Many interesting people have graced our Southeast Texas history, but few could ever match the fearlessness and sheer determination of a four-foot ten-inch Irishwoman named Kate Magill Dorman.
Kate arrived in Southeast Texas in the year 1851. Although most historians believe her to have lived in Sabine as early as 1847, census records in her home state of Georgia show both Kate and her husband, Arthur Magill, were still living there as late as 1850.
In 1852, Kate and her husband built the Catfish hotel. It was a two-story dwelling located about three hundred yards from Fort Griffin. The hotel housed around two dozen permanent residents, along with the standard passing trade comprising merchants and seamen.
The hotel had a wharf where steamers would dock regularly to indulge in the fare at the Catfish hotel’s well-known and popular eatery. During the civil war, one patron, a certain William Berry Duncan (Confederate Officer, Liberty County Sheriff, and cattleman) wrote that he made frequent visits to the hotel, sometimes leaving his post at Grigsby’s Bluff, to dine and enjoy what he called “some tolerable good music.”
On November 2, 1859 tragedy struck. Arthur Magill, by then the chief engineer on the T.J. Smith, a Neches River mail packet, was killed when its boiler exploded. This left Kate alone to care for their two young daughters. Kate would later sue the Captain H.C. Smith, the owner of the T.J.Smith, for her deceased husband’s wages. This would be one of many legal confrontations between the two.
H.C. Smith wasn’t the only thorn in Kate’s side. One day a woman nicknamed “Dutch Margaret” entered the Catfish Hotel while Kate was serving meals. Dutch Margaret proceeded to vilify and yell obscenities at Kate in front of all the diners. Kate immediately retaliated with her own set of obscenities before resuming her duties. Unbeknownst to Kate, three of her friends met Dutch Margaret on the street, and caned her with a parasol(Umbrella).
Dutch Margaret filed a lawsuit on the grounds she had suffered a miscarriage from the caning. The plantiff’s attorney H.C. Pedigo, questioned the legality of a juror named Will J. Collins, and the claim that he had actually lived in Jefferson County. This resulted in the first survey of West Jefferson County line. The case was postponed until Mr. Collins’ legitimacy as a county resident was verified, but it was eventually thrown out. Dutch Margaret gave birth to a son three months later.
In 1860 Kate married a widowed friend of her deceased husband. His name was Captain John Dorman, and he was the master of the Neches River cotton steamer Doctor Massie.
In July of 1862, the yellow fever epidemic hit Sabine thanks to a vessel which ran the blockade put in place by the Federals. At least one thousand people deserted the area afraid of what was known as the “Yellow Jack”. The fever killed a hundred people in Sabine and Beaumont combined forty of which were Confederate soldiers.
With the tenants of the Catfish Hotel fleeing and nearly everyone else in Sabine escaping the dreaded disease, Kate stood strong. With no regard for her own health, Kate, along with her two friends, Sarah Vosburg and Sarah Ann King, made the hotel into a makeshift hospital to care for the sick and dying.
In October of the same year, 50 Federal troops came ashore in Sabine with a howitzer. They were on their way to burn the Confederate cavalry barracks. While marching through Sabine, they confiscated Capt. Dorman’s horse and cart in order to mount the howitzer on it.
While witnessing this, Kate’s Irish temper boiled. Again, without regard for the consequences, she began shaking her fist in the air and scolding the Federal invaders, telling them she hoped the Confederate boys would kill every last one of them before they got back and, if she had 25 men, she could take out Federals and their cannon herself.
After the Federals had burned down the Confederate barracks and stable, they marched through Sabine again, this time however, returning Capt. Dorman’s horse and cart with a word of warning, that if he did not keep his “damn wife’s mouth shut,” they would hang him. Futhermore, if she did not apologize to them, they would burn the hotel. Kate declared she would see them in Hell first, and they could set fire to it if they so chose.
A week later, the Federals sent another patrol ashore. This time, they burned a quarter of the town, including a sawmill, and some residences, but left the Catfish Hotel untouched.
On September 8th, 1863, the Federals attempted another invasion of Sabine. The town and 47 Irish defenders station at Fort Griffin came under heavy shelling from the 18-gun armada. However, Kate and friend Sarah Vosburg, who had been preparing hot meals of meat, doughnuts, and coffee, braved the gunnery shells and loaded the same horse and cart that only a year before had been confiscated by the Federals and used against the Confederate troops. Kate and Sarah rode to the fort then unloaded their food, together with a gallon of whiskey to the Irish defenders.
Eventually, under the direction of 26 year-old Lt. Dick Dowling, the invasion was squashed courtesy of the cannoneers’ deadly accuracy. Three hundred prisoners were taken along with two gunboats. The casualties at Fort Griffin? Zero.
Not much is known about the feisty lady after her participation in the Battle of Sabine Pass. However, we do know that Kate and John Dorman lived out their lives in Sabine. The Captain died in 1886, three months before a major hurricane hit on October 12 and destroyed the whole town. Unsurprisingly, Kate survived the hurricane and lived until December 24, 1897. Both she and her captain are buried side by side in the Sabine Pass cemetery. A plaque was erected in her honor, at the head of her grave, acknowledging her part in our rich Southeast Texas history.