Fallen Lone Stars: Indianola

Kathleen Rice Adams header

Founded in 1840 as an Indian trading post, Indianola, Texas, served as a major seaport from 1844 to 1886. The city and Galveston, about one hundred fifty miles northeast, had many things in common—including a desire to outstrip the other and become Texas’s maritime leader.

Indianola in 1860 (Helmuth Holtz, Library of Congress collection)
Indianola in 1860 (Helmuth Holtz, Library of Congress collection)

For a long time, Indianola seemed to be winning. Companies in the city’s industrial district began canning beef as early as 1848. In 1869, Indianola became the first U.S. port to ship refrigerated beef to New England.

The city’s reputation for innovation and dogged determination paid off handsomely. Ships arrived from New York and other New England ports, ferrying passengers and goods bound for San Antonio and California. Indianola became a major debarkation point for European immigrants…and a few boatloads of camels imported for the U.S. Army’s notorious Camel Corps experiment. (The experiment was abandoned at the outbreak of the Civil War, and some of the camels were turned loose. The last feral camel sighting in Texas took place in 1941.)

“Union Troops in the Streets of Indianola, Texas.” Civil War wood engraving by Thomas Nast, published in the New York Illustrated News, April 6, 1861. From the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas.
“Union Troops in the Streets of Indianola, Texas.” Civil War wood engraving by Thomas Nast, published in the New York Illustrated News, April 6, 1861. (From the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas.)

Indianola did so well that it made itself a target during the Civil War. Determined to cut one of the major Confederate supply lines, Yankee vessels blockaded the port in October 1862 and demanded surrender. Being Texans, the nearby fort politely declined with a cannonade. Several scuffles later, Indianola and its port fell to the Yanks on December 23, 1863. One of the jewels of Texas remained in Federal hands for the rest of the war.

In 1867, fire and a yellow fever epidemic ravaged the town. Indianola rebuilt bigger and better, reaching a population of 5,000 by the time the first death knell rang. Although the city had been damaged by a strong storm in 1851, a major hurricane in 1875 demolished almost everything. Tough to the core, the people of Indianola used the debris to rebuild again.

Indianola ca. 1875. Image courtesy of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
Indianola ca. 1875. (Texas State Library and Archives Commission collection)

Then, in August and September 1886, two major hurricanes six weeks apart left Indianola and its celebrated seaport in ruins. Sand and silt blown in by the storms made the bay too shallow for big ships to navigate. Most of the residents moved inland.

The post office closed in 1887, and what remained of the town was abandoned.

The storms ended Indianola’s competition with Galveston for maritime supremacy. Galveston got its comeuppance in 1900 when the Great Storm leveled the island city, giving Houston the right break at the right time to become—and remain—the dominant economic power in Southeast Texas.

The city once known as “the Queen City of the West,” today is “the Queen of Texas Ghost Towns.” Though an unincorporated fishing village stands on the shore, Indianola lies beneath the water, 300 feet off the coast in Matagorda Bay.


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22 thoughts on “Fallen Lone Stars: Indianola”

  1. Wow. So Indianola is no more? Do they label that area still as Indianola? Too, I never heard of a death knell til reading this(and I looked it up, that why I now know that it was rang when there was a death. Sad how much they did to rebuild it over and over. But so glad history records are kept for history like this. Great story Kathleen, thank you .


    • Sadly, the original Indianola is no more. There’s a fishing village (actually, more of a summer retreat for the well-heeled) nearby that calls itself Indianola, but the original town site — including the courthouse, in which a lot of people took shelter during the two latter storms because it was deemed indestructible — are underwater. (The courthouse, BTW, was one of the only things left standing after the storms.)

      Fortunately, there are several historical markers on the beach, and several of the big homes were moved inland to places like Victoria. Most stand today and have historical markers of their own.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Caffey!

  2. Kathleen, another great post! I love learning about all this rich Texas history. I never knew about Indianola. It seems it did have a very rough go, and it’s not any wonder that it just finally ended after two hurricanes so close together–probably there was just no recovering from that–especially in those days.

    I really enjoyed this!

    • Thanks, Okie! Lots of folks have never heard of Indianola. It’s tale is one of both triumph and tragedy. Many people lost their lives in the various disasters that struck the town. As difficult as it was for Galveston to recover from Hurricane Ike in 2008, I can’t even imagine what surviving and recovering from storms must have been like in the 19th Century.

      Thanks for popping in! I know you’re snowed up there with everything you’ve got going. 🙂

  3. Sounds like we might have towns along the coasts that could be under water. Glad you wrote about this one. Always interesting what happen to a town or city.

    • Kim, if you’re on a coastline anywhere in the U.S. (or abroad, for that matter), I’ll bet there’s an underwater town somewhere nearby. Even in landlocked Montana, Fort Peck, a frontier outpost, now lies at the bottom of a reservoir.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  4. thank you for the very interesting post,i love coming here and learning something that I didnt know

    • Hi, Connie! Good to see you. Just try to stop any of the Fillies from sharing history. Just try. 😉

      I think I can speak for all of us when I say we all love doing what we do, but folks like you who take the time to read and comment make it all worthwhile. 🙂

  5. In my novel, “A Message to Santa Fe” the protagonist’s god father operates a merchant supply out of Indianola just as the Civil War begins. I knew it had been destroyed by hurricanes, but didn’t know it was now under water in the bay.
    I thought Buffalo Hump and another Comanche War Chief raided Indianola in the mid-1840’s. On their return, they were tricked into a “peace” meeting west of San Antonio, where many of the leaders were killed by Frontier Rangers.

    • Howdy, Frank! I’m so glad you dropped by to add your knowledge and research!

      I don’t remember the names of the warriors involved, but I believe you’re right about the Comanche raid in the mid-1840s. I’m sure you have much more information about that than I do, Mr. Modest!

      Sounds like I need to read A Message to Santa Fe. 🙂

  6. Seems dumb luck often plays a hand in whether a city flourishes or gets left in the dust. Sort of like it does with people. Mkes me wonder what would happen to New Orleans if it took a couple more hurricane blows in short succession. Would they finally abandon the town and move inland? Interesting post, Kathleen.

    • Thanks, JD! I keep thinking New Orleans will figure out it’s below sea level one of these days, but apparently those folks like to live on the edge. 😉 (Of course, I should talk. I live on a sand bar that’s been hit by the H word more than often necessary, too.)

      I hope y’all are staying safe with all those storms up your direction this evening. BE CAREFUL!

  7. Thank you an interesting peek into the Texas coastal history. I had heard of Indianola, but knew nothing about it. They were resilient, but you can’t fight Mother Nature and win.

    • That’s so true, Patricia. Each year during the H-word season (April through November), I’m always a little afraid Galveston will suffer another 1900 Storm and we’ll all decide enough is enough. I’d hate to leave, but Mother Nature has ways of insisting we pay attention.

  8. love history and this article is so very informative. thank you for giving us this information.

  9. Very interesting. I enjoy to read about history. Just discovered your site, will be a regular visitor.

    • That’s wonderful news, Sally! We’ll be glad to have you join us. All of the Fillies are history buffs. You’ll find lots and lots of fascinating historical information here. 🙂

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