by Nelson Marek

 The book, authored by Brownson Malsch "Indianola, the Mother of West Texas", aptly describes the saga of a city that was born, flourished and died on the Texas coast between 1844 and 1887. Brownson Malsch, a native of nearby Victoria, Texas, became interested in Indianola more than half a century ago. This paper has been written with exerpts from the book by Brownson Malsch.

Indianola's birth was the direct result of calamitous difficulties encountered by early immigrants from Germany who were brought to the shores of the Republic of Texas by the Adelsverein, beginning in 1844. Her death was due to her near sea level location on Matagorda Bay and the visitation of two "once-in-a-century" hurricanes within a span of only 11 years.

During the period between 1844 and 1886, Indianola grew from a plague-infested immigrant camp to a cosmopolitan port city. At her zenith before the storm of 1875, she was second only to Galveston in the state and was regarded by that place as an annoying threat to its commercial and maritime supremacy. Wielding vast influence on the development of Western Texas, as the land west of the Colorado River was then called, Indianola left her imprint on that great region. She became the port for the Chihuahua trade, was the eastern terminus of the shortest overland route to California, was the funnel through which tens of thousands of immigrants from Germany, Switzerland and France came to say nothing of the influx of settlers who immigrated from the southern and eastern United States to the new land of the west. Over her wharves moved the necessities and luxuries of life for the inhabitants of Western Texas, as well as the ordnance and other supplies for the chain of forts that shielded "civilized" Texas from the untamed Indian tribes.


Prior to the sprouting of the crude makeshift settlement that was destined to become "The Mother of Western Texas", the prairies bordering Matagorda Bay were thinly populated. At the eastern end of the bay there was the town of Matagorda, situated on the left bank of the Colorado River near its mouth. She struggled to become a seaport of significance, but failed. A silt bar deposited by the river in the long, narrow eastern arm of the bay prevented ocean-going ships from reaching the town.

Linnville, a village of approximately 200 in 1839, had been founded about 1831 by John (Juan) J. Linn on the west bank of upper Lavaca Bay. But, Linnville was to die before Indianola was born. Looted and burned by Comanche Indians on August 8, 1840, following their raid through Victoria, the settlement was abandoned. A few survivors moved south and established a new, smaller community which was to receive the name Lavaca, later Port Lavaca.

Members of the Congress saw the need for a deep-water port on Western Matagorda Bay. Such a port would be expected to aid in opening the empty stretches of Western Texas to immigration. An increase in population would lead to expanded trade opportunities. That, in turn, would mean more revenues for the near penniless Republic. It was also intended that Calhoun would be a port through which embryonic Austin might be more conveniently supplied with manufactured goods.

The city of Calhoun was projected in 1839 on the northeastern end of Matagorda Island opposite Pelican Island, and overlooking the Gulf of Mexico at Pass Cavallo. Calhoun came into brief existence as a result of action by the Congress of the Republic of Texas on January 21, 1839 requiring Secretary of the Treasury Asa Brigham to have a section of land there surveyed as a seaport.

The basic reasoning for projecting Calhoun was sound, but the critical error was made in pinpointing Matagorda Island as the designated site. The members of Congress handed Brigham as assignment for which failure was inevitable. It was a political, not a commercial, decision

Had the Congress of the Republic designated the western shore of Matagorda Bay from Alligator Head to Indian Point, the projected town would have succeeded. There, wagons from the interior could reach the beach off which there was water of sufficient depth to accommodate any vessel that could enter Pass Cavallo. Matagorda Island was inaccessible except by boat, and there was no protected harbor. The anchorage at the east end of the island at Pass Cavallo was subjected to a swift current of tidal water rushing into and out of the Bay. Congress obviously lacked chorographical knowledge of the area.

The plat of the City of Calhoun was prepared by Edward Linn, brother of Juan Linn (founder of Linnville) and surveyor for Victoria County which, at that time, extended to the Gulf of Mexico and embraced Matagorda Island. It was an ambitious plan, encompassing 173 city blocks divided into lots for sale.

The location chosen for the City of Calhoun quickly proved to be unsuitable for a commercial port. Purchasers of lots were almost nonexistent. Calhoun remained the headquarters of the collector of customs until 1844. The Congress of the Republic, in joint resolution on February 2, recognized the failure of its plan and ordered the removal of the custom house "from Port Calhoun to Port Caballo".

A short-lived settlement named Palacios had been laid out by 1839 on the point of land on the east side of Trespalacios Bay between Matagorda Bay and Oyster Lake. From a maritime view, it was a satisfactory choice of site, inasmuch as deep water was close to shore. However, a conflict developed over the title to the land on which Palacios lay, so the port failed to develop.

