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Hurricanes, Freezes, and Floods: Early Texas Weather

Hurricanes


Old photograph of a wrecked schooner from the 1900 Galveston Hurricane
SMU Central University Libraries

Bailey’s Light tells us that when the Bailey family arrived to Galveston Island in 1818, with nine year old Mary Augusta Bailey (the future Mrs. Polley), they saw “the mast of a wrecked schooner which was stranded on the sand on one of the highest points of the Island and the outlines of Lafitte’s Red House far down a broad expanse of ocean sand.”  This Lafitte was none other than the pirate Jean Lafitte who held control of Galveston Island at the time, calling it Little Campeche.  So how did a schooner get wrecked on the highest part of the island?  Well, on September 12, 1818, a hurricane passed over Galveston Island.  After the hurricane passed, only 6 structures (out of a reported 200) were left on the island, and most boats had either been driven inland (up to 5 miles!), or lost out to sea. 


 

Considering that there is no mention of such a forceful and memorable storm in Bailey’s Light, but a reference to a stranded shipwreck, it seems likely that the Bailey group came ashore to Galveston after September of 1818.  This means that their pioneering journey from Eastern Tennessee to Texas, which began in March of 1818, took over six months. 

 

While the Baileys and Polleys did not live directly on the Texas Gulf Coast, they did live only about 25 miles inland from the gulf waters. This means that any historical storm which affected Galveston, was surely felt by the families.


September of 1834 saw another hurricane hit Galveston, Texas, in what was then Mexico, causing heavy damage.  This occurred, a little over one year after the catastrophic floods of the Colorado and Brazos Rivers which inundated the Brazos River Valley.

 

Map image of Racer's Hurricane estimated path around the Gulf of Mexico
From United States Weather Prediction Center

In early October of 1837, one year after Texas won its Independence from Mexico, the young republic was struck by a devastating hurricane that was known as the Racer’s Storm, after a British ship named the Racer encountered the storm off Jamaica and was later able to provide valuable storm information.  This storm brought devastation to the entire Gulf Coast of the United States as it struck Mexico and turned sharply northeast to skim the coastline.  Galveston Island was destroyed, with nearly every building lost, and only one of the thirty vessels left in the harbor after the storm passed.  Ships were deposited by floodwaters several miles inland.  The floodwaters from the storm’s rain and surge reached up to 20 miles inland, drowning livestock and crops.  The Polley family was living at Bell’s Landing in Brazoria County at the time, near the banks of the Brazos River.  They lived 23 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico as the crow flies.



 

Two years later, on November 5, 1839, an unusually late season hurricane struck Galveston. 


September 17, 1842, Galveston took another hit from a hurricane that caused $10,000 in damage (nearly $400,000 in today’s money). This storm hit as the Brazos River Valley was still recovering from devastating floods just 3 months prior.

 

 

Freezes


Despite its reputation for being hot and humid, the Texas Gulf Coast region does experience cold temperatures in winter. The coldest temperatures are usually not sustained over the whole season, but freezing weather is not unusual. However, every now and then, a cold blast comes along that sets Southeast Texas teeth chattering.


The Polley and Bailey families lived in Texas before standard weather data was being recorded, so we have to rely on accounts of the weather from personal writings, which take quite a long time to sift through. One arctic blast is of particular note, however.


Painted portrait of Jane Long
Jane Long, "The Mother of Texas"

In 1821, a polar vortex reached its icy tentacles down to the Texas Gulf Coast as the famous “Mother of Texas” Jane Long recorded that on Christmas Day of 1821, Galveston Bay was frozen over, and the ice was so thick that she saw a black bear standing on it.  While black bears were common in Southeast Texas before vast settlement pushed them out, a frozen Galveston Bay was quite the oddity.

 

In late December 1821, Stephen F. Austin had come back into Texas on his second trip, and noted how bitterly cold it was in modern day LaGrange on New Year’s Day.  The ship he was supposed to meet at the mouth of the Colorado River, the famous schooner Lively,  recorded stormy weather as they passed the Galveston area, which may be why they were set off course and found the Brazos River, instead of the Colorado, a mishap with became bit of Texas history lore. 

 

The Bailey family had lived along the Brazos River for three years at the time of this cold snap. Joseph Polley was probably also in Texas at the time, though we have not yet discovered his whereabouts after he departed from Stephen F. Austin on his first journey into Texas.



 

Floods

 


Photograph of a Texas Historical Marker for Bell's Landing
Bell's Landing on the banks of the Brazos River, location of Polley home during floods of 1833 and 1842.

Local History and the book Bailey’s Light also tell us about the flooding that occurred along the Brazos River in 1833 and 1842.  After heavy rains, the Brazos River flooded its banks for miles around.  In 1842, the Brazos stretched for 6 miles wide at the confluence of the Navasota River near Washington.  As we know, rivers flow to the sea, so all of that upstream water had to flow down the Brazos, past the Polley home very near to the river.  Bailey’s Light records that the Polleys second child, James Bailey Polley died in the 1833 (mislabeled as 1834 in Bailey's Light) flood.  His death is recorded in August of 1834, which was after the great flood.  He may have drowned in the river, or died from the various sicknesses that affected all members of the family for months. 



 

As you can imagine, in an agrarian society, floods take out crops, livestock, wildlife, homes, infrastructure…everything.  People suffered greatly from a lack of food, proper shelter, mosquito and water-borne illnesses, and general despair.  Yet, within a strong community of hardy pioneers, the people band together and rebuild.  They take care of each other, and they move forward.  It is, however, not surprising that we hear that Mrs. Polley looked forward to moving out West to get away from all of the water and weather related dangers of the Texas Gulf Coast. 



 

All links throughout this post exist to provide additional information about the subject or reference the source of information. One source for this post was Bailey's Light: Saga of Brit Bailey and Other Hardy Pioneers, by Josephine Polley Golson (San Antonio: Naylor, 1950)

 

The Polley Association aims to record the legacy of the Polley and Bailey families of Texas as accurately as possible. If you have information that can help us tell this story, we would love to hear from you. Please email us if you have corrections or additional information about this story.



 

 

 

 

 

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