Every time we visit Galveston Island, I’m reminded of a line from the movie Sarah Plain and Tall: “The past steps on the heels of the present….”
Galveston, with its historic, stately Victorian homes, Pleasure Pier and restaurants, hasn’t always been the family vacation destination it is today. From the whims of Mother Nature, to the greed of profiteers, to the natural toils of life before our modern conveniences, countless souls in this city were taken prematurely.
In 1528, explorer Cabeza de Vaca declared Galveston “The Isle of Doom” for its dangerous shallows that left him shipwrecked. His fleet departed Spain with a crew of 600, and ultimately escaped the island with three men. Later, in 1817, infamous pirate Jean Lafitte and his privateers plied their trade in the warm waters of the gulf with great success. Through a mixture of fear and generosity, Lafitte claimed the island.
In 1900, America’s worst natural disaster befell the island, as a vicious hurricane slammed Galveston claiming about 8,000 lives. With too many to bury, the bodies were taken offshore, weighted and interred at sea–only to have the ocean return them. Fearing disease, funeral pyres were ordered. By decree, any men who wouldn’t assist in burning the bodies would be shot.
In 1853, Yellow Fever struck Galveston, and 60 percent of the city became ill. Five hundred twenty three died, including a large number of the town’s police force.
With so much tragedy, the island is a natural for ghost stories and the inevitable tours. Although I don’t believe in ghosts, I do believe in genius loci or “the spirit of place.” Quite simply, we walk in the steps of those who went before us. Their footprints don’t erode. Although unseen, they are made deeper by those who follow.
When my husband and I stroll down the Seawall, I can easily see merchant vessels - then suddenly pirate ships appear on the horizon. Stern orders echo across the expanse of water, accompanied by the smell of fear. Ships are boarded, pistols fire, cutlasses swung. Then blood appears on the water.
When I look at the island’s Grand Dame, The Hotel Galvez, I’m sure women still stand on the widow’s walk, desperately awaiting the first glimpse of their husbands’ ships returning. The sea has always been a harsh and unforgiving mistress.
When I visit the old Stewart’s Mansion on the west end, the site of The Battle of Three Trees, I believe that when I close my eyes I can hear pirates and Indians locked in a bloody battle.
In the harbor, ships gently rock awaiting their cargo. The sounds of music, riotous laughter and fighting pour from long-gone bars, as some crews find solace from their lives the only way they can.
A walk through the city’s cemetery in the center of town tells its own story. Graves dating from the early 1800s hold dear the island’s lost children, youth, those taken in their prime, as well as its elderly. Countless private cemeteries and gravesites through the centuries have faded into the landscape, their locations unknown.
There is something almost mystical in knowing that you are standing in the same exact place, looking at the same view as so many have before. I’m convinced that if you stand very still, quiet and at peace, the island will reveal the secrets of her past.
That is, of course, if you can ignore the alluring siren song of the sea.