History Presentation Connects Cultures of Maine and Early Texas

Photo: Lucy Parker Shaw was among the natives of Eastern Washington County that would migrate to Galveston, Texas, and subsequently play a major role in shaping the culture there. Shaw's story was presented on June 16th at the Holmestead by Professor James Valentino of Texas.

By Lura Jackson

Looking at a map, it may be difficult to immediately understand how the culture of Maine could have strongly influenced the development of the Gulf Coast of Texas almost two hundred years ago. However, as a presentation conducted by Professor James Valentino of Texas at the Holmestead on June 16th revealed, the connections are numerous and unmistakable. 

The presentation centered on the life of Lucy Parker Shaw, a woman from Eastport that moved with her Bath-born husband Joshua to Galveston, Texas in 1838. During the course of his graduate work in American History, Valentino uncovered over thirty letters written from Lucy to her mother in Eastport, and from that point his research into her and her family began. He would eventually write a book titled From Maine to Galveston, Republic of Texas: The Life and Letters of Lucy Parker Shaw.

“History is only slightly about the past,” Valentino said, prefacing the presentation with one of the most important points he has gleaned throughout his studies. “It’s mostly about the present. People in the past, if we tell the truth about it, have something to tell us about the present or our future.” He said that this is why history gets twisted so frequently. “They twist the history of the past to try to fit their vision of what they want the world to be or what they want the world to look like in the future. Historians are nearly all liars.” With that said, Valentino said that primary materials like the letters Lucy wrote enable a firsthand, untwisted perspective of life in a particular era.

Valentino illustrated numerous connections not only between Maine and Texas but with notable figures that played a role in both locations. Prior to arriving at the Holmestead, Valentino and his wife stayed at the Weston House in Eastport, which is where Lucy herself grew up. The Weston House maintains an “Audubon Room” on account of James Audubon staying there in the course of his adventures cataloguing the birds of America. In his journals, Audubon notes being entertained by the young Lucy, whom he described as “very gay”. He would play the violin while she played the piano; he would later will her one of his pianos.

The Shaws were among many families that left Maine in the 1830s. “My guess is they got out of Maine while the getting was good,” said Valentino. He described the economic challenges in the Northeast around the time, including the War of 1812 and the banking panic of 1837, each of which would have impacted husband Joshua’s wealth.

At the time, Texas was a free and independent place – it was not a state, despite its efforts to become one. The Northeast states had staunchly blocked its admission into the union to prevent the imbalance of free and slave states. Texas, therefore, was another country entirely: The Republic of Texas.

Galveston itself was the only natural port on the Texas coast, and at the time it was the largest settlement in Texas at between 2,000 and 3,000 souls. “There was rascality and criminality of all kinds,” said Valentino. Audubon himself traveled past Galveston and described the inhabitants as “indolent and reckless.” Men far outnumbered women and cattle, pigs, and dogs freely roamed the streets. Vigilante law prevailed.

At the time, trees didn’t grow on Galveston, which Lucy referred to as her “strange little island.” It was mostly sand, with some patches of prairie grass. Any trees that did grow wouldn’t last long due to being knocked over by hurricanes. One of the most famous landmarks in Galveston at the time was a place called “Three Trees” – notable, naturally, for hosting three trees in a single location.

When Lucy first arrived, she wrote to her mother that “the greatest want is not having a regular settled minister of our own.” When she landed there were no churches, just traveling evangelists that clearly felt their services were most in need in that part of the world. Later, Joshua would be one of the founding members of an Episcopalian church, as well as another church. The Shaws would attend the first baptism on the island, performed in the Gulf of Mexico. The person who was baptized was none other than Gail Borden, Jr., who would later go on to develop Borden’s Condensed Milk in 1853.  “They brought the idea of education, morals, and civic-mindedness to Galveston,” said Valentino of the Shaws. Joshua was industrious; he quickly joined the Galveston Wharves Board and explored the cotton compressing business. He and Lucy become involved in the local hotel business and were soon managers of the Tremont Hotel, the first largescale hotel in Galveston. Joshua was one of the first Aldermen of Galveston when it became incorporated in the city, and there is strong evidence that he named a street after his hometown. The street named 25th Street today was once called Bath Street. Lucy herself ran a school for girls that she personally organized, and later she would be an important figure in the local Temperance and Benevolent societies. After Lucy’s death of undocumented causes, Joshua would serve as harbormaster for the town and in the local militia. 

Lucy mentions at least ten different doctors, many of whom served as her personal physician. One of the doctors that Lucy mentions several times is Dr. Cyrus Hamlin, who was the second practicing doctor in Calais (based in the Holmes cottage) and the brother of Hannibal Hamlin, Abe Lincoln’s Vice President. Lucy was very fond of Dr. Hamlin and said he was a “competent physician” and a “very intelligent man”. Around the same time that Lucy left for Texas, Dr. Hamlin was involved in solving a mysterious crisis in Calais that caused the illness of many townsfolk; Hamlin would later confirm it to be lead poisoning originating in Barbados. Hamlin was unfortunately rather ill himself when he was visiting Lucy in Texas. She describes him as having bleeding of the lungs, which Valentino interprets as tuberculosis. Dr. Hamlin died in 1839, and with no minister to conduct the services, Gail Borden, Jr., performed the funeral rites.

Another interesting character that served as Lucy’s personal physician was Dr. Ashbel Smith. Smith is something of a Texas legend, having founded the University of Texas and Prairieview A. & M., the first black college in Texas, and having served as ambassador to France, among other duties. While Dr. Smith was with Lucy in Texas, the area was suffering from a yellow fever epidemic. At the time, it was believed that yellow fever was passed from human to human, a theory that Dr. Smith disagreed with. He was so certain that he exhumed nine bodies that had perished from the disease, cut open their stomachs, dipped his fingers into the bile in the intestines, and then put his fingers into his mouth. He told Lucy that if he were wrong, his experiment would kill him – but, evidently, he was correct. He did not pinpoint the cause of the disease as mosquitos, but he did advise the town to clear its garbage dump, which did happen to be producing a steady swarm of insects.

One of Lucy’s most significant personal contributions from Valentino’s perspective was her avid affinity for gardening. In most of her letters to her mother she requests to be sent plants; in Galveston itself she tries her hand at cultivating any kind of vegetable, ornamental flower, or fruit that may grow in the difficult soil. In doing so, “She was really changing the landscape of the barrier island,” said Valentino. “Today, it’s really a lush place. That’s because of people like Lucy that knew what could grow. It takes the hand of the gardener to keep that island.”

Valentino describes the Shaws’ legacy as “a formidable one” that contributed to the social, political, and cultural transformation of Texas. They themselves are also transformed by the new world they found themselves in, as Valentino illustrated with a story of one of their children.

Together, the Shaws had three children. One died at 9 months, which Lucy records in sorrowful detail; another, William, would go on to serve in the Confederate Navy. As an officer aboard the Tallahassee, he would raid up the northern coast, taking “prizes” along the way. One of the prizes taken was the Robert E. Packer out of Bath, helmed by Captain Joseph Marston. Marston, Valentino said, was probably William’s uncle. “You see where this whole Civil War is pretty messed up,” Valentino said. “It all got ironed out, I guess. I think, in some ways, it’s still ongoing.”

Valentino concluded his talk with an impression of the migration from New England to Texas that the Shaws were a part of. “It was people from one region who were taking their talents and ideas and mixing them with those of another, and actually improving the lot of all,” he said. “The ideas of New England of education, of civic mindedness, of community, were exactly what that city, Galveston, needed at that time, and the Shaws provided it. One of the oldest books of the region lists the Shaws as one of the families that Galveston now owes a debt to.”

If readers want to learn more about Valentino and his books, including the one about Lucy Parker Shaw, they should visit www.jamesvalentinobooks.com.