I wanted to write a post for Memorial Day that tells the story of someone with Galveston ties who gave their life in battle. The challenge was that there are so very many stories to tell. In the Broadway Cemetery complex alone there are veterans from every war from 1812 forward. Of course, not all of them lost their life in the service, and many of those who did have stories that are well-known.
So I decided to go with a little more obscure story with Galveston ties that many locals may not have heard.
When people visit the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, they usually visit the impressive star-topped monument and possibly the USS Battleship Texas. But are you aware there are actually TWO cemeteries on the grounds?
The most visible of the two is close to the battleship, and known as San Jacinto Battlefield Cemetery. It is where the handful of Texans killed in the battle were buried near the Texan Army camp. Buried there are Dr. William Junius Motley, Sgt. Thomas Patton Fowle, Lt. George A. Lamb, Lt. John C. Hale and privates Lemuel Stockton Blakey, Mathias Cooper, Ashley R. Stevens, Benjamin Rice Brigham and Olwyn Trask.
Taking the time to read the lengthy inscriptions, the word “Galveston” (of course) caught my eye.
“Olwyn J. Trask…died on Galveston Island… of wounds …received at the San Jacinto Battlefield…”
This is how it begins, folks. I see something like this and I’m off, down the rabbit hole of research. Olwyn’s story took me on a complicated journey that involved his family, his unlikely demise, and even the beginnings of Baylor University. But here, I’ll just concentrate on his story.
Olwyn Trask’s sister Frances was a brilliant educator in Texas. By some accounts Olwyn, a recent college graduate, was sent to Texas during the Revolution by their family in Massachusetts to bring her home. Because he arrived in the Spring of 1835, however, it is more likely that he came to join her and their cousins (the Dix family) to seek out business prospects.
Soon after spirited 21-year-old reached Galveston though, he impulsively joined the Texas Army to fight for independence from Mexico.
He became a member of Captain William H. Smith’s Cavalry Company, after General Sam Houston himself witnessed his horsemanship skills in lassoing a young mustang.
On April 20, 1836, the day preceding the famous Battle of San Jacinto, he was one of 80 men under Colonel Sherman who skirmished against the Mexican Army. Only two men in the Texan ranks were wounded, but Olwyn’s were mortal.
Nicholas Descomps Labadie was an assistant surgeon in the Second Regiment Volunteers under Anson Jones, and treated Trask when he arrived back at camp. The conditions were primitive, and resources limited.
Olwyn was transported to Galveston on a boat with Texan President Burnet and others, where he was to receive further treatment.
The following extract of a letter from New Orleans furnishes details of Olwyn’s fate:
“I called on General Houston yesterday, to ascertain particulars relative to Olwyn J. Trask; he says that he lies dangerously wounded at the Fort at Galveston Island. His thigh was broken in a charge made by 80 of our calvary on about 250 Mexicans, on the 20thof April, in which he behaved most gallantly. He fell from his horse when the ball struck him, but was almost instantly seen again supporting himself on one leg by his horse and had the satisfaction to kill the man who shot him. This was confirmed by one of the aids of General Houston, then present, who remarked that he was in a position to see the whole of it. He said that after Olwyn had laid the man dead at his feet, he sprang on his horse again, in the midst of the enemy’s cavalry, his own corps having retired and immediately urging him to his utmost speed, cutting his way through the ranks, and brandishing his sword at everything that opposed him, when, as the Aid remarked, they seemed to open for him to pass, and he entered the camp with his leg swinging like the pendulum of a clock.”
Olwyn’s thigh bone had been shattered. It was generally believed among those present that if he had received expert medical attention from the start he might have lived. The makeshift facilities are blamed for his demise about three weeks after the battle.
Upon his death he was buried with his comrades “with all the honors that could have been paid to the Commander in Chief; all the troops were under arms, and the officers of the Navy joined in the procession and minute guns were fired during its progress to the place of burial.”
Olwyn J. Trask’s name and gallantry were so revered in his home state of Massachusetts that young men went so far as to legally change their name to his.
In the years that followed, a community cemetery grew around these graves, but now part of the 10-acre site is partially covered by a parking lot for the battleship.
The deed records of Harris County shows that on November 2, 1837, Frances J. S. Trask, Olwyn’s sister, was living at Independence, Washington County, Texas and was on that day appointed representative of Israel Trask of Massachusetts, who was heir to the property of his deceased son. She was awarded the 640 acres of land due Trask’s services at San Jacinto, and used some of it to build a school. This school was the root of what would eventually grow into Baylor University.
Memorial Day seems an appropriate time to remember this young man,
and so many others, who have given their lives fighting for their beliefs and country.
Today’s icy weather is definitely not the norm for this part of Texas. Our streets, tires and infrastructure is designed to handle heavy rains and heat, but not snow.
