One of the more vivid descriptions of Galveston during the days of the Republic of Texas comes from the travelogue of a young Englishwoman, Matilda Charlotte Houstoun (right, 1815–1892). In the late summer of 1842, Houstoun (pronounced “Haweston”) set out from London in the sailing yacht Dolphin to make a tour of the Gulf of Mexico. She was the daughter of naturalist Edward Jesse, who had obtained a sinecure in the Royal Household as the ceremonial “Gentleman of the Ewery,” an “absurd and useless office” that nonetheless provided him an income of £300 per year, in addition to other perquisites. Jesse went on to hold a series of similar titles, through his friendship with the Duke of Clarence, who eventually succeeded to the throne as William IV (reigned 1830–37).
So it was that Jesse’s daughter, Matilda, grew up on the privileged fringe of the British monarchy—a commoner, perhaps, but an extremely well-connected one. While still in her teens, she married the son of the British ambassador to the Kingdom of Saxony, but he died within a year, and she returned to live at the family home near Bushy Park in London. She subsequently married Captain M.C. Houstoun of the Tenth Hussars, a British cavalry regiment, and together they set out in Dolphin to begin an extensive tour of the Gulf of Mexico. Captain Houstoun was interested in promoting a business venture involving a new device for packing and preserving beef, which involved injecting the veins and arteries of the carcass with saline; his wife would devote her time recording her observations of life in the new republic. Matilda Charlotte Houstoun would later become one of the most successful female English novelists of the nineteenth century, but in the early 1840s, she was still an unknown writer, compiling a travelogue that she would publish under the name “Mrs. Houstoun.”
Shortly before Christmas 1842, Dolphin and the Houstouns arrived at Galveston. Mrs. Houstoun was not impressed. It was a town that
gives one, on a first view, no very high idea of its importance. The houses in general are small, though, here and there, an overgrown rickety-looking building speaks of the larger means and higher pretensions of its occupant…It is strange, that here, where bricks could so easily be made, the inhabitants should still continue satisfied with their wooden tenements. The only bricks I saw in Galveston were those forming one solitary chimney. It is calculated that, on an average, these wooden houses last ten years; and in the mean time they are very liable to be blown down…
The city contains about three hundred covered buildings, which a bold person would, or might call houses. There are also four churches; rather a considerable proportion, I should say to the number of inhabitants, which amount only to about two thousand. Then, there are temples, squares, theatres, botanical and zoological gardens; but they are only at present on the ground plan.
I don’t think she was much impressed.
Image: Galveston as depicted in Mrs. Houstoun’s travelogue in the 1840s. From Houstoun’s Texas and the Gulf of Mexico.