By NORMAN ROZEFF, Special to the Star
Thanks to the thoughtfulness of Miles Reynolds new light has been thrown on the subject event. Mr. Reynolds, a former tennis pro in Harlingen, now lives in Mexico City and delves into history as an avocation. He accesses the voluminous files of the Sedena (Secretario de Defensa Nacional Archivo Historico). Alfonso Guillen of Santa Rosa has kindly served to translate into English some of the hand-written Spanish language documents into English.
These documents were written by General Adrian Woll (Commander in chief in Matamoros) on August 8th, 1844. The Lower Rio Grande Valley and Northeastern Mexico have seen their share of strong hurricanes over the centuries. They have resulted in numerous casualties and deaths. None however have ever reached or equaled the toll taken by the storm named the Matamoros Hurricane of 1844.
The Matamoros Hurricane of 1844 occurred on August 4 and 5 of that year. It was a major hurricane moving through the Gulf of Mexico and then first hitting the Rio Grande Valley on August 4. It slowly moved through the area, causing, depending on various historical sources,160, or more deaths, some 34 in Matamoros alone. It did not leave a house standing at the mouth of the river or the Brazos Santiago customs station on the north end of the barrier island of Brazos.
The Mexican customs station was transferred after this storm to the mainland. A Texas Historical Commission marker in present-day Port Isabel reads in part “The Mexican custom station was (re)located here in 1844, after the villages of Brazos Santiago and Boca Del Rio were swept away by storms. Goods landed here were at once freighted inland to Matamoros.” All the schooners that were anchored off of Brazos de Santiago were destroyed and their crews drowned. In the Matamoros newspaper “Latiga de Tejas”, Andres Pineda wrote of the 1844 hurricane that entered the mouth of the Rio Grande.
He noted that all structures at Fronton (the initial name given Port Isabel) had been destroyed with the exception of that of Hipolita Gonzales that stood on the area’s highest ground. The villages of Boca del Rio, Brazos de Santiago, Palmira disappeared off of the map. Among the dead was the four year old daughter of the Captain of the Port. The people that survived in those coastal villages were found wandering around naked. In Matamoros itself the streets were full of storm debris, and there were injured people everywhere.
The cemeteries (Campo Santo) could not handle the amount of dead. There was also civil unrest (riots) with the military for food and disease was rampant. The Casa Mata (currently a museum in Matamoros) was severely damaged and a wall collapsed killing one person. It was later estimated by modern standards to have been a Category 3 hurricane. Some residents of Padre Island fled to Matamoros. The island town was destroyed in the storm. Those that hadn’t fled perished.
The sole survivor was the captain of the Brazos Santiago Pass pilot boat which stayed offshore. To add to its scariness of the storm was the fact that it hit the coast around 10 p.m. at night. What little we know of the storm in records in English was compiled in 1963 by David M. Ludlum in his comprehensive book Early American hurricanes, 1492–1870, and is noted by Michael Chenowith in his detailed 2006 science paper “ A Reassessment of Historical Atlantic Basin Tropical Cyclone Activity, 1700-1855”.
Two noted meteorologists, C. J, Millas (1968) and A. Poey (1855) overlook this storm in their listings. It is interesting at this point to note that the scientific investigations of hurricanes had commenced by William Redfield as early as 1831. “Synoptic weather maps resolved one of the great controversies of meteorology — namely, the rotary storm dispute. By the early decades of the 19th century, it was known that storms were associated with low barometric readings, but the relation of the winds to low-pressure systems, called cyclones, remained unrecognized.
William Redfield, a self-taught meteorologist from Middletown, Conn., noticed the pattern of fallen trees after a New England hurricane and suggested in 1831 that the wind flow was a rotary counterclockwise circulation around the center of lowest pressure. The American meteorologist James P. Espy subsequently proposed in his Philosophy of Storms (1841) that air would flow toward the regions of lowest pressure and then would be forced upward, causing clouds and precipitation. Both Redfield and Espy proved to be right.
The air does spin around the cyclone, as Redfield believed, while the layers close to the ground flow inward and upward as well. The net result is a rotational wind circulation that is slightly modified at Earth’s surface to produce inflow toward the storm center, just as Espy had proposed. Further, the inflow is associated with clouds and precipitation in regions of low pressure, though that is not the only cause of clouds there.” This little known but major storm tells current area residents that any tropical disturbance heading to the Valley should be taken seriously, and any precautions made well ahead of time.
Miles Reynolds emailed: I found all my “Hurricane” (Hurricane of 1844) manuscript letters on a CD that I took/stored pictures of in 2007 in the Sedena (Secretario de Defensa Nacional Archivo Historico) here in Mexico City when I was doing research on the battle of the Alamo. I am sending you some of the documents/ letters in this email that describe the damage. These (3)documents were written by General Adrian Woll (Commander in chief in Matamoros) on August 8th, 1844.
After reading all the documents that I photographed I found some other details: The hurricane started at 10pm on August 7, 1844 and lasted until the next day at 10am August 8th, 1844.
The villages of Boca del Rio, Brazos de Santiago, Palmira disappeared off of the map. One hundred and sixty people drowned in those coastal towns. Among the dead was a 4 year old girl… the daughter of the Capitan of the port of Santiago de Brazos. The people that survived in those coastal villages were found wandering around naked.
Also all the schooners that were anchored off of Brazos de Santiago were destroyed and their crews drowned. In Matamoros the streets were full of trash and there was damage to every house. The Casa Mata (currently a museum in Matamoros) was severely damaged and a wall collapsed killing 1 person. Thirty four people died in Matamoros in the hurricane.
There were injured people everywhere and the cemeteries (Campo Santo) could not handle the amount of dead. There was also civil unrest (riots) with the military for food and disease was rampant.