Rosanna Dyer Osterman
1809 – 1866
One of Texas’s earliest benefactors was German-born Rosanna Dyer Osterman. Born February 26, 1809, she married Joseph Osterman in Baltimore in 1825 and moved to Galveston, Texas, in 1838. Together, the couple operated a general mercantile and import business. Osterman was instrumental in the founding of the first Jewish community in Texas. She brought the first rabbi to Texas in 1852 to consecrate the state’s first Jewish cemetery, and the first-known Jewish service in the state was held at the home of her brother Isadore Dyer in 1856.
Osterman was known throughout Galveston Island for her talent, energy, and generosity. In one famous instance, she gave her recipe for meat biscuits to Gail Borden, a family friend. Her biscuit, which allowed travelers on the frontier to carry a nonperishable food item, was made from dried, powdered buffalo meat, beans, and cornmeal, ingredients Osterman obtained from trading with the Comanche Indians. Her husband financed Gail Borden’s experiments to perfect the biscuit, which led to Borden’s most important discovery—condensed milk.
During the 1853 Galveston yellow fever epidemic, Osterman’s abilities as a nurse became well known. She set up tents on the grounds of her home to care for the sick and dying. During the Civil War, Galveston was occupied by the Union army. Most residents fled the island, but Osterman, by now a widow, remained. She turned her home into a hospital where she cared for Union soldiers and later for Confederate soldiers. Carpets became slippers and sheets became bandages.
According to a popular story, Osterman helped the Confederates retake the island. She learned from a wounded Union soldier that the Confederates’ plans to retake the island on January 12, 1863, had been revealed to the Union troops by a runaway slave. Osterman alerted the Confederate general in Houston, who moved his attack to January 1. Galveston once again became a Confederate port.
Rosanna Dyer Osterman died in the explosion of a Mississippi River steamboat in 1866. She left her considerable fortune to charities around the United States. At her death, a local newspaper stated that the history of Rosanna Osterman was more eloquently written in the untold charities that had been helped by her liberal hands than in any eulogy a person could bestow.
Fornell, Earl Wesley. The Galveston Era: The Texas Crescent on the Eve of Secession (1961); Hewitt, W. Phil, researcher. The Jewish Texans (1974); Ornish, Natalie. Pioneer Jewish Texans: Their Impact on Texas and American History for Four Hundred Years, 1590–1990 (1989); Osterman, Rosanna. Papers. Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Tex., and Texas Jewish Archives. Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas, Austin; UJE, s.v. “Dyer, Isadore”; Winegarten, Ruthe, and Cathy Schechter. Deep in the Heart: The Lives and Legends of Texas Jews (1990).