The Texas Hurricane of 1818
In September 1818, a hurricane struck the coast of Texas. It destroyed pirate Jean Laffite’s settlement on Galveston Island and visited fresh horrors on the Bonapartists who had taken refuge there after abandoning their attempt to establish a colony beside the Trinity River. Though Spaniards had reported hurricanes along the Texas coast as early as the 16th century, the 1818 Texas hurricane was one of the first to be recorded in detail.
Texas in 1818
In 1818, Texas was part of the Spanish colony of New Spain (Mexico), which was then fighting for independence from the mother country. The Spaniards had settlements at San Antonio de Béxar, La Bahía del Espíritu Santo (present-day Goliad), and Nacogdoches. The total Hispanic population probably numbered less than 4,000. Texas was primarily inhabited by Native Americans. Stephen F. Austin and his American colonists did not arrive until 1821.
In 1816, French privateer Louis-Michel Aury established a base on Galveston Island, a short distance from the Texas mainland. In April 1817, when Aury left to help Francisco Mina invade Mexico, pirate Jean Laffite took control of the establishment. He ran a privateering, smuggling and slave-laundering operation from the island. A visitor who arrived in January 1818 described Galveston as a “wild sand bar with four or five ‘temporary miserable hovels’ for the 50 men, mostly blacks and mulattoes, living there.” (1) Laffite inhabited a two-story frame house built on a slight elevation.
In early 1818, Laffite and his men were temporarily joined by approximately 100 Bonapartists – mainly French supporters of Napoleon – on their way to found a colony called Champ d’Asile beside the Trinity River. A few months later, after learning that a Spanish force was coming to eject them, the French colonists returned to Galveston Island to wait for transportation to New Orleans. They arrived in July and settled near Laffite’s village. The Champ d’Asile refugees built a small protective earthwork on a three-foot rise about 400 yards from the water. They were still there when the hurricane struck in September.
The 1818 Texas hurricane
On September 10, 1818, a hurricane passed the Cayman Islands. It blew across the Yucatán Peninsula and then veered north towards Texas. The residents of Galveston Island saw the storm approaching on the evening of September 12, but did not anticipate a hurricane. The French refugees were preparing to go to bed when it struck.
The raging winds, the rushing waves shook the earth: the rain fell in torrents, the sky was ablaze; the piles supporting our hut broke: the canvas covering it was torn, and I saw a black column, a whirlwind that carried ravage and destruction in its flanks. The sea flowed in from all sides, the wind lifting the waves. A vortex of wind tore off and removed the remnants of the sail that sheltered us. Night passed and faint light, whitening the horizon, announced that day was soon to appear. Complaints and cries could be heard from all sides when the wind ceased for a moment to roar, and then redoubled its fatal efforts.
Day broke, the storm was not yet calm; but since we could see the danger, it was easier to avoid it. We were able to bring relief to those who were hurt and save them from death. We transported them to the strongest dwelling [Laffite’s], around which we had all gathered.
The island of Galveston, invaded by the sea, seemed to be part of it. This scene of desolation became more terrible when we saw that the waves, redoubling to flee, broke the cables that held our boats and dragged them into the gulf; every means of salvation was taken from us; I dared not announce it, the words died on my lips, and my heart broke. However, the wind subsided, and the sea began to re-enter the gulf.
As we were on a rise, the ground was soon dry, and we were able to sit down. What a sight! We all had pale and drained complexions; our soaked clothing seemed to be glued to the skin and forming part of it; a burning thirst devoured us, and seawater was the only refreshment nature offered us. (2)
By the time the storm was over, only six buildings remained on Galveston, one of them Laffite’s house. At least four of Laffite’s vessels were sunk or driven ashore. Wrecks from the storm were reportedly found five miles inland in the 1820s. Virtually all of the French refugees’ supplies were lost and the island’s wells were contaminated with salt water. The settlers were dependent on Laffite’s generosity for survival.
Although there is no good estimate of the number of lives lost in the hurricane, many Karankawa Indians reportedly perished.
The great 1818 hurricane is said to have blown a high flood into Aransas and Copano Bays. It is reported to have drowned many Indians and washed a brigantine or brig to the upper end of a creek (Bergantine Creek) that flows into St. Charles Bay, supposedly indicating that the flood was as high, or higher than, the 1919 flood in that bay. … The normal heights of hurricane floods and their plain weather signs must have been well known to the Indians. The drowning of large numbers of Indians indicates an unexpectedly high flood for a hurricane and probably a wide breach. (3)
It’s no wonder Narcisse Rigaud, who survived the 1818 Texas hurricane, tells General Humbert, “this island promises nothing but difficulties,” when he again finds himself stranded on Galveston in Napoleon in America.
You might also enjoy:
- William C. Davis, The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf (Orlando, 2005), p. 352.
- C. D., Le Champ d’Asile au Texas (Paris, 1820), pp. 103-105.
- W. Armstrong Price, North Beach Study for the City of Corpus Christi (Corpus Christi, TX, 1956), p. 67.
The raging winds, the rushing waves shook the earth: the rain fell in torrents, the sky was ablaze; the piles supporting our hut broke: the canvas covering it was torn, and I saw a black column, a whirlwind that carried ravage and destruction in its flanks.