Heritage, Volume 04, Number 03, Winter 1986

dried linings of chicken gizzards, and oak
leaves, which were chewed. Or, for fifty
cents the sufferer could purchase Dr.
Browning's Celebrated Cholera and Diarrhea
Remedy, which was advertised as a
"Sovereign and never-failing remedy for
all Bowel Affections." The advertiser
modestly admitted that Dr. Browning's
would not cure "all the diseases to which
the human race is subject," but promised
a "speedy cure" for the "worst forms" of
diarrhea, dysentery, and cholera morbus.
Epidemics of the dreaded cholera
caused panic in Texas cities and among
plantation residents in the lower Brazos
area in 1833 and 1834, and again in 1850
and 1852. Hundreds died in Stephen F.
Austin's colony in the first epidemic, and
Texans referred to 1833 as the year of the
"Big Cholera." The towns of Brazoria and
Velasco were devastated by the disease,
and the plantation families suffered proportionately.

The plantation of Thomas Westall, a
successful cotton planter on the Gulf
Prairie, was particularly hard hit. Westall
and two of his children as well as many of
his slaves died of the disease. At one time
there were six or seven corpses at the
Westall plantation because the neighbors
were afraid to approach them. The effects
of the epidemic were felt economically
and politically. So many slaves were
stricken that the crops suffered.
In 1849 and 1850 cholera appeared on
the Red River and killed a number of
plantation slaves there. As Williamson
Freeman and his family and slaves were
making their way from Georgia to their
new life in Texas, the cholera caught up
with them in New Orleans and killed several
of the slaves. It rolled on relentlessly,
and on a plantation near Huntsville it
killed more than a dozen slaves and the
owner's son. When sixteen Negroes died
of cholera on one Brazoria County plantation
and thirty-three on another, some
of the planters suspended all work and
had their slaves scatter in the woods to
avoid exposure to victims of the disease.
The cause of the disease was not understood,
but intelligence connected its
onset with a lack of cleanliness and inadequate
sanitation relating to food and
water. All kinds of quack remedies were

tried. Some were as harmless as eating
garlic and going to bed early. Other
"cures" which were published included
pills made from black pepper and opium,
tobacco enemas, pills of sulfur mixed
16

with powdered charcoal, and cold water
thrown on the patient. Large doses of
the much-overused calomel and copious
bloodletting were also advised. Thus the
poor cholera victim had to survive not
only the disease but also its treatment.
Yellow fever, commonly called yellow
jack, was another terrifying disease for
which neither cause nor remedy was
known. The frightful epidemics that hit
Texas in 1839, 1844, and again in 1854
were confined mostly to the seaport towns
of Houston and Galveston. The plantations
escaped with only a few scattered
cases.
Just as dysentery and malaria were recurrent
summer diseases for plantation
dwellers, pneumonia, pleurisy, diphtheria,
and whooping cough were the dreaded
diseases of cold weather. Older people
were more apt to die from pneumonia,
while children died frequently from diphtheria
or whooping cough.
The infant and child mortality rate was
terribly high in the large families common
to plantations. In East Texas, plantation
owner John B. Webster lost four of
his nine children during infancy or childhood.
Of one Brazos planter's eight children,
only three survived to reach maturity.
At one time Rebecca Adams wrote
her physician husband from their Fairfield
plantation that all six of their children
were suffering with whooping cough and
that she had them all in her bedroom.
"You can easily imagine what kind of
noise we have at night," she told him.
In the same letter Mrs. Adams mentioned
that smallpox was spreading in
Texas, and that she had had all the children
vaccinated against it. Most of the
planters belonged to the group of enlightened
Texans who eagerly accepted vaccination
against smallpox. One planter's
doctor bill included this charge:
April 21
To visit and vaccinating your children
$5.50
Also vaccinating about 16 or 18 little
negros $5.00
Some plantations had a separate hospital
building for slaves. On others the
slaves might be taken to the manor house
to recover, while on still others they were
confined to their own quarters. On small

plantations, masters and mistresses kept
a close personal watch over the health
of their slaves. From necessity the white
women learned nursing skills, especially
in the early days of Texas plantations.

While he was still a college boy, Rutherford
B. Hayes visited Peach Point
Plantation near Freeport on the Texas
Gulf Coast. In his diary he wrote of the
mistress of the plantations: "Mrs. Perry
. . . instead of having the care of one
family, is the nurse, physician, and spiritual
advisor of a whole settlement of careless
slaves. She feels it her duty to see to
their comfort when sick or hurt, and
among so many there is always some little
brat with a scalded foot or a hand half cut
off, and 'Missus' must always see to it."
The son of an early Texas planter remembered:
"One of my earliest recollections
of my mother was her visiting the
sick at the 'Quarters' accompanied by
a maid with a basket filled with dainties
and seeing that they were comfortable
and well cared for." Many of the black
women, especially the "Mammies," were
skilled nurses, midwives, and concocters
of medicine.

Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 04, Number 03, Winter 1986. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45440/. Accessed December 18, 2014.