History & Research

Texas Panic of 1860 (part 2)

By on February 24, 2015

If you missed my post last week, I started discussing some of the historical background for my novel, the Texas Panic of 1860. Mysterious fires broke out in July of that year, creating a frenzy that killed many and pushed the state further toward secession from the United States.

Today I wanted to share some excerpts and clippings from The Navarro Express, a weekly newspaper from Corsicana (south of Dallas), to show an example of how this escalated to such a vicious attacks on slaves and suspected abolitionists.

July 14, 1860

Most of the reported fires in question occurred on Sunday, July 8, in the hot afternoon. For a bit of perspective on the climate of Texas at the time, here’s the weather from the following weekly issue on July 14:

“During the past week the thermometer has been standing at 100 and 112 degrees. The weather continues to be very dry. The corn crops have been severely injured. Not more than half a crop will be made.”

Included in the same issue was a report on the burning of a store owned by A.M. Byers, located in what was then known as Mount Pisgah in Navarro County:

“We understand nothing was saved but a trunk and one of his books, which was considerably injured by the fire. It is not known how the fire originated, nor are we informed of the amount of loss sustained.”

Then comes the story on the fires in Dallas–one of the cities to receive the most damage. At first, the estimated amount of destruction totalled at $400,000 (no idea what that translates to today). The cause was thought to be “prairie matches” that either spontaneously combusted, or were chewed by rats first (poor rats). The writer stresses safety, admitting how “the slightest friction during warm weather is sufficient to ignite” the matches.

But in the very same column comes this:

P.S. Since writing the above, Mr. Steekpole, of Dallas, has brought the intelligence that thirty-three houses were destroyed by fire in Dallas, and the loss estimated at $500,000! It is now believed Abolition emissaries were the incendiaries, two of who are now pursued by a number of persons. May these satanic fanatics be caught, hung and quartered.

Less than a week after the fires, and the people have gone from “they were an accident” to “kill the satanic fanatic Abolitionists!”

The Navarro Express, 7-21-1860July 21, 1860

A week later, the Express relays reports of other fires across the state, still attributing them to abolitionist arsonists–though there was ever any evidence of such abolitionist activity, like the kind mentioned in the article to the right. Below I’ve mapped out some of the locations of supposed fires and attempted burnings, the worst of which were in Dallas and Denton. The locations are approximate. Some of these places no longer exist, and in the case of Dallas, I am unsure where the original town square was located. (Future field trip!)

When looking at this map, I try to wonder how we might react in the present to such a situation–and thinking of the recent Ebola panic, I know just how easy it is for people to get worked up, especially when the media frenzy begins. And I think that’s just what happened in 1860–a few accidents, the horrible heat and dry weather, a climate already predisposed to be fearful of slaves and abolitionists (thanks to recent events like the raid at Harper’s Ferry, and collective guilt), combined with irresponsible journalism–and panic naturally ensued.

But next week I’ll post about more the response to that panic–the vigilance committees, and how the “abolitionist plot” grew as more fabricated evidence was brought to light by these so-called journalists and vigilantes.

Sources for quotes and images:

  1. Modrall, N. P., Rev. and R. A. Van Horn, editors. The Navarro Express (Corsicana, Tex.), Vol. 1, No. 34, Ed. 1 Saturday, July 14, 1860, Newspaper, July 14, 1860; (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth179253/ : accessed February 24, 2015), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, Austin, Texas.
  2. Modrall, N. P., Rev. and R. A. Van Horn, editors. The Navarro Express (Corsicana, Tex.), Vol. 1, No. 35, Ed. 1 Saturday, July 21, 1860, Newspaper, July 21, 1860; (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth179254/ : accessed February 24, 2015), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, Austin, Texas.
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