Cholera Deaths Sweep the U.S. and Mexico
The 1833 cholera epidemic in the United States and Mexico, which included Texas at that time, spread slowly but with malice, providing plenty of time for preparations as the outbreak moved from one area to another. The bacterium is transmitted through contaminated food or water, and once infected, victims experienced severe cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. The disease could kill within a matter of hours.
In the case of San Antonio’s Veramendi family, into which James “Jim” Bowie had married, their luck was rotten. The epidemic took five members, including the frontiersman’s wife and two young children. In 1831, Bowie had wed María Ursula de Veramendi, the eldest daughter of his business partner Juan Martín de Veramendi, then governor of Coahuila y Tejas.
As early as November 1832, news arrived in Stephen F. Austin’s East Texas colony on the Brazos River that cholera was hitting New Orleans hard. Land Commissioner José Miguel de Arciniega immediately forwarded letters with pointed advice to other nearby colonies, including San Antonio de Béxar: “…devote your indefatigable labor, availing yourselves of every means within your reach, to protect the people, who will be eternally grateful.” However, in San Antonio, little attention was paid to Arciniega’s counsel.
In June 1833, Governor Veramendi was in Monclova, the capital of Coahuila y Tejas, attending to official duties. The family had a second residence there. He left for his San Antonio home just days before a letter arrived warning city officials that cholera had reached the port of Tampico. The dispatch recommended forming a sanitation commission to look after the people and the hygiene of the city.
San Antonio Warned
That same month, San Antonio officials received two letters, within days of each other, urging the city to prepare for an imminent outbreak. One message from Mobile, Alabama, dated June 14, pointed out the seriousness of the situation.
“The cholera is raging in New Orleans and is attended with more malignancy and fatality than it ever was in any known part of the globe, not even excepting the jungles of India.”
Veramendi undoubtedly learned of these alarming warnings when he arrived in San Antonio. A common belief was that cholera was transmitted by miasmas, or “bad air,” and people were inclined to flee the area ahead of an expected outbreak. Within a matter of weeks, Veramendi decided to return to Monclova, believing it would be safer there. Many other San Antonio citizens retreated to their ranches, while some camped outside of the city.
Gov. Veramendi and His Family Return to Mexico
The governor, his wife Joséfa Candida Gertrudis Navarro (sister of statesman José Antonio Navarro), Ursula Veramendi Bowie, and her two children made the three-week trip to Monclova, arriving on August 20. Jim Bowie, who often was away from his family for months at a time, was in Natchez, severely incapacitated with malaria.
The first cholera death in Monclova was reported on August 31. Officials ordered citizens to sweep the inside and outside of their houses daily, wash their hands constantly, and maintain rigorous cleaning regimes both in their homes and when traveling around the city. All gatherings were banned, and those who disobeyed were fined; re-offenders were jailed.
The Veramendi family’s prestigious status provided no special protection from the disease, and by early September, they were infected. All five were dead within two weeks. Ursula Bowie’s youngest child had not even met his father.
In the Monclova region, 729 people, out of a population of 5,000, died of cholera within just a few weeks. The deceased were moved by cart to graveyards where most, including the Veramendis, were buried in mass graves. Bowie did not receive word of their deaths until several weeks later.
Ironically, the cholera epidemic barely affected San Antonio—possibly due to the many who fled the area—and a dose of good luck. If Juan Martín de Veramendi had chosen to stay, he and his family may well have been spared.
Dee E. Harris is a native of San Antonio who now lives in Auckland, New Zealand.
Click here for an English translation of James Bowie’s marriage agreement, provided by the Office of the Bexar County Clerk Spanish Archives.