Bagdad, Mexico---The Lost City of Sin
Boca del Rio for decades. From as early as 1780 it may have even been to destination for rich Spanish families of Matamoros seeking recreation.The origin of the name Bagdad is uncertain. Some claim that an American with a sense of humor gave the non-descript collection of jacales and mud and oyster shell-plastered huts with thick thatched grass roofs the name at the time of the Mexican War. Ancient Baghdad in Mesopotamia was considered sophisticated and glamorous in sharp contrast to what existed along the sand dunes. Also the thieves in The Arabian Nights might have offered some similarities to the rateros frequenting the area. The area natives had another story as to its name. William Neale, the early pioneer settler of Brownsville, wrote that the famous pirate Don Jean Lafitte or his followers around 1835 were responsible for the title. Inhabitants of the area believed that the pirates had buried vast sums of money in the nearby dunes.
The site was officially designated as a Custom House Port of Entry in 1840. Custom officials were stationed there to keep items from being smuggled up the river. At that point the very small entity may also have been called Resguardo, custom house port in Spanish.
M. Kenedy and Company beached its steamboats there to repair them. While there was a limited steamer traffic to this second class port in the Matamoros Custom District, it likely ceased for the most part by 1846. A hurricane in 1844, one of several that would be experienced over time, knocked down whatever structures existed at the site. Like the mythical Phoenix, the town would rise again after a period of rebuilding. This hurricane was a serious one. It left the natives of the area naked and bruised, forcing those at the La Burrita Rancho to the west to take refuge on the side of a small hill. Further south many perished in the storm.
In 1846, Luther Giddings, an officer of the First Regiment of Ohio volunteers passed through the area and described it as "a small collection of mud and reed huts occupied by Mexican herdsmen and fishermen." By a year later it had grown somewhat, been improved and "Americanized." Off-duty soldiers from the U.S. Army Brazos Island Depot likely used Bagdad for their rest and recreation activities.
The American Flag newspaper in 1847 commented somewhat tongue-in-cheek about the community. An observer wrote of " the inventive genius of its people who could live and acquire money without performing any labor or showing any visible signs of gaining a living. Their intent was merely to attract all who came to the mouth of the river into Bagdad where money was extracted by means of liquor, decoctions, cards, dice, threats, smiles, and caresses, or, these failing, by more potent means, such as club, dirk and pistol." Early on then one can detect what a den of iniquity might grow from these sour roots.
As an entity, populated primarily by fishermen, it certainly didn't amount to much until the Civil War really put it on the map. A very strange confluence of events was to draw the small village into big-time activities. On April 19, 1861, seven days after the war had begun, President Abraham Lincoln gave an order to blockade all rebel seaports, including that of Brazos de Santiago (transl.: Arms of St. James. Originally the name of the settlement was Brazos de St. Iago. After shortening to Brazos St. Iago, it was corrupted to Brazos Santiago.) on the very north end of Brazos Island. As President Lincoln's blockade, part of General-in-Chief Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan, of the Confederate States of America's ports tightened, the CSA's chief source of revenues, namely the export of cotton was stifled.
The CSA quickly sought diplomatic relations with Mexico. American citizen, Juan A. Quintero, Cuban by birth, was sent on May 22, 1861 to Monterrey to establish favorable trade relations with the three northern states of Mexico—Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, and Tamaulipas. They agreed to deliver salt peter used in the manufacture of explosives, military supplies other than small arms and flour in exchange for 850,000 lbs. of cotton. Arms and ammunition also came from Havana and British Belize to Bagdad. In short order a regular steamship line was established between London and Matamoros via Bagdad.
Innovation eventually found an alternative to the dangerous operation of blockade running. This was to move cotton from Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and other areas of the Trans-Mississippi area to the Texas-Mexico border. Texas became a "blockade-running haven" referred to as the "back door" of the Confederacy. Most cotton was exchanged for gold coin as prices rose steadily when the war progressed.
Hidalgo-Guadaloupe peace treaty of the Mexican War, finalized in 1848 had declared the Rio Grande an international waterway to be used freely by both nations. Crafty entrepreneurs as Charles Stillman, Miflin Kenedy, and Richard King simply re-flagged their shallow draft steamboats with the flag of Mexico thereby evading inspection or confiscation of their cotton bale cargo by Union forces. According to Dr. Jerry Thompson "By January 1864 more than 150,000 bales of cotton had been carried across the Rio Grande, and by the end of the war, 320,000 bales had been sent into Mexico."
Bagdad itself had no natural harbor or breakwater. In fact, a troublesome sand bar offshore had a clearance of only four to five feet of water. This meant that any exported or imported cargo had to be transferred from offshore vessels to skiffs and lighters of shallow draft. Ships of all nations, including those of the United States, sometime numbering up to one hundred, anchored offshore.