Texana was the only other community in the vicinity of Matagorda and Lavaca Bays of sufficient size during the Republic to merit being called a town. At the head of navigation on the Navidad River, a tributary of the Lavaca which flows into Lavaca Bay, Texana was, in 1839, slowly recovering from the ravages of being put to the torch during the Revolution.

There had been a flurry of activity in the bay area during and immediately following the Texas Revolution. Sailing vessels loaded with volunteers and military supplies came in through Pass Cavallo and discharged at army supply depots at Cox's Point, at Linnville, at Dimitts's Landing on the right bank of the Lavaca River, or at La Baca, a small settlement on the left bank of that stream. Continuing to November 1837, the Army of the Republic of Texas maintained a total of seven consecutively occupied camps above Lavaca Bay. After the removal of the military forces at the end of 1837, the bay region had lapsed into a state of somnolence. Except for an occasional sighting of a transient sailing vessel, the languor of the bay was undisturbed. A few solitary residence structures could be seen at widely separated locations. Had he been able to return, Rene Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle would have found the shores of Matagorda Bay and its tributaries to have been only slightly different in appearance from the time he and his ill-fated colonists came through Pass Cavallo in 1685. It was still an empty, lonely region.

But, unknown to the isolated pioneers of Matagorda Bay, change was in the making. It would remain for a German prince to inspect that western shore of Matagorda Bay in 1844 and understand its potential value. Karl, Prinz zu Solms-Braunfels was, unwittingly, responsible for the birth of Indianola.

The formation of the Adelsverein (society of nobility) at Biebrich am Rhein in Germany on April 20, 1842, was for the stated purpose of providing assistance for the emigration of several thousand Germans to the Republic of Texas. Basic purpose for this interest in sponsoring those willing to emigrate were to ease tensions resulting from widespread political turmoil, and to relieve dangerous pressures caused by economic depression and its accompanying high rate of unemployment. Encouragement to emigrate was to be given to the known radical political activists. Emigrant groups were carefully chosen in order to provide a balance of artisans, mechanics, physicians, farmers and representatives of all other crafts for the success of communities established in a part of the world remote from The Fatherland.

Blissfully ignorant of the almost total lack of facilities for the reception, accommodation and transportation of immigrants from the coast of Texas to the interior, the society began planning the gathering and dispatching of shiploads of families. Prince Karl zu Solms-Braunfels was appointed commissioner general for the projected colony and sailed for Texas in May 1844. Although he did not know it, hard on his heels was the first contingent of immigrants.

He was thunderstruck and wholly unprepared when the brig Weser arrived at Galveston in July 1844, with the first group of colonists. There was no land on which he could place them. A permanent port for disembarkation had not even been considered. Prince Karl left his bewildered countrymen to fend for themselves at Galveston and hurriedly began the task of finding a more desirable place for the reception of future shiploads.

He narrowed his choice to the west bank of Matagorda and Lavaca Bays. From the shore line, a direct route could be laid out to the lands of Western Texas where it was anticipated that sites might be secured for the colony. The village of Port Lavaca was considered. However, the hazards of navigation through and over the sand and mud bars in Lavaca Bay dimmed its promise as a haven. Had deep water been available, Port Lavaca would have been ideal. Its situation on a high bluff, and its consequent freedom from swampy terrain and flooding by storms were definite advantages. But, too often were vessels grounded on Lavaca Bay.

The prince then looked over the point of land where Lavaca and Matagorda Bays join. Perhaps it would be better described as a bulge in the shore. Being below Gallinipper Bar, which was the most troublesome of those en route to Lavaca, this spot called "Indian Point" had water of sufficient depth to permit sailing vessels to anchor near the beach and have their cargoes and passengers lightered. Vessels that could enter Matagorda Bay through Pass Cavallo could come to Indian Point without difficulty.

Actually situated on an island, Indian Point was separated from the flat mainland bay by a string of small, brackish lakes, all connected by shallow bayous. The long, narrow island was composed of a low ridge of fine, white, crushed shell which had been formed by wave action through the ages. It was clean. Even heavy and prolonged rains were not troublesome, as the firmly packed shell provided a natural all-weather surface. There was little wood, and no safe drinking water, other than that collected from rainfall. Nevertheless those two drawbacks did not deter Prince Karl from deciding that the Indian Point area would be the most suitable beginning for the long road into Western Texas.

