Yellow Fever in Houston, Texas

In August of 1867, the yellow fever blazed into Houston. This was not the first time the gulf city had experienced the fever—every mosquito season was accompanied by the threat of widespread sickness and death—but it was to become the deadliest. A commercial city whose lifeblood was cotton and veins were railroads, Houston was destined to feel the impact of the disease from the moment it broke out in Indianola and Galveston. The disease travelled quickly along the railways from Galveston to Houston, and soon bodies were piling up in the streets. The first case of “vomito negro” cropped up in Houston in the third week of August, having been carried into the town from Galveston the week before. The first case among the troops stationed in Houston—following the Civil War, Houston was for a time the military capitol of Texas—was discovered on September 7th. According to the Surgeon General’s circular on yellow fever in the army, this soldier was “a teamster, who visited the city daily.”

Though by September 14th Houston had already suffered 105 deaths due to the fever, the Houston Daily Telegraph optimistically projected on September 15th that the “number of cases will doubtless exceed 700. The mortality when we consider the number of cases, is very light.” Still, on September 17th, the newspaper advised its readers to “Have mustard, castor oil, orange leaves, or some other materials for making a sweating tea, on hand, ready at a moment's call.”

By the end of the 1867 fever season, 492 out of approximately 6,000 Houstonians had died of the fever. An additional 200 deaths were suspected but not confirmed. Of the soldiers stationed in Houston, 71 out of a total of 72 men had contracted the disease, 25 of whom had died.