Cotton, of course, was the primary export while the CSA imported powder, sulfur, mercury, lead, cloth, brown sheeting for Negro clothing, sugar, blankets, and more. Mexico initiated a flat 12 ½ % export tax. Monthly revenue duties for the Mexican government ranged up to $100,000. Naturally banditry increased, and custom officials were frequently targeted.
South Texas and certainly Bagdad were not healthy places. The fall of 1862 saw the town in the grip of a yellow fever epidemic. Sick inhabitants became general and with that the mortality rate rose. Naturally this partially paralyzed the commercial transactions.
Within months over 200 carpenters descended on Bagdad to build the city of unplanned boards and scrap lumber on pilings driven into the marshy area. A later exception was the two banks built of brick, places halfway safe that were needed to secure the riches from the abundant thieves patrolling the area. Initially scalpers were doing a land office business selling or renting tarpaulins to protect people and goods from the elements.
Bagdad became a bustling community with a telegraph office, hotels, grog shops, and houses of ill repute. It even had a sizeable abatoire. Money flowed freely as even common laborers could easily earn $5-6 a day. Skiffs and lighter fees were $20-40. A simple meal was to cost $2-3 while lodgings for the night ran $5-8.
William Neale, who had operated a stagecoach line from Matamoros to Bagdad in the years 1837 to about 1846, again re-instituted that service in the 1860s. The 35 mile run took three hours. He ran ten trips per day and charged a handsome fare of $5.00 that also included a meal. The road between the two entities was so heavily trafficked that its surface was ground to a fine, dusty powder.
Like magic Bagdad had grown dramatically in but a three-year period. One historian characterized its population as heterogeneous—whites blacks, mulattos and Indians but most of all Yankee entrepreneurs. With French forces having been recruited from many European nations and seamen from others the city would see French, German, Italian English, Austrian, Spanish, Belgium Hungarian along with the Confederates, Yankees and Mexicans. Such a motley crew brought with them "constant brawls, stagecoach robberies, street fights, knifings and shootings."
Audrey Simmons of Harlingen gathering information from Clarksville native Teresa Clark Clearwater, wrote "At its height, the city had grand hotels with elegant names, theaters, two-story buildings set upon pilings to avoid the tides, and sidewalks built of wood which were usually covered with water when the tide was in. Many of the businesses and places of entertainment had French names supplied by the owners who had drifted in from New Orleans." She goes on to relate "…by 1863, the lazy, dreamy village of Bagdad across the river from Clarksville had begun its skyrocket course to the dizzy peak of 25,000 human beings---most of whom were the scum of the earth, adventurers and sharpers from everywhere. Many of them came from New Orleans, but also venturesome Brownsville people went to this funnel of gulf traffic to seek their fortunes." In addition to the brothels, many restaurants, saloons, and gambling houses the town even had a small church, and also a cemetery adjacent to the sand dunes to the southeast.
Belgium Oblate Father Pierre Perisot detailed the community as "The cosmopolitan city of Bagdad was a veritable Babel, a Babylon, a whirlpool of business, pleasure and sin." This mostly shacktown was populated with gamblers, prostitutes, tavern keepers and assorted gentry. Newspaper accounts portrayed the town as a "sand hole on the gulf", "a dirty, filthy place where the streets are covered with slime and mud puddles." The New York Herald characterized it "an excrescence of the war. Here congregated… blockade runners, desperadoes, the vile of both sexes; adventurers, the Mexican, and the rebel gather and where (there are) numberless groggeries and houses of worse fame [where the] decencies of civilized life were forgotten and vice in its lowest form held high carnival while in the low, dirty looking buildings… were amassed millions in gold and silver." One blockade runner described Bagdad as a place where everyone was trying to grab what he could by using whatever scheme possible to make money out of crisis. A Brownsville paper, according to Thompson, described the town as a place where "fandangos were held every night and women as beautiful as houris exhibit their charms, without the least reserve." Famed Confederate Navy man, Admiral Semmes, passed through this "back door" on his way to his beloved southern home. He described the town as "This seashore village rejoicing in the dream Eastern name of Bagdad. It was so unique that it could easily be fancied as its name imports, really under the rule of the Caliphs, but for certain signs of the "Yankee", that met the eye."
Some sources put the peak population of Bagdad at about 15,000 while others suggest that it may have even been as high as 35,000. The sailors coming ashore from the many vessels helped to keep the revenues flowing into local coffers.
In September 1862, 20 ships were to be counted anchored offshore. By January 1863 the number had risen to 60, and by April 1863, 92 were to be tallied. In June of 1863 Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, notified Secretary of State, William Seward, that there were 180 to 200 vessels of all nations waiting to discharge and load cargo at Bagdad.
