travelers coming from the north were turned back.
Brownsville was not so lucky in 1882 when a yellow fever outbreak occurred in early August. A New York Times article datelined August 5 noted 20 cases in Brownsville. By the 7th the paper reported that 10 deaths had taken place over the weekend. By the 11th the Montgomery Advertiser reported 13 deaths in Brownsville over a 24 hour period. It also reported the fever in Matamoros which once more was soon quarantined as was Fort Brown itself.
The State mentioned that on the day of August 28, there were eighty-two new cases and eight deaths. The epidemic continued to grow. In its 9/5 issue State reported 500 cases in Brownsville. Three days later the NY Times wrote of 58 new cases and four deaths. Compounding the problem was the fact that the river had reached a flood stage and was overflowing into the low places of the town where waters sat and became mosquito breeding areas. So many deaths were occurring that soldiers from Fort Brown were ordered to dig a 20 yard long pit at the graveyard to bury the poor and their fellow soldiers. It was only in November that the incident of the disease began to decline.