But because it’s such a rare occurrence, photos of snowfalls from the past seem especially enchanting. On Valentine’s Day in 1895 Galveston was blanketed with over a foot of snow, bringing street car traffic to a halt, and closing the doors of banks and wholesale businesses.
The snow began to fall about one o’clock in the afternoon, and continued to fall for the rest of the day.
Shoes stores sold out of “gum boots” (rubber boots) and overshoes, as even the most sedate citizens took part in citywide snowball fights. Merchants, policemen, bankers carriage drivers, doctors an other adults took the opportunity to launch snowballs at each other, to the delight of onlookers.
Those trapped at the train station waiting for trains that had no way of reaching them were less amused. The bright spot at the station occurred when Officer Perrett saved a yellow dog he found half-frozen in a snow drift, and warmed it by the waiting room stove.
A few ingenious locals attached temporary runners on their carriages and used them as makeshift sleighs. Others were the victims of icy falls and other mishaps.
As evening fell Dr. Isaac Cline, the now famous Galveston meteorologist was busily answering telephone inquiries about the prospect of more snow, but were met with the news that the “worst” was over. Our generation isn’t the first to be excited over the prospect of snow or worry about it’s implications…and it certainly won’t be the last.
Photographs courtesy of the Rosenberg Library Archives.
A small, unassuming grave marker stands in the Trinity Episcopal Cemetery of Galveston, located at Forty-First Street and Broadway. Tough simple in design, it marks a New Year’s Day that encompassed the tragedy of the War Between the States; the day a Confederate officer embraced a dying Union officer, his own son.
When West Point graduate and military veteran Colonel Albert M. Lea moved to Texas in 1857 his son Edward remained in Maryland to attend the United States Naval Academy and continue the celebrated military tradition of the family; the same family that would be devastated by fighting each other within the very country they loved.
As a Texan and friend of General Sam Houston, Albert Lea applied for a Confederate commission in March 1861, just one month before the Civil War began. He wrote a letter to his then 26-year-old son advising him to follow his conscience when he made the decision regarding which side of the conflict to support, but added an ominous warning: “If you decide to fight for the Old Flag,” he said, “It is not likely that we will meet again, except face to face on the battlefield.”
Edward chose loyalty to the Union, telling his fellow officers he did not desire his family’s love if it involved being a traitor to his country.
After months of serving in a variety of locations, Colonel Lea was transferred back to Texas on December 15, 1862, staying with his wife and family at a relative’s home in Corsicana.
Once in the area, Lea learned that the Union vessel Harriet Lane on which he believed his son was serving, had been occupying the harbor of Galveston since the Union captured and occupied the island earlier in October. Lea hurried to Houston to long-time friend General Magruder’s headquarters, where he learned that a plan to recapture Galveston Island would be executed within a week.
During the pre-dawn hours of January 1, 1863, Lea helped to move six brass cannons of Captain M. McMahon’s battery across Galveston Island’s rail causeway. Afterward, Colonel Forshey posted Colonel Lea in one of the town’s tallest buildings near Broadway (some reports suggest a church, others Ashton villa) to observe and report the status of the attack.
A severe battle ensued, during which the Westfield, which had run aground off Pelican Spit, was blown up, and the Confederate gunboat Bayou City rammed the Harriet Lane near the wheelhouse, which allowed the Confederate troops to overrun the vessel. The remainder of the Union fleet fled to New Orleans, leaving three companies of the 42nd Massachusetts infantry on Kuhn’s Wharf to surrender. The rebels had retaken the city at a cost that was yet to be seen.
Colonel Lea rushed to Kuhn’s Wharf waterfront near where the battle had taken place. Once granted permission to board the Harriet Lane, he learned that her Union commander, Captain Wainwright, was dead and Lieutenant Commander Edward Lea, the executive officer, had been shot through the stomach.
Making his way through the soldiers pillaging the ship, Lea found his son lying in the cockpit, surrounded by dead and dying comrades.
Dr. Penrose, who was operating on a wounded man, handed Colonel Lea a flask of brandy for his son to sip, telling the grief-stricken father that the wound was mortal.
Cradling the young officer’s head, Colonel Lea said, “Edward, this is your father.”
“Yes father, I know you,” the young man whispered in return, “but I cannot move.”
In a desperate attempt to change fate, the Colonel went ashore to arrange for his son to be moved to the Sisters of Charity Hospital. After relating the events to General Magruder, whom he met along the way, Magruder offered his private quarters for his friend’s son.
While his father was absent, the lieutenant was told that his death was near and was asked if he had any last wishes. With his last breath, Edward replied, “No, my father is here.”
When Albert Lea returned, his brave son was dead. The next day an elaborate funeral procession that included Confederate and Union officers, sympathetic local citizens, a drum corps of prisoners from the battle and a group of Masons in full regalia solemnly carried
Lieutenant Lea and Captain Wainwright from Magruder’s headquarters to a service at the Episcopal Church. Colonel Albert Lea himself delivered the eulogy before the two men were buried with full military honors in a common grave, donated by local business leader W. Grover.
