Always changing, forever unchanging.  The face of a natural barrier Island.


The Padre's Island

Padre Island has never once been tamed.  Never.  To this day, it remains the longest undeveloped barrier Island in the United States and at 113 miles and 130,434 acres that are totally Federally protected by National Seashore status, it shall remain that way.  There remains no cell phone coverage in most areas, no roads other than the beachfront, and no fuel, water, or help.  But that doesn't mean it was never inhabited.  Quite the contrary, in fact.  Sea level was much lower 6000 years ago during Wisconsin times.  As the glaciers melted and sea level rose around 3,000 BC, a series of offshore islands formed which would eventually become Padre around 2,000 BC.  Archaic Indian cultures soon visited the Island followed by Neo-American cultures.  These were known as the Karankawan and Coahuiltecan groups.  Little is known about them, but the one thing that is certain is their tribes completely disappeared from existence by the time of the Mexican War in 1846.  It is rumored that disease and eradication by the early settlers led to their demise, but the last known male members of the tribe were said to have fled to Padre, murdered their women and children there, and fled to Mexico.  Another account has them finally ending their own lives, thereby eradicating all trace of their culture. 

The "conquistador" of Padre Island would likely be one Alonso Avarez de Pineda, who in 1519 mapped an Island he called "Isla Blanca" during his search along the Gulf coastline searching for the mythical Strait of Anian.  Pineda was followed by Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish explorer and member of the doomed Narvaez expedition.  One of only four survivors, de Vaca was shipwrecked on Galveston Island and promptly enslaved by the Karankawa Indians there.  After 8 years of slavery, de Vaca escaped and made it to civilization in present day Mexico with tales of a fantastic Indian city of gold and emeralds named the Seven Cities of Cibola.  In 1540, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto began his wandering journey through North America, but died in May of 1542.  Captain Luis de Moscoso took over, and built rafts to float down the Mississippi and reach civilization again.  Upon reaching the Gulf of Mexico, the expedition of Moscoso sailed along the Gulf coastline, stopping frequently for food and water.  It is almost certain that they stopped several times on Padre on their successful trip to civilization in Tampico.  However, they did not find any trace of the famed Seven Cities of Cibola. 

In 1554, the most famous tragedy of Padre occurred.  Called the "Flight of the 300," it was nothing short of a disaster, and a major financial loss for Spain's already stretched royal coffers.  Spain having firmly established a presence in "New Spain," (Mexico), mines were established to feed the ever growing appetite of the King's coffers.  The galleons filled their holds with gold and silver and in September of 1553, a 15 to 20 boat fleet left Vera Cruz totally loaded down with gold, silver, and passengers all destined to return to Spain.  After a customary stop for supplies in Havana, the fleet left for the open Atlantic and was almost immediately hit by a storm of hurricane force strength.  Of a total convoy of 20 ships, only several survived and the rest sank at sea or on shore.  Three of those, the San Esteban, Espiritu de Santo, nd the Santa Maria de Yciar were sunk on the shores of Padre.  300 survivors gathered on the beach only to be struck down by attacking Karankawa Indians on their long walk back to Tampico.  Only two survived of the 300, and possibly only one, according to differing accounts.  Either way, such tales of an unhospitable coastline and hostile Indian inhabitants dampened Spain's desire to settle the area of the Texas coast for another 100 years.  It was left to the Indians for the time being.

In June 1766, upon hearing reports of English encroachment west of the Mississippi, a particularly alarming rumor of an English fort built on Isla Blanca reached the viceroy.  Jose de la Garza Falcon was sent with 25 men and Indian guides to Isla Blanca to search for any sign of the English.  Seeing no sign, the matter was laid to rest.  Until September, when reports circulated that Indians had seen foreign ships in the area.  Don Diego Ortiz Parrilla was assigned to go search the Island, and left on September 13, 1766.  By September 22 he and his men had marched the entire island and found no sign.  He reported that "We saw that on the beach of the said Island were some broken canoes, one broken down Bongo, part of a ship that had a capacity for ten or sixteen canons, and which we set on fire, but from the whole Island we did not see any ship sailing out, nor anchored."  Isla Blanca/Isla de Malaquittas became the Isla de Corpus Christi, as Parrilla had renamed the "Bay of San Arcangel" the Corpus Christi Bay.