Samuel Addison White held title to the land at Indian Point. Survey had been made in 1842, after which White built a small house there. Sensing opportunity for development of the property, and personal profit, White was receptive to overtures from the prince. He agreed to permit the landing and encampment of German immigrants a few hundred yards southeast of his residence.

Neither Prince Karl nor Samuel Addison White was ready for the reception of colonists when the brig Johann Dethardt arrived in Galveston on November 23, 1844. After a short layover, the brig sailed for Pass Cavallo and Matagorda Bay. That vessel was followed by other vessels arriving on December 8, December 14 and December 20, 1844.

That first Christmas in Texas, thousands of miles from home, was a frightening experience for them. They had been grievously misled by the Verein. There was no place to go. There were no buildings on the bay to house and protect them from the cold wind and rain of Texas "northers".

Those families were the vanguard of the great migration that was to bring many thousands of Germans to Texas during the next three decades. As a nineteenth-century port city, Indianola was the epitome of robust American free enterprise, Texas style. Starting out as a ramshackle, pestilence-ridden, temporary camp of German immigrants in December 1844, by 1846 the first organized permanent settlement was surveyed and lots were sold.

Quickly recognizing her unique position on the deep water of Matagorda Bay at its confluence with Lavaca Bay, energetic merchants streamed in from the Southern and Eastern United States. They came to take advantage of the only spot on the Texas coast where wagon trains to and from the interior could drive right to the fine shell beach for loading onto and unloading from sailing ships, and later steamers, from as far distant as Western Europe.

After establishment of the town of Indian Point, growth was phenomenal. Churches and schools were organized, residences and hotels were erected, and stores of all types soon offered a complete variety of merchandise and service. Placement of the United States War Department's Army Supply Depot and Wharf there assured the permanence of the port.


Chihuahua Trail

One of the great boosts to Indian Point, known as Indianola after February 1, 1849, was the opening of the Chihuahua Trail to the Far West and to Chihuahua, Mexico.

The isolated silver mines discovered by the Spanish in Chihuahua in northern Mexico precipitated the development of three important trade routes between Mexico and the United States. In the middle of the nineteenth century, these three widely separated wagon roads snaked out of the United States and made their laborious way to Ciudad Chihuahua, capital of the Mexican state bearing that same name.

What was the talisman? Whence sprang that silver flood which put a thousand wagon trains on the long, dry roads from Independence, Missouri and Indianola, Texas during the mid-1800?

It came from the most prolific array of silver mines that the Western Hemisphere has known. Beneath the hills of Chihuahua lay an incredible lode that was found and tapped by the ancient Indians, rediscovered by the Spaniards after they had given up their dream of the Seven Cities of Gold, and even now, after three centuries of exploitation, is still yielding a constant flow of silver. Before proceeding with a description of the three wagon roads, a brief history and discovery of the silver mines is in order.

Dr. Francisco Almada, venerable historian of Chihuahua, lists more than 200 mines in the state which had been exploited for profit. A few of these were gold mines; a considerable number were for copper, zinc and lead; but the overwhelming majority were silver mines.

In the years when the wagon freight lines were most active between the United States and Chihuahua, the principal silver-producing lodes were distributed in six major areas of the state: Santa Eulalia, a few miles outside the capital city; Cusihuiriache, sixty-odd miles southwest of the city; Corralitos, 180 miles northwest; Batopilas, in the southwestern extremes of the state: La Gavilana, seventy-eight miles south of the capital: and those mines directly under and about the city of Hidalgo del Parral.

Of these , the most generous throughout three centuries, and the most significant in the development of the city of Chihuahua, western anchor of the three roads, had been Santa Eulalia. So romantic is the history of this great mother lode that it deserves recognition for the entire story of the Chihuahua Road.

In 1652, Capt. Diego del Castillo first stumbled upon raw silver outcroppings in the jagged hills less than sixteen miles east of the settlement what is known now as Ciudad Chihuahua. This Spanish adventurer tried to work his discovery, but was forced to abandon the project because of Indian harassment. The great discovery was forgotten for fifty years. Around the turn of the century, the lode was rediscovered.

The three men who made the find were fugitives of justice, hunted out of the haciendas about Chihuahua, who took refuge in the fastnesses of what is now known as Santa Eulalia. In the course of this desperate sojourn, however, they camped in a great ravine and one day made there a "rousing fire" for cooking, in a fireplace made from the boulders lying about. To the astonishment of those outlaws, as the fire heated the stones, a shining white metal trickled out. The men recognized the metal as silver, prospected, and their fortunes were made.

