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Texas | Columns | Lone Star Diary

Epidemics Flourished in Old Texas

by Murray Montgomery
Murray Montgomery
As Texans attempt to cope with the coronavirus, many folks who are not into the study of our history probably don't know that Texas has known many deadly plagues over the years.

In the old days our ancestors didn't have the luxury of antibiotics and immunization shots. And even if they had been available, it would have been far too late to save anybody by the time drugs got to the frontier.

According to The Handbook of Texas, as far back as the early 1800s Texas was experiencing deadly plagues and epidemics. When Texas was under Mexican rule, it was combined with the state of Coahuila in 1824 - although a procedure for dealing with smallpox had been found, the sparse population and distance between Texas and Coahuila made it difficult to deliver the vaccine to the people.

After Texas won its independence from Mexico there was no organized system of reporting on epidemics. As a result, little is known about the health of folks living in the Republic of Texas. However, we do know that epidemics were frequent - most notably yellow fever, smallpox, and cholera.

Reports indicate that between 1836 and 1867 yellow fever epidemics occurred nearly every year. Sadly, a cholera outbreak that hit Indianola in 1846 was so terrible that the dead lay unburied in the streets.


The first efforts to quarantine occurred in Galveston in 1850 after several yellow fever epidemics hit the island. In 1856 the state legislature passed a law that gave county courts the authority to quarantine when they deemed it necessary.

It wasn't until 1873 that statutes mandating registration of all Texans were enacted. Those mandates finally gave the state a way to compile statistics of people who became ill from the epidemics. Chances are these things would not have happened that soon if Texas had not become part of the United States.

A law was finally passed in 1879 that provided for the first statewide system of quarantine. This law greatly improved the antiquated efforts of the one in 1856. With an increase in personnel and financial resources, quarantine stations sprang up throughout the state - quarantines were used more frequently by the end of the century.

According to The Handbook of Texas: "The modern public-health campaign represents the culmination of a 200-year struggle to lengthen the productive lives of Texans."

The people of Texas can have confidence that they now live in a time when modern medicine is rapidly developing new vaccines and techniques to deal with epidemics.

There's no doubt that the coronavirus we are dealing with today will also be defeated by scientists, doctors, and other professionals in the medical community.
Murray Montgomery
March 31, 2020 Column

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