The fair city of Galveston had witnessed the true horror of Civil War violence on a personal level.
In 1866, the body of Captain Wainwright was reinterred with honors at the Naval Cemetery in Annapolis, Maryland.
A wealthy relative offered to rebury Edward Lea’s remains beside those of his mother in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore, but
Albert Lea refused. He said he felt it was more fitting for his son to rest where he fell “in sight of the sea and in sound of the surf.”
Albert Lea remained in Corsicana, where he experienced several reversals of fortune in the cotton trade. On the morning of January 16, 1891, Lea died of heart failure sitting alone in his bedroom. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Corsicana.
Ironically, the Harriet Lane itself sustained little damage in the battle, and it visited Galveston as a cargo ship under the name Eliot Ritchie for years to come.
Of all who fought and died on the Harriet Lane’s decks only Lieutenant Lea remains in Galveston. A weathered sculpture of an anchor and binoculars lay on top of a stone that poignantly echoes his last words, “My father is here.”
To see photos from the 2018 re-enactment of the Lea-Wainwright funeral in Galveston, visit:
The Grand Opera House in Galveston was the site of festive “box parties” on Dec. 31, 1912.
A box party occurred when a host or hostess purchased tickets to an entire box at a theatre, and then invited their guests for a special afternoon or evening of entertainment.
Miss Mary Moody was presented with a box to the matinee performance of the play “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” by Miss Charlotte Walker, a famous Galvestonian who was appearing in the production.
The play had opened the previous January in New York at the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway. Walker also appeared in the silent film version in 1916.
Mary’s guests were the Misses Allen, Phyllis Walthew, Anna Mosle, Libbie Moody and Ethel Sykes.
At the evening performance of the play, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Archer Robertson hosted their own box party with Miss Margaret Robertson, Miss Eileen Allen, Miss Jane Alvey, Miss Winifred Allen, Mr. Fred Austin of Houston, Mr. Charles E. Witherspoon, Mr. Gus I. Arnold, and Mr. Earnest G. Diehl of Cincinnati, Ohio.
This group was especially fortunate, proceeding from the play to the “watch party” (to await the New Year) at the fabulous Hotel Galvez.
Wishing you all every happiness in the New Year!
Many people assume that the majority of Galveston hauntings stem from the 1900 Storm. While it’s true that the overwhelming loss of life during that hurricane contributed to the population of restless spirits of the island, entities were experienced long before the waves of 1900 washed across the city.
In January of 1894, Galvestonians were talking about the wraith of a woman seen on the West End. She was said to be the spirit of a woman who had drowned in the neighborhood years before.
Appearing at midnight and clad in a calico gown, she clutched a shawl that was drawn around her shoulders and beneath her chin. Moving slowly and deliberately she moved from the east end of Pier 33 to the west end, then going over the edge.
There were different theories at the time as to whether she had fallen or jumped, but no sounds of footsteps or a splash was ever heard. If witnesses rushed to the end of the pier to look, there was no sign of her in the water.
Was she distraught from the loss of a child during a Yellow Fever epidemic, or a husband lost at sea? Was she a victim of the harsh life experienced by many during the rough, early years of the city? It seems her identity and story will remain a mystery.
In 1894 that area, home of the newly constructed Moody Cotton Compress, was bustling with business and waterfront workers, but as 12 o’clock neared…no one ventured toward Pier 33, at one time called Western Wharf.
The sad spirit became such a regular occurrence, that even those who lived nearby avoided the area around the midnight hour.
Today grand cruise ships past the spot of the ghost’s appearance on their way to dock at the cruise terminal. I wonder if she even notices.
Read more tales of Galveston’s spirited past in ‘Ghosts of Galveston’ from The History Press.
Having escaped from an abusive marriage to an alcoholic husband, Elizabeth Percival started a new life with her two step-daughters Florence and Jessie. She opened a restaurant named The English Kitchen, serving the English dishes from her childhood with a boarding house on the floors above it. In the following months she and the girls gained a loyal following of customers and friends.
In March of 1881, Elizabeth and her daughters invited their friends to join them at their restaurant, which was right on Galveston’s Mardi Gras parade route, for a night of fun and fellowship.
They had no way of knowing the night of revelry would end in tragedy.
Elizabeth’s ex-husband hid among the floats and marchers in the parade. As he passed the restaurant, he took aim and shot Elizabeth in front of all who loved her. Her step-daughters, who she had rescued from their natural father, were grief-stricken, and erected a beautiful marker over her grave.
I stopped by Trinity Episcopal Cemetery to leave beads for Elizabeth. While the island of Galveston is in the middle of Mardi Gras season, I didn’t want her to be forgotten.
I hope you’ll enjoy more of Elizabeth’s story, along with other amazing stories behind the gravestones of Galveston in my book, “Galveston’s Broadway Cemeteries,” from Arcadia Publishing. Available on Amazon.com.