The refugees sent word by a friendly Indian to the "padre" heading the Chihuahua mission that if he would absolve them, and obtain their pardon from the offended authorities, they would put him in the way of getting enough silver to build the grandest cathedral in New Spain. The offer was accepted. They were absolved and pardoned. The mines were opened. Their fame went rapidly through the country. Miners flocked to Chihuahua. The mission became a city of seventy thousand, a growth and prosperity attributable to Santa Eulalia alone.

La Republica Mexicana: Chihuahua, published in 1909, reported that from 1834 through 1868 the mines produced $3.5 million in silver and from 1868 through 1884 almost another $3.5 million was produced. These two citations cover the era of the United States wagon freight trade.

The first of the three roads, mentioned above, was known in this century only as the Santa Fe Trail, because many of the wagon trains stopped in that old New Mexico town after passing through El Paso del Norte (El Paso). The fact was that Santa Fe represented only the point of exchange for American and European goods freighted down from the States, to meet the wealth of Mexican mines as it found its way by cart trains up from the south. However, the Santa Fe Trail took a long way around from the markets of the east, through Independence, Missouri, and that state's full width, across all of Kansas and part of Colorado, then south in New Mexico through a wild, mountainous region into Santa Fe. And from there, it was still 500 miles to Chihuahua City.

The second road resulted when Dr. Henry Connelley, an American trader long situated at Chihuahua, was dissatisfied with the inefficiencies of the Santa Fe Trail. He seized on the idea of a more direct route which would go down the Conchos River in Mexico to Chihuahua City to the present location of Presidio on the Rio Grande, then strike out across the uncharted wilderness of northern Texas, to gain access to eastern markets at Fort Towson, beyond the Red River. Dr. Connelley did establish the feasibility of this second road, but for some reason it did not catch fire, and the route was eventually abandoned.

By the end of the Mexican War in 1848, the elements were falling into place for the inevitable opening of the third road, the most direct route from the Eastern Seaboard and Europe: through the Gulf of Mexico, across Texas, and into the treasure troves of northern Mexico. Along this great artery, known properly as the Chihuahua Road, moved more traffic and commerce from the 1850s through 1877 than the Santa Fe Trail experienced in those years, and carried, as well, a tide of immigration that opened up the Southwest. This third road wound across the Southwest from the port town on Matagorda Bay - Indianola; through San Antonio and out along the great springs of the Balcones Fault to the Rio Grande at San Felipe Springs in Del Rio; then turned northward, crossing the imposing canyons of the Devils and Pecos rivers, passing through Alpine and Marfa until it finally turned south down Alamito Creek to the Rio Grande at Presidio del Norte, then into Mexico and up the Conchos River to Chihuahua City. This bald itinerary suggests little of the wide variety of terrain which that route traversed: the lush, flowered prairies of the Coastal Plain, the magnificent pecan and cypress-shaded springs along the Balcones Fault, the desolate reaches of the Trans-Pecos and the Chihuahua Desert. The Chihuahua Road's several parts were known variously as the Indianola Road or Goliad Cart Road, the Old Spanish Trail, The Government or Military Road, and in Mexico, El Camino del Rio Conchos.

By the end of April 1850, train size had so increased that a single giant procession of 150 wagons and 250 Mexican carretas was on the road. Early summer saw 550 to 600 wagons at a time being outfitted at Indianola for the Trail. The flood gates of commerce had been opened. Each wagon was drawn by six mules or six to eight oxen. The huge Mexican carts were pulled by four to six oxen. The wagoners endured a life of privation and danger on the trail, but they prized their independence. There was little variety in their diet. There was seldom an opportunity to bathe. Beards were the order of the day, by necessity.

The rough little towns along the way; the lumbering trains of great freight wagons and the boot-tough men who drove them; the innumerable desert campfires tended by weary freighters, taut with vigilance against the perpetual threat of Indian or bandit attack - these elements developed as the story of the

Chihuahua Road Unfolds

This road continued until 1877 when a hurricane destroyed Indianola and the railroads replaced ox carts for carrying freight in the Southwest. During more than 30 years, the Chihuahua Trail held a dominant role in moving items of commerce, travelers, military supplies and personnel through this part of Southwestern North America. By the time of the Trail's demise, a solid foundation of civilization had been built in the Southwest. The end of the Chihuahua Trail came upon the completion of the Southern Pacific Railroad from New Orleans to California with the driving of the silver spike southeast of Shumla near the Pecos River on January 12, 1883. The beginning of the transcontinental railroad service also drove a nail in Indianola's coffin, which was slammed shut by the hurricane of August 20, 1886. During the period from 1844 and 1886 scores of towns in Western Texas were born from her womb and nourished at her breast.


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