By 1805, a priest named Padre Nicolas Balli applied for and received a grant to the Isla de Corpus Christi from the crown.  The first cattle taken to Padre were likely taken in 1805, beginning a 166 year time period during which the Island would be used as a cattle ranch.  Padre Balli set up a ranch 24 miles from the south end of the Island, called Santa Cruz de Buena Vista.  By 1811 he had around 1,000 head of cattle on the Island, not a large operation compared to mainland standards of the time.  In 1828, the island was surveyed again by Don Domingo de la Fuente as a result of legalities brought about by the Mexican revolution.  His survey party found Indian camp sites on the Island but noted that they were unoccupied as it was the winter month of February. 

By 1836, Texas won its independence from Mexico and both sides claimed the disputed "Nueces Strip," from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande.  This included Padre Island.  But the closest the war came to Padre's shores was when a Mexican agent stationed at Matagorda Bay was forced to flee his post and escape back to Mexico alone via the shores of Padre Island.  In 1839, Americans arrived for the first time in the Padre Island area as Henry Kinney set up a trading post on the Corpus Christi bay, strategically located right on the de facto border.  In 1841, Philip Dimitt and two others set up a trading post in Flour Bluff at the head of Padre Island.  Smuggled goods most certainly were transported south down Padre's hard packed sands during ideal conditions.  The Island's beachfront became known as the "Smuggler's Road."

Finally, the United States sent General Zachary Taylor to establish and enforce a border all the way to the Rio Grande River following Texas' annexation into the Union in July of 1845.  Encamped in Corpus Christi, he sent Captain Hardee to reconnoiter Padre as a possible route to the Rio Grande.  Through Hardee's written correspondence with his superiors, we learn that the Island was deserted except for "three Mexicans and an American at Mr. Eilly's."  In May of 1846, Samuel Reid and the rest of a volunteer Texas group called McCulloch's Texas Rangers, traveled down Padre to meet up with Taylor's army in Matamoros.  Through the diary and later writings of Samuel Reid, we learn that "The Laguna Madre, an arm of the sea which separates the island from the main, is here about five miles wide, and it really looks like going to sea on horseback when you wade off from the land, and direct your course for the dimly seen shores of the island.  The waves beat up against our horses sides and it was only with much difficulty that we could preserve our firearms from contact with the salt water.  The island is uninhabited save by one old man, who follows the business of a wrecker, and lives not far from Point Isabel, in a wild looking place, which he calls, after himself, "Tilley's Camp."  Never were a set of men or horses more heartily tired of any one portion of this Earth's surface, than we and our steeds were of Padre's Island.  On all sides is to be seen sand hillocks and sand wastes; and, taken altogether, it is one of the most gloomy and desolate looking places which it has ever been our bad fortune to visit.  It seemed to be a long slice from the western coast of the desert of Sahara, detached by some convulsion of nature, and floated over and anchored on the eastern shore of Mexico.  How any human being could ever voluntarily choose it as a place of residence, we cannot conceive.  Yet old "Uncle Tilley" lives there, and employs himself in gathering wrecks of cargoes with which the beach is strewn, seeming perfectly happy in his loneliness, the undisputed lord of this desert isle." 

The war ended, and in 1847 John V. Singer, brother of the inventor of the Singer sewing machine, was shipwrecked on Padre with his wife.  He liked it so much that he, his wife, and their six children stayed.  They raised cattle, beachcombed, and worked as wreckers on the various shipwrecks that came ashore.  The Singer ranch is surmised to have been in Padre Balli's original location for the Santa Cruz de Buena Vista Ranch.  At the onset of the Civil War, the Yankee and Union sympathizing Singer's were forced to flee the Confederate dominated territory, but not before reportedly burying as much as $80,000 in gold and jewels found in various shipwrecks on the Island.  No one has ever found this treasure, and today this ranch is called the "Lost City."

In the following years, the population of Corpus Christi grew, and many were engaged as wreckers working for the county, gathering the cargo from wrecked ships and selling them at auction, with proceeds going to the ship owners.  Some wreckers were less than legitimate however, and slowly led donkeys on a weaving and bobbing path down Padre's dark shores at night with a light affixed to a tall pole on the animal's back, to lure ships towards the shore thinking they were seeing another vessel bobbing up and down on the swell in a safe anchorage.  Once firmly stuck in Padre's surf, the wreckers moved in and snatched what cargo they could, leaving many a captain in shock. 

In December of 1862, the Civil War touched down upon Padre's shores.  A minor skirmish occurred at Corpus Christi Pass in which Confederate soldiers on the Padre side captured two Union launches, leaving 22 Union soldiers unable to return to their ship at anchor offshore.  Union soldiers also patrolled Padre as part of a larger effort of blockading the South, including Corpus Christi and Flour Bluff.  The Curry settlement, 20 miles south of Corpus Christi Pass on the Laguna side, was a popular stopover for Union troops to get a bite to eat.  The settlement was named after Mr. Curry himself, who was not only a minister but a homesteader and rancher.  The settlement reportedly never grew larger than 20 odd individuals and eventually completely disappeared from the pages of history with no trace to it's demise.

By 1876, R.E. Halter of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey came to Padre to survey the coast from Brazos Island to Aransas Pass.  None of the Island had ever been mapped before.  Together with a team of 4 to 6 men, he moved around up and down the Island making observations and setting marks for several months every year.  Halter remarked that his "nearest neighbors were a family living twenty miles down the Island and an old hermit living in a hovel without even a dog.  I have had to purchase a rifle for protection against coyotes, wolves, and panthers, which have become more plentiful as we go down the Island."  In 1878, he said, "This is a very desolate place.  There is no one living within forty miles of me that I know of.  Even the sea is particularly lonesome.  We do have plenty of sand, rattlesnakes, and coyotes."

In 1879, Patrick Dunn, the son of Irish immigrants came to Padre.  With the advent of fencing, free range cattle was all but over.  He saw the Island as a natural place to run cattle on, as the sea and bay were the natural fences.  He did well, and by 1926 had purchased most of the Island.  He established line camps every fifteen miles, which was about the distance the Island's cattle could be driven in one day's time.  Each camp had an outdoor kitchen, bunkhouse, traps, pens, and a well.  He built as many as 75 water "tanks" on the Island, which trapped seep water for the cattle to drink.  Two times a year there would be a cattle roundup, usually in the fall and spring.  Vaqueros were hired to help, but the Dunn ranch was run from the mainland as an absentee ranch due to the storms that could hit at any time on the Island, causing massive loss to life, limb, and property.

On February 1, 1926 Pat Dunn sold Padre Island to Sam A. Robertson for $125,000.  He retained mineral and grazing rights.  He never thought any development would come from it, but he was incorrect.  In his own words, Padre was "The greatest cattle ranch in the world."  In 1927, Robertson constructed the first causeway between Flour Bluff and the northern end of Padre.  He called it the Don Patricio Causeway after Pat Dunn.  He also built a telephone line down the entire island which connected a hotel and five houses that he built on the southern end of the island with one on the north end.  Ferries began operating at both ends of the island.  When the depression struck in 1929, Robertson could no longer make his payments and it became apparent that his idea of the "Miami Beach of Texas" was no longer feasible.   In 1933, a hurricane blew every structure he had built away, including the causeway. 

In the 1940s, WWII broke out and the Island was declared off limits.  The Coast Guard Beach Patrol constructed bunkers every few miles and soldiers patrolled the beach at night with military dogs.  Panama mounts and 155mm guns were constructed in Port Aransas on a tall hill, and day and night, soldiers stood watch for the U boat threat and for spies coming ashore.  In 1950, the Padre Island Causeway was completed and opened and the Island was wide open for tourism.  Thus began the first tourism of Padre Island.  Industry soon followed, and natural gas wells began to litter Padre and the Laguna Madre as well, as oil companies such as Sun Oil and Humble Oil began to take interest in the mineral rights and oil deposits underneath the sands of the Island.

By the years 1955 to 1960, talk began to circulate of making a national park out of Padre, as few other islands could boast almost zero development and a virtually untouched environment.  Tourism and sports such as fishing were on the rise as incomes soared and people began to have the means and ability to enjoy past times and recreation..  As one advocate put it, Padre was a "vast wilderness of sea, sand, and surf where it is possible to escape the anxieties, tensions, and complexities of our time."  At a 1959 hearing held in Corpus Christi, Senator Yarborough informed the crowd "We in Texas do not want a Miami type of development here.  The right to go down to the sea is a natural right and should be recognized as one of the inalienable rights of man."

In 1962, Congress passed the legislation authorizing the establishment of Padre Island National Seashore.  By 1970, the last cattle were removed from the Island.  A monument to conservation and recreation was born.

--Captain Colin R. Davis, January 2017