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[detail] Edward Linn, Plan of the City of Calhoun, ca. 1839, Map #2175, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Port of No Call — the Failed Town of Calhoun, TX

Settlements and towns can form in different ways — some form organically, as groups of people gradually coalesce into a community; however, sometimes a town is created to address a need. Such was the case on January 21, 1839, when the Texas Congress passed an act to facilitate the survey and sale of lots in a new town called Calhoun, to be established as a commercial seaport and customs station on the East end of Matagorda Island. While Calhoun only survived a short time, a record of the planning of the town remains at the Texas General Land Office.[1]

During the early years of the Republic of Texas, the lands bordering Matagorda Bay were sparsely populated. The town of Matagorda, situated at the mouth of the Colorado River, was the largest settlement on the Bay with a population of about 1400.[2]

Close-up of the cartouche showing the deconstructed águila y nopal.

Unfortunately, a sand bar created by silt deposited just outside of the mouth of the river prevented deepwater ships from approaching within four miles of Matagorda. As a result, cargo had to be offloaded onto smaller vessels and then transported to Matagorda for import into the Republic of Texas. This inefficiency coupled with a desire to increase the immigration of settlers to “Western Texas” demonstrated a pressing need for a deep-water port on Matagorda Bay.[3] The impending relocation of the capital of the Republic from Houston to Austin, on the Texas frontier, further increased the importance of access to the Colorado River.

Inset detailing Matagorda and La Baca (Lavaca) Bays.

The site of Calhoun was established on the northeastern tip of Matagorda Island, opposite Pelican Island, facing the Gulf of Mexico and overlooking Pass Cavallo, the main entry into Matagorda Bay from the Gulf. Edward Linn, the County Surveyor for Victoria County, drew the plat of the new city.[4] As specified by the act, the town was to cover 640 acres (one square mile) and Edward Linn envisioned and formulated a configuration of 173 city blocks each divided into multiple lots for sale to the public.[5] With the new town now laid out on paper, the secretary of the treasury was instructed by the act to advertise the sale of these lots “in all the newspapers published in this Republic, and also in at least three published in the city of New Orleans.”[6]

The public reaction to the sale of the Calhoun town lots was less than enthusiastic, resulting in very few sales. Development continued, however; in 1842, Alexander Somervell[7] was appointed as customs collector at Calhoun, and by January of 1843, Congress passed an act appropriating $1000 for the “defense of the pass into Matagorda Bay” as fears of a Mexican invasion permeated throughout the Republic. Fort Washington was established near this location around 1842.[8]

1839 detail of Matagorda Bay showing Matagorda, Calhoun, and Passo Cavallo. [13]

By 1844, it was clear that the site of Calhoun was an ineffective choice for a commercial seaport. Matagorda Island was only accessible by boat and lacked a natural, protected harbor. Additionally, the swift currents of Pass Cavallo made mooring large ships very difficult.[9] Town lots continued to sell poorly, and the town was only kept economically viable by the headquarters for the customs collector. In February of 1844, the Texas Congress admitted the venture was a failure and passed an act ordering the removal of the custom house “from Port Calhoun to Port Caballo” across Pass Cavallo on the tip of Matagorda Peninsula.[10] By 1845, the town no longer existed.

Edward Linn’s original plat of the town survives in the Archives of the General Land Office. The map is spectacular, measuring approximately 49.7” (149.6 cm) x 58.9” (126.2 cm), and clearly shows the ambitious plan for all 173 city blocks and their constituent lots. The town is laid out in a standard grid system with north-south streets named after famous Texans and east-west streets named after trees. Four churches — Methodist, Protestant, Catholic, and Presbyterian — are spread throughout the town and two city blocks towards the middle of the town are designated public squares. A fort is shown in the southeastern corner of the grid facing Pass Cavallo[11] and a Fish Market is shown on the east side fronting “Prudencio’s Bayou.” Male and Female schools are also noted.

1843 detail of Matagorda Bay showing both Calhoun, on Matagorda Island and Port Cavallo, on Matagorda Peninsula, which replaced Calhoun. [14]

The cartouche is the artistic highlight of the map. As this plat was drawn not long after the War of Independence from Mexico, Linn chose to showcase the title, Plan of the City of Calhoun, in a ribbon, wrapped around a star that has disrupted el águila y nopal,[12] a ubiquitous symbol used frequently by the Mexican government. This symbolism speaks for itself and reflects the emotion in the nascent Republic.

Although the town of Calhoun only existed for five years, Linn’s map endures as a reminder of the economic difficulties felt in the Republic of Texas. The Plan of the City of Calhoun can be viewed online, and reproductions may be purchased through the GLO map store.

[1] Hans Peter Mareus Neilsen Gammel, The Laws of Texas, 1822–1897, Volume 2 (Austin: The Gammel Book Company, 1898).

[2] Diana J. Kleiner, “Matagorda, TX”, Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 3, 2016, https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/hlm35

[3] During this time period, “Western Texas” referred to anything west of the Colorado River. Brownson Malsch, Indianola, The Mother of Western Texas (Austin: State House Press, 1988)

[4] Edward Linn was the brother of famous early Texian settler and merchant John Joseph Linn, founder of Linnville. Matagorda Island was part of Victoria County until 1846.

[5] Edward Linn, Plan of the City of Calhoun, ca. 1839, Map #2175, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX

[6] Hans Peter Mareus Neilsen Gammel, The Laws of Texas, 1822–1897, Volume 2 (Austin: The Gammel Book Company, 1898).

[7] Alexander Somervell was a veteran of the Texas Revolution, including the Battle of San Jacinto, as well as a two-term Senator representing Colorado and Austin Counties. He was awarded the post of customs collector as a reward for his service during the Somervell Expedition, which included raids into the Mexican towns of Laredo and Guerrero. Robert E. Cunningham, “Somervell, Alexander”, Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 3, 2016, https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fso04

[8] Hans Peter Mareus Neilsen Gammel, The Laws of Texas, 1822–1897, Volume 2 (Austin: The Gammel Book Company, 1898); Brownson Malsch, Indianola, The Mother of Western Texas (Austin: State House Press, 1988); J. Barto Arnold III, “Fort Esperanza”, Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 3, 2016, https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/qcf02

[9] Brownson Malsch, Indianola, The Mother of Western Texas (Austin: State House Press, 1988).

[10] Hans Peter Mareus Neilsen Gammel, The Laws of Texas, 1822–1897, Volume 2 (Austin: The Gammel Book Company, 1898).

[11] Likely a foreshadowing of Fort Washington which would eventually be established in 1842 to guard Pass Cavallo.

[12] Eagle and cactus

[13] Richard S. Hunt, Jesse F. Randel, Map of Texas, compiled from surveys on record in the General Land Office of the Republic, New York: J.H. Colton, 1839, Map #93858, Holcomb Digital Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[14] John Arrowsmith, Map of Texas, compiled from surveys recorded in the Land Office of Texas, London, 1843, Map #93863, Holcomb Digital Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

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Articles from the Texas General Land Office Save Texas History Program

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