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Celebrating New Years
in 19th Century Texas

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Long before Galveston had a well-deserved reputation as a party town, French buccaneers under Jean Lafitte celebrated the arrival of 1819 on the sparsely populated island by imbibing numerous tankards of potent punch. But that wasn’t all.

Their muse stimulated by ample servings of a holiday grog consisting of rum diluted with slightly muddy water and made zestier with molasses-flavored brown sugar, lime from Jamaica, spices and a pinch or two of red pepper, the pirates enjoyed what today would be called a roast. (The non-edible kind.)

On New Year’s Day, the more literate of the cutthroats waxed poetic in the written lampooning of their comrade-in-arms. Though hard to imagine an assemblage of hung-over, sword-toting, not-so-Jolly-Rogers dipping their quills to spoof their shipmates, a story by Dr. J.O. Dyer published in the Dec. 26, 1920 Galveston News outlined the swashbuckler’s celebration.

“The playing of tricks and pranks was common enough in the old pioneer days,” Dyer wrote, “but on New Year's Day the camp of Lafitte resounded with the hoarse laughs and shouts that accompany ‘horseplay’ among the vulgar and ignorant.”

Rather than forcing anyone to walk the plank, their piratical pranking took a decided literary bent, with those who could read and write resorting to “their wits and their pens (a quill feather of a bird shaped into a pen point and usually blood for ink) to satire or ridicule their companions…”

Dyer said the pirates stood in a circle to take turns reading their good-natured digs. In the modern vernacular, the patch-wearing “aarrgggh” set enjoyed something of a gridiron show, indulging in a mutual roast.

“French was the written and spoken language of the camp, and generally understood,” Dyer continued, “but a patois…of French, English, Portuguese and Spanish was the more often used, and incorrectly at that.”

Somehow, one of the buccaneers’ New Year's “bouquets” survived into the 20th century, preserved for posterity by Dyer:

En voila jo ami le boeuf,
Ilne Jamais argent eneuf,
Et quand desiro demand l'oeuf,
Tout suite esta dumb and deaf.

In English:

Here comes your friendly Le Boeuf,
Never has money enough,
And when you strike him for an oeuf,
He becomes at once dumb and deaf.

(“Oeuf" is French for “egg,” but 19th century slang for “loan,” both being rather fragile constructions.)

Within a few years, Lafitte had been ousted from Texas and Stephen F. Austin had received permission from the Mexican government to develop a colony. As Dr. Eugene C. Barker pointed out in his biography of Austin, the first day of 1822 had an impact on the Texas map.

In December 1821, returning to Texas from New Orleans, Austin found that 50 or so families had already moved onto his land. The early arrivers had begun a settlement at the La Bahia Road crossing of the Colorado, near present Columbus. On Jan. 1, 1822, about 10 miles west of the Brazos, some of the colonists established another community on a stream they named New Year’s Creek.

Austin’s cousin, Mary Austin Holley, later described a New Year observance early in the Republic of Texas period:

Jany 1. 38--May you all be happy this bright New Years day my beloved children. We had a gay supper last night, & danced in the new year, though, being Sunday we did not dance out the old. A few young persons…among them 2 young gentlemen excellent singers & musicians on guitar, flute, violin, & Accordian. . . . After retiring they serenaded us with those instruments combined--& vocal solos. Very sweet musick. It lasted till near the time the birds commenced their morning concert.

Holiday bowl games not having been invented yet, Texans in the 1880s marked the New Year by visiting. “New Year calls are in order, and a number of ladies kept open house from 5 to 11 p.m.,” the Marshall correspondent for the Dallas Morning News reported in 1887.

San Antonio newspaper readers had an interesting year-end story to ponder in January 1889. It had to do with an old grandfather clock in the home of city alderman J.C. Richey.

“At exactly 12 o’clock on New Year’s eve,” the Dallas Morning News later reported, “at the very second which marks the death of the old and the beginning of the new year, [the large, eight-day clock] stopped and all efforts to induce it to run have been unavailing. It ceased work without apparent cause and has evidently determined to remain idle so long as it holds together.”

By the end of the 19th century, many Texans referred to New Year’s Eve as “watch night.”

The more pious gathered in churches for “watch night” services, while others tossed down drinks and thought of ways to add to the cacophony when the clock struck twelve.

In Denton as 1899 became 1900, the Dallas daily reported that “horns were blown, whistles tooted, pistols and guns shot, yells given and nearly all the bells in the city rung, the whole conspiring to make a most hideous uproar and sleep impossible.”

Farther east, in Lamar County:
“The New Year was ushered in…by the ringing of church bells, screeching of whistles and the explosion of a few giant [fire] crackers. Very few business houses were closed during the day, however, and the bill collectors made their usual rounds.”

Some things don’t change.

© Mike Cox December 23, 2014 column
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