On February 2, 1866, the Jewish pioneer, nurse and philanthropist Rosanna Dyer Osterman perished, when the steamboat she was a passenger on suffered an explosion and went down while plying the Mississippi River.
Rosanna Dyer was born on February 16, 1809, in Mayene, Germany. Her parents, John M. and Isabella Dyer, immigrated with her and her siblings to the United States three years later. In 1825, she married the merchant and silversmith Joseph Osterman, who had been born in 1799 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and had immigrated to the United States in 1819, settling in Baltimore.
In 1837, Joseph Osterman headed to Texas, which had become an independent republic the year before (it gained statehood in 1845), and where two of Rosanna’s brothers had already settled. Rosanna joined him there in 1838. From a store set up in a tent, Joseph, together with Rosanna, went on to run a highly successful general store and import-export business.
The couple, along with Rosanna’s brothers, Isadore and Leon, became leading citizens of Galveston in general, and the city’s nascent Jewish community. Rosanna is credited with bringing the first rabbi to Galveston, in 1852, and helping establish a Jewish cemetery – the first one in Texas - that same year.
With training as a nurse, Rosanna Osterman played an important role in caring for victims of successive yellow-fever epidemics, beginning in 1853, opening the family home to the sick. She played a similar role the following decade during the Civil War, operating a field hospital for wounded soldiers of both the Union and Confederate armies.
During the war, Galveston, a port city set on a barrier island, was a strategic asset fought over by the two armies. It was briefly occupied by the North in late 1852, and then regained by the rebels in January 1863, in part thanks to Rosanna Osterman.
Osterman was one of the few residents of Galveston to remain in the city, maintaining her infirmary, when it was in Union hands and its port blockaded. While caring for a Union soldier, she is said to have learned that the northern forces had learned from a runaway slave of a Confederate plan to retake the city on January 12, 1863. She passed the intelligence on to the Confederate commander in Houston, Texas, and the Southern army moved up its attack to January 1, the date of the Second Battle of Galveston.
Joseph Osterman, who had done so well in his business that he was able to retire in 1842, died in 1861 from a shooting accident.
In the early hours of February 2, 1866, Rosanna Osterman lost her life, when the Mississippi River steamboat W.R. Carter exploded, near Vicksburg, Mississippi, with 200 people aboard. The Carter was one of a half-dozen steamboats belonging to the Atlantic and Mississippi Steamship Company that were lost in similar circumstances during a relatively short period. But as the Cincinnati Enquirer reported a short time after the destruction of the Carter, “The horrible suspicion that these six steamboats had been sacrificed for the sake of the insurance was happily refuted by the fact that this company had no insurance on any of its boats.”
Osterman’s body was transferred downriver to New Orleans, and she was buried in the Dispersed of Judah Cemetery there, where Joseph’s remains were also reinterred.
Rosanna Dyer Osterman left an estate of more than $204,000, and as she and Joseph had had no children, all of the money went to philanthropic causes, both in Galveston and nationally. In her city, the estate helped establish non-denominational homes for widows, orphans and sailors. It was also used to build synagogues in both Galveston and Houston, and for a number of other Jewish charities in other cities.