On the eve of the great Texas yellow fever epidemic, Galveston was the largest city in Texas with a population of approximately 22,500, and served as a shipping and receiving hub for the rest of the state. The port city’s prosperity was to be threatened in 1867, however, when the fever swept into town, decimating the economy and society of Galveston. Unlike many of the Texas towns which were laid flat by the 1867 epidemic, Galveston had experienced the yellow fever before. At least nine yellow fever epidemics ravaged the city from 1839 to 1867. In 1853, nearly 60 percent of the city’s residents contracted the disease, 523 of whom died.
The disease is thought to have originated in the jungles of Africa, having been carried over the seas by ship in the Atlantic slave trade, though it was doubtless transported on ships carrying non-human cargo as well. Having been introduced into such coastal regions as Cuba, New Orleans, and Memphis in this way, it was then repeatedly carried into Galveston Island aboard ships from fever-prone areas.
In 1867, the yellow fever hit Galveston with unexpected force. Still recovering from their Civil War losses, the island was unprepared to cope with the viral devastation that was to come. The fever made its appearance in Galveston in late July, and by August the city was experiencing thirty deaths per day, on average. When yellow fever invaded the city, a great number of people fled. As people left, they took the disease with them, spreading it further inland, as far north as Calvert. A Mr. Zeigler, who was stricken with the disease in Galveston but recovered, recollected that “5500 of Galveston’s 22,500 fled to safer ground. About 15 per cent of those remaining died on the island like sheep.” Once prosperous and optimistic, Galveston’s future looked grim as the fever took more and more lives. By the time the scourge burned out in Galveston, it had taken 999 lives on the island.
Though the suffering of Galveston was unimaginable, the island’s years of experience with the disease enabled them to provide aid to other afflicted towns. The Galveston Howard Association sent out medical teams to suffering towns across the country, providing “an army of volunteers to nurse the sick and bury the dead.”