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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Kate Dorman of
Sabine's Catfish Hotel

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

She stood only 4 feet 10 inches, but folks learned quickly not to cross Catherine “Kate” Magill Dorman -- a little known Texas heroine of the Civil War.

Born in Georgia on Oct. 7, 1828, Kate married Arthur Magill in 1844. Seven years later, the couple came to Texas, settling at Sabine Pass. They brought with them the disinterred remains of their five-year-old daughter, reburying her near their new home.

In 1852 they built an inn they called the Catfish Hotel. With a wharf extending into Sabine Lake from the front of the two-story hotel, customers did not have far to walk. Capable of accommodating 24 guests, the Catfish soon acquired a reputation for good food as well as comfortable beds.

Kate also had a reputation. She set a fine table, but she did not brook any guff from her guests or acquaintances, be they rowdy sailors or sharp-tongued women. People talked for years about the time a local woman known as “Dutch Margaret” stormed into the dining room at the Catfish and assailed Kate in “blackguard language.”

The diminutive hostess let “Dutch Margaret” have it right back, settling the matter as far as she was concerned. But some time later, three of Kate’s lady friends confronted “Dutch Maraget” on the street and took to her with their parasols.

“Dutch Margaret” filed a lawsuit alleging she had suffered a miscarriage. The lawsuit got tossed out of court, and three months later “Dutch Maraget” bore a healthy son who would have been Exhibit A for the defense had the matter gone to trial.

In addition to helping out at the hotel, Kate’s husband served as the engineer on the steamer T.J. Smith, a mail packet operating out of the pass. The 100-foot vessel cut through the water “like lightning with a thunderbolt after it,” but on Nov. 2, 1859, the packet’s boiler exploded. Magill died in the accident, leaving Kate and her two young daughters alone in the small coastal community.

Kate mourned the death of her husband, but in 1860 she married John Dorman, captain of a cotton steamed named the Doctor Massie.

Through it all, Kate had continued to operate the Catfish Hotel. The Civil War, what with blockade runners and the establishment of a Confederate coastal artillery installation called Fort Griffin, at first improved Kate’s business.

But life soon got harder. Yellow fever struck Sabine Pass in the late summer of 1862, killing at least 100 people and afflicting scores more. Most of the other residents fled the area, praying they and their families would not come down with the dread disease. Kate and two of her friends, Sarah Ann King and Sarah Vosburg, stayed behind to care for the sick Confederate soldiers.

Not long after, three Yankee gunboats appeared and fired a few shells at the town. A shore party burned the Confederate barracks and stable, appropriating from the Dormans a horse and cart to mount a howitzer they had carried ashore. Kate saw what happened and didn’t like it a bit. As the Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph later reported, “Mrs. Dorman...became perfectly enraged and...gave them just such a tongue-lashing as only a brave woman would dare do.”

Kate shook her fist at the bluecoats, saying she hoped the Rebels killed them. She’d do it herself, she went on, if she had 25 able men. Whether intimated or just being polite, the federal soldiers returned the confiscated horse and cart. Still, they had a warning for Captain Dorman: “Keep his damned wife’s mouth shut, [or] they would hang him.”

The Yankees left the area, but a year later they returned, intending to land 4,000 troops in Texas. A four-vessel flotilla bombarded the Confederate fort, located only about 300 yards from the Catfish.

During the battle, with federal shells exploding all around, Kate and her friend Sarah Vosburg worked over a hot stove in the hotel’s kitchen, brewing coffee and frying meat and doughnuts for the defenders. As the fight continued, she hitched up the same horse and cart the Yankees had “borrowed” the year before and went to the fort to feed the artillerymen. Hoping to further fortify the fortifiers, Kate delivered a gallon of whiskey in addition to the food and coffee.

Bolstered by a strong sense of duty and stronger whiskey, 47 Irishmen under Houston bartender Dick Dowling out-gunned the federals, putting two gunboats out of action and forcing the other two to make a course for New Orleans. The battle didn’t win the war for the Confederacy, but in thwarting the invasion, Dowling and his boys prevented a lot of bloodshed in Texas.

The woman who contributed to that victory stayed at Sabine Pass the rest of her life, surviving a devastating hurricane in 1886. She died on Christmas Eve in 1897, having outlived her second husband by more than a decade.

In February 1900, a Galveston newspaper columnist raised money to buy train tickets for two old rebels living at the Confederate Home in Austin. Among the last survivors of the men who had participated in the battle, they wanted to visit the scene of their victory one last time.

Arriving in Sabine Pass, the first thing the two elderly Irishmen said was, “Where’s Kate? We want to see Kate!”

© Mike Cox

"Texas Tales" May 19, 2004 column, modified May 21, 2015

Sabine Pass Cemetery scene, Texas
Small historical marker denotes the Kate Dorman gravesite.
TE photo, March 2007

See Also:

Catherine Magill Dorman: Confederate Heroine of Sabine Pass by W. T. Block

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