While the U.S. Navy initially tried to intercept cotton moving offshore, these seizures led, of course, to diplomatic protests. The Navy was soon cautioned by federal State Department officials in Washington not to create any international neutrality incidents. Soon circumventive action was also taken by the merchants who were exporting smuggled, southern cotton. To avoid confiscation by blockading navy forces they began to fly the flag of Mexico on the lighter boats ferrying the cotton to British and other ships. Eventually the ships made sure to anchor in Mexican waters for discharge of merchandise to Bagdad, Mexico and the subsequent on-loading of cotton bales. In a peculiar twist of history some of the exported Southern cotton made its way to New York City, and undoubtedly some found its way into cloth for Union military uniforms. The proof of the pudding was lading slips indicating one arrival to New York City from Matamoros in 1861, 20 in 1862, 72 in 1863, and from January to March 18, 1864 32 ships.
On March 3/8/63 Bagdad had served as the embarkation point for Union sympathizers fleeing Texas, the new state in the CSA. One hundred forty refugee individuals were transported by the unarmed steamer Honduras to New Orleans. While Union forces had retreated from the Valley in February 1861, they returned with an invasion force of nearly 7,000 on November 1, 1863. The Rio Grande Expedition, as it was named, had as one objective the interceding of cotton transport to Mexico. Although not specifically stated another of its objectives was to keep French forces in Mexico from abetting CSA operations and providing succor to the Confederacy. For some time the U.S. government was leery that France and Britain might recognize the CSA as a nation.
In 1862 the Imperialist forces of Napoleon III invaded Mexico. Ferdinand Maximilian von Hapsburg was to chosen to become Emperor of Mexico, though it was never to be totally conquered. Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, the legendary and controversial leader in Tamaulipas, would more than once swing his allegiance to conflicting parties. In early 1864 he declared against the Napoleonic forces. In April 1864, hoping to obtain the friendship and intercession of Cortina's Liberal troops to hinder the cotton trade, Union General John A. McClernand, in a formal ceremony at the Plaza Hidalgo in Matamoros, gave Cortina ten artillery pieces. This interference with the affairs of Mexico was, of course, a violation of U.S. neutrality. After the Union army abandoned Brownsville on July 28, 1864, Cortina would soon change alliance and allow CSA cotton to flow across the border. As an indication of the great trade and money involved Matamoros had a population of 9,000 before the war commenced and had 40,000 people by the summer of 1864.
In the summer of 1864 on August 22, 400 French and Austrian troops initially landed at Bagdad to take possession of it. French forces in the area were increased over the following months. This elicited considerable new construction in Bagdad. Cortina's soldiers would conduct a skirmish with the French near Bagdad, but the results were insignificant. At the time, for whatever reasons, Confederate soldiers on the north bank of the river fired on Cortina's forces. Later it was revealed that CSA Col. Rip Ford believed Cortina had his eyes on capturing his old nemesis, Brownsville. This didn't come to pass. In October 1865, 700 French soldiers from Bagdad were sent to Matamoros to reinforce Imperialist General Tomas Mejia on his way to that city with a force of 2,000 men. After the city was conquered Cortina could do little except harass his enemies by cutting the telegraph line between Matamaoros and Bagdad.
By August 1865 the mercantile market of Bagdad bottomed out. Merchants were selling items for 1/5 their cost, even if they could give it away. For sale signs sprouted everywhere. The exhilarating ride was over.
In late 1865, a reporter for the New York Herald communicated that the small French garrison in Bagdad was "poorly armed, demoralized, and bedraggled…devoid of spirit, seemed indolent, and were positively little better than a pack…of ragamuffins." There then was initiated a chapter of Bagdad's history that is clouded with contending interpretations of a wide range.
Professor Thompson in his book Cortina writes that the episode began when, on November 5, 1865, a small band of American filibusters led by William D. St. Clair and Francisco de Leon, moved across the river to Bagdad, seized the small steamship Rio Grande from its lone guard, and towed it across the river. Their aim was to arm it then move upriver to challenge the Imperialist occupiers of Matamoros. Before this occurred, it was seized by American authorities at Clarksville, for the ship actually belonged to someone from New Orleans, not the Empire.
This was only the start for besieged Bagdad. According to Thompson, a month later Captain R. Clay Crawford of the Union 5th Tennessee Infantry conceived the idea to seize the entire town. Together with filibuster Arthur F. Reed, they obtained commissions in the Liberal army and began recruiting "army deserters, outlaws, adventurers from Galveston, and border riffraff." Payment in gold and expenses were offered as compensation. On January 4, 1866, after a planned feint by Cortina forces at Matamoros to keep Mejia occupied, Crawford crossed the river from Clarksville and gathered his men at the Globe Hotel. The next day their surprise actions captured the Imperial soldiers guarding the ferry. They were part of the 180 Mexicans garrisoning the town. At the same time 150 or more blue-uniformed soldiers crossed from Clarksville into Bagdad. Most were Blacks. The town's whole Imperial garrison was soon subdued and residents fled into the sand dunes. Confusion reigned because Cortina was soon on the scene with forty of his own men and other Liberals there, who tried to take charge, were rejected by both Crawford and Cortina. Without resolution pandemonium ensued. The town was thoroughly looted and ransacked. The plunder carried across the river was said to have filled fifty lighters and took days to transport from Clarksville to Brownsville. The loss of life was put at four raiders killed, eight wounded, and eight Imperialists killed and 22 wounded. Still others placed the American dead at eight with two women also killed in the town.
In later years, the exact truth of the episode became obscure, at least in local quarters. All too easily individuals with personal prejudices laid blame almost wholly on the Black soldiers who were broadly portrayed in a disgraceful picture. Teresa Clark Clearwater was one who took the Black soldiers sorely to task. After all her father, the founder of Clarksville, also had a mercantile store in Bagdad, one which was cleaned to the rafters. The alternate story was that some Americans had been incarcerated in Bagdad. When their release wasn't effected, 300 (200? 150? Take your pick.) Black soldiers and other officers crossed to free them. Subsequently they went on a drunken spree that lasted three days and was the basis for the wild melee that had ensued. One historian sought to explain the rampant destruction in Bagdad by writing that perhaps the Blacks "hailed [it] as a symbol of the Confederacy."
Petitions relative to the sordid affair were sent to Washington. Four army officers were appointed as a commission to investigate the matter. They produced an eight-point report to U.S. authorities. The soldiers involved were given a clean bill of health, the essence of the matter being that Mexican officials had requested the soldiers' help in dispelling the French. The report contended that the soldiers involved had been discharged and were awaiting transport home. The U.S. government therefore claimed no responsibility for the filibustering acts to the citizens and did not punish the soldiers. While no compensation was forthcoming, the Union military did return some captured armament to the French but only after the French threatened to blockade Brazos Santiago. On January 25, contra, French marines, 120 Austrians, 100 Rurales, and 300 Mexican Lancers reoccupied the town. It was but a skeleton of its former self, for as many as 7,000 of its citizens had departed. The fact was that with the end of the Civil War Bagdad had suffered an immediate and severe depression; $1000 lots now sold for $15 an acre or less. The last Imperialist forces themselves would depart Bagdad forever on June 23, 1866. They were transported to Veracruz.
The final chapters in the life of Bagdad center around hurricanes. The first was the hurricane of 10/7-8/1867. Even with the vagaries of tropical storms it is difficult to fathom the path of this one. The storm in the gulf hit the Texas coast on 10/2-3 just south of Galveston which we all know is a considerable distance from South Texas. It then turned south and moved all the way to the Rio Grande. The survivors at Bagdad would later record that from the middle of the night on 10/7 the winds ranged were about 20-25 mph. At daylight they were from 25 to 30 mph out of the north until sunset when they rose to 40-60. Winds of 60 miles per hour were in force by 8 PM and from 10 to midnight had risen to 80. At 12:30 AM the brunt of the storm had quickly passed. It was the tidal surge in the gulf that caused the major damage to Bagdad. The perpendicular height of the water was said to have risen eight feet. That propelled it inland anywhere from five to 25 miles according to The Daily Ranchero of 11/7/67. Brownsville and Matamoros were struck by the hurricane winds, but the damages there were exacerbated when after midnight a tornado coming from the southwest violently swept the two cities.
One historian writes that a purported 10,000 lives were lost in Brownsville, Matamoros, Clarksville, Bagdad and the remainder of the Valley. Considering the low Valley population at the time this number is horrific. It is likely exaggerated. Depending on accounts not a house was left standing at Bagdad and only two remained at Clarksville while another states that ten houses survived at Bagdad.
The hurricane of September 3,1874 lasted 60 hours over three days. It moved across the area in a north-northwesterly direction. Longtime Brownsville publisher, Paulino S. Preciado, stated in a reminiscence that 1000 had died in Bagdad. Pilot James Baker of the river steamer San Juan was to quickly deliver supplies to the area and remove people to Matamoros. Mr. Van Ripper, the telegraph operator, also offered aid to the dispossessed. The storm totaled what little number of habitats remained in Bagdad. No attempts to rebuild were made by survivors. Father Periot was to call the storm "El Castigo de Dios" (The Punishment of God.) Mother Nature had reclaimed what was once desolate, salt-sprayed sand dunes and marshland. Bagdad had been physically obliterated to live on only in history, tales, and memory.