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Minerva Fannin - Casualty of Goliad

Often when giving tours after we've talked about Bob Bullock and Edward Burleson we walk between two gravestones to get back to the sidewalk, Barbara Jordan and Minerva Fannin. People ask about both. Barbara Jordan is easy to speak about, she's a hero to so many Texans usually people can tell me more about her than I can. She's a stop on the tour. Minerva Fannin is not. When people do notice her grave, it's because of the last name.

"Is that Colonel Fannin?" they usually ask.

Her last name is written much larger than her first so it's a good question if you don't know the history. Most of the time I say no, it's his daughter and we move on. It's not that she's not interesting, it's that it will be a long conversation and a sad story and usually by that time in the tour we're running late. Nothing about Goliad is happy, of course. There are big tragedies and little tragedies in the grand scheme of things, Goliad was a big tragedy and Minerva was a little tragedy.

The Goliad Massacre is pretty well documented, there’s no question about its role in Texas history. Up to 400 Texans were executed after surrendering to Mexican forces under General Jose de Urrea. The surrender was negotiated between Urrea and Colonel James Fannin. The surrender was given under the implied promise that the Texans would be deported to New Orleans and swear not to raise arms against Mexico. Santa Anna effectively countermanded the order and ordered the prisoners to be treated as pirates and summarily executed. Urrea was gone from Goliad and a junior officer carried out the orders the next day. The unwounded Texans were led out of the mission in three groups and at a predetermined signal, their guards shot them. The survivors were pursued and bayoneted or shot. Fannin, who was wounded and held in the mission with up to 90 other wounded soldiers, of course didn’t know of this. Later he and the other wounded were executed inside the mission. It’s an ugly little piece of Texas history and Fannin takes the blame as an incompetent commander by some historians for being captured in the first place. However or whoever takes the blame, the event was probably fortunate for Texas as a whole. After the Alamo and Goliad, Santa Anna was turned into a villain in the United States and as far away as France and Great Britain, lending sympathy to the Texan cause. Not even a month after the massacre, the Texans won the Battle of San Jacinto and events moved on.

Amidst the big history and the big tragedy, the little ones are often overlooked and forgotten. That was the fate of Minerva Fannin, eldest daughter of James and Minerva Fort Fannin. After James Fannin (pictured right)died, his surviving family lived in Velasco with William H. Jack, a community leader and future republic congressman. Just a little more than a year after James Fannin died, the girls, who were seven and four at the time, lost their mother to yellow fever. Velasco was in Brazoria County and as a warm coastal area; it was prone to yellow fever outbreaks. Thomas F. McKinney, another community leader in Velasco, took in the two Fannin daughters after their mother died. By all accounts, the youngest daughter, Pinckney, was “beautiful and well-educated,” according to Margaret Swett Henson, author of McKinney Falls: The Ranch Home of Thomas F. McKinney, Pioneer Texas Entrepreneur. In 1847, the beautiful and well-educated Pinckney died of yellow fever and Minerva was left alone. This in itself could be considered tragic, but Minerva Fannin’s life was made harder because she was mentally handicapped. The exact nature of her ailment is unknown, words like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or depression or even epilepsy were not commonly known or hadn't been invented yet and Minerva was called “mentally feeble" in many of the public documents concerning her. She’d been suffering from whatever it was since birth, according to several sources. Whether that could have been epileptic seizures or something else will never be known. McKinney put a slave in charge of Minerva for the next 15 years after her sister died. In 1861, the State Lunatic Asylum (now the Austin State Hospital) opened and Minerva was one of the first women to be interred there in 1862.

For the next 30 years she was a patient and ward of the state. An act of the legislature had her committed in 1862 and she lived out the rest of her life there. There is practically no other record of her until she dies. What would living in an asylum in the mid- to late-1800’s have been like? Surprisingly, it wouldn’t have been so bad in the beginning. Model asylums from Europe treated people much like they treat them today, compassionately with freedom to walk around and speak with doctors and try to make their lives better. The ideal situation only lasted a short time in most state asylums; by the end of the 19th Century asylum populations in America had skyrocketed 927 percent. Historians of psychology attribute the huge mushroom of patients to a variety of things, the Industrial Revolution and the resulting population spike being one and lack of other social services being another. Regardless, the quality of care suffered in a general sense, of course I cannot speak to the conditions of the Austin State Hospital, it may have been the ideal asylum. However, elsewhere, asylums were little better than prisons, more about being custodians than caregivers because of the massive overcrowding. The same problem happened in France and in England, massive overcrowding.

Minerva died in 1893 and the Daughters of the Texas Revolution saw to it that she was buried at the State Cemetery and a proper monument was put on her grave. We don’t know many of the details of her later life, but hopefully there was enough good in it to balance out the tragedy of her childhood.


 -